DC Love: My Top 10 Artists from the (Formerly) Chocolate City

I love DC.

Washington is what you see on TV — the White House, the monuments, the sex scandals. But where the folks actually live, where they teach, drink, ball, and tell you about “all those Bamas from Virginia” — that’s DC. That’s my hometown. But sometimes I ask myself, is DC still my home?

I haven’t lived there in almost 10 years now, and the trips back are getting less frequent. My family is now spread up and down the East Coast, and I’m out here in California planting my roots among the eucalyptus trees. (I know, you were expecting me to say “palm trees” there — but that’s more LA than The Bay. Yes, I had to learn that too: NorCal and SoCal are very different places. It was tough realizing the beach is actually NOT the place to be in San Francisco.)

When people ask me how I got my politics (or my artistic side, depending on the conversation), I tell them two things: my family and my city. The first time I really understood the contradictions of America was when I saw homeless people sleeping across the street from the White House. I was 10 years old, and asked my dad why President Clinton wouldn’t let them sleep inside — after all, didn’t he have so much room?

The DC I grew up in was a place of beautiful people in often ugly situations. It’s changed a lot since I left — gentrification has a way of doing that. The Chocolate City is now more of a Neapolitan metropolis. Change isn’t automatically a bad thing, but it’s not all good either.

I don’t like claiming something that’s no longer mine, or maybe it was never mine to begin with. But what I do like is repping what I love. And one thing I love is the true DC that folks don’t hear when Anderson Cooper gives his latest report “Inside Washington.”

One thing DC does well is music. So for all my 202 family, and to the country that won’t give us a vote in Congress, let alone the respect we’ve earned, here are the greatest artists to come out of the District of Columbia. Study up and enjoy the listen.

10. Mambo Sauce – Any DC music list has to start with go-go. If you don’t know what go-go is (meaning, you’re like 90% of the country), it’s the music that came up in the 1970s in DC the same that hip-hop started in New York. But since it was DC and not New York, it never left. Go-go is live percussion/funk/hip-hop/big band party music, and it’s the only beat that makes a U Street club go crazy. I grew up going to dances played by the legendary Backyard Band and UCB, but my favorite group right now is Mambo Sauce. Plus, they have a perfect 202 anthem to start the list off with:


9. DJ SpookyTrip-hop innovator, musical propogandist, and he went to my high school (Wilson stand up!), Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid is the best instrumental hip-hop DJ in the game — yeah, I said it, DJ Shadow fans. He also applied his mash-up skills to movies, making the brilliant anti-racist cinematic remix, “Rebirth of a Nation”

8. Henry RollinsGo-go is the heart of DC, but on the other (meaning, white) side of town, there was another musical movement that was not to be fucked with either. Punk & hardcore bands ruled DC’s rock scene in the 80s and 90s, and one legend that came out was Henry Rollins. He later went on to become an actor and spoken word artist, but Rollins started in the mosh pits of DC.

7. Cornel West TheoryOf all the groups on this list, the Cornel West Theory is the least well-known — so far. Named after the socialist Black Studies professor (who cosigned on the group’s name and often joins them on stage when he’s in town), this band put on one of the craziest shows I’ve ever seen the last time I was on H Street. A mash-up of hip-hop, electronica, and spoken word spit by the lead emcee dressed up like Subcomandante Marcos, and backed by a killer band (including my boy Sam Lavine on drums), this is the revolutionary group to see right now in DC.

6. Meshell Ndegeocello – The funkiest female bassist I’ve ever seen, Ndegeocello is a legend here in the multi-culti, queerer-than-thou Bay Area. But where’d she start slapping that upright? Let’s put it this way: it wasn’t Marin.

5. WaleThe best rapper to come out of DC or just the most famous? Both. Wale came up as a go-go rapper, blending local flavor with a national appeal. While he’s toned down his political edge and straight-up go-go support, he can still move a crowd better than most emcees in the game.

4. Fugazi – I have to be real, I didn’t know how big Fugazi was until I left DC. Growing up, whenever I got home to my mom’s house in Tenleytown and there was no parking anywhere, I knew, “Fugazi’s having a show at Ft. Reno.” Little did I know, the local punk legends were national stars and political rebels. I only went to one of those free shows in the park, but it’s true– these dudes put on a damn good show, and always for a good cause.

3. Marvin GayeNow we’re getting to the heavy hitters. What artist could make his generation’s definitive political anthem AND its sex anthem? Marvin Gaye could, and he did. And if you’re not sure which songs I’m talking about, it’s because he has so many that are each an anthem in its own right.

2. Duke Ellington – This is a tough call, putting the Duke only at number two. The greatest big band jazz composer/musician of all time, Duke Ellington is the one who made U Street known as ‘Black Broadway.’ My little sister-cousin just graduated this week from Duke Ellingon High School for the Arts, and the huge mural of him with his piano at 13th and U St was the first thing I saw when I came out the Metro to sneak into Bar Nun’s open mic night. When I was a kid learning to play piano in DC, there was only one pianist I wanted to play like: Sir Duke.

1. Chuck Brown – If it starts with go-go, it definitely needs to end with it too. That’s how that beat first got its name anyway — it just kept going and going. And it started with the originator himself, Chuck Brown.

Chuck Brown is so big in DC, that when I saw Chuck Brown and James Brown together at the 9:30 Club (still the best show I’ve ever seen, and only two years before James Brown died)…well, in DC, James Brown opened up for Chuck. And then they played together: the Godfather of Go-Go and the Godfather of Soul.

Playing long since before MTV, here’s a rare music video of the original Soul Searcher, featuring a good old house party and a cameo by Marion Barry. Don’t miss the line “eating fried chicken and drinking cappucinos.” Miss that line, and you miss the beauty, contradictions, and community of the real DC.

My hometown, and in spirit if not body, my home.