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On The Beat (Part 11)

Washington DC is the home of one of the world's most powerful, yet under-recognised dance rhythms. Nigel Lord goes for go-go in MT's unique drum-programming series.


OF ALL THE dance styles which have emerged over the last decade, there can be few which could rival go-go for its immediacy and the sheer infectiousness of its rhythm. Born in the ghetto districts of Washington DC (ironically, only a few minutes drive from the well-ordered calm of the White House grounds), it took as its raw materials such diverse elements as rap, jazz, Latin and even the music of the marching bands which still offer an introduction to playing musical instruments for thousands of kids from the more impoverished (read: black) sections of American society.

Although in no sense socially "inert", go-go has always suffered less from the kind of self-conscious hyperbole that seems to dog most rap and hip hop styles. There certainly appears to be a greater awareness amongst go-go musicians that their primary function is to entertain an audience rather than simply pin it down by the ears.

In the way of most modern idioms (particularly in the States), go-go began as a complete sub-culture with its own bands, its own clubs, its own DJs and radio stations, its own style of dress - even its own language. More importantly from our point of view, however, go-go has its own distinctive rhythm which made it immensely successful as a dancefloor attraction.

This isn't to suggest that every song is played to the same beat. On the contrary, any study of go-go styles will reveal a number of quite distinct grooves leaning towards jazz and Latin as well as more mainstream pop. There is however, a common strand running through practically all go-go music which gives it its recognisable feel and its undoubted rhythmic appeal. The key to this appeal is our old friend the triplet, and whilst go-go musicians were by no means the first to realise the persuasive qualities of three beats played in the time of two, coming as it did in the mid-'80s after many years of straight four-on-the-floor dance grooves, it was quite a breath of fresh air.

Most live performances (and many on record, too) are characterised by extended arrangements which can last half an hour, an hour - or even longer. Throughout, they are underpinned by relentless and compelling triplet rhythms, which though bowing to necessities of regularity and predictability (the pre-requisites of the dancefloor), leave plenty of room for improvisation and spontaneity. For the most part this is taken up by the instruments drafted in alongside the standard kit such as congas, timbales and even roto toms which provide much of the rhythmic colour of the music, leaving the bass, snare and hi-hat to maintain the interest of the feet.

Obviously, the existence of more spontaneous, improvised parts is somewhat at odds with the structured, repeating patterns of the drum machine, and for this reason (and that of space), I have decided not to try to recreate these instruments with the examples included this month. However, those of you wishing to produce convincing go-go tracks (particularly where extended mixes are involved), could do worse than to spice things up with a few well-choosen lines for the congas and timbales - or any of the other instruments you may have assembled trying to keep pace with Latin rhythms featured over the last three months.

If, on the other hand, you're happy using go-go rhythms as the basis for other dance styles, load these into your machine and see what you can do adapting them to your own needs. And while you're about it, try referring back to the December issue of MT, where we first touched on the triplet as the basis for a number of shuffle rhythms. Though not specifically written as go-go grooves, these have quite a lot in common with this month's examples. It should certainly be possible to mix 'n' match many of the ideas which crop up in both articles, and come up with some interesting hybrids.

In keeping with December's article, I have decided to set the parts for all the instruments on triplet-based grids - even where instruments resolve as 8th or 16th notes. As I pointed out then, this makes the grids less confusing, and makes things easier for those with machines which cannot quantise for triplets on individual instruments. How the three-beat triplet sits within a 4/4 time signature can be seen by the alignment of the vertical lines with the beat numbers at the top of the grids. If you think it looks a little confusing, just thank God you've got a drum machine (which won't give it a second thought), and remember to elevate drummers a couple of notches in your estimation next time you meet one.

To begin this month, we have a delightfully simple pattern comprising nothing
more than snare, bass drum and hi-hat and with no complex programming requirements. Despite this, Pattern 1 is a most effective groove with a wide variety of uses and the ability to adapt itself freely to existing basslines and any additional rhythm parts you might care to add.

Instrumentation (such as it is) is also quite flexible, with the choice of bass and snare drum sounds having a considerable effect on the overall flavour of the pattern. The only stipulation here would be to choose a fairly short duration snare voice (particularly at faster tempos), so that there is no "overlapping" of beats in the final bar.

Though a little more complex in terms of instrumentation, there is still nothing in Pattern 2 which should cause anyone any programming trouble. Probably more recognisable as go-go than the first example (though all the patterns need a complementary bassline if they are to sound as they should), it needs to run at around the 180bpm mark if it is to have the right feel.

The tom-tom figures were conceived as an addition to the main rhythm, and as such, can be considered optional. If you do decide to keep them, it may be worthwhile experimenting with a few different sounds and different tunings. I used quite pure-sounding double-headed drums tuned about a third apart, but toms being what they are (very subjective), I'll leave you to decide what's best in the context you're using the pattern. I will, however, recommend quite definitely that you opt for the heaviest, most "ambient" sounds you have for the bass and snare. This is the type of groove which is capable of supporting really big sounds - particularly those on more recent drum machines like the R8 and the HR16B.

With an extra cymbal part to complement the hi-hat line, Pattern 3 has a decidedly jazzy feel to it which could be used most effectively in the right setting. The cadences built into Bars 4 and 8 probably make the rhythm a little less attractive as a dancefloor groove than the previous two examples, but this could be harnessed by using it as a fill in combination with other patterns.

As you can see, the cymbal line is given over to a ride bell voice (the central domed area of the cymbal) as this produces a cleaner, more penetrating sound which doesn't interfere with the closed hi-hat too much. If you don't have access to this instrument, you can, of course, use the ordinary ride voice, but this should be raised in pitch a little to prevent it sounding too mushy, and maybe have a few accents programmed into it for a more authentic feel.

For those new to the series, the "shadowed" snare beats in Bars 2 and 4 are flams comprising a low dynamic then a high dynamic note played in quick succession. Exactly how quick you make these will depend on the resolution of your machine. If you've never programmed flams before, or if there isn't a flam function on your drum machine, enter the notes with the minimum possible spacing, then move the second note until you find a time interval you're happy with.

Another classic go-go rhythm, it would be difficult to come up with a more effective dance groove of any kind than Pattern 4. Though I've used a slightly modified version of the ride bell part from the last example, this example has a much more fluid feel to it which gets the foot tapping almost instantaneously. Again, there's nothing to worry about in terms of programming, and again, the pattern is capable of supporting a wide variety of bass/snare combinations - though my comments about heavier, more ambient sounds in the second example would probably also be quite appropriate here.

Moving along, we have, in Pattern 5, a rather different groove than the other examples this month. Based around the tom-toms, this is one of those rhythms which seems to have no obvious start and end point - and which, as a result, you need to run through a few times until you get a line on it.

With such elaborate tom-tom parts, you clearly need to spend a little time getting the sound and the tuning right, though in this example, I would advise you to aim for something fairly dry. You can, if you wish, drop the tom parts altogether - the rhythm certainly holds up without them - but I think you might need to add a little more interest to the bass and snare drum parts if you do.

The last example this month, may, in comparison with the other patterns, strike you as somewhat unremarkable, but I have included it for those occasions which demand a more straightforward rhythm which can be used in conjunction with other percussion instruments or perhaps an elaborate bassline. Alternatively, you could use it as the basis for your own experimentation: it's the sort of pattern which could be steered into any of a number of different directions with a little time and effort. Unlike previous examples, a conventional ride cymbal voice is used to fill out the hi-hat parts, but care should be taken to ensure the two don't overlap and lose their definition.

With the apparent loss of direction of its leading protagonists - bands such as Trouble Funk and Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers - it does seem that go-go has lost some of its more mainstream appeal of late, but there can be no doubt that along with its derivatives, it is alive and thriving in those areas where the music first took root during the mid-'80s.

Though many bands have failed to capture the urgency of their live performances on record, there is, nevertheless, an impressive legacy of go-go music on vinyl (or whatever the CD equivalent of plastic is), should you need any further convincing. For myself, the image of brother Trask at a Trouble Funk gig punching his fist in the air, shouting "freaky deaky!" along with a roomful of other joyous, sweating punters, will long live in the memory. Go-go for it...

Series - "On The Beat"

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All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 (Viewing) | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26 | Part 26 | Part 27 | Part 28 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


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