Get To Know Chip Py, The Go-Go Photographer With A DIY Talk Show About D.C. Music

By Steve Kiviat

"As a kid, I wanted to be a game-show host," says go-go photographer Chip Py (right), who produces a web series called "Locally Grown." (Left: show guest Claudia "Kool Keys" Rogers)
"As a kid, I wanted to be a game-show host," says go-go photographer Chip Py (right), who produces a web series called "Locally Grown." (Left: show guest Claudia "Kool Keys" Rogers)

While the Corcoran’s 2013 exhibit “Pump Me Up” might have conditioned some to think of the D.C. area’s homegrown funk as a dusty artifact, the go-go scene is still kicking — and Chip Py is one of the people documenting the culture in its present state.

The Silver Spring photographer has been shooting photos and video of the contemporary go-go scene since 2010, and he captures conversations with D.C.-area musicians with a new web series called Locally Grown. Py’s videos live permanently on YouTube. His newest photo show, on the other hand, is one-night only.

Py plans to share and discuss some of his go-go images Monday, Aug. 17 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown D.C., just in time for the late Chuck Brown’s birthday. The godfather of go-go would have turned 79 on Aug. 22. One of Py’s images can be found at the Chuck Brown Memorial in D.C.’s Langdon neighborhood.

The photographer says his presentation will be more than just a random collection of band photos on a screen.

“The photo talk is really designed for people who are somewhat familiar with the go-go culture but haven’t really been into the go-go culture,” Py says in a phone call. “I talk about the music of go-go and how it is distinctive and unique to Washington D.C. How it is a big part of the culture for African-Americans who have grown up and lived in D.C.”

But he has his own side of the story to share, too. “I speak to my adventure in go-go and my work with many of the bands, especially my work with Chuck Brown,” Py says. “A very personal adventure.”

Capturing go-go

When Py calls his photography a personal adventure, that’s important. He’s spent time in places, and with people, who are crucial to the go-go scene. He hung out at clubs such as Tradewinds, the now-shuttered Maryland go-go hall. And he worked as one of Chuck Brown’s official photographers in the final year of Brown’s life.

In 2009, Py was just another local shooter who had photographed old-school D.C. rock acts like The Nighthawks and The Slickee Boys. Then in 2010 he saw Brown perform at the annual National Capital Barbecue Battle on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. He took some photos from the crowd and got hooked.

“So I started shooting [go-go groups] Bela’dona [and] Da Mixx Band, and worked my way up to Rare Essence,” Py says. “I kept sending my work to Chuck and [his manager] Tom Goldfogle, and within three months I was onstage with Chuck shooting his shows. I quit my job and pursued this for two years.”

Between the summer of 2010 to 2013, Py went out three or four nights a week and came home at 6 a.m., he says. He enjoyed crossover-friendly go-go gigs, but he tended to prefer the late-night shows that attracted genre devotees.

“It’s much more interesting when the audience is engaging at eye level with the band,” Py says, “and the lead talker is talking about those people’s lives and what is happening that week, and whose birthday it is, and the guy who just got out of jail after 20 years and gets to come onstage and dance with the band. You don’t see that at the Strathmore Hall show.”

Py’s presentation at the library, which he’s shown only twice before, will include images of gigs by The Backyard Band, Team Familiar (formerly Familiar Faces), Suttle Thoughts, Be’la Dona, Da Mixx Band and Rare Essence in addition to Chuck Brown.

But Py isn’t shooting as much as he once was. He still regularly hits Silver Spring’s Society Lounge to see Team Familiar play its Sunday gig there, but he’s slowed down his go-go photography. He’s working a day job again, for one — and he also found himself in an artistic rut.

“For the most part I stopped shooting go-go two years ago,” Py says. “You can’t shoot the same thing over and over again and still have it be creative.”

So Py has channeled his love of documentation into his YouTube show that serves a similar purpose: to record D.C.’s music culture.

Locally Grown

Py has a green thumb. “I have a very beautiful — I call it a ‘yarden,” he says. “It’s no longer a garden, it has taken over the entire yard.”

Sunday afternoons he invites musicians to his backyard jungle. He grills up a meal and switches on his video camera for a chat and a performance. “Grill, garden and grooves,” he calls it.

This summer Py is recording 10 to 12 programs of artists playing in his garden. Each show runs for 15 to 20 minutes and features local musicians from go-go and roots bands performing original material and answering Py’s questions. He handles the entire production, from setting up microphones to interviewing artists to editing tape. He likes it that way.

“I decided I didn’t want to wrestle with cell-phone photographers in clubs for a position to video,” Py says. Plus, he’d been inspired by NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts, a series of live performances filmed at the cluttered desk of All Songs Considered creator Bob Boilen.

Py has taped Locally Grown episodes with musicians including keyboardist Marcus Young from The Chuck Brown Band, Esther Haynes and Hokum Jazz, Frank “Scooby” Marshall (aka Frank Sirius) from Team Familiar and The Chuck Brown Band and guitarist Genevieve Konecnik (aka Genny Jam), formerly of Be’la Dona and now with Pebble to Pearl.

Py usually wears something outlandish on his show — a tie-dyed shirt or a loud thrift-store sports jacket — and his enormous, phallic microphone adds a goofy, public-access feel. Occasionally, Py’s dog Bebop will wander into the frame.

The photographer says he’s “extremely uncomfortable in front of that camera,” but he sticks with it. “As a kid, I wanted to be a game-show host. I grew up on The Gong Show.”

Py admits Locally Grown hasn’t racked up many views online, but he’s happy with the project, and he suspects his guests are, too.

When go-go artists join Py in his “yarden,” he asks them to play original music — not covers, which many go-go acts play live. He also sometimes asks them to collaborate with people they haven’t worked with before.

“A certain joy comes out,” Py says, when musicians are doing that kind of thing. Take Claudia “Kool Keys” Rogers from Be’la Dona and Salt-N-Pepa’s band. She’d only met bandleader and violinist Chelsey Green once, briefly, but their dual performance on Locally Grown felt authentic.

It was the kind of creative chemistry Py wants to capture on his program.

“I put [Rogers] in a situation that she was a bit uncomfortable with, but afterwards she thanked me,” Py says. “It allowed her to be an artist.”

Chip Py shares and discusses his go-go images Aug. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown D.C. Free admission. The library also hosts a Chuck Brown tribute Aug. 22 at 1 p.m. The Chuck Brown Band plays a Chuck Brown Day concert Aug. 22 at the Chuck Brown Memorial in D.C.