Update, May 16: This post has been updated to include a new Team Familiar video for “Straight to the Bar.”
In the video for Rare Essence’s 1992 hit single, he’s front and center in a white Norfolk State sweatshirt, commanding you to “Work the Walls.” In the video for “Lock It,” released the same year, he’s in denim shorts, leading a ferocious front line. He’s Donnell “D” Floyd, the go-go talker and saxophonist who fronted Essence for nearly 20 years, and now leads Team Familiar.
Floyd helped write Rare Essence’s most enduring songs: “Body Snatchers,” “Uh Oh (Heads Up)” and “Overnight Scenario,” plus “Lock It” and “Work the Walls.” Critics say today’s go-go bands have failed to deliver the same caliber of original tunes that the scene’s luminaries once did. That’s one reason Team Familiar, Floyd’s band since 2001, is taking part in Go-Go New Music Day. The first annual event kicked off today.
But while Go-Go New Music Day strives to smash perceptions that go-go has run out of ideas, its primary mission is to honor the genre’s founder, the late Chuck Brown. Floyd, who performed with Brown in the past, says he’s proud of Team Familiar’s role in maintaining the go-go innovator’s legacy.
To mark Go-Go New Music Day, Floyd’s band Team Familiar dropped a hard-edged track called “Straight to the Bar,” joining a range of other groups releasing new music, including The Chuck Brown Band, Be’la Dona, Backyard Band and Junkyard Band.
Team Familiar has long billed itself as a “grown and sexy” group, but “Straight to the Bar” reminds fans how versatile the ensemble — which features two members of The Chuck Brown Band and six expats from Rare Essence, including Floyd — really is. Uptempo, body-shaking numbers such as this one balance out their sultry R&B covers. Floyd says he’d like to record a whole album of originals, which the group hasn’t done since their early years, when they were still called 911. There’s just one problem.
“It seems to me a good while ago radio abandoned go-go,” Floyd says. “When you spend upwards of $15,000 to 20,000 in the studio and radio doesn’t support it, it’s very difficult to get the money back from it.”
Go-Go New Music Day doesn’t necessarily clear that roadblock — participating bands are releasing their new music digitally, and much of it isn’t available online yet — but the event draws attention to the fresh and vibrant sounds still emerging from the scene.
At a Team Familiar show, it doesn’t feel like go-go is in a rut. Onstage, vocalists Ms. Kim, Marquis “Quisy” Melvin and Frank “Scooby” Sirius hit the high notes, with Sirius and Melvin launching into the occasional falsetto battle between choreographed dance routines. A roar emerges from the back of the stage, as a grinning “Jammin’” Jeff Warren flicks his sticks on the trap drum set, Milton “Go Go Mickey” Freeman slaps the congas and Eric “Bojack” Butler wails on his timbales.
Floyd, meanwhile, seems as lively as he was in those ‘90s music videos, leading vocal chants, shouting out audience members and deftly guiding the band with hand gestures.
Floyd has a flair for the dramatic. In 2015, he organized an anniversary show for Team Familiar vocalist Ms. Kim, a 20-year veteran of the scene. She performed from a regal throne upholstered with red fabric. At Floyd’s own 30th anniversary gig at the Howard in 2013, band members rocked the grooves while situated on scaffolding above the stage, like Hollywood Squares.
“Donnell has always been that visual, let’s-be-extravagant-as-I-can type of theatrical guy,” says keyboardist Byron “BJ” Jackson. “He brought [shows] to life.”
But Floyd — whose busy schedule includes working a job at Verizon — believes in routine, too. He has a time-tested regimen onstage.
“Most places we play at, we play three sets. It’s a graduation type of deal,” he says. “We start off instrumentally with a nice, laid-back set. … Our second set we play a little more aggressive as people are getting their drinks and getting adjusted, and our third set is the most aggressive, as the audience has finished their drinks and they’re ready to party.”
This method helps Team Familiar fill local clubs every night from Wednesday through Sunday, whether they’re playing originals or current R&B hits. Meanwhile, it doesn’t sound like Floyd intends to abandon covers anytime soon. That would be going against tradition, he says.
“People were saying on the Internet that go-go has changed and is only now doing…cover tunes,” says Floyd. “But it seems like to me go-go has always had lots of cover tunes.” He points to Chuck Brown’s “Go-Go Swing” and “Run Joe,” both covers that the legend turned into signatures.
Despite criticism from some go-go fans and outsiders not keen on covers, the music still finds new ears and fervent appreciation, even from out-of-towners.
“I love D.C. people more than I can ever express, but I really enjoy watching people who haven’t grown up with go-go, enjoying go-go. This isn’t the normal, but they still think it’s great,” Floyd says. “Meaning, maybe we aren’t crazy to be still playing it after 35 or 40 years.”
A Go-Go New Music Day concert takes place at Howard Theatre May 14.