We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
It was the era of Chuck Brown, the ubiquitous tags of “Cool ‘Disco’ Dan” and influential hardcore bands like Minor Threat. Amid a rising tide of drugs and crime, D.C. in the ’80s also saw the rise of local graffiti, go-go and hardcore punk scenes. This was the “other” D.C., and the influence of these subcultures lives on today. A new exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery explores the period through street art, photographs, posters, music and videos.
- Clinton Yates Columnist, The Washington Post and the Root DC; Local News Editor, Express
- Iley Brown Music producer; music supervisor and associate producer, "Legend of Cool Disco Dan"
- Alona Wartofsky Former staff writer and editor, The Washington Post and City Paper
- Roger Gastman Co-curator, “Pump Me Up: DC Subculture of the 1980s” exhibit, Corcoran Gallery of Art; Creative Director and Founder of R. Rock Enterprises. Co-author (with Caleb Neelon), “History of American Graffiti;” Producer of the documentary film, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan.”
Photos From The “Pump Me Up” Exhibit
“Pump Me Up: DC Subculture of the 1980s” is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from February 23, 2013 – April 7, 2013.
Trailer For “The Legend Of ‘Cool Disco Dan'”
Discover the “other” Washington of the 1980s through this documentary of legendary graffiti artist “Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” a mysterious, ubiquitous presence during the height of go-go music, record crime rates and city-wide dysfunction.
Read An Excerpt
A 320-page publication, entitled “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s,” will be published alongside the exhibition. The book includes a foreword by Sarah Newman, curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran.
“Pump Me Up” Programs At The Corcoran
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. D.C. was hit hard by the crack epidemic of the 1980s, earning the title murder capital of the U.S., but there was much more to Washington than those headlines. The '80s were also the era of go-go and Chuck Brown, the ubiquitous tags of Cool "Disco" Dan and influential hardcore bands like Minor Threat.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis was the other D.C., one that few visitors saw. And while the rising tide of drugs and crime eventually took its toll on Washington's homegrown music and street art scenes, their influence lives on today. A new exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery explores that '80s subculture. And joining us to discuss it all is Roger Gastman. He is the co-curator of "Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat's the exhibit currently at the Corcoran. He's the creative director and founder of R. Rock Enterprises, a media company based in Los Angeles, and co-author with Caleb Neelon of the "History of American Graffiti." He's executive producer of the film "The Legend of Cool "Disco" Dan," which premiered at the AFI in Silver Spring last weekend. Roger Gastman, good to have you aboard.
MR. ROGER GASTMANHello. Thank you.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Iley Brown. He's a music producer. He was associate producer and music supervisor for "The Legend of Cool 'Disco' Dan." He's a collaborator on the "Pump Me Up" exhibit at the Corcoran. Iley, good to see you again.
MR. ILEY BROWNThanks, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Clinton Yates. He's a columnist for The Washington Post and the Root D.C. He's also local news editor for the Express. I've been trying to get him in this studio for a while. Clinton, glad you could finally join us.
MR. CLINTON YATESIt's nice to be here, Kojo. How are you?
NNAMDII'm doing well. And joining us from the NPR's Bryant Park studios in New York City is Alona Wartofsky, former staff writer and editor with The Washington Post and City Paper where she covered music and entertainment from the early '80s through 2004. Alona, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. ALONA WARTOFSKYThank you.
NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Iley, I'll start with you. You were part of the go-go scene in its early days. Can you talk a little bit about what made and makes go-go different from other music?
BROWNYes, Kojo. As we said in the film and all along the way, go-go is really unique to Washington because it's such a regional local sound, and although other forms of music left regional status and went national, go-go didn't as much, except for a few spikes here and there. The fact that go-go takes such a long time and a song performance to get going, sometimes the highest points of the song are four and a half minutes, five minutes into the song.
BROWNIt doesn't work well for the commercial formats and radio nationally and internationally. Reminds me a bit like in the eastern Caribbean of Soca music. Everyone loves Soca. It's a great audience participation music. But radio-wise, it just doesn't work as well.
NNAMDIYou kind of got to be there to enjoy them, and the record industry couldn't quite ever understand that. Alona, you went to a lot of music clubs in this era. How did a Jewish teenager from a wealthy suburb in Maryland become known as the cool white lady at all the go-go shows?
WARTOFSKYI don't think anybody called me that.
WARTOFSKYI first heard go-go while working at a Waxy Maxy's, a record store in Rockville, Md.
NNAMDIWell, that takes me back. It takes us all back.
WARTOFSKYYes. It takes us all very far back. When I was about 16, 17, and at that point, I didn't even realize what it was, but I like it. And then while I was in college -- I went to G.W. -- we just -- I was very into the punk scene and sort of just stumbled across go-go while out and about. And I eventually married a go-go promoter, David Rubin, who was one of the leading go-go promoters throughout the '80s.
NNAMDIWe'll talk about that later in the broadcast. Roger, what was the connection between crews, graffiti and go-go?
GASTMANAbsolutely. D.C. never really was known as a gang city. It was known as a crew city. Crews were from a certain block, certain areas, and crews would go around and write their name. They would write their name. They all wouldn't write their real name. They would only all write their crew name or their gang name, which was often much more fun from Gangster George, Cool Calm Chuck.
GASTMANThe names go on and on because their normal names weren't as fun, and they weren't doing graffiti in the traditional sense as a lot of people think of it as big, bright colorful and stylistic. It was more simple penmanship, like you would learn in elementary school. And if there were two O's in your name, you could make those O's look like a face, add some eyebrows, things like that.
GASTMANAnd it was really about writing their name and being known and having a reputation. And the crews would hang out at the go-gos. They would leave the go-go. They would write their name on the bus. They would write their name on the bench. They would write their name in the city.
NNAMDIWell, if we're going to talk about go-go, we might as well just listen to some.
NNAMDIJunkyard Band, Roger, can you talk about who they were?
GASTMANI can talk about Junkyard. I think Iley can talk about it a little bit better, but Junkyard came from Barry Farm projects. And a bunch of really young kids, and they were playing on buckets, pans, pots, anything they could. And they went downtown a lot, to the more trafficked areas, F Street, M Street, Georgetown, Dupont Circle and would play around.
GASTMANAnd they got a lot of notoriety. And '85, they signed with Def Jam records, made that song we were just listening to, "Sardines," put out nationally. And to this day, they still have quite a huge draw. They played for us, the 930 Club, the other day, and I think they got more attention than anyone.
NNAMDIThat was this past weekend. Anything you want to add to that, Iley?
BROWNYeah. Junkyard really epitomized, Kojo, the do-it-yourself attitude back then for go-go. They started off on the paint buckets, playing downtown, and they turned it into a record deal. And that's not bad.
NNAMDIIt is not bad at all. Clinton Yates, there were two distinct local musical scenes emerging at that time, and you apparently were a part of both of them, punk and go-go. They came from very different roots, though. Can you talk about that?
YATESYeah. I mean, I'm a little younger than these guys, but you've got to understand when you came up in that era, it wasn't necessarily a subculture. If you cared to be cool, it was the only culture. There were two separate things. There was go-go. There was punk. And if you were lucky enough like me to be a part of in a sense of having friends, people, your extended circles that were involved in both, it was the best.
YATESI mean there was no other way to describe it, other than that was your social life. I happen to be a big graffiti enthusiast as well, so they all sort of came together. But it's not like mainstream D.C. was some big deal back in the '80s and '90s. There were things to do that were boring, and there were things to do that were cool. And the things that are exemplified in this documentary, in this exhibit were the cool things, and that's part of the reason why I think it means so much to people that were around then.
NNAMDIYou had on the one hand go-go which was a black working-class movement, and you had on the other, punk, which would -- how you -- how would you describe that?
YATESI would describe punk as sort of the distillation of a lot of kids that were -- I'm not going to say angry at the world, but, you know, had a lot of feelings that they wanted to...
YATESDefine is a word I would use. But had a lot of feelings that they wanted to get out that existed in a different context. I mean, right around where we are physically right now, it's where a lot of these kids were sort of grew up and came from. And that's where the feeling came out of. And I think to me that what made them both so great is that they were both so real, and there was no way to look past that at all.
NNAMDIRoger, how much crossover was there between the punk and go-go scenes back then?
GASTMANThere was never that much crossover between the punk and go-go scenes.
NNAMDIExcept for Clinton Yates.
GASTMANExactly. Except for Clinton Yates. You know, I didn't live it. You know, I wasn't -- I started going to shows in the early '90s, but, you know, there wasn't a ton of crossover. The kids that were into punk, the kids that were into hardcore were much more interested in go-go than the kids that were interested in go-go were interested in punk. But the go-gos weren't the safest place for a bunch of punk rock kids to go.
GASTMANOnce in a while, there would be crossover shows, Funk Funk, Spectaculars, and Scream would play with Trouble Funk. Government Issue would play with Rare Essence, or whomever it was. There were a lot of crossover shows that would happen, and those shows were I think probably more attended by the punk crowd than the go-go crowd.
NNAMDIWas there a lot of tension at those crossover shows at all that you remember, Iley?
BROWNNo. I didn't remember much at all. I do know that a lot of times for the club owners in D.C. that booked go-go, they had residencies, as we can call it that, bands had long stays with those clubs until they were no longer hot. And so a lot of times to change that format for a punk group, not that they weren't willing to, just thought that just businesswise, once you build up an audience in a place with a band such as a delicate and fragile existence that you've got to milk it for as much as you can.
NNAMDIAlona, was there any -- ever any tension when you were going to go-go clubs as a white woman back then?
WARTOFSKYNo, no. Folks were friendly and happy to see me. And, I mean, pretty quickly, people recognized me and knew who I was. But, no, there wasn't.
NNAMDIYour former husband, you mentioned earlier, David Rubin, was a music promoter who organized shows. There was one particular show that he put together, bringing the two music genres and their friends together, can you talk about the funk punk show?
WARTOFSKYYes. It was in 1983 at the Landsburg Center, downtown. He -- this -- and this was the first funk punk show. He booked Trouble Funk, which at that time, they were really at their peak, Minor Threat, which was an incredibly influential hardcore band, and a funk punk band out of Austin, Texas, called the Big Boys.
WARTOFSKYAnd that was really a historic night. Roger is correct that the punk kids were much more interested in go-go than the go-go kids were interested in punk. And the crowd was largely punk, but there were also, you know, a good number of go-go kids there. And it was an amazing night in a very segregated city.
NNAMDIWhat do you think it was that attracted David to the music?
WARTOFSKYI mean you just have to listen to the music, and you get the answer. The music was fantastic. It was incredible. It was the most -- I mean at the same time that hip-hop, this was sort of parallel development to hip-hop in New York, but you would just listen to it. And, you know, once you went to one go-go show, for me, I was a little less interested in punk.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Randall in Washington, D.C. Randall, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RANDALLI had to call and just heard some -- sort of surprised. I didn't know that there were white promoters/Jewish promoters. I didn't really know that much about go-go. The few times I tried to enjoy. And the other that I'm aware of, every time I went to a go-go event, it was, you know, fights, violence. And to me, it was something that came on from Southeast that imposed itself on the rest of the city 'cause particularly I live in Northeast.
RANDALLAnd I really didn't like it, and I didn't like the atmosphere. And when you couple that with the drugs, young black men have access to guns, it created a whole new dynamic that probably helped exacerbate some of the murders that we did have in the city at that time, and that's why the people that everybody are there praising currently, I don't hold in the same high esteem. Oh, no, don't get me wrong. I like "Doing the (word?)" and a few of their other songs.
NNAMDIOK. But allow me to have Iley respond because that's one of the things that we'll be talking about during the course of this broadcast that probably had an adverse effect on go music itself -- go-go music itself, the fact that it was so linked to violence. Iley.
BROWNYes. Thank you, Kojo. In response sort of to the caller and just adding more, Roger did a really good job documenting in the documentary. And as Alona alluded to, there was a lot of synergy back then. There were a lot of differences. But you had -- the go-go experience and the D.C. experience overall was multi-layered. Athletes would see other athletes at go-go and, you know, kind of chop it up and get into a little mix up then and there. But a lot of it was just male bonding and people being excited about being together at a go-go, and sometimes tempers would flare here and there.
BROWNWe have to keep in mind as go-go was sort of linked to violence, you can go around the country and look at how with rap music you can talk about violence and get a number one record. So it depends on who's really backing you as well, and D.C. really didn't have an industry that benefited what go-go was doing for better or for worse. I can't speak as well for punk, but that would be an interesting discussion as well.
NNAMDIWe were going to take a short break, but I wanted to pursue that comment for a second because most people think of the '80s in D.C., and they think of the drugs and they think of the violence, especially the crack epidemic. And I suspect that's what might have affected the caller we talked about. Wanted to play a clip from "The Legend of Cool 'Disco' Dan" and have you guys talk about what crack may have done to the music scene. Here's the clip.
NNAMDIIley, and you, too, Alona, the end of the '80s was the height of the crack epidemic. D.C. had become what was known as the murder capital of the U.S., and a lot of that was linked, fairly or not, to go-go and the crews that went to those shows. What was the result of that? Alona, I'll start with you.
WARTOFSKYBefore I answer your question, I just want to clarify, you know, go-go was used as a scapegoat, I think, by media and the politicians during this time. You know, you might have on a given night, in all the different shows in D.C., 5,000 kids going to go-gos. And two kids out of 5,000 might have a gun, might have caused violence, and that became known as go-go violence. But to suggest that go-go had anything to do with the violence is not fair. It wasn't fair to the music, and it did the music a great disservice.
BROWNYeah, Kojo. In all of your major cities around the country and elsewhere, crack was an outgrowth of marijuana and mixing marijuana and chemicals and on and on. And although there were acidic -- there were acid funk go-go bands in D.C., they didn't get as much of a stay in the city. They didn't fit the format of really being booked in clubs that played hardcore go-gos.
BROWNBut, you know, my cousin played in an acid funk go-go band, Cro-Magnon funk. And so although the music and also the acid or the crack kind of link together put on a small portion, it just really just exploded and mushroomed as you got into the '80s with the distribution of crack on the streets and everything else.
NNAMDIBut that was the time when you were just beginning to exist, so to speak, Clinton Yates.
NNAMDIHow did that affect your participation?
YATESWell, we lied. I mean, I think that it is intellectually bogus to imply that somehow go-go was some sort of progenitor for the crack problem. And if you ask anybody in America, do you know what crack is, do you know what go-go is, the answer to the first question will probably be yes, and the answer to the second question would likely be no. So of you think about these two things co-existing at the same time, you have to understand that one was a real problem and another one was an escape.
YATESIt was a music solution to how people wanted to do things, and it just -- growing up in that area, it does not make sense to link the two things because you knew that one ruined lives plainly and the other was a way in order to have fun. So I just -- it doesn't make sense to me why anybody would do this, and I still can't understand why this continues to be the case to linkages.
GASTMANI was not going to go-gos then, of course, but I've interviewed hundreds of people. And the go-gos were the outlet where people would go to have fun, meet friends, listen to music, enjoy themselves, et cetera. And that were -- those -- like Alona said, there could be 5,000 people at different go-gos throughout the cities in a night.
GASTMANAnd out of all those people, all those different ages, all those different people, we could say any kind of music and any kind of city and you bring that many people together every night, there's going to be different people from different groups because that's what the -- it was the sound of D.C. You know, it wasn't just 16-year-olds going there. There was all kinds of people, all kinds of ages.
NNAMDIRoger and Alona, a go-go show might attract 10,000 people, yet go-go and punk were both considered subcultures that were mostly invisible to official Washington. How was that possible?
GASTMANGo-go and punk rock were very do-it-yourself. There was not a lot of radio play, as Iley talked about, for either. And people were making their own records, creating their own record labels, booking their own shows. There was not major money behind it. People were doing it themselves. And because they were doing it themselves, they were doing it for their community and then the outgrowth into their community.
NNAMDIT-R-O-U-B-L-E Flat Boogie was like an anthem in my house because it was my kids who were playing. But you never heard it any place else. Alona, is that one of the reasons that made you want to cover it?
WARTOFSKYYou know, I got my start in music, covering -- writing about music covering go-go. And when I started at The Post, they gave me the shows that no one else wanted. I just thought it was great. I mean, musically, it's fascinating, and I was very drawn to it. And also, you know, the stories behind it, you know, you're talking about a community that was politically disenfranchised, economically depressed, and go-go really came to symbolize so much to this community.
NNAMDIWell, why did you think -- you're working in the style section of a major newspaper, this thing is the rage in all of the city, and you say you got those stories that no one else wanted to cover?
WARTOFSKYWell, this was when I was freelancing. I didn't start at The Post till, you know, well after the '80s. You know, during the '80s, I covered go-go more for this Washington City Paper. I wrote about it for the Village Voice. My stories were reprinted, you know, in England.
NNAMDIWell, we're going to have to take a short break, so hold that thought for a second. And when we come back, Alona, you can continue it. If you've called, you can also hold on for a second. When we come back, we'll try to get to your calls. We still have a line or two open, 800-433-8850. If not, send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDISend us a tweet, @kojoshow. Are you a long-time Washingtonian? What do you remember about the '80s in D.C.? Are you a fan of go-go or D.C.'s other homegrown music scenes? And I guess, just as importantly, are you familiar with the name Cool 'Disco' Dan? Call us, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the "Pump Me Up" exhibit at Corcoran with Clinton Yates. He's a columnist for The Washington Post and the Root DC. He's also local news editor for the Express. Alona Wartofsky is a former staff writer and editor for The Washington Post and the City Paper where she covered music and entertainment from the early '80s through 2004.
NNAMDIIley Brown is a music producer. He was associate producer and music supervisor for the "The Legend of Cool 'Disco' Dan" and a collaborator on the "Pump Me Up" exhibit at the Corcoran. And Roger Gastman is the co-curator of "Pump Me Up: DC Subculture of the 1980s," that exhibit at the Corcoran, and creative director and founder of R. Rock Enterprises, a company based in Los Angeles.
NNAMDIHe's also co-author with Caleb Neelon of the "History of American Graffiti" and executive producer of the film "The Legend of Cool 'Disco' Dan," which premiered at the AFI in Silver Spring last week. Roger, The Post is advertising the go-go shows were distinctive. A number of them are on display in the exhibit you put together at the Corcoran. Can you describe them? And talk about what made them unique.
GASTMANAbsolutely. The Globe Poster Printing Company out of Baltimore started in 1929, and they we're really well-known for doing -- making huge show bills and advertisements for shows that got your attention. They were made with big, bright, bold Dago colors. They were posted up all over the city, from abandoned buildings to trees, to telephone poles, everywhere. And you couldn't help but see them. In the 1980s, go-go was huge. There weren't a ton of go-go records coming out, and Globe was what was advertising go-go.
GASTMANWell, there were go-go records coming out, but they didn't all have picture sleeves. So the Globe posters sort of helped to give the visual identity to go-go. You know, when 80 percent of the posters going up in the city are talking about one kind of music, obviously, you're going to start -- the visual identity of those poster is going to give what that music sounds like. And the posters were big, bold, loud and just really fun.
NNAMDICouldn't miss them. Alona, you were involved in putting together some of these shows including hanging the posters. What all did that involve?
WARTOFSKYWe would either drive down to Baltimore to pick up the posters at Globe or they would be delivered via bus to the Greyhound Station. You'd get 100 posters for a show. We would keep one for record, you know, for -- David would keep one for his records. And then we would go out, usually, starting in about 1:00 in the morning. And he would staple them to telephone poles, and -- I'm sorry to say now -- trees, pretty much all over the city.
NNAMDINot only did you staple them to telephone poles and trees, but you also made sure that nobody would take them down by doing what?
WARTOFSKYHe always carried a box cutter in his back pocket. And so once you put the poster up, then you have to start slashing in because if you didn't slash it, none of the poster would be up by the next day at noon. It'll all be gone. Folks would take them home. People would decorate their rooms with, you know, dozens of these huge, colorful posters.
NNAMDIAnd, fortunately, you kept one out of every batch, which is one of the reasons why we have those posters for the exhibit at the Corcoran, and they look so good. Roger, what else is on display at that exhibit?
GASTMANThere's so much on display. There's an amazing room of Globe posters, but there's Chuck Brown's jacket from 1980s that he used to wear. There's old sketchbooks from graffiti artists, a lot of photos of the punk rock world, of the go-go world, ephemera, records, a great piece from Cool Disco Dan that was salvaged off of H Street. There's something for everyone in the show. You know, it's a great blending of cultures. You can go into the show. You can start almost anywhere at it and really take something away.
NNAMDIAnd here's what might be significant, Clinton Yates. A lot of what was subculture in the '80s is now mainstream. Can you talk about that?
YATESYeah. I mean, to me, again, I keep saying it, what was considered subculture then is the only thing that I considered something to want to do as a grown up, and that is what this exhibit and the whole sort of weekend between the show, the movie and the exhibit gives you. It's that '80s and '90s D.C. is not otherwise hugely documented.
YATESI mean, you're not going to find any other place in which this exists in people's minds outside of their memories. And so to see it with your face, with your eyes now, you're thrown back to an era when you're like, wow, I forgot that I even remembered that, you know? And that's sort of the big deal about is that you look at videos and you see videos of junk playing on the street.
YATESAnd the cityscapes are things that are just otherwise not in your brain unless you remember looking at them. And then when you seem again, it takes you back to an era when you think about sort of what life was like, how you felt about yourself. That is the real draw, in my opinion, of this exhibit and says a lot about what D.C. was then. People flat-out forgot about what was happening here, and somebody -- thankfully, Roger and others -- were smart enough to document it.
NNAMDICouple of things that we're on. Graffiti is now mainstream art, and when in the film about "The Legend of Cool Disco Dan," they talked about the madness connection. Those styles were part of the forerunners of urban style that is now existing around the county. Isn't that correct, Iley?
BROWNThat's right. George Avenue is where they headquartered in. They were right in the center of everything that was going on.
NNAMDIAnd you see it all around the country today. Roger, you were about to say?
GASTMANI was just about to say what Clinton was saying about the show is the biggest thing I took away from the film and the show which I don't think we expected maybe because we were so close to the content and just had our curatorial hat on and archivist digging hat on is how personal everyone took and the emotions that are brought up.
GASTMANI'm not exaggerating when I say at least a dozen people came up to me and told me they cried when they saw something, they remembered something and that they weren't even, you know, couldn't even critique the show which is like, this is what I lived or even just to this one picture. It's just there were so many sensed memories and so much emotion that it brought to so many people.
GASTMANAnd then seeing people connect with each other that hadn't seen each other in 20 to 30 years, that was one of the biggest things I took away from the opening weekend and, you know, that's in the show. The show has a lot of memories for people that grow up here on.
NNAMDIGraffiti and street art are not just mainstream, there are pieces hanging in the Smithsonian and in the Corcoran. It's influenced advertising and other forms of art, but that was not the case in the 1980s. What was the attitude toward graffiti then?
GASTMANPeople have always hated graffiti for the most part. You know, graffiti, at its true core and true definition, is vandalism. I love seeing it. You know, I was a participant in the scene for a long time, and I've study and had written about his. In the '80s in New York, this graffiti already started going into galleries, and it worked great for a little while. But overall, people really just saw it as an eyesore. In the last 10 years, it's really has become an entire culture and a huge art in museums.
GASTMANOne of things I wrote was Cool Disco Dan deserves a statue in D.C. And I immediately got a deluge of hate mail on people that couldn't understand anything about the value of street art and for what and what it was. Their immediate reaction was, I cannot believe that you're glorifying a vandal. And to a certain extent, I understand that, but you have to understand, as a kid that rode the Red Line every single day to school, there were no other art opportunities.
GASTMANI wasn't really looking at any, you know, there were no Matisses and all this other stuff up on my walls in my house. I mean, yeah, sure, my parents had art. But things I saw, the things that made a difference to me were on the street, and that's difficult to quantify in terms of what it means. You can call it vandalism, which it is on a legal context, but you can also say, hey look, if this is the only art you've got, it's still something.
NNAMDIAnd the greatest purveyor on it known in Washington, D.C. -- well, let's listen to a clip from the film.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1It was the '80s, and disco was bad. Any man who's claiming disco is probably cooler than you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 2Disco Dan is a bit of a mystery. His name's all over the city. So people want to know about him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 3Damn, who is this Disco Dan dude?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 1Disco Dan was like Zorro. He would make his mark, and then he would leave.
NNAMDIRoger, you produced a documentary that premiered last weekend called "The Legend of Cool Disco Dan." Despite the fact that his name was everywhere, this man himself was a mystery to most people who saw his tags. What's his story?
GASTMANDan has a very interesting story that, you know, I don't want to give all of it away because you got to see the movie and learn some.
NNAMDIYou do indeed have to see the movie...
GASTMANBut Dan grew up, for the most part, in Southeast. And he was fascinated all these people that were writing their names around. He got turned on to go-go at a very early age and saw these other names that people were writing. R.E. Randy was a huge influence on him. And he wanted to do the same. He wanted to be known. And, you know, he didn't really want to take part in the crazy crew lifestyle. He didn't end up in the hustling lifestyle. Dan's drug of choice was just writing his name everywhere over and over and over again.
GASTMANAnd as the crews died out in late '80s and people stopped writing their names, Dan ventured out and realized there was a lot going on with, you know, "traditional graffiti." There were big, colorful graffiti pieces going up on the Red Line and throughout the rest of the city, and he started meeting some of those people. And he crossed over into that world into the more traditional graffiti world, and that's how then I ended up meet him in the early '90s.
NNAMDIAnd you'll have to see the film to see a little more of it. But here's an indication of how it was thought of at the time, and by the way, one of the things we learned from this film is that it took an amazing amount of focus and determination for Dan to do the things he did over the period of time that he did it. But here's the email we got from Beverley, a former spokesperson for Metro.
NNAMDIHi, Beverley. "By the way, while -- when I was at Metro 20 years ago, we shuddered over Disco Dan's graffiti. We saw it as vandalism, pure and simple. It welcomed more vandalism which we didn't welcome. We took the issue seriously, and it cost riders and taxpayers a lot of money to try to keep ahead of the problem which we -- honestly we were hard pressed to do because, well, Dan was moving."
NNAMDIClinton Yates, I need to get back to you again. In the wake of seeing Beverley's email, tell us what, in your view, Cool Disco Dan meant to the city and to that entire era.
YATESImagine growing up in a place in which not only are federal politicians' something to be abhorred in terms of the national discussion. But your local politicians are also routinely parodied and made fun of on a regular basis. You live your life. You go to school. You go to your family's houses. You play ball. What do you keep seeing?
YATESYou see Cool Disco Dan. You see his tags in places where buildings have been torn down. You see his tags in places where you otherwise assumed there was no way you could get there. The constant was him on a certain level, and what it represented is vandalism as a name, as the visual identity that Roger has referred to. I'm sorry.
YATESThere was a consistent thing there that was something to be admired. As a kid growing up in D.C., it was like, oh, there's Dan. You know what? If that guy can do that, I can do it, too. And that's sort of what it meant to me -- and I think to a lot of people -- was, you know, he represented something that had a certain level of determination that was undeniable.
NNAMDIAnd in go-go, representing was always very, very important. So one has to imagine that Cool Disco Dan, who represented arguably more than anybody else the city has ever seen, was also admired in that movement, Iley.
BROWNYes, he was. Too bad he didn't put in the auto on any album covers. They might be collector's pieces now. But I just wanted to add also, Kojo, that it's interesting that art was -- became underfunded in schools in major metropolitan areas at the same time when graffiti really took off, mid-'70s, late '70s, early '80s. So that's an interesting comparison/contrast that might deserve some discussion.
NNAMDIAlona, I don't know if you can answer this, or maybe Clinton can, but we got an email from Ian, who says, "Yes, Cool Disco Dan's tag was ubiquitous in D.C., but I'll never forget his best placement ever. I was flipping through my copy of The Washington Post one day, more than 20 years ago, when I noticed that his tag had been placed at the top of the page where the page number should have been -- clearly an inside job. I'd love to know the history of that one." Can you elucidate, Alona?
WARTOFSKYI'm sorry I can't, but I think even if I could, I wouldn't.
YATESI don't know about that, but that is tremendous, if you ask me.
NNAMDIThat is absolutely amazing. Before we take a break, I want to go to the phones because there are a lot of people who have been waiting here for quite a while. And here's Ed in Northwest, Wash. Ed, your turn.
EDHey. I haven't seen the film yet, but I remember this particular graffiti in D.C. in the early -- very early '80s that was really bizarre and neat: a tunnel for Ninth Street where it goes under the National Mall. There was graffiti in huge letters that said, ice bags are people, too. Ice bags have something to say. And I thought over and over. I never figured out either what it meant or what would motivate somebody to put it there...
NNAMDIWe may have an answer for you, just haven't decided whether it should come from Iley or Roger yet.
BROWNYeah. Icebergs, loosely, were interpreted as a term for crack in certain circles. After that, I don't know, but...
GASTMANI've -- that's the first reference of that I've ever heard.
NNAMDIWhat, that it was...
GASTMANOf the graffiti in that location or what it was. You know, I, again, I didn't start going downtown, looking at graffiti, till the early '90s, and, you know, I've dug up as many archives from people as I can and asked as many stories as I can, and I've never heard that before. So that's interesting to hear.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Ed, thank you for your call. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the "Pump Me Up" exhibit at the Corcoran with Roger Gastman, co-curator of that exhibit. He is the creative director and founder of R. Rock Enterprises. He's co-author with Caleb Neelon of the "History of American Graffiti" and executive producer of the film "The Legend of Cool 'Disco' Dan," which premiered at AFI in Silver Spring last weekend.
NNAMDIIley Brown is a music producer and associate producer and music supervisor for "The Legend of Cool 'Disco' Dan." He's a collaborator on the "Pump Me Up" exhibit. Clinton Yates is a columnist for The Washington Post and The Root DC. He's also local news editor for the Express. And Alona Wartofsky is a former staff writer and editor with The Washington Post and City Paper, where she covered music and entertainment from the early '80s through 2004. So many people on the phone. I need to get back to the phones. Here is Bill in Arlington, Va. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLWell, I just wanted to -- I was there at the -- I'm 52 now, so I was there at the genesis in the suburbs, in the Washington suburbs, Maryland suburbs. And where -- what punk came from, a large strain of it was we were a group of skateboarders who were skating swimming pools, and basically we were -- there were freaks and jocks, and that sort of evolved into little sub-cliques.
BILLBut the skateboarders who -- the group that became hardcore skateboarders at first were listening to progressive rock 'n' roll, and that would have been Lou Reed, you know, Iggy Pop, stuff like that, Led -- of course Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. But like at the same time, two things were happening. The music was getting swallowed up by corporate America. I mean, if you listen to "Almost" -- or if you've seen "Almost Famous," the famous line: The war is over. They've won.
BILLAnd also, skateboarding was being swallowed by mainstream corporate America. So there was really -- it was kind of disgusting on all fronts, and there was -- what you saw was you had 17- and 18-year-olds who were facing a crossroads for all different sort of things: where are you going to go to college, what were you going to do with your life, you know, and then, culturally, where were you going? And what I -- you know, this was -- the punk goes.
BILLD.C. -- you know, the punk movement was basically people who just were saying, we don't care really what we listen to. This is what I felt. We don't care so much what we listen to. We're just tired of all this crap. And so you basically had people going into what I perceived as sort of a chaotic thing. But one last thing.
BILLMy perspective was when I heard go-go, I thought go-go was 20 times better than most of the punk that -- the "punk" that was out there. And I -- as musical genres, I don't -- I never really -- and I can -- I just follow it and study it like your guests. But my first impression was that go-go was -- it was much, much preferable to what was being served up in the '80s punk...
NNAMDIOK. Thank you. And obviously a lot of people agreed. Want to move on quickly to Mike in Laurel, Md. Mike, your turn.
MIKEHello there. Yes. I was one of the sound companies back in the day, early mid-'80s, that were doing these shows, all these different venues. We were doing the punk scene and the go-go scene simultaneously. I'm looking at The Washington Post right here, and I see the Globe Poster for RFK Stadium, Saturday, June 6. That was our show.
MIKEYeah, it was a handful of white guys running around, doing go-go shows all over the place. Cherry's, you remember that? You remember Chapter III?
MIKEOK. Ibex? Gosh, all these different places that we had done these shows and all the punk shows. The Hung Jury Pub, the church on 15th Street. The highlight of that was the Dead Kennedys at what was called West Music Hall at the time.
NNAMDIAny observations about whether the two scenes blended at all for you?
MIKENope. They had nothing to do with each other. And I would go to the go-go shows, and, yeah, like, generally, we're the white guys doing the sound here, and we'd get that place slamming really, really good and that we would have that place rocking. But we're going to do the punk show a week later and get a completely different scene altogether.
NNAMDIAll right. Thank you for sharing that. Iley, Roger, in the decade since that time, there's been, as we hear from Mike, a certain amount of romanticizing, if you will, of the go-go scene in particular. Why does that era still have so much power? I guess because in some ways they're still with us.
GASTMANThat's right, Kojo. And like a lot of examples, it was hand built without much outside influence. And that's always the tried and true method of craftsmanship, doing things out of the trunk of your car, posting up posters as Alona mentioned and without the presence of a major company that could have, A, put both of these scenes together on compilations, videos, concerts and televised them, or, B, record companies that licensed the music and put it out.
GASTMANSo in the absence of all of that, it stayed tried and true, and that's why, you know, Trouble Funk can go up on stage now in their 50s and appeal to young and old crowds with a 30-year span in between because they never really left D.C. And that's why also Chuck Brown is the godfather of go-go really because he never left. And where other bands that were just as instrumental in the start of go-go and the foundation, they took off or quit or did other things.
NNAMDIClinton, what about today? What influences do you see from that era still around today?
YATESI think you see a lot. And I think what you see is sort of you don't have to choose. I mean, that's one of the things that I feel that a lot of people seem to miss. It's easy to say, if in the '80s and '90s, yeah, they were separate movements. But if you were not defining yourself by one or the other, you didn't have to choose. You could get both. I mean, there are certain things that people forget such as go-go is happening at private schools, like Sidwell Friends, the Georgetown days.
YATESI mean, my sister was on some of the original black student unions that brought go-gos to schools like that. And those kept part of it alive in certain parts of town where you didn't otherwise know it. So the influences you see now are people that didn't necessarily feel like they had to plug into one thing.
YATESYou got both if you were allowed to choose, and most people were. And that's something that a generation sort of set back. I think it's been a good thing for how D.C. has been able to spread artistically and been able to express itself in terms of things than can exist in one place and still create something good.
NNAMDIAlona, what was subculture for some has now become culture, it seems, for just about all young people here in Washington.
WARTOFSKYWell, you can still go to a go-go. You can probably go to a go-go tonight, you know, and, you know, the punk scene in D.C. is still there and, you know, new generations of kids are listening to this. Go-go's changed, but it's still out there.
NNAMDIRoger, the Corcoran has another exhibit coming in March inspired by this current exhibit on street art and graffiti. Tell us about that.
GASTMANThe Corcoran has a show? I'm doing a show called "Mumbo Sauce," March 15.
GASTMANThat has a lot of the artists that are in the Corcoran show, and that's an offsite show I'm doing with contemporary wing on Pennsylvania Avenue that opens March 15.
NNAMDIAre we also the progenitors, the creators of mumbo sauce here in Washington?
GASTMANYou know, people say it's Chicago, people say it's D.C. I think it's going to be that argument back and forth.
NNAMDII'm saying D.C. Let's go to Albert in Washington. Albert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALBERTKojo, I started going to go-go in 1968, '69 when I was a 15-year-old kid. They had -- go-go music has been going since -- I don't know -- I was in high school. And I'm 60. And that...
NNAMDIWho was playing in '68 and '69 because Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers made their first record in, like, '72? Who was playing go-go in the '68 and...
ALBERTAll right. Well, go-go -- go-go's -- they had a band called -- go-go used to be an event.
ALBERTThen they turned -- and the music became -- came out after that.
NNAMDIYou mean like going to a go-go, yes?
ALBERTRight, right. Exactly what it was. We used to go to the go-go, and then the music developed with bands like the Young Senators and the Echoes for Baltimore. But that...
NNAMDISir Joe and the Free Soul.
ALBERTYeah, Aggression band and (unintelligible). It was an event. It wasn't a music. And then it became a music. So once it became a music, then people thought of identifying the groups with it, but it was an event first, OK?
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call. Let's try here Ray in Clinton, Md. Ray, your turn.
RAYWell, I just had a comment that we -- we're talking about D.C. and go-go, but, you know, to me it's really about the DMV. You had bands coming out of Virginia. You had bands in Maryland. Of course, you had the bands in D.C. and the, you know, where a lot of the Virginia and the Maryland bands would be. You know, the front people, they'd come on first, and then main line-ups would be the D.C. bands. But I remember all the venues.
RAYYou just have Queen of Peace Church, (unintelligible), Wednesday night at go-go. I mean, I lived it, and I was there just at the beginning as well. And these -- the music is all over. I guess, I always felt a certain amount of pride as a young man when I joined the military and traveled -- did some traveling. I used to take those 12-inch records with me and try to spread the word, so to speak. So this is -- I'm really enjoying the discussion. I'm really enjoying the information, and I love your show, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you. Thank you very much for your call. Roger Gastman, as I mentioned, you are co-author with Caleb Neelon of "The History of American Graffiti." What got you involve in the history of graffiti?
GASTMANI was running around as a teenager writing graffiti, traveling to different cities, and I was, for whatever reason, always interested in what that city's history was. And so that, of course, made me more and more interested in what D.C.'s history was. And I just kept asking people. You know, it's really an oral history.
GASTMANThere is not that much written, and, of course, so much of it is tall tales, and so much of it has been erased from the walls. So I was just interested and, you know, would dig and dig and ask and ask. And you got to ask 30 people sometimes to tell one little story because everyone has their own version of it.
NNAMDIThe Corcoran, by the way, has family day this Saturday. People can come and see the exhibit for free. Ray, thank you for your call. We got an email from Dan, who said, "I'd like to know if there any type of tours to view graffiti art in D.C. In Philadelphia, they have an actual bus and walking tour with a guide to view graffiti art. It is most interesting to learn about the artist and the art that actually compliments the surroundings. Is any such thing in this area?"
GASTMANI moved away from D.C. in 2004 but...
YATESThere is. MuralsDC, which is a program that runs in conjunction with, I want to say, D.C. Department of Public Works has done a bike tour actually that takes you around to different murals, and you can see those. I'd wish I had more details on it, but MuralsDC is what you want to look up if that's what you're looking for.
NNAMDIYou know, one thing that fascinates me about how long it took for Roger Gastman to put this movie -- to put this film together is that during that time, we did not have mobile devices and others that were ubiquitous. It seems to me that it should be much easier in the future to document what the youth of D.C. are doing today because everything we do know is being captured on video at some place. Shouldn't it be much easy?
YATESYeah, that's true. I mean, we used to go down the tower and buy Roger's magazine, I mean, because it was the only way you could see this, and kids would hang out down there. So like I said, not just the nostalgic value but there's a skill in being able to find all this stuff that I think is really something to be appreciated if you see the exhibit.
GASTMANThe skill -- not the skill. The hunt in finding the things is some of the most gratifying stuff. You dig forever, and you find that one photo. And it's just -- there's such a huge pay after that.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Roger Gastman is the co-curator of "Pump Me Up: DC Subculture of the 1980s," currently at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, creative director and founder of R. Rock Enterprises and co-author of the "History of American Graffiti." He's executive producer of the film "The Legend of Cool Disco Dan" that premiered at AFI in Silver Spring last weekend.
NNAMDIIley Brown is a music producer, associate producer, music supervisor for "The Legend of Cool Disco Dan," collaborator on the "Pump Me Up" exhibit. Clinton Yates is a columnist for The Washington Post and The Root DC, local news editor for the Express. And Alona Wartofsky is a former staff writer and editor with The Washington Post and City Paper. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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