Chuck Brown will headline the Roots Fest. (Special to The Baltimore…)
Chuck Brown will turn 75 this August. It's a benchmark the so-called Godfather of Go-Go never thought he would hit. He has been making music now for nearly 50 years. He has even outlived younger contemporaries, like poet and performer Gil Scott-Heron, who recently died.
"I'm just glad The Good Man let me live this long. I didn't expect that. I expected to make it to 50," he said.
But despite his age, Brown doesn't intend to quit.
The past year, in fact, has seen Brown at his most productive. He released a new three-disc album in September called "We Got This," and on Saturday, he'll be the first headliner at the Roots Fest, which has been organized to call attention to the area in West Baltimore affected by the "Highway to Nowhere" project.
For the first time, the music establishment outside the Washington area, where he made go-go popular, is noticing. Last December, "Love," his duet with fan Jill Scott, was nominated for a Grammy, the first time in his long career that had happened. "I've been recognized for years, but yes, indeed I was surprised," said Brown.
"I don't feel like retiring. I don't get any questions as to why I should retire," he said in his blustery baritone. "Music is just something I still want to do. I still enjoy it. The older I get, the more I want to play."
Brown picked up music when he was around 6 or 7, playing piano at his church and singing gospel songs.
"Run Joe," one of the songs in "We Got This," goes back to his youth. "I used to sing it when I was shining shoes," he remembered. "I knew if one day I was a musician, I would sing it."
But he didn't pursue music professionally until he was 24 and "locked up" at Lorton Reformatory near Washington.
While in jail, he said, he "became the No. 1 guitar player in Lorton" and made a pledge to himself:
"I'm not gonna give it up. I knew what I was gonna do when I got out," he said.
In the 1960s, Brown started to create the blend of funk, soul and popular dance music that came to be called go-go and hit it big with 1972's "We the People."
To understand how far-reaching his legacy is, you don't have to look much further than those contemporary artists, especially rappers, who sample some of his oldest songs. Eve did it in 2007, sampling "Blow Your Whistle" on "Tambourine;" Nelly sampled "Bustin' Loose" on "Hot in Herre."
Brown's collaboration with Jill Scott, the one that garnered them both Grammy nods, happened at Scott's urging.
"She'd been listening to me since she was a kid," he said.
At this point, he understands his place in the canon.
"Rap came out after go-go came out. And disco was happening before I started go-go, and it was really hard at that time. But after I put go-go out, it caught on," he said. "We all started joining in, all the guys in D.C., because it was much easier to play, much closer to the audience, and easier to understand."
Three years ago, he started working on "We Got This," which includes five new collaborations with singers Scott, Ledisi and others, as well as a live DVD and a live album of a show at the 9:30 club.
"It took me a while to get it right," he said. "I like to do live albums. I like to do some studio cuts and mix 'em up with my live stuff."
Coming three years after "We Are About the Business," the album follows Brown's pace for the past decade, when he stopped putting out an album a year.
He doesn't have to crank out an album annually any more, nor does he want to. But his production schedule has more to do with his perfectionism.
"I write stuff for myself, but it takes me a long time. I am my own biggest critic," he said.
Brown said he's still deeply involved in the makings of his records. "When I leave the studio and I go home, [the producers] stay behind mixing and editing, and when I come back I don't like it. I have to be in there and do my own arrangements."
Within a month, Brown said, he's going to head to the studio again, this time to record a duet with Snoop Dogg that he will release as a single this year or next.
"Snoop is a man with a plan. I love this cat. I like all the rappers. I just don't like the gangsta stuff," he said.
While he thinks he should take time off, he's rejuvenated by the young people who are listening to his music.
"I'll be performing for as long as I can, until I get sick and can't sing no more. I have a lot more ideas I want to get into," he said. "I tell everybody the reason I'm not retiring is that I still have some fire in me. I still have that desire, so there's no point in retiring. I want to keep going until I can't go no more."
If you go
Chuck Brown will perform at 3 p.m. Saturday at Roots Festival, at Franklin and North Gilmor streets. Anthony David will perform at 5 p.m. and Talib Kweli at 9 p.m. Admission is free. More information at rootsfest2011.org.