It was hours before Rare Essence stormed the stage with an army of musicians, but frenzy had already set in at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, a placid Arlington enclave sprinkled with high rise apartments and trendy eateries. A small assembly of 30-somethings – most exuding D.C. swagger with classic Shooters, We R One and alldaz apparel – congregated in boisterous clusters around the hotel while a flurry of publicists and photographers busied themselves with pre-show minutia.
At the center of the din was Rare Essence – an evolving brotherhood of funk and R&B musicians – and their 20-plus fleet of members from recent and past years. A lone conga rhythm wafted from the stage as members tinkered with their instruments and chatted among themselves. Many squabbled over the details of a past show or shared predictions about the next day’s Redskins game. And although lighting technicians and promoters flocked around the cavernous ballroom with nervous excitement, the band mates seemed unnerved by the flourish of activity.
Their journey to go-go stardom, however, has humble beginnings.
Rare Essence has been an integral part of the District’s music scene since 1979 when fresh-faced high school students Quentin “Footz” Davidson, Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, Michael “Funky Ned” Neal and John Jones married their love of Parliament Funkadelic with go-go progenitor Chuck Brown’s rollicking go-go rhythms. The troupe grew, shrunk and refined its sound over the years. Though they never garnered megastar status, Rare Essence’s impact was felt – albeit unwillingly – among hip-hop circles when rapper Jay-Z “borrowed” the carefree nightlife premise of “Overnight Scenario,” one of their most cherished tracks to date.
National recognition aside, Rare Essence still packs regional venues with the same command some headlining recording artists garner during D.C.-area visits.
Promoter and BONO Entertainment CEO Taurus “T-Roc” Hill, a popular name on the metropolitan area’s nightlife scene, said the seemingly impenetrable band has managed to accomplish a complex feat – maturing without becoming strangers to legions of fans.
“Organization and extreme professionalism have definitely played a huge role in their success,” said Hill. “Rare Essence is not only a band, it's a well-oiled machine that is run as a company. Also, throughout all of the changes, they stay true to themselves, their fans and their music.”
Two days after the blowout concert, Johnson, a founding member, alluded to the band’s history of “changes.” He also recognized the fans that have swarmed show venues regardless of the musician playing rototoms, keyboard or any other instrument.
“The message [to fans] would be thank you for three decades of being the wickedest fans alive. They have supported us even through all the changes and obstacles and we love them for that,” Johnson told the AFRO.
Their respect for fans was particularly evident on Sept. 11, as the casually dressed musicians groomed their marathon showcase into the ultimate go-go for a growing, expectant crowd. Without warning, a symphony of go-go, funk and R&B fusion erupted from the stage and the melodic baseline of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” became a D.C.-style anthem. The intense rehearsal would go on another hour, allowing the meager flock of supporters to swell into a sea of crimson and white – the band’s signature colors – and women teetering in mile-high pumps and daring dresses.
In many ways it was the scene of any Friday night go-go – overzealous fans and a handful of wobbly-kneed cliques already buoyed by drinks. Thick-armed police officers eyed the crowd and the once-spacious hotel ballroom became stuffier with each passing moment.
But the reunion show was more than a weekend appearance at Trade Winds nightclub or any of the other local venues Rare Essence frequents. The three-hour power-performance paid homage to the band’s former trumpeter, Anthony “Little Benny” Harley, who died in May only hours after a spirited performance with Chuck Brown. “Little Benny would have been very pleased because that was one of the things he loved the most – performing and doing a show,” said Johnson.
Even before Rare Essence took the stage, Harley’s name had been eulogized by a deejay and opening act Sugar Bear & EU. Each time his name blared from the oversized speakers, thunderous applause flooded the room. A similar wave of approval washed over the room as photos of Quentin "Footz" Davidson, a founding member killed in September 1994, loomed larger-than-life on screens flanking the stage. On Sept. 26, Harley, who is credited with defining D.C.’s go-go institution, would have celebrated his 47th birthday.
But mention of the fallen band members failed to swamp the festive atmosphere, and at 10:30 p.m. the party hour had arrived. Rare Essence – all 28 members- attacked the stage with characteristic gusto. Some members stood slightly hunched and wore glasses, while others could pass for teens. Not surprisingly, the now 2,000-person-strong audience mirrored the band, as the barely legal crowd blended effortlessly with the middle-aged. Women’s shoes were flung aside within minutes and by the show’s end, any blasé onlookers had been swept into Rare Essence’s frenetic musical current.
As timeless hits such as “20 Minute Workout,” “Do You Know What Time it Is?” and fan favorite “Work the Walls” reverberated throughout the hotel, Rare Essence and their devotees relived 31 years of music and more importantly, a lifetime of memories.