Interview: Trouble Funk’s Big Tony
The D.C. go-go stalwart outlines his remarkable career
With their raucous blend of upbeat ’70s funk and ’60s style horn section, Trouble Funk kick-started the Washington D.C. style which was soon to be known as go-go. Always starting the party, the ten-piece group of deadly rhythm section and brass quartet honed their live style throughout the ’80s. Trouble Funk’s debut Drop the Bomb was eventually released on Joe and Sylvia Robinson’s infamous Sugar Hill Records, cementing the connection between cosmic funk breaks, block party raps and the emergent hip-hop scene.
Trouble Funk were always about the concert experience though, and their live LP Saturday Night took them around the States and even further afield, pushing the once-local phenomenon into the spotlight. Bassist Big Tony even worked alongside Bootsy Collins as well as Kurtis Blow for their last ’80s album Trouble Over Here, Trouble Over There, and they have continued to groove audiences looking for a taste of good time party funk and go-go ever since.
In this recent Fireside Chat on Red Bull Radio with Jeff “Chairman” Mao, Big Tony runs through the group’s multi-decade career.
I’m sort of the handyman for Trouble Funk. I do it all. I’m the music director, lead singer, bass player. I book the band, I manage the band, I pay the band. I guess you could say I’m the boss.
My pops was a music producer. He produced a hit record way back in the early ’70s, “Be Thankful For What You Got” by William Devaughn. That song is a classic right now to this day. My actual introduction to music? I was about 11 years old. I used to live in Northwest Washington, in D.C., and I used to go up to this place called Meridian Hill park to play. Long story short, there were these high-rise apartments and someone had gotten evicted. I seen people over there going through the stuff, and I was just a kid so I thought it was free stuff. I got me a free guitar.
On the way down the hill with the guitar, I run into the guy that owns it. He’s like, “Hey, where you going with my guitar?” He had got evicted. So I was like, “Well, I found it in the pile.” He scared the hell out of me, “You know I could have you locked up?” And I was like, “Here, you can have it back.” He’s like, “OK, I tell you what. I’m a let you keep it, but the next time I see you, you better be done learned how to play it or I’m taking it back.” I went home and I practiced, and I practiced, and I practiced. I would look at TV and Johnny Cash would come on and I would imitate him. The first song I learned how to play was “Walk the Line.” I found out that I had a pretty good ear, because I could mimic everything that I heard on guitar.
At school we used to have talent shows. We’d get together in the cafeteria and jam. Word got out that I was a pretty dynamite bass player and everybody wanted to jam with me, so it became a bigger and bigger jam session. It was just something fun to do. When I was 16 years old, I was playing in clubs I didn’t have no business in, and then going to school. I was tired as hell in the morning, but it was paying good money back then, so I played with guys that was like twice, three times my age.
They used to call me Big Youngin’. “Alright, Big Youngin’, don’t go to the bar. We’re going to take a break, try to stay out the way because you ain’t got no business in here.” We’d come in Monday, and it’d be like three or four bass players, including me, and they’d say, “OK, I need y’all to learn these three or four records by Wednesday. Whoever got them the tightest, that’s who get the gig for that weekend.” This went on for three, four weeks, and I got the gig every time. So they was like, “Well, Big Youngin’, we might as well just hire you man, because you done made my bass player quit and go play congos.”
We opened for Chuck Brown for about three or four months, and the place would be packed, but nobody would dance.
Go-go music is a sound that originated out of Washington D.C.. Chuck Brown, the Godfather, planted the seed of go-go music, and we [Trouble Funk], came along after him and took it to the next level. It consists of a lot of percussion, congos, cowbells, drums. It has a very unique call-and-response relationship between the lead figure and the audience. It’s a very intimate type of sound where everybody’s a part of what’s going on. The best way to experience it is live. You can’t really capture the true essence of go-go music on a record. It’s kind of hard to digest on a record without watering it down, and that’s one of the reasons why go-go never really went mainstream.
I used to go down to Anacostia Park and see this band called Trouble Band and Show. They was a Top 40 band, basically cabarets. I was like, “Wow, that’s a pretty nice band. I’d like to play with them some day.” Not even a year later the manager Reo Edwards came and knocked on my door and asked me did I want a gig. I was 17 years old. My cousin Dyke, rest in peace, we always played together in bands like 8000 BC and Demolition Band. Little local bands that really wasn’t doing a lot, so I say, “You know what? I’m always following Dyke, let me go ahead and try my thing.” So this time, when Reo asked me to come over and play bass, Dyke followed me. Reo didn’t know I knew how to sing, so I was just a bass player. We used to play this place called The Club Laverne. We would do cabarets, and the cabaret would be over at twelve o’clock. Then people would be lined up outside of the building at twelve o’clock, waiting to get in. The line would be around the block. That was my first encounter with go-go.
It was like, “Who are they waiting on?” “They waiting for Chuck Brown. It’s a go-go up in here from twelve to six in the morning.” I’m like, “Twelve to six in the morning? Who in the hell does that?” Out of curiosity, I stayed around to see what this go-go thing was about. And man, oh my God, it was a different world. When I heard and felt what was going on, I knew I wanted to do that. So I went back to Reo: “Man, we need to see if we can get in there and open up for Chuck Brown, to get some exposure.” So that’s what we did, we talked to Ted Hawkins and Cliff Davis, the guys that owned the place at the time. We opened for Chuck Brown for about three or four months, and the place would be packed, but nobody would dance. They would stand there and look at us like we was from some foreign country or something. And we was playing good Top 40 music.
Then Chuck Brown would come in, and before he even hit a note, he’s tuning up, and they’re going, “Wind me up, Chuck. Wind me up, Chuck.” Meanwhile, we go in the dressing room, and we fighting and arguing about the reason we couldn’t make the people dance. So then they go home, but I sit on the side of the stage and I just watch Chuck, and watch how he interact with the crowd. I watched the drummer, and I saw that there was a connection between the drummer, Chuck and the crowd. I noticed that he played a lot of the same music we played, but he never stopped. He always went to a beat in between songs. So one day we was rehearsing at The Club Laverne. Everybody had a mic but me. I was just a bass player. So I said, “Reo, I think I know what it takes to make these people dance, but I’m gonna need a microphone.” Rick, the drummer, was the music director at the time. He was like, “Well, what the hell. We tried everything else, we might as well try you.” When he put that mic in my hand, that was it.
The first song that we created was called “Roll with It.” We was trying to play [Kraftwerk’s] “Trans-Europe Express,” and stumbled upon “Roll with It.” It was the first song we played that had people dancing, so we had to play that song damn near all night to keep them on the floor. If we tried to go into something else, they would stop dancing. Chuck Brown and his band walked in and they was looking around, and he seen the people dancing. My voice naturally has always been deep like Chuck’s. So first he accuse me of trying to sound like him. Chuck said, “I don’t want them boys playing with me no more, they trying to steal my music.”
We wasn’t trying to steal his music, but we did steal the idea. Actually, Chuck didn’t have any music, he had a beat. We took that beat and we made go-go music with that beat. Chuck was always a Top 40 guy. With a few exceptional songs that he had, most of his bigger hits was somebody else’s songs. Trouble Funk’s whole catalog consists of original material, and that was the difference between Trouble Funk, and not just Chuck, but any other go-go band. Trouble Funk right now to this day is the most sampled group in hip-hop history. Everybody and their mama have sampled Trouble Funk.
Everybody wanted to be number one. And everybody had their chance. The good thing back then is that we was being creative, we was creating good music. If you had a hot hit, you could be number one for a while. If you was kicking ass in the go-go, you’d be number one; you didn’t necessarily have to have a hit, if you had a good show. The big four was Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, EU [Experience Unlimited] and Chuck Brown. At the time Chuck Brown was on tour because he had just recorded Bustin’ Loose, So when he told the manager that either we go or he’d go, the manager was like, “Well, you getting ready to go on tour anyway, so I’m sticking with Trouble.” By the time Chuck got back, we had the city on lock. It took him about ten years to get back in.
We [each] had certain turf, and then there was mutual turf like Howard Theater and Washington Coliseum, where you just had to battle it out. We would actually have battle of the bands, and the audience would have to decide. Rare Essence, they won battles. EU have won battles, but for the most part Trouble Funk have always led those battles. We were just hot. What happened was as the years went on, Trouble Funk got hotter and our music started spreading like a disease. There was a demand for us to travel outside of D.C. So that gave the other guys a little bit more breathing room to do their thing. Like Chuck Brown, when we got back we had to fight for that spot back, ’cause out of sight, out of mind. That was the fun of it.
We had friends going to college and military boot camp out of town, and they would take our stuff with them in the barracks and have the DJs play it. We discovered later that’s how it got out there. People were like, “Where you get that from?” We started doing a lot of colleges. By taking our material in all these different places, these folks was getting us publicity that we couldn’t afford to buy.
A few years back KRS-One stepped on the mic and said “Trouble Funk is hip-hop.” He went one to elaborate more and he made me realize how important of a role we played in hip-hop culture. Back in the day rappers didn’t really acknowledge go-go, but they acknowledged Trouble Funk. They didn’t really have their own music at the time. There was something about Trouble Funk music, and James Brown, something about that music that made it easy for them to incorporate with their raps. I felt good about the sampling part, but I didn’t feel good about them not acknowledging who they were sampling or paying for the samples.
Some of the groups went the right way and some of them didn’t. We’re still in litigation right now with Beastie Boys, because they don’t want to acknowledge... It’s obvious that half of the damn [Paul’s Boutique] album is Trouble Funk. Beastie Boys used to open for us. I thought they were pretty cool cats. It’s funny because when you’ve got money you can get away with things, at least you think you get away with things. We gonna battle this ’til the end.
Trouble Funk and Minor Threat? It’s like water and oil, man, but the people used to love to see us together.
A few acts that used to open for Trouble Funk went on to be very big acts. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone and, believe it or not, Dave Grohl used to open up for Trouble Funk. I forgot the little band he played with.
Trouble Funk and Minor Threat? It’s like water and oil, man, but the people used to love to see us together. Two totally different styles, and I actually enjoyed performing with Minor Threat because it was just something different, something fresh, and they enjoyed performing with us. We had a lot in common. Our music was really raw. We didn’t try to water anything down, we gave it to them real. We gave it to them rough. We played together a couple of times, and from what I remember we always headlined the bill. But I tell you man, just watching them, I was like “Oh, hell. That’s going to be a hard act to follow.” People jumping off stages and shit, you know. I thought a fight had broke out one time. It was totally new to me, but once I got the hang of what was going on, I enjoyed it.
GOOD TO GO
My memory of Island Records and Chris Blackwell trying to take go-go to a national level, is that he had good intentions, but the people that he put in place to make it happen was totally wrong. Let’s start with the movie, it’s called Good To Go. I call it “Good To Blow.” There’s no way you can bring someone from LA to write about something they know nothing about here in D.C. You can’t bring a producer from the West Coast that knows nothing about go-go.
Record companies, not just Island Records, but a lot of record companies do this. They hire you for what you do and then after they get you, they want to change what you do, and then they still want to call it what you do. I’m the type of person you can’t sell no dreams to. Before I sell out, I gets the hell out. And basically that’s what happened. I wasn’t being difficult, it’s just that I wasn’t selling out. Chris Blackwell felt like he had enough money where everybody had to do it his way, then he hired somebody to get it done. He found out later it wasn’t that simple. Because there’s a lot of power in this voice. There’s no way that Trouble Funk would exist without this voice right here. At the time I didn’t really recognize that. As a matter of fact, Chuck Brown helped me recognize that. He was like, “Man, you’ve got the voice, you’re the voice of this group, and you need to use your voice to get things done.” I never wanted to consider myself the type of person that was ego tripping or anything like that, but I wanted to be treated fair.
You can’t give me anything that I can’t get myself. I’m like James Brown, open up the door, I’m a get it.
Chris Blackwell had made a lot of promises to the band, “Well, you guys are going to be filthy rich, blah blah blah.” He took us all down to Gallagher’s Steakhouse in New York, and he fed us real good. He was sitting at the table: “I’m going to make you guys rich,” and everybody in the band was eating it up. Outta nowhere I was like, “Well, look, I’ll believe it when I see it.” Jaws start dropping. They pulled me off to the side, saying, “Man, you know who that is? That’s Chris Blackwell.” I don’t care. I’m from the projects, you can’t sell me dreams. I know what real life is all about. You can’t give me anything that I can’t get myself. I’m like James Brown, open up the door, I’m a get it.
From that point on Chris Blackwell always tried to put me in the background and tried to put someone else out front, but I knew that it was going to happen. Eventually it kind of broke the band up. I put my own Trouble Funk together and then the other guys, they put another Trouble Funk together? When the promoters called and said, “I’m trying to book Trouble Funk. Is this the Trouble Funk with Big Tony?” I said, “Yeah, you got the right one, baby.” They would always want the Trouble Funk with Big Tony. So that let me know where the power lies.
DROP THE BOMB
It’s crazy the way that “Drop the Bomb” came about. We was playing at this recreational center somewhere in Maryland. I was running a little late, and when I walked in the door, Dyke was playing on the Moog. And the crowd would go, “Drop the bar! Drop the bar!” He would do it again. I thought, “Aw shucks, they got something there.” So I’m hooking up my guitar and try to hurry up to get to the mic, and then I go, “You want to drop the bomb? You want to drop the bomb?” Me and Dyke, we always bounced off each other. So then I go, “Drop the bomb, drop the bomb.” Then Dyke threw an extra part in there. They were jumping up and down, they were just losing their doggone mind, man. We just kept playing that song and it got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. And it’s like, man, we need to tape this in the studio.
We came this close to doing it with Sugar Hill. We recorded a double album, live. It’s called Trouble Funk Straight Up Funk Go-Go Style. It was one of the best albums ever recorded, right now to this day. I consider that album a blueprint of how it could and should have been done. People love “Drop the Bomb” right now to this day. It had very good structure. Now of course vocally, we probably could have did a little bit more to make it more radio friendly, but that was a party jam. When them drums kick off? You got a party, man.
That was the very first official go-go record ever released, and that’s when I realized, “OK, if you’re going to do this right, then it’s gotta be live.” So we went and picked up a bus load of people, and took them to this studio somewhere in Virginia that had this real big room. We put them down in the room and put these big speakers down there. And we all hooked up and performed live. They couldn’t really see me but they heard my voice and I could hear them. And we just jammed, man. We got some beer and some chicken and we had a real party. It was about 50, 60 people, we brought the go-go to the studio, and it was live.
I haven’t lost my faith that go-go is going to be the next big thing.
It was kind of the downfall of go-go, when the crack epidemic came along. Unfortunately, a lot of the big dealers and hustlers liked to come to the go-go. Because they liked to come, they kind of made go-gos targets. If you was looking for somebody, then all you had to do was go to the go-go, and you could find them. They could just come and splurge and blow money and be the big baller. The go-go was the place to be for the hustlers and the fly girls. Everybody there wanted to be somebody. If you were popular and I was to say your name, or Chuck was to say your name, or anybody that was a lead figure that gave you more recognition. If you was a nobody, by me saying your name, people want to get to know who you were. Unfortunately what happened was the violence kind of spilled over, and go-go had nothing to do with it.
We couldn’t control who wanted to come, but go-go started getting a bad rap, and the media ran with it and made it that much worse than what it was. We were over in Japan, and we got word that the damn news media said that there was a shooting at the Washington Coliseum at a Trouble Funk show. And here we are all the way over in Japan. So it was a lot of that stuff going on, stuff that really didn’t even happen at the go-go, it happened outside of the go-go, after the go-go. But the go-go is still around. I haven’t lost my faith that go-go is going to be the next big thing. And as long as I’m around I’m a do my part to make sure. ’Cause it ain’t over. There’s a few more big hits deep down inside that I gotta pull out.
I’ve been on dialysis for 13 years. Man, it hasn’t been easy. The only two things that kept me going was my faith in God and my music. These last two years, it’s been really rough because dialysis will tear you down. My doctor told me I’ve been exceptionally strong because the average person taps out after five years. After 13 years, I finally got a kidney. I got my transplant about a month ago, and I’m still healing. I feel great. I’m a little winded, but I’m a do the best show I can possibly do.
My birthday was May 5, and about a month before my birthday, I prayed to God for this. They called me a day after my birthday. They put me on standby, and they called me back and they said that kidney wasn’t good enough, but we need you to be ready. They called me exactly a week from that day and said, “We got another one,” and that was it. We had a show at the Lincoln Theater, and I was like, “Oh my God. I never missed a show in my life.” So I told the band, I was like, “You know what? This is it, I can’t miss my calling. I need y’all to find a way to pull this off without me.” And man, God works wonders. They went and at the end they pulled it off, and they were performing while I was getting my surgery. So can’t nobody tell me God ain’t good.