When I first reached out to Chip Py about interviewing him on his 10 years spent photographing the D.C. go-go scene, I was surprised — yet equally pleased — that he offered me a go-go “schooling” session as a precursor to our interview. I listened closely as he explained the details and circumstances of photos he had taken over the years, carefully chosen for a PowerPoint presentation curated to represent the many facets of go-go.
Throughout the hour-long Zoom session, I got the sense that apart from photography, Py’s love language is storytelling, and his love abounds for go-go — so much so that he wrote a book about it. The book, called “DC Go-Go: Ten Years Backstage,” is available for purchase today.
Fittingly, it’s love that seems to be the throughline for Py in a career marked by the crossover of many trades. Py found the perfect concoction for success in go-go, where the lines between conversation and music are blurred through an emphasis on live audience call and response, and his photography springs effortlessly from the mix.
The Facebook to Go-Go Pipeline
While the Silver Spring-based creative has been taking photographs of go-go since 2010, his interest in photography is longstanding. His father was a newspaper reporter, and as a young teenager, Py started traveling along with him on assignments and taking photos for him. And it’s photography that eventually allowed Py an avenue to pursue another one of his passions: music.
“I always loved live music,” Py says. “So when I went off to college, I just started shooting bands. And then when I got out of college and moved back up here, I started shooting bands around the D.C. area.”
At the beginning, he was shooting bands of all genres around the D.C. area; rockabilly roots, rock, bluegrass, some jazz. But it wasn’t until a fateful Facebook squabble over one of his photos that his path took a sharp turn into the winsome world of go-go.
“Right around the time Facebook started, a rockabilly musician took one of my photos,” Py recalls. “He changed the colors, re-cropped it and put it on his Facebook page. So I called him and said, ‘Hey, what did you do that for?’ And [the musician] was like, ‘Well, what are you doing, man? This is how things work these days,” he continues. “And [he said], ‘why are you taking all these pictures if we can’t do what we want with them?’
Py paused. He knew he didn’t like people changing his photos. He captures them deliberately and carefully, and the original composition is important to his work. But why was he taking these pictures? What was his true motivation?
“I started wondering what I was doing,” he says. “And I thought to myself that at the end of the day, I wanted to have a collection of photos from the entire D.C. music scene.”
And, of course, documenting the D.C. music scene in its entirety wouldn’t be possible without capturing the music that makes the city run: go-go.
Pursuing Go-Go From the Audience
At the time, Py repeatedly saw the legendary Chuck Brown in D.C. lottery ads. While he knew Brown was associated with go-go and that the scene was rather large, he didn’t know just yet how sprawling an ecosystem it was. He decided early on that he’d include Brown in his catalog of the D.C. music scene — he just had to find a way to get to him.
At first, Py sent a few emails to Brown’s manager that elicited minimal response. But he didn’t need permission to photograph from the audience, so in 2010, Py made his way to the Giant National Annual BBQ Battle to capture performances by some of the biggest names in go-go, including headliner Chuck Brown. He didn’t know anyone in go-go yet, but he had an artistic eye and a 200-millimeter lens camera. That would suffice for now.
And as it turns out, that was all Py needed. It wasn’t long after the BBQ Battle Py started impressing enough people with his photographs and became fully ingratiated into the go-go scene.
“I noticed Chuck’s keyboard player, Sweet Cherie, had an all-female go-go band that played Thursday nights at La Fontaine Bleue,” he says. “So I decided to go there and start shooting some of the smaller bands to build up some cred with Chuck’s manager. People thought the photos were good, [so I said], ‘Can you get me the Chuck?’
And only two months after the BBQ Battle, that’s exactly what happened.
Oh, He’s With Chuck
While Py does his work by considering himself invisible and focusing in on his subject, he couldn’t shrink himself in rooms where audiences and bands had known each other forever. Many of these people grew up in D.C. and go-go was their culture. They noticed when someone new showed up.
“I was the white guy in the room with the camera. They wondered who I was with,” he says. ”When I started working with Chuck, they were like, ‘Oh, he’s with Chuck. He’s okay.’”
When he started getting Facebook friend requests from audience and band members alike involved in the go-go scene, he realized he wasn’t just the man with the camera anymore. He felt accepted into the fold. And as Py got to know the Godfather of Go-Go Chuck Brown as his photographer, he realized he had a lot to do with inculcating this sense of family.
“Chuck made damn sure no matter who you were when you went to a Go-Go, you were somebody.”
“DC Go-Go: Ten Years Backstage”
Py makes it clear he isn’t just Chuck Brown’s photographer; he’s a lover and celebrator of go-go. So when Chuck died in 2012, Py never considered stepping away from the scene. He felt he owed it to go-go to document it for generations to come — and he got his wish when in August 2021, 2,000 of his photos were added to the D.C. Public Library Go-Go Archive.
It was in the process of curating the photos for this archive that Py realized he had things to say about them. He wanted people to know not just the photos, but the stories behind them too. So he decided to write a book.
“I had already been telling the story verbally for years, so it was just a matter of me sitting down and putting pen to paper,” he says.
The book, called “DC Go-Go: Ten Years Backstage,” is ultimately a celebration of go-go music and culture. Py hopes that those in the go-go scene reading it will feel celebrated, and that those unfamiliar with go-go altogether will become interested in learning more about it.
“My collection of pictures, and now my book, are going to leave something as the history of go-go,” Py says. “It’s my hope that the people in go-go are preserved beyond me and beyond them.”
“DC Go-Go: Ten Years Backstage” is available for purchase now. For more information and to buy a copy, visit www.ChipPyPhotographer.com.
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