The music is reminiscent of groups like Junkyard and is played on things found in dumpsters, but the beats rising from 19th and M streets are anything but garbage.
Two go-go drummers, who go by the names of Donald D. and Rapper D., have been cranking out beats at this busy intersection for years. Using broom and mop handles to bang on garbage cans, buckets, traffic cones and shopping carts, the two D.C. natives provide the beat for partygoers on their way to bars and nightclubs.
Rapper, 29, has been drumming for 17 years, and he introduced the sound to Donald who, at age 27, has been drumming for 15 years. Rapper said his interest in go-go drumming developed when he was about 10 years old, when he began imitating Chuck Brown by beating on trashcans in his backyard. Donald, a childhood friend of Rapper, soon caught on.
The beats are in the style of Chuck Brown and the Junkyard Band, District-based musicians from the late 1970s and early 1980s who drew huge crowds with their unconventional instruments and drum beats.
Several years and street corners later, Rapper and Donald have developed a fast-paced style of their own. The two spend hours on end playing off each other’s beats, competing for the best sound.
“I’ll always be on top of him,” said Donald, who talks in a fast-paced slang that mirrors his playing. “Rapper thinks he’s better than me? He’s old.”
The style is truly D.C.-based.
“This is about life right here, on the street, doing his thing,” said Kai Jackson of Baltimore’s WJZ TV. Jackson is currently planning his second special on the two musicians. “This is real out here today.”
Their equipment is hardly traditional. Rapper said he finds his buckets and trashcans in dumpsters outside construction sites. He developed his own drumming style of holding a bigger stick in one hand to hit his “bass,” a large trashcan, and using a smaller stick in the other for his higher-pitched buckets. Both sticks show wear from months of drumming and look as though they’ve been chewed on.
Donald said he drums for his own entertainment, not the dollar bills tipsy passersby continuously drop into the lone bucket he doesn’t beat upon.
“I do it for fun, man. I do it for my heart. I play for Jesus, man,” Donald said.
Depending on the season, Donald said he gets anywhere from $75 to $150 a night, with his highest gross coming in the summer.
Rapper wouldn’t say how much he makes in tips but admitted, “it’s good money. I can’t complain.”
The two said they’re waiting for their “break” – to have their drumming talent discovered by someone who can take them from the street corner to the studio.
“I’ll get famous. I told you, it’s coming,” said Donald, adding that he plans to make a CD in the coming weeks and have it available on the street.
He said he knows his drumming is appreciated because people hang out and dance to his beat, particularly on Saturday nights.
“People are just out here dancing at three, four in the morning,” he said.
Donald said Metropolitan Police officers often come and try to stop the drumming. He said on rare occasion they come because of complaints from nearby office buildings, but mostly he thinks the officers are acting on their own whims.
“If (locals) don’t want me here, why are they putting money in my bucket?” he questioned. Since he has been on the corner for over a decade, Donald said he doesn’t think he’ll be shut down permanently any time soon.
Rapper said there are occasions when he has to stop drumming. He said this was a big problem after 9/11, when no one was happy with drumming so early in the morning.
Though he started at 19th and M streets and usually plays there, Rapper said his beats have been heard throughout the city; he has played on The Mall, in Dupont Circle and in Georgetown.
As he explains it, “I can find a spot no matter the time of day.”