Since the mid 1970s, Experience Unlimited (EU) has been one of the most seminal groups in the Go-Go music genre. Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott founded the group during their stint as students at the well known Ballou Senior High School in Southeast, Washington, DC. They’re one of the original Go-Go bands in Washington, DC. The band chose the name Experience due to their respect for the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Unlimited because they did not want to limit the range of their music. Their early regional hits included “EU Freeze,” “Knock ‘Em Out Sugar Ray,” and “Lock Your Butt.”
These hits allowed them to establish a cult following in the DMV region. Perhaps, they’re best known for their worldwide smash record, “Da Butt” from Spike Lee’s School Daze movie soundtrack. They continued to experience more success with hit records. They recorded collaborations “Shake Your Thang” with Salt n’ Pepa and “Party Time” with the legendary Kurtis Blow. As the 1980s came to a close, the group soared to new heights with their own recordings “Buck Wild” and “Taste of Your Love.” Their original song, “Da Butt” won them Soul Train’s Best R&B/Soul Single, Group Award in 1989. It also earned them a Grammy Award nomination in the same year.
Black America Web recently spoke with Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott about the group’s beginning, career achievements, and their current and future plans.
What is the story behind the forming of the group?
We formed the group back in high school through a talent show. We were all hanging out one day and all of us could already play some instruments so we decided to form our band. We were all from the same neighborhood. We actually formed the group in the mid 1970s at Ballou High School in Washington, DC. My initial intent for the group was to play nothing but Rock & Roll music, but as a Black artist, it’s hard to get a Black audience to understand and like Rock & Roll. We found out the hard way so we switched over to become a Go-Go band. When I was putting together the group, I was looking for people who could really play and be dedicated to the art. I had to surround myself with guys who shared the same vision. We started out with five members in the beginning, but ended up with ten later on.
How much influence did the late great Chuck Brown have on the group?
He had a great influence on me because when we started out we were playing a lot of Rock & Roll music. We were playing Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Black Sabbath, and bands like that. But when we opened up for Chuck, I found out what this music thing was all about. He came up to me and told me I had a lot of talent, but I had to play more music that people wanted to hear. I took his advice and ran with it.
Do you feel your group has been one of the trendsetters in the Go-go music scene in Washington, DC?
Without a doubt we’re trendsetters. Our longevity and the records speak for themselves. The national exposure we received and the Grammy nominations speak for us as well. These are the goals of any musician to reach higher grounds.
When did the group feel like you guys finally “made it?”
It was definitely when the “Da Butt” record was released. We went from playing in front 300 people a night to 20,000 a night. Now, that was a giant jump for us. We were playing for people across the country that we’ve never seen before and they really appreciated our talent. We started being on BET, Soul Train, MTV and performing at all kinds of state fairs. This is when I knew we were on another level, but we maintained the same amount of hunger.
Can you describe the creative process that went into the making of your albums?
It took a lot of dedication. Of course, everyone had their own ideas, but everybody’s ideas don’t work. So we tried to pull in about twenty songs and choose from the best ones. We also had different outside producers come in with their ideas, but sometimes their ideas didn’t work for us because they didn’t know what elements to bring in. Many people tried things out of respect due to pressure from the record companies. We had to go with the flow. Sometimes the music would hit and other times it wouldn’t hit, but it hit Marcus Miller. Ninety percent of the time I would take the lead in making the records. Everyone would always focus on me because I was thought of as being the strength for the group. I just ran with it from there and did the best I could with the music. It’s like with every group you have a leader. Grand Central Station had Larry Graham, P-Funk All Stars had George Clinton, Gladys Knight and the Pips always had Gladys Knight in the front. It’s just how it goes. I’m not saying the other guys didn’t have talent, but you have to go with what works and what people are accustomed to. Again, you had The Commodores and Lionel Richie was always up front and Maze and Frankie Beverly. It’s how our industry is.
How much has Go-Go music changed since you first arrived on the scene and its influence on other genres?
To me, it has never gotten the national exposure it deserves except for when Chuck put out “Bustin’ Loose” and when we put out “Da Butt.” The flipside of the coin is; a lot of artists have sampled many of our Go-Go tracks and had much success. Artists like Jill Scott, Salt n’ Pepa, Kurtis Blow, and Beyonce, but we’ve never gotten the credit. Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” song had all Go-Go tracks in there and we’ve never gotten credit for it. This was the song that got Beyonce the attention of being a solo artist.
Why do you think Go-Go music hasn’t received the credit it deserves?
For one, we’re in Washington, DC and we’re not in Atlanta, New York or California. It’s like the Dirty South when they came up with their sound for rap music. Sometimes, it’s where you are that hampers you. We tried to branch out, but when the record companies have all of the money they want you to do what they want you to do not what you want to do. Sometimes, they may be right and sometimes they may be wrong. They’re the ones with the money so you do what they say. The next thing you know you’re back to square one. Then, you tell them, ‘I told you so.’ But no one sees that side of the business. People always ask, ‘What happened to this group? What happened to that group?’ About ninety percent of the time it comes down to these money issues, but if you have a true love for music you keep on going.
Why has your group’s sound maintained such a strong following?
It’s because our roots are here. Everyone pretty much in the Metropolitan area grew up on our music. They prefer our music over any other type of music. They look at different music videos and all of that, but most of our Go-Go parties and concerts around here show our strong fan base. It’s like when you’re a Laker fan, you’re a Laker fan from birth and the same thing if you’re a Dallas Cowboys fan. The same applies for Go-Go music. If you grew up around Go-Go music, that is going to be your first choice. The same thing happened in New York with rap music. It’s the same thing here with Go-Go music. We have dedicated fans in the DC area that stand by our groups and really support us. It’s the reason why a lot of us are still able to do what we do.
How difficult was it making the transition from a Rock band to a Go-Go band?
It was survival mode for us when we switched from playing Rock to Go-Go music. Black folks didn’t want to listen to any Rock music. They might have appreciated the talent part of it, but as far as them supporting it, it wasn’t going to happen. We made the switch pretty quickly because we wanted to eat. I wasn’t mad at it at all. Even today, I sneak some Rock tunes in our sets when we perform live. We changed it up to fit the songs in a Go-Go style.
How did you feel when the group made its appearances on Soul Train?
It was a dream come true for us. Everyone used to watch Soul Train growing up. I said to myself as a kid that I’d like to be on the show someday. We ended up being on the show twice and won a Soul Train Music Award over New Edition, Guy, and Levert. I was like, ‘WOW!’ when it happened because I never could’ve imagined that.
How did you become part of Spike Lee’s "School Daze" movie soundtrack?
It was being in the right place at the right time. He was promoting his movie She’s Gotta Have It here in DC. We were playing at the 930 Club. It was a party for the movie release of She’s Gotta Have It. It was a meet and greet type of thing so we were playing that night and he asked us if we would be interested in playing a song in his movie called School Daze. When he heard “Da Butt,” he said he had to have the song in his movie. It just goes to show you that you never know who is going to be in your audience. You always have to do your best.
What was your favorite song to perform and listen to from the group’s catalog?
It would have to be “Da Butt” and “Shake Your Thing” with Salt n’ Pepa.
What are some of the new projects the group is working on?
We just made a remake of “Brickhouse” for Don Cornelius. May he rest in peace. We’re working on a new CD right now. People will hear from EU again on the airwaves. It’s just going to take a minute, but we’re definitely coming. We don’t have a title for the new album yet because we’re still in the pre stages of making the album.
Where do you see the group going musically in the next five years?
In the next five years, I’m sure we’ll sustain our sound. Hopefully, we will receive national acclaim again for our music. My goal is to get back to the same national recognition we received when we did “Da Butt,” “Buck Wild,” and “Taste of Your Love.” But, if not, when you see me live, you’re going to think that I was like that anyway so that’s what it’s all about.
How would you describe the group’s career from beginning until now?
We have been truly blessed. If we don’t make another record, we can say we’ve been Grammy nominated and our records are still being played twenty-five years later. What more could you ask for from an artist? It’s just really amazing to me. Back in high school, we were playing music to get girls and do a battle of the bands concert here and there, but that was it. We never looked past that until we got older and realized we had a chance to do something. We had the passion so we just ran with it. If you keep banging on doors, at some point in time they’re going to open up. You have to believe in yourself. We were the hottest band in the city at one point in time when we were younger. Every time we played at a show, we had to bring our A game. It was fun and it made us appreciate what we had. We knew we couldn’t ever let up and let our fans down. It made us better.
We always had groups checking us out when our time came to be on a show. We were on shows with acts like Guy, New Edition, Keith Sweat, MC Hammer, Earth, Wind & Fire, Maze and Frankie Beverly, Lakeside, among many others. I was really impressed that those guys used to sit and watch us when we were supposed to be watching them! They were the groups I looked up to. It made me see we were appreciated by not only our fans, but other popular acts as well. When you saw those types of people admiring your art, it was like winning Grammy. And that’s the highest compliment because it lets you know you were doing something right.
Their new single can be found on iTunes under "Bodacious One presents EU."