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Conga Player Reflects on Storied Career

Sam P.K. Collins | 5/7/2014, 3 p.m.
His name has become synonymous with go-go.
Six-hundred fans of Milton "Go-Go Mickey" Freeman packed the Howard Theatre in Northwest on April 12 to celebrate the musician's birthday. Stacey R. Palmer

After stints with the Reality Band, Redds and the Boys, and the Ayre Rayde Band, Freeman joined Rare Essence in 1984, after getting the thumbs up from Quentin “Footz” Davidson, a founding member of the band. While many knew of Freeman’s talent, it wasn’t until a fan circulated a recording of Rare Essence’s 1985 performance at Sidwell Friends School in Northwest that Freeman gained a huge following among go-go listeners.

The unassuming musician continued to make a name for himself as a member of Rare Essence for the next 27 years, displaying an ability to create distinctive rhythms on the congas while keeping in sync with the other percussionists in the band. In 1991, he released a solo instrumental album titled “It Gets No Rougher” on Liaison Records, unveiling new techniques and forever cementing his reputation as a visionary artist.

Throughout the late 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, Freeman won various awards including the Best Conga Player Award at the D.C. Street Awards in 1989, an award of the same name from 93.9 WKYS FM in 2006 and a Wammy for Best Conga Player from the Washington Area Music Association in 2008. He has also performed with well-known hip-hop and R&B acts including Heavy D, The Roots, Doug E. Fresh, Ludacris and the late Chuck Brown.

“Mickey’s always been an innovative performer,” said Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, another founding member of Rare Essence. He met Freeman through his brother in 1983 when the conga player attended what was then Mackin High School in Northwest.

“It took me a while to wrap my head around the beats that he created. He always knew what he wanted to do and that was what we needed. He’s always thinking of a different way to make [music]. That’s what has helped him stay relevant to this day,” said Johnson, the band’s guitarist who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md.

Freeman left Rare Essence in 2012 and joined Familiar Faces, performing alongside his former band mates Donnell “D-Floyd” Floyd, Derek “DP” Paige, Eric “Bojack” Butler, and Kimberly “Ms. Kim” Graham. His first performance at Martini’s Restaurant and Lounge in Fort Washington, Maryland attracted hundreds of go-go fans that danced and clapped their hands as he beat on the congas in his trademark sleeveless T-shirt.

D. Floyd, Familiar Faces’ lead saxophonist, said that Freeman’s reputation as a veteran conga player boosted the band’s profile among go-go listeners.

“Mickey, being one of the greatest ever, allows us to stake claim that we have a few legends in our band,” said Floyd, 49. “He’s the best percussionist playing today and gives us an opportunity to reach young people. His beats keep people coming back to go-go. We like to take our R&B-styled songs and make them aggressive and no one is more aggressive than Go-Go Mickey. He’s our Allen Iverson on the fast break,” said Floyd who lives in Temple Hills, Maryland.

Freeman has no plans of slowing down. Last year, record label Latin Percussion approached the conga player and he announced plans to produce an album with two of his sons.

“I tell people that I’m willing to [play the congas for] 10 more years,” said Freeman. “If God gives me more than that, I’ll do it. Music is my life. It’s in me. Whatever comes up, I want to play. No matter the genre, I want to keep playing. It doesn’t have to be go-go, but I want to keep going,” he said with a grin.