He might not be as well known as George Clinton, James Brown or Roger Troutman, but Steve Arrington has made an equally incalculable mark on the funk music landscape. First as drummer and vocalist for late '70s/early '80s funk legends Slave and then later with his solo work, Arrington influenced generations of hip-hop artists, producers and R&B crooners with inventive vocal style and musicianship on such funk cornerstones as Slave's "Watching You," "Just a Touch of Love," "Weak At The Knees" and "Nobody Can Be You," which created a blueprint for '90s G-Funk. While Arrington stepped away from the music scene for 25 years, the likes of Jay-Z, A Tribe Called Quest, Mariah Carey, N.W.A. and too many others to mention kept his music alive via sampling, and he's back collaborating with Dam-Funk behind the boards on Higher. Rather than an Afro'd, platform-booted trek down memory lane, Higher finds Arrington embracing the underground grooves of futuristic funk and sounding as timeless and relevant as ever.
The Ohio Players, Zapp & Roger, Lakeside, Sun, Slave and yourself all hail from Dayton, Ohio. Why is the city such a hotbed of funk?
That's a great question. I do know that it's a very small town. There's not a lot to do. But it is the birthplace of aviation, with the Wright Brothers, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the great American poets. So that innovation and daring has moved over into the music scene. All of those groups were all somewhat in the same age group. The Ohio Players were a little older and they hit first. They were so original. In Cincinatti, there was King Records, which had James Brown and Freddie King. Bootsy Collins from Cincinnati came up with James when he was 17. With James Brown hitting the Midwest, and Dayton being that place of innovation, you come with Dayton funk and that Southern Ohio funk.
How did you become involved with Slave?
Several of us that ended up being in Slave were on the local scene in a group called the Young Mystics. Many of us were in high school together. I went on to California and started playing with the Escovedos and came back to Dayton and joined the band around the time of the third album, 1978's The Concept.
Why did you leave the band in 1982?
Unfortunately, Slave had a string of bad business decisions. Stevie Washington and Starleanna Young left after 1980's Stone Jam album and formed Aurra. After the first album, Slave never had the same people on board and members were coming and going because of bad business. I stayed as long as I could, but we had to move on to make our careers musically and financially satisfying.
I've read that the likes of Grandmaster Flash and The Sugarhill Gang opened for Slave, and you're currently doing some dates with Q-Tip and DJ Quik. What do you think about hip-hop and artists that sample your music?
I love hip-hop and I've been excited about the artists that have sampled my work. Obviously I had to adapt and learn what sampling was about, and there had to be that time when the industry caught up, when the artists had to be paid for the samples of their music. Once the smoke cleared with all of that, I was very much involved with it and was part of some of the earlier R&B guys who were involved with hip-hop. That being Three Times Dope's remake of "Weak In The Knees," and I also did some background vocals on Kool Moe Dee's album Funke, Funke Wisdom prior to me leaving the music scene for 25 years. I love the sample of A Tribe Called Quest using "Beddie Bye" to do "The Chase, Part 2." How they flipped it was awesome. I've done a show with Q-Tip and DJ Quik, and we'll be doing more things in the future. I'm very much excited about hip-hop embracing me, and I've done a show with Public Enemy as well.
You mentioned that you stepped away from music for 25 years and you didn't return until 2009's Pure Thang. I was wondering the reason why.
I grew up in the church as a very young boy, with my great-uncle as my pastor. I moved away from Church and got involved in continuing my music. My spatiality was very important, too, and at some point I decided to concentrate on getting closer to God. So I walked away from the music scene and just completely delved into prayer and study, and that resulted in 25 years being gone. What I found from that time and sitting in hours and hours of prayer is that it's about love and presenting love through your character and your being. I'm the type of musician — I do what's in my heart. In other words, I started with the Escovedos playing Salsa and Latin soul music and a lot of people don't know that. From that, going into funk mode and the types of music that I've done since then, it's just a part of who I am, and my pursuit of God was just a natural progression. Of course it shocked some people, but it was just a continuation of me following my heart and not being afraid to do that.
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