Published Aug 29, 2013He 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.
How did you hook up with Dam-Funk for the new album?
Well Dam hit me up on Facebook, actually. He said he was a funk artist and wanted to continue to do funk music in an age when hip-hop was more dominant. He just wanted the funk, and he was like "Yo man, I just want to do a 12-inch with you." I looked into his music and I liked what he was doing and wanted to help him, because here's a guy that wanted to do funk music. We did the 12-inch together. He and Peanut Butter Wolf loved it and they wanted to do a three-song EP, and that turned into six songs, which turned into nine. Then Peanut Butter Wolf asked me to become part of the Stones Throw family. I have to also say that prior to Dam-Funk hitting me up on Facebook, I started to do research into new music. What I mean by that is, I'm one that would go around and ask young people in different circles what they were listening to. And so through that, I started to get into more underground music: Ras G, Hudson Mohawke, Thundercat. I've always been a person who loves different styles of music, so I wanted to keep my eye on things that were happening not just on your basic radio station. I delved into the underground scene so by the time Dam-Funk hit me up, I was already aware of the underground funk movement. I could see myself connecting with that scene because there are some really special things going on. I love what Madlib is doing, what Flying Lotus is doing.
One of my favorite lyrics on the album is from the track "Good Feeling": "Different colours and generations dancing to this funk revelation." Is that your ultimate goal with the new album?
Absolutely. You know, I call it from funk's heyday to nowadays. I'm excited about being able to do that and see this music touch a new generation. As you've mentioned, I've done shows with Q-Tip, I've done shows with Madlib and a week or so later, I'll do a show with Cameo and the Time. So there's an underground movement and there continues to be the veterans of my generation who continue to play that music of the catalogue of funk music. Those two worlds coming together for me are very exciting. I just did a gig at the Union Pool in New York and then I did a gig with Alfa Anderson from Chic. They were two separate worlds in two days, and I really appreciate being able to bring those worlds together and be a part of either of them.
Tell me a bit about the new album.
Dam-Funk did all the music and I did all the vocals and lyrics. We came together to do a different type of funk record. It was also just me being able to do my thing over the music. Less restrictions than if you're making an album for a major label. It's a different type of world, and that's something that's been very interesting for me in terms of the music industry that I left. It's an industry that's changed so much, and it's a gift that I've been able to adapt and not glamorize one era of music over another. So I've been appreciating how things happen different now. Stones Throw Records and this album is a part of that process for me of being involved in today and not trying to sit in the past.
What would you say the future of the funk is?
I'd say the future just lies in people with vision. I plan on being in it. I think funk music has always encompassed different styles of music. If you listened to the Ohio Players, they introduced a jazzy element. Sly Stone, prior to that, introduced a psychedelic songwriting element. Earth, Wind and Fire built upon what the Ohio Players did and ultimately introduced a greater jazz element. P-Funk brought that avant-garde, almost Sun Ra-ish, side. Slave brought a hard-hitting side with melodic pop and my quirky vocal style. I just think funk music will have individuals and people that will have their own take on things that will start to shape new avenues. I think we should never forget that music is always someone else's take on something that they were bold enough to allow you to hear. To go with their heart, rather than try and fit in. Cats coming up that say "I hear it this way" and go ahead full blast. Look at what Prince did or George Clinton, who had that different perspective than, let's say, Sly Stone. The future of the funk is in the brothers and sisters out there who dare to do it their way.
We've talked about the artists that you've influenced. Who inspires you?
I'd have to go with John Coltrane, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Motown, James Brown, Yes, Gentle Giant and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. People like that.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I'm just wanted to add that I'm excited about continuing my career. I'm as excited about it as when I first started out, and to inspire young and old people to keep the music going forward.