Steve Arrington’s Funk Gets Higher With Dam-Funk (Interview)
“I love music and I still study it”
Steve Arrington’s smooth adenoidal trills transformed Slave from a sturdy party band into a premier funk experience during his three album run with them in the ’70-‘80’s. “Watching You” “Just A Touch Of Love” and “Snap Shot” gave the Dayton, Ohio band an identity and Arrington the mettle to later form his Hall Of Fame project. As a solo artist Arrington continued to deny the typical expectations of funk by playing with the pulse, making an anthem for Black male self-esteem and continuing the conversation between jazz and funk started by Miles Davis in the ‘60’s. “Weak In The Knees,” “Nobody Can Be You” and “Beddie Biey” have all been copiously recycled by hip-hop and recognized by funk fans as apex moments in the genre. Arrington commercially peaked with 1985’s Dancin’ In The Key Of Life before disappearing from the music industry after two more albums to focus on his spirituality. He resurfaced in 2009 with the gospel funk project Pure Thang and a year later Dam-Funk reached out to him via Facebook about making new music. Their communication resulted in 2010’s G-funk single “I Be Goin Hard” which lead the way for their newly released album Higher. Dam-Funk’s post hip-hop sensibility and love of classic funk with Arrington’s modernized fully intact muse made Higher a progressive excursion.
I love the album. It sounds like someone from your era doing something current not dated. How did you do that?
I love music and I still study it. I am adventurous as I’ve always been from when I was just a kid. My excitement today is to not try to recreate what I’ve done years ago but I continue to move forward and stay in the same mindset I was in years ago trying to do something. And I hope to continue to press the boundaries and move things forward in my own special way.
How would you say Higher is Steve Arrington but Steve Arrington in 2013? What are things that link it to your earlier work but make it different?
I think it has echoes of many things moved into one. I think Dam-Funk brings that West Coast sound and that midwest sound that I have you’ve heard it a lot in the G-Funk style from sampling. But you haven’t heard it a lot from an actual meeting of individuals doing a whole project together I think that’s very unique. I think another thing that’s interesting is Dam’s music has its own style it has echoes of things from funk’s past but you know he’s into pressing things forward. My vocal style my lyrical approach my melodic approach and my harmonic approach I see to do those same things. So I think us coming together you hear things moving forward and you still hear echoes from funk’s history. It also has a rawness to it, I like that it’s not too processed it’s not too produced it’s not too big studio sounding in your face.
How did Higher come about?
Well actually I think it was around 2010 Dam hit me up on Facebook and he was like, “Hey man I’m a funk artist and I wanna to keep this funk going and I hear you’re back out I heard a track you had on your website and I heard your funk gospel CD you did and I’d love to do a collab with you on a song.” So he sent some material and I picked the song that I like in terms of music and I wrote to it and the song’s on the album and it’s called “Magnificent.” That’s the first track we did together, sent it back out and he and Peanut Butter Wolf from Stones Throw were like “Oh my God we’re way feeling that, how about we do a 3-song EP?” I said cool so then I did three songs sent them back out and they said ‘How about we turn it into six?’ And then it went into nine and then he said, “Yo man would you like to join the Stones Throw family?” Their thing was, “Your sound and your style has gone into another place.” When I started singing on “Just A Touch Of Love” people were like “Man that’s different, the intervals, the tones we gonna go with it, it’s different.” I followed my heart and that’s been my mindset and my thing all along. You know my influences like let’s say Miles. What I loved about Miles Davis not just his sound but he always embraced the current culture. He never looked back and tried to re-create the good old days and compete with himself. He just always moved forward and that’s my perspective and like I said I constantly work on my craft and I’m interested in functioning now and wanting to be creative and unique today versus it’s always about “A Touch Of Love.” I love “A Touch Of Love” but I’m not stuck there.
How did your relationship with music start?
My half-brother Victor Shaw played saxophone and had local bands and some of the members in his band at one time were Marvin Pierce and Junie Morrison of The Ohio Players and they were about maybe 6-7 years older than me. And at that time when you’re a little homie that’s a bit older. So you know that would rehearse in the basement of my house. My mother was the manager at times and I would listen to those guys like sit on the steps. And Dayton was such a hotbed at that time leading to the Ohio Players making it big. But you know I saw a lot of those guys in local bands with my brother. So yes music was a very important part of my upbringing and just listening to a lot of good music from Motown to Mongo Santamaria. Latin music my mother had a lot of good jazz so I listened to a lot of cool stuff early in life.
What was the first instrument you learned and how did you move on from there?
My first instrument was drums. I was known around Dayton as a drummer never as a vocalist or a multi-instrumentalist. Not as a vocalist that came later.
When did you start singing?
I joined a group called The Murphy’s. They were a lounge band and they toured all over the country. And I had just graduated from high school. I had went out to California I did this audition for The Murphy’s and the drummer decided not to leave. And the drummer who was with the band at the time sang and played. They asked me if I could sing and play and I said yes even though I had not really done it. I figured I had the coordination to do that. But the drummer didn’t leave so I didn’t get that audition so I went out to California twice. I went out to California the first time right after high school and then maybe I hadn’t been there for a couple of months and The Murphy’s called and said “Hey this guy did decide to leave after all can you come back to Ohio and join The Murphy’s.” And that’s what I did and I toured with them for a while singing and playing drums and that’s where I really got into singing. And I sang all types of music I sang everything from “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Oak Tree” to Stevie Wonder to standards. The instrumental side is after I left Slave and sort of during Slave I didn’t get into it too much but I would play bass and guitar at home. When I did Steve Arrington’s Hall Of Fame is when I brought that out. I’m very proud of the fact that on “Beddie Biey” I wrote that song from guitar and I played guitar and also on “Nobody Can Be You” I played bass. And a lot of people don’t know that and I’m really proud of the fact that I was able to branch out from being a drummer into being a singer and a songwriter and then multi-instrumentalist.
Did you start working with Coke Escovedo before or after you joined The Murphy’s?
It was after I joined The Murphy’s. The goal of the band was to play Vegas and I decided I didn’t want to be a Vegas show band type scenario so I went back out to California. I was much more armed because I had been with The Murphy’s who by the way had some interesting players who came out of that. Tom Warrington ended up being the bass player for Buddy Rich for years. Also in that band is my keyboard player for Steve Arrington’s Hall Of Fame Victor Bruce Scott was also in that band. So it was some great players that came out of that. So when I went back to California to make it is when I got with The Escovedos.
What were your early days touring with the Escovedo family like?
It was incredible it was a couple of years deal. I played with Coke Escovedo first and he mentored me. I lived with for a while because you know I’m out there I’m just trying to get myself together. He mentored me into Latin Percussion which at the time you didn’t have the overall Latin movement that you have in America now. It was pretty much then an east coast and west coast thing it really wasn’t happening in the midwest except for someone like Santana. That straight-ahead salsa that Latin soul we didn’t really get that here in the midwest. So when I went out to the west coast to really start studying with Coke I really got how powerful that music is and I can also hearken back to those times when my mother would play Mongo Santamaria and Ray Baretto. So from there playing with Coke which was more of a Latin soulful thing playing with Pete and Sheila was a straight-ahead salsa a 17-piece driving it, it was crazy. Plus Sheila E was insane right from the get go she was 19 she was incredible just nuts.
How did you join Slave?
I was a percussionist first, the drummer I was asked to replace he was leaving but he had to finish out his time. I started on percussion on tour of their second album, The Hardness Of The World. I went into the studio for the first time with Slave on the Concept album that was in ’78. My first song I played on drums was “Stellar Fungk” and I did some background vocals and some lead was the bridge on a song called “Coming Soon.” I just remember coming from this heavy 17-piece salsa jazz band and coming back to Dayton and getting into hardcore funk. I’m expanding vocabulary and now I’m starting to find my sound as not only a drummer but moving into writing as a singer-songwriter. Most of the people in that band we went to highschool together
How did you end up singing the lead on “Watching You?” and “A Touch Of Love?”
Slave had that thing with 2 or 3 people singing verses but I had done the lead on “A Touch Of Love” and it added another dimension to the band’s sound. By the time I got to “Watching You” my style had crystallized. Me and those guys had already been in a local band called The Mystics so groundwork had already been laid for “A Touch Of Love” for that new sound that was different from “Slide.”
How did you end up leaving the band and forming Steve Arrington’s Hall Of Fame?
I never was a member of Slave, that’s what’s so interesting about it. I was a sideman and I just became more and more involved in the songwriting and the sound of the group but I was actually never on contract with the band. And others who were also contributing a lot to the band were not under contract either. The thing about Slave is that after the first album the lineup was always changing there was just always different people and ending up bringing the band down faster than it should have. It was always a revolving door and you can’t maintain a sound with people coming and going like that. But Stevie Washington, Curt Jones and Starleana Young they left and formed the group Aurra. I left after the Showtime album to make Steve Arrington’s Hall Of Fame and I wanted to branch out and do some different things. I couldn’t do a song like “Beddie-Biey” on a Slave album because that’s not where our heads were.
What’s the story behind “Weak In The Knees?”
“Weak In The Knees” is sort of like where things are for me now. I was absorbing the culture of that time. My vocal style prior to “Weak In The Knees” and that Hall Of Fame album was much more melodic and I’ll even say more dreamy sounding. For instance like, “Oh baby wait for me da daa daa” it was more lullaby-ish. At the time I got into Steve Arrington’s Hall Of Fame things became more rhythmical for me. “Weak In The Knees” I was told not too long ago guy said ‘That’s the first R&B tune that has the cadence of like a rap record.
What about “Way Out?”
Well “Way Out” started with the drums. I did this drumbeat and I started doing this vocal thing which ended up being the actual instrumental part. It starts off with the drums and me doing this vocal thing imitating instruments. And then when the actual groove comes in the band actually takes over the vocal part. “Way Out” was just a place for me to press the envelope and say ‘Hey I’ve got my own thing going’ and what’s special for “Way Out” for me is the drum thing and of course the vocals but the lyrics I just loved the images.
You changed again with Dancin’ In The Key Of Life.
Dancin’ In The Key Of Life I wanted to get into dance music so spiritually I was really starting to evolve. I come out of the church my great uncle Charles Cook great man of God was very important to me as a youngster. I grew-up in the church then left the church in teenage years but it all sort of stayed with me. As time went on what was on the backburner of my life started to come forward. I wanted to bring that into my career I wanted it to be in my music so I decided to move into some different things which gives you the Dancin’ In The Key Of Life album “Feels So Real” which showed a more elegant side of where I was coming from again melodically I was into another thing. It was another adventure for me because people had not heard me make those kinds of tracks. On “Feel So Real” you hear the influence of the Escovedos very Latin-ish kind of feel and there’s the great Freddie Hubbard playing a trumpet solo on that.
Is this the time that you became born again?
Yes, exactly at the same time. Around 1990 I decided I had to pursue this quest for getting a closer relationship with the Lord and connecting in that way. And here I am as an artist. After making “Watching You” and “Snap Shot” when I left Slave the record company told me ‘You need to do another “Watching You.”’ I said, “I’ve already done “Watching You”’ and I threw away all my albums all my CDs I wanted to get my inspiration directly from the Lord. For the longest time I didn’t watch secular TV I never listened to secular music I didn’t listen to my own music. I was putting things in perspective that music was not my god it was a gift but it was not my god. I felt like I spent more time with gift god gave me than with god. It wasn’t until one day it hit me that man it was time for me to bring that love back out to the street.
Was Pure Thang your transition back into funk music even though it was gospel-oriented?
Yes, that was the start of it. I was learning programs I didn’t know I went and got Cubase got Reason. I had a great time making that record that’s what Peanut Butter Wolf and Dam Funk heard. They heard this loop on my website it was just a loop and it was up for years and I was doing my vocal thing and they heard that. So they contacted me and were like ‘I really want to do something. So my wife and I, I’d say for 2 and half 3 years we went down to this poetry slam every Tuesday night in Dayton because I wanted to know what the poets were thinking. We did that for about three years and I went and studied blues music for a while. Then my wife brought my music for my birthday she laid all my albums out one day I walked in and they were just laying across the table. Remember I threw all my records out so I hadn’t seen my own records I didn’t even my own records for years.
How many years had it been since you heard any secular music including your own?
I hadn’t heard my music probably I’d say about 17 years. I didn’t sing my stuff it was like it truly wasn’t me. I was so removed from it, it was like a dream that I actually did “Watching You.” I would hear it from time to time on the radio and was fascinated by it. When I sang in church I sang other people’s music I was singing gospel songs. So when I saw my records in front of me and I listened to them I was like ‘ I actually did that.’ When I heard it I was ready to accept that it was a part of me it took me seeing my work in front of me like that and I sat down and listened to my albums I thought ‘Wow man this is really interesting work.’ I started listening to the underground scene and the first person I connected with was Ras G I really started listening to him then I started listening to Hudson Mohawke and then I started getting into the electronica thing. I was into my blues thing I was going to blues jams I’ve been studying it about 5 years now. I was playing nothing but the blues because I had those gospel roots. I had listened to blues through the British Invasion by the time I was coming up funk and R&B was so strong blues was from the generation before I heard it. But I was a guy who was doing my hippie thing in the ‘60’s I was down with Clapton, Cream, Led Zeppelin, John Mayall who were all blues artists but they were white blues artists mimicking Muddy Waters and Hounddog Taylor, Little Walter and Little Milton. They were mimicking the Chicago blues and the Delta blues but I was getting the second layer of it. So it was an interesting time for me to go back to my roots and delve into new territory at the same time.
Is Higher a reconciliation of your spiritual life with the secular world?
You know I don’t really need the reconciliation because I’ve changed to understand things more so Higher is just an extension of me being able to say Higher is just me going ‘Wow I love music I love God’ like I don’t call myself a Christian musician I call myself a musician that loves God. And I’m connected to the culture that I live in and I’m giving my take on things. But above all it’s me being excited about my journey in life. I’m excited about being a musician and the gift the Lord has given me.
I saw where you got your masters back recently? Will there be some new unreleased music?
Yes I’ll be doing a re-release of the Steve Arrington Hall of Fame years. I’m really excited about that, that’s another one of those places that along with my wife buying my records for me and I’m hearing myself again. To be in the studio and all of a sudden hear those tracks just listening to the bassline, drums and listening to alternate takes. To hear all this stuff took me back and I have all these great memories old ones and new ones. To sit there after 30 years and then find out that young people dug what I was doing years ago a lot of hip-hoppers dug what I was doing and I didn’t know. At the height of my thing I left the scene so I didn’t know the impact my music had on the generation behind me.
When did you really find out the impact your music made on rap music?
It really kicked in when I came back on the scene and did a gig with Peanut Butter Wolf and Dam. We were supposed to actually do a video for “I Be Trippin’” and I went out to LA and they said “Yo’ man you should do some surprise guest appearances.” And I’m like ‘OK’ I hadn’t sang “Watching You” in years in fact the first time I sand “Watching You” in years was in Peanut Butter Wolf’s office acapella but I remembered all the words. I think we were at Sunset Junction I did a joint with Dam and he knew all the words and then I started doing shows with Stones Throw and they knew “Nobody Can Be You But You.” I met DJ Quik he was like “Man do you know what you mean to people out here?” I meet Q-Tip and I’m meeting everybody people who I never met before like I said my music after it hit I was gone. I was talking to Chuck D and he was like “Do you understand that Flavor Flav was singing “Nobody Can Be You” on the phone.”
When I was a teenager I went to see a band called Hot Tuna which were the guitar player and bass player from the group Jefferson Airplane I was 16. Hot Tuna had a violinist by the name of Papa John Creech.Papa John Creech was in his ‘40’s I thought but I come to find out later he was in his ‘50s’. But I remember being 16 thinking first of all, he’s playing with these white artists and at that time it was much more unique than it is now to have different racial ethnicities in the same band. What was fascinating for me is the fact that he was an older dude and they were in their ‘20’s and we were all shouting out Papa John, he was doing his thing. I loved Jefferson Airplane and this offshoot of their band I went to the shows. Papa John Creech affected me so much that I said I want to be like that when I get older, I want to be the older guy that gets it. My next goal is I want to be out there like B.B. King and Buddy Guy. I’m 57 now Buddy Guy is in his ‘70s B.B.King is in his ‘80’s still getting it in with young people who love the blues. I wanna be like that I wanna keep moving forward and challenging myself to go further.
Why do you think so many major funk bands came from Ohio?
Dayton is the birthplace of aviation and the great Paul Laurence Dunbar is from Dayton, Ohio so that’s tremendous innovation right there. Between the birthplace of aviation and the great poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, you’re talking about thinking outside the box. The other thing about the Ohio area James Brown came to Cincinnati and was a part of King Records that’s where Bootsy cut his teeth when he played with James he was 17. James being the father of funk he could’ve went anywhere like if he came through southern Ohio he came through Cincinnati that influence on us is immeasurable because the great James Brown who invented all this funk all this hard R&B came in our area and Ohio Players, everybody was affected by it. I’d say those two things; James coming to Ohio and to have Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Wright Brothers coming from Dayton specifically for what happened in the Dayton movement. The Ohio Players’s uniqueness being the first group to crack out of Dayton was so unique. We followed their unique to be unique not to follow their sound. We followed their concept that you must be different and James Brown coming to Ohio that’s the best way I can say it.