Dayton, Ohio is a cradle of innovation. From the moment the Wright Brothers decided taking flight was the future, its legacy of creativity and ceiling shattering ideas was cemented. This is the foundation upon which Steve Arrington was able to become Funk’s North Star.
Born into a Southern, spiritual family on Dayton’s westside, Arrington showed a vigorous interest in music early on. So much so that his pastor uncle nicknamed him “Moosic.” In a way, it ordained something inside of him that had yet to be fully realized. At home, while the gospel records of his grandmother began to mold his spirituality, his mother’s love for Motown emphasized the joys of the here and now — two passions that later drove both Arrington’s life and career.
When he turned 15, Arrington stood at his first crossroads. Though he loved baseball (his father was a local sports legend), there was a longing inside him that couldn’t be shaken. The love of music in the blood. His older brother led a band that featured future funk legends Junie Morrison, Marvin Pierce, Tim Dozier, and Marvin Craig. And eventually, the younger Arrington’s fervor for making music eclipsed his zeal for sports. After a difficult conversation with his father—who still didn’t really understand the decision—Arrington would put down the bat and glove and pick up his drumsticks.
Not even a year later, he found himself at a concert featuring Frank Zappa, Curtis Mayfield, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. The John McLaughlin-led band sent him to the cosmos, from which he never returned. It wasn’t just the music. It was the depth, the attitude, and velocity at which the group played. The mysterious nature of a band with “orchestra” in their name, the largest drum set he’d ever seen, and all white costumes with a drummer bizarrely wearing an Ohio State jersey allowed him to drop all of his preconceived ideas and absorb the sounds that would shape who he’d become as a musician.
In the early 70s, the garages and corners of Dayton were awash with music. It only grew when James Brown recruited Bootsy Collins and other Cincinnati musicians, helping him move further from the soul of his past and into the funky bounce of his future. Shortly thereafter, Dayton’s own Ohio Players stepped onto the national stage with a sound, image, and funk that had been bubbling locally for some time. The music played at talent shows and battles of the bands was now elevated and took its place as one of the most innovative genres ever conceived. It was the spark that both Dayton and a young Steve Arrington needed. And it inspired yet another life changing decision: Arrington decided to move across the country to the Bay Area, another hub of creativity and innovation.
While in San Francisco, Arrington linked up with Coke Escovedo of the legendary Escovedo Family and became the drummer of his Latin jazz group. It’s here where Arrington honed who he would become. Escovedo showed him that drumming was so much more than keeping time; It was about knowing where to be on a son, how to not overplay, and most importantly, upholding an unshakable level of excellence.
After his stint in the Bay, Arrington returned home to Dayton to turn Slave into a national powerhouse. The group had already achieved regional success, but frequent lineup changes had slowed down their growth. Joining as a drummer, Arrington’s vocal ability and songwriting gift soon became apparent; he quickly moved from behind the drums and directly in front of the audience. Songs like “Watching You” and “Just a Touch of Love” showed and prove Arrington’s God-given talent. Even in the emphasis on the words “little bit” in “Just a Touch of Love”, Arrington’s voice becomes so much more than a mere instrument. It doubles and claps with the drums to keep the same time he would as if the drum sticks were actually in his hands. But the ride with Slave was short lived. Like many of its other members, Arrington chose to leave—even though he didn’t want to—because of bad business.
Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame became his first solo project. Though the idea of making a “Slave 2” sounded good to Atlantic, Arrington had other plans. Those years in the legendary funk group were special but they weren’t his end all be all; the “Hall of Fame” would prove it. With hits like “Weak at the Knees” and “Way Out”, Arrington proved he was much more than just a front man. He was able to pull and release all of his many influences—from James Brown, to John Coltrane, to YES—as his battle against conformity raged on. Songs like “15 Rounds” and “Mello as a Cello” on The Positive Power album continued to show Arrington’s hunger for growth and experimentation. And his follow-upa, Dancing in the Key of Life, turned all that he’d done and flipped it on his head. Performing barefoot in bright blue garb, with songs like “Feel So Real” and the title track, “Dancing in the Key of Life” Arrington embraced dance culture while still putting that bounce in every ounce. These projects were all different, but they were very much all of the pieces that made up who Arrington had molded himself into.
At the height of it all, Arrington walked away. Not in the mythological or figurative sense. No. Arrington left music. He left the stages, the studios, the drums, the vocals and stayed away for 25 years. For him, the draws and attractions of the secular world no longer enticed him. He wanted spirituality to sit front and center as he pursued this new path of consciousness and a higher power. Initially, it wasn’t easy. Moving forward meant ignoring the industry. It meant turning off the volume of the naysayers. It also meant walking away from the career he’d only dreamed of as a child. With Arrington, inspiration would always be his guide. Whether it was uncomfortable or not, his pursuits were a part of him, and as long as he felt inspired he embraced change and newness whole heartedly. But make no mistake, though he was gone, his influence was far from removed. “Weak at the Knees” alone had been sampled by everyone from Ice Cube to Jermaine Dupri. A new generation of artists whose parents played the growling yet melodic bounces of Slave, the free flowing, jazz-inspired bops of Hall of Fame, and the electrically vibrant grooves of Dancing in the Key of Life were paying homage to Arrington, even in his absence.
As Arrington puts it, one simple day, after 25 years of working in the passion for God, he felt and knew he needed to come back. So he did — his way. In 2009, he returned with a funk spiritual album that brought the church and the groove together in a way only Steve could. Because he’d been listening and immersing himself in underground music, he decided to link up with Dâm Funk and Stones Throw Records for what became Higher. With Arrington, it’s always been about the feeling. From leaving sports, to traveling to The Bay, his time with Slave, going solo, walking away from music at the height of his career, and now his return, Arrington has continued to follow his heart.
His latest album titled, Down to the Lowest Terms, a nod to the mathematical saying but also his beginnings and roots in soul, is yet another stop on his personal journey. It immediately meets listeners at the door with hands outstretched; it’s a welcome into a home full of warmth and love. With songs like, “The Joys of Love”, “Keep Dreamin’”, and “It’s Alright,” Arrington is once again in the front and center singing from the depths of his gut. He also went back to his foundation and played the drums again. For Arrington or “Moosic”, the ability to continuously evolve is his truest talent. Stagnation has no place in his world. Neither does the doubt and fear of others. He moves freely, in and out of genres and spaces with drumsticks in hand, and humility in tow. The heart is where it all began for him, and it will be the heart that continues to pave the way. — TE P.
Dayton is obviously core to who you are and your story. You’ve talked extensively about it in different interviews but I wanted to know, what does men for you to be from Dayton, Ohio mean to you?
Steve Arrington: The musical answer is to be part of one the great musical movements in the history of this game. It’s not spoken as highly as Motown, Staxx, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Minneapolis, but it’s just as potent. Dayton is a very creative place. Home of Aviation with the Wright Brothers, and the great Paul Lawrence Dunbar. There is a creativity in the air in Dayton. The Dayton Funk Movement continued on in that mindset that’s been going on in Dayton. It’s just an honor to be a part of it.
Growing up in America in the 50s and the 60s, there is definitely a climate and a movement of spirits in our communities. Can you speak to what being a Black kid was like at that time?
Steve Arrington: The Civil Rights movement was in full power coming out of the 50s and the 60s. Also, the hippie movement was coming along around the same time. Let’s talk about the music just to start. You had music that was going through a liberation. Jimi Hendrix changed the game. Muddy Waters took the blues and electrified it. But Jimi Hendrix took it to the arenas and amplified it. He cosmic-ized it. Then there were a lot of other acts from Motown who’d become a major force in the record label arena. They completely changed the landscape of music. A small label in Detroit. Because of the Civil Rights Movement, you have people who were excited about education. My grandfather could not read, nor write. I say that because we’re not that far removed from slavery and the effects it had on education. There were families that were still connected to the farms. There was a changing there. They were the first secretaries. They were the first foremen. I remember seeing my uncles, my aunts—and my mother included—being the first Black people to have these particular jobs in the 60s. How proud I was of them. But how proud they were of each other because they understood something. I looked at my grandfather and was surprised he couldn’t read and write. But they looked at their father and knew exactly what that was. It wasn’t just their father. I’m watching a changing of the mentality of the people in our community. It also spawned such a creativity because there was such a fresh energy of being involved in the workplace. People got good jobs. They were jobs [where] you had great responsibility. That being said, that got passed down to my generation, along with the great excitement of the future, and fear. There was still fear because there was still a lot of crazy stuff going on. I knew I had to be on the right side of town after 6 o’clock when I’d go to the YMCA on the Eastside of Dayton which was more of a white side of town. You still had a lot of the ugliness from the racial pieces of the 50s, but you had some wins when it came to education, when it came to jobs, and it gave a fresh wind and feeling to get things done. Of course, a lot of our leaders were getting killed at the same time like: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and many others being put in jail. There was all of these cultural phenomena coming and colliding together at one time. Within all of that, the combustion brought tremendous creativity.
Can you speak to having a family from the South and what their roots in the Gospel did for your handle on music?
Steve Arrington: My grandmother’s brother, Charles Cook, was a preacher. I come from a line of preachers in my family. His daughter, Yvonne, played the piano and sang. My grandmother sang in the choir. I can remember when my grandmother bought “Oh Happy Day” and played it over, and over, and over. It was so much a part of your life that you didn’t look at it in terms of other cultures. You really didn’t know. But when you were there you felt something. My uncle Charles, Beth Zeda Baptist Church, Crown Point in Dayton, used to call me “Moosic.” I was a little guy, like 5 or 6 years old. He would say, “There go Moosic.” He didn’t say music. When I asked my older brothers why he gave me that nickname they said, “It’s because he could see something in you.” The musicality was there in the family. That was brought forth in a spiritual way because this was a great man of God. He would not call me, “Steve.” I guess what I’m saying is, that was such a fabric in my musical upbringing. And it also helped me and many others be able to reach down into the many chambers of their being, soul, and spirit to bring forth an honesty. That love, that depth, and that willingness to put it all out on the line. So much of that was learned in church because in church that’s what we do.
You made the decision at an early age to walk away from sports and focus on music. How did you make that decision?
Steve Arrington: My father was a local sports hero. His records in track and football stood for many years after he was in high school. That being said, I had sports talent. I could catch anything you threw at me. I wasn’t as fast as my father, but I was quick. The thing was, I had another passion. The music passion was as strong as the sports was. I had that extra push in the sports because of my father, and my older brother was also good at football. But he also played music. He was a band leader and a saxophonist. The name of the band was called The Citations. In those bands, you had the great Junie Morrison. There was Marvin Pierce, the trombone player from The Ohio Players. The original drummer for Slave, Tim Dozier, was in my brothers band. And Marvin Craig, the bass player for Lakeside, was also in my brothers band at one point in time. I would just sit on the steps and watch all of these great musicians. This rivaled my interests in sports. I felt that if I stayed with baseball I could have really done something. Even though I enjoyed it, and had fun with it, I didn’t love it. I loved music. I’m gonna keep it a hunnid. My pops wasn’t too excited about that. I told him, “I think about this 24/7. I dream about it. I daydream about it.” I love music today as much as I ever did coming up—perhaps even more—if that’s possible.
I know how much you love the Mahavishnu Orchestra. You’ve spoken about seeing them play and feeling like they literally “ripped” you apart. Can you speak to that transformation you went through after seeing them play and how that shaped the way you approached your music?
Steve Arrington: I used to have odd jobs here and there so I could have money to go to concerts. I went to so many concerts. I saw so many greats. In Cincinnati there was a show. It was Frank Zappa, Curtis Mayfield, Mothers of Invention, Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, and this Mahavishnu Orchestra. Now, I didn’t know about Mahavishnu. I went there to see Frank Zappa and Curtis Mayfield. We go to the show. I’m hearing about Mahavishnu Orchestra but I’m thinking it’s more of a classical experience. That’s cool but it wasn’t what I came for. As I look around, I see this huge drum set. Then these guys come out in all white but one guy has this Ohio State jersey. So I’m like, “OK.” Then they open up and hit a song called “Meeting of the Spirits.” This is odd times but I was in the odd time signatures. I was deeply into Yes prior to coming to see this show. I was into art rock like Genesis. I was with that. These dudes hit so hard. I’d never hear music played at this type of power. It was electric. I was blown away so deeply in so many dimensions. I was blown away by the energy. I was blown away by the speed and energy of it. I was blown away by the finesse of it. But I was so blown away by the spiritual effect it had over me. I saw the other acts and was blown away, but I knew what to expect from them. When I left there I was totally transformed because I realized more could be done than I’d ever thought before. They were my doorway into Miles, into Coltrane, into Munk, into people like that. Then of course the whole Fusion thing took off for me. But not only old Miles but Bitches Brew Miles. Mahavishnu opened the door for me to get into jazz coming up. I went all the way back to Louis. I went all the way to Kind of Blue. I got into Mingus and a lot of the cats that were in the underground scene. I’ll say this again, and I’ve said it before, they took me out into the cosmos somewhere—and I’ve never come back.
To fast forward a little bit, I’ve seen you mention the influence James Brown and the Ohio Players had on the Dayton scene. Can you speak to seeing them and knowing it can materialize, and how that fueled the friendly competition you speak of in the area?
Steve Arrington: James Brown came to the Midwest, landed at King Records, and started using musicians from Cincinnati. That period of James Browns’ music was so funky. He had moved from the more Soul side to the more funky side. We didn’t know what it was. We just knew it was different. He called it “Funky.” We weren’t using terms like that. It made sense because it sounds funky. Now, just yesterday I listened to “Cold Sweat.” That’s one of my favorite joints of all time. And as a drummer coming up, if you didn’t have your “Cold Sweat” beat together, or your “Tighten Up” beat, it was like, “Go get your ‘Cold Sweat’ and your ‘Tighten Up’ together, come back, and we’ll holla.” It was enough that James Brown came to the Midwest. We were all so excited and blessed by that. Then the Ohio Players throw down and hit this track “Pain.” We was like, “Yooo man! What is this?” It was funky. It was a lot of things but it came out of Dayton. They followed it up with “Pleasure”. Then it went to “Ecstasy” and “Varee Is Love.” It was all so original. So we were all inspired. There was bands on every corner and in the garage. We was gettin’ it in bro. Talent shows and battle of the bands were epic! There would be lines around the corners because we were so inspired. And again, we had that Dayton energy where innovation is happening. Now, we couldn’t tap into it intellectually. It was just something that it was.
The Ohio Players opened up the door to the innovation and the great thing about Dayton; none of the groups sound alike. Sun doesn’t sound like Heatwave. Heatwave doesn’t sound like Zapp. Zapp doesn’t sound like Lakeside. And Lakeside doesn’t sound like Slave. And I can continue to go with that. Once we realized there was something going on, we were influenced by each other to continue to be original. Another band that may not be as noted is a group called Platypus. They were also very much influenced by the art rock scene. They were on Casablanca. The other side of this is that we all had to go away from here because there was not a music infrastructure to support the talent. So Ohio Players go to Chicago, I went out to The Bay Area, and I’m talking about—to get it together. None of us really recorded here in Dayton.
At the time you choose to move to the Bay a lot of things are happening. The landscape of the country is—again—changing. The music is changing. The colors are changing. And you get there at what some may consider the height of its creativity. Can you speak to what you learned in that time?
Steve Arrington: Absolutely. Just to piggyback the last thought we talked about, I’m leaving high school, and Lakeside moved to the L.A. area. They had such an influence on me I’m like, “Hey. If Lakeside is going out to California, I’m going to go out to California too. But I’m going out to the Bay Area versus L.A.” For me that was important because I came out of that hippie culture. I’m seeing the Allman Brothers and John Lee Hooker. John Lee Hooker at that time was being embraced by the Hippie culture after he did a record with Canned Heat. That being said, I go to the Bay Area to get on the tail end of that Hippie thing. When I get out there though, I get a gig with the great Coke Holvedo of the Escovedo family. I hadn’t been out there 6 months before I met Coke and joined his band. Here really, really helped a lot. He mentored me, and taught me how to listen to many different things, and how to not overplay. This was especially important when you’re in Latin music because it’s a very percussion driven music. The other thing I learned was another level of excellence. Carlos Santana was there. Sly is at his peak. Jefferson Airplane is going off. You’ve got the Grateful Dead going off. You’ve got Tower of Power going off. You’ve got Cold Blood going off. You feel me? There is a lot of energy. People were doing a lot of jamming. There was a lot of experimenting going on. I was able to get right in the middle of that. I was there twice. And then, it was time to come back to Dayton. When I came back, I had all this Latin, jazz understanding, and knowing where to sit in the pocket with others depending on what the vibe was. I learned all of that, along with a deeper respect for what musicians go through to live their dreams.
Something I’ve always wanted to know is, what is it about drummers that allows for them to join a group and move into leading it?
Steve Arrington: I think being a drummer gives you an understanding of the marriage of rhythm. You have all four limbs working together, yet, independent. The more you can do that, the more 3D the music sounds. In other words, there’s more depth. There’s more viewing of the whole thing. As much as you can bring in cohesiveness in the drumming it opens up chambers for everybody else. I think intuitively, if you have a gift to sing or write a song, you already understand how things work together because to drive a band, to keep tempo, to color the arrangements, there are things that drummers do that are already there. Good drummers have that. So when they transfer into more a melodic frame of mind, they’re already deep off into what makes a cohesive whole work.
Something that I feel isn’t mentioned enough when it comes to funk is the cohesiveness of everything. From the group, to the choreography, even the stages. My pop still talks about the spaceship coming down at his first Parliament show. Can you give me a little bit about the processes of creating at that time?
Steve Arrington: I think if you go back to James Brown, that’s where it starts. Then you have Sly who then took it and brought the songwriting aspect to it and the Pop aspect to it. The Ohio Players come and bring the jazz and slick part to it. Nobody heard anything like “Sweet Sticky Thing” before. Then Earth, Wind, and Fire expounded on that formula and took it to a spiritual perspective. So right there you’ve got totally different styles but it’s still funk. Then, all of a sudden, you have the bass player coming into prominence. There’s a fatness in the bass and the drums. Whereas, earlier the bass wasn’t so prominent before James Brown. Everything just sort of melted all together. As funk started to take over, the low end started to become very important. What I think is so great about funk is you talked about the attitude. George comes in and he brings this whole theatrical side of it. He was totally fresh and unique. Then you take somebody like Prince who says, “I’m going to put this purple thing on it.” He’s using all of the concepts to relate to certain things that he wants to push.
Let’s take it back to Dayton. Since we didn’t follow The Ohio Players, you had Slave growling at the bottom but we were very melodic at the top which brought another type of flavor to it. What I’m trying to say is funk encompasses all the different styles and brings them together with an attitude of the electrified blues, but with James Brown as the template. So that, it is bouncing. We all added to the template. It got more and more aggressive, more and more theatrical, and even when you hear boom bap—that’s funk music. It’s an awesome thing because funk music always evolves and it keeps going. I was listening to some K-pop the other day. It was Blackpink and I’m like, “It’s going down!” Rock can’t do that but the rules that it has are more stringent. Funk’s tentacles are everywhere.
I have to ask this question: Why is the funk era so incredible when it comes to album artwork?
Steve Arrington: Like hip-hoppers go crate digging, there was that time when we were younger and we’d go to the record store. We’d have our interest in whatever song or artist but when we start digging you might see different things. I remember I bought this album by a group called Spirit. I bought it because I liked the album artwork. People tell me to this day, the Show Time album artwork was important to them. People were in the liner notes. We would read the album notes. I remember just sitting down and staring at the album cover. You’re daydreaming off of it. You wonder what they’re thinking. Like Slave’s The Concept album, “What’s up with that?” Or the Hardness of the World album you have the swans going through and there’s ugliness going on. The swans denote purity and beauty. We didn’t have all of the access to content that you have now. Back then the content of the album cover was a very big deal because it gave you a doorway and a window into the artist. You didn’t see them on TV all the time. You’d see them on Soul Train, but it was much more mystery. Album covers gave you that. I definitely know the Slave covers, we were very serious about it.
So your time at Slave comes to an end. You put together Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame. But you’ve mentioned that you didn’t want to be a “Slave 2.” Can you speak to the pressures of being an artist that’s attached to something large that people know you for but wanting to walk another path, and having people accept that as well?
Steve Arrington: Well, I’d already gone to the Bay area and played with so many great musicians. I’ll say some of that lineup: The Escovedo Family, Sheila [E] at 19 years old, Bill Summers, David Margin, and Carlos Santana. This was the kind of talent and gifted artistry I’d been around prior to Slave. Now the mentality about that got me thinking more like a jazz musician because a lot of the jazz musicians were unified. Like Miles’ first and second great quartet are very different from each other. Then you have the Bitches Brew Miles, which was totally different and had so many great other great musicians. Even in all of that, Miles was not afraid to walk away from the bee bop sound and go into the cool sound. He wasn’t afraid to press the boundaries by what can be done. The unknown became very much a part of it. John Coltrane did that when he went into the free jazz period. I absorbed all of this while I’m in Slave. I’m down with this thing and I’m involved, but I never signed into the group. I was always a side man. So I got side man wages. I enjoyed being in the group, and it was a wonderful thing, but when you look at Slave you see after the first album the lineups always changed. They got better for a long time, it grew. But there were reasons why the lineups were changing.
That being said, and me thinking like jazz musicians, I’m seeing things are happening where I’m not a signed member of the group. I never wanted to leave the group but other members like Stevie Washington, Curt Jones, Starleana Young, and Thomas Lockett left after the Stone Jam album. They didn’t tour with us on that one. I always wondered what that would have been like touring together. That was not to be. That was the first chink in the armor because they all played such a special role. We went on to do the Show Time which was well-received but were in transition with a leadership change. I’m still a hired cat. How I became a vocalist and lead is beyond me because that was not the plan. That being said though, with revolving doors, I realized this is not going to change. What I wanted to do was speak in a different way with all of these other styles and influences that I could bring to the table. I was not trying to recreate a “Watching You,” “Just a Touch of Love,” or anything like that. Atlantic said, “Make a ‘Watching You’ and it’s over.” I’m like, “I already did that. Go get the record. I’m on some “Way Out.” I’m on something different.” The fact that I had all of these other things that I had done with musicians at such a high level with a mentality of being unique within that sort of system I wasn’t afraid to go and do it on my own. I didn’t lock in that I was this hit making machine and I needed to be that. I just gotta be true to myself and I learned that from the Escovedos.
In this period, you’re putting numbers on the board. The songs are doing what they’re doing. You’re staying true to who you are. What was that feeling like to get the reception that the music you were making was still making a mark, but on your own terms?
Steve Arrington: I loved it. It was exciting. It made me feel that when I say, “I follow my heart,” that I meant that—in the midst of whatever. I’ll step back to Miles, again. Miles’ Kind of Blue album is considered the greatest jazz album of all time. When he made Bitches Brew they attacked him. They said he destroyed jazz. They said Coltrane too! “What’s the deal ‘Trane? What’s all this hollerin’ and shoutin’ on the horn bro?” They attacked them, right? But that’s what change does. When it’s time to change sometimes it’s gradual. Sometimes it’s aggressive. Either way, there are those that are innovatives who have to change. So that being said, my lineage and my heritage in terms of how I see things, maaaannnn. The next idea is as exciting as the idea that I’d done before that. I really—over time—honed in, and honed in, and honed it. Like people say, “Maan. “Just a Touch of Love” the vocals crazy. But by the time you got to “Watching You,” and by the time you got to “Snapshot” your style was fully realized.” Yeah, but when I went to Dancing In the Key of Life with “Weak in the Knees” and “Nobody Can Be You,” those were departures from Slave. Then I got off into this dance music thing and I was totally into it. I followed my heart. And since I gave my all to it, I didn’t try to make it be what had already happened.
I think at the end of the day, you take an artist like David Bowie, I was with him when he was talking about a couple of “Kooks.” He was this singer-songwriter from the Hunky Dory album. Then there’s the “Suffragette City.” Then I went with him through “Suffragette City” and The Spiders From Mars and all of that. Then he went into the suit thing and he wanted to be the suave guy with Let’s Dance. I was with all of that. So I enjoyed the artistry he was able to display on all those different fronts. Take Prince. I was down with him when he first hit the scene and Dirty Mind. I get it. I was checking the glam scene with T-Rex or Peter Gabriel. When Prince went and got down, I got it. Then he moves into the Controversy vibe—BAM! I’m with it. I love Prince because he was fearless. I love Bowie because he was fearless. I love Miles and Trane because they’re fearless. Those are the guys that inspire me. I love the Mahavishnu Orchestra because they’re playing that stuff on the same show [laughs] with the guy who made Supafly—the great Curtis Mayfield. I’ll say this, I told Madlib, “You’re the most fearless dude I heard since Prince.” I love guys that aren’t afraid to allow their work to grow and develop. And not mind when you step into the new place you might not have it all together right when you go there. But you go anyway and you make that thing work. Those artists tell you what’s going on with them personally, what’s going on socially, and what’s going on in their hearts. I just want to be on that team, bro. I just want to be on that team.
While in this success, you choose to tap into your religious roots, again. You decide to take a step away from music completely. Can you tell me about where you were at this time in your life and why you went there?
Steve Arrington:My pursuit for the things of God has been a lifelong thing. But around the mid-80s it started to seriously be a part of my NOW. It was moving aggressively into my right now moment., and I followed my heart. I’m like, “Yo, my spiritual pursuit has to be front and center.” I just did it. Was it tough? It was tough for people who didn’t understand where I was coming from. You said something very interesting earlier about artists who are able to continuously develop and try new things and go new places. There are plenty of artists who would have liked to do that but they were told they couldn’t. “You’re going to lose your audience.” “You can’t do this.” “Your record sales are going to go down.” “If you mess up, you won’t be able to get back.” There’s fear that becomes a part of the decision making. Now, I’m not saying it isn’t tough to move forward. It is! But what I am saying is, when you make the decision that what your heart and your spirit feels comfortable, and that is the deciding factor, then external things don’t end up choking your inspiration. That was an inspiration thing. I followed my heart because my inspirations were in the pursuit of God. Here’s what’s interesting about that. For 25 years I was completely excited daily about what I was doing. Then one day it was like, “Welp. You have to get back to where you was and start doing what you was doing.” The same people that said I was wild to leave and do this church thing were the same people who said, ”You too old. Ain’t nobody trying to hear that stuff.” I got into this underground stuff and they were laughing. They said, “What you gonna do with that?” I said, “I’m following my heart.” So, Boom! That’s what I did. I love that time where my whole mindset for 25 years was to pursue God. But, maaannnn. He made it clear to me. “It’s a love thing, bro. It’s real simple.” [laughs] It’s a love thing. 25 years is a long time. I didn’t know if anybody was interested. I didn’t know who was who. I’m back on the underground scene because I started listening to this other group of creatives and I knew that’s where I belong. Whenever I follow my heart I go through a [takes deep breath] WOW.
After those 25 years, you do something that people are already saying is by coming back. You drop a funk spiritual album. Then a year later, you get back at it and align with Dâm-Funk. What is it about you that fuels that want to continuously learn, grow, and refuse to settle?
Steve Arrington:It’s not an ego trip for me. Like I said, I want to be on the team. I don’t care who’s batting third. I don’t care who’s batting cleanup. I just want to continue to express my take on the world that I’m seeing outside and the world that’s inside of my heart. I just want to continue to do that. A person who’s been a blessing to watch is Buddy Guy. Buddy Guy is one of the greatest guitarists, bluesmen, frontmen of all time. He is in the same breath as Muddy, and Wolf, and Little Walter, and Coco. He might be on a show. Johnny Lang might be headlining. They might have Kenny Sheppard. It might be Clapton. It might be all these different people. Buddy Guy doesn’t care. Buddy Guy is out here getting it. He has a whole new fan base every 5-6 years because he’s no ego-ing. He just continues to let young people—and these other musicians—understand just how they get to be Buddy Guy one day. He says, “Here’s how you do it.” These guys keep going and going. And there’s a whole round of fans that follow them because their music is so honest. They just getting it in. That doesn’t diminish the headliners. What I’m saying, me seeing him, the music was more important than the hype.
In you mentioning Buddy Guy, my mind immediately goes to the innovators and the people who make these earth-shaking movements and then it is taken from them. Like Little Richard who just passed. I just want to thank you for being the physical embodiment of our creativity and our spirit. Even in G-Funk you can see how far these movements go. That bounce y’all made influenced that generation. Just as an aside, what was the first G-Funk song you heard, and what did you think about it?
Steve Arrington:The first G-Funk song I heard was Eazy, man. I loved that joint. When I heard that I was like, “OH MY GOD!” EAZAY!!! Doo doom. EAZAY!!! Man, I heard that. See, one of my favorite Funk songs of all time is “My Name is Bootsy Baby.” That’s my joint! That’s another one I listened to yesterday. When I heard Eazy [takes deep breath]… Bruh. I’ve gotten cool with Battlecat over the years, and Quik. Battlecat has been more through social media but the respect on both directions is there. That Eazy, bro. I was done for. And Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate” using “Weak In The Knees.” That whole West Coast movement—I was all over that bro!
Here we are now in the present. It’s an incredible time and place. You have a new album coming out. There are so many really cool elements in it. Looking at it and listening to it, people like Knxwledge—who’s also so focused on the music—pop up and you can feel your influence. What are some major themes in this project that you want to resonate with people?
Steve Arrington: It’s honest—number one. Number two, the title Down to the Lowest Terms is a phrase that was important to me in 8th and 9th grade algebra. It was a math term. The thing about it though as it hit me like, instead of saying, “When it’s all said and done,” or “the bottom line.” One day I said as I get older, I’m going to have an album titled Down to the Lowest Terms. I’ve been a part of a lot of great records. Slave, Hall of Fame, my own solo joints but I hadn’t made a record that sounded like “Down to the lowest terms,” how I saw it. So we are going to make this record. I know I want to do something different. I went to Chicago for 9 years. I went with the whole reason of connecting with the Southside where Muddy, Buddy, Wolf, Coco and that electric mud came out from Mississippi. I had my Gospel. I had my Dayton funk. I had the jazz and the rock. I wanted to get my down home together. So I went to Chicago and it ended up being 9 years. I looked at it like people who go off to study animals and stuff like that, they’re always applauded for getting that information for the good of all. I didn’t want to talk about it. I was going. All these people talk about Chicago but I never had no problems because I was doing what I was supposed to do. It was important to me that I connected with that electric mud.
When I started this record, all of sudden that Chicago thing came forth. It wasn’t forced. I just started responding to tracks no different than I had before. It’s that feeling of, “Oh man. I’m on this thing.” There were some other kind of vibes coming out. There was also some more earthiness. That’s when I knew it was Down to the Lowest Terms. All of a sudden, I’m here. Something I held back for many years because it sounded like it. But The Soul Sessions felt like it. I felt the soulful thing and I don’t mean a style. I’m talking about unleashing new chambers of what I am musically because I followed my heart, again. This record reflects honesty and my journey to open up more of what I do.
During the creation of this project, what are some highlights for you? They don’t even have to be musical. There is so much more to building albums and projects than making music.
Steve Arrington: One is my best friend that I had coming up passed away when I was making this record. His name was Alan Bridges. I had seen him but he’d been sick for some time. Him passing away while I was making this hit me hard. But at the same time, I made music he would have loved. He knew and understood what I felt back in the day. We went and saw Black Sabbath. We went and saw Fanny. We went and did it. We grew apart in some ways. I went on with Slave and my life was different. He went to D.C. That was important to me in this project that I knew I was doing something that he would have said, “man. I mess with you. You 60-something and you still gonna try some new stuff.” He would have dug that. The other thing was all of the different producers. The connection with Knxwledge was so exciting. You talked about his love for making beats. There was magic in these sessions. Nothing was forced or competitive. It was magical. It was one of those secession that I would say was magic from beginning to end. I loved every minute of it. I enjoyed the diversity but it still sounds cohesive. The different personalities like Brian Ellis. They encouraged me to play drums. I was like, “I haven’t really been playing drums.” And they was like, “C’mon. We want you to play some drums.” So guess what I did, I started messing around with a Chicago shuffle. Next thing I know, on “Love Knows,” which isn’t the safest drum song to rock, it all came back to me. Whenever I hear that, I know that I hadn’t been playing but here I am. That was important. And the other was coming out of the booth and hearing the songs come together. In hearing the stuff work and the different ways I was able to find the place on tracks. Some of the songs came together there. Everything flowed out of me. It sounds and feels like Down to the Lowest Terms: The Soul Sessions.
To speak to the album itself, by starting with “The Joys of Love,” I knew you were bringing it back to where it all started and the love you have with this. It felt like you were speaking to your first crush. That resonated with me. I hope that resonates with other listeners.
Steve Arrington: Wow. Yeah that’s because that phrase has stuck with me for years, and years, and years, and years. Like for instance, you take a song like “My Favorite Swing,” I’m going into myself. I’m having so much fun and enjoying it because I’m open to do it. There aren’t all these checks to ward this off and ward that off. It was just going in. The way you said it, that means everything to me. That’s what I want this to be. Take a journey and you’ll know something about me before it’s all over. It’s that real for me.
My final question comes from a recent press release. It’s not so often I always read through but the one I saw for this album you mention, “I stay focused and put in the work for dreams to come true.” A very pointed and poignant statement. In trying to pull out some of the energy in what you mean, my question is: Have your dreams come true? Why and how?
Steve Arrington: So many of my dreams continue to come true, so I keep dreaming—as the song says. There are new frontiers yet to come true. But they have. And why, first of all, my love for God, but deeper than that, his love for all of us comes in the things he gives us to face another day. I call it heavy appreciation mode. Part of my focus is to recognize that what you said in the power of love, it’s greater than anything. Dreams connect to love. Dreams that are a cool idea is one thing. Dreams that are connected to love and fueled by love is a whole ‘nother kind of energy. To wrap this into music, I listen and try to absorb everything. Right now I’m some Blackpink. That’s who I’m messing with. Then I went through a phase that was all things Twinkie Clarke. Then I went through a phase that was all things Thelonious. Or I went into a phase that was all Beach Boys and AM music. I call myself a music adventurist. I love it so much. And that’s part of what I mean when I say, “I stay focused.” I met Darius Rucker the other day. That was so dope. I told him I dig his diversity. I mess with Hank Williams Sr. Part of that focus is study. I study music from different points of study. More than that, I enjoy modern culture. It’s not perfect. No culture is. The “good ole days”, I don’t deal with the “good ole days”. I deal with the right now. All of those things, put them in a nice stew with other things that God just gives you that you didn’t see coming, and I believe those dreams will come true.