Steve Arrington clearly seems to enjoy this stage in his life.
Now 64, the Midwestern funk legend who led Slave to Billboard to chart success and RIAA Gold certification for the 1980s Stone jam is experiencing an unexpected renaissance, revered and sought after by a new generation of music fans including Flying Lotus and Thundercat. This month, he returns with his first solo album in over a decade. And while its title, To the lowest terms: soul sessions, may suggest a particular genre of R&B, Arrington insists otherwise.
“It’s deeper than that,” he says of the Stones Throw Records feature film, which finds him working with producers including his teammates DJ Harrison, Knxwledge and Mndsgn. “The soul part of this is my heart and that I’m willing to open up completely on every song.”
This isn’t your first time posting something through Stones Throw. What did you like the most about your collaboration with producer DâM-Funk on the 2013 collaboration Higher project?
It was the first time a producer had sent me songs and then I just wrote and sang on it in the lab. I sent the leads back and he sent another batch. That’s how we made this record. I’m in Ohio, Dayton. What was so interesting about it was that I enjoyed the way it came out. It seemed consistent. I wasn’t sure exactly how this energy would gel, as I was always in the studio with anyone who had been involved – production, musicians, arrangers, whatever. We had always done it together. I really enjoyed it. It was unique and different and I had a lot of fun doing it and felt it worked. I felt he was doing what I hoped he would do and felt like a real record. Of course, [label owner] Peanut Butter Wolf [was] supervise everything. Everyone was excited about it, about the way it was going. It started off as just a 12 inch. The first song we made that I sent them, they was like, oh my god it works.
Could you explain a bit how the idea of To the lowest terms has been conceived?
When I was in seventh, eighth grade, algebra, this whole thing, it was down to the lowest terms. Mathematics, right? It struck me. I don’t know why, but for some reason this line became a line that I could fit a lot into, in terms of views on a lot of different things. Hey, well, when you break it down to the lowest terms, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I ended up with a phrase that really matched a lot of different things that I was thinking about to get to the bottom of it. Instead of saying, get to the bottom of it, I say it getting to the bottom end of this thing, man, scoop blahzay. So I said I’m gonna do an album called To the lowest terms One day. But as my career unfolded, through Slave and Steve Arrington’s Hall Of Fame band, until 2013 when I did Higher throwing stones. It never hit me like it had to be the title. I never used it because I knew it had to be a special time when my music was going low. I added Soul sessions, which means I gave it my all on every song.
How did you approach Peanut Butter Wolf to work together on this project?
Well I told him I wanted to do something different. I knew I didn’t want to make an album that sounded like Higher, a record that had a funk retro feel to it. I went to Chicago for nine years just to absorb the energy of the Southside. I loved the muddy waters. I loved Howlin ‘Wolf, Koko Taylor, Little Walter and Hound Dog Taylor. I had my group from Chicago. I was actually born at the Great Lakes Naval Base, but I came to Dayton when I was so young. I didn’t remember it at all. Long story short, I went there to soak up this electric slime. I was there for nine years and every week that I wasn’t on the road playing shows I was in Chicago, unless it was a storm or something. crazy does happen over time. When I started writing songs and doing this stuff. I noticed that there were things that came out of me vocally in the style, in the attitude, that made me realize, yeah man, you absorbed some of this chicago. That electric slime is coming out of your voice and all that.
When I told Peanut Butter Wolf about it all, he was like, Oh my God. He knows it went to Chicago, so it was just a natural understanding. It all made sense to everyone involved. The sessions were magical, several different producers, but each one, everything was just magical. The sessions were all very exciting and creative, in the exchange between the artist, myself and the producers. In my opinion, you can hear that there was a great atmosphere and that we were having fun together. I can feel it on this record.
Looking back, especially after doing this album with young producers, are you able to appreciate or understand how your music has impacted generations of artists?
Well, they tell me, and I appreciate it. But I don’t really think like that. I had been retired for 25 years and entered the ministry. I kind of kept my ear to the music, but I didn’t keep my ear to the music to hear the real deep impact. I mean, I heard what Keith Sweat was doing in his music. I heard things where they absorbed Slave, and I was able to hear people vocally that I felt who were perhaps influenced by what I was doing. But because I was out of it for 25 years, I never really knew the impact that it had on the generations to come, behind Keith Sweat and people like that, or the people who were in the hip-hop.
I met Q-Tip for the first time, and it was a great experience for him to let me know how he felt the impact of what I did. I kind of listened and enjoyed it. I always do, but I never sit on it like that, because I’m kind of out of that thing or that vibe, that Miles or Trane. I always look to the next place. But to hear DJ Quik and these guys tell me, yo man you’ve been a big influence on us, it was a blessing for me. Again, I was not at the scene and did not see it actually happen. I watched him from afar. So being with all these people now has been a wonderful thing for me. It makes me smile to know that my work has lasted through the years.
One of those people who has been clearly influenced and inspired by you is Thundercat, you are featured on his latest album. It’s like that, in particular on the single “Black Qualls”. What was it like working with him?
I liked it. One of the people I really met early on was Flying Lotus, especially the Cosmogram album. He was so relentless to go his own way. So I heard this bass play. [imitates bass line] I’m like, damn, who is this bass player? It sounds like a liquid. I grew up listening to fusion music, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Alphonso Johnson, cats like that. I used to hear a lot of fluid bass. But when I heard Thundercat I thought to myself, this guy has his own voice on the instrument. In fact, we had met once and I didn’t know who he was at the time. It was around ’09, ’10, maybe ’11. DJ Quik took me out to make an appearance with him and back to the side of the stage, sitting on some event, was Thundercat. And I remember he said, it sounds like the record.
I started to immerse myself in his own outings and I was telling everyone, like, listen, this guy is bad. He hits me and says, man, i would like to do something. And I’m like, man, first of all let me tell you, bro. It’s crazy what you did on Cosmogramma, mate. We logged in right away where he sent the joint and I sent back a demo. So we did the thing and then the next thing I know we’re on Jimmy kimmel “Black Qualls” rocker.