Steve Arrington has attainted a position of righteous funk royalty. Having risen to prominence with the band Slave in the late-’70s, he then flew the roost to form the humbly-monikered Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame before storming through the ’80s as a solo funkateer. Along the way, Arrington’s swaggerific grooves have also been repurposed and looped up to bed tracks by rap chaps like Jay Z, N.W.A. and A Tribe Called Quest.
Ahead of a solo show at Le Poisson Rouge this Tuesday, we spoke to Arrington about the parallels between funk and rap, engaging in musical conversations with Q-Tip, and his links with New York City’s nascent hip-hop movement.
Is it true you once had Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five open for you at a show?
Yes, I was there to watch hip-hop’s first tour. It was Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang and that whole scene. I was there watching the whole thing develop — it was awesome. Also, some time down the line when Eric B and Rakim really hit the scene, Eric B opened up for me once.
Were you a fan of hip-hop as soon as you heard it?
Absolutely. It was something fresh and new and I’m always interested in that. I dug it from the start.
Did you pick up on any parallels between what the hip-hop artists were doing and people in the funk scene?
Yes, because early hip-hop was very sample-based and when I heard Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” to hear that sample of Chic’s “Good Times” — I was very much convinced about the music and I could dig how they flipped it. And it was the same with other songs, like how they sampled funk music and spoke to it in a different way. I could hear funk’s influence on it.
What was cool about it was it kept funk music alive — in a lot of ways hip-hop used that music from a certain time and a lot of people maybe didn’t hear the original tracks but when they started to dig hip-hop they would find where the samples came from. So, yeah, I could see a parallel between hip-hop and funk — I call them sampling cousins.
Can you remember the first time you heard a hip-hop artist sample some of your music?
I think the first one I noticed was Brand Nubian’s “Nobody Can Be You” sample [on “Grand Puba, Positive and L.G.”]. That one really stuck out for me and I really dug how they flipped it and sort of cut the bassline and kept playing a part of the bassline.
Was it strange to hear how another artist reinterpreted your music?
Yeah, what was interesting to me about hip-hop was how they would take a part of the beat and say, “You know what? That part of the beat right there is dope and we’re gonna loop that and just keep running that part.” There’s some hip-hop songs like [Jermaine Dupri’s] “Money Ain’t A Thang” where they just sampled the whole eight-bar section of a track [“Weak At The Knees”]. But some of the other ones they’d take the specifics of a track, like taking one small part and creating a new song off of it. I thought it was creative and unique and I enjoyed it a lot. I really enjoyed Public Enemy and Hank Shocklee and how he brought so many samples together and made this big sound and it just seemed like a tornado or a hurricane coming at you. It all made sense and it was all very musical.
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Have you had many conversations with hip-hop artists who’ve sampled you?
Yes, I’ve talked to Q-Tip about how he used “Beddie-Biey” in “The Chase Pt. II.” We discussed it and he told me his feelings about it and what he dug about my music. I’ve talked to DJ Quik about it as well and how he felt the importance of the song “Weak At The Knees” had on west coast hip-hop, especially like with N.W.A. using it for “Gangsta Gangsta” and also Ice Cube used it as well [on “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate”]. It’s been interesting to discuss these things with different artists and hear them talk about it. I enjoy these artists myself too — I’m certainly a Tribe fan and an N.W.A. and Ice Cube fan and I got acquainted with DJ Quik’s production as well. It was great to talk to these guys.
Bringing things up to date, you also have a new album coming out, right?
It’s a retrospective called Way Out (80-84). It has eight unreleased joints that will be on the project along with all the hits from that time that have been remastered. I’m really excited about the unreleased tracks though — like for five of them I went back in and added vocals to them and did some rearranging to turn them into slightly different songs.
How did it feel revisiting your unreleased songs?
I’ll tell you what, the first song that was pulled up off the reels was “Way Out” and that was the first song I did as a solo artist after leaving Slave. After hearing some of the earlier takes of “Way Out” and just to hear the bass and the drums locking — ah, man, it just took me back! Then to hear alternate vocal takes on “Weak At The Knees” and how the endings of a song like “Last Nite/Nite Before” actually went into a whole jazz thing — to hear all that again was just special.
Why weren’t these songs released at the time?
Well you couldn’t have everything on an album back then and you were dealing with vinyl so you could only get so many songs on vinyl before you started to lose the bass response. Also there are some things there that were more diverse than the hardcore funk that I was known for. At the time some of the joints were considered too avant-garde or off the beaten path so the chance for people to hear them now is exciting for me.