Featuring Steve Arrington
Funk used to be a baad word. Then came hip hop. At first an adoring & loyal offspring, hip hop began by faithfully honouring the funk, borrowing its riffs, licks and loops. Funk bands and rap groups, both immersed in street culture, existed together in harmony. That is, until sales of cassettes began to pivot away from the multi-instrument Kool & The Gang’s & Cameo’s of this planet towards cheaply produced rap start-ups such as Run DMC and NWA. When their profits soared, record company suits handed out gold records like they were gold teeth. With no real alternative the kids - from the ‘burbs to the ‘urbs – we’re hooked.
“Lotta kids I grew up with in Pasadena just wanted to walk back and forth onstage with a mic in their hand.” Remembers Dám Funk (pronounced Dám, as in game) from his digs in Ladera Heights, Los Angeles, “but me, I was always into the music. I may have played in a jazz band but, humbly speaking, I managed to hang in there as one of the cool keeeds. Back then you were ridiculed if you walked down the street holding a Keytar. But you had to stick to your guns.”
As hip hop’s dominance grew in the nineties, the Los Angeles G-Funk scene spearheaded by Dr. Dre, DJ Quik & Snoop Dogg gave credit where it was really due, right into the empty pockets of funk session players. Fresh outta the school of Solar Records, playing studio gigs arranged by Leon Sylvers III (of The Sylvers & Dynasty fame), Damon Riddick (see get it now, Dám not Damn) got the call from Dre’s Westside Connection and wound up working on some things for MC Eiht & Mack 10.
However, these rap sessions were disappointingly few and far between for the fonk guys, who should have been headlining stages, like their white-skinned-rock-band peers.
“I’m definitely a musician first, DJ’ing came second.” States Dám, who prolifically recorded solo funk material throughout the decade despite not having a deal (a selection of which would later be released on the Stones Throw vault-compilation Adolescent Funk). But as the 21st Century approached, it was as a DJ - dedicated to funk, boogie & G-funk - that Dám began to earn world renown. Contacted by UK based, digital-radio game changer Soul 24/7 (the station that initially broke an independent Ledisi in the UK) Dám provided a few musical ads and drops, and would often be found breaking down the ethos of funk via the stations forum.
“Those were good day’s man,” recalls Dám. “I’ll say this, I was turned on to a lot of things by those cats on the Station forum like DJ’s Andreas Hellingh & Jester Groove; I really owe a lot to the UK/European audience. In the United States, sadly, we’ve neglected some of the great music that we’ve made. When I talk to my mentor Leon Sylvers III he doesn’t realise what he has done to this day. I have to remind him ‘Leon, maannn, that stuff you participated in was incredible!’”
Before the mid noughties, when the station suddenly “could not be found” online due to lack of funding, Dám used to post threads with links to his self-produced funk for the DJ’s/audience to check out.
“I use to just sit at my table; press up the CD’s and cut the covers out, playing tracks for the Soul 24/7 listeners, just to turn people onto the music. It was a labour; I loom back and think sometimes and just pinch myself like ‘damn, I really did that?’ But if I hadn’t I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now.”
And the position, the one Dám Funk now finds himself in, is that of the leading protagonist of Mod-Funk, he’s even got the whip to match - a superfly 70’s style Pontiac Grand Prix parked on his driveway. As a producer/composer/artist Dám Funk has four albums (and a slew of EP’s and remixes) under his belt via Stones Throw Records, the seminal label known for Mad Lib, J.Dilla, Aloe Blacc, Mayer Hawthorne & Georgia Ann Muldrow. Every week his Funkmosphere night spot is rammed, people travelling from N-E-S-W to hear him spin classic boogie, funk and G-Funk. Keeping it true to the funk he regularly calls out the names of his heroes; letting everyone know its Aurra, or Mtume, or Loose Ends playing on the turntable. When he used to shout out ‘Slave!’, just as Watching You was playing, he never imagined one day he’d get to work with his idol; the former drummer & lead singer of Slave - enter Steve Arrington >
“I had retired from secular music for 25 years,” says Steve from his home in Dayton, Ohio “but then – and it had nothing to do with money - I felt an overwhelming feeling like “Yo, man I gotta get back out there and do some more music outside of the church.” So on my website I did this loop called the The Invade Has Arrived (referring to Steve’s nickname ‘The Invade’) I also did a funky gospel record titled Pure Thang, but you could hear I was turning a corner ... that’s when Dám Funk hit me up.”
“I heard the loop and got straight on the phone to (Stones Throw label head) Peanut Butter Wolf and said ‘Man, he is definitely back in action’” adds Dám. “So I Facebooked Steve, but it was a week later when I was on tour in Philly that I checked my messages and I saw he’d responded, so I immediately skedaddled up and hurried on over to phone, and that was it.”
“I’d already been studying different styles of music, asking younger people what they we’re into, because I’ve always been an artist that likes to do something different and challenge myself. But for a long time I felt like I didn’t have anything to say, but then when Dám called I was ready.”
The original plan was to do a 12” together, but Dám & Steve, along with Peanut Better Wolf, loved the results so much that the 12” quickly became an EP, then a mini album, until finally it ended up as full blown long player, entitled Higher.
“I dug where he was coming from.” Muses Steve, “Because first, all he was interested in doing was funk. And that was unique. The kids round here are listening to hip hop and dance, 2 Chainz & Lil’ Wayne but then there’s this guy and he’s like “Man, I really want to do some fonk!”
Says Dám: “The first one we did was Magnificent (featured on Higher) and it floored me. This man, who I had been listening to for years - ever since I used to play hide, go seek in my neighbourhood, riding ‘round listening to Slave on a Walkman - it just felt so spiritual hearing his vocal tone come out of those speakers, on one of my songs. It was a validation I have to admit. It was remarkable to come full circle, with my music being respected by a real cat in the game. Most of all, Steve wasn’t scared to embrace the past (in order) to create something new.”
Arrington threw himself into the creative process – receiving tracks from Dám and penning all the lyrics, arrangements and melodies himself. “I was excited by (the track to) Magnificent and really liked what I was hearing and then it was boom! I got where Dám was coming from. For My Homies - was calling out the people who have made a difference to my life. Good Feeling - was a dream of things I experienced growing up; my Mom’s German Bomb chocolate cake, little league, being part Cherokee, taking my heritage seriously, learning drums and ohh man … the first time I heard Miles Davis Kind Of Blue album/first time falling in love; It’s all in there.”
With the connection made, musically and otherwise, Stones Throw flew Steve out for a get together and to record some more. Recalls Dám: “Peanut Butter Wolf and I picked him up from LAX airport; we all gave each other a hug and a pound. The following day we just showed up at a cool event called The Do Over, where the DJ’s we’re unannounced. The plan was to do a few classics …”
Back to Steve: “They were like ‘listen man people are gonna feel this.’ But it was the first time I’d worked with a DJ, (plus) I hadn’t sung Watching You in years! I said ‘we’re gonna have to listen to the words in the car first.’” Steve needn’t have worried.
Dám: “Everyone at The Do Over knew all the words. Just a Touch of Love then Watching You … every note.”
Steve: “When people started singing, even the backing vocals - I was like wow! That was just such a blessed time, later I got to meet DJ Quik too and get down with him.”
Dám: “It’s always the same cats Charlie Wilson & Ron Isley back and forth all the time – but to see Steve Arrington get that credit; that appreciation … It was a great moment.”
For Steve’s part it feels like the dawning of a new era – the song 1 Question? A standout from Dám Funk’s recent collaboration project with superstar Snoop Dogg (aka Snoopzilla) titled 7 Days Of Funk also features Arrington.
“I still love music and want to make music that touches somebody. When I started singing Just a Touch of Love, even then people we’re like ‘dude, what is that!?’ Then I did Way Out with Steve Arrington’s Hall Of Fame and they we’re like ‘Wait, this doesn’t sound like Slave.’ I would say ‘exactly’. I’ve had a lot of hit records but the main thing is I’ve always followed my heart.’”
Dám Funk’s next move, in late summer, will be the release of his new album Invite The Light, the long awaited (official) solo follow up to his 2009 - five LP debut Toeachizown.
“I wanted to get it out before, but I suffered the same perils and pitfalls that every artist does. And I was like ‘Nah man, I’m gonna navigate this game so smooth and watch out for vampires.’ But sho’ nuff a vampire attached itself to me. But I survived. And there have been creative aspects too. I had to stand my ground, but no man is an island and when you make a record for someone else’s label you do have to respect their vision of what’s going on. Making a 15 minute porno soundtrack is not cool you know? But for awhile I just went middle finger this! But it’s all come full circle, I’ve done the Snoopzilla & Steve Arrington records and now I’m looking forward to hearing the new album on Stones Throw.”
Because of Dám there’s a whole scene of people who are living to funk in the moment, anchoring the music to new experiences. They no longer hear that word and start daydreaming nostalgically. As one half of Damon Riddick’s stage name, Funk is a baad word again.
“Btw, did I tell you I have Junie Morrison (of P-Funk & The Ohio Players) on the first cut? Yep Junie is on a Dam Funk solo album.” Dám adds with pride, before checking himself.
“I hate to speak in the third person, but that’s what it is.” That’s alright sir. You’ve earned it.