Steve Arrington is a living legend.
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Even if you haven’t heard of him, you’ve probably heard him. A wildly talented vocalist, songwriter and drummer, Arrington kicked off his music career by joining the funk band Slave in 1978. In 1982, he left that outfit and went solo, releasing a string of brilliant soul and R&B records throughout the ‘80s. Those records went on to be sampled by some of the biggest names in hip-hop, including Jay-Z, A Tribe Called Quest, 2Pac, Pharrell, Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J, Mariah Carey, N.W.A., and more (hence why you’ve probably heard him even if you haven’t heard of him).
In the 2010s, Arrington’s career had a renaissance of sorts. Releasing three studio albums and collaborating with the likes of Childish Gambino, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Shibo, Jerry Paper and more, Arrington has proven himself to be an utter master of staying fresh and original. Now, on September 18, Arrington arguably released (via Stones Throw Records) his most exciting record to date: Down to the Lowest Terms: The Soul Sessions.
Although it was written and recorded over the past two years, Arrington initially envisioned the record decades ago when he was still in high school. Now, with the help of a younger generation of musicians and his decades of experience in sharpening his skills, Arrington has finally crafted a record which he felt deserved the title he thought of all those years ago.
And it’s true — the record is an opus, of sorts. Between smooth, grooving songs like “The Joys of Love,” funky and impactful songs like “Make A Difference,” and driving, bombastic songs like “Love Is Gone,” the record shows off Arrington’s dynamic songwriting prowess and infectious emotional delivery. Last week, American Songwriter caught up with Arrington to discuss this new record, how he made it and how it ties into his wider, life-long musical philosophy.
The press release for this record says that the process officially started two years ago, but you thought of the album name Down to the Lowest Terms “decades ago” — to you, how long does it feel that this album has been in the making?
Well, since I was in my early 20s. During math class in 8th grade or 9th grade, the phrase “down to the lowest terms” was part of the vernacular for algebra — it just hit me. It was a phrase like “bottom line” or “when it comes to the real” — those phrases you can say when you break something all the way down. But, I hadn’t heard anything that was more profound than “down to the lowest terms.” When you get down to the lowest terms, to me, you’re breaking it down to the best way you can possibly say it. I don’t know why that stuck with me when I was in 8th or 9th grade, but it did and I thought, “One day, I’m gonna have an album called Down to the Lowest Terms.”
I was so into this title that the music had to sound like something that deserved it. I mean, I’ve been blessed to be a part of some really great records — that being said, none of them ever felt like they fit that title, so I wasn’t going to use the title. It sounded too interesting. To say “Steve Harrington’s Down to the Lowest Terms” would make people say,
“Hmm, I like that title.” I had to make some music that made me feel like I’d broken it down to the lowest terms. As I began to make this record, there were parts of me — I call them chambers — that were a little more raw, a little bit bluesier, more soulful. They were starting to come forth along with what I’ve been known for in the past. The choice directions of the tracks were unique in a way that I was doing something that was fresh, for me. Then all of a sudden I realized, “Here it is. This is it.
Now, I was in my 50s at this time. I’m in my late 50s, moving into my 60s and I was into this in my 20s, but it took all the way until now. But I held onto that title. I added “the Soul Sessions” to it because there was this soulfulness and other vibe that I had going that opened up a door to say, “That’s it right there.” So this record, you could say it’s been in the workings for many years.
In that regard, do you feel a certain sense of resolution now that it’s finally coming out? Is it like a weight’s been lifted off your shoulders?
Absolutely. I’m excited about this record because I never let that title go and I never attached it to something I didn’t feel was worthy of it. For me, this is a major thing because it shows how serious I was about it many years ago and how I didn’t carry that through the years thinking, “When am I going to make an album? Blah blah blah.” Every once in a while I would, but I knew when I hit this stride here with this record. This was a magical album in the sense that from start to finish, it was magical every step of the way. So, all of a sudden it hit that this is it. There is a place in which that statement has been made and I’m excited about it. It just goes to show you that something that’s deep in your heart or deep in your spirit comes forward when it’s supposed to, and it remains important. It remained important to me to be able to say this right now, knowing what I thought about it many years ago.
So, what did the writing process itself look like for this record?
Like I said, this record was just magic. I worked with many different producers — that’s another thing about this record. There are several producers on it, but the way it all came together, there’s a cohesiveness that I feel. Some of — well, actually all of — these tracks were done right there in the studio. Let’s take, for instance, “The Joys of Love.” That whole thing, music and everything, was done in the studio all together. Same thing with “Love Knows,” which is also the first song that I had played drums on in years. I had played drums on Slave’s music, but on my own “Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame” music and “Steve Arrington” stuff, I used other drummers who I really really respected. So, that’s another thing that happened on this record: this is the first record that I played drums on that’s my own album.
That being said, those magical moments are throughout it all. To write and hear that stuff… I mean, it was just coming to me like, “Boom! Boom! Boom!” It was so exciting for me because I didn’t labor over any of it. I can’t explain why not or what that’s about other than that it was just a magical feel in that studio every day that I was in there.
The emotional intensity of this record is palpable. It seems like you’re the type of artist whose soul is intertwined with their output — would you say that’s true?
Absolutely. People that I love — I’ll take John Coltrane, for instance — tap into that. When I hear John Coltrane’s horn, I hear him completely give his heart and soul. I hear his spirit in his playing. Same thing with someone like Carlos Sanatana: you hear the tone and the technique, but you hear him. You hear an identity. With that identity, there’s this emotional outburst that I hear. That moves me. For me, as a singer and a writer, it’s important that that comes forth, not in the way of those great men that I just mentioned, but in the way that it comes forth through me. So, my life and perspective of life is very much intertwined with my music and my vocal delivery. I just don’t hold back when it comes to being emotional on the track and that emotion can take various forms. When I’m doing my thing, I’m just giving it up, as they say.
Are you ever surprised by what comes out? As in, do you think that you not only express yourself by giving those impassioned performances, but you also learn about yourself?
Yes. Especially now that I’m older, I can appreciate the nuances in things that have been added to what I do. It might just be a turn in a phrase, or it might be a small adlib in between phrases. I can hear that, yes, I’m singing something, but at the same time, I’m feeling something. At the end of the day, all we do as artists is reflect through our art, one way or another. Reflect what we sense, what we feel and what we experience on this journey called life. I believe that. I believe that the more that I’m in tune with where I am in the journey, the more my music can be honed-in as well. That’s kind of how I see that. Of course, that’s a wide spectrum of thought too. It’s hard to put it in such a small and neat package, but if I could, that’s the way I’d look at it.
Something that’s amazing about your career is the mutual embrace between you and younger generations of artists, like Thundercat or Flying Lotus. How does it feel to be celebrated by those artists? How have they influenced you?
Well, I’ll talk about an artist: Thundercat. Great bassist, songwriter and artist himself. He’s someone that I came to know around 2009 or 2010, around the time that I became familiar with Flying Lotus’ music. I remember the Flying Lotus album particularly, Cosmogramma. I really started to listen to that record and I thought “This is a very unique artist,” talking about Flying Lotus. And then, I heard the bass player — Thundercat — and I was like, “Woah this dude’s playing sounds like liquid.” He has such a fluid approach that it’s almost like it’s effortless. And I was like, “I really dig this guy.” Well, fast forward years later to 2019 — he asked “Would you be interested in doing a track?” and I was like, “Absolutely, man, I’ve been vibing on you since ‘09!” We talked and then we did a song, “Black Walls.” It’s great.
So, we tracked that song and then I found that Flying Lotus was part of the production. At that point, we were rehearsing because we were gonna do this thing with Jimmy Kimmel live in March. I had been thinking about how much I was telling everyone about this bass player and then I listened to his solo music and the next thing I know we’re on Kimmel together! They were all telling me how much they appreciate what I’ve done through the years and I was telling them “I’ve been talking about you guys since ‘09 to anybody within earshot!”
Different guys who are on the production side on my new album — like Mind Design, Devin Morrison and Jerry Paper — cats like that, I’ve been like, “I’ve been digging y’all’s work!” That’s sort of how it developed. Then new guys like Shibo… well, I hadn’t heard his music. He had heard my music, but as soon as I heard his, I was like, “Ah man, I get it!” So, I try to keep an ear open to anything. I love music, period. So, I’m always excited to work with new people and I’m always excited to when young people say, “Hey, we really dig what you’re doing” and I’m excited to tell them, “Hey, I dig what you do too” and “What you have done has touched me in a wonderful way and I’m excited to work with you, as you might be with me.”
Would you say that that open-mindedness is a key to how you’ve managed to stay so fresh over the years?
Well, I’ve always sort of been this way. I’ll use Miles Davis as an example. You know, Miles Davis wasn’t afraid to grow, develop, continue to move forward and take on music that was a part of his current life. He did Kind of Blue, an album considered to be a super-jazz classic, but he also did something that had nothing to do with Kind of Blue, and that was Bitches Brew. Both of those records were totally different from the other music he was doing with Charlie Parker and on his other records. My perspective comes from being an R&B, soul, pop guy, but I think like a jazz musician.
Now, you mentioned Flying Lotus — we interviewed him a few months ago and he shared some valuable insight from his grandmother on what sampling is like from the point-of-view of the artist being sampled. Many artists have sampled you — what did you think of that when it first started happening?
Well, I thought it was very cool. In the beginning, the art was ahead of the business in terms of being able to accommodate people for the samples. Now, we know there are these bigger records, I’ll take for instance “Money Ain’t a Thing” which was Jermaine Dupri and Jay-Z sampling “Weak at the Knees.” So, it was exciting to see how other artists took that music and put their own take on it. I’ve always loved sampling, but to actually be getting paid and then to have younger generations — and I know a lot of these guys especially from the underground scene — they gotta know where that sample came from. “What’s that Madlib sample?” or “What’s that Mind Design sample?” Where did they get that? Where did Lotus and his guys get that? It introduces a new generation to music that had come before them. That being said, it’s exciting all the way around for me. It also gives you a different take on what you’ve done and their view of it. You’re like, “Okay, I may open up on a similar vibe in a totally different way now based off of how they responded to some music I had done earlier.” Those things are internalized. A lot of that isn’t so thought out. You just absorb things and one day it just shows up.
So, you started working on this record years ago, but now it’s coming out in the midst of a very tumultuous year — has the meaning of these songs changed for you?
I think music is always a reflection of consciousness and the social environment that we’re in. I look at the music of the ‘60s and the role that it played in America and the world — we were going through some shifting, serious shifting. I feel like what I’ve done sits well at this time because I’m active, I’m inside the moment. I’m allowing these times to be a part of me. I’m now speaking to it, because that’s what music does. It speaks to the times. I just want to be on the team bringing healing and some rest, maybe even just an exhale. You know, just a place of peace and also just some excitement, thought and fun. I think music can be all of those things at the same time.
I just think everything is honest. Everything is honest and real and if people feel like, “Wow, this really speaks to this time for me” then that’s a wonderful thing. I don’t make music to say, “Oh okay, we’re in this sort of vibe, let me look at it this way.” I make music where I respond to the culture in an honest way, meaning I just look at it. This thing that we’re in now in 2020, a lot of it didn’t start in 2020. A lot of it has hit the fan in 2020 — obviously, the pandemic and racial tension — but a lot of this stuff had been going in prior to now. For me, all I want to do is just be able to speak, just be able to give my take on what I see, what I feel and what comes out of me. I can’t take it any further than that because if I do, now I’m intellectualizing it and it becomes formulaic for me. I don’t know about anybody else, but for me, I absorb and then I just do what comes out. I don’t absorb and then put a bracket on it, I just absorb. And so if this came in 2019 and it sits well in 2020, then I feel I’ve been honest enough about what I saw and what came out of me was honest. I can’t take it any further than that.
Listen to “Make A Difference” by Steve Arrington below: