"I was on drums with a top 40 band sometimes around LA, and that honed my skills. That was actually my first session and it allowed me to work with different musicians who were well versed in their craft," he explains. That experience led him to perform for a long time on his own with a decks, keytar and synth, but over the last few months he's been touring with a drummer and a keyboardist, with hometown gigs giving him the opportunity to flesh out the shows and become even more ambitious.
That mentality has typified his recorded work as well, with his debut album for Stones Throw, Toeachizown, packing in so much material that it had to be spread over five different slabs of wax. Its loose drum machine grooves, colourful synth work and analogue production sounded entirely fresh upon its release last year, but as RA's Richard Carnes found out during a recent chat, he's not one to rest on his laurels while the rest of the world catches up.
I always had two turntables and a mixer, but I didn't start professionally DJing until the early '00s. It was just on a whim. It wasn't even like I thought, "I'm gonna wake up today and become a DJ!" It was more that I was invited to a spot to DJ because the dude—my friend Billy Goods—saw what I was buying at the record store, so he had a club. He was like, "Man! You like that kinda stuff? Ah man, I'd love to hear more of that. You got more of it?" "Oh yeah, I collect this stuff!" So he invited me down to the club and that's when I started spinning professionally.
You're now playing every Monday in LA, right? What's the vibe like at your Funkmosphere parties?
Funkmosphere is a club I've been doing for four years in a place called Carbon, and what we do is cater to, or provide rather, the sounds of people who grew up on funk or are interested in funk—even if they didn't grow up in it.
It's like a soap opera. Each week we have nothing but wax. Three years ago we were playing a lot of Prelude stuff, but now we're onto like the private press or hard-to-find stuff. We don't backtrack and like play "You're the One for Me" by D'Train anymore. It's like we just keep going and the people who missed the soap opera, they've just gotta catch up, you know what I mean? And that's what it is, because we don't want to disservice the people who have been to the club all along.
So you're playing to please the heads?
Yeah, exactly. We never want to change that aspect. Everyone's welcome though.
Are you not running out of obscurities from that whole electronic funk side of things yet?
No, there are so many records that I haven't even played yet that I've collected over the years, and also things that I've just recently found in Scandinavia. You know, just stuff laying around that people are totally ignoring. But, I will say, now that the climate is changing…
Two years ago, people used to laugh at the term "boogie" but now it's like everybody's trying to pick it up now. France, you know and all these other places, trying to change their style to become "boogie funk" all of a sudden. I'm watching, and I'm definitely aware of what's going on. My friend Computer Jay reminded me that I shouldn't take it as somebody biting; just take it as a subconscious nod, I guess. And my wish was always for people to be more into this music so I can't complain when I hear similar artists or certain artists change their sound all of a sudden to have basslines and synthesizer chords and pads, and certain gear. It's definitely a nod I appreciate. I just wish people in the future, when the story is told, will acknowledge who kicked this off. I just hope people didn't forget who did it.
instruments more than records."
You've been producing your own material for over 20 years, but it wasn't until about 2007 that anything actually got out under your own name. Can you explain why it took so long to launch yourself as a solo artist?
It took so long because the climate wasn't right. You look at people like Caron Wheeler of Soul II Soul, she came out with that whole style that Erykah Badu was doing, but no one paid attention. The album went under the radar, then Erykah Badu came out... Boom! It was just timing, and I always knew about timing when I worked in record stores before. I was like, "Man I'm doing all this kind of stuff, the chords are very beautiful and warm—it's just not time."
You had the influx of a lot of hip-hop, but what I was doing I was sneaking in some of the stuff during the G-funk era. You know, working with some of these cats at Priority Records like Cube and Mack 10—those kind of guys who were popular in the West Coast rap scene. So what I was doing was just doing session work and recording, and working odd jobs and things like that just to pay the bills. Even when I was working my jobs, I still kept recording, and this is a testament to not giving up your dream.
I never stopped, I always did what I wanted to do, and when the timing was right, me and [Stones Throw label head Peanut Butter] Wolf met. Wolf was the gentleman that actually believed in me and gave me the real support to release that album, and I'm really thankful that he did. But what I was proud to let him see was that the album was a success. I recouped all my money from Toeachizown; it's not in the red—I don't owe Stones Throw one cent! So it proves that the release of this kind of funk has an audience. It's just the right timing, know what I mean?
In your RBMA lecture, you were talking about using things like the LinnDrum and the Oberheim DMX synthesizer. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding it unusual that you had access to that sort of equipment at such an early age.
Yeah, I bought that back in the day—I bought a LinnDrum drum machine for 200 bucks in the newspaper in South Pasadena, man. People didn't want that stuff man, people ignored it—they thought it was stupid. [Those] "Drum machines have no soul" stickers… I'm like, "What are you? You guys just don't even get it."
It's the way you use the instruments that create the music you have in your head. I've always gravitated towards electronic music, drum machines… Even as far as influences like Kraftwerk, electro funk back in the day, Arthur Baker productions, even Jimmy Jam with Terry Lewis—stuff that they did with SOS Band. Drum machines! There's nothing wrong with drum machines, and that's what I was doing back then—collecting them. The Oberheim is something that I use a lot now, and it's just a great way to create music. I've always had these pieces and I still collect them now. Now I'm getting into collecting instruments more than records.
That is pretty much done. He's become a spiritual advisor of mine. He's really a great friend, and we connect a lot on funk and some of his experiences he went through with Slave, and the things he went through in between that time is almost like a kindred situation with what I've been through. It's like we just have the same kinda connection, man!
It's like we talk on the phone for three hours, man. Just about funk, the history of it, telling me stories about the Dayton scene, different group members... I've learned so much, and it's just not about me jumping on his thing and trying to like produce it. It's more like a real friendship. The tracks are definitely modern funk sounding, and the people who are into Slave will hopefully realise that I'm not gonna try and give them something that they won't like. I'm gonna continue what happened, especially with even solo output. I hope people dig it.
Do you see it as a sort of homage to the sound of Slave? Obviously they're a band that you had a lot of respect for, for quite a long time.
Yeah, it's gotta be respected. It's a respectful approach that I've had, but it's not gonna sound like Just a Touch of Love. It's gonna sound like new Steve Arrington funk like he never stopped.
How did you first get in touch with him?
I'd always been looking for him and finally found him on a website where he was a church minister. He had a looped song that he had been doing. I was like "Man! He's trying to do music again! It sounds good!" But there was no contact—there was just a page—so a couple of years went by and I realised he had recorded his own CD again. He'd written, recorded, produced and played everything himself, and I went to buy it and I was just congratulating him for doing his thing, and it was quite good actually.
I e-mailed him while I was on tour late last year. I was in Syria and I realized that for three weeks an e-mail had been sitting there from Steve Arrington. "Hey man, how you doing? I'm aware of your funk, man, just keep up the good work, I'm loving the music." And I was like "Man! What?!" So he got the e-mail, he left his phone number, I called him.
He was just like "Man, brother Dam, brother Dam. Man, keep doing your thing, young blood. Just keep doing your thing." And I said, "Man, that means a lot coming from you." And he said, "Man, I'm aware I've been watching the interviews, I've been watching everything, just keep doing your thing. Man, we really watching you, you know." And so he was telling me that he was so glad that I haven't forgotten about the funk, and that almost brought me to tears, you know what I'm saying? Just to see a real brother, a real known musician, you know, telling me that. A real cat in the game...
And so from that point we just talked about doing some things. I sent him some tracks and I'll never forget the first thing he sent back, called "Magnificent." Me and Wolf went apeshit! Like, "Damn! This is crazy!" Like this vocal tone on top of the track I did... My lady was loving it, she almost came to tears... It was just perfect! So we just kept recording and building up the friendship, and here we are.
Me and Joker have been
doing some stuff together."
Can we talk a little bit about your experiences playing outside of America? It seems like you're getting booked to play alongside more disco-oriented DJs at a lot of your shows.
Oh, it's been great! I've been fortunate enough to have done gigs with similar minds that do enjoy some of the music, but then some gigs I've been booked with people who have not one clue about what I'm doing! I do understand that some of the promoters do this because they want to get more numbers inside the club, but as time goes on I am starting to get on more bills with great DJs who actually collect the stuff I collect, as opposed to being in the room full of wonky dubstep cats.
I just wish that I could start getting more into things that are similar to what I'm trying to do. But I do enjoy dubstep, I respect the genre… I respect what all the artists in that genre have done, and me and Joker have been doing some stuff together. So that's the kind of stuff I really appreciate, when both genres come together, but I hate when I have to go up on certain gigs and all of a sudden the guy before me is like "Wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa," then all of a sudden I have to get the crowd back into basslines and beautiful chords. It's just hard sometimes, but stuff is changing slowly.
Yeah, exactly. Dude! I'll give you an example. The person's gonna go nameless because I'm just a G like that I'm not gonna put him out there, but it's like I did a gig with this cat… and I know the dude! I don't know if it's like friendly competition or what, but it was definitely unnecessary. Even the promoter noticed, like "My god! What's up with that?" The dude, I went on after him, and he did his set, real wild and wonky, but all of a sudden he just stops the music and it was just dead air, you know? And he was just like "go on." I have to transition, plug in stuff and I'm like, "Dude, you fucking idiot! Why would you do that?"
That's the thing that I noticed, that some people don't care. I don't know if it's the youth, I don't know if it's them not having enough consideration that I try to share with other DJs… Where I come from, you treat the next DJ with respect! You don't start plugging up shit fifteen minutes before your set. Chill! Be courteous, and get your shit ready five minutes before. At least say, "I'm coming up," shake their hand. Just don't start popping up to the tables and doing all that…
So that's the kind of stuff that I've experienced but now, like I said, as we roll through, things are changing. I went to Australia: nothing but class! The DJs before me that were booked—it was great. They were playing great music, they weren't trying to throw me for a loop by torturing me with A Tribe Called Quest tracks and all kinds of stuff before I get up in the booth. It was wonderful, and that's what I look forward to as we keep hitting the roll with some of this modern funk.
Funk is not a fad—it's a way of life. That's all I want people to know. I don't do fad music. My stuff is never gonna be a fad; no matter what somebody tries to do, no matter what these smart asses on these blogs try to say... I am not a flash in a pan. I am a legitimate artist who has been honing my craft over 20 years. I'm not competing with anybody out there right now. I'm a humble person, but I still stick up for myself. Anybody who's talking shit... I'm telling you man, I'm not a fake. I'm a real artist and I'm not just somebody messing around touching buttons and making a two minute beat and calling themselves geniuses. That's not me. I give my life on stage. It's beyond DJing. It's just about art, and I'm an artist.