December 2, 2023

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Charles Stepney: Step on Step Album Review

A legendary R&B producer and arranger that sample-flipping rap producers turned into a hip-hop touchstone, Charles Stepney also made prismatic one-man-band demos in his Chicago South Side basement, working up songs for Earth, Wind & Fire, Rotary Connection, and other collaborators during a dazzlingly fruitful decade before a heart attack killed him in 1976 at age 45. “Charles was such a gorgeous musician,” Richard Rudolph, lyricist for Rotary Connection, told Wax Poetics in 2007. “He’d play all these beautiful things, and give me the tapes with the melodies on them, and I’d ride around and—God, it was fantastic—try to write to them.”

It’s sweet to imagine that scenario while listening to Step on Step, a compilation of previously unreleased Stepney demos uncovered by his daughters Eibur, Charlene, and Chanté. The album is part of a multimedia project to commemorate the work of their dad, a crate-diggers’ hero whose widescreen imagination helped define Chicago soul, in turn birthing a generation of Windy City rap innovators—Common, Kanye, Lupe, Chance, Noname, Jamila Woods—many of whom would sample his work, re-enacting Rudolph’s experience. (It wasn’t just a local phenomena; when his daughter, comedian Maya Rudolph, first met Q-Tip—who famously incorporated Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum”—she told him, “Your band put me through college.”)

Step on Step, though, shows an unfamiliar side of Stepney, whose signature maximalism incorporated call-and-response choral arrangements, jazzy brass pageantry, and swirling storm clouds of strings, often drawing on the talent of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Witness the majesty of “Les Fleurs,” a solo signature of Rotary Connection’s Minnie Riperton, Maya’s mom and Rudolph’s wife—an oft-sampled gem that underscored the credits of Jordan Peele’s Us and, more recently, capped the controversial “Big Payback” episode of Atlanta. Stepney came up as a jazz pianist and vibraphonist, recording with Chicago saxophonist Eddie Harris in the early ’60s, and those instruments dominate these demos alongside a new acquisition: an early Moog synthesizer, which by all indications Stepney quickly mastered. “Gimme Some Sugar,” “Daddy’s Diddies,” and “Gotta Dig It to Dig It” are effervescent synth-funk workouts in the vein of Stevie Wonder’s contemporaneous Talking Book and Innervisions; “Daddy’s Diddies” also features Stepney’s delightful, multi-tracked scat-singing, the set’s only vocal performance: a South Side echo of the joyous vocal play of Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’ “Cravo E Canela” from Clube Da Esquina, another early-’70s touchstone.

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