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Rahsaan Patterson

R&B Conversations
The Slow Burn of Rahsaan Patterson

By Mark Anthony Neal Music Critic

Talk about Rahsaan Patterson and R&B music here!

"Patterson attacks, zigzags, and swoops around notes in a jazzy, feline tenor,
like some supernatural love child of Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau." —Jason King

"It's been a slow burn" Rahsaan Patterson says of reaction to his latest release, After Hours, "but my career has been a slow burn" he wryly adds. Indeed, his career has been just that. With hit songs written for Brandy ("Baby") and Tevin Campbell ("Back to the World"), Patterson was poised for a major breakout with his eponymous debut in 1997. That debut and his follow-up, Love in Stereo (1999), earned him a loyal following, but he never quite achieved the level of success attained by many of the so-called neo-Soul artists who emerged when he did. By 2001 Patterson—generally regarded by critics of serious contemporary R&B as one of the great talents—was without a label (the result of corporate structuring and artistic differences). Wanting to take "people deeper into Rahsaan Patterson," the artist finally resurfaced late last year with the independently released After Hours. Though an artist of Patterson's caliber would be excused for being bitter about the trajectory of his career, he is surprisingly at peace with what's gone down thus far as we sit down in late June in Greensboro, NC.

Rahsaan Patterson: After Hours

After a three-year absence, Patterson resurfaced with the independently released After Hours.

Patterson is in Greensboro, N.C. during a on a stop on the Find Your Way tour. It is a tribute to Patterson's even personality that he relishes the 30-minutes he has as the opening act for relative newcomers such as American Idol winner Fantasia (who was born a stone's throw from Greensboro) and smooth jazz vocalist Kem—both of whom were nowhere on the scene when Patterson's video for "Stop By" was in regular rotation on BET in the spring of 1997. Patterson notes that he only had 15 minutes when he opened for Chaka Khan a few years ago. Like most artists who struggle outside of the mainstream, Patterson understands how the game works in an era when talent show contestants (no knock on Fantasia or Kelly Clarkson) debut mediocre singles that top the pop charts. "Visibility plays a major factor" Patterson admits, noting also that he's in competition with "artists who are on late night talk shows and have videos on MTV." Where is The Arsenio Hall Show when you need it?

Even if Rahsaan Patterson doesn't take commercial sleights against him personally, he grates against what some would view as a watering down of R&B or contemporary soul music: "There was a time, when I was making my first two albums, where I felt my mission was to [save the music]," he says. But as he expressed in an earlier conversation we had in January of 2005, "the fan-base is what keeps me from even having the opinion that I don't get played on the radio as much as I like…I'm able to do shows and perform and meet people who express to me that they are in support of what I do." O.K. but when Patterson is pressed in our most recent conversation about how he really feels about the current state of so-called "urban" music, he gets real: "There's a lack of passion, a lack of true understanding of what the art form really is about and how powerful it is. It's frustrating, simply, because [the music] is marketed towards the youth and the youth for the most part are always uneducated—and not necessarily scholastically—just overall." Trying to put his comments into some context, Patterson notes, "Like Usher is really Michael Jackson to some of these little kids—and there is a huge difference between the two."

Patterson also gets real about industry practices, in particular the practice of "legal" paid spins, where labels, in one form or another, disclose that a song on a radio station's playlist is little more than a paid advertisement. Patterson openly confesses that "money is spent to get the spins that we have got," but also realizes that the real challenge comes when trying to hold program directors accountable. "You can pay them all the money you want to and they'll promise you a certain amount of spins" Patterson says, but there's no guarantee that program directors, who control station playlist, will live up to their part of the deal. Ultimately, indie labels such as Patterson's Artistry Music are at a major disadvantage because they cannot compete with the huge financial coffers of major label conglomerates. "[The majors] send them on trips—do all kinds of (expletive) for these people," he says. His road manager, Chris Waters, who's sitting in on our conversation, is quick to note that things are changing ("they're starting to reach out to us"). More than anything, Patterson thinks that urban radio is finally responding to dissatisfied listening audiences: "People, I believe, are musically just getting to a place where they are fed up," he says. "The world does not consist of just 17-year-olds who buy Ciara and Ashanti. It's just doesn't—and that's what they hear all day on the radio."

There is a strong nostalgia currently for the era when popular music was supposedly more pure—everybody longs for the pop and Soul world of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such nostalgia often neglects that fact the popular music industry has always been premised on pubescent tastemakers—how else do you explain the commercial success of teenaged warblers like Aaron Carter, Ashanti (when she first debuted) or Debbie Gibson back in the late 1980s. Hell, even The Archies—a studio band based on the comic book strip of the same name—had a number one pop hit with "Sugar, Sugar" in 1969. Patterson though, is quick to draw the line between then and now: "I think the one factor that is the main difference between artists then and people who call themselves artists now, is the level of talent. And the level of artistry and passion that exudes through what they are doing."

It should go without saying that, compared to the average music consumer—those folk who buy CDs simply because they like the music they hear on their local Clear Channel station—Patterson is fortunate to be able to discern qualities like talent and passion in popular music. Raised in a household where music held a privileged position, Patterson was exposed to a wide range of music, notably the music of soul artists who weren't afraid to emote, be it the falsetto vocals of Eddie Kendricks, Russell Thompkins, Jr. (of The Stylistics) or Ronnie Dyson, who Patterson first heard on the original stage recording of Hair (1968). Ronnie Dyson had a "beautiful (expletive) voice. Beautiful" Patterson says quite animatedly, adding, "he was one of the first voices that I remember hearing that possessed this quality in a male voice that was different from even some of the falsetto guys that I mentioned before. He had this really independent spirit and freedom to just sing and express who he was."

The influence of the late Ronnie Dyson on Patterson gets us to one of the real issues surrounding Patterson's incongruence with the gatekeepers of contemporary black pop: His voice. Simply put, Patterson, like Ronnie Dyson and Jimmy Scott before him, possesses a voice that undermines the very premise of the classic hyper-heterosexual soul man (think Teddy Pendergrass, Wilson Pickett, Jaheim). "The fact that I can consciously sing a song in falsetto, knowing that people are gonna say 'is that a girl?' doesn't bother me at all" Patterson declares, "It's scares them—cause its raw and its real and its human and it has no contrived phony bullshit on top of it. It's raw emotion." As LA Weekly critic Ernest Hardy wrote in describing Patterson's instrument, "naked emotionalism renders almost any male in American culture suspect, but especially if he's of the Negro persuasion, and most especially if the emotion is not exaggeratedly countered with macho or thug signifiers."

Ronnie Dyson's name initially came up when I asked Patterson, during our first conversation, to name his dream tour, which could include anyone dead or alive! His list includes some not-so-surprising folk: Sarah Vaughn, Chaka Kahn, Frankie Lyman and his buddy Lalah Hathaway. I ask the question again in Greensboro, with the caveat that he could only name folk who were his contemporaries. Patterson is deliberate in his response but it's not like he's struggling to come up with names: "D'Angelo, Lalah, Rachelle Farrell, Stokley Williams (of Mint Condition), Lauryn Hill, Bilal, Ledisi, Mica Paris, Lewis Taylor (he just got added)." It is fitting that Patterson's dream includes immense talents—Rachelle Ferrell, Mica Paris, Stokley Williams and Lewis Taylor in particular—who, like himself, are simply off the radar of the mainstream music buying public. And perhaps that is best. Too often the needs and wants of the mainstream music industry are in conflict with the needs and wants of those who truly see themselves as artists, in the best sense of the word.

Rahsaan Patterson's career may be a "slow burn", but I suspect, that he'd have it no other way.

—October 11, 2005

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