Breaking it down with Rahsaan Patterson
by Dan Dodds
“I know it sounds cliché…” sings Rahsaan Patterson on the opening line to the traditional, expertly crafted sweet soul single “Sent From Heaven,” the first official release from his seventh studio album, Heroes & Gods. “These are the words that you inspire me to say,” he adds, serenading the listener on the kind of soul record that conjures up memories of being in your bedroom as a teenager, lost in music, while Mom’s cooking roast for Sunday tea. Or blue-heart soul in the basement with your first love; the neo-vintage classics of Rahsaan’s ’97 self-titled debut album playing on the old-school hi-fi in the nook under the stairs. Familiar and snug—over a bed of warm keys, trumpets, and flutes—it’s a sound that a faction of Patterson’s die-hard soul commune fanbase longed for, but couldn’t hear, when he put out his last album, 2011’s bold and progressive Bleuphoria, a largely self-produced project that polarized opinion amongst his faithful, with another faction considering it to be his magnum opus. So, with both sets of fans in mind, it’s perhaps an insight when Rahsaan refers to cliché’s and being inspired by the second party in the scenario.
“I’m very aware that people will have their thoughts about a thing, and I’m aware that people will have their expectations of what they want to hear,” explains Rahsaan on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, choosing his words carefully, so as not to slight his fans. “But I don’t think about that when I create a song.” He adds, “I create based on what my soul wants to express and what my spirit needs to feel, what I need to hear and what I enjoy about what I’m doing. First, I have to love it, and it has to make me feel good, and if it does that, then that’s all that matters.”
Indeed the new album, coming out after an eight-year wait since Bleuphoria—the longest period of time between albums since Patterson first emerged twenty-two years ago—succeeds in uniting both sets of listeners, incorporating the neo-soul sound and spirit of Patterson’s earlier work without compromising his inclination to continue taking his music in new directions.
“For this album, I wanted to make something that highlighted and showcased my ability as a songwriter, as a singer and as a producer—a refined and progressed Rahsaan Patterson since 1997,” he says, “making sure what I presented was the best of what I have to give right now.”
The anthemic title track “Heroes and Gods,” which sounds like a culmination of the ideas presented on Bleuphoria—akin to “Good Vibrations” following Pet Sounds—could easily have been selected as the initial release over “Sent From Heaven,” and along with the projects centerpiece “Soldier”—arguably the most challenging work on the album, presented as it is in two separate movements/tempos—served to kick-start the record in its earliest stages of development when he began work with longtime associate and coproducer Jamey Jaz.
“ ‘Heroes and Gods’ was a gift to me,” says Rahsaan. “When I first began creating and cultivating ideas, it was one of the first ones (along with “Soldier” and “I Try”) that I started. The groove was first, and then lyrically the chorus came to me.”
In a rousing celebration of Black pride and positive affirmation of the spirit of the African diaspora, Rahsaan sings: “Beautiful ones, made of the sun/ That’s who we are, heroes and gods.”
“It was just a powerful message to me first,” says Rahsaan. “And I felt it was a message reminding us all as spiritual beings who we are. Reinforcing, for the younger generations to remember who we are, how powerful we are. A message to last a lifetime.”
It was a message that Rahsaan almost never made, at least not on record, when a few years ago he casually rocked up on his Facebook page and announced to the world that while he will always be an artist, he might never make another album.
“Yeah,” Rahsaan pauses and then laughs. “ ‘Heroes and Gods’ was conceived after that. It felt like a gift that came from the heavens, the gift of song, the gift of melody. So I was thrilled because it was like, ‘Uh okay,’ and I realized that I did have more in me to give. It was me reclaiming my power, after heartbreak, after years of being in this industry and having those periods where you may lack the passion and enthusiasm for it. Social media creates a platform where as an artist you’re able, on a daily basis sometimes”—he laughs—“to see and receive support from the people that depend on you as an artist and it absolutely reminds you of why you do what you do.”
Rahsaan understands exactly how music can affect people, being people himself.
“My favorite artists, some who have passed at this point like Prince, Michael, Whitney, and Aretha, they for me have always been my heroes and for the most part godly in their gifts with their talents and their affect on humanity. So for me to walk that same line of creativity and be gifted with talent and opportunity, to make music that sustains people’s lives, well that’s a very powerful thing.”
Despite having seven albums worth of original material, performing a song by a musical hero is often a staple of Rahsaan’s live shows. Gliding out to center stage with one hand in his pocket and the other cradling the mic, his readings of set list regulars—Sade’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride,” and “Don’t You Know That” by Luther Vandross—are legendary. On the new album, he’s had a crack at the latter.
“That has always been my absolute favourite Luther Vandross song since it was released on the Never Too Much album,” says Patterson. “When I was a kid in New York, in the Bronx, ‘Never Too Much’ the single was huge. My parents had that album and played it often, but ‘Don’t You Know That’ even then was always my favorite. I rarely record covers, but I really wanted to tribute him—to honor him.” There are no such plans to honor Sade in the same way says Patterson. “She is another artist who is phenomenal, and people do request I record that, but that song, that arrangement, is just too perfect. ‘Stronger Than Pride’ is such a mood,” he laughs. “You know what I mean? You could try, but any other arrangement really would be pointless.”
In lovely bit of sequencing, the Luther cover is proceeded by the mid-tempo ’80s soul-vibe of “Break It Down,” a track recorded at the Echo Bar Studio in the Valley, north of Los Angeles, with an all-star selection of female superstars.
Says Rahsaan: “One night, Joi and I were in the studio, the first time we had ever collaborated musically, and I had a few live tracks given to me by the musicians who had worked on “Sent From Heaven.” They had laid down four or five ideas, one of which was the track [that would become] “Break It Down.” So Joi and I had gone there to create, and we pulled that track out. We started writing the song, and it was Joi who heard the chorus and started to sing it to me. Just then, Rachelle Ferrell called. And she was like, ‘What are you doing?’ So I said, ‘I’m in the studio.’ So she goes, ‘Oh okay, right where is it?’ And she didn’t live too far away, so she comes over. By that point, we had already laid the chorus, Joi and I, and Rachelle walks in, heard the music and starts singing the first verse and melody. She sang it verbatim. So I went right in the booth and sang it myself.” Rahsaan laughs. “That’s how that song came about.” There’s a momentary pause, before Rahsaan remembers an important detail.
“Oh, yes…and later I called Lalah Hathaway to come by and play some synth on it.”
The musicians that had laid the foundation, all of whom have played with Rahsaan on tour at some point or another, include Jairus Mozee aka J.Mo (The Great), a beast on guitar and member of the Truth Band; Craig Brockman on keys; and D. Loc on drums.
Jairus Mozee coproduced the gorgeous “Wonderful Star” too, an unofficial promo leaked last summer. Guitarist Errol Cooney also deserves a mention; it’s his gospel-quartet-styled guitar chops that solo on Patterson production and album opener “Catch Me When I Fall.”
Cooney also plays on the catchy “Oxford Blues,” a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if sandwiched between “Human Nature” and “P.Y.T.” on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
“ ‘Oxford Blues’ was also one of the very first songs I wrote for the record,” says Rahsaan, telling the story. “Oxford Avenue is actually a street here in Los Angeles, and it’s a street that a dear friend of mine lives on and it’s a street that my ex- lives on. My ex lives in the same building! So whenever I pick my friend up, she has to meet me downstairs.”
Like Bleuphoria before it, much of the record directly references Rahsaan’s personal life. The new directions of that album and the most provocative songs on Heroes & Gods also display a penchant for house music, a musical influence that adorns cuts such as “Silly, Love, Fool” and the first half of “Soldier”.
“When I made Bleuphoria, I was immersing myself in the culture of the underground; I’ve always been an underground soul artist, but I have always enjoyed house music as well. I’m not talking techno or pop dance music, I’m talking old school house made in the tradition of, or like, classic Chicago house. You know, Baltimore, New Jersey. I go to a house-night in Los Angeles to get my spirit filled—every second Thursday. I arrive at 11:30, which gives me two and half-hours to dance and get off.”
As a metaphor for the album the aforementioned “Soldier” perfectly seems to represent the crossroads Rahsaan’s fanbase is at with his music. The frantic funkiness and Gorgio Moroder–style keys drive the first part of the song, with Patterson dominating the lyrics, proclaiming he will be “a soldier” in an assertive and determined manner, before collapsing sonically, the gusto literally deflating half way through to the embrace of part two, a blissed-out loveliness similar to the gentle sound of his classic soul tracks “Don’t Run So Fast” and “Stop Breaking My Heart.”
“Say the word and I’ll come running,” he sings sweetly and with expertise—beautifully delivered. It’s a stunning piece of work as accomplished as it is dauntless, displaying Patterson’s growth as an artist.
“I’m absolutely much more impressed with artists who push boundaries,” says Rahsaan, breaking it down to the musical perspective and approach that inspires him. “Absolutely. Especially artists that don’t play it safe.”
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