R&B Conversations: Rahsaan Patterson's Slow Burn

Mark Anthony Neal

The soul singer's career momentum has built slowly since he lost the major labels' love, but out of the spotlight he's been able to remain true to the unique promise of his singularly emotive voice.

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 it has been that. In 1997, with hit songs already in the can for Brandy ("Baby") and Tevin Campbell ("Back to the World"), Patterson was poised for a major breakout with his eponymous debut. That record and its follow-up, Love in Stereo (1999), earned Patterson a loyal following, but he never quite achieved the level of success attained by many of the so-called neo-soul artists who emerged at the same time. By 2001 Patterson — generally regarded by critics of serious contemporary R&B as one of the great talents — was without a label as a 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 his caliber would be excused for being bitter about his career trajectory, Patterson is surprisingly at peace with what's gone down thus far.

The soul singer's career momentum has built slowly since he lost the major labels' love, but out of the spotlight he's been able to remain true to the unique promise of his singularly emotive voice.

When we spoke, Patterson was in Greensboro, North Carolina, a stop on the Find Your Way tour. It's a tribute to Patterson's even personality that he relishes the 30 minutes he has as the opening act for such relative newcomers 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 spring 1997. Patterson explains that he had only 15 minutes when he opened for Chaka Khan a few years ago. Like most artists who struggle outside the mainstream, Patterson understands how the game works in an era when talent-show contestants' debut singles 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 Patterson doesn't take commercial sleights personally he must grate 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." But, as he remarked in an earlier conversation, "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'd 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." Okay, but when I press Patterson 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. 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 the station's playlist, will live up to their part of the deal. Ultimately indie labels like Patterson's Artistry Music are at a major disadvantage because of the huge coffers of the major label conglomerates. According to Patterson, his label can't compete with major label perks: "The majors send them on trips — do all kinds of shit for these people," though Patterson's road manager Chris Waters is quick to add that things are changing. ("They're starting to reach out to us," he says.) 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. 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."

Currently many have a deep nostalgia 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 overlooks 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 a comic strip — 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 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 folks 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 that 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, whom Patterson first heard on the original stage recording of Hair (1968). Ronnie Dyson had a "beautiful fuckin' 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 I mentioned before. He had this really independent spirit and freedom to just sing and express who he was."

Talking about Dyson's influence on Patterson brings us to one of the real issues surrounding Patterson's struggles 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 ask, 'Is that a girl?' doesn't bother me at all," Patterson declares. "It's scares them, because it's raw and it's real and it's 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 first asked Patterson to name his dream tour companions, from a universe including all the greats, alive or dead. His list includes some not-so-surprising folk: Sarah Vaughn, Chaka Kahn, Frankie Lyman and his buddy Lalah Hathaway. When I ask Patterson again in Greensboro, with the caveat that he could only name folk who are his contemporaries, Patterson is deliberate in his response. But it's not like he struggles for names: "D'Angelo, Lalah, Rachelle Farrell, Stokley Williams (of Mint Condition), Lauryn Hill, Bilal, Ledisi, Mica Paris, Lewis Taylor." 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 conflict with 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 he'd have it no other way.

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