Rahsaan Patterson
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Electric Midnight: An Interview with R&B Trailblazer Rahsaan Patterson

From piloting the transcendent rhythms of house music with Quentin Harris on Heroes & Gods 2.0 to conquering music industry politics, R&B trailblazer Rahsaan Patterson thrives in his own groove.

Heroes & Gods 2.0
Rahsaan Patterson
Shanachie Entertainment
5 November 2021

It starts with a beat, propulsive and deep. Hypnotizing in its grasp, a synthesized bass line sneaks to the foreground. Percussive accents stoke the rhythm. Rahsaan Patterson‘s voice suddenly cuts through like a lightsaber: “And I cry and I try, and I try and I cry, and I!” It’s a stunning, electrifying entrance.

A swirl of strobe-lit bliss fuels “I Try”, the first single from Heroes & Gods 2.0 (2021), Patterson’s collaboration with house producer Quentin Harris. The renowned DJ has taken all 13 songs from Patterson’s most recent studio album, Heroes & Gods (2019), and transformed them into cosmic glitter. The project’s been a lifetime in the making for Patterson, whose heart and spirit have always resided in house music. Though other notable producers like Steve “Silk” Hurley had occasionally remixed tracks off Patterson’s earlier albums, Heroes & Gods 2.0 marks the first time he’s dedicated a full album to the house aesthetic.

As one of the industry’s most charismatic vocalists, Patterson is the spark behind Harris’ re-imagined musical concepts, tailored for private listening as much as the dance floor. Both album opener “Catch Me When I Fall” and “Sent From Heaven” feature career-best performances from Patterson, who contours the lyrics with warmth and passion. His voice soars effortlessly to heights that would elude most current hitmakers. Harris brings an infectious bounce to “Silly, Love, Fool” and re-routes “Rock and Roll” into a groove that coasts breezily beneath Patterson’s simmering wordplay.

“Heroes and Gods” caps the album with a poly-rhythmic spectacular. “We come from a long line of gods and giants and heroes that existed long before we got here,” notes Patterson about the sentiment behind the title track. “We are derived from the very gods that we honor and praise in other galaxies. The song was definitely just reminding us of who we really are and where we come from as Black people, as queer people, and how influential we are, what we really stand for at the end of the day, and the impact it has on culture and life, period.”

Patterson’s own influence is without question. He even inspired Missy Elliott to declare on Twitter, “Rahsaan opened a lot of doors. We don’t talk enough ’bout it!” Indeed, 2022 marks the 25th anniversary of Patterson’s self-titled solo debut, an album that introduced the singer as a progressive yet eminently tuneful force in R&B and solidified his appeal as a songwriter whose talent has helped anchor records by musical dynamos like Brandy, Tevin Campbell, Jody Watley, Lalah Hathaway, and Dionne Warwick.

Even as a 12-year-old performer on Kids Incorporated, Patterson dazzled young viewers simply by being himself, forging a unique connection with fans that’s spanned more than 35 years. “It means the world when I meet people and they share with me the importance of that show and my role in it,” he says. “Then there’s another level of appreciation with Black queer children who had someone to look up to. For all the little boys and girls that were in urban cities and called names and made to feel weird and different and bad, to know that they could turn on the TV and be lit with a spark of something that I did? That means the most.”

On a recent winter afternoon, Patterson met with PopMatters in Manhattan’s Flatiron District where he reflected on the scope of his career, from navigating music industry politics to piloting the transcendent grooves of Heroes & Gods 2.0, and explored the celestial sensation of singing onstage.

In light of what you and Quentin Harris have given us with Heroes & Gods 2.0, I’d like to start with something that Melba Moore shared with me in an interview: “We think that because dance music is so joyful, it’s frivolous, but joy is not frivolous — it’s your survival.” How does that perspective resonate with you?

Well, I know that I get my life in a club with house music in the same sense that people are moved by spirit in a church. Many of us who love house music are rejoicing and fellowshipping. Spirit is absolutely moving. What she said makes absolute sense.

What’s one of the first songs that gave you that specific feeling in a club?

’90s house music was really really dope. Robert Owens’ “I’ll Be Your Friend” — that was a joint that I loved. Louie Vega stuff. Masters at Work stuff. Steve Hurley — always beautifully high-spirited house, which I like. There was tons of music, but the ’90s — ’90/’91/’92 — that era I really loved.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, you mentioned how your parents frequented Studio 54 and Paradise Garage and would play disco at home. What was it about dance music that you responded to at such a young age?

Well, I think it had to do with growing up in church and singing in church, and gospel music, the up-tempos [claps]. That tempo and spirit conjure joy, like Melba referenced. It’s just an innate thing that comes when the tempo is faster, and of course, the chords have a lot to do with the emotions that are pulled up. It had to do with church music, gospel, and just the driving nature of it and then feeling that same thing when my parents played certain songs.

How did you experience that music at home?

My father always had two turntables and a whole set-up, and speakers, and tons of albums. He would play the records and he would be the DJ in the house for himself and us. My mother would be in another room enjoying the music. My sisters would be in other rooms enjoying the music, as well.

Whatever record that was being played, I would have the cover and I would be on the floor in front of the speaker, just mesmerized, taking in who the artists were and what the music was doing, attempting to make sense of it all, literally smelling the styrofoam on the speaker and the pulse coming out of it, just inhaling all of it.

Were there certain album covers that you wanted to climb into?

Yes! One in particular, really the only one I ever wanted to be in, was the Sylvester “Live” album [Living Proof], with that picture of everybody in line. I was like, “Ooh! What is that place? What is going on?” I wish I could have been there that night. Then you listen to the music. The energy that was in the building was magic.

Rahsaan Patterson
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Disco spawned from an era of political and social unrest, coinciding with the sexual liberation of the 1970s. It’s interesting to see Heroes & Gods 2.0 land at this moment in time, given the residue of the previous administration and how we’re living through a pandemic. I feel like you and Quentin have created an antidote to a lot of discord. Why did 2021 feel like the right time to translate Heroes & Gods into a house context?

I initially had wanted it to come out sooner but pandemic happened. Maybe the end of 2018, I met with the label that released the original version of the album. I told them that it would be great once the promotion for that record started to die down that we revive it by doing a remix album. I had spoken with Quentin about it and we had a couple of other ideas that we thought about doing, but then we just decided for it to be he and I. He started working on a few mixes of songs. He sent them to me and once I heard the initial remixes that he started to do, I was like, “Oh yeah, this is great!”

Ultimately, he and I would have done it anyway — if it was just going to be on our SoundCloud, it was going to come — but luckily Shanachie were into it. It feels good when your vision can be supported and not doubted and there’s no resistance to what you want to do and share creatively, so that’s been something that’s very special for me — not having anybody question it. It’s been a wonderful reception from people. I’m happy that people are enjoying it.

It’s no surprise that this album would garner the attention that it has, stepping into my heart’s music. I’ve always put my toe in the pool and let people know “I’m this life right here too”, because I did work with Steve Hurley and he did do remixes of “Where You Are” (1997). The minute I knew that the single was going to be “Where You Are”, I was like “We have to get Steve Hurley to do a remix!” I was keenly aware that I needed him to do it because I loved what he did with CeCe Peniston. I loved Jomanda. Then he did a house version of a song we did, “Get Here” (1999). I also did a house song with Jimmy Sommers on one of his albums. The first time I worked with Jimmy Sommers, DJ Spinna did a remix of a song called “What Am I Gonna Do” (2004).

Of all the people you could have approached, what made Quentin the ideal collaborator to re-imagine Heroes & Gods?

Well, two reasons. One, because Quentin had remixed my friend Trina Broussard’s song “Joy”. She sings with me and we’re close friends. I’ve always loved the work that Quentin did on that song. That is a showstopper. When that’s played, it just sets the room on fire. The other reason is that he and I both have a mutual friend that he’s very close with and has worked with over the years. I’ve become close friends with him and he helped facilitate Quentin and me communicating, so that helped push things forward.

I had first met Quentin probably in the early-2000’s at S.O.B.’s [New York]. At the time, I didn’t think about collaborating. I love what Quentin does. I love the spirit that translates through his productions. This was just the perfect time and I felt like Heroes & Gods was the perfect album to do that with — collaborating with one producer/DJ on one album with one artist. That felt like the right thing to do.

When I listen to Heroes & Gods 2.0, the image that comes to mind for me is “electric midnight”. There’s a deep and dark groove but there’s light pulsing through the tracks. What was your vision in terms of the aesthetics of the music?

What the album cover is — very that — and what the intention of the original album was musically and lyrically and spiritually, what needed to be said. Quentin just further elevated the music and took it out into the cosmos, which I love.