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

How did Chaka’s voice first make an impression on you?

Well, there were beautiful Rufus songs that were played in my house — “Blue Love”, “Destiny”, “Heaven Bound”, just beautiful songs. I remember loving those, and those album covers, and all that stuff. Then her solo stuff … it was different. There seemed to be a lot more “fire energy” and it scared me a little bit, but I was intrigued. I had to discover what was it that scared me a little bit in the way she would deliver certain songs like “Twisted” and “Our Love is in Danger”.

There’s just something about her delivery and passion and rawness and willingness to just let spirit and emotion take her wherever it needed to be. For me, that is the key to singing. There’s that fine line of being in control of it and driving the ship but there’s also a part that you have to step outside yourself and let something else take control and guide. Chaka was one of those artists that explored and went where she needed to go. I loved that.

Describe the experience of sharing the stage with Chaka at Montreux Jazz Festival in 2008.

Well, what made that particular moment special also was that it was for Quincy Jones’ 75th birthday and that was my first time tributing him during that particular weekend of Montreux. That performance with her was the night before and so to have that be the precursor to tributing him the next night, it was a build-up that was just perfect for me.

Anytime that we have to share space is always a beautiful moment. I’m not somebody who always likes to be onstage singing with other people and all that kind of thing. I do my shows and, at times, if I’m really close to someone and we communicate and resonate in that beautiful place of creativity, I don’t mind. With Chaka though, it’s just always a moment that I have to indulge in. It’s just always been so comforting, so inviting, so natural. That moment was beautiful and at that point, we’d had several stage moments that we had shared before so I knew what to expect.

What have you learned from Chaka over the years, just through osmosis?

That it’s okay to express yourself. Express yourself. Period. Allow whatever emotions you have to be put out there. Whatever those emotions are.

I spoke to Van Hunt earlier this year and it was such a treat to hear his recollection of how the two of you started working together through Randy Jackson on your Love in Stereo (1999) album. I’d love to know the Rahsaan Patterson version of that story.

[laughs] The Rahsaan Patterson version is … I love Van. When Randy Jackson, who was my A&R person at MCA at the time, suggested that I go to Atlanta to work with Van, I was fine with it because “Hopeless (Like a Penny with a Hole in It)” [by Dionne Farris] was my shit. I knew he wrote it and it was beautiful. I could feel his heart and his soul. I could feel his sensitivity. I could feel his intellect. I could feel his quiet, also. I wanted to share some of that with him and see what we could do together.

I went to Atlanta and we worked in his basement. That’s where his studio setup was in his house. It was kind of dark in there, which was great, and he had all the lights from all the gear there. When we started to work, he pulled out the guitar and he started playing chords for “Sure Boy” and I immediately started feeling exactly what I wrote: “Don’t live in a mansion with a pool. Don’t drive a Bentley or Mercedes coupe. Ain’t got no lovers or babies due. Just got my records and my favorite shoes.”

Then he went to a different song and he started playing chords for “Friend of Mine”. We went back and forth. That’s how we wrote those. I don’t know how much of the chords he already had in his head. He may have had it brewing for some time or it could have been off the cuff. I’m not sure. I just know that when he started playing I was like, “Oh shit!” It was great.

Maybe a few days later, he played me some other stuff that he had, like “Humor” and “The Moment”. I related to those also. I was like, “I need those too! I don’t have to write anything because he’s already got ’em! I’ll just sing them and they’ll be wonderful.”

When we worked on After Hours (2004), we were at Westlake Studios in LA. He would be at the studio before I’d get there, for sure. One of the things that I love about working with him is that it’s so easy. He’s not pressed. He’s like, “We’re gonna get it done when we get it done”. It’s nice to be with somebody like that who is not trippin’ and allows for the creativity to come when it comes.

When we worked on songs for After Hours, I remember one night we were in the studio, we were probably doing “Burnin'”, and I had left and then when I came back, he played “The Best” for me. There was no chorus yet. He was like, “What do you think the chorus should be?” I thought that the chorus should sound like the piano. He gave me the lyrics. It was just beautiful and so I sang it. A lot of times, we would do one-take stuff, just run it down, and then I’d put other vocals on different tracks.

He’s a beast of an artist and a beautiful songwriter. Having grown up with a father that played many of Van’s influences, like Ohio Players and Curtis Mayfield, it resonated with me. I knew what that was. I knew how to sit in that as a singer, to collaborate with him. Whatever his foundation would be, I could ride it.

Rahsaan Patterson
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

I’ve been wanting to ask you about this song since 2008, “L-O-V-E”, which you recorded with SugaRush Beat Company. For me, it’s in my “Top Three” Rahsaan recordings. It’s kind of like a James Bond theme, in terms of the drama. I’d be curious to know how that song evolved from an idea and words on a page to the finished recording that we hear.

Thank you. I recorded “L-O-V-E” in Malibu with Jarrod Rogers for SugaRush Beat Company. I originally met him in Australia when I was there doing club tours. We collaborated at his house and wrote “Sugarush” the first day that we met. Originally, he had wanted to make an album as a producer and have singers guest on it. The energy was really good and so we continued to write some songs together and then it developed into “Hey, why don’t we do a duo kind of thing” and then it turned into what it became, which was myself, Ida Corr, and Jarrod.

He would come periodically to LA to do other things. We had studio time and he played me the track for “L-O-V-E”. I instantly felt a Tina Turner vibe. The track was very much of that Ike & Tina Turner Revue era. It had that vibe. Tina Turner came over me in the verse part. Then there was some Aretha feels up in there with background vocal arrangements, the call-and-response aspect of the lead and the backgrounds, but Tina Turner instantly on that verse.

Now that you mention it, I can absolutely hear how the grit that Tina had in the Ike & Tina days shaped your delivery. I could listen to “L-O-V-E” every day of my life.

I love that song. I love that project. That was a fun project. I believe I enjoyed it so much because it was a throwback to when I was a kid on TV and the varied styles of music that we would do, so I was able to put my foot in there, the same way I did when I was a kid singing songs from the ’50 and ’60s. I like being in an ensemble. I enjoy doing what I do, of course, and I know how to do it, but I like working with other people. It’s much easier for me to enjoy.

It is very much a “let’s play in the sandbox” album.

Yeah, totally.

The other song that I’ve been wanting to ask you about for a long time is the cover of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand’s “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” that you did with Paulini. How did that come together?

That happened when I was in Australia. I had met with producers as well as artists like Paulini and Guy Sebastian. It was a song that they were recording on their album and I happened to be there. [laughs] They asked me if I would record it and I was like, “Sure!” Australia’s fun. It was a good time there, so I was open to having more fun.

I think you’re one of the few vocalists, male or female, who could pull off singing both Donna and Barbra’s parts. As someone who really understands vocalists and how each vocalist is so different and unique, how did Donna’s voice register with you as you were coming of age?

As a kid, I didn’t get into Donna as a singer and overall artist, like the depths of her artistry. I knew she was the “Queen of Disco”, but the level of artist that she was, as far as being a painter and as far as her technique as a singer, I didn’t get until way later. Her contribution to pop culture was massive. She’s a Capricorn also, so once I learned that and further investigated her artistry, it made so much sense to me, learning of her musical theater background and being in Germany and just the length and gravity of her career. As a singer, she’s a great singer, good singer. She also had a poise and a grace that was worthy of all the accolades that she received and just who she ultimately became. Very deserving of all of that.

Then to know how much Diana Ross influenced her … you can’t get around not being influenced and being informed as an artist by another artist before you. You need that. That’s how you learn to become who you become as an artist. It’s important to pay homage, that Donna Summer could sit down and say, “Oh my God! I’ve loved Diana Ross & the Supremes since I was a kid”. To be able to do that? Sometimes people don’t always do that. Sometimes they do it behind closed doors, but it’s another thing to be able to recognize and acknowledge someone’s gift and their influence on you.

Which Donna song do you gravitate towards?

“Dinner With Gershwin” [written by] Brenda Russell. Listen, “Dinner With Gershwin” is it for me. The disco stuff was great but “Dinner With Gershwin”? That’s a song!

Rahsaan Patterson
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Rahsaan, what would you say is one of the greatest challenges you’ve overcome in your career?

Getting to a place of not needing or desiring anything more than what I receive. Industry has changed so much. It’s now leveled the playing field. The things that we, as artists, thought we were supposed to have, like tons of radio airplay, or this or that, doesn’t necessarily matter as much anymore. It matters but not as much. I can appreciate that it is what it is now because it allows for artists to be less competitive, maybe. I’ve never really liked that part of it.

The expectations that come or that used to come when you signed to a major label, like how you saw your favorite artist in the era that you grew up in and how the records would be rolled out, and the shows that they would be on to promote the albums, you would expect that when you got a record deal too. You would expect to be played on the radio and then you learn all the particulars and the ins and outs of what it’s all really based on and what it takes to make all these things happen. You learn that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes than how it appears.

Once you get all of that knowledge and insight into how it really works, you reconcile with yourself that how you saw your favorite artist become who they became doesn’t mean that that’s how you’re gonna become who you’re gonna become with those opportunities. You’re gonna become who you’re gonna become based on your output of work, the quality of it, and how much of it is actually produced and put out there for people to receive. That’s also based on your heart and your intention and your purity and your purpose.

When I got my first record deal, all I wanted was a record company that said “We like what you do and we’re gonna put your records out”. I didn’t need anything else because that was enough for me, that they would trust and believe in me and I could make the records that I wanted to make, I could sing how I wanted to sing, I could be who I am, and I could wear what I wanted to wear and just be me at all the stages of my life. All the other stuff that comes from that was extra, is extra, it’s nice, it’s great — would be nice, would be great [laughs] — but it’s not of the utmost importance for me.

The most important thing for me is sustaining my creativity and my passion so that I still want to do what I do and, from there, it’s just having an outlet and making it accessible to people. That’s it. I had to grow into, like a lot of us, manifestation and really honing in on those things. I knew the power of the gift, and where the gift resides for me as a blessing and always communicating through my art purely. The result of that is what matters the most.

Recently, you shared a couple of Instagram clips of Dorian Corey. Years ago, you posted that great quote that Dorian says in Paris is Burning: “If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you”. How do you relate to that quote?

That’s been my life. I’m very supportive and happy for anyone else’s accomplishments and achievements, their ambitions. I’ve never been someone who felt I needed what you have. Never. Because you got that, I need that? No, that’s yours. [applauds] What’s for me is for me, and it always has been. It hasn’t always been an easy road, but at the end of the day, my awareness of self, my awareness of where I come from, when I think about my relatives who have passed on and transitioned back to where we come from and how powerful and important they were in not only my life but people that knew them, I’m reminded of my greatness because they were great.