Patrice Rushen is something of a phenomenon. Starting out as a child prodigy, taking piano lessons at the tender age of three, the prolific Los Angeles-born pianist snagged a record deal at the age of 19 – completing her first three solo albums while working towards her undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California. Over the course of the next two decades, she would fashion herself as an undeniable wellspring of hits, including “Forget Me Nots,” “Haven’t You Heard,” and “Remind Me.” Her impressive behind-the-scenes list of credits includes serving as tour music director for Janet Jackson, as well as the NAACP Image Awards, three consecutive televised Grammy Awards ceremonies, and the Emmy Awards, among others.
In addition to professorships at both the prestigious Berklee College of Music and her alma mater USC, she is currently on the verge of launching two very dynamic performance formats in the form of 1+One, and Patrice and Friends. This spring, Patrice sat down with us to discuss her thoughts on sampling, her recording industry triumphs and travails, and furthering her musical legacy.
Interview recorded May 8, 2012
Rico: What’s going on, folks? This is your man Rico, a.k.a. Superbizzee, for SoulMusic.com, and I’m on the horn with none other than Miss Patrice Rushen. How are you, Patrice?
Patrice: I’m doing well. How are you?
Rico: I’m doing great. It’s such a pleasure and an honor to be on the phone with you today. We just want to kind of go over your marvelous, majestic career, and all the accomplishments and the magic that you’ve bestowed upon us throughout the course of that career. You’ve been going strong for almost four decades and you’ve given us nothing but nonstop excitement. So let’s take it from the top, back from LA. You started out with piano lessons at 3?
Rico: Wow. That’s remarkable.
Patrice: Yeah, I think one of the things is that, as a kid, I was kind of shy and quiet. But my parents had me in a nursery school program and the teacher there was really very musical, and some of our activities, other than playing in the sandbox and painting, had to do with moving to music. And anytime during the day that we would do that, I would really, apparently, demonstrate a real love for music.
So she knew about a program that was actually designed for young kids, and my parents decided to put me in this program and I participated in that all through my early childhood, then through junior high and high school, going to piano lessons every week. It just sort of became a part of what I do. It wasn’t really made to be that unusual or special except for the fact that it was an activity that revolved around music, which I did love.
Rico: So did you know early on that this was something that you wanted to do with your life? Did you understand that this was your life’s passion, at that point?
Patrice: Not really. I mean, I won’t quite say I took it for granted. But I didn’t know for a very long time that it was possible to earn a living doing what you love. And I think it was not until high school that I realized, wow, I really wanted to really do music. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, really, with all of the training that I had had up until then. But in high school, that was about the time that I really started absorbing the vocabulary of music, and particularly jazz.
I went to an all black high school and the teachers were pretty progressive, and they used music as a way, really, to expose us to a lot of other things about life: history, social graces, teamwork--all of that. So, when I started really understanding the contribution of people who looked like me, to the music of this country, it really peaked my interest even more to want to participate in that. That’s kind of what led me to really understanding that I could really celebrate what I loved, and contribute.
Rico: Okay. So, going back to Locke High School, you met someone who actually would be instrumental in helping to shape your career throughout the decades at Locke. He was actually the director of the music program there. That’s Reggie Andrews.
Patrice: The years that I was there and he was there … it was his first year as a teacher. So he wasn’t director of the program, but he was allowed to use some of his new ideas and implement some of his new ideas on how to reach us, and because he wasn’t that much older than us, we were enamored with whatever he had to say.
Rico: Okay, so was he bringing some fresh blood into the system, so to speak?
Patrice: Definitely. I think before jazz was institutionalized, in terms of going to different schools and all of that, Reggie was really doing that for us already in the way of taking us to clubs and being able to hear the masters of that music in their environment. So they weren’t coming to us; we were going to them. And he made arrangements--there used to be quite a few places to play in Los Angeles where we could actually go and hear people.
He worked out a deal with the club owners and said, “Well, listen, if I can bring them on a Friday night or a Saturday night or something like this, would you allow them to come and just sit in the back and watch these masters do their thing?” And a couple of the club owners said, “Well, you know what? That’s a great idea,” and they actually went for it, and that’s what we did. And, in so doing, we were able to hear everybody. I heard Freddie Hubbard; I heard Herbie Hancock, and prior to Headhunters, the Mwandishi band. I heard Pharoah Sanders. I heard all these wonderful players, Joel Henderson, in their environment--Jean Carne, people like this.
And for us, Jazz was like the classical music of contemporary music. All the other musics that we would ever play, if we could grasp the concepts that existed in the art of improvisation and that kind of controlled freedom, if you will, we would be able to play anything.
Rico: Okay, so, fast forward a little bit to 1972. You got the opportunity to go and compete at the Monterey Jazz Festival. What was that like?
Patrice: It was very interesting. Monterey Jazz festival used to have a high school jazz competition and the high school band--we used to enter a lot of them. You win a trumpet or you win a bass drum or something like that. And our band entered the competition and the band didn’t win. But I also separately entered the combo division and the combo, my combo won. So the prize was that you would get to appear on the main stage of the festival. It was really quite a thrill to be able to play.
Rico: Wow, and so, of course, some of the people that were out in the audience happened to be some record executives--some namely from Prestige Records.
Patrice: Yeah. There were quite a few, typical of those festivals. There’s a lot of publicity and a lot of people writing and record companies scouting and things like this, and a lot of different companies were interested in talking to me. But this was the furthest thing from my mind. I was not running towards a record deal or any of that, and I was in my last year of high school getting ready to go to college. And I just really did not have that; that wasn’t on my radar.
But Fantasy/ Prestige, the deal was very easy, very simple. I needed some extra money to go to school and they said, “Well, listen, if you want to get your feet wet and do this, we are all ears. We want to do it, and you have complete creative freedom to more of less learn on the job.” So it sounded like a win-win for me, and not something that would take away from where I had my sites, which was really to go to school. And it worked out very well.
Rico: Okay, so you recorded two, excuse me, three albums for them, but remarkably, you also managed to complete your studies at USC, which is amazing.
Patrice: Well, you know, it’s funny because at the time, USC did not have a Jazz department. And they didn’t have a pop music department or anything. So I was studying pretty much in the classical tradition. But I was still gigging on the outside, playing, and I really wanted to be a composition major. But my parents really felt that it would be more advantageous to consider music ed. I think that that was going to make them a little more comfortable, too. So that’s what I did.
As a music ed major, I minored in piano performance, and playing jazz on the side whenever I could, and R&B and everything else, because, [there was a] big huge studio scene in Los Angeles where I’m from, and a lot of us aspired to be part of it. So, that versatility became pretty much a byword for … really, it was like a mantra, to get it together, to be able to play in various contexts.
Rico: So do you have any special moments from that period, in terms of you being a side musician, that stick out to you?
Patrice: During that time? Oh, yeah. I think the first session that I was on where--it wasn’t my project or anything--but the person had heard about me from my projects … was an album with Jean Luc Ponty, violinist. That was exciting for me, because it represented, wow, people do actually hear this stuff and pay attention. I had gotten calls from Charles Tolliver and from John McLaughlin even, to go on the road. But I was in school and I couldn’t go, but I did play an album with him, and I met David Sanborn on that session.
I worked with Alfonzo Johnson. I worked with a lot of different people and even some of my label mates at Fantasy--Stanly Turrentine was one, Sonny Rollins was another. I did some work with Hubert Laws, I did some work with, recorded with Freddie Hubbard. During that time, it was like a lot of things happening. I even got called to play some gigs with The Sylvers, a pop group of the time. So every session was something.
There was always something that I learned, and because I really wanted to get the film and TV thing together, I had a chance to work with Benny Golson, who was writing for film and TV, and Quincy Jones, and people like this were constantly turning me on to different things that I could do to get it together and go into session and stuff. So it was a really rich period where everything seemed to be heightened with just being around so many people of excellence.
And then my peer group--we continued to play. I went to high school with Gerald Albright and Ndugu Chancler, and I knew the guys from Earth, Wind & Fire, because Earth, Wind & Fire played my high school prom at the school. So that level of commitment and excellence about the music and versatility and all of that was just really a part of a very rich time for me. I utilized a lot of that knowledge and information, and still do today.
Rico: Wow. I’m speechless. But I must move on to something that actually, I guess you contended with, and a lot of jazz musicians during the mid-seventies contended with, which is the crossover. You left the Prestige fold after SHOUT IT OUT, which was your third album for them.
Then you signed with Electra and you started to move more into an R&B kind of groove-oriented feel. But the press seemed to have a field day with that, in terms of kind of shouting you down for abandoning the traditional jazz aesthetic. Was that an issue for you at that point?
Patrice: No, not really, because I think a long , long time before anybody knew who I was, my desires had already been … I had already pointed myself in a direction of wanting to absorb a lot of different musics and a lot of different styles of music. For me, music is like one tree, many branches, one language, many dialects. And it would have been more difficult probably if I had not grown up appreciating and understanding my connection to Brahms and Ellington and Miles and Sly, and James Brown, and Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock and Ella Fitzgerald, and the Beatles and Dylan, and blah, blah, blah.
For me, I listened to so much different kinds of stuff that it was about a quality of excellence and communication, and that was the driving force for me, more so than what you call it, and that probably got me in a lot of trouble, because the music that I did, and that you describe in those times, was this hybrid of someone who had, obviously, an appreciation of the jazz tradition, but who grew up listening to dance music, also.
I didn’t abandon the classical technique every time I sat down and played the piano on any of those solos on any of those songs, and the fact that they had a groove, for me, was part of the assignment that I was asked to do--some things that would possibly give a foray into a wider demographic, in terms of the urban demographic and certainly, I didn’t sit down and say, “Ooh, I’m not going to play that chord because that’s jazz.”
To the contrary. That’s one of the things that made, I think, gradually give the music that I was doing at that time, a certain personality and possibly some individualism that people, for whatever reason, grabbed onto and liked, and began to be … a certain type of voice was emerging. So I didn’t fight it and didn’t get too caught up in what you called it.
If I had any difficulty with it, it was that it seemed to be a very big deal in terms of how it was marketed, and there was a tremendous difference in how records or recordings that were perceived to be more “commercial” were approached, than recordings that seemed to be of a less commercial nature. And when I say commercial, I mean that more people would be able to hear it. And I’m so glad that we have abandoned now that whole thing, because it became, really, I think, one of the first steps towards the demise of the record business as we have seen it happen now.
Categories … people are not like that. I think that it was a different time, and marketing became an issue, but there was a lot more to it than just that. And there were certain kinds of biases and things like that that factored into how we were marketed, and therefore the music sometimes would suffer.
Rico: Absolutely. But it seemed like, going back to what you were saying, in terms of your jazz background kind of influencing the groove, stuff that you started to move into later on. I mean, you could even hear it on the first Elektra album. On the song “Hang it Up,” you take an improvised piano solo there that might not necessarily have come from a straight ahead R&B artist.
Patrice: Right. Well, that album that “Hang it Up” was on was the first Elektra album, and they had heard the SHOUT IT OUT album previously, that was on Fantasy/ Prestige. On the SHOUT IT OUT album, as a contrast to some of the first two albums that I did for Fantasy, like I said, they were giving me complete freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. So I did one that was really kind of straight ahead, because that’s what they had heard at Monterey.
Then I did another one where I played around with some electronic instruments. And I had new friends that I had met, and Lee Ritenour and Harvey Mason, and included them in the project and entered into some other kinds of things. And then, by the time I got to SHOUT IT OUT, I wanted to do something that sort of celebrated what I was learning about this ability to sort of mix a certain kind of aesthetic with a commercial sensibility. So, by the time I got to Elektra, I was fully aware that I could do this, and that’s what they wanted.
They were trying to have music, my label mates there were Grover Washington Jr., Lenny White, Lee Ritenour, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Donald Byrd, and they were all kind of experimenting with us doing what became the urban, the quiet storm format. And this was to be able to maintain a certain kind of jazz identity, but to give the music, infuse the music with some things that could also be played on different adult stations at the radio level. And black radio really embraced this, because it gave even that much more depth to the playlists that the stations would have to work from. Therefore, they could be on the air all day and all night.
Patrice: And it was a great forum for us because you’d hear Gil Scott-Heron, followed by Stevie, followed by Michael Jackson, followed by Patrice Rushen, followed by Prince, followed by Grover Washington Jr, followed by--you know what I mean. It just went on and on and on.
Rico: Absolutely. Now the next album that you actually did--it seemed to really strike a chord, because it ended up being your first top 40 album, which was PIZZAZ. Going into the studio, creating that album, was there a certain mindset that you guys were just going to take what you had already done and just keep going forward with it, and mix it with some more spicy ingredients, or was there even a mindset going into the studio for this album?
Patrice: Well, we were kind of continuing to go along with the theme of just doing what we do. And remember, I wanted to be a composition major, and so I wanted a chance, since I had access and … the music of that time, there were a lot more bands … they were coming off the disco thing, which the instrumentation was pretty intense, horns and strings and stuff. So I could borrow some of that and put it in the context of what it was that we wanted to do, that I wanted to do. And I worked with my friends all the time, so, for us, this was just what we listened to and what we liked to play. And I think if there was any consciousness, it was just to be yourself and do what we do and know that through that, there’s probably going to be other people out there that can relate to it. So I will say this too, though, but left to our own devices, as we were all the time, it seemed, there’s a point of discovery where you are able to not only find your own method, but develop your own voice. Sometimes, you do so and you’re a little ahead of the curve.
So we used to get a lot of interesting comments from the record company personnel that were sometimes different from what we would get when we would just play the tracks to the general public, and it was one of the first indicators for me that the public’s tastes and the public’s viewpoint about what they like didn’t necessarily always mirror what the record company personnel were comfortable promoting. And it sometimes meant that, depending on how much influence they had over the artist or the method in which they did what they did, it sometimes would influence the music. But we were left alone all the time.
Rico: In what sense?
Patrice: We would be working in the studio for a couple of months and nobody from the record company would ever even come by.
Rico: Wow. Why do you think that was?
Patrice: Oh, I just think that I was another person on the label, and there were other things to do. And I would turn my record in and they would determine marketing 101. I don’t think there was any special energy put forth. And when I say that I don’t mean it in a negative sense. I just think, “Okay, you’re going to go do your record? Fine, that’s great. Turn it in; we’ll be looking forward to it.” But there was no additional anticipation, as if the company’s rep was riding on it, or something like that. I was just one more artist on the label.
Rico: Even when PIZZAZ produced a hit song?
Patrice: Even when PIZZAZ produced a hit song, because that song happened without them really being prepared for how it was going to be received. So, instead of being able to really out-the-box go, “Oh, we’ve got one here, and we’re going to predetermine a strategy. And if we get to this point right here, we’re going to jump into that to take it to the next phase and take it to the next phase.” They were constantly chasing it, because it happened right out from under them.
Rico: And we’re talking about “Haven’t You Heard,” of course.
Patrice: And we’re talking about “Haven’t You Heard”; exactly.
Rico: Now, did that song open you up … I’m assuming that it did, but I just wanted to hear your viewpoint: did it open you up to a broader audience than you had?
Patrice: Absolutely. I mean there was so much that, you mentioned “Hang it Up.” “Hang it Up” had opened up things at the radio level. There were things from that album that people really liked and then, when “Haven’t You Heard” came, it really--I was a known commodity then at urban radio.
And the expectation was that if something else came that had that same kind of energy that it would catch, and it did. But, “Haven’t You Heard,” as big as it was--and you mentioned the word crossover--there was an expectation that if your record got to a certain point at urban radio and the R&B charts, that there would be an effort made for them to get it to the pop charts and to pop radio, because that’s where the bigger numbers and that’s where the larger demographic and all the things that spell more exposure and more commerce, that’s where that was.
And, like I said, we made some headway, but not nearly as much headway as would have happened if it had not been that they were chasing it, as opposed to being on top of it. And we never let that happen again.
Rico: I’m glad because I was going to move right into STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART, which is probably your most known album--to most of the R&B world. Talk to me about how you guys developed a synergy to help make sure that the previous situation didn’t happen again.
Patrice: Well, we determined that once we finished the record and turned it in, and got the opinion of the record company, when they said they didn’t hear anything that they felt good about, we were devastated for about 15 minutes. And then we said, “Oh, okay, we’ve been here before and we know that this time it will be, if we believe in it, then it will be for us to really at least get it to the people for them to decide.”
And we pulled out resources financially, which wasn’t much at the time, but we bought about three weeks of independent promotion, just to get it to radio. And once it got to radio and got to the people, “Forget Me Nots” exploded. So it was one of the biggest lessons, life lessons for me and for my colleagues to know and to learn and to accept that there’s the music and there’s the music business. And there are times when the two are simpatico and there are times when they are not. And then you’ve got to be deciding what you want to do.
Rico: And so your gut instinct with that song and getting those three weeks of independent promotion resulted in you having your first top 40 hit.
Patrice: Mmhmm, and this one …
Rico: In spite of the record company’s efforts.
Patrice: Exactly. And this one, there were certain people at the record company who felt that the direction of that album was great, and so, by this time, I had been able to identify at least who those people were and get their help, and the record was such a huge success--and there were other singles that came off of it that were also very big, and I was nominated for two Grammys that year, one for “Forget Me Nots” and the other for “Number One,” which is the instrumental track on that album. And, to their credit, Elektra ended up paying me back the money that we spent on independent promotion to get it started.
Rico: Wow. Isn’t that something? So, then we move to NOW. You had “Feel So Real (Won’t Let Go),” and then also “Get Off (You Fascinate Me).” Both of those were definitely jumping off on that album, but it looks like the chart positions kind of dropped a little bit. Do you credit that to just the symbiosis between yourself and the label being a little off again?
Patrice: Probably. That’s part of it. It was my last album under the contract. The head of Elektra that I was signed under had moved on, and there was a new head of the record company, and there was a desire to re-sign me, re-up. But I had been there seven years and I wasn’t sure I wanted to re-up. I wasn’t sure I didn’t want to re-up. I just wasn’t sure.
Set about doing the album, more or less, to see if the new energy that would come in with the new head would create an environment that there was a plan--there was an understanding that I had had. I had demonstrated that I was capable of having hit material on the record, and therefore needed the record company’s support out of the box. I had already earned that kind of support. And I was curious to see if, out of the box, there was going to be a marketing plan, et cetera, that would give me the impression at least that there was a shared interest in, right out the gate, making something happen.
I had no concerns about providing music that could be marketed well. And, at the same time that there was this, “Well, let’s just see” kind of thing happening, I was being courted by another label, and when “Feel So Real (Won’t Let Go)” was positioned between “When Doves Cry” by Prince being number one, and then it was Michael Jackson and Jermaine Jackson’s “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming,” and “Feel So Real (Won’t Let Go)” was number three, I was waiting to see Elektra make their move. And obviously, Prince had Purple Rain about to be released, the movie, and the Jacksons are the Jacksons.
So I was waiting to see, okay, if I got this far, what are you all going to do? And they didn’t do anything. So then when it was time, and I fulfilled my role and did the best that I could. “Get Off (You Fascinate Me),” we did a nice video and that was an interesting thing, because that’s one of the first times I was able to get them to give a budget to really do a nice video. Prior to that I had done three videos, but it was like three videos in one day. So you can imagine that the sets were small and the videos were pretty grainy. Because, you know, black artists--we didn’t do videos then. And so, anyway, I made the move after that because I had--I felt like I had accomplished my goals there, and it was time to try something different.
Rico: Okay, so before we move on to the Clive Davis period of your career, I’d just like to take a moment to talk about a couple of people that seem like they’ve been pretty consistent throughout the course of your career. Like I said before, Reggie Andrews--you also have Charles Mims Jr., Sheree Brown, even your sister Angela. And you’ve also written with Syreeta Wright on a few occasions. How did that group of people, that seem to always be around you, influence the trajectory of your sound moving into the more pop and R&B kind of vein?
Patrice: Well, they also had some of the same vocabulary from the other stuff. So Sheree and I are contemporaries of one another, around the same age, and Syreeta was a good friend of ours and she was a masterful lyricist, and people knew her as a singer, of course, but she was also a great lyricist--a very conscious person, too, and really helped to give us advice and support when it was like we didn’t understand what was going on. And she would just say, “Just stay true to your music. Just stay true to the music.”
And, you mentioned Reggie, and his involvement was always very full of knowledge and advice, and fearless. Why not? We can try this. All somebody has to say, to get you to really go to it, is to say you can’t do it. When they say you can’t--that’s when, you know, oh, this might be possible, and you keep going. And Charles Mims again was a contemporary of mine; we were in high school together and great friends and shared a lot of the same musical vocabulary. He’s a pianist, as well, so we shared a lot of the same sensibilities, artistically, loved the same artists. So there was a communication there that allowed for these people, along with others: Freddie Washington and Paul Jackson Jr., who I’ve known since before he could play the guitar.
You know, these were people that I grew up with and we had, I won’t call it a short cut, but definitely, we didn’t have to sit around justifying stuff. We could play and know that if felt great; it was true. It was honest for where we were at, and we weren’t concerned with what everybody else was doing. We were just doing our thing, and lots of people were drawn into the fold and helped to make those things happen because they could. The music was the first priority.
Rico: Okay, so you mentioned that a lot of other labels were interested at that period that you’d put out NOW, and one of them was Arista, apparently, and you had made the move to Clive’s label that was actually really starting to pick up steam. I think they had just released Whitney’s album the year before yours. So things were really happening with Arista. The industry was really starting to stand up and take notice of them. How was the recording process for WATCH OUT and what was your perspective on how Arista could help you take what you’d already done to the next level?
Patrice: Well that was almost exactly the conversation that I had with Clive Davis, is that he recognized as his M.O., is that he does recognize talent and ability and marketability, and that was what he wanted to do. “You know, they keep missing, and you’re poised to be at another level and we have the machinery to take you there and the belief in you as an artist and your music to do the same.” So I bought into that and felt good about being involved with somebody who clearly was a strategist and a marketing expert and appreciative of the music and me as an artist et cetera, et cetera. I didn’t know, however, that that would mean that you could do an album and might have to wait, as I did, nearly two and a half to three years for the involvement to be your turn.
And, the concern was, when I turned in WATCH OUT, that, “Well, it’s a good album, but I don’t hear a hit.” Well, now, the last time somebody had said something like that they were really incorrect. And not that I didn’t trust that, you know, he would be able to find whatever it was that he considered a hit, but I didn’t know it was going to take three years.
Rico: So you recorded the album actually in ’84?
Patrice: Uh-huh, and I didn’t know that what he would find and consider a hit would be the type of tune that it was. I did it because you have to do what you gotta do. But when radio didn’t embrace it, I knew there was a problem, and by this time, remember, I had had albums on Elektra, I’d had albums chart prior to that on Fantasy, I was a part of that whole movement of what was happening at urban radio, and we were very close to a lot of the DJs, and many of them were personalities, and we were very close to them.
You’d go by the station and they would have events and you would show up and stuff. So you had a rapport and developed a rapport with a lot of air personalities--and for me, because I was around a certain age at the time, a lot of college radio, very powerful college radio, like WHUR in DC who would break a lot of my music. Who were like, “Okay, this is cool, but this is not what we expected from you.”
Rico: Do you think that it probably stemmed from the fact that--I know you had switched production; you had Jerry Knight on there, who is famous for “Overnight Sensation” among other things, but do you think because the album was recorded in ’84 that by the time it came out in ’87 that the sound was a little dated for the market?
Patrice: I don’t think the sound of the things I was doing was dated. I definitely thought that the sound of what I ended up with was not in keeping with the similar sound that the rest of the album was. It was probably--it was right at the moment. It was not progressive, by any means. It was straight down the middle, clear pop music for right then. And, you know, there’s something to be said for somebody wanting to capitalize on what is going on right now, but that had not been my history.
And radio--there were certain radio stations that were not, “If we want that, we’ll listen to somebody else. What we want from you is what’s next.” And so, the fact that it was recorded … later, no. Because we did stray from doing what we always did. Just going in and letting the music dictate what it was and what we needed to do.
And the proof of that ended up being that the two pieces from it that got played the most were “Watch Out” and “Come Back To Me.” But that did not sit well with Arista, I’m sure. Because they were putting a lot of energy and money and time into providing these songs that we had been waiting on. So, when radio said, “Well, you know, we really would like this one,” that was not the plan. And it became clear very soon that maybe it was time for me to step back from this side of it.
Rico: Okay, so you decided to just take a break from the recording industry?
Patrice: I took a break because during that time, during that couple of years when waiting for the hit record for that album, remember, I was trying to do also film music and this and that and the other, and I did music for television. I did five specials for Robert Townsend, the Partners In Crime HBO series, his comedy shows, and I did Hollywood Shuffle during that time. I did other things.
As somebody who was trying to be a composer, remember, the whole recording thing for me was a very lucky, very happy accident, but a sidestep from what it was that I was trying to do. I just put a little bit more energy back into what I had initially wanted to do. And, in so doing, it became really easy for me to finally say, “Well you know, I can just kind of move away. I’ve been nominated for the Grammys; I didn’t win it, but I was there. I was in the top 5,“ and the difference for me wasn’t based upon how many more records I could sell. I had been on tour, I’d done a lot of things and I loved every minute of it.
So it didn’t represent, maybe to me, the same thing that it might have represented to somebody else, because I had other things that I also wanted to pursue. And I saw time slipping away from maybe being able to work on some of those other things. So this was an opportunity for me to be able to do that, and in so doing, I realized that I wouldn’t miss it all that much if I stepped away from the recording stance, solo artist recording situation.
Rico: Okay. But you eventually came back. I’m not sure if it was that you were missing the recording process or what have you.
Patrice: No, I was minding my own business, doing my thing, working a lot. And the idea of doing another record was the furthest from my mind. But by this time, smooth jazz had started entering the fore, the radio marketplace and, in fact, the same guy who had independently helped me with “Forget Me Nots” was now one of the main champions of a continuation of the urban quiet storm in an updated format that they were calling smooth jazz.
He came to me and said, “This is such a no-brainer for you. You should do this, come on. You need to be signed; people miss you out there. You could do this with your eyes closed. Come on, let’s do it.” So I was given a small budget to go ahead and do another album, and that became the SIGNATURE LP. And I decided that this was sort of a way to be able to kind of see what I meant and where I was. I had done another project called ANYTHING BUT ORDINARY prior to that, on a very small label, Syndrome. And again I ran into the situation where the machinery wasn’t there necessarily to handle the needs of something that was going to compete in that marketplace.
So, when somebody came at me and said, “Listen, there’s this new radio format; you’ll fit right in, blah, blah, blah.” I said, “Well, okay.” And I did it, and then the album was very well received. The company loved it, and I remember turning it in on a Tuesday, and a month later, it was like an executive turntable. Everybody left and it was like, “Okay, this label is now going to be an alternative rock label.” And I’m like, “Well, what are you going to do with an album like SIGNATURE if it’s going to now be alternative rock?” Well, it was part of the Warner’s group, and they said, “Well, we’re going to hold it.” I was like, “Hold it?”
So, I didn’t want … there was a lot of anticipation about me having another product out there, and no one’s going to explain to the public what happened. So, once again, I find myself supporting my own CD to get it out there. It got out there; it got some decent radio play, and it was nominated for a Grammy. But I said never again. Never again do I put my money into it for somebody else to own it.
Rico: I understand exactly where you’re coming from, and this is the part of the industry that I guess a lot of people don’t realize exists. We’ve been commonly, I guess, given the illusion that all you have to do is sign your name on the dotted line, and magically everything else just falls into place, but stories like yours kind of let you know that that’s not exactly the way the story always goes.
Patrice: No. And I think that one of the things that is becoming more and more clear to us now, that the paradigm has definitely shifted to a new way of having to do things, is that the energy shifted from records becoming a documentation of the development, the growth of artists and their body of work, to a situation where it became all about the marketing, to a situation, to where that marketing shifted from the importance of the artist and what they could offer to the importance of what the producer could do to manipulate the artist’s abilities, or lack thereof, to just the heavy duty straight up marketing.
Well, you see, my point is this: the music got to be less and less of a priority. The shift towards that which was important became less and less about the abilities of the artist. Their look, their marketability became based upon things where the music was not necessarily the first priority. And as we got more and more, in my mind, more and more away from that as being part of the ingredient, we left a big gap.
Everything was changing. The value of the music was changing. The value of music education was changing because you don’t need to play an instrument. Why? And music in the schools was disappearing as our monetary, our financial ability for school systems to maintain certain kinds of budgets. And when they decided what has to go, art and music [are the] first things they cross out. So our value systems shifted and really changed, and I think, in that happening, that the music business became very unbalanced. And ultimately all that needed to happen next was that … was exactly what did happen, and that was that people found a way to be able to get the music for nothing.
And now the value of it is really low, and the playing field is open to everybody. I’m not so sure that, when you’re talking about good-better-best, that that’s fair.
Patrice: And I think that our music has suffered for it.
Rico: It’s a very important point that you brought up just a short while ago, in terms of taking the arts out of schools, and then also just the paradigm starting to change in terms of the actual creation of music. Something really important happened around the same time that you left Elektra Records, which was not necessarily the advent of sampling, but the actual place of sampling within popular music started to rise at that point, and by ’97, I think there were lots of Patrice Rushen samples that started to pop up, and I read somewhere that you receive on average 30 sample requests per week? That’s remarkable.
But then also you have, that same year that you came out with SIGNATURE, or maybe a year before, you actually were sampled on one of the biggest records of that time which was the Will Smith single for the “Men in Black” song, which earned you your first Grammy. So I just kind of want to delve into that whole paradoxical situation, and get your take on sampling and what you think of it, and is it something that you endorse, or is it something that you are standoffish about?
Patrice: No, I don’t have a problem with sampling at all. I think it has become one of those things that, in one sense, is a very creative art to be able to take a piece of something and use it to create something else. It’s a very high compliment when people take music and hear it as being valid [for] years and years; that’s the whole point. Everybody wants to feel like they did something that left a mark. So, to have a song or several songs that people love to take samples from, because it means that the music is a part of the music that is timeless. And that, for a songwriter, or a composer, is a big deal. Because it’s touching an element that is the main source of the music anyway.
Without getting too far off into it, you know, for a lot of us who play music, we are in touch with its spiritual nature and its blessing of what it’s about to be able to play music. But certainly, from the creation standpoint, be able to understand that it, at its best--we’re almost outside of ourselves when we’re playing and when we’re writing or whatever. It’s not of this plane. So, when people use the music later, much later than it was originally recorded, when they find it and they find that truth in it that rings true for them, that’s a very, very high compliment.
That being said, I’m also in touch with the fact that a lot of the sampling comes because the creative desire for all generations; I feel there’s always the need for that voice. There’s always the need for that energy, and everybody wants to do something, but the kids--they don’t play--so they sample. And they sample because that’s their tool to be able to get to the music, but if you asked them what song they’re playing, some of them can name the instruments, and some of them can’t. If you ask them to recreate that groove, some of them can and a lot of them can’t. But they find other ways to be able to use their creative energy to make it happen.
In most cases, my samples have been used really creatively. There have been some where I’ve just flat out had to turn it down, because they weren’t contributing anything that would be positive. Some samples, especially from some of the, not so much now, but before some of the rap records. I don’t need you to take what was a love song and then, when your rap comes out, the first lyric is degrading to women. I will not endorse that. But if you are able to use the song and give it some additional meaning, or put it into a context that keeps a certain kind of positive integrity about the creation of this piece, and you want to use it as a creation of this new piece, I think that’s amazing. I think that’s great.
Rico: Absolutely. One thing I wanted to ask you about the things that you’ve done over the course of your career on your albums--one thing that struck me was the vocals; you actually started doing vocals, if I’m not mistaken, on PATRICE, but I know that the second album had a vocal on “What’s the Story,” I think that was Josie James singing that lead on there.
Patrice: Yeah. she sang: “What’s the Story” was on the Fantasy release, Prestige released called BEFORE THE DAWN. And on SHOUT IT OUT, I sang a song called “Let Your Heart Be Free.” And then on the subsequent albums, primarily because of the style of the music, I think, that’s when I started singing a little more, by request of the record company. That was the last thing I was ever going to do on my own.
Rico: That’s what I was going to ask, whose idea was it?
Patrice: Yeah, it came out of, “Wow we want more things like this.” And when I sang, it allowed for there to be an additional element of commercial viability. But for me, personally, it was just a choice of expression to do the music, for the music to come out. This one is a vocal as opposed to an instrumental, Which is why I would always include instrumentals on the projects because it’s like--some tunes, it was just about that. Or there might be a group singing, which I had experimented with that, with the songs like “The Hump” that was on the SHOUT IT OUT album. These were sort of experiments, trying out stuff and some of it took.
Rico: Yeah, I just couldn’t imagine anyone else but you singing “Remind Me.”
Patrice: Well, thank you.
Rico: It just adds that certain something special to it that makes it that much more alluring.
Patrice: Oh, thank you.
Rico: I want to actually end off by talking about two new exciting projects that you have going on. One of them is an album project and the other’s a tour. We’re talking about 1+One, which is a project that you have with Ndugu Chancler. And then you have Patrice and Friends, which is described as “having all your favorite desserts on one plate.” That’s really, really making me want to go out and see it already. Tell us a little bit about both of those projects.
Patrice: Okay. Well, we’ll start with Patrice and Friends, actually. We’ll work backwards. The Patrice and Friends is actually a collective. The friends are a collective of all the people I have worked with, many of whom we’ve played on each other’s records, we’ve toured together, we’ve done television and projects, films, this and that, those TV specials that I have been involved in putting together, orchestras with the Grammys, NAACP Image Awards, Emmys, or something like that. We work together a lot, and I like to work with my friends, and we can get to the music and we have a great time.
Having done that for so many other people getting to reap the benefit of that, I started feeling like, “Man, a lot of my friends have become well known artists, leaders in their own right.” But these days, especially, it’s very difficult to tour. It’s very hard to put things together. It’s hard to be able to get out and do things, and when you’ve been around as long as some of us have, you begin to have to find new ways to be motivated. I wanted to get out and play. But I don’t need to get out and play with people who I’ve got to spend a lot of time and energy teaching them.
Now, that’s not to say I don’t like to teach, I do teach,;I do teach--I teach at Berkley College of Music in Boston, and I teach at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in their newly-formed pop music department at the Thornton School of Music. So teaching and working with young people--I work with the LA Cultural Affairs department mentoring kids here and I work with the young musicians program up in Oakland, California, Northern California. So, yes, I have my fill, I love it, to be able to teach, but I don’t want to teach on the road. I want to play.
Rico: I can understand that.
Patrice: So, when I want to play, I want to play at the level I can play. I want to be challenged at the level that I can do my thing, and my friends can do that. But they’re also some of the busiest and most in-demand players. So, as opposed to having one bass player, I have five or six that I love to call. Among them, Freddie Washington Jr.-- Ready Freddie, you know him as. Among them, Reggie Hamilton, who has played with Elton John, is out right now with Ramazzotti who is a big, big star in Italy.
Melvin Davis, Nate Philips, drummers, Ndugu Chancler, Will Kennedy of the Yellow Jackets, Sunny Emory, formerly of Earth, Wind & Fire, Kirkie B played with Elton John. These are just a few. Harvey Mason, guitarists, Paul Jackson Jr., Doc Powell, Dwight Sills--you get my drift. Saxophonists: Everet Harp, Eric Marienthal, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum. These are people that are in this collective. So, when I get some dates or something to do, if one of them can’t make it, I don’t panic. I can say, “Can you make it?” “Oh, I can make these two.” And we all bring something to the table.
So, when people come to hear Patrice and Friends, we’re all contributing our hits that we played on each other’s stuff anyway, and we never leave the stage. It’s not like I play and then I walk off and then somebody else plays and they walk off. You get to see the process of us working together. And I think that we need that balance to be able to see more of that, because we are inundated with music being a contest and a competition all the time.
We don’t also have a balance of being able to see a camaraderie that allows me to work for you and you to work for me. And that it’s instant and that it’s constant and that everybody gels in that way, because there’s this driving force of the music being the first priority that allows for that to happen. And it’s a blast to be able to play with my friends and do things like that.
Fast forwarding to 1+One. 1+One is a duo. It’s Ndugu Chancler and myself. Ndugo also plays vibes, and those of you who don’t know Ndugu Chancler, you would know his playing from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” That’s the drummer on Billie Jean. You would maybe know him from George Duke’s “Reach For It.” He’s the writer of the award winning “Let it Whip” from the Dazz Band. He’s played with Santana, he’s played with Miles Davis, he’s played with Joe Henderson, he’s played with Freddie Hubbard--you know, just running the gamut of the contemporary music spectrum, including Frank Sinatra. So we were classmates, schoolmates in high school, so our vocabulary and where we came from and how we learned--very similar.
We used to play together all the time in high school, just him and I sometimes, going at it to try to learn this music. That kind of fire and that kind of commitment to the music has continued. And he also plays vibraphone and so, on this gig, he can play vibes and drums and he’s very funny also--clown around. And I can play keys and I can sing and sometimes I play guitar and sometimes I play drums, too. And we just-- all over the stage, doing all this different stuff, because the technology has afforded us the ability to be able to play a range of material with just the two of us.
So we’ve been doing this format, actually, for almost 20 years. But we are finally able to do it more often and streamline how we do it, and so I’m really enjoying having an opportunity to do a little more of that.
So those are two performance formats that I enjoy and that give me a chance to get out and do some playing that is, again, at a really high and challenging level and under the umbrella of what people would want to hear when they come to see me, and I’m hopeful that we can do more and more of those two things.
Rico: It sounds amazing. Just quickly tell people where they can go to find out more information about both of those wonderful projects.
Patrice: You can certainly go to my website, www.patricerushen.com. I’m also on Facebook--I have a new authorized fan page. Go check it out. You’ll be up to the minute: we’re posting pictures, we’re posting all kinds of info, and I’m @fluent1 on Twitter. So please feel free to get in touch in any way you like, and keep me apprised as to what it is that you enjoy and what it is you’re finding out.
We do pay attention. I certainly do not take for granted that you’ve got a lot of options out there, in terms that you listen to and things that you’ve heard. My audience has been one that has been very, very loyal and continues to grow because so many people are interested in what I do. So I’m just looking forward to much, much more.
Rico: Wonderful. Patrice, I’d just like to thank you so much for sharing your story with us today. It’s just a remarkable story, and mostly, I’d like to thank you for all the wonderful music that you’ve given us over the years, and we’re looking forward to many more.
Patrice: Thank you very much, and there’s more to come. I promise you.
Rico: I’m going to hold you to that promise.
Rico: Alright. Talk to you soon.
Patrice: Thanks so much.
About the Writer
Rico "Superbizzee" Washington is a Washington, D.C. native and has served as music editor for Brooklyn-based Free Magazine and was a staff writer and columnist for XLR8R Magazine. His work can be found in Wax Poetics, Art Nouveau, and Okayplayer.com. He lives and works in New York City.