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afropunk interview: patrice rushen speaks her truth

July 31, 2019
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For people who grew up in the 1980s, Patrice Rushen’s music provided the soundtrack to their basement parties and nightclub forays. Hits like “Forget Me Nots,” “Remind Me,” “Feels So Real,” and “Haven’t You Heard,” ruled the radio and dance floors all over the world. In the ‘90s hip-hop artists sampled and interpolated her hits to make meaningful songs for their generation. Rushen’s hit, “Remind Me” helped launch Mary J. Blige’s career in 1992 when she interpolated it for her song “You Remind Me“ and helped Bed-Stuy’s Junior M.A.F.I.A. get radio play with the Aaliyah featuring “I Need You Tonight.” Rushen’s hit “Forget Me Nots” found a new audience when the sample was used for  Will Smith’s 1997 film-inspired hit “Men in Black.”

Known in musician circles by her nickname “Baby Fingers,” for her small but dexterous digits, Rushen is a singer,-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who plays the piano, keyboards, flute, clarinet, and percussion. Classically trained, she has composed for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Her new compilation album, Remind Me: The Classic Elektra Recordings 1978-1984, was released on Strut this month and features cuts like the 12” versions of “Haven’t You Heard,” “Forget Me Nots,” and “Feels So Real (Won’t Let Go)” and the LP version of “Remind Me,” as well as early classics like “Music of the Earth” and “Let’s Sing a Song of Love.” The compilation album will come in all formats, including a vinyl edition with never-before-seen pictures and an exclusive new interview with Rushen. Years ago Elektra didn’t see any hits on the album “Straight from the Heart.” Rushen had to hire an independent promoter to get the album heard. It would eventually garner a Grammy nomination. Now those hits will reach a whole new audience.

AFROPUNK talked to Rushen about her new compilation,  the contemporary artists she likes, and her boundless musicianship.

Talk about the new compilation, casual fans may not know some of the songs on it.

The music that was recorded during that time period when I was with Elektra was probably the most prolific time for me. Radio used to be such a tremendous, powerful tool. It really made a big difference in people finding me. I was recording before that I was doing some jazz records and then working in the studio – during those years I was able to find what would become my sound from the standpoint of kind of borrowing from the tradition, but also utilizing things that were happening in the present and not being afraid of the future. So basically just doing the music that I like to do and having the resources to be able to do it for those years. We had budgets to work with so I could do strings and horns and I could write and we had a lot of things in our favor. They gave me all the colors in the crayon box to play with.

Let’s talk about your jazz beginnings. You got your big break at the Monterey Jazz Festival, tell me about that.

I was part of a high school band and we entered a competition but there was a combo division also, so our band didn’t win, but the combo I entered did win. So the prize was that you appear in the festival. So that appearance with my combo of 1972, brought a lot of attention and garnered the Prestige [Records] contract — three albums for them.

I know you got a lot of flak from straight-ahead jazz musicians about moving into different genres like R&B and disco, talk about that.

It was a little uncomfortable because there was sort of the implication there that there was some kind of ownership on what, as an artist, is possible for you. And that limitation was uncomfortable to feel. Like, wait a minute, just because I do this well doesn’t mean that’s all I can do well. It doesn’t alter my love or dedication nor my commitment to jazz. At first, I felt a little weird about it, but I wasn’t so weirded out that I didn’t continue to move on. I hadn’t done enough recordings and had enough experiences to feel that I had even found my voice even in jazz. So I was kind of hesitant to sign that first contract. I wasn’t looking for a record deal. But I needed money for school. That was one of the things that prompted me to say yes. I didn’t feel ready by any means. I didn’t have the attachment [to jazz] enough to feel like I was betraying anything because I hadn’t been there long enough. It didn’t stop me from pursuing what it was I thought I wanted to do musically and I had seen how others much more established in jazz who were having some of those same criticisms —[musicians like] George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea or anybody that was outside of a particular approach to what that music could be. They handled it — they just kept on moving.

I’m impressed by the fact that you’re a multi-instrumentalist, you arrange, produce, you sing, you write music and all of the different ways that you work in music, what led you down that path?

I thought I wanted to be a composer for film and TV [at first]. My fascination with other instruments was like, “How does that work?” So I could understand better how to write for it. I was a music education major and that was a safe bet for my parents to invest in. You come out of that with the qualifications to teach. You might end up teaching high school band— you also need to know how the instruments work. It was ideal for somebody like me that wanted to write to kind of get into all the different orchestral instruments and understand a little bit about each instrument in each family. It wasn’t wasted energy, it was all wonderful, transferable knowledge

You actually did end up writing and composing for TV and film…

I did, yeah. Robert Townsend actually gave me my first opportunity in terms of a feature film, which was “Hollywood Shuffle” and from that, he got five HBO specials [“Robert Townsend and His Partners In Crime”]. He directed all five. That was the start of everything in terms of music direction. Utilizing all of the tools [I had at my disposal] to help his shows. From those, I got the NAACP Image Awards which I did for 13 years straight. From that, I did the Emmys and later the Grammys. That music direction actually began an offshoot of having all these various experiences as a performer as a producer, as a studio player, as an arranger. All of those things came into play with that.

Were you looking towards anyone to model yourself after — like Quincy Jones or Curtis Mayfield who had worked in composing for TV and film?

Quincy Jones for sure. That’s who I saw moving quietly across all of these different areas which were also areas of interest. I thought it can be done. I knew a lot about Quincy because I was a fan of his writing especially. I knew that he had been a trumpet player, I knew that he worked in all of these bands, his love, and study of classical music, all of the things that helped me understand better his depth and fearlessness. He told me there could be an obstacle course in getting to what I wanted, but to not be afraid of variety and diversity and experimentation and just be really good at it. Those words served me very well.

As a woman in the industry, producing, arranging, playing, what kind of challenges were you having?

Fortunately, I think I had come up in a time when a lot of that groundwork as far as women had been laid. I didn’t have to pioneer any of that. I was in high school, the majority of my peers were men, especially as an instrumentalist. My level of seriousness and commitment wasn’t ever a question. They were my best friends, so they were protective of me. I had a very healthy association with being the only woman, but being supported. And I had that same kind of support at home because my parents were like OK, be good at it and be happy and do the work. And that carried over so by the time that I met, at least to my face any hesitation or resistance based upon other people’s bias or issues, the cat was out of the bag. I was gone already and I kept it moving. I had been given permission to be my best self by people who had my back.

Speaking of  Elektra, they said you probably shouldn’t write your own material, what was your response to that?

I would do the albums and do the records — we had done our homework. We brought it to the label and they sat there and they were like, “Nah, we don’t hear anything on it.” At first, it was like, you’re kidding me, then we saw they were serious about it.  “Haven’t You Heard” and a couple of other records, were poised to be stronger, they became hits at Black radio, for sure. But at the time there was also this push for crossover and you really did need the record company’s help to do that — and they needed to be involved in it and want it for you. And to go after it in a way that would make pop radio respond. And I never had that. When they said that for the “Straight From the Heart” album we just knew that we needed to be proactive and not just need it to be a tax write off for them, but to go after the music. We knew it needed to get in front of the people for them to decide. We figured out what we needed to do just a few weeks of independent promotion. And it turned out to work.

Coming up in the ‘80s with Anita Baker, Michael Jackson, and Prince, and all of these major artists, do you feel like you got your just due as an artist?

It depends on your definition of getting just due. During that time, it could have been that they were just missing it. The result of it was I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do. So I didn’t have to worry about committees of people deciding what songs were going to go on the record. I didn’t have to worry about people coming by the studio telling me I had to change this or that. We were allowed to organically explore our process to get there. Without interference or involvement. From that standpoint, it was all good. Once the records hit the marketing mechanism at that point we were in place to get the music to the people. If there was a place where I thought I didn’t get my just due it would be there. But that’s not something I was in control over. But the records found their way.

Did you get a chance to explore your classical roots, I know you wrote for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra —were there other areas where you were able to explore that background?

I did one movement of a symphony. I had my cathartic moment and was literally putting it in a box and a friend of mine who happens to be a teacher and composer called me up and said, “What you doing?” I said, boxing up my symphony, no one is ever going to hear it. He said don’t do that, why don’t you enter it into one of these reading contests which I had never heard of before. This group called the American Composers Forum had a contest that my friend was aware of. He said, just enter the first movement and if they pick it, you at least get to hear it. When they heard it, they asked are you going to finish it? And when I finished it, it was read on the Detroit Symphony and they commissioned me afterward to write for them and their youth orchestra. Those kind of sensibilities are part of what had to be applied to writing for film – they are all branches of the same tree. There’s been no wasted time because all of those things have ended up helping the other things.

Who do you like in terms of female singers nowadays?

Ledisi and Lalah Hathaway. A generation of people who are old enough to appreciate the tradition and have done some study and some work understand that they are part of an important continuum, but at the same time they are young enough to embrace and understand the new sensibilities of what the music is and what can be brought to it and enhance it. I see them as two people that stand out most immediately when you talk about singers today.

You’re teaching at USC now as Chair of the Popular Music program, what’s that like?

[I’m] teaching and lecturing a lot. Traveling [and] still playing with people. I just came back from Europe having played with a jazz bassist Christian McBride. We just got back from Europe. I was part of this experimental band called the Christian McBride Situation. It’s comprised of two turntablists, myself, and saxophonists. Great experimentation with a new pallet of colors. I have this new compilation coming out. I am looking to tour with this record. I had never really done that. I had never performed this music in the context that it was under my own name, not since the ‘80s when it came out. Even then I didn’t do a lot of it because you needed record companies’ support and those things were difficult, especially for me.

I am the ambassador for artistry in education for Berklee College of Music. I’m at USC as the Chair of the Popular Music program and that involves the development of a curriculum and a methodology to create a working situation so that kids would graduate and be able to go into the workforce. Developing a program like that has been very exciting.

You’ve been blessed to be able to work in music exclusively for your whole career, talk about that.

I was either teaching someone, playing, writing, performing with, performing myself, collaborating, it’s always been in and around music. There are so many opportunities that are available because we only see the stuff that’s in front, but there’s a whole bunch of stuff that goes on for the things to be in front.

What was it like to work with legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson?

That was my first album [1970’s Prelusion], I had been a Joe Henderson fan for a long time and he happened to be on that label. Just as a rule of thumb they used to pair the new artist with a more established artist that was on that label just to give them a little something. They said here’s a new artist we have on our label, we wanted to ask you if you wanted to record with Joe Henderson. I was like, are you kidding me right now. He appears on that very first album. All my emotions were running through – excited, terrified, he was so gracious. He didn’t talk a lot. Very soft-spoken. I was thrilled because I had been a fan for such a long time and here he is on my very first record. It was unbelievable.

There are aspects of the music that still resonate and are still vibrant. They are focusing on the vinyl. Its a whole package, like a two-album set. There are pictures I’ve never seen before. The packaging is beautifully done. It feels really good that this music is resurfacing and Strut has put together a beautiful package for it and this time around with it being given this kind of attention.