Rushen’s strength lies in first emphasizing the individual, who then gently ripples out into a larger group.
At first glance, the jazz-funk R&B of Patrice Rushen sounds a lot like the music that other black artists were producing in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s music that finds a late-night, danceable groove and lingers there by packing in layers of horn and string sections, percussion and keys. We can say the same about Earth, Wind & Fire, Teddy Pendergrass and Chic, for example, all artists that produced a kind of polyphonic, polished funk that often gestured back to jazz and Motown and forward to disco and club/pop music.
Remind Me: The Classic Elektra Recordings 1978-1984, recently released on vinyl and CD by Strut Records, helps complicate surface understandings of Patrice Rushen’s music by accentuating her virtuosic composition process and community-centered lyrics. The collection consists of 15 highlights from the five studio albums (and companion 12-inch versions) released on Elektra during these seven years: Patrice (1978), Pizzazz (1980), Posh (1980), Straight from the Heart (1982) and Now (1984). Across these tracks, we see an artist that developed her sound by breezily breaking genre and cultural boundaries.
Rushen ended up in the music world at three, when she landed in a University of Southern California program that focused on early musical education. From a young age, she learned to identify and arrange various sounds as a listener, a pianist and eventually a flautist. By high school, she was composing original tunes and arranging James Brown songs for her marching band. All of this training paid off magnificently during her Elektra years, when she would play multiple instruments (piano, synth, drums, clavinet, bass and guitar, among others), provide both lead and backing vocals, produce, arrange, conduct and write the bulk of each LP. To call her a polymath would be a major understatement.
Yet Remind Me reminds us that Rushen never played up her musical talents or attempted to come off as a musical genius: the songs seem effortless, as if they formed and grew to adulthood directly on the dance floor. Check out “Feels So Real (Won’t Let Go),” which shot all the way to number two on the US R&B charts in 1984. This 12-inch version of the track comes across as casual—mostly mid-tempo bass line and catchy vocal repetition. But sandcastles of sound emerge from the foundation, almost mythically: the snap of timbales, Rushen’s own Rhodes piano and the most glitter-packed guitar this side of Prince’s “Tambourine.” Yet the song doesn’t mind disappearing when the next wave arrives or letting go when a hip-hop producer enters stage right to take freely from its components.
Many of Remind Me’s tracks are familiar from being sampled in later songs by artists ranging from Shabba Ranks and Junior M.A.F.I.A. to Will Smith and Mary J. Blige, but it’s a pleasure to hear the originals in full, extended glory. The 12-inch “Forget Me Nots” is as amazing as ever, even if you are likely to accidentally sing the Men in Black theme over its bass-breaking riff. This version of the track gives that riff even more room to waltz around and eventually intertwine with the beckoning cries of Gerald “Wonderfunk” Albright’s saxophone.
While “Forget Me Nots” emphasizes the remains of a romantic relationship, other tracks here are just as likely to underline the communal possibilities of partying. “Look Up!,” for one, stresses the importance of self-care via kinetic togetherness. “If your life don’t sing/ You gotta move/ Pick it up and get higher/ And get right into it,” Rushen reminds listeners. A similar message is even more infectious on “Music of the Earth,” where she begins, “There’s no need to rush/ ‘Cause there is no hurry/ Hear the music of the earth.” These sorts of lyrics purposely avoid the sultry approach of Pendergrass and the cosmopolitanism of Chic to zero in on an elemental kind of joy. They’re most similar in subject matter to the lyrics of Earth, Wind & Fire, but Rushen’s strength lies in first emphasizing the individual, who then gently ripples out into a larger group. This can also be said of her songwriting and composing process: it’s just Patrice to start with, but each piece gradually becomes so much more.
The only problem with this collection is that it focuses purely on the hits and singles. Remind Me provides a streamlined, incredibly fun listen, but we don’t get a sense of what Rushen was up to the rest of the time during this period. There are no B-sides or demos here, no context to enable a fuller grasp of Rushen’s creative process. Nevertheless, this is a great starting point and should draw more attention to one of the most impressive creative minds of her era. It allows us to see her talents subtly, over tracks that find a melody and then add the exact right sonic elements to expand in concentric circles of pure joy.