by Michael Gonzales
Coming tardy to the party, lately its been all about the Weeknd: continuously YouTube playing the video to his hypnotic Wicked Games, packing the weed pipe for yet another maudlin music session of House of Balloons, homeboy Abel Tesfayes hedonistic whine takes me on a post-millennial trip through a landscape of youthful heartbreak, shattered egos and enough drugs to kill an elephant.
Alongside Santigold, Frank Ocean, Miguel, the Foreign Exchange, SZA, Adrian Young and others, sepia skinned sound warriors whove sought the less traveled road for their soul stylings have finally come in vogue, with the cool kids referring to these mavericks as Alt-R&B. Drawing more on the electronic emotions of Prince and Depeche Mode than the gospel church roots of yesteryear performers, these artists are often celebrated by critics and fans alike for reviving a genre (soul) that had sung itself into a corner.
Unafraid of being artfully experimental, a few of these artists have actually broken through in terms of sells, major tours and commercial licensing deals. Still, as exciting as I find the new school of soul boys and girls doing the damned thing, its disheartening that none of the kids have ever name-checked the aural boldness of singer/conceptualist Rachid and his thrilling debut Prototype as inspiration.
When the disc was initially released in 1998, it didnt exactly set the field aflame. Music scribes dug Rachid’s vibe, with Spin magazine voting Prototype the best album of 1998 that youve never heard, west coast writer Ernest Hardy penning a brilliant article in the LA Weekly that doubled as Gay Studies essay and yours truly talking smack in the pages of a used to be great urban magazine. But, unfortunately, none of that praise meant a damn thing when it came down to MTV/BET, radio programmers or promotion budgets.
Like other experimental Black artists before him (Basehead, the Veldt), some people loved their lo-fi sound, but the record company wasnt sure how to sell it. It also didnt help that the arty singer dropped his haunting first single Pride at the height of the Bad Boy era, when the only left of center American stuff getting any play was being made by Dallas Austin, Organized Noise or the Timbaland/ Missy Elliott sound factories.
With Rachid working beside producers Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers, years before the duo struck platinum oil with Rihanna, in its own way, Prototype served as a blueprint for the post-millennial soul children of the revolution even if they didnt know it. A Sarah Lawrence graduate who studied French, English literature and theater arts, Rachid had never been the boy next door. From the time I was a child, people have known that I was different, he told me in the winter of 1997. Its not like I was trying to be, but like my music, Im a walking contradiction.
Along with his publicist and a few other journalists, Id accompanied Rachid to France, where he was recording Requiem Pour Un Con, a Serge Gainsbourg classic. Staying for a week, the collective spent much time together walking the cobblestone streets, visiting Notre Dame and eating in fancy restaurants. While his record company Universal flaunted the Rachids daddy is in Kool & the Gang pedigree like that meant something, after five-minutes with the then 24-year-old it was obvious he had no desire to stand in his fathers funky shadow.
Unlike most of the commercial R&B coming out at the time, Rachid wasnt trying knock the boots, compare your booty to a jeep or ride you like a pony. Too fey to be macho and too smart to be misogynist, Rachid loved David Bowie and Marvin Gaye equally. No taller than Prince in heels, he was a well-built fashionable dude (brother man always looked like he was on a runway) with long, braided hair who could be funny, prickly, art-school pretentious and a wonderful conversationalist.
Talking about Gainsbourg, existentialism, deconstruction and constructing songs, we did a lot of strolling through the street, stepping over dog shit as we exchanged ideas. I wanted my material to be a romantic, revolutionary hybrid of different musical genres, he told me one afternoon in a comic book shop Id dragged everybody to; I wanted my French experience to include a buying a few Moebius graphic novels in their original language. I love hip-hop and soul music, but Im not interested in my music being stereotyped.
Back in those prehistoric days, when one had to carry a portable CD player to listen to music, I never wanted to weighed-down, so I just brought along a few discs for the trip. For the jaunt to Paris, my soundtrack for the entire stay was Faith Evans splendid debut Faith, Portisheads equally wonderful debut Dummy and Rachids own Prototype, which fit in perfectly as my personal soundtrack to that majestic city.
Walking through the city, down the Seine as though Id just stepped out of a Francois Truffaut film looking for Godard girls, I blared the lounge lizard drum-n-bass of Charade; visiting Shakespeare and Co. on a mission for Chester Himes novels, I jammed the guitar feedback heavy and wild strings of Back to the Room; riding in a taxi after dark after partying with a club of drunk Africans, I chilled-out to the aural beauty of The One to Destroy Me and Zoes World; standing in the Louvre staring at smiling Mona Lisa, I got lost in the touching And the Angel Comes.
Rachid was a fan of Massive Attack and Tricky, and one got a sense that Prototype was his attempt to make an American trip-hop album. However, when the album came out a few weeks before The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, nobody was checking for it. Even the tragic beauty of the blue (much like the Weeknds Belong to the World) tinted clip could sway the Philistines to the arty side. In 1998, Rachids magnificent music was just too weird for the world.
Although I didnt take any pictures on my one and only trip to Paris, sixteen years later, I see the images of the city whenever I listen to this moody album.