Words by Jesse Serwer, Photos by Kevin Ornelas
For years, “What ever happened to Patra?” has been one of the great mysteries of dancehall music. The “Queen of the Pack” had a run of crossover hits in the early and mid ’90s including “Romantic Call,” “Worker Man” and “Pull Up to the Bumper,” but after her sophomore album Scent of Attraction in 1995, she essentially disappeared from the scene. (Though she did release two, very below-the-radar albums in the 2000s— 2003’s The Great Escape and 2005’s Where I’ve Been) Recently, after turning up on the bill for a show at BB King’s Blues Club in New York City, we learned that Patra was back in the studio, working on a new album and plotting a comeback. Last month, Tiffany Rhodes of bad-gyal spandex label Butch Diva invited us to meet the elusive singer, whom she’d landed as a model for her fall line, as they prepped for a catalog shoot at Tiffany’s studio in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. In one of her first interviews in years, Patra spoke with us (wearing the transparent lace shirt you see in these photos) about everything from her iconic braids and her fashion choices to her days as the “female Shabba Ranks,” her departure from the music business and what she’s been up to all these years. Patra isn’t one to give away secrets, though. She might be on Twitter now, but this is one lady who values having an air of mystery about her.
BEFORE you get into the interview, though, we’ve got a web-exclusive, 1:35 snippet of Patra’s new single “Bad In a Bed,” produced by Rellee Hayden and the A-Team. (Right now you can only hear the full thing–which debuted on MTV Radio’s syndicated Weekend Countdown this past weekend–on Sway in the Morning on Sirius XM’s Shade 45). True to her roots, Patra takes it back to the early 90s dancehall era, the tough throwback rhythm (sounds a bit like “Chase Vampire” updated with rock guitar) making the perfect vehicle for her Shabba Ranks-meets-Grace Jones vocal style. Stream below and read on for the exclusive Q&A.
[audio:http://largeup.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/BAD-IN-A-BED.mp3|titles=PATRA-BAD IN A BED]
LargeUp: You really owned the braids look, and I see you still have it going on. Have you always had them?
P: No, I have my undercover look but now that I’m getting ready to come back out, I get back in character. Because people love everything else but they will always love the Patra braids.
LU: What did you think when you started to see other people pick your look up in the ’90s…
P: Great. Sometimes I want to get my hair braided in different countries and, because I’m coming, there’s no braids left. I was in Japan and every girl was braided out. It makes you keep it an irie and cultural and natural thing. It doesn’t matter what color or race you are, you can braid your hair because braids is just a natural vibe. Its tourist-y, laid back. You can feel like a Ras if you want. I use it as my link to my African culture. Jamaica is full of Rastafari. We do our thing differently so that’s how I maintain that African culture and then I put the dancehall to it to make it Patra style.
LU: You had some interesting outfits for the time when you first came out. Where would you get them from?
P: I would get outfits from all over. Sony used to take care of everything. I would have people like Patricia Field, Todd Oldham, Versace, everybody. And then I also like to go and shop for myself. I mix everything up. And then, again, the Jamaican culture, all we wear down there is batty rider at dance. It’s like, hello? It’s very simple. Coming from an island, it’s easier for me, because less is more. I don’t have to pick all this stuff to get dressed up.
LU: You’re here modeling for Butch Diva, wearing spandex. Do you remember the first spandex outfit that you had?
P: I couldn’t remember but I’m always wearing spandex because I work out very hard so my stuff is always tight. How I get to know Diva is, I have a friend who knows her. I was doing something in New York and she hooked me up with some outfits. You have to be confident to wear this. Obviously it’s for the woman who has a little body and it’s keeping it very urban and real. It’s a very sensual vibe. I really appreciate the feel of the outfit. That’s what spandex does to the female body.
LU: Who was the original dancehall queen, in your opinion? Before the ’90s, female dancehall artists had more of a tomboy look. Was it you?
P: I let the people decide. But everybody knows what I did was the sensual side of it. Pure sex, straight up. I’m not going around the corner, that’s who I am. I’m not trying to solve the world’s problems. I just speak sensually–make the man feel good, let the woman know how to please their man, all of that stuff.
LU: Tell me about how your career in dancehall got started…
P: I was born in Kingston and raised in Westmoreland, Jamaica, which is the countryside. So I’m a country girl. I used to sing a lot in school and church. There was a contest that I won that had me going to Kingston. And when I went to Kingston, I won the contest again. People realized I could do something. So then I went into the studio, made one or two songs and within a couple weeks I was on one of the biggest stage shows in Jamaica, Sting, which we call Baghdad, because if you’re not good, it’s the most dangerous show in Jamaica. We had a four-way clash with all the female artists, (see video below–Patra performs 2nd after Lady Saw) and from there I walked straight off into Sony’s hands, cause they were looking for the female Shabba. At first I thought it was a joke. I was like, whatever, but still they pursued.
It’s been a long time since you’ve been on the scene. I know you put out some independent albums a few years ago but, for the most part, people haven’t heard from you since the ’90s…
P: What happened was in order for me to be where I am today, being free, I had to make certain choices. Where I’m at now is where I’ve wanted to be for years. I like to consider myself very patient. Now, the time is right, and I’m getting to come back out…What I want my fans to know is I took a break for my own sanity. In order for me to get things in line and make sure I’m happy. Because I loved, and love, what I’m doing. But, at the time, I had to make changes. I have a new team. I moved on, and I’m happy. Now I’m in more demand than before, actually.
LU: Are you living in New York at the moment?
P: Normally, I don’t give out the info where I live. Because I’m still undercover. I like it like that. I don’t want to get trapped up into the whole thing that is going on. I know my fans are going to see me very soon, when I’m ready. But I’m all over. But I have to big up Jamaica all the time because without Jamaica, trust me, I wouldn’t even be coming back out because that’s where I go for my mental…my roots. So has been like my rehab for me. It’s perfect, I love Jamaica. It has helped me a lot mentally, physically, spiritually and all of that.
LU: We’re in the era of oversharing and telling people where you’re at and what you’re doing constantly on Twitter. I see you like to keep things mysterious…
P: I tweet but to let the people know what I’m doing. But if I’m under a cave, I’m not gonna say, “Guess what, I’m in the cave.” I’m gonna tweet about what’s important to them. And to uplift them and let them know the queen is back to turn them on, sensually. That’s basically it. [Being mysterious] is a good thing. You don’t want to overexpose. I’m the most down to earth, roots girl you’ll ever find. I’m straight up. I love it like that. Life should be simple. If you want to come to my house and ting like that, I’ll cook for you. I do all of that. I have many things you’re going to see me doing.
LU: What are some of those things?
P: You’re gonna hear soon. I’m here right now recording—album soon finish. I have to be this way—mysterious—right now because of how long I took a break to get my life back together. For me, actions speak louder than words.
LU: If somebody said where have you been all these years, what would you say?
P: I been chilling, and trying to get everything right. I’m going to a new team—that takes time. It wasn’t that detrimental. The break I took, I’m happy I did. Because if I didn’t, trust me, I wouldn’t be here doing anything right now. Now I have the drive, I’m in control, and it’s a good thing for me. So where I been? Chilling, working out, cooking…I’ve been writing my autobiography, finishing my education, getting close again to my family, but most of all [getting] in control of myself as a human being.
LU: Have you gotten a degree?
P: I got a little thing going on. I’m studying ancient history and political science. That’s my off-time thing. I’m more interested in how the world is evolving than thinking about minor details.
LU: Ancient history, huh?
P: I started that a long time ago because I wanted to know who Cleopatra was, really, because of the name Patra. I was drawn to how she was. It was like wow, it looks like I was meant for this. I can’t stop watching the History Channel so I decided to look further into it, where I would start from way back.
LU: So next time I tune into the History Channel and see archaeologists digging into the tombs in Egypt, I might see you there with them?
P: [Laughs] No, you’re not gonna see me like that. You’re crazy [laughs]. No, no. If you take on a name like Patra—and I travel a lot so people always ask me—you need to know what the whole [Cleo]patra thing is all about. When I first came out, my image was portrayed that way—the whole African thing. So it’s only right to know. Just like we have Michael Manley who we respect so much in Jamaica and Bob Marley and then here in America you have Martin Luther King… It’s easy when you take a break from this crazy world of entertainment, to fall into something more intriguing and educational. Yeah, so I love it.
LU: Is there anything happening recently that inspired you to get back into making music?
P: I haven’t been watching anything. Nothing. For years. Trust me, if something was going on I would get a call, because I have people in the street. There’s nothing. Have you seen anything? You seen a Patra out there or something? I’m just focusing on my thing. It shouldn’t affect me because I’m a Jamaican. I’m in a totally different zone.
LU: No radio, TV, magazines?
P: Nothing, I know it sounds weird but it’s a fact. I listen to mostly Rastaman music right now. My mentor is Bunny Wailer. I grew up in the mountains. I’m a yardie. I can put in a Richie Spice, I can put in an I-Wayne, the meditation is so real, you can say anything you want on a certain recording and touch you as a person. You listen to a Bob Marley record, you gotta feel some sort of something unless you’re heartless. Whatever’s going on I respect but it’s not for me to dissect because I’ve been through so much to get back to where I’m at. To have time to be influenced by something? I’m the queen.
Patra and models. Photo: Dex R. Jones, courtesy Butch Diva