Next Level Hustle
Herb Partlow was indie before indie was cool. Partlow, whose current specialty is funk-infused smooth jazz, has worn just about every hat you can wear in the music business, from rapper to multi-instrumentalist to producer to engineer to publicist.
“Paradigm Shift,” a sleek, funky and sparse single from Partlow’s new album, Next Level, was sitting at No. 3 on the smooth jazz charts as we prepared this piece, higher up than well-known names like Gerald Albright and Tower of Power. But, the difference between them and Partlow is that he’s a fiercely independent artist with no major label backing him.
Next Level is about as state-of-the-art as the genre gets. It’s 10 tracks of light and infectious grooves, with Partlow’s rubbery bass and shimmering keys laying the foundation for wailing sax and guitarist Ricardo Love’s low-key riffs.
The album is also another step on Partlow’s idiosyncratic four-decade path through the industry, one that started when he was a first-generation rapper working with producer and engineer Dale Ramsey.
“I got my start from him learning the recording process, learning the intricacies of the music business, being exposed to a professional studio, which is where I got the bug,” Partlow said.
Unlike some other musicians, Partlow realized early on that the “business” part of “the music business” was just as important as the music itself, if not more so. “Musicians should be able to focus on their music,” he said. “But unfortunately, in the old days, you put all your faith in your manager, and if you look back at history, a lot of musicians were being taken advantage of.”
Partlow eventually followed his interest in business into a long, non-musical corporate career in San Francisco. But he always kept a toe in the music industry, at first as a rapper releasing albums on Macola Records alongside NWA, Timex Social Club and Egyptian Lover in the ’80s, then moving into production and engineering in the 1990s and 2000s.
Partlow saw the industry change around him as the millennium approached. After finding inspiration from Prince’s break with Warner Records, he decided to embrace rapidly advancing tech.
“Because of where we are technologically, what you can do with a studio at home, you really don’t need a label,” he said. “But now, it’s incumbent upon the artist to build your own brand, do your own recordings, distribute your own recordings, build your following.”
Partlow (who moved back to his native Charleston in 2013) didn’t begin his jazz career until a decade or so ago, almost as an afterthought. Saxophone player J.L.P. came to Partlow with a jazz concept he was working on, and Partlow began interpreting it. The result was the 2011 EP, Urban Jazz, and it got Partlow noticed.
“To my surprise, radio really responded to it,” he said. “Even here in Charleston, there’s a show on Magic 107.3 (WMGL) called ‘Sunday Jazz Brunch,’ and I turned on the radio one day and they were talking about me and playing my song!”
There are probably a lot of locals who don’t realize they have a top-selling smooth jazz artist here, and that’s because Partlow has rarely, if ever, played live around town, even before the pandemic. In fact, he says he’s probably known better as a businessman than a musician.
“I’m involved in a lot of things in Charleston business-wise, but a lot of people don’t know I do music because I don’t play a lot locally,” he said. “I’m not really interested in playing locally. I’m thinking global, not local, and my forte is producing and composing and engineering music.”