Phone interview recorded May 18, 2011
Trying to enter the musical mind of Raphael Saadiq can be a daunting task. He is a man who defies categories and anyone who tries to put him in them. Though he was an integral part of R&B in the ‘90s with the group Tony! Toni! Toné!, his solo work has always recalled an era from decades earlier. But don’t call it a throwback; he’s been there for years. This is the music he’s always wanted to make.
His new album STONE ROLLIN’ is a snapshot of the good old days of Rock-&-Soul and is a bit of a gamble as he explains to Darnell Meyers-Johnson…
Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking with a man whose list of credits is too long to mention, but let’s mention some. You know him as the frontman to one of your favourite groups of the ‘90s, Tony! Toni! Toné!—and of course, they brought us hits like “Anniversary” and “It Never Rains In Southern California”. But you also know him as a producer and a Grammy® Award-winning songwriter who has worked with the likes of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Musiq Soulchild—the list goes on. He made his solo debut in 2002 with the instant classic INSTANT VINTAGE. He is back with a brand new album called STONE ROLLIN’. Today I’m speaking with Mr. Raphael Saadiq. How are you, sir?
Raphael Saadiq: I’m good, how are you doing?
DMJ: I’m great. I appreciate the time that you’re taking out to speak with us, so let’s just dive right in. People use terms like “neo-soul” and “throwback” to describe your music. I know that you’re not a fan of such terms, so how would you describe your music, particularly your solo work?
RS: I don’t know. There’s no particular bag to put me in, you know? I guess I would describe my music kind of global soul/rock and roll. But not even put it in that bag. I just think that I’m such a rarity that it’s hard for people to put me in any type of bag. I hear a lot of lazy journalism sometimes where people want to put me in a bag because they don’t really understand what it is. I don’t mind the term “old-school”. I kind of make jokes about the term “neo-soul”, only because it didn’t come from an artist’s standpoint. I think I’m just a rarity, almost like an athlete. I’m a fundamental type of guy. Athletes, they study fundamentals and they study great athletes, and I’m the same way as a musician. I sell it a different way. Jordan studied probably great basketball players before him, but he sells it a different way, and I do that with music. I think there’s not a lot of research when it comes to music, especially black music.
People are just quick to say, this is what it is, and I don’t think a lot of them know. But at the same time, I have a lot of fun doing what I’m doing. It don’t bother me; it don’t stop my day because somebody called me “neo-soul”. I just like to educate others that don’t understand what it is: it’s global music, and it’s bigger than what America thinks it is—it’s always going to be bigger than America. It started in America, but America is very ignorant to what it is, what it’s become and what it’s going to be when I’m gone. It’s always going to be here. Motown, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, all those great people are so far beyond America and came back and made it into movies, films and television. It’s some of the best backdrop music for film and television ever made. So I don’t think you can really put it in a bag. Because I love hip-hop, I love soul, I love disco—I love music. I’m just one of those guys who love music, so it’s kind of hard to put me in a bag.
DMJ: Now what you said just then was real interesting, when you said that particularly American audiences are a little less knowledgeable about the fact that—I’ll just say R&B music as a big umbrella—how global that is. Do you sometimes see your music in a way that, let’s say for example, a gospel artist may see their music as a vehicle for their ministry. Do you see your music somehow as a way of educating particularly American audiences about the fact that R&B music is so much more than we sometimes think it is?
RS: [pause] I’m sorry about that, I was just getting in the car. Say the last part again, please?
DMJ: You were talking about how American audiences don’t seem to be as knowledgeable about how global R&B music is in general. And so I was asking you if you ever see your music sometimes as a way of educating us who may not be aware of that global factor.
RS: I think it’s not really the American audience, it’s the American media that does it. It’s hard to find. I think the American audience is okay. It would be exactly like the rest of the world, but it’s not really put in their faces. It’s like you have to dig for great music in the States. The audience is great, I just think it’s not praised enough and when it’s not praised enough people kind of run from it. They run to the money and not the longevity. For me, it’s because it’s something I really enjoy so I can’t run from it. I don’t know how to do that.
DMJ: Besides being known for all the things that I mentioned in the introduction, you are perhaps most respected for being a master musician. What was the first instrument you learned how to play and how old were you when that happened?
RS: I think I was maybe six or seven when I first got my first guitar, and I played a little bit then I jumped to playing the bass. A lot of different people played guitars around me and I found it kind of difficult to play in the beginning, so I jumped to a bass when I was nine years of age.
DMJ: As a little nine-year-old—and I know you’ve been asked this question lots of times throughout the years, but I’m going to ask it one more time: what were your influences back then, the first time that you decided you wanted to play?
RS: Probably “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”. I liked James Jamerson. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but the sound of what he was doing really caught my ear. I think that’s when I really fell in love with that instrument, but later on I was listening to Larry Graham and Earth, Wind & Fire and Verdine White caught my ear.
DMJ: Gotcha. Speaking of master musicians, before Tony! Toni! Toné! was formed you had what some people would consider the opportunity of a lifetime; you got to tour with Prince and Sheila E. Can you just tell me briefly how that happened, how you all got together?
RS: I heard about an audition, I went and auditioned in San Francisco, and the next week I was in rehearsal. It happened just that fast. I guess just being in the right place at the right time. I used to hang out in this studio in Oakland, and I was there and somebody picked up the phone and I was sitting in the house and they said “Sheila E’s having an audition tomorrow for a tour. Anybody in your place can sing?” And I went to the audition the next day. It sort of happened that fast.
DMJ: The ‘90s was probably somewhat of a golden era for R&B music and you guys, meaning you and Tony! Toni! Toné!, were there contributing to all of it. I can’t have this conversation with you without asking you a little bit about Tony! Toni! Toné!, so just tell me what your memories are of making music during that time.
RS: It was good. We had a good time; we always had a lot of fun making music. We were still very much learning, even though we’d played in bands prior to those records, but we didn’t have a lot of experience in recording at that level or recording records that were supposed to sell records. But it was a lot of fun. Like I said, we were learning and hanging out and inviting friends over, so it was a good time. There were a lot of groups out at that time, and a lot of good groups, but we just had fun with it. We made sure we had a lot of fun. Well, we didn’t make sure; that’s all we knew how to do at that point.
DMJ: Let’s just jump into the new album since my time is very limited—I didn’t realize I had such little time. Your last album you called your love letter to Motown. What is the concept behind the new one, STONE ROLLIN’?
RS: The new one is a sort of departure from THE WAY I SEE IT, but this is really me, so I guess it’s a love letter to myself; all the things I really love. I only record things I already like and love, but I think this one is not deeply an homage to anything, it’s just who I’ve become over the years, and over the years I’ve always been taking the road less traveled. This record kind of sums up everything that I’m really about as a person, and music. I’m not saying that this is my best album yet to make, but I feel like it’s the record that I really found myself in. STONE ROLLIN’ basically means that I’m rolling the dice—I’ve always taken chances making music with passion and everything, and this way I’ve sort of put everything together. You know, you roll the dice, you taking a gamble on yourself. You can only really gamble on yourself and I think I’ve been doing that my whole career, so I titled this record STONE ROLLIN’.
DMJ: The album has sort of a live feel, meaning it sounds like you guys just came right into my living room, set up shop in a corner and started jamming. Was it intentional to make it sound like that?
RS: Yeah, it was. It was just from being on the road for two years with THE WAY I SEE IT, and I wanted to bring that element right back to the album.
DMJ: I was going to ask you about specific songs, but of course we don’t have enough time, so just tell me if you have any favourites in particular that you especially like.
RS: On my record?
DMJ: Yeah, on STONE ROLLIN’.
RS: I would say “Movin’ Down The Line”, “Stone Rollin” is actually one of my favourite songs on the record too.
DMJ: And before we leave, just let me know what’s going on next with you. Are you touring?
RS: I’m doing a lot of touring. I’m going to try to work on a record while I’m touring, but right now I’m definitely touring the U.S. and Europe, back and forth. So I’ll be back and forth a lotso you can plan on seeing me in a lot of different places, if you want to come out and check me out. You can also go to raphaelsaadiq.com to see my schedule to see where I’ll be.
DMJ: Okay. Are you on Facebook or Twitter at all?
RS: Yeah, rayraysaadiq on Twitter and rayraysaadiq is my Facebook also.
DMJ: Okay. Well, at this point I guess we’ll wrap it up. I do appreciate your time. Any time you want to come through at SoulMusic.com and let us know what you’re doing, our doors are open. And we look forward to hearing great music from you.
RS: Thank you very much.
DMJ: All right, have a good one.
DMJ: Be Blessed!
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.