Since his debut as lead vocal with family trio Tony! Toni! Toné! two decades ago Raphael Saadiq has proudly worn his musical influences on his sleeve. With the release of his third solo album, “The Way I See It” on Columbia Records, the low key singer/songwriter/producer is once again mining his record collection for sweet inspiration...
There are very few R&B artists from the ’90’s that are still around and relevant today. The mainstays from that era, Guy, En Vogue, New Edition, TLC, Toni Braxton etc have all seen their flame burn with a brief, stunning effervescence before being reduced in a dramatically short period of time to less than flicker. Why then is Raphael Saadiq still around, still plying his craft and still very relevant to the contemporary music scene? The answer, of course, lies in the music itself. Though Tony! Toni! Toné! with whom the Bay Area born Saadiq sang lead vocals for 4 albums during their stint at Polygram Records won respect to their throwback to R&B’s halcyon era of the ’60’s & ’70’s Saadiq’s solo production flame stayed in the ascendent after the split of the group in the late ’90’s as became the go to guy for authentic, real soul music music. He may not compete for chart positions with the likes of Timbaland and the Neptunes etc but through work with his own group Lucy Pearl, D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige and Joss Stone, Saadiq has garnered hard core respect from those after some real soul music. His own solo albums, “Instant Vintage” and “Ray-Ray” were the kind of records you’d hear playing in cool clothes boutiques or chilled out soul clubs by those in the know.
Now in his early forties, somehow Saadiq, who is a keen traveler, fitness enthusiast and horseback rider (he has his own horses near his house “Trus me it’s not as glamorous as it sounds!”) has remained ageless since the late ’80’s/early ‘90s. Perhaps it’s his youthful singing voice or generally cool demeanor and the fact that visually the years have hardly had an impact. Also ageless is Saadiq’s latest solo album, “The Way I See It” is a almost a time capsule that bypasses hip-hop and disco to land fairly and squarely back in the ’60’s. Perhaps a more fitting title for this album would have been “Instant Vintage”! Saadiq has made it his business to meticulously retrace the soulful steps of Motown not just with his songwriting but with instrumentation and recording of this album which like its inspiration is as inviting as an oversized armchair near a warm and toasty roaring log fire on a bitingly cold winter’s day.
“I’m loving the fact that people are loving the sound of the record and that people are commenting on how different it sounds from everything else that is out there” Saadiq says happily from his LA studio when I mention the production quality.
“ I was talking to my engineer Chuck about making my guitar and drums sound the way that I’ve been loving guitars and drums to sound all my life. We looked at tubes, mics, tube equipment, read books on how it happened from the Beatles to Motown to Stax to engineers. I researched it and went out and bought a lot of old gear” he adds.
However, the decision to record a totally retro album wasn’t he explains, pre-meditated:
“ I don’t have an answer how this album came about. It’s kinda spooky. All I know is that I was starting it and then turned around and it was done! Even with Tony Toni Tone there were elements that felt like that on certain songs but not the whole record.”
Probably the most noticeable sea change for Saadiq’s production career was Mary J. Blige’s “I Found My Everything”. A glorious slice of soul music balladry that sounds like it could be a cover of classic Aretha.
“I feel like I’ve been messin’ with this sound forever since we first came out” he says when I mention the Blige song. “I did a song with Leelah James in that vein that never came out. She was the first one I really tested my drum sounds and everything on. But she never finished it because she didn’t stay in her deal. After that I worked with Mary. The first time I met her was in London at the MOBO Awards back stage and we said should work together. She ended up calling me because she liked “Instant Vintage”. It was still another year that we ever worked. I told her I had a song for her. She came to the studio. I played it for her and she loved it. After that I just went it and did my whole record that way.”
Tony! Toni!Toné! were an anomaly in the music business in the ’90’s because unlike many artists they were a group known and respected simply for their music. Very little actually known or written about their individual members. However, for those who knew the group there were three distinct personalities. Dwayne Wiggins was the outgoing party guy, a social animal that I interviewed on many occasions, once even at his mother’s house in Oakland, California. Raphael, conversely, has always appeared subdued and quiet. It’s a little sad, though, from a purely outsiders perspective that the two half brothers who spent so much of their lives together hardly get to speak these days.
“ We barely see each other at all. If we talk I’ll bring him back to Graham Central Stn., Sly, Heatwave because I know that’s what he loves. When I get around him, that’s all I really want to talk to with him” he says. “If he’s in LA and have a mutual friend we may hang out together. We’ve still got love for one another but we both have our own paths and they’re different now.
Another topic I had to bring up was the reason, in the mid-90’s why Raphael changed his name from his family name Wiggins to Saadiq. At the time much was made about a reported conversion to Islam. Saadiq puts the record straight.
“It wasn’t due to an Islamic thing. I’m not Muslim. I liked the name Saadiq and didn’t want to be known as an artist as Raphael Wiggins. I didn’t like the way Raphael Wiggins sounded. We’re good friends now but at the time we were having issues with the president of Polygram Records and he made a comment, ‘Who’s gonna want to hear a Raphael Wiggins record?’ later on I thought he might have a point. I saw the name Saadiq and I liked it. Plus me and my brother was in the same business so I didn’t want for us to get confused, where they’d be like, ‘Oh it’s probably one of them Wiggins boys!’ I wanted my own identity”.
His own identity has brought him a slew of admirers, not least of all many of the artists he grew up admiring himself such as Stevie Wonder, who appears on the album on the standout song, “Like It”.
“ When Stevie heard my record he asked me what made me do this. He said in a nice way, ‘People have a real short memory and you don’t seem to have one’.
Adds Raphael of their friendship: “ I’m a Stevie Wonder fan like everyone. Now I’m fortunate to be one of his friends. Over the years we’ve worked on different things - “So Amazing” the Luther Vandross cover which was a duet with Beyonce. We both live by the Taurean Bull. It’s a little joke we have with each other.
“When we got together we talked about the record I just made. It’s hard for me to talk about my record with him because I want to talk about “Songs In The Key Of Life” and “Golden Lady”. But I got him to start talking about Motown. He was there as a kid when it all started. He’s actually a little surprised that he was around so much great music. I don’t think he could take it all in. To this day I get the vibe that he can’t take it all in.
Of his own musical ability Saadiq is self effacing and honest: “ Stevie Wonder would tell me he’d practice for 10 hrs/day sometimes. Take a little break and hop back on the piano. That wasn’t gonna happen for me!
Proficient enough to compose on he piano, Saadiq’s first instrument in the bass and it’s learning his craft with that that holds some of his fondest childhood memories.
“Those school talents shows were a lot of fun!” he remembers. “The competition at high school. Sneaking instruments to school. Getting caught when you come home. Tryin’ to hide your guitar. I would throw it behind some bushes and my parents would see it and beat my ass! The next day I’d win the talent show and come home with the faculty staff so I wouldn’t get beat again!
“The show was just me playin’ bass, rockin’ with the crowd. I’d play along with the 45’s and start rockin’ all different bass lines. It turned into a call and play kind of thing”.
“I’ve always played drums too and I play guitar but for me to sit down and practice piano 5 hrs a day just wasn’t gonna happen for me. I took lessons for a while but learning all the scales just really bored me.”
It’s not easy to get an broad view of Saadiq’s personality as he’s generally a fairly quiet introverted personality. The sensitive artist personified. However, beneath his cool exterior, his list of people (Sam Cooke, Dorothy Dandridge, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, John Lennon, Linda Creed, Karen Carpenter, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy) he would have wished he could have met reveals his deep passion for both musical and political history. Asked what he would ask some of them, his responses give us a greater window into his personality.
“ I would ask John F Kennedy what made him take the political stance he did knowing that there would be so much racism and pressure on him.
“Martin Luther King - did he really think that by taking his stance he did, after he passed away did he think that America would stand up as people - all races, not just black and try and do the right thing? He’d be amazed at what’s happening now. “I would keep Malcolm around me and ask him when he was locked up what pointed his focus towards Islam. What made him not fearful of people within his own organization that may be plotting his downfall.”
With a tour in the works and healthy buzz around his new album, Saadiq’s profile will noticeably greater this year than in previous. However, reveals that unlike most other producers he isn’t looking capitalize on an upsurge in fame by working on as many projects as possible. His ethos is quality over quantity.
“ I don’t really do any of that. There’s not an abundance of people calling me to work like that but there are a few quality people that call and it rotates ever year. It keeps me busy and I can be proud of what I deliver.”
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.