RAPHAEL SAADIQ IS A REAL ONE
May 6, 2019
It’s almost become a cliché to say that Raphael Saadiq is among our most under-appreciated musical artists. Because we all know it’s true. And part of the reason he falls under the radar may be because he is a master of reinvention and always looking forward. “He’s not doing what he was doing before, what he was doing on his last album, never mind when he first started out,” noted the late Gary Harris, an industry veteran who signed D’Angelo to a record contract and was long-time advisor to A Tribe Called Quest, when I interviewed him about Saadiq in 2008.
In 1988, when Raphael’s group Tony! Toni! Tone! debuted with Who?, an album that would eventually go gold (selling more than 500,000 copies), there was no indication that Saadiq (born Charles Ray Wiggins) would become the band’s stand-out member. In fact, their original intention wasn’t even to become a group, they told music writer Michael Gonzales when he interviewed them in 1997. They were church boys who also found their spirit on Saturday nights in Oakland clubs, and had originally dubbed themselves, Black Police, after Sting’s original band. It wasn’t until after gigging with Sheila E. — and subsequently being left behind by Sheila E. when Prince came calling for her — that they were inspired to start the group.
Yet Prince would reappear again. Tony! Toni! Tone! would get their first break on the Parade tour with Prince and Sheila E. in 1986, where Saadiq would witness first-hand the work ethic he come to model his career on. Mostly though, he was influenced by the sounds of Oakland, by Sly and the Family Stone, Journey and Tower of Power. His high school jazz teacher went to Grambling, was in the marching band and trained by a gospel quartet in Oakland — all influences on Saadiq. He told me once that everybody in his neighborhood, thugs and nerds, played instruments. “Everybody was into Hendrix and everybody was into Ernie Isley,” he said.
Record executive Ed Eckstine told Gonzales that there was a moment where Tony! Toni! Tone! could have been the band for Prince when he considered signing them. “But he kept fronting,” said Eckstine. And sometimes blessings come in strange packages. By the time of their second album, 1990’s The Revival, the group were producing themselves. It and 1993’s subsequent Sons of Soul, was stacked with hits: “It Never Rains (in Southern California),” “Feels Good,” “Anniversary,” “Lay Your Head (on My Pillow),” “No Loot,” and “Let’s Get Down,” all helped in welcoming a new strain of R&B. But with infighting around their fourth album, House of Music, and an ill-fated tour with Janet Jackson headlining and cancelling several shows, the group disbanded.
Saadiq lost four siblings as a child – one brother died after a heroin overdose, another was murdered, and another committed suicide, while his sister died in a car accident. He decided that he didn’t want his music to reflect the tragedies he had endured. When the Tonies disbanded, Saadiq looked for other avenues to produce and create music, creating his own label, Pookie Entertainment. The first group on his new label would be Lucy Pearl, featuring Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest and Dawn Robinson from En Vogue. The super-group would only lasted a year and a single album, which yielded the hit, “Dance Tonight.”
Saadiq would work with Muhammad again as part of a music production collective dubbed, The Ummah that also included D’Angelo, Q-Tip, and J Dilla. He would write and produce for artists like D’Angelo, Angie Stone and Solange, Ledisi, Whitney Houston and John Legend, among many others. He moved into movies along with his solo music efforts after the break-up of Tony! Toni! Tone! working with the late John Singleton for the soundtrack for his film, Higher Learning which garnered the hit “Ask of You.”
Yet it was Saadiq’s albums and performances, from a relatively late-starting solo career, finally that brought him into the spotlight. 2002’s Instant Vintage was a critical success, earning him five Grammy nominations and smash singles, including “Doing What I Can,” “Skyy, Can You Feel Me” and “Be Here,” which featured D’Angelo (for whom Saadiq helped write and produce the legendary “Untitled (How Does it Feel) from the Voodoo album). In 2008, The Way I See It was a downtown ode to the Motown-Stax-Philly International eras.
It was at this time that I had the opportunity to revel in Saadiq’s nostalgia during an intimate show in Baltimore. His performance mixed soulful croons with raucous gospel church stomping and showman-styled spins, slides, shuffles. He could launch into conscious preacher mode with songs like “Keep Marchin,'” an inspirational Temptations-meets-Marvin Gaye ditty with Civil Rights-era images of fire hoses and barking German shepherds. Soon after, he would slow down the tempo, bringing in the holy rollers, double-clappers, and club heads, with “Love That Girl”; then bring it back up, sending the crowd into a guttural roar with “100 Yard Dash.” He wrapped up the show with a tribute to Hurricane Katrina victims with “Big Easy,” featuring the trumpeting sounds of a New Orleans brass band (The Infamous Young Spoodie and the ReBirth Brass Band).
Three years later, Stone Rollin’ followed the same vintage style, but this time the sound was more of a dusty-roads, sock-hop, blues nostalgia, with the expected impeccable musicianship. Saadiq sang vocals on every track and played the clavinet, drums, bass, guitar, tambourine and Mellotron throughout the album. The most infectious cuts on the album were “Moving Down the Line” and the Muddy Waters- inspired, harmonica-squeezing, rockabilly title track. When Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger performed “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” as a Grammy Awards tribute to Solomon Burke in that year, it was Saadiq and his touring band (also named Stone Rollin’) accompanying the geriatric rock star.
“As far as production and arranging and vocals, he’s in a league with Stevie to me,” said Earth Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn to me in 2011. “If he had to, he could do every damn thing by himself. But he enjoys working with people who have different flavors.”
And so he does. Since then, Saadiq has executive-produced Solange Knowles’ epic, A Seat at the Table, which debuted at Number One in the U.S.; worked on the score for the Netflix Marvel Comics series, Luke Cage (with Adrian Younge) and on Issa Rae’s HBO hit series, Insecure. Additionally, Saadiq and Mary J. Blige received Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song, for their songwriting collaboration to the movie, “Mudbound.”
Michael Gonzales sums up Saadiq’s impact simply. “Neo-soul owes everything to him. He is the perfect balance of art and business. Raphael goes into the studio and does what he has to do. He doesn’t get caught up in his head as some artists do – he knocks it out the same way Quincy Jones did. There’s a level of professionalism that he brings. He doesn’t stretch it out for years, he gets it done. He’s a brilliant artist, but he also proves that he’s consistent in the way that Prince used to be.”