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Stone Rolling: Raphael Saadiq Interviewed
Thomas Hobbs , March 22nd, 2017 08:55

Despite a masterful solo career and being the producer behind some of the best D’Angelo and Solange Knowles songs, many still don’t know who Raphael Saadiq is, says Thomas Hobbs, who interviewed him recently

Photograph by Evita Castine

“People know. My friends know, D’Angelo knows. He said to me recently ‘Everybody don’t know you as dope as you are’ and I said ‘Bro, that’s not my job’", the 50-year-old soul singer Raphael Saadiq tells tQ, the day after winning a Grammy for producing Solange Knowles’ epic single ‘Cranes In The Sky’. “But at the end of the day, I am happy being the sleeping elephant. It’s a blessing as people get to rediscover me every single day.”

In an age where many emerging artists will do just about everything to disconnect from their musical roots listening to Raphael Saadiq is the perfect tonic should you want it. He is responsible for infectious ballads replete within cinematic big band arrangements that could easily have been lifted from Ray Charles’ Genius sessions in the late fifties. Tonally, he can switch from upbeat and joyous to pure melancholy with ease and his ageless voice, is the very definition of what Phife Dawg would call ‘smooth like butter’. Yet it’s the psychedelic edge to his reverb-heavy guitar and drums - clearly inspired by friend J Dilla, whose picture proudly hangs in the heart of Saadiq’s North Hollywood studio – that ensures his sound gravitates just as much towards the 21st century.

Saadiq has produced some of modern soul’s most cherished masterpieces; D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Brown Sugar, The Roots’ Illadelph Halflife and Bilal’s 1st Born Second all carry his mark. Last year’s A Seat At The Table by Solange was moulded in part by him. A skilled studio musician, Saadiq also finds himself playing for the likes of Mick Jagger, Elton John and Stevie Wonder. But, the 50-year-old Californian, who has four solo albums under his belt, is rarely mentioned among the greats.

Last year, Solange’s political pop masterpiece validated Saadiq’s ear for a beat. The Grammy he recently picked up for being the primary producer on the album (which he describes as a “testament to the power of healing”) would have been swiftly exchanged for PR by most. Yet, he shrugs: “Meh, I didn’t go to the Grammys; I just had some dinner and watched Netflix instead.” Netflix has also been important in helping the general public belatedly discover the Saadiq name. Its 2016 TV series Luke Cage, which focuses on Marvel’s black Harlem superhero, who can’t be pierced by bullets, saw him play a starring role. In the opening episode, he sings two songs live in the fictional Harlem nightclub owned by drug dealer Cottonmouth (played by actor Mahershala Ali, who recently picked up an Oscar for his work on Moonlight). When a corrupt councilwoman tells the street-smart villain: “Raphael Saadiq, he’s just as good live as you said he was!” Cottonmouth, looking high off power alone, confidently replies: “No, he’s even better.” But to make sense of Saadiq’s current place in music, you must look backwards as well as forwards.

Saadiq’s childhood in Oakland, California was a thing of heartbreak, tragedy and appalling luck. The second youngest of 14 siblings, when he was just seven years old, his older brother was murdered. Later another brother overdosed on heroin and tragically, a third committed suicide, unable to cope with his own opiate addiction. “I grew up in a neighbourhood where one of the safest things to do was to play music. My sister would hate it if I played her blues records and my dad would tell me off if I touched his bass guitar, but I did both anyway.” Saadiq’s sister also died young after being run over by a car; the young African American at the wheel was being chased through the neighbourhood by a police car. He never made explicit reference to the series of misfortune in his music and the listener would have to look hard to find the slightest trace of anger in his songs - although it is there in tracks such as 'The Answer' off 2011's Stone Rollin'.

Throughout his childhood years, he sang in gospel groups with friends but his big break came at the age of 18; auditioning to be in Prince protege and drummer Sheila E’s backing band for the Parade tour. He remembers: “I was taught by my dad not to look excited at the point Prince said my name. I played the bass guitar in my audition like Prince meant absolutely nothing to me.” It worked, even if Prince’s non-standard take on masculinity would later come as a surprise. “To be in the band you had to wear a tonne of make-up, it was mandatory. You had to almost sign a contract to wear eyeliner, blusher and basically look like a girl. That Dave Chappelle skit was no joke, we literally were The Blouses!” After the shows with Prince, Saadiq would transform his appearance getting dressed back into a bomber jacket, Detroit Titans baseball cap and white T-shirt while rocking some 501s and Nike Quartet sneakers. “Prince liked that I dressed differently cos’ he could see I was my own person. I knew when I was playing ‘Erotic City’ in Yokohama, Japan, that my life had sort of changed.”

His time with Prince led memorably to a stint as the lead singer of iconic 90s R&B dance trio Tony! Toni! Tone! alongside brother Dwayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian. Their best album, 1993’s multi-platinum Sons Of Saul, is filled with irresistibly flirtatious dance numbers, with the group memorably shouted out by Tupac on his song ‘Representin 93’. However, their smooth house-influenced sound stood at odds to gangsta rap: “We were trying to impress people like Sly And The Family Stone, not the rappers that were rapping. We wanted to catch the ear of Maurice White, and to see if we could make that guy even glimpse at us for a second.” But Saadiq came to realise that the group’s sound didn’t reflect his artistic vision and by 1997 it was all over.

After the split he focused instead on producing alongside friends Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, as well as a then little known producer called J Dilla. They operated in the late 90s as The Ummah production collective. Their playful, postmodern, jazz-inspired Afro-eccentricity fuelled some of the very best songs and remixes from the catalogues of Busta Rhymes (‘Still Shining’), Whitney Houston (‘Fine’) and Janet Jackson (‘Got Till It’s Gone’). And it’s clear J Dilla, who died in 2006 at just 32 after a long battle with lupus and the rare blood disease TTP, made a huge impression on Saadiq.

He reflects: “His rhythm and the colour he used for melody, and just the way his mind worked were unbelievable. His timing with bass and drums was probably the thing I studied the most. When I was producing the Voodoo and Brown Sugar albums with D’Angelo, we didn’t realise until later on that we were subconsciously playing all those instruments behind the beat just like we were Dilla. We were imitating his timing. I have a picture of Dilla taped to my mellotron. It will stay there until I die.” Stylistically, Saadiq says: “I love to produce imperfections. When I go back and listen to my records I hear flat notes or words that should have been pronounced differently but I keep it in there cos it’s human.”

Saadiq’s 2001 debut Instant Vintage, a title that perfectly summarises his ability to float between eras, went way below the radar. The hazy horns that punctuate the record sound like something Outkast might have rocked during their ATLiens period, while the catchy piano loop on its best song ‘Still Ray’ creates the R&B equivalent of Dr. Dre’s thumping classic ‘Still D.R.E.' Chicago Sun-Times critic Jeff Vrabel deemed the album "almost unfairly effortless R&B that falls about halfway between neo-soul and Curtis Mayfield". But this sound didn’t resonate at a time when the more minimalist futuristic rhythms of The Neptunes and Timbaland dominated hip hop radio.

Follow-up Ray Ray in 2004 would also be slept on. However, its tribute to Blaxploitation cinema and use of rugged funk with elements of Miami bass, electro and G-funk feels very contemporary now. Saadiq reflects: “The people got those records, especially in Europe, but the label I was on didn’t know how to market it. I was ahead of them. I am always in front of a record company by at least five years.”

He says he really found his sound later on with The Way I See It, a tribute to the black music played in the dance halls his parents frequented in the 1950s. He excitedly tells me about his father playing him ‘To Be Loved By You’ by Marvin Gaye as a child. “When I heard the bass on that song, I decided that was the career I wanted. The Way I See It was me paying homage to all the records that shaped me and saying, ‘This is my take on it’.” The album, you sense, was also an artistic awakening, allowing Saadiq the chance to break free from the expectations of white record execs. “When I was in the Tony’s, they wouldn’t let a black band play anything close to the music I played on The Way I See It. It was the first time I could really control the clothes, the fashion, the artwork and the music, and really make it me.”

During this period, he would get to know Amy Winehouse, who flattered Saadiq when she admitted who the aesthetic of her Back To Black backing band had been inspired by. “People would ask me in interviews if I was inspired by Amy and not realise it was the other way around. Me and Amy definitely talked, and what she said was flattery for me.”

Although the first three albums were brimming with ideas, it is 2011’s Stone Rollin that stands as Saadiq’s sole masterpiece. It takes the 60s pop funk aesthetic of The Way I See It and binds it with a gritty political realism. Conceptually, it sounds like it could be the spiritual successor to Marvin’s What’s Going On, with songs like ‘Go To Hell’ containing an unavoidable sense of urgency. When Saadiq demands “We need more love in the world” alongside trumpets and a gospel choir, it is delivered like it could be a line from a Malcolm X sermon. And on songs such as ‘Good Man’, there’s a cinematic feel that isn't there by accident: “I always loved mafia stories like The Godfather as they would use classical music as a dramatic ally while people got shot and murdered. I always wanted soul music to feel like that. That record was not about me being a singer but being a film director.” Under less skilled direction, Stone Rollin could have been weighed down by its ambition but - as it is - just as things are threatening to get too serious, Saadiq throws out a curveball such as the toe-tapper ‘Day Dreams’ – a dancefloor filler, which is all about a young kid who can’t afford to impress a woman he is pursuing. Think 50 Cent’s ‘Window Shopper’ as played by Chuck Berry.

So what for the year ahead? Saadiq is working on several scores - including one for the second season of HBO’s critically acclaimed Insecure – and his fifth studio album, which should be released by the end of May. Saadiq says the latter is inspired by everything from dancehall to the second wave synth pop of Tears For Fears. “There’s a lot of dark minor-ish chords on there but it isn’t at all about Trump. He isn’t important enough for me to make a political record. He is a comedian and a waste of time.”

When it comes to politics, Saadiq says his absence from the 2017 Grammys wasn’t about race or harbouring an issue with the likes of Taylor Swift winning an “Album Of The Year” award over Kendrick. He dismissively explains: “They’ve 100% lost their way and are out of touch. I remember The Way I See It lost to J-Hud at the Grammys! I wasn’t even surprised. If you have a day job and work in a corporate building then that’s who that show is for. Britney Spears won a Grammy before Steely Dan, that’s crazy!” Rather than ‘fix the Grammys’ as the likes of Kanye West have suggested, Saadiq says we should just let them die: “There’s no point sitting down and talking about it. All awards shows needs to get off TV and just die. Music would be much better if people didn’t make it for an award.”

When I ask him about his legacy, he prefers to deflect the attention onto other musicians he has worked with. Saadiq was bandleader and guitarist for Mick Jagger when he covered the Solomon Burke classic ’Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’ at the 53rd Grammys: “He’s a cool dude. I picked his brain about hanging out with Howlin’ Wolf. Mick said Howlin would just pull out his harmonica and then jam and play hardcore blues with the Stones for hours.”

And of regular collaborator Elton John: “He is such a new soul all the time. Elton reminds me of someone who plays in a black Baptist church as he really knows what a big song is. His work ethic is [that of] an athlete, he goes and hugs all of us musicians in the studio then walks to the piano and bangs a song out.” Yet despite having worked extensively with everybody from Jay-Z to Ron Isley and Stevie Wonder, it is Amy Winehouse who impressed Saadiq the most. “The way she played guitar and the lyrics she wrote and sang at the same time is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. She was a true genius.”

I tell Saadiq that all the name-dropping sounds like a ploy to take the attention away from himself. True to form, he replies: “I’ve been fortunate to work with both a Mick Jagger and a Kendrick Lamar, I’ve seen all sides. In terms of legacies, I just want people to look at the way I put music together and say he was a bad, bad man. He was the chess master.” He pauses: “But if they say nothing, I’m happy with that too.”

Raphael Saadiq's new album will be out before Summer

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