Raphael Saadiq Talks New Music, 'Insecure,' And Why Tony! Toni! Toné! Won't Reunite
Raphael Saadiq gets deep interview about his upcoming album, his family's struggles with addiction, and why fans won't get a Tony! Toni! Toné! reunion.
Raphael Saadiq is virtually immortal, and we’re not only talking about his youthful features either.
At 52, the producer/singer/songwriter graces stages and delivers God-tier musicianship to fans all over the world. His 2018 Pitchfork Music Festival set was a performance full of finesse, poise, and soul, as he treated fans to many of his solo songs from his last few albums. In addition to also performing new music, he brought out longtime friend and collaborator Ali Shaheed Muhammad to perform some J. Dilla remixes. Saadiq had the crowd at their heels with classic duet staples in his catalog like “You Should Be Here” and Lucy Pearl’s “Dance Tonight,” and even a few songs he wrote like Solange’s “Crane’s In The Sky,” Erykah Badu’s “Love Of My Life," and D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel.”
Saadiq has been a staple in R&B music and black soundtracks since the late '80s as a lead vocalist/bassist for the groundbreaking '90s R&B band Tony! Toni! Tone!. After leaving the band in 1997, he launched what would become an accomplished solo career with four albums and 15 Grammy nominations, including a victory for writing on Erykah Badu and Common's “Love Of My Life.” He also appeared on other soundtracks like Boyz In The Hood, Luke Cage, and Mudbound, earning an Academy Award nomination for the latter with his collaboration as a songwriter with Mary J. Blige and Taura Stinson, “Mighty River.”
After just wrapping up his first headlining tour since 2012 in North America, Saadiq is putting the finishing touches on his forthcoming fifth solo album, Jimmy Lee, dedicated to his late brother who passed away from a drug addiction. The official release date has yet to be set in stone, despite him recently performing new, unreleased songs such as the album’s title track. And if he’s not busy enough, he’s still handling the vibrant, eclectic sounds for the third season of Issa Rae’s Insecure on HBO.
VIBE got a chance to catch up with Mr. Instant Vintage prior to his performance in Chicago to talk about his experiences performing for over 30 years, the revival of R&B, Tony!, Toni!, Tone!, classic hip-hop stories and the Bay Area’s influence, and much more.
VIBE: What’s the difference between performing as a solo artist and performing as a band member?
Raphael Saadiq: I love being in a band, bands are my first love. The solo thing was a little harder for me to do. It’s more responsibility, which I was willing to take on. The fun thing about being a solo act is that everything is yours and you don’t have to argue with your brothers and everybody like, ‘what’s yours and what’s mine,’ all that kind of stuff. You kind of make the last decision in [your own] band. Sometimes when you’re in a band, there’s too many decision makers and it’s okay to have two or three different decision makers and everybody can make great decisions. But if someone makes bad decisions, then it’s not cool. I’m a team player, as everybody can see. I must have really great decision makers.
So, what’s an example of how decision-making played a role in the quality of your performances as a band member?
After I left Tony! Toni! Tone in ’97 and the band arrangements they have now, they’re still the ones I made probably in the [early] '90s and they never changed them. That means they were good, so I knew my decisions were good. When I went to go do Lucy Pearl, I knew that was a great decision to grab Ali Shaheed and Dawn Robinson, and it showed me that I could put together a good team of people. And then it was my solo project, Instant Vintage, and then I jumped to a ‘60s thing—'60s suits and ties before anybody [of my era and afterwards] was wearing that. And then later, I saw R. Kelly wearing the glasses and my suit and everything. So, I think I’m a great decision maker. The visions that I have sometimes, they’re not all mine, some are things from the past I’ve seen from people like The Temptations and Motown. Making it work shows you I have vision. And I like it when other people do it. To me, it’s flattering because you want people to be able to try to do what you’re doing. I thought it was a great time in music during the '60s–the Harlem Renaissance and jazz, everybody dressed like that. I sort of miss that era, so sometimes you want to create something that everybody can get into.
What better genre than hip-hop to create hip-hop for everybody. You can still have your own style within yourself, but everybody can jump in like it’s one basketball, but everybody can play. I think that’s what vision is about, and a lot of people are scared to take those risks. I’ve always been a risk taker.
One thing that comes to mind for me when I think about the '60s is how many of our legends took creative risks in their music. What’s something from that era you wish was in today’s R&B?
Today’s R&B, we’re kind of getting back to making some cool [music]. I like Daniel Caesar, PJ Morton, SZA…people are really trying to do it. I think from here on out going forward, there’s going to be a massive wave of R&B artists coming out. We don’t know who they are, but I can just feel the vibration happening all over Europe and back this way. But before now, I felt like R&B shouldn’t have even used the title R&B, because it’s Rhythm & Blues, and it was no rhythm and blues in R&B. But there’s other styles of music that’s just as cool. We’re very creative people because urban artists… it’s hard for us to just stick to one thing [and] it’s hard for me to stick to one style of music. So I understand the creative forces that make the culture move so fast.
A lot of musicians struggle now because they want to walk around and look like their friends and you just can’t walk around and look like your friends if you want to stand out. You got to be a little bit different and it’s hard to do that because you want to do what everybody’s doing, what your next-door neighbor... That’s not really what R&B is. Hip-hop is that and you see artists like Tribe Called Quest was different when they came off their first album. Sometimes you gotta stand out a little bit and the Migos, they stand out a little bit in hip-hop, they’re a little different. Whatever type of music you’re doing, you gotta stand out a little bit.
How has the Bay Area influenced your writing?
The Bay has been everything to me and I kind of write about some of the same things sometimes. The Bay has influenced me because that’s all I know, it’s where I walk around. I go back there, and you hear people say different things about the Bay, but the Bay is a real special place. If the Bay loves you, then they love you. They love you and you can’t do nothing wrong by them, but you have to make sure you’re taking care of the Bay. When you write, you’re always thinking about them.
Historically, the Bay has always been one of the most influential regions in black music. Do you think they get the respect they deserve in music?
We don’t truly get it, but you look at E-40 who’s a pioneer of hip-hop on the West Coast, he’s one of the best out. And you go from there to MC Hammer, En Vogue, Too $hort. You wanna talk about Too $hort, he’s one of the longest lasting rap artists who tours more than anybody I know. He stays gone. My nephew Trey is $hort’s DJ.
Since you all were coming up around that same time during the late '80s, early '90s, what’s one of your favorite memories with Too $hort?
I played at Chris Webber’s Baba Bling party in Las Vegas one time and Too $hort and Nas were in the audience. I played this song “Brothers ‘Gon Work It Out” and I kinda wanted to make them feel like they were at the real Player’s Ball, and that’s exactly what Nas told me he felt when I played that record. But $hort was in the house so I brought $hort on stage to do a song and he was like, “What you wanna play?” and I said, “Freaky Tales.” Now we looked at all of these women, hundreds of women all dressed up and he said, “Are you out your fucking mind?” I was playing bass on it, I took the bass from by bass player. Then I started thinking about the lyrics and was like oh, that’s why he ain’t want to sing it, and we both started laughing. Then, we sang “The Ghetto." I was ready for “Freaky Tales,” I was all in. I wasn’t even gonna ask him, I was just gonna start with the bass line, but with the lyrics, he just didn’t want to do it. That was one of my favorite memories with him.
And around that same time when the two of you were coming up together, Tony! Toni! Tone! also collaborated with DJ Quik on “Let’s Get Down.” What is the story behind that song?
We were supposed to do three songs with Quik but the rest of the band didn’t feel like they wanted to give Quik that much money. I kept telling Quik that it was okay, but every time we got back with our lawyers they kept telling Quik that the band said no. Nobody was telling me they said no, they were going behind my back and telling the lawyer no. So I finally called the band and asked, what’s up? We only ended up doing one song, which the price wasn’t bad for three songs. We would have had two follow ups to “Let’s Get Down” if we would have done that. After the studio, it was just me and Quik. None of the rest of the members were there so it was just me, Quik, and my cousin Elijah who sings the fanfare “I gotta get my groove on,” and a bunch of [people from] Compton. A lot of stuff was happening that day, but it was good energy, good vibes. I love Quik, and actually the whole band, we really love Quik, we’re all huge fans of him. It made sense at the time, but I wish we had more records with Quik, we’d have a double follow up.
Would you and the active and former band members of Tony! Toni! Tone! ever play a reunion tour sometime in the future?
We honestly talked about it, but I think my brother Amar [Khalil], who’s been in the group longer than me now, he left the group. After I left the group, [Antron] Haile left the group and now it’s just two new guys that nobody doesn’t know. I think that ship has sailed. I love my brother to death, his kids are like my kids, our family is tight. I think that ship has sailed a little, but I think I am going to do something with most of the guys who were in that band.
Those guys I went to school with, [and] my brother was sort of the add-on, but the members I went to school with are the nucleus of the group. We don’t want to do all of that “two different groups” and all of that, but me and the guys we grew up playing together, we’re going to call it something else and we’re going to play new music and do some really cool pop-ups in different cities. Play some stuff, have the fans ask some questions, and do some really cool things where people will get to know us and talk about the friendship and respect we all have for one another. We haven’t had a chance to get together as friends, before we got with my brother Dwyane [Wiggins]—those are all my friends. My brother [Dwyane] had a band that was older than us, so he was a part of that band. My brother joined our band. So, when we came up with the name—my brother owns the name Tony! Toni! Tone!. We don’t own it, so we can’t do anything with that. So, we’re gonna start our own little thing and he’s more than welcome to come and sing some songs with us, too. We all own studios, we all do music, and we all just want to be around each other.
I really wish we could give that [reunion] to people but I really think that ship has sailed. We’re just going to use the internet and talk to people to give people a good experience, so we could have a good experience.
"I really wish we could give that Tony! Toni! Toné! reunion to people, but I think that ship has sailed."
How much of your life is in your music?
All my life is in my music. I used to use a lot of experiences from different people but this time I’m really talking about me on my new record. All my life experiences and sometimes I thought I was talking about other people but then when I really listen to it, I’m really talking about myself. This record is more about an addiction. It’s still early, but I just feel like with the internet you gotta talk about it as much as you can.
I lost my brother to a heroin overdose and I lost another brother to drugs, too. I lost a sister to crack and had two sisters who were strung out, but they’re okay now. As I got older, I really started paying attention to sweets and drinking and other different addictions that people have, and I started laughing at myself. Sometimes when I get up in the morning I want a chocolate chip cookie and some coffee. I don’t think it’s a chemical, it’s just something that your brain tells you that you want. And I started really thinking about my brother who was stuck on this chemical and how we would tell him, you should stop, don’t be gated, don’t be stealing mom’s TV. He couldn’t control himself but now that he’s been gone for over 12 years, I thought about his addiction and I dedicated my album to him called Jimmy Lee.
With drugs having such a big impact on your family, how did you avoid addiction yourself, especially being in the music industry?
I never wanted my mother to get that phone call. Growing up, I would always hear these indirect questions like, if you see somebody shooting at rapid fire, you see one person go down, the next person go down, you see the next person go down, and the next person go down, here you come, what are you going to do next? And then at that time, I didn’t know what “rapid” meant so I looked at my dad and said, I’m gonna walk the other way. He said, “that’s what I’m talking about.” So it was the indirect things people would say to me that would tell me not to be like this person. I would be in the streets playing football and he would say, “Which one of these guys you look up to?” I would point to a guy and he would said, “Alright, keep playing.” My dad watched the whole game and later on he was telling me, "the guy you look up to, he’s not gon be nothing, he’s not gon be nothing, trust me.” And I got a chance to watch this dude nine years later and he becomes his own worst nightmare. So, I was a great listener. My choice of drug was music and being around musicians. I just jumped into music trying to do the right thing and I think that’s how I just looked at it. Sometimes I would experiment with little things like marijuana, but that’s as far as it ever went. I’m scared of anything that looks like powder or needles or pills. Terrified!
Black women have played a huge role in your legendary career in more ways than one. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about them while working with them?
Don’t mess with them, basically. Solange, Issa Rae—I learned more from watching Insecure more than anything because you hear the beeline conversations that you don’t hear when you talk to a girl one-on-one. When you’re working on a show like that, it gets really uncut. Everybody hears it when it goes on the show but it’s the first show you actually get it just as raw on TV.
I have seven sisters, so I’ve heard it all before I met any of these women. I’ve seen dudes wreck their cars into buildings over my sisters. I’ve seen some of the craziest stuff when I was 9 and 10, straight up fights in the streets, swinging. My sister’s boyfriend killed my brother when I was 7 or 8. Shot him twice in the chest and one went into his heart, over $12,000. That’s my sister’s boyfriend so at an early age I didn’t see black or white, I just started wondering where the hell am I at, what’s going on?
As far as black women in music, I’m a huge Minnie Riperton fan and that’s probably my favorite all time artist, Ms. Minnie Riperton and Diana Ross. Ross, because she’s from the projects and I can hear it in her music, but it’s mixed with the most beautiful orchestral strings and some of the best, prolific songwriting that crossed oceans. They don’t have to fight for publicity, their music speaks for themselves. Same as Minnie Riperton, she left with a short career and she left a lot on the table.
Lastly, what’s the key to longevity and eternal youth?
It’s just all about the genes and the dedication you put towards it. If you really love it and you want to be part of it for a long time you just look towards those other areas that won’t burn you out. You just can’t burn yourself on an industry that will just chew you up and never spit you out because there’s always going to be someone after you that’s better. If you want to be around—my thing is to be a helper and a person that also can work with a lot of different sounds and can help a lot of different people. I think it’s about bouncing around different rooms and different areas and being useful to everybody’s area and that’s the key to longevity.