RAPHAEL SAADIQ: This years vintage
Pete Lewis chats to Oakland, California singer/songwriter/producer Raphael Saadiq about the authentic classic soul vibe of his critically-acclaimed, Grammy-nominated latest album ‘The Way I See It’.
Indeed, influenced by music greats like Sam Cooke, The Temptations, The Miracles and The Delfonics, Raphael’s aforementioned third studio LP could easily have been recorded anywhere between 30 to 40 years ago. As he meticulously - through both songwriting and instrumentation - retraces the soulful steps of the golden-era studios of Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia to deliver a present-day potent ode to a classic bygone age. All of which results in a cohesive collection of new material brimming with real emotions and old skool production values that ranges from the Motown-influenced punch of ‘Sure Hope You Mean It’ and funky stomp of ‘100 Yard Dash’; to the string-laden, Philly-style balladry of ‘Oh Girl’ and simplistic, doo-wop charm of ‘Calling’.
Relaxing at Sony Music’s Kensington HQ, a quiet-mannered, impeccably-dressed, Mr. Saadiq explains how the inspiration for ‘The Way I See It’ came from an unlikely destination: “I actually went on vacation to The Bahamas and Cost Rica. I was surfing and running into people from all kinds of places. But one thing I noticed wherever I was going was that everyone was listening to this classic soul music. So I was like ‘Wow, maybe I should tap into this vibe, because it’s actually what I LOVE!’… I realised that, though you can hear it in many of the records I’ve done throughout my career, I’d never paid 100% attention to going in that direction before. So the difference this time is that I took a more focused route. And the title ‘The Way I See It’ basically represents me saying ‘This has always been me. This is what I really love, and everything you’ve heard from me before has been based on the roots of this music’.”
Interestingly, Raphael traces his roots in classic soul music to his days as a gigging child musician: “Yeah, I didn’t have to think about the music I was doing for this album too hard, because those influences have always been there. You know, I played behind a bunch of groups when I was a kid. And so I guess it’s just something I learnt from watching people who WEREN’T famous - a lotta local singers like a guy named Roy Tyler, who sang with a group called The Gospel Hummingbirds, and another guy called Alman Thomas, who I played with when I was eight or nine. You know, by the time I was 11, I was playing for a TON of groups locally. So, with all those experiences behind me, making this album was almost like just putting my memory bank out on a record.”
Indeed, some of the tracks’ musical references are more obviously traceable than others. With ‘Oh Girl’ directly recalling Thom Bell’s late Sixties/early Seventies sweet soul productions on Philly harmony groups The Delfonics and The Stylistics; while the sexy cinematic strings of the ballad ‘Just One Kiss’ hark back to The Temptations circa ’71. Equally interesting, meanwhile, is that both those tracks boast high-profile contemporary guests - the former featuring Brooklyn’s King of Rap, Jay-Z; the latter Grammy-winning Devon soul girl Joss Stone, whose last LP - 2007’s ‘Introducing Joss Stone’ - was mostly produced by Raphael.
“Jay-Z came on board after (equally-legendary New York rhymesmith) Q-Tip heard the track and was like ‘Jay would sound crazy on this record - you should put him ON it!’”, explains a shy, soft-spoken Raphael: “So Tip reached out to Jay; Jay and I talked about it; he recorded his part while he was on tour, and then sent it back to me. I’d basically wanted Jay to do something on that record similar to what Biggie Smalls had done on ‘You’ve Been Robbed’. You know, because those Delfonics-sounding Seventies tracks seem to be definitely something New York rappers like, I just felt ‘Oh Girl’ would be an even fit for Jay. I definitely didn’t want him doing anything that felt like it was a stretch, because it just wasn’t about me putting Jay on the song to make my album hot. And to me he definitely added what somebody would add if they wanted to just freestyle over the top of a record. Which I thought was a really cool feel.”
“Then Joss had been around for the whole record”, he continues: “You know, she’d watched me BUILD the record. So, because she’d already heard all the songs, it was purely a case of us trying to figure out which one would best fit her and, at the same time, be like a good back-and-forth BETWEEN me and her. So one day, when I knew she was coming back to LA, I basically just said ‘I think it’s gonna be the ‘Just One Kiss’ song’... And she just went in there and she NAILED it! You know, she’s got such a huge voice! To me she’s incredible!”
Meanwhile, the album’s most prestigious guest arrives on the shuffling, midtempo glider ‘Never Give You Up’. A throwback to early-Seventies Motown, which boasts the distinctive harmonica playing of Stevie Wonder, no less: “Well, we’d already finished the vocals, but we had a spot for a harmonica solo”, explains Raphael: “And, because to me the song just had his name written all over it, we felt it would be real classic to get Stevie Wonder to PLAY on it. And what was great was that he picked up the phone when I called him! You know, he could have been outta town - he tours a lot, keeping busy. But no, he was READY! I told him I needed him to play on the track; he said ‘When?’; I said ‘Oh, in an hour’… And he came right over in an hour-and-a-half or so, and played! And for me to listen to my album and hear him on there is just one of the biggest honours of my career.”
Vintage Motown meanwhile is represented instrumentally on ‘The Way I See It’ by Saadiq bringing on board veteran string arranger Paul Riser and percussionist Jack Ashford (of legendary Sixties Motown session players The Funk Brothers): “Yeah, I’d been talking about using Paul Riser for years - you know, so many people were wondering where he was at today”, recalls Raphael: “Then one day (prominent Seventies Motown producer/singer) Leon Ware gave me his number - and the rest is history! I mean, to me Paul Riser just brought the glory days to the project. His strings are really warm and just really fit all the acoustics I’d already put on the record. Then, when we found Jack Ashford, it was just amazing! All the stories he was telling us about Motown in the early days were just incredible! And to watch him play tambourine on the songs really brought them to life.”
“So yeah, for me finishing off the record with Paul Riser and Jack Ashford was some truly great closure”, he continues: “I mean, when Paul Riser hit the studio, everything just felt like SHOULD feel. Because, while personally he’s a real nice gentleman, musically he is one serious dude! So I was just glad I had everything together and structured just right beforehand! And the same goes for Jack. You know, as soon as he walked in, you immediately felt you were sitting in on one of the original Motown sessions.”
Indeed, in order to help create an authentic old skool vibe while recording ‘The Way I See It’, Raphael found himself “getting into character” by studying old album sleeves, old video footage, and even dressing in the clothes of the day: “Well, to me it’s a simple thing - if you’re gonna DO something, you gotta LIVE it!”, he retorts without hesitation: “You know, everybody knows I’m a fan of fashion. So, if I’m making an album like this, you’re not gonna catch me going around in today’s hip hop wear! I’m basically gonna wear something that’s gonna match the music! Though, having said that, the way I started dressing was more of a (black Sixties movie superstar) Sidney Poitier thing than Motown.”
“Then, in terms of watching the old Motown videos, what I’d do was play some of my new songs, turn down the volume of the video, and have the old groups dancing to the music that I was playing - to see how it all swung together. Like if you watch an old film of The Temptations doing (their enduring mid-Sixties classic) ‘My Girl’ on U-Tube, turn off the sound, and play ‘Sure Hope You Mean It’ from my new album, the dancing and the music actually do synch-up for more than half the video!”
Born Charlie Ray Wiggins in May 1966 in Oakland, California, by the age of six Raphael had impressively mastered guitar, drums and bass. Going on to make the bass his preferred instrument, by the time he was nine he was also singing with a professional gospel group - while his diverse early musical education reflected the Bay Area neighbourhood in which he was raised: “Yeah, I just heard so many different styles of music while I was growing up”, he confirms: “The first actual records I remember hearing were like The Mamas & The Papas, Sly & The Family Stone, Bill Withers, Carlos Santana... I mean, the barrio was filled with so many different types of bands. Plus, being so close to the San Francisco scene too, we’d also get the heavy rock groups like The Grateful Dead playing in our neighbourhood. And I just took to playing music very naturally. All my friends played different instruments. So, as soon as I saw somebody playing a particular instrument, I’d jump on it and start playing. And from there I just found my niche.”
It was while still using the name Raphael Wiggins that Saadiq experienced his first taste of multi-Platinum success, as lead vocalist and bass-player in the trio Tony! Toni! Tone! alongside his half-brother Dwayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian. Kicking off with their 1988 hit single ‘Little Walter’, the threesome would go on to sell over six million records (via signature tunes like the now-classic slow-jam ‘It Never Rains In Southern California’ and the party-flavoured ‘Feels Good’) and became something of an anomaly within the hip hop-dominated early Nineties, as a musically-respected, successful R&B group who actually played their own instruments.
“Oh, Tony! Toni! Tone! was a great experience!”, acknowledges Raphael immediately: “Though at the time we never looked at it like we were somebody special just because we played our own instruments! You know, playing instruments had always been just part of our makeup. So for us it was weird to look at people who DIDN’T play! But, when you look back now, you realise how fortunate we were to have seen so many successful soul and funk bands go before us who HAD played instruments. Because kids today don’t HAVE that! You know, they have to go figure it out on their own! Which I think is very sad. Because to me, to be growing up watching television where no R&B bands come on playing instruments any more is kinda crazy!”
After leaving Tony! Toni! Tone! in the mid-Nineties and changing his surname to ‘Saadiq’ (“I just wanted to have my own identity”), Raphael first kicked-off his solo career in 1995 with the US Top 20 single ‘Ask Of You’ (which featured in the hit movie ‘Higher Learning’). Meanwhile, by the late-Nineties his ever-growing reputation as a producer saw him becoming the “go-to guy” for an authentic soul feel. A respected, if relatively low-key, position he still holds today and which - in the past 10 years - has found him successfully collaborating in the studio with the likes of Whitney Houston, D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, Joss Stone and The Bee Gees. Meanwhile, as an artist, Saadiq’s next step was to form, in 2000, the R&B super-group Lucy Pearl alongside former En Vogue diva Dawn Robinson plus A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad. However, despite the trio’s sole, self-titled LP garnering a slew of prestigious award nominations, the group’s existence proved to be short-lived. And 2002 found Raphael re-launching his own career long-term with his debut solo album ‘Instant Vintage’.
With Saadiq having since released his sophomore solo studio set ‘Ray Ray’ in 2004, it’s nevertheless the aforementioned old skool vibe of his current, third LP ‘The Way I See It’ that has unquestionably given him his highest international profile as a solo artist to date. Its Sixties/Seventies stylings proving particularly relevant to today’s UK market, where singer/songwriters like Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele are currently pioneering a globally-successful new retro-soul music movement.
“While I can’t say the current British soul movement has impacted on me as an artist myself, I’m still very glad that it’s happening. Because, as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier”, acknowledges Raphael genuinely as our conversation draws to a close: “I think the British have always had a real huge thing for soul music from labels like Motown and Stax. So, in that way, I think it’s quite appropriate and quite natural that this whole new wave of music is happening over here in London. And, while it is surprising there are no guys doing it at that level. I just think that soul music is just something that’s in the air right now. I think the stars are aligning up just right and, after being forced to do so much of the same pop-type thing for so long, there are a lot of soulful artists out there who are now finally getting to release music that’s real and authentic.”
The album ‘The Way I See It’ and digital single ‘100 Yard Dash’ are both out now through Columbia.
Words PETE LEWIS