Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1087

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RAPHAEL SAADIQ: This years vintage

Raphael Saadiq
Raphael Saadiq Raphael Saadiq Raphael Saadiq Raphael Saadiq

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 âThe Way I See Itâ.

Indeed, influenced by music greats like Sam Cooke, The Temptations, The Miracles and The Delfonics, Raphaelâs 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 âSure Hope You Mean Itâ and funky stomp of â100 Yard Dashâ; to the string-laden, Philly-style balladry of âOh Girlâ and simplistic, doo-wop charm of âCallingâ.

Relaxing at Sony Musicâs Kensington HQ, a quiet-mannered, impeccably-dressed, Mr. Saadiq explains how the inspiration for âThe Way I See Itâ came from an unlikely destination: âI 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 âWow, maybe I should tap into this vibe, because itâs actually what I LOVE!â⦠I realised that, though you can hear it in many of the records Iâve done throughout my career, Iâd 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 âThe Way I See Itâ basically represents me saying âThis has always been me. This is what I really love, and everything youâve heard from me before has been based on the roots of this musicâ.â

Interestingly, Raphael traces his roots in classic soul music to his days as a gigging child musician: âYeah, I didnât 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 itâs just something I learnt from watching people who WERENâT 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.â

Indeed, some of the tracksâ musical references are more obviously traceable than others. With âOh Girlâ directly recalling Thom Bellâs late Sixties/early Seventies sweet soul productions on Philly harmony groups The Delfonics and The Stylistics; while the sexy cinematic strings of the ballad âJust One Kissâ hark back to The Temptations circa â71. Equally interesting, meanwhile, is that both those tracks boast high-profile contemporary guests - the former featuring Brooklynâs King of Rap, Jay-Z; the latter Grammy-winning Devon soul girl Joss Stone, whose last LP - 2007âs âIntroducing Joss Stoneâ - was mostly produced by Raphael.

âJay-Z came on board after (equally-legendary New York rhymesmith) Q-Tip heard the track and was like âJay would sound crazy on this record - you should put him ON it!ââ, explains a shy, soft-spoken Raphael: âSo 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. Iâd basically wanted Jay to do something on that record similar to what Biggie Smalls had done on âYouâve Been Robbedâ. You know, because those Delfonics-sounding Seventies tracks seem to be definitely something New York rappers like, I just felt âOh Girlâ would be an even fit for Jay. I definitely didnât want him doing anything that felt like it was a stretch, because it just wasnât 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.â

âThen Joss had been around for the whole recordâ, he continues: âYou know, sheâd watched me BUILD the record. So, because sheâd 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 âI think itâs gonna be the âJust One Kissâ songâ... And she just went in there and she NAILED it! You know, sheâs got such a huge voice! To me sheâs incredible!â

Meanwhile, the albumâs most prestigious guest arrives on the shuffling, midtempo glider âNever Give You Upâ. A throwback to early-Seventies Motown, which boasts the distinctive harmonica playing of Stevie Wonder, no less: âWell, weâd already finished the vocals, but we had a spot for a harmonica soloâ, explains Raphael: âAnd, 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 âWhen?â; I said âOh, in an hourâ⦠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.â

Vintage Motown meanwhile is represented instrumentally on âThe Way I See Itâ by Saadiq bringing on board veteran string arranger Paul Riser and percussionist Jack Ashford (of legendary Sixties Motown session players The Funk Brothers): âYeah, Iâd been talking about using Paul Riser for years - you know, so many people were wondering where he was at todayâ, recalls Raphael: âThen 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 Iâd 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.â

âSo yeah, for me finishing off the record with Paul Riser and Jack Ashford was some truly great closureâ, he continues: âI mean, when Paul Riser hit the studio, everything just felt like SHOULD feel. Because, while personally heâs 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.â

Indeed, in order to help create an authentic old skool vibe while recording âThe Way I See Itâ, Raphael found himself âgetting into characterâ by studying old album sleeves, old video footage, and even dressing in the clothes of the day: âWell, to me itâs a simple thing - if youâre gonna DO something, you gotta LIVE it!â, he retorts without hesitation: âYou know, everybody knows Iâm a fan of fashion. So, if Iâm making an album like this, youâre not gonna catch me going around in todayâs hip hop wear! Iâm basically gonna wear something thatâs 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.â

âThen, in terms of watching the old Motown videos, what Iâd 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) âMy Girlâ on U-Tube, turn off the sound, and play âSure Hope You Mean Itâ from my new album, the dancing and the music actually do synch-up for more than half the video!â

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: âYeah, I just heard so many different styles of music while I was growing upâ, he confirms: âThe 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, weâd 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, Iâd jump on it and start playing. And from there I just found my niche.â

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 âLittle Walterâ, the threesome would go on to sell over six million records (via signature tunes like the now-classic slow-jam âIt Never Rains In Southern Californiaâ and the party-flavoured âFeels Goodâ) 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.

âOh, Tony! Toni! Tone! was a great experience!â, acknowledges Raphael immediately: âThough 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 DIDNâT 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 donât 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!â

After leaving Tony! Toni! Tone! in the mid-Nineties and changing his surname to âSaadiqâ (âI just wanted to have my own identityâ), Raphael first kicked-off his solo career in 1995 with the US Top 20 single âAsk Of Youâ (which featured in the hit movie âHigher Learningâ). Meanwhile, by the late-Nineties his ever-growing reputation as a producer saw him becoming the âgo-to guyâ 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, DâAngelo, Mary J. Blige, Joss Stone and The Bee Gees. Meanwhile, as an artist, Saadiqâs 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 Questâs Ali Shaheed Muhammad. However, despite the trioâs sole, self-titled LP garnering a slew of prestigious award nominations, the groupâs existence proved to be short-lived. And 2002 found Raphael re-launching his own career long-term with his debut solo album âInstant Vintageâ.

With Saadiq having since released his sophomore solo studio set âRay Rayâ in 2004, itâs nevertheless the aforementioned old skool vibe of his current, third LP âThe Way I See Itâ that has unquestionably given him his highest international profile as a solo artist to date. Its Sixties/Seventies stylings proving particularly relevant to todayâs UK market, where singer/songwriters like Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele are currently pioneering a globally-successful new retro-soul music movement.

âWhile I canât say the current British soul movement has impacted on me as an artist myself, Iâm still very glad that itâs happening. Because, as far as Iâm concerned, the more the merrierâ, acknowledges Raphael genuinely as our conversation draws to a close: âI 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 itâs 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 thatâs 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 thatâs real and authentic.â

The album âThe Way I See Itâ and digital single â100 Yard Dashâ are both out now through Columbia.

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