Raphael Saadiq: Putting the cool in ol' skool
Acknowleged worldwide as today’s standard-bearer for old skool R&B, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/producer Raphael Saadiq this month delivers his eagerly-anticipated fourth solo studio album ‘Stone Rollin’’. Which - in addition to celebrating the classic sounds of Sixties and Seventies soul with a new twist - this time also finds Oakland, California-born and-raised Saadiq digging deeper to additionally take inspiration from the rawer’n’blusier guitar-driven grooves of such Fifties black Rock & Roll pioneers as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Indeed, initially conceived on the road and recorded at the Grammy-winning Saadiq’s own studio complex (The Blakeslee Recording Company) in Los Angeles, ‘Stone Rollin’’ finds self-styled “throwback-artist-with-a-futuristic-twist” Raphael playing bass, mellotron, keys, guitar, percussion and even drums on most of its tracks - with highlights including the grittily-rocking single ‘Radio’; pounding, Sly Stone-influenced ‘Heart Attack’; and urgently spiritual, choir-assisted-and-majestically-orchestrated ‘Go To Hell’.
Meanwhile, guest musicians include renowned steel guitarist Robert Randolph (on the Dixieland rag-flavoured ‘Day Dreams’) plus former Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn and Swedish/Japanese indie songstress Yukimi Nagano (of the band Little Dragon), who both contribute to the psychedelic funk-tinged ‘Just Don’t’. While newcomer Taura Stinson injects a contemporary hip hop hook into the Seventies-flavoured soap opera-style soul balladry of ‘Good Man’.
Originally born Charles Ray Wiggins in May 1966, by the age of six a young Raphael had impressively already 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 - his diverse early musical education in turn reflecting the Californian Bay Area neighbourhood in which he was raised.
However, it was while 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. Who - kicking off with their 1988 hit single ‘Little Walter’ - 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 become 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.
Nevertheless, it was after leaving Tony! Toni! Tone! in the mid-Nineties and changing his surname to ‘Saadiq’ that Raphael first kicked-off his solo career in 1995 with the US Top 20 single ‘Ask Of You’. Meanwhile, by the late-Nineties his ever-growing reputation as a producer would see him becoming the “go-to-guy” for an authentic soul feel. Which in turn has, in the past 12 years, found him successfully collaborating in the studio with the likes of D’Angelo, Joss Stone, Whitney Houston and The Bee Gees.
Meanwhile, as an artist Saadiq’s next step was to form - in 2000 - the R&B “supergroup” 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. A situation which, in 2002, found Raphael re-launching his own career long-term with his debut solo album ‘Instant Vintage’. Which was next followed with his 2004 sophomore solo set ‘Ray Ray’.
Nevertheless, it would be the critically-acclaimed Sixties/Seventies soul stylings of Raphael’s 2008 third studio solo LP ‘The Way I See It’ that truly struck a universal chord and resulted in his highest international profile as a solo artist to date. As, following its release, fans - both old and new - came in droves to see him perform at festival shows throughout Europe and The States, including such high-profile events as Bonnaroo; Austin City Limits; Lollapalooza, South-By-Southwest; and Voodoo Experience.
… All of which ultimately now sets the scene for the huge international anticipation surrounding this month’s release of Raphael’s aforementioned new, fourth studio LP ‘Stone Rollin’’. As, relaxing in his Central London hotel, a bespectacled, brown-leather-jacketed and soft-spoken Mr. Saadiq discusses with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis his interesting new musical direction and the background surrounding it.
PETE: What primarily did you want to achieve musically with your new LP ‘Stone Rollin’’?
RAPHAEL: “As a musician, I’m always wanting to dig a little deeper and be more explosive, and to really get into the artistry of who I AM. And this record is probably the one that best represents the roots of how I STARTED. You know, the first thing you learn when you play guitar is to play some boogie-woogie, or some typea blues on the piano or guitar or bass... And so, with me having all that just sitting here in my arsenal, this time I just decided to bring it OUT! You know, I basically wanted to bring out some of the BLUESIER side - particularly in terms of the guitar riffs, and to just generally be more free with what I was DOING. You know, I was especially interested in gong back and playing around with that early rock & roll vibe of cats like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.”
PETE: And was there anything you particularly wanted to get across lyrically?
RAPHAEL: “To me primarily it was all about the MUSIC. So some of the lyrics came about simply because they went passionately with the actual MUSIC I was writing. Like ‘Good Man’, for instance, has the kind of bluesy story that somebody like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland would sing. While ‘Stone Rollin’’ is more about a bluesy woman you might see coming out of a bar in North Oakland, with a fur wrapped around her shoulders as she’s walking down the streets to a bluesy guitar lick! You know, those were the kind of visions I had in my head while composing the music for those songs. But then you also have more socially-conscious songs on there like ‘The Answer’. Where I’m talking about making it through a rough time in a place like Oakland, which at times is very DARK and at times is also very BEAUTIFUL. I’m basically recalling how, while growing up there, I always had really good people I could listen to - men, women, preachers, teachers, winos, drunks, or whatever... And so I’m saying that, wherever you are, you can always find somebody who has something good to say to you while you’re growing up - and if you listen to what they tell you, you can follow these guidelines and make it THROUGH! You know, I’m kinda just talking to people about everyday experiences, but without going TOO deep.”
PETE: Your collaborators on ‘Stone Rollin’’ include former Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn; steel guitarist Robert Randolph; and Swedish/Japanese indie songstress Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon fame…
RAPHAEL: “I chose Larry Dunn firstly because he’s an incredible person to talk to, and secondly because he’s an incredible Moog soloist. You know, I listened to him so many times while I was growing up. And, because I just felt so honoured to have him play on my record, I kinda gave him the whole end of the song he features on (‘Just Don’t’). And then, to make it even sweeter, I had Yukimi sing before he came IN - because I think her melodies are just so beautiful plus they fit right in with LARRY’s. Plus I also liked the fact that the song then kinda has three generations of musicians from three different eras on there - first Larry, then me, then her - which for me kinda ties it all together... Then in Robert Randolph’s case, with him being a great steel guitar player, I knew I wouldn’t have to tell him what to DO - which is the exactly the kind of musician I LIKE working with! And when we were recording, it felt exactly like we were in a juke-joint somewhere, he’d just got a shot of whiskey - and we were just doing it exactly the way we were SUPPOSED to be doing it!”
PETE: You’re quoted as saying that the contemporary twist you’ve injected into the album was partly inspired by the indie acts that are in regular rotation on your I-pod…
RAPHAEL: “While I don’t actually even know the NAMES of most of the contemporary indie groups, I do listen to a lot of satellite radio. And because so much of that music comes on - plus it’s often getting played as I’m walking through stores - I’ve noticed that a lot of the different stuff the indie-rock kids will do is basically built on being rebels against anything that’s OUT. Not in the sense of you don’t like what everybody else is doing, but more that you choose to take a different ROAD. Which is something that’s intriguing to me, because it’s what I do! You know, while I have no problem with most pop music - I can live WITH it, or live WITHOUT it - at the same time it’s not the road that I ever really wanted to GO down! And so in that way I do find indie-rock very appealing. Because to me, when anybody tries to do something different and then makes it big, it’s like you’ve created something truly SPECIAL.”
PETE: With your last album (2008’s ‘The Way I See It’) having seen you for the first time perform multiple festival dates through the US and Europe, do you think that recent touring impacted on your new album as well?
RAPHAEL: “Yeah, the touring definitely had a MAJOR impact! Because, you know, you’re playing to so many different people, you’re watching people’s enjoyment of what yore doing - and they’re in turn giving you so much energy and joy back that you can’t do anything BUT go back and just try to raise the bar!... So yeah, that was definitely what made me go back in the studio this time and be like ‘Let me just pound this OUT! Because I just wanna get back to the stage to play this for the PEOPLE!’!”
PETE: How do you now look back on 2008’s ‘The Way I See It’ and what it achieved for you?
RAPHAEL: “’The Way l See It’ achieved three Grammy nominations; it brought me a whole new audience who hadn’t really known me before; it was a very critically-acclaimed record… Plus it showed people that I could put together a tight band and tour behind it, while also establishing me more as an artist rather than just a producer. Because before that record - after I’d been in Tony Toni Tone! and Lucy Pearl - most people had thought ‘Oh well, he’s a producer now. He’s never gonna be an artist, he’s not gonna put the TIME in’… Whereas ‘The Way I See It’ showed them that yes, I COULD put the time in still and be an artist!’!... So yeah, in that way I definitely think ‘The Way I See It’ did sort of connect the dots for ‘Stone Rollin’’ to come about.”
PETE: Finally, how do you now look back on your early upbringing in Oakland, California - a time when you sadly experienced the tragic deaths of four of your siblings?
RAPHAEL: “Overall I’d say growing up in Oakland was a very positive thing for me. Because there’s so much music there, there’s so many great musicians there... You know, even though it is known as a rough town, I didn’t even NOTICE that aspect of it - because music kinda helped me all the way THROUGH! And while of course experiencing those tragedies in my family at such a young age was incredibly sad, as a young child at the time you don’t fully appreciate the full meaning of what’s HAPPENED. And so looking back overall I think it just made me a better person. Because it built this character in me that made me a stronger MUSICIAN. You know, it made me play harder, and it made me take everything more seriously So that, whenever an opportunity came my way, instead of just taking things for granted I’d immediately take ADVANTAGE of it! Like even as soon as I saw somebody playing a particular instrument, I’d jump on it and start playing too! And from there I guess I just found my NICHE.”
Raphael performs at 02 Shepherds Bush Arena, London on April 28
The album ‘Stone Rollin’’ and single ‘Radio’ are both out now through Columbia
Words PETE LEWIS