Raphael Saadiq: Soul For Real

posted October 10, 2008 12:00:00 AM CDT | 0 comments

Its pretty safe to assume Raphael Saadiq knows a thing or two about reinvention. After all, it was the Saadiq-led trio of Tony! Toni! Ton! whose If I Had No Loot sampled Ice Cube saying, And you can New Jack Swing on my nuts, when other R&B acts were still doing their best Guy impression. The last 21 years have seen the man formerly known as Charlie Ray Wiggins undergo enough transformations to draw comparisons to a certain purple-clad soul singer from Minneapolis.

Saadiqs chameleon mentality has taken him from talent shows in his native Oakland, to early accolades with his fellow Tonies and through a brief stint with Lucy Pearl, only to re-emerge again as a soloist. The only constant has been what appears to be a need to keep himself fresh through his interpretation of classic sounds.

On a day when true Soul aficionados mourned the untimely passing of Motown innovator Norman Whitfield, Saadiq spoke about bridging the gap between old and new on his latest effort, The Way I See It [click to read]. The album continues his efforts to push his genre forward, by taking a quantum leap back via the dusty catalogues of Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International Records. After all the changes, maybe its only fitting that things come full circle.

HipHopDX: On the Ray Ray album, you shot this blaxploitation styled cover art before you recorded any music. The Way I See It has a picture of your performance at Sweet's Ballroom. How important is it to you to have that visual as you're going into an album?
Raphael Saadiq:
You know it just kind of happened like that a couple times. I tried to do the cover afterwards, but it didnt work like that. I took that picture, and I tried to take more pictures of what I wanted to do. This one just fit. But its very important to me to get that whole feel before I get started.

DX: Your entire album was streamed on MySpace the day before it was officially released. Odyssey Records in New Orleans also did a ladies only listening session for the album back in July. What are your thoughts how this album was worked versus the traditional methods?
Raphael Saadiq:
Its definitely a different climb, and things are done a lot differently now. Youve got to hustle harder, you know? Its really tough times for everybody, but youve got to get out there in the trenches and really work your record.

DX: In line with that, you released Ray Ray through your Pookie Entertainment label. What did you take away from that experience?
Raphael Saadiq:
It kind of got me ready for the way the industry is right now. Being on a major is almost like being independent now. [Laughs] Theyve gotta grind the same way I did independently. So I was ready because of the independent experience I had.

DX: On this album you worked with Paul Riser and Jack Ashford, who played a huge part in the Motown sound. Motown took a lot of heat for what some people thought was watering down black music to make it more palatable to the mainstream.
Raphael Saadiq:
I thought about that, but people dont think that now. [Laughs] Not after watching that Temptations movie. They were more hood than anybody.

DX: As someone who is critically acclaimed but criminally slept-on in terms of sales, did making your sound more accessible play into choosing to cover material from that era?
Raphael Saadiq:
Nah, man. I dont think about no awards. I mean, if I get them, I get them. I feel like when I make the music that I really love, Ive already won the award. To make that music and go back and listen to it is rewarding. All my awards arent really here with me anyway. I aint trying to break my awards out in front of people or anything like that. If it happens like that, Im cool with it. Im not gonna force the issue.

DX: Understood. But, suppose you remove the Grammys and all that stuff. I know this is a taboo word, but what about crossing-over to a broader fan base?
Raphael Saadiq:
Right, right, right. I definitely want more people to hear it, but I want people to get that experience. I want them to be able to feel it like my core audience and my band I put together. Its really about the experience of playing places and just making history in the way we know its made. History is made by people meeting and coming together for a cohesive project where everybody finds their lane inside of it. Theres a whole lot more to it. I came up at a time when it was about the music, the show and other things than just putting out a record.

DX: During the time you came up in, there were a lot of social issues that influenced the music. How would you compare those to some of the things that inspire todays music?
Raphael Saadiq:
I think Hip Hop is more in the vein of what was going on in the '60s and '70s. [In Hip Hop] people kind of get together and they know theyre coming out ofnot necessarily battling anymorebut coming out to one event to make the best out of it. I dont think R&B is like that anymore. Its more like wanting to make a song or a video. I think Hip Hop cats are more about trying to get their paper at shows. They know they have to make records that are good enough to put out and perform in front of people. With R&B I dont see that. Theyre more concerned with what the video will look like, as opposed to how the song is going to make you feel.

DX: Yeah, and there also seems to be this huge gap between the older R&B generation and the current Hip Hop crowd. After working with Snoop, Ludacris, DJ Quik and Q-Tip, its pretty safe to say you havent been affected by that.
Raphael Saadiq:
Coming from doing talent shows and stuff, there were always so many different types of people I was in competition with. Somebody might have been tap-dancing, and another person might have been rapping. Then over on the other side, someone mightve been juggling balls or something. I was always around so many different types of cats, that I never looked at it thinking I was restricted to the R&B world.

Every time I saw an emcee they would be like, Yo, yo, son. I dont usually be listening to no R&B singers, but I fucks with you. Ive gotten that so many times in my career, because they can feel it. They can tell that Im not just an R&B cat. Im worldwide with the earsfrom the most rugged, dirty Hip Hop on down. I mean, I mess with Devin The Dude [click to read]. Devin isnt like some real big southern rapper, but hes one of the dopest to me. I just like the people I like.

Its not as if Im trying to be some hard, edgy R&B singer when I get around rappers. I dont give a shit about being around no rappers. I grew up in East Oakland where it was hardcore. I aint gotta go nowhere and try to be hard. I grew up hard. Its all about the music. Ive worked with people, where gangsters try to come in and muscle you. Im like, Dude, back up! If I wanted to be a gangster, I could have been a gangster. But, I play music, and I love music. Music makes people feed good, and Im going to continue to do what I do best. If I tried anything else, I could try it with people like Ludacris [click to read], A Tribe Called Quest [click to read], Quik, T.I. [click to read] or whoever. They allow me to step into their world and then come back into mine. Thats why I like to work with so many different people. I love what I do, and Im going to do what I want to do. If I want to switch it up, I can work with people I like in a field thats a little outside of what I normally do.

DX: One of your biggest collaborations came when Tony! Toni! Ton! made Lets Get Down with DJ Quik. Im curious as to how you hooked up, because it initially seemed like a really weird pairing?
Raphael Saadiq:
That goes back to my Hip Hop background. It doesnt matter what you do. If I like it, I can always lend myself to it and bring my best into it. Look at what Kanye [West] did with T-Pain [click to read]. A lot of musician cats dont like T-Pain because hes not really singing. But, they love Kanye, and Kanye twisted the whole game up with that T-Pain record ["Good Life"]. Thats how I can jump and grab someone like Quik and say, Hey, lets make a record. At that time, it was perfect, because we were always doing up-tempo club songs. Quik was on the west coast, and I knew he was someone we could musically collaborate with. That was definitely my idea.

DX: One your collaborators this time around was Stevie Wonder on Never Gonna Give You Up. Could you explain how you two came together after that 1 a.m. phone call?
Raphael Saadiq
: I was going to call him and leave a message, but he picked up the phone instead. So, we have our little exchange.

Whats up fool?

Whats up fool?

Yo, I need you to come and play on this song. I need you real bad.


In about an hour.

He ended up coming right over, and I was like, Thank God. Of course, he murdered it. Even when I go back and listen to it now, Im just like, Wow. I think that probably made up for all the Christmas gifts I didnt get when I was a kid. Thats probably the biggest gift right there. Plus hes nonstop with the jokes.

DX: In addition to Stevie, youve shouted out people such as Shuggie Otis, Howlin Wolf and Holland-Dozier-Holland at Invictus Records. How much do you think being a student of the game factors in to being successful?
Rapheal Saadiq:
I think its very important. You get it by watching, listening and keeping your eyes open. Listening to and loving the game will teach you what and what not to do.

Im not saying I did everything right. I probably couldve been a more aggressive hustler, but I was more into the art side of it. Im still that way. But, yeah, being a student of the game is definitely important. Youve got to know when to be in the room, when to say something and when not to say anything. All of that stuff is important.

I try to tell these artists you cant be mad. There are artists like me, or some that are older, and they want to talk bad about a new artist. Im like, You cant do that. Thats out of bounds. [Laughs]. I dont care. Thats out of bounds. Think about Earth Wind & Firethey didnt talk [negatively] about me, but they couldve. [Tony! Toni! Ton!] was good, but we didnt make that Gratitude album. We know that. But they didnt come out and say, Look at these cats. They aint doing nothing. Everybody has their own thing. The biggest thing I try to tell cats today is to embrace this life. Somebody could be out here pulling a gun on your mother. Be happy that you have the privilege to go in the studio and record a song. Let them do what they do, because everyone has their own destination.

I ask a lot of new artists, Where do you want to be at in 21 years? If youre just doing this for a hobby until you get another hustle or another job, then do what you do. If you want to be in this for the long run, then you need to try to make some jeans that are going to be around for awhile like Levis.

DX: As someone who has made those Levis, so to speak, your career has followed a very natural arc. You started at home and in church, right?
Raphael Saadiq:
Yeah, exactly.

DX: And initially with Tony! Toni! Ton! you played bass in the background.
Raphael Saadiq:
Yeah, my brother [DWayne Wiggins] was the lead singer, and I kind of got pushed into that position. After doing it, I kind of had to put it all together and make it work. There were groups out there like Guy, with dudes who could really sing. I wasnt a balladeer type of person, but we had to pull it together really quick.

DX: I read that early on you had to sneak the family instruments out of the house to get into talent shows.
Raphael Saadiq:
Yeah. My mother didnt want me to take them to school because they could get damaged, stolen or whatever. But, I had to do this show, so I just brought them to school. I came home and got an ass-whooping, but I still snuck them out again the next day. I won the talent show, so I made sure to bring that trophy home. I damn near had to bring the whole school to my house to make sure I didnt get beat again. I was like, Hold on. Wait, wait, wait. I couldnt take another one of those heavy hands, so I had the principal, the counselor and about four teachers with me. Theyre telling my mother I won the talent show, and shes sitting there still not smiling. [Laughs] Im standing there with like a half-smile on my face going, Aint you happy for me? She finally broke down, smiled and said, Yeah, I guess. It was such a relief. I was just like, Whoo!

DX: Following your career, it took a long time to reveal those kinds of stories. It seems that you didnt really get personal until that intro on Instant Vintage. Do you have a lot of reservations about what to put out there and what to keep to yourself?
Raphael Saadiq:
Yeah, I kind of keep things to myself. I put that on there because it was sort of introducing people to me. I was really giving my family a shout-out too. I dont think any of us dealt with itat least, not together. They probably bugged out that I did that on the album. I wanted to let people know you can still write about something good even if youve been through a lot of bad. Ive been through a lot of bad.

DX: Given your family ties in Louisiana, did you have to put a lot of thought into doing Big Easy or was that another spur of the moment thing?
Raphael Saadiq:
It was kind of spur of the moment. I was watching When the Levees Broke, and Ive got some family out there. I was just watching it and playing some music at the same time. They got to that part where this guy is getting on a boat to Houston to see his [displaced] family. I almost cant even talk about thatits crazy. So thats what made me write a song about the Big Easy.

DX: And obviously theres still fallout from Katrina, Gustav and Ike too. But lets leave it on a less somber note. The music of the 60s and 70s is often associated with the movies of that era. As a fellow blaxploitation fan, what are some of your favorite movies from that era?
Raphael Saadiq:
Of course The Mack. They filmed that in OaklandBlack Shampoo and all of those real movies. Goldie was like Michael Jordan in everybodys hood. Ive turned a lot of young cats on to Goldie and they always bug out saying theyve never seen it. Im always like, Are yall serious?

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