Local producer/former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman Raphael Saadiq goes public with his solo debut
Even when he fronted the successful Oakland-based R&B band Tony! Toni! Tone!, and more recently the defunct supergroup Lucy Pearl, singer-songwriter-producer Raphael Saadiq’s music always defied categorization. What was it—funk? Pop? R&B?
Those questions are likely to surface again with the June 11 release of Saadiq’s Pookie/Universal debut, Instant Vintage. “I think some people might be quick to want to label the album neo-soul,” Saadiq explains. “But I don’t believe neo-soul really fully describes my music. I prefer to call it ‘gospeldelic’—that term seems much more encompassing, particularly since I come from a gospel background. But I have all that psychedelic and the funkadelic stuff in me, too.”
Instant Vintage, with its inventive bass lines, rich, intricate harmonizing and colorful strings, reflects that and more. It is a unique blend of soul, R&B, hip-hop, funk, rock, jazz and even doo-wop. Saadiq wrote and produced all the songs, the majority in Sacramento at his Pookie Labs recording studio. Standout tracks include collaborations with Angie Stone (“Doing What I Can,” “Excuse Me”) TLC’s Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins (“Different Times”) and Saadiq’s older brother, Randy Wiggins (“People”). The album’s lead single is “Be Here,” a sensuous, hot-buttered soulful groove that features D’Angelo.
While Saadiq owns a cozy brownstone in New York and an MTV-style crib in the Hollywood Hills, he affectionately calls his digs in Sacramento’s Curtis Park home. “Some of my biggest hits have come out of my studio here,” he says. “Sacramento is a good town for me to keep things real and create music.” His Pookie Lab studio’s writing and production magic resulted in monstrous hits for Macy Gray (“Don’t Come Around”), Bilal Oliver (“Soul Sista”), Angie Stone (“Brotha”) and D’Angelo (“Lady,” “Untitled”).
“Keeping people guessing what I’ll do next is what motivates me to make creative and innovative music,” Saadiq says. “I’ve always liked to stay ahead of the musical curve. I believe that’s what set Tony! Toni! Toné! apart from other groups at the time, and why we’re able to sell six million records worldwide. We weren’t afraid to step outside the traditional R&B box and mix things up or try new things. People may not have been able to nail down our sound, but they knew they liked it.”
Saadiq hopes audiences show him that same love this time around. He says he wanted to go solo years ago, but he was so busy producing other people that he put self-interest on hold. “It was long overdue,” he says. “I had so much music and so many ideas that I just had to get in the studio and let them out.”
In retrospect, Saadiq says he’s pleased with his decision to wait this long before branching out. “Doing a solo album when I was with Tony! Toni! Toné! probably wouldn’t have been the best thing for me at the time,” he says. “There was enough drama going on without me suddenly announcing my solo intentions. It really would have compounded things.” Even so, Saadiq swears there’s no beef with any members of the group today, although he left under less than amicable terms, adding that Tony! Toni! Toné! will reunite only if demand is there.
But Lucy Pearl—Saadiq, Dawn Robinson of En Vogue and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest—never really broke up. “I consider them like the Traveling Wilburys,” Saadiq explains. “I’m actually bringing in Mos Def if I decide to do anything else with them. I like having a bunch of different, creative people around me.
“That’s why in a way this solo thing feels kinda strange,” Saadiq says; it’s hard to go from divvying up duties between group members to carrying the entire load. But Saadiq, whose first solo tour brings him to Bimbo’s in San Francisco on June 15, is ready for whatever comes.
“It’s a whole new world,” he enthuses. “But I’m jumping in with my eyes wide open. I’m ready to get this party started.”