by Dom Jones
Oakland is a beautiful and sometimes brutal place to grow up. Its art and activism is the stuff of legend, and soul singer Raphael Saadiq was one of my primary musical inspirations as I developed my own musicianship. He was someone who had made it big, first with his group Tony, Toni, Tonè, then with his fantastic, albeit short-lived second group, Lucy Pearl, and finally as a solo artist. Of all of the R&B artists who came up with Mr. Saadiq, I always felt that he was never given his proper due. His songwriting and production have been pervasive in soul music for 30 years (the first Tony, Toni, Tonè album came out in 1988), yet when we mention the greats – the living legends – his name often eludes the list. This is such a glaring error that an article came out last year called “Raphael Saadiq is the Most Underappreciated R&B Artist of All Time.” I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Mr. Saadiq before his show at The Royale this past Thursday night. This interview has been edited and condensed. Check it out below:
Berklee Groove: I saw you headline AfroPunk last year, and it was a really awesome performance, but when reading about you, I thought “Is he really 50?” The performance definitely belied your age. What advice do you have to musicians about how to stay healthy?
Raphael Saadiq: I don’t want to sound clichè, like how when people say “stay true to yourself.” How do you really do that in an industry like this? I just say stay a fan of things that you really, really like – the things that made you start in the beginning. I think that keeps you true. Try to reach some new goals at the same time, and it’ll keep you honest.
BG: I personally feel like you’re just getting your proper due as a solo artist, but you’re still reaching back and mentoring. You’re a mentor for Adrian Marcel and Jane Handcock. What was the impetus behind reaching back and grabbing some folks to mentor?
RS: I just thought that people need advice, and there’s not enough people out there giving honest advice. And even when you do give someone advice, they still have to do things their way. You just hope that the little bit you know might help them. I liked what Adrian was doing, and I love Jane Handcock. She’s an incredible songwriter. And they’re from the Bay, you know? We have similar minds. I know what people are up against, so just to give people a little bit of a warning sometimes.
BG: You were a Music Supervisor for HBO’s Insecure. What was that like and how did it differ from being in the studio just creating your own work?
RS: It definitely helps me to branch out in my own music. I scored Underground, I also scored a movie called After Party. I’m working on a new episodic show with Forest Whitaker called Bumpy Johnson. I’m a fan of Donny Hathaway – he was a great arranger. And Maurice White, all those people. Some of the greats did it – Quincy [Jones], so I just thought that was a natural progression. At the same time, I love playing music and venturing into other businesses. I like doing things not to just keep me busy, but to keep me stimulated. When you’re a musician, and you start getting older, you start knocking people’s music that you think are less talented. You have to have more things that you’re doing, so you don’t start going around that corner, making calculations about someone else’s creative drive or work. By doing a few other things, I don’t really think about that. I just think about what I like and I stay a fan of what I like.
BG: Who do you think is poppin’ in the new school of R&B?
RS: I don’t know, name some.
BG: BJ The Chicago Kid.
RS: Love him.
RS: Love Anderson.Paak.
BG: I love what Janelle Monae is doing.
RS: Yeah, she’s dope. I feel like those people aren’t the same, but that clique of people are like a given. I’ve always waited for the even more mainstream people to be – mainstream at this point is not being mainstream. I like Daniel Caesar. And Oakland… Oakland is so jazzy now. Everybody’s always singing Jill Scott’s “Is It The Way You Love Me?”
BG: Yeah, they actually banned it at one of the spots where they let people sing with the band.
BG: So, I’ve wanted to ask you this question for a long time. People recognize you for working on Solange’s A Seat At The Table. I love that album, but in my opinion, it’s not better than her preceding album Hadley St. Dreams, which you also worked on. What do you think took people so long, because that was a dope album? Why do you think one popped more than the other?
RS: I think it’s all timing. A lot of things happened in her life between that first record and the second one. It’s like me, I’m doing TV shows, I did the Solange record, and people start putting the dots together and not the dots before. And finally people are like, “Oh he did!” and it’s funny, you can never calculate the time when it’s gonna happen. It’s all timing.
BG: I’ve gotta ask this for the students at Berklee: if you’re a bourgeoning songwriter, what’s the best next step to take once you’ve crossed the stage and want to write music and/or perform music?
RS: I would think for a lot of artists, it’s film and television. Just jump the line, write songs, and find music supervisors and send them your stuff. That way publishers find you, and you become a publisher right away, which is better than being an artist. Being a publisher/artist, there’s so many different avenues, channels, and networks – so many movies are being made now. Everybody needs music.
BG: One thing that you said at AfroPunk was that you may not have all of the awards, but your reward is driving down the street late at night and hearing a song come on the radio that you helped bring to life. The music industry has changed so much, though, that it’s not always about musicianship as much as analytics and followers on social media. You were talking about staying true to yourself, but do you think new artists have to play the game to some extent to be successful?
RS: Well, you don’t have to do anything. If you want to play the analytics game, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but that can’t be the end all, be all – it’s gotta be the music. If you’re good, people will play the analytics game for you. Make it so good that everybody else wants to play the numbers game for you. You still have to play the numbers in the music. You can’t constantly try to see how many followers you’re gonna get. The way the world is now, all of a sudden it’ll be that you’re only cool if you have two followers. It’s already happening. People have pages that only have 300 followers, and people go, “Wow, he only has 300 followers.” or “I only talk to people that have 25 followers.” That’s the new flip. Pretty soon, it’ll be that having a hundred million followers is corny. At the same time, if someone else takes it and runs with it for you, then that’s cool. It works great for comedians. Kevin Hart is killing it with social media, so I can’t say that it doesn’t work. Lil Duval has a song that’s viral because of that, so it definitely works.
BG: I wanna ask one question about Toni, Tony, Tone`. Being from Oakland, there’s a lot of conjecture about what happened. Do you have any feelings about the group still existing, but not being in it?
RS: Nah. My brother owns the name. I left and changed my name. It wasn’t meant for me to be there. I couldn’t grow in that situation, and I never wanted to be stuck in something where I couldn’t grow and be around different types of music. We were just going in two different directions. It’s sad for fans, but it’s better for me. I get to play with different musicians, and hang out. Some people win the lottery and quit their jobs. I didn’t wanna just win with the Tonys, and stop doing things I believed in.
BG: My last question is about a song on your album Instant Vintage called “Uptown.” It’s about leaving. My other artist friends from Oakland and I are always talking about and wondering if you have to leave Oakland and the Bay Area to reach the next level, because it feels like there’s no industry or infrastructure in the Bay to really go to a certain level. When and why did you leave Oakland, and do you think that’s a step that other artists from Oakland need to take at some point?
RS: You could stay in the Bay, but your mind can’t stay in the Bay. You have to be able to get around certain things. I love the Bay, it’s the only place I really ever wanted to be. But for music, I had to venture out and tour. I moved to LA because my mom had moved to Sacramento from Oakland, and I was up there for eight years. I moved to LA to start producing, and I could just meet more people because they were already there for business. I could kill two birds with one stone. At some point, people do need to leave where they live, at least for three years, and then come back. You can talk to people and help them, give people a different point of view. If you look at [Daveed] Diggs, who’s doing the new movie, Blindspotting, he’s from the Bay, look at Boots Riley, I’m sure they left at some point. There’s people who went off to college and did things. You have to leave, so you can go back and do something great. I don’t love LA like that at all – LA does not have a feeling like the Bay, but you definitely have to leave.
I left the interview with Mr. Saadiq feeling educated and inspired. His show at The Royale later that night was packed to the brim with fans who would sing along with hits he’d released with his groups, and as a solo artist, and a medley of songs he’d written or produced for other artists, from D’Angelo’s “Lady” to Erykah Badu’s “Love of my Life” to Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky.” Saadiq also shared new music from his upcoming album titled Jimmy Lee, after his oldest brother who struggled with heroin addiction. Mr. Saadiq said that the album addresses different kinds of addiction through each song, and one song in particular that stood out to me was “Riker’s Island,” which talks about the high incarceration rate of African-Americans, and the struggles that both prisoners and their families suffer through because of an unjust system. It was the concert of someone who has been in the industry for so long, and has the catalog of a seasoned artist, but still has the energy of a new one. Stories were told throughout the show about growing up in Oakland, having relatives who struggled with addiction, and how inspired and blessed he felt to have icons like Prince and Michael Jackson personally tell him that they loved his music. For me, this was the the ultimate example of what all of us at Berklee should aspire to: longevity, a lasting love of music, and legacy.