Even if you don’t recognise the name Raphael Saadiq, you’ve definitely heard his music. He’s the Grammy-winning all-rounder whose addictive guitar licks, intoxicating melodies and atmospherically rich soundscapes have played a part in many of your favourite artists’ most celebrated records from D’Angelo’s ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ to Solange’s ‘Cranes in the Sky’.
Beyond that, in the ’90s he was the frontman of Tony! Toni! Toné! alongside his brother D’wayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian Riley. They sold millions of records before splitting up in 1998, and delivered countless hits including ‘Feels Good’, ‘Anniversary’ and ‘It Never Rains (In Southern California)’.
He released his debut solo album ‘Instant Village’ in 2002, which effortlessly fused neo-soul with gorgeous gospel tones – all while celebrating the art of songwriting and true musicianship. It was heralded a masterpiece by fans and critics alike and followed by ‘Ray Ray’ (2004), ‘The Way I See It’ (2008) and Stone Rollin’’ (2011).
Back with his first album in eight years, ‘Jimmy Lee’ is Saadiq’s bravest and most personal album to date. Partly inspired by the death of his brother, who tragically died from a drug overdose on February 20 1998, it’s built around a rousing narrative that examines human addiction and questions just how far people will go to get their fix.
It’s been eight years since the release of ‘Stone Rollin’’. Is there a reason it took you so long to put out a new album?
“I was actually changing management teams so I pretty much managed myself for a long time until I eventually hooked up with new management. I was really good for a while but then that sort of didn’t work and things went wrong and then I hired another management team for a year and then I realised that wasn’t gonna work either. I was still making music the whole time but I just didn’t want it to come out without having a team together, although in-between albums I was thinking about not having a team. I just didn’t feel that comfortable finishing a record and giving it to the people working for me. I’ve been on this horse ride a couple of times before so I knew that I didn’t really want these kind of people attached to my next record.”
‘Jimmy Lee’ is about your brother who died from a drug overdose. Did you have to do any further research to help you create it?
“Not really, I was really close to him. The only thing that was new to me was learning how fast he got connected to drugs when he and my parents moved to California from Louisiana.”
Do you think you now understand the inner workings of an addict better?
“Yeah, definitely. It’s not an easy thing to understand. Like, how do you get into it? I’m always thinking, do they think they’re just gonna get high? They definitely don’t think they’re gonna be a hindrance on anyone else’s life.”
Have you ever taken drugs?
“I’ve done pills before, ecstasy, shrooms, stuff like that, but it wasn’t for me. The reason why I tried them, especially the pills, was because I thought it was okay to do. In America, everybody thinks a pill is okay. It’s not coke or heroin, but at the end of the day a drug is a drug. So after reading up about it, I was like, ‘Oh nah, this is not okay.’”
Some refer to you as the ‘artist whisperer’ because of how you bring the best out of others. One such person is Solange. Your work on ‘A Seat at the Table’ was phenomenal. Her next album, ‘When I Get Home’, was met with mixed reviews and you weren’t involved. Were you asked to work on it?
“Not for the album, I wasn’t, no. I think she wanted to do something different. I thought it was a very good interpretation of who she is. She’s a very artistic person who’s not always focused on making an album or music. Her focus is staging. So I think this new album featured a lot of the same sounds as the last album but not song-wise, it had more of a show focus. I think what she was doing was trying not to have to have a hit song and still tour.”
You also worked with Joss Stone on arguably her best album, ‘Introducing Joss Stone’, but like with Solange her next album ‘Colour Me Free!’ didn’t connect like its predecessor. You produced and featured on ‘Big Ol’ Game’, but that was it. Were you asked to do more?
“No. I think I make it look so easy that people then decide they wanna do it themselves next time.”
Joss was once the darling of British pop music, but then all of a sudden fell out of favour. What happened?
“Joss was a sweetheart. I used to tell her all the time that she had some of the best things going for her. She was a white girl singing soul music, and while she had her own problems and complaints, I was like, ‘You didn’t have it hard like Aretha Franklin or anybody like that.’ So I would tell her to just take the ride because I knew that they were gonna do that to her.”
Do what to her?
“Well, when she didn’t wanna do what the label wanted her do, like conform and have hits, they just brought Katy Perry in. So when Joss started being a bit different, like putting herself in a cage and everything like that, the label stepped back and boom! But she once had carte blanche. I was telling her, ‘You gotta be who you are. You know you’re not a model. You don’t wanna be a model, you don’t wanna have blonde hair. So be you.’ So I think the label just took a different approach with her. I always kinda told her that that’s what they were gonna do. But she started off so young and had a lot of people not being real with her. I came around and was real with her, but I didn’t wanna shake the tree too much so I just said as much as I could say as an artist. Me and Joss, we keep it 100 when it comes to that. I think she got an unfair shake because she’s a beast of a talent.”
You recently said that one of the reasons R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl didn’t make a second album was because Dawn was being a diva. Joi stepped in to replace her for some live shows, but you chose not to do a new album with her. Why was that?
“I always felt like you just needed the original group, you know? I’m really about the original group. And Joi is a good friend of mine but she was just helping us out. It would have been a different group with her and I wouldn’t have wanted to do the same music that I was doing with Dawn and Ali. So making that shift would have been too much. The fan base liked Dawn and she was really good. But people, and I guess I talk about this on my new record, have these addictions. You never know what Dawn was going through so I hate to write her off as a diva but that’s just the word people use. It’s all about their gowns, their hair and this and that, and that’s what happened that year. People suffer from different things, mental illness, so we couldn’t talk her out of whatever was going on in her head.”
Are you saying she was addicted to being famous?
“No, I felt like she didn’t know how to handle the fame. I don’t think she had a big head or anything, I just think it sometimes gets too much and then people end up sort of self-sabotaging themselves. She even said things about me that weren’t true.”
Really, like what?
“She said I’m the reason why she lost her house. She was only with us for six months so I don’t know how I did that. She definitely had to be dealing with something else.”
Is it true that the group’s original lineup was supposed to feature D’Angelo?
“Yeah, but it wasn’t Lucy Pearl. The other group was meant to be me, D’Angelo and Q-Tip.”
Why did that not happen?
“Getting us all together would have been difficult. Those are two big power figures who have taken a long time to put their own projects out so after seeing that I knew it couldn’t work. They’re my friends and I didn’t really wanna put that type of pressure on either one of them.”
You recently announced Tony! Toni! Toné! are reforming. It wasn’t that long ago that your brother D’wayne said it was never going to happen. What changed?
“I’ve been working on new Tonys music for about 15 years. I just felt like we should do something, a few songs, maybe seven or eight of them and then do a few shows. So I’m not gonna be back-back because I have way too many things going on, but as far as doing a tour and an EP or something, I’m down for that. I’d actually like to perform the very last record we did together, ‘House of Music’. We never toured that record so if everyone is up for it I’d like to do that and put out three new records.”
It was alleged that Tony! Toni! Toné! broke up because D’wayne stole money from the group. How true is that?
“It was more an appropriation of funds, if you know what I mean? Things just weren’t operating right. We were young, we all really didn’t understand everything and he was sort of the leader of the group. We all had the same bank account at one time.”
So he was spending more money than the rest of you?
“Yeah, on partying, hanging out and all that. The money wasn’t all that bad though. I always felt that we could get the money back anytime but I just said, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna leave. Later on we’ll get back together as brothers, not as musicians.’ And that’s what happened, we got back together as brothers.”
Before Tony! Toni! Toné!, you toured with Prince. You’ve said you felt like he was beginning to hate music towards the end of his life. Could you elaborate on this?
“You could just tell by listening to him talk. He practised so much and studied so hard, and he would sit down at the piano and write these beautiful compositions, so he had to be frustrated.”
How do you feel about unreleased music from his vault now being released?
“I’m for it — well, some of it at least. I think people need to see the hard work. Maybe more of the visuals, like the rehearsals, but it depends on who’s curating it.”
Michael Howe is one of the people involved. He told us that Prince eluded to the fact that he wanted to release some of the music eventually.
“I think he wanted it out there. I think he just wanted to be a conflicted type of person, and his whole life was that. ‘I’m not doing this, I’m not doing that.’ I would feel differently if there were some songs that he really didn’t want to come out, ones he didn’t want people to hear.”
Another artist you worked with – be it posthumously – was 2Pac. Were you around him much when he was alive?
“I don’t really have that many stories with ‘Pac, it’s more like Digital Underground stories, like being in the same concert venues, running around backstage acting crazy, watching them run around with water guns and stuff. He was like a big kid. He wasn’t yet the developed ‘Pac that he was with Death Row [Records]. I did see him at some of the more sad times, when he was around a lot of people that weren’t good for him. But then when I would see him and we’d speak to each other he would turn into this other person, more like a Bay Area person, not like the persona that he had out there at the time. And I would notice it because he would have a real genuine conversation with me. I remember having a conversation with him in Los Angeles downstairs at the Beverly Center. There used to be a club down there. He had a fifth of something, maybe Hennessy, in his back pocket and we started talking. He was with a group of people and he left them to talk to me one on one. He was totally different to when he was with them.”
Oakland, aka The Bay Area, is responsible for producing a magnitude of musical icons, one of which is MC Hammer. He played a big part in your career, right?
“Yeah, Hammer’s like a real god kinda saviour guy for me. He played a crucial part in my career. He stepped up when nobody else was there. He stepped up and took a meeting with me and my label. He tried to help me get off the label and bring some clarity to the situation — this was when I was leaving the Tonys. I had no one at that time and he flew to New York on his day off with a couple of his security, sat in the office and we had a conversation with the President of the label, Ed Eckstine. Hammer was asking them how much would it take to get me off the label. Ed said $10 million and Hammer said, ‘Really? C’mon.’ But after that, Ed was pretty much gone from the label anyway. But Hammer’s a really good dude. He helps out a lot of people.”
Do you think you’re underrated?
“I must be, I hear it a lot. But you know what? I don’t know if I’d do well with being super known. When I think about it, I’m not comfortable with compliments. I can tell when somebody’s really engaged and we’re having a pretty normal conversation. But to be as big as Beyoncé would be way too much for me. I like being able to get up, get in my ’67 Mustang, drive down the street to get some coffee, go eat breakfast, talk to my friends and then sing a song and have people go, ‘Oh, I like that.’ That’s a good feeling for me. I’m like D’Angelo in that sense. He put out ‘How Does It Feel’ and then he became super famous. He didn’t like it.”
He wasn’t a fan of the attention?
“No, he wasn’t. You like that the music does well, that part’s great, but you don’t like the other side. I like to make the money, I don’t mind that. But when the money comes people start to act different around you. It’s not the fans, it’s the people that’s closest to you, that work for you. They pretty much start pulling at you. I don’t like that at all.”
Raphael Saadiq’s new album ‘Jimmy Lee’ is out on August 23 and can be downloaded/streamed on all platforms here. He will also be headlining BluesFest 2019 at London’s indigo at The O2 on October 26 – get your tickets here.