With all things considered, Raphael Saadiq is the thread that has weaved the fabric of contemporary soul music together.
His midas touch has turned the careers of countless "soul sisters"—Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Mary J. Blige—and "soul brothers"—John Legend, Musiq Soulchild and D'Angelo—into gold. And while his artistic resume is largely unknown by the masses, such high-profile collaborations expose a mere fraction of Saadiq's musical contributions.
After a successful decade as a member of Tony! Toni! Toné! and R&B's pioneering supergroup, Lucy Pearl, Saadiq launched a solo career in 2002 with the release of Instant Vintage. His refreshing "gospedelic" mix of soul eventually earned him five GRAMMY nominations—a first for an artist who lacked a major record label deal. In 2004, Saadiq released his highly-anticipated follow-up, Ray Ray.
The Way I See It (2008) continues Saadiq's life-long tribute to "old-school" music. Upon review of the album, Raphael Saadiq managed to find time in his busy schedule to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry, where together they reflected on "neo-soul," Kanye West and the current state of R&B.
When you launched Pookie Entertainment in 2002 and began releasing your work independently, what major hurdles did you often find yourself against?
The main struggle I face is replicating my music on the road. My music requires a band and it's hard to take a band around the world. Some artists are out all the time, just touring, and they can build their fan base by just staying on the road. But for me, being a producer as well as having a label, it's a struggle. I did well recording the live records, like [All Hits at] the House of Blues. They weren't huge struggles but they were struggles. People that have major labels have problems with taking their bands on the road because there are not too many bands in the urban genre, so there's no system for them to go out and perform like rock bands. When they go to a TV show, they usually perform with a track tape or something. When another band comes up that's black, it's automatic to think that you're going to a tape or something. That ain't really my world. My world is more like the rock world. We got the amp, we like to play. That's the kind of the struggle that I've seen, a trend that shouldn't have been set. It wasn't always like that for urban acts.
Over the course of your career, how has the music industry changed – for better or worse?
When Tony! Toni! Toné! came out, hip-hop was just having its big launch or second wind. At the time, we were one of two bands that were playing band-type of records. We were holding on to things that we loved in the past. Listening to groups that I grew up really loving, that music's really not gone but changed from an industry perspective. The hip-hop artists are probably seeing more change in their peers than I'm seeing in mine. For black urban bands, anything that's happening right now is pretty much the same.
In the past few years, several British artists have cornered the soul market from a commercial standpoint. What factors do you think allowed them to have a little bit more flexibility in the marketplace?
I think Britons are more open to it and I think the British market has always been more receptive of soul music. In the ‘60s, the Temptations went over to Europe and the Beatles came over here. America has always set that precedence for soul music. European audiences probably just got tired of not hearing it. We weren't doing it and they were like "We want to hear it. If they won't do it, we'll do it." That's what I think, especially in Britain. They probably did open up the market a lot and I think that's a great thing. The more, the merrier you know. It's great.
Although European audiences have developed a keen taste for soul music, looking at the current market, one may be tempted to say that "R&B is dead." What's your take?
R&B has never been dead because hip-hop is saddling it. It still is happening today. Go ask the people who make their money off the publishing. I mean, Kanye West and "Through the Fire" – that's never been dead. Everything has its limitations. It depends on what road you take with your music, with your career, whatever you decide with your life. Some are short-lived careers. Some are short-lived songs. Some are long-lasting careers. Some are long-lasting songs. I think that's the way you have to look at it. You have to pick that road that you're going down on and be prepared for the beginning, the middle and the end. I would say neo-soul is dead. I never really understood what neo-soul was. I know everybody wanted to be a part of it. I don't think it had anything to do with any of the artists that they may have called neo-soul. It wasn't really a true statement for any artist. I think that's a term that should be dead in some nearby garbage.
Having spent two decades in the music business, what do you consider to be your greatest contribution to the musical landscape?
Well, my body of work has contributed to the development of a lot of different artists. Sometimes, when people hear a song, they don't really know that it's one of my creations. It's nice to be able to have that quiet piece of artistry that keeps giving.
Yeah, your name pops up all over the place! [laughing] Mary J. Blige is one of my favorite singers and you produced a track on The Breakthrough entitled "I Found My Everything." When you hear this song, is there a particular memory that comes to mind?
When I did that song, I think that's when I really found the sound of my album. I was researching the sound for my record. I did a record for Leela James that never came out, that I still have. And I did that song for Mary. Both of those songs came out sounding like that. I think the relationship between me and "I Found My Everything" is like I found what I'm going to do in my next album.
Interesting. While listening to The Way I See It, I noticed that the executive producer slot was listed as "you, the listener." In what ways do fans influence your music?
They've supported me for so long. I always felt like the executive producer was just a token – little bells and whistles thrown on records. You know what? The album is really executive-produced by the people who are listening and buying it. It's not really executive-produced by the person who furnished the money because they're not spending their own money anyway. I just felt like I wanted to give it to my listeners who listen to the record. Executive-produced by you because you're the one listening, you're the one making it happen, you're the one who comes to see me when I perform – kind of like that one thing I need to keep me doing what I'm doing. That's how it's always been from the get-go. It's kind of like when you start playing an instrument. In the beginning, you're not that good, but people look at you and they say: "Keep going. You sound good." My fans always gave me something and I always wanted to give them something back in return.
It is rare for an artist to work behind the boards and inside the booth, so which part of the process – recording or performing – do you enjoy the most?
Oh, I like both! [laughing] They provide two different kinds of energy. The studio gives me real thinking time. Playing on the stage is like "butterfly time," filled with nervous energy like jumping off a plane or something. When you're in front of people, you're not thinking. You're as excited as the people are. When I perform or go to a show, they are giving me energy and I give them energy back. When I'm in the studio, the music is coming back at me through the speakers, so I'm playing off of that. At a show, I'm playing off of people. They're two completely different things, but I enjoy them both.
I see. Well, two of your greatest musical contributions have been handled by D'Angelo – "Lady" and "Untitled (How Does It Feel)." What is it that you most admire about his talents?
We're kindred spirits. We kind of grew up through the same things. We work differently, but we like the same things. We accompany each other very well. He's the piano player. He'd accompany people in church, same as I did. So, we knew how to accompany each other's talent. That's what really makes the magic work. We can walk through it, we can talk through it, we can play through it. That's the triple threat. That's when the magic happens.
Rumor has it that the two of you, along with Q-Tip, were going to be collaborating with the group Lynwood Rose. What's the significance of the name for the group?
Lynwood Rose is something me and D'Angelo came up with before Lucy Pearl. Lynwood is a guy in Virginia and Rose is a guitar bridge called Floyd Rose. So we took Floyd out and put Lynwood with it to create "Lynwood Rose."
What's the group's current status?
It's all a dream, man. They're both doing their solo records so there's no telling when it's going to happen. We talk about it. But we'll see [laughing].
When you mentioned Floyd Rose, I was reminded of the fact that you've been playing the bass since you were six years old. At what particular moment did you realize that music was in your blood?
The first day I picked up a guitar, I knew that was it! [laughing]
What was the first bass line that you ever played?
"You Got the Love" by Rufus and Chaka Khan.
For more information on Raphael Saadiq, visit his official website.