When it comes to the past 35 years of soul music, much of the sound and style has been shaped by producer and musician Raphael Saadiq. While his influence in the studio producing stars like Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige might be the more visible part of his career, Saadiq has been creating his own music since the 1990s. Over the past 15 years he has also become a pioneer of sound-production techniques.
The Oakland, California native was born in 1966. As a child he learned bass guitar and sang gospel. He was barely 18 when he was hired as the bassist for Prince’s backing band, led by Sheila E. That was when he changed his name from Charles Wiggins to Raphael Wiggins. Following that tour, he and a brother and cousin started an R&B band called Tony! Toni! Toné! (aka the Tonys), which enjoyed big success for almost 10 years.
The Tonys’ first album, released in 1988 by the Wing offshoot of Mercury records, was called Who? It was produced by a couple of friends from the Oakland area, Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, who were soon to become the sought-after R&B production team, Foster & McElroy. An important ingredient of that duo’s secret sauce was the use of new jack swing, the application of hip-hop rhythmic techniques to soul music.
The lead single from Who?, “Little Walter,” hit the number one spot on the R&B charts; the album itself went gold. The album-only song “Pain,” written by the band, is typical of the romantic side of the Tonys. Lots of drum machine and smooth, sexy vocals. The soloist is Dwayne Wiggins, Raphael’s brother.
In the mid-1990s Rafael changed his last name to Saadiq – Arabic for “Man of the world” – at the height of the band’s fame, partly as a signal that he had ambitions beyond Tony! Toni! Toné! By that point he had a strong foothold in producing what marketing teams had started to call “neo-soul,” a term that amused Saadiq. “It’s just soul,” he told one reporter.
The Tonys’ next album, Revival, sold even more widely, beyond just the R&B market. They followed that with Sons of Soul in1993, producing it themselves. It’s fair to say that the Tonys’ importance lies in their integration of old-school and new effects, equipment, and instruments. There was turntable scratching in the same songs as an acoustic horn section, and programmed drum tracks playing under upright bass.
As the name implies, Sons of Soul is meant to draw attention to the roots of that genre in the 1960s and 1970s. It also finds Saadiq (still billed as Rafael Wiggins) writing some songs on his own. One of those is the sleek and funky “I Couldn’t Keep It to Myself.”
After one more album, House of Music, the Tonys called it quits in 1997. Saadiq’s career continued to grow. Among other projects, he ended up in the R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl along with En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad. It was a short-lived idea: their only release was called Lucy Pearl, which came out in 1999.
In 2002, Saadiq struck out on his own as a performer. So far, he has made five solo albums. He had enough of a reputation to sign with Universal Music for his debut, Instant Vintage. At its core, Instant Vintage is gospel, but it also draws on jazz, soul, and funk. The song “Blind Man” is a good demonstration of all these traditions blended into a heartfelt, philosophical lyric.
Unhappy with the sales of Instant Village, despite its Grammy nomination for best R&B album, Universal dropped Saadiq. His response was to go indie, starting his own label, Pookie Entertainment. The only album he made on that label was 2004’s Ray Ray.
Saadiq didn’t have to wait long for big corporate music to come knocking again. For his third solo album, he signed with Columbia Records. The Way I See It, from 2008, was a labor of love for Saadiq and engineer Charles Brungardt. Both of them were passionate about exploring retro recording techniques, defying the push to make music sound more technologically advanced. As usual for a Saadiq album, however, the old is mixed with the new. The vocals and drums were recorded through dynamic mics and their sound filtered through ProTools and FilterBank (an equalizer plugin) to make them sound vintage.
Saadiq and Brungardt focused on recreating the Philadelphia Soul and Motown sounds. That meant bringing in a lot of musicians to play the dense arrangements essential to classic soul. Saadiq himself, besides singing and producing, played bass, drums, keyboards, and sitar. Among the styles they paid tribute to were New Orleans jazz (“Big Easy”) and both Latin and doo-wop, combined in the song “Calling,” which features Mexican ballad singer Rocio Mendoza.
The Way I See It was a surprise popular hit, and critics loved it for its carefully-crafted sound production. Sticking with both Columbia and Brungardt, and bringing in Paul Riser for horn and string arrangements, Saadiq’s next album was Stone Rollin’ (2011). His goal this time was to recreate the raw sound of live performance.
Brungardt replaced the tube compressors and preamps from The Way I See It with solid-state equipment for Stone Rollin’. He upped the gain on Saadiq’s guitar amps, influenced by production trends in indie music, which favored a DIY or “bedroom pop” sound. Among the album’s most important sonic elements is Saadiq’s work on a Mellotron, an electronic keyboard/synthesizer popular in the 1960s, which uses magnetic tape to play analog samples, which can be altered in pitch and color.
Jimmy Lee is Saadiq’s most recent album, released in 2019. The title refers to Saadiq’s late brother, who died of a drug overdose (one of four Wiggins siblings who died young of various tragedies). In fact, most of the album’s songs focus on deep-seated societal ills like addiction and mass incarceration. Jimmy Lee is also distinctive for the scaled-down studio presence. No horns and strings this time, and only a few extra personnel for drums (Chris Dave) and multiple synthesizers.
Despite the darkness of the topics, Saadiq has not lost his musical imagination. He has always been an artist of contrasts. The jagged rhythms of “Something Keeps Calling Me” provides a surprising but effective complement to his smooth-soul voice. He may not like the term neo-soul, but this is a new approach to the genre. Rob Bacon provides the heartfelt guitar solo.
Saadiq is currently preparing for a reunion tour with Tony! Toni! Toné! As for recent producing efforts, he worked on the album Renaissance by Beyoncé. And the score he composed for the HBO series Lovecraft Country was nominated for an Emmy award.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Rama.