Inside the Melodious Mind of Raphael Saadiq
With a Golden Globe-nominated song in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and scoring everything from “Insecure” to “Lovecraft Country,” the superproducer is everywhere.
When Raphael Saadiq was hired by Sheila E. and Levi Seacer, Jr. in 1986 to tour Japan as part of Prince’s “Parade” tour, he saw the gig as a masterclass in building longevity. Those candid talks Saadiq had with Prince about what it takes to be successful encouraged him to pay close attention to how his prolific bandleader communicated his ideas to management, record executives, and venue personnel.
Thirty-five years later, Saadiq’s attention to detail paid off nicely. He’s a sought-after recording artist, musician, composer and producer that’s cool not being in the limelight. The founding member of R&B outfit Tony! Toni! Tone! and ensemble trio Lucy Pearl has performed with Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Ludacris, Nile Rodgers, Elton John, and Snoop Dogg.
“I remain a fan of great music, and that’s what keeps me relevant,” Saadiq, now 54, said. “I guess I’ve been around it my whole life and just have this huge memory bank. I just try to take notes from my peers to see how we can get things accomplished.”
Performing live ignites Saadiq, but the Grammy-winning producer responsible for Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky,” Erykah Badu’s “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop),” Bilal’s “Soul Sista, Total’s “Kissing You,” and D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” prefers lending his ear to bring an artist’s vision to life on wax.
Moments like explaining to Bee Gees member Barry Gibb that he gave a bad take during a session in 1997 and producing “Fine” with rapper Q-Tip for vocalist Whitney Houston in 2000 are some of what Saadiq says are the “fun” parts of his storied career.
“Whitney was such a sweet lady who made you feel like you were working with your sister,” the “Ask of You” and “Still Ray” singer remembers. “Barry said to me nicely, ‘We could get a better take.’ We just looked at each other and smiled, and that moment was golden for me because it let me know that’s why I was there.”
Saadiq, an Oakland native born Charlie Ray Wiggins, recently earned another Golden Globe nomination for singer/actress Andra Day’s “Tigress & Tweed” from the Hulu feature also starring her, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, releasing on Feb. 26.
A distorted but swingin’ melody underneath Day’s syrupy vocals, “Tigress & Tweed” was created after Saadiq set up his portable studio by his barely touched, slightly out-of-tune piano at his mom’s house that he learned to play as a kid. Last year, he watched his mother get treated for a stroke, heart attack, and memory loss.
Not able to visit her in the hospital because of the pandemic, Saadiq would casually chat about jazz with both the film’s director Lee Daniels and Day. The multi-instrumentalist knew that retreating to that piano in his mom’s living room could be therapeutic.
“I was fighting,” Saadiq said. “I’d just gotten out of COVID myself, and I had all of these different emotions in me anyway. I was sitting there playing not knowing how it would sound, and it just oozed out of me really fast. When I gave it to Andra, she started flowing so hard over it.”
“Tigress & Tweed,” which borrows its title from the fragrances the legendary jazz vocalist normally wore, comes on the heels of Saadiq earning both a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Mary J. Blige’s “Mighty River” from 2018’s Mudbound.
The sophomore nod has more significance to the virtuoso. “It’s a sweet one,” Saadiq said. “It feels good and lets me know that I’m doing the right thing by just working constantly. I actually love what I do, so it makes it that much sweeter.”
Saadiq has overseen music for Insecure, L.A.’s Finest, Underground, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion and the upcoming Genius: Aretha series for National Geographic. Because of the pandemic, when Saadiq and his creative partner, Laura Karpman, arranged the score for HBO’s runaway hit Lovecraft Country, they recorded the orchestra through Zoom.
“We organized it so that people could work from home,” Saadiq said. “We had an engineer go to the homes, set up microphones in places where we needed them, and we just put it all together.”
“Scoring for television is about having a good team of people around you, being on time, and really understanding what the script, showrunners, and directors bring to the story,” Saadiq adds.
Saadiq’s foray into television came through the TV One sitcom Love That Girl in 2010. Borrowing its name from a track on his third solo LP, 2008’s The Way I See It, Saadiq named the series and even had it shot in his warehouse.
“It was my idea to shoot it independently before they took it to a studio,” he said. “I knew I wanted to get into it, but I didn’t know how far I wanted to get into it. I still have a lot of room to get better at what I’m doing, but I’m in it now.”
Saadiq has been actively lending a helping hand to both the music community and his hometown. He executive produced Global Citizen’s STAND UP compilation released last December, featuring seven covers of socially conscious tunes and a new ensemble song, “Humxn Race,” co-written by Saadiq.
He made sure his engineer and four musicians each wore masks and were socially distanced in the studio while wrangling together artists like Day, Tori Kelly, PJ Morton, Lucky Daye, Ari Lennox, GoldLink, and Big Freedia.
Recording from different cubicles and different cities, Saadiq selected artists for STAND UP who he felt understood previous musical eras and how social messages in those songs are still relevant. “The younger artists are showing their appreciation for the music,” Saadiq said.
“We went by the guidelines and did the best we could. I was able to get some people and musicians to work and get a lot of musicians some money during COVID. It’s not even work for me; it’s a passion that I actually love. When you love something, it’s not a struggle, so it just works out.”
Last July, Saadiq hosted a Feed Your City challenge in Oakland that provided disinfectants, food, and housekeeping to elderly citizens. Not being able to tour allowed Saadiq to spend more time connecting with the younger members of his family.
“I just try to go back home and help make sure everybody has things they need,” he said. “I try not to be selfish or just think it’s about me because so many people helped me along the way.”
Saadiq is rumored to have been in the studio with British singer Adele. They haven’t recorded a single note, but Saadiq doesn’t deny a potential collaboration down the line. “We just went out, had a glass of wine, and hung out,” he confirms, “but I’m sure some time in the future we will work together.”
One artist Saadiq has been in the studio working with is Alicia Keys. “We really get along and have a really good vibe together,” he shares. “She’s amazing, and it’s been really amazing working with her.”
Tony! Toni! Tone! fans are getting some reunion projects. Saadiq has reformed with bandmates D’Wayne Wiggins and Timothy Christian Riley to release material this year. “We’re working on something right now,” Saadiq reveals. “We’re actually doing a record under our original name, but the first EP will be under a different name.”
Being called “underrated” by his fans the majority of his career used to make Saadiq frown. These days, he’s cool with hearing it.
What Saadiq values most about his three-plus-decade career is hearing his name mentioned along with his collaborators. “I’m actually really dope,” Saadiq said.
“It’s just the way I am. I don’t really put myself out there like that. I could be way more out there, but I just let the music speak for itself. It keeps me new and forces people to rediscover me and the path I’ve been on. It allows me to walk down the street, and I don’t want to give up my freedom for fame.”