RAPHAEL SAADIQ INTERVIEW 2018
“I wrote an album and I just threw it away...” Remarks Raphael Saadiq, somewhat flippantly. On the one hand providing an explanation as to how he came to settle upon the material for his seven-years-in-the-making, hard-hitting new solo project Jimmy Lee, but on the other, perhaps not quite realising how such a… well, throwaway comment might sound to the diehard Tone-head & gospeldelic zealot.
“I mean not (literally) throw it,” he continues, sensing the potential alarm. “I had the other project ready but just kept writing, and just kept writing. Writing records over the top of it and Jimmy Lee just happened, came together naturally like The Way I See It.”
The Way I See It, of course, being a monster, playlisted on Radio 2 and his breakthrough mainstream solo release in the UK. Raphael is set to perform songs from that and his most recent release Stone Rollin’ - the brilliant mellotron laced ode to vintage rhythm n’ blues – after a 7 year absence when he rocks up at the Indigo 2 for this year’s Bluesfest on Friday October 26th. Headlining the bill with out n’ out, chicken-in-the-kitchen bluesman Robert Cray (and his band) on the 27th, along with an assortment of the old n’ grey whistle tests finest – Led Zep’s Robert Plant, Steve Miller Band, Van Morrison and more.
Says Saadiq: “I never worked with any of them before but I like them all and you know Robert Cray is from the Bay Area like me. I grew up in a house with the music of Howlin’ Wolf & Smoked Stack Lightning, Samuel Hopkins, BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughn and all those guys. The delta blues. So this music is really close to my heart.”
Saadiq is currently touring the US wearing a frayed, Huckleberry Finn straw hat – his favourite head gear - with a stripped back four piece band, showcasing the new music from Jimmy Lee, mindful that for the Indigo 2 set he might not lay too much onto the crowd, given the new projects darker than blue ambience.
“Yeah, it’s pretty dark - a little edgier, a little harder. It’s not ‘50s or ‘60s but closer to a late ‘70s, early ‘80s vibe that embodies all that I am - some of it has a hip hop edge, or an indie vibe, but it also has that Let The Sunshine In type of vibe. There’s a song I wrote 15 years ago on there called If You Feel Like I Feel, which sounds like it’s between Prince’s Dirty Mind & the Rolling Stones.”
There’s also the stunning, anthemic Riker’s Island - a commentary on the US penitentiary system and a potential mainstream game-changer. Indeed it could be Raphael’s most personal work to date, perhaps even giving the autobiographical gospeldelic classic Instant Vintage competition - being that its actually named after one of Raphael’s older siblings.
“Jimmy Lee is about addiction. Or things we get addicted to in life that we don’t tend to look at. My brother Jimmy was an addict who OD’d on some heroin. I had another brother Desmond who offed himself because he couldn’t stop his addiction. Even when it comes to me as an adult, about me eating sweets - I make jokes about it actually - and liking donuts & cookies too much. But I look at that and understand how hard it is to stop.”
I ask if one of the brothers in question was coincidentally the elder sibling who – as a huge fan of the Temptations crooner Paul Williams, an artist who infamously struggled with alcohol dependence – provided Raphael with the inspiration for the Motown-esque The Way I See It as well.
“Oh no not him, he was into the Temps and The Stylistics, so he was clean cut. But evidently there is a history of addiction in my family, but most don’t have that bad addiction. Maybe 2 or 3 did. The rest are doing great - college graduates. You could be a lawyer though or whatever and you can slide back into addiction. But my brother Jimmy was a good guy you know? A significant guy, really cool and funny, but I just feel his life shouldn’t be written off because of a chemical.”
Addicts can be found in all walks of life, regardless of wealth or social standing.
“I think everybody has that in their family, you could even be the Getty’s - that whole family was on drugs. One of my older brothers, a singer too, was like a real gangster type of guy. A nice intelligent man but he had a street edge. He was a huge Charley Pride fan, he would be the one to leave his friends and go watch Charley Pride sing country music at theatre. My dad told me he was a great showman though I can’t remember too much about him. He got murdered when I was 7 years old. He was addicted to the streets and the streets took his life. I also have a good friend, (Sacramento Kings Basketball player) Brian Grant, who has Parkinson’s and used to talk to me about depression and feeling like he was getting addicted to the pain pills. It’s just been around me and I realised that most of my life has been spent talking people off the ledge. So I thought I better take some time to sing about it before it gets me.”
It’s a gutsy move for Saadiq to put himself out there like that with such a sincere concept album, especially given that his profile has arguably never been stronger. Recently he won his 3rd Grammy for the Solange Knowles collaboration Cranes In The Sky, he was also an Oscar nominee for his work on the Mary J Blige cut Mighty River (along with regular collaborator Taura Stinson) and featured, as himself, on the huge stream-on-demand TV hit Luke Cage. Netflix & chill. So despite the subject matter he’s in a really good place it seems. There’s even tantalizing rumours of a super-group including five of the original members of Tony Toni Tone…
“Yes, that’s definitely gonna happen. I’m on my way to meet (former TTT bandmate) Timothy Christian Riley now as it goes.” Saadiq has kept in touch with the Art N Soul producer throughout the years, Tim Riley playing the keys on his brilliant Instant Vintage cut Body Parts, and soloing on Saadiq production Lady (for D’Angelo).”
“He played the hell out of the keyboards on that one! But that’s what I’m saying, Timothy has always been that dude. I was the closest to him in high school, together every day - we were like LA Reid & Babyface.”
Raphael’s cousins, Park Avenue band leader Elijah Baker - also a former TTT player - and his older brother Kenya Baker, of ‘90s R&B group Kenya Gruv, will also feature (Raphael on Kenya: “He’s the person I saw playing guitar growing up that made me want to be a musician”), along with former bandmates Antron Haile & Carl Wheeler. In fact, pretty much everyone except brother Dwayne Wiggins.
“We were all in bands together in the eighties, but then I had this thing where I wanted to be with my brother like the Brothers Johnson you know what I mean? So Tony Toni Toné just sort of happened. But none of those original guys knew anything about my brother - I introduced them and then I left the band before all of them! Eventually they stayed longer than me but I went and did some other things (Lucy Pearl, producing D’Angelo, Total, Whitney Houston, Erykah Badu, Earth Wind & Fire etc.) but recently I thought ‘You know what? I talk to these guys all the time on the phone - so we should get together and play!’”
The plan is to play Tony Toni Toné rarities - songs written but never recorded – and fan favourites that were never hits like Lovin’ You, I Couldn’t Keep It To Myself & Wild Child to name a few.
“You know it’s not like we’re trying to be rich off of it. And we did want to do something with Dwayne, like a few different times – but touring with the Tonyies he’s happy with the way things are, he’s making his money and he owns the name. So we don’t really care about that, what we care about is that were all really good friends who love playing together. We’ll do some pop up shows (under a different group name, still yet to be decided) and be full of surprises. Not take ourselves too serious, get on the tour bus and have fun.”
They all just want to do it for the love of music says Raphael.
“That’s all we ever did it for anyway.”