Interview: Raphael Saadiq
by Couch Sessions
From the chart topping debut single Lil Walter (with Tony, Toni, Tone’) in 1988, through the party vibe of Lucy Pearl’s “Dance Tonight”, to the immediately classic “Instant Vintage” album, one voice has been a gleaming jewel in the tapestry of R&B music. Raphael Saadiq has done it again! “The way I see it” is an album that renders the best modern R&B has to offer…a clear view of the past. In an age of designer vintage clothing, this authentic reminder of the very soul and sound of classic Motown without covering the original records is the new fitted, double-vented, narrow lapel blazer music has been waiting to make a comeback. It’s too stylish to be dated, too raw to be fake, and too timeless to go another second without checking out. I caught up with Raphael to talk about the motivation and execution of this album.
One of the general themes of your career has been that you’re the guy who clearly sees what could come next, and as such knows how to invite the past to the party today is throwing. Have you always seen this as a project that you would eventually do? or did something recently happen that made you want to strip away some of the elements of modern music and keep it super clean?
I didn’t really give it that much thought, I just got up one morning and kinda thought…I just want to go for it. I saw what I wanted to do and after that and I didn’t look back, ya know? It was a new way of doing things for me and my career. I couldn’t do that by just planning on it, and this is one of the ways I wanted to elevate myself so I just do it. And I’m always looking for ways to recreate myself without damaging my career, and this was the right way to do it. I always do that. I don’t even think about it you know? It’s something I just like to do.
It’s interesting that this is the quality of material you can come up with without having planned it …dude, that’s scary man!
Yep, you just change direction and keep running, ya know?
Everyone always says that the Motown sound is the most elusive. Its a popular belief by myself and many other musicians that it is impossible without recording in the room in Detroit, with those original musicians… So I think I speak for most when I ask… How did you do this and what steps did you and the sound engineers go through to guarantee the sound that you were looking’ for?
Well first of all I found the drum set that I wanted to use for the complete record. There’s a place where I eat every day and right across the street is a store called Drum City. They sell new drum sets, but they have this one old Ludwig drum kit, and I jumped on it and started playing it and I thought, “this is it!” From that point on, we just started messing’ with the drums, the sounds, and from there it took off. You gotta have the chops too, to make it work, but that was the beginning of it, you know?
Which sacrifices or embellishments in arrangements did you have to make in contrast to your normal way of working?
Well, the first thing we had to do was to make all the songs very short, and by making them short–you can’t play around, you gotta make an impact by the 2:30 mark [in the song]. The first few bars have gotta be catchy, ya know? The first few notes have to get you right into it.
I remember that you pulled out the tuba for “Still Ray” so you’re definitely comfortable using any instrument for any occasion as long as its necessary. Did you get a chance to use anything out of the ordinary this time?
Yeah, Stevie Wonder. (laughs)
Everybody knows you as this signature vocalist, I know you as this monstrous bassist and guitarist… What were the jam sessions like for this record? Is there anything floating around out there, that you wished made the record?
I started doing one type of record, then started doing a different type of record, then I ended up doing this record. Some of the other things almost went in, but it would have never fit the style of record that I was doing. There are a couple songs that could’ve gone on this record that I didn’t complete. I just didn’t feel like they should be on the record, but I’ll probably end up putting them out for my next record. I’m gonna stay along these lines for my next record but it will just be a little different. I kinda like this Stax/Motown thing, it’s a global thing, and I want to live this out how they lived it out. They lived it out for a couple years, so I just want to I definitely want to fuck with this for a minute.
Given a lot of stuff that’s going on socially and culturally in this country; and considering how timely this album is, dropping on the eve of Barack Obama getting elected…then of course, there’s this understanding of what those 60’s records meant to Black America at the time, then to throw in what it means to have a soundtrack tying together those emotions from the past with today’s awareness …..did any of that cross your mind when you were making this record?
No, not at all, man, not all it all. I can feel things without looking into it so politically. I’ve always been a fan of those type of songs though, like a Stevie song or a Curtis Mayfield song. Sometimes I drive through my neighborhood now and put on a Curtis Mayfield song and watch little kids walk around…little teenage kids, and be like, “wow, this is so relevant to what’s going on in their lives but they don’t know it,” because they’re not looking at Curtis. I play it like a soundtrack when I’m driving in the car, and you’re listening to a song like “Keep on Pushin,” and it looks like it was it was recorded that very second when you see people walking down the street. So, I’ve always felt like his music was relevant, but I didn’t think that nobody was old enough to do it, you know? And the people who are old enough to do it probably won’t have a record deal (laugh). I’m not thinking I’m the only person who can do what I’m doing. There are a lot of people who can do it but they don’t have record deals. So I feel like, as a person with a deal, I should step up.
When its all said and done, what would you want said about you and your contribution to this art called music and how do you want this album to add to that narrative?
I probably want people to say that he was very consistent, and very true to the art, that he was a triple threat: from producing, to writing, to performing. I just want to be a true testament to others who want to do what I’m doing, you know? I have a lot of people that I look on and say, “this is what I need to be doing,” and I want other kids to have that person they can look up to and say “I want to do it better than he did.” We have those people in sports, but we don’t have them that much in music.
The sad thing is, we have them but we’re all looking at the same people we’ve had for almost 30 years.
I gotta a side question that I want to ask you…how did that Prince thing come up when you played bass [with him] back in the day?
There was a guy with a neighborhood studio and someone called over there looking for players and I just happened to be at the house. Everybody knows that I sing and dance so, they were having an audition in mind [for me]. From there I went to the audition in San Francisco the next day and I got the gig. Next thing you know I’m opening up for Prince. It wasn’t a lot of gigs, just a lot of side gigs at the clubs, but I got to watch the whole management of Purple Rain, and I was able to watch him. It was great for my career because it was one of the biggest rock and roll tours ever. Then I was able to come back home and start the Tonys (Tony! Toni! Toné!) and kind of build from there, and its still building from there.
I feel like this record is a pinnacle time for me where it’s a record that seems like its a soul record, but it’s also an urban rock record. It’s bluesy but it lets the whole world enjoy. And that’s probably from being around people like Carlos Santana, watching all the Grateful Dead people left over the day after a show and they’ve been there for a week–I grew up by the Colosseum so you would see hippies hanging out there for a week, and you didn’t know what was going on, and then you find out that its the Grateful Dead, and realizing that their fans hang around and follow them for weeks. Knowing all of that, and touring like that, you get a mass of so many different experiences. So when you get a record like Where I’ve Been you kinda know where it can go. You can go to Europe, you can go anywhere. You know, cause a lot of Europeans are coming over here to see how Muddy Waters recorded his records. And knowing that history–Howlin’ Wolf and all those cats–I wanted to be a part of that sound.
Sample Tracks (Windows Media Streaming)
Raphael Saadiq is currently on tour supporting his album The Way I See It, which is in stores now.