By Patrick Wall
Photos courtesy of Press Here Piblicity
Raphael Saadiq doesn’t like labels.
Throughout his career, Saadiq has heard comparisons to the music of the generations before him. True, his music hearkens back to the days of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but Saadiq’s music goes deeper than that. He blends the old with the new and in the process has created an album worthy of praise, no matter the genre. When we spoke over the phone, he was in the process of finishing his European tour before heading stateside for a string of summer dates. And while his official website only lists shows until June, Saadiq said there will be more.
Touring is nothing new for the veteran. Since his teenage years, Saadiq has performed all over the world, working with musicians like Prince and Mick Jagger. He got his start performing talent shows as a child before getting his first break before his eighteenth birthday.
A bassist, Saadiq was selected to join Prince disciple Sheila E’s backing band. For two years Saadiq toured the world with Prince, an experience he described in an interview with The Guardian as his “university.”
After returning from tour, Saadiq formed Tony! Toni! Toné!, an R&B trio that found success throughout the 80’s and 90’s with songs like “Feels Good,” “It Never Rains (In Southern California)” and “If I Had No Loot.” The group released several albums and toured internationally for almost a decade before Saadiq left the group. In 1999 he founded the supergroup Lucy Pearl, which released one album.
Saadiq’s next step was to go solo, and in 2002 released his first record, Instant Vintage. He went on to release three more albums, the most recent being Stone Rollin’, in March.
Critics and fans instantly flocked to Saadiq’s classic R&B style. Songs like “Good Man,” which features a powerful yet pleasantly old school feel, seem to live in two time periods at once, while guitar-heavy numbers like “Radio” and “Heart Attack” have a traditional rock n’ roll vibe.
After working with Motown-inspired sounds on his previous record, 2008’s The Way I See It, writing a record with more rock-inspired elements was something that felt right this time around. “I think [The Way I See It] was great for that time,” Saadiq said. “I wanted to have a little more of a rock edge and a blues-soul feel to this record. I felt like [Stone Rollin’] was sort of a departure, though, because it was a little more aggressive and a little louder.”
Reviewers have been quick to label his music as classic-this or neo-that, something Saadiq says has never really bothered him. “People want to put you in a bag because they don’t know where to place you.” Saadiq said. “I play the music, that’s all I can do.”
Over the years, he’s heard genre comparisons that confused even him. “I never even heard of the word ‘retro’ until someone wrote it [about his music,]” he said. “I was like, ‘Retro? Is that some type of gasoline?'”
“All the times people use the word ‘retro,’ I don’t pay attention to that.” Saadiq said. “I don’t even know what the word means. I just try to keep it really simple.”
While he says that many of the labels he’s been slapped with are do to what he calls “lazy journalism,” he only has a problem with one�neo-soul. “I thought that was a curse,” Saadiq said. “I thought that was the worst thing that could happen to any musician� I wasn’t a part of that [genre,] and I want to keep it that way.”
The labels on Saadiq’s music may contain varying degrees of accuracy. While his style, both musically and visually, are reminiscent of the rock ‘n roll and early R&B era, Saadiq said there was never a conscious decision to go in a specific direction.
One thing critics and reviewers almost never disagree on is the quality of his music. Other musicians have crumbled under the pressure created by a lifetime of music, but Saadiq said he learned from the mistakes he saw being made around him.
While Saadiq may not like having his music labeled, his image has a throwback feel. For the cover of Stone Rollin’, Saadiq’s original idea was to make a cover reminiscent of the Jim Crow-era covers of musicians like Chuck Berry. But after toying with a few ideas, Saadiq decided the cover might take away from the most important part of the package�the music itself.
Instead, Saadiq chose a classic approach inspired by greats like Berry and James Brown. For the shoot, he performed in front of an audience and used live pictures of both himself and the crowd for the album’s artwork. As for the cover itself, Saadiq liked the image of a fan chewing gum, and decided it would make a good cover.
As for his turtleneck, blazer and thick-rimmed glasses? “I like playing around with clothes,” Saadiq said. “Even if I’m wearing a pair of boxer shorts and a cowboy hat, I’ll be fashionable.” While he laughed at my idea of that image being his next album cover, Saadiq acknowledged that fashion will likely remain a part of the package that is Raphael Saadiq.
At the end of the day, Saadiq prefers to shed labels and instead focus on the music that got him where he is. Even after twenty-plus years in the industry, Saadiq is happy to do what he’s doing. “I try to keep it really simple. I’m really grateful for everyone supporting me,” Saadiq said. “People will be happy to come to the show and will scream at me, and I’m screaming right back at them. It’s fifty-fifty love.”
“We all have one life to live, and as a musician, you want to live it to the fullest.” Saadiq said. “And that’s how I do it, by Stone Rollin’, and getting into something I love and hopefully [fans] can enjoy at the same time”
So while he did say he’s running out of new things to tell writers like me, he still feels a connection to his fans. And in a music landscape consumed a little too much with public perception, Saadiq’s view might not be a bad thing.