Singer-songwriter Raphael Saadiq

Grammy-winning neo-soul singer-songwriter Raphael Saadiq discusses his roots as a bass guitarist and explains why it took him so long to become comfortable as a front man; he also performs a track from his new CD, “Stone Rollin’.”

A pioneer of neo-soul, Grammy winner Raphael Saadiq produces, sings and plays several instruments. At age 6, he played bass in his Oakland, CA hometown. At 18, he played with Prince. Saadiq was a founding member of the supergroups Tony! Toni! Toné! and Lucy Pearl and has produced tracks for numerous artists. He made history with his debut solo effort, "Instant Vintage," as the first artist nominated for a Grammy without a major record deal. His new CD, "Stone Rollin'," is the follow up to '08's "The Way I See It, which was iTunes Album of the Year.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Raphael Saadiq back to this program. The Grammy-winning front man for Tony! Toni! Toné and Lucy Pearl is back with a new solo project that’s generating all kinds of buzz. The new disc is called “Stone Rollin’.”

In just a few minutes, he’ll perform not one, but two songs — lucky us — two songs from the new project. But first, Raphael, good to have you back on this program.

Raphael Saadiq: Good to be here, man.

Tavis: You’re rocking that scarf, player.

Saadiq: Man, I got you.

Tavis: Oh, that’s cold, that’s cold. I like it, I like it.

Saadiq: I’m cold too, a little bit [laugh].

Tavis: [Laugh] It’s a cold piece because you’re cold, but it all works. This last project — not this one; the prior project — that thing was so banging, I was wondering if you were gonna follow up in that genre and, fortunately for us and your fans, you did.

I guess the question is, did you know, based upon the success of that, that you had to come back this way again?

Saadiq: Well, I kind of made a slight departure. You know, this record is a lot louder.

Tavis: It’s more edgy.

Saadiq: It’s more edgy, a lot more dirty guitars. It’s a little departure from the 60s Motown thing, but I live in those eras anyway even from probably my first production. If you go back and listen to some of my older records, you hear references of everything I put and the way I see it and then into “Stone Rollin’,” the new project.

Tavis: What about that last project at least made you want to stay in the genre of — at least creating a genre that makes us feel like we’re back in the day?

Saadiq: Right. You know, when you go home, you want to stay home. I just feel like that’s my home. That’s where I feel most comfortable at, you know. If I’m producing, I produce a lot of different things for other people and then I have a lot of other things that I like that’s not what I do. So for me, I’m the only person that could do what I do for me.

That’s why I titled the record “Stone Rollin'” because I looked back at my whole career and I was like, you know what, I’ve been taking these chances doing all these different things in this business. Most people won’t do that, so I called it “Stone Rollin'” like I’m throwing the dice on this crap table again.

But I feel like I’m my best gamble, you know, Michael Jordan back in the day. Give me the ball, I’ll finish the shot. I feel like I could finish the shot. Give me the ball, I’m gonna finish the shot.

Tavis: Yeah, well, my money’s on you [laugh]. My money’s on Raphael anytime. I want to come back to that in just a second. One more question about the last project. What was the response worldwide to the last project? What did you hear from your fan base around the world after that love letter to Motown?

Saadiq: Oh, man, it was great. It was huge. People were very receptive to it. I mean, it was almost unbelievable. I thought people were playing a joke on me sometimes, some of the shows we were doing. By the time we got to Europe, people were singing “Love That Girl,” singing the songs from beginning to end.

I was like, is this a joke or is this a readymade crowd? I didn’t know what happened. But I guess we just struck a chord with people who’d been missing that real feeling in somebody singing and giving them a concept and giving them something. They could tell I love it too, you know. I really love what I do. I’m always happy.

I’m feeling very comfortable too now, being a front singer. People would think I should already feel like that, but it took me all the way until like the way I see it to feel comfortable being a front man, a front singer, because I started off playing bass guitar in bands and I was never really a lead singer.

You know, when I was in Europe, I kind of opened my arms up really wide and closed my eyes and heard people lost it. At that point, I felt this energy that I should go out there and go do it. Now I feel very comfortable doing it.

Tavis: What do you think was holding you back from feeling that level of comfort prior to that project?

Saadiq: I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. One of my younger cousins, Elijah, used to be the bass player for the Tony’s. He used to always say, “You don’t really want it, man.” He used to always whisper to me sometimes [laugh]. “You don’t really want it. I saw you on the show. You don’t want it, you don’t want it because you’ll never let go.” Then one day, I was just, you know, it’s time to let go. I just did it.

Tavis: I was trying to juxtapose those two things. Jordan would never say, “I don’t want it.”

Saadiq: No, he said I didn’t want it.

Tavis: I know, I know [laugh].

Saadiq: I thought I did want it.

Tavis: But now you know you do.

Saadiq: I want it, yeah.

Tavis: You feel comfortable in that spot now?

Saadiq: I’m very comfortable in that spot now. I mean, I get that back from the audience too. They give me that image and I give it back to them and we both have this love thing for each other. It’s a good time for music right now.

Tavis: Strange question: how would you rate your bass playing — because that’s where you started — how would you rate your bass playing and how would you rate your vocals? I mean, what does Raphael think of his bass playing and his vocals?

Saadiq: I think my bass playing, if I had to grade it, it would be an A in production. A- now a little bit. My bass player, Calvin Turner, he’s probably the A dude now. Like he plays to me, and every time he’s playing, sometimes I stop singing and I’m like “Yea!” But, you know, that dude’s a cat.

But for my production, what I do is I’ll sing and I’ll get the music like I want it and my bass is the thing that rounds everything off to make everything okay. You know, the best thing I do is probably playing the bass.

Tavis: I was just tickled when I heard, even before I saw it, that you were gonna be on the Grammies and particularly that you were gonna be doing what you were doing.

Saadiq: Right.

Tavis: And I was watching the camera guy. They were doing their best to stay with Mick, but your stuff was so strong that they had to track you as well and I was having fun just being a TV guy watching how they would try to follow Mick and you at the same time. So what was that experience like?

Saadiq: Mick, you know, is a hell of a dude. You know what I mean? He’s been around. He comes from a very bluesy background, you know, like me and my parents and grew up listening to Harlan Wolfe and Muddy Waters and Little Walter and all this Old Delta blues. That’s what they started, him and Keith. So it was a cool thing for us to get together.

He called me and said — one day I was at home and I got a phone call. It was like, “This is Mick. I’m doing this Grammy thing for Solomon Burke. You want to do this thing? We should have some fun.” We talked for a little while. We talked like maybe twice. He came out; we rehearsed. The rehearsal was better than the Grammies because we rehearsed for two days.

Tavis: Whoa, whoa. That’s impossible.

Saadiq: Telling you.

Tavis: The rehearsal could not have been better than the Grammies.

Saadiq: Yeah, because we started singing “She asked for water (she gave me gasoline).” We started playing and singing blues, he pulled out the harp, the harmonica. No, we had a ball.  The Grammies was good. Don’t get me wrong. The Grammies were good, but the rehearsal was even better.

But the Grammies was great because, you know, we had fun and the band is so powerful and I know how they was putting it on me in the show. Mick was up there and I think they play a little harder for me, you know, than they play for me. I was looking back like, “Hey, what’s going on? Playing a little harder for Mick, you ought to play for me. You’re all with me all year.”

Tavis: [Laugh] I’m laughing because you know in a matter of days, once this show airs, in a matter of days, there’ll be a Negro down on Crenshaw that got that tape of the rehearsal.

Saadiq: Yeah.

Tavis: Somebody’s gonna get it and they’ll be bootlegging it [laugh].

Saadiq: It’s out there. It’s already out there. Mick has it on his page.

Tavis: It’s already out there?

Saadiq: It’s out there. It’s on Mick’s page and it’s on my page. It was great.

Tavis: Oh, wow. It’s already out.

Saadiq: It’s out.

Tavis: Sorry, bootleggers. It’s already out. Too late [laugh]. That said, one last question about that. So the push —

Saadiq: The push.

Tavis: Yeah, the push onstage.

Saadiq: People —

Tavis: Yeah, I want to hear about that.

Saadiq: Do not — please, like everybody love me, call me. We’re so mad at Mick. He was pushing you. That is not a push. That is called show biz.

Tavis: Yes.

Saadiq: It’s energy. We were feeling it. If Mick would have pushed me for real, you all know what would have happened. Yea! Like when Chuck Berry hit a key? Yea! No, he’s a showman.

Tavis: He’s a showman, yeah, yeah.

Saadiq: And it’s like, you know, to be running with Mick and running around and pushing all that energy, it was natural for him to shout, “Ray.” It was good to me because, to me, it was a validation of, I guess, I can say a lot of the cats from other there, British cats seem to like always look back to American cats who do what they do and love. Because he could have picked anybody to do that, you know.

Tavis: Oh, Lord, yeah.

Saadiq: You know, I was not nominated. You have to be nominated to be on the Grammies to actually perform. So it should have been some other group or something, but Mick didn’t care about that. Mick was like, “Raphael, this is who do what I do,” so that’s how that happened. He called me and then he called the Grammies later and said, “This is what I want to roll with, me and Raphael.” That’s a validation for me and my band and everybody around me that, you know —

Tavis: — I was about to ask how that made you feel when you got that phone call.

Saadiq: What I do is not in vain. For everything I do, all the music, all the soulful music I play, it’s not in vain. It’s the payoff to this, you know. Everything’s not in vain. So it was great, and the band felt good.

You know, what everybody seen us do that night, we’ve been doing like three years on the way I see it. We’re strapping up them boots walking through the dirt in festivals, you know. So we do it all year. It wasn’t just that night, but it’s great for everybody to get a chance to see that.

Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago the validation that one feels when Mick Jagger calls you personally and asks you to come play with him on the Grammies even in a year when you’re not nominated. I want to tie that into something you said earlier about the risk that you’ve been willing to take. That’s one of the things beyond your amazing bass playing and your wonderful vocals and the creativity that you put on your projects.

What I love most about you is that you are one of those artists that stays true to what he wants to do and you’re willing, as “Stone Rollin'” suggests, to roll the dice, to be who you are, to take risk. Where does that come from?

Because in this business, the name of the game ain’t taking risk, it’s about listening to what somebody else is doing that’s getting radio air play and figuring out how to replicate that. It ain’t about taking risk all the time.

Saadiq: I think I come from a stubborn city or something. You know, Oaktown. I think we’ve always done what we want to do and we respect — I always call it, like you say, I always have these analogies, but I like to use football like you have your linebackers, your blockers.

I’m a running back and I usually put celebrities or people that I love like a Howlin’ Wolf or Michael Jackson or Marvin Gaye or Larry Grammar, all these people, or Neil Young, just as the blockers. I just look at them as blockers and I follow them. When I see a hole, I run through it and I just keep going.

I just know that’s the way to go. I try to follow people that’s been around for 25 years. I’m not gonna follow some guy that’s on the radio that’s hiding out for like six months to a year because, when he falls off, then you got to go with him.

Tavis: Here’s a strange question. How do you follow — I love the analogy — how do you follow those kinds of blockers and yet create your own sound?

Saadiq: I’m a dreamer. You know, I watch a ton of footage. I study tape just like you might study some journalist you like. I watch people. You don’t try to become them because you could never become any of those guys. But you hope that some of it, you know, comes off on you at some point in your show, some point in your writing, that it happens to you and this light just shines on you. I’ve always loved people that’s been around for a long time, like old shoes.

You know, I like good leather. I like good clothes. You’re not gonna catch me with the jeans on with a whole story in the back or the leather jacket with all the NBA teams on it. You know, I’m just a different type of leather [laugh].

Tavis: I love it, I love it. By my count, two or three times now in this conversation, Oaktown has come up. I have never talked to you on radio or television in all the years we’ve been talking where you don’t raise Oaktown. So two questions about that. One, why are you so proud of your hometown, number one, and number two, how [technical difficulty] influence your music even today?

Saadiq: I’m proud of it because it was so much music around there for me. You know, African Liberation Day at least seven times a year, and so many people from Latin music from Pete Escovedo to Coke Escovedo to Carlos Santana, Larry Graham, you know, Journey.

I used to play like at a bar with my high school teacher, Mr. Phil Reader. We did like the whole Broadway musical. We did “Dreamgirls.” We did all the plays. We did all the Duke Ellington stuff in high school. We did it better than the movie in high school, the people that were singing. We did the whole thing.

Having teachers like that, and then we’d play like at Italian restaurants at night and then Steve Perry and Neil Schon would walk in from Journey, you know, sitting down having dinner while we’d be playing little songs.

There’s so much you can pull from. You get to watch these rock stars come in and I’m playing jazz. You know, you can pick from Carlos Santana to Larry Graham. Sly and the Family Stone live down the street. I mean, I couldn’t have got that nowhere else.

So I was so dipped in that for so long, by the time we got into the record industry, we’re like this is what we’re doing. We’re gonna ride this out. Without knowing, we was already there. We were already sort of professional in high school. We were taught very seriously. Like when you see other celebrities, don’t pull out a camera.

You know, be respectful, and that kind of helped me because I toured with Prince at 18. When I met Prince, I didn’t really act like I was excited. I wasn’t really that excited. I was more excited to play, to be a part and do my job, but not like infatuated with being out on the road.

Tavis: You weren’t stalker excited [laugh].

Saadiq: No, no. He walked up and said, “How you doing? My name is Prince.” I was like, “How you doing? I’m Ray.” That’s what we did and we respected and we did a job. We never pulled out a camera, not once. That’s from Oakland, you know. It’s like Brooklyn. You know, Brooklyn, Brooklyn. You know, we’re proud like Brooklyn.

Tavis: For all the bands that you have started and played with and written for, including the wonderful band that plays behind you now that you’re about to see in just a second, is there another band in you in your career? You gonna do another one of these at some point, do you think? Another band?

Saadiq: No, I think it’s the Saadiq show right now. I’m playing with musicians that I really love to play with. Got a great horn section out of New Orleans. My bass player’s from New Orleans and guitar player’s from Detroit and two drummers from Michigan. I got this great nucleus of people who really — I don’t know if I could do the group thing again. It’s a little much. I think this is probably it, you know.

The super group thing, people do it, but they never really are supposed to last. But I’ll always be, you know, playing with somebody or on the street somewhere. It doesn’t matter. Anybody got a guitar, you got a guitar, we’ll start something. We’ll make a record today and sing it —

Tavis: — you all heard that, didn’t you [laugh]? Look for Smiley and Saadiq. That’s a little arrogant, isn’t it? How about Saadiq and Smiley?

Saadiq: Well, it could be Smiley and Saadiq.

Tavis: No, no, no. You the man [laugh]. You want the ball at the end of the game, so you can have it.

Saadiq: I want the ball at the end of the game.

Tavis: Saadiq and Smiley coming to a record store near you in about a year from now. But in the meantime, pick up “Stone Rollin’,” the new one from my man, Raphael Saadiq. In a moment, not one, but two songs from this genius, and I can’t wait to hear it. Stay with us. Raphael, good to have you here, man.

Saadiq: Good to be here, man.

Tavis: My pleasure. From his critically acclaimed new CD, “Stone Rollin’,” here is Raphael Saadiq and his band performing two songs tonight, “Stone Rollin'” and “Good Man.” Enjoy.

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Last modified: July 19, 2011 at 3:34 pm