Raphael Saadiq Interview
Featuring Rob Fonksta Bacon, Chuck Brungardt & Taura Stinson
How the hell did he know?
The song Oh Girl begins with a virtuoso piano player tinkering with the keys like Marvin Gaye use to, trying to get Berry Gordy’s attention.
In the distance the drum’s kick in, nodding to the guitarist to hold the tempo. It’s cold outside with the strings swirling around so the sitar player adds some warm honey and then Mr. Saadiq approaches the mic … “You know you saved me from myself … you knew Iiii needed help” Each word sung with soulful clarity, like he’s from the same music class as the Stylistics Russell Thompkins Jr. As the achingly beautiful chorus begins, “Ooooh Girl, Oooooooh Girl …. You changed my world” the question hits me … just how did Raphael Saadiq know? How did he know the 1st time I play the song, I’d be holding my newborn daughter? My beautiful baby girl, rocking her gently as her head rests on my shoulder. Then comes the lyric … “I promise I won’t let you down … I’m gonna make you so proud”. The song has grabbed a hold. OK, that may all sound sentimental but I make no apologies, because that is part what great Soul music is about … It’s personal.
More importantly its personal for the man that created the record, as Raphael readily explained to me from his
North Hollywood recording studio; “I have been aspiring to be in touch with this my whole life, the 60’s sound and I think I had the opportunity to really wrap myself and my heart around it”
And he nailed it. Mid-sixties Motown to Stax,
New Orleans, and the burgeoning Philly soul sound in 1970. Never before has a contemporary Soul artist put out an album like ‘The Way I See It’, dedicated to re-creating the “rats, roaches, struggle, talent, love and guts” approach of Berry Gordy’s unique funk bros underpinned Motown sound. Take a song like Love That Girl the bass played by Raphael is so on point for that time it could be James Jamerson. Raphael replies “I didn’t try to do exactly what they did of course I couldn’t do that. But people have short memories, the urban community like’s to constantly create something new and it’s always gonna keep pushing like that but for me I always loved that music. As a bass player and a producer I’m possessed by those grooves” Chicago
I ask him if he was influenced by Soul music at a young age.
“Sometimes my brother Randy would pick me up on his bike and he would be singing Stylistics songs whilst he was riding. Together my brothers Randy, Dwayne & Tony (my eldest) would get a five man group together and decide who would be Eddie Kendricks or David Ruffin or who would be Paul Williams” As he was the youngest I asked did they make him Otis? “No (laughs) I wasn’t included”
So why now? Why create a whole record which wallows in vintage sixties soul?
“It was when I was doing the Joss Stone record (‘Introducing… Joss Stone’) in the Bahamas and holidaying in Costa Rica, people would be out surfing and when they got done they would be listening to those old type of records. Also I had watched the (Spielberg directed) film ‘
’ and you see the two sides fighting over the radio and then they find an Al Green song and both sides agree to listen to that. I realized the things I love so much everybody in the world loves. I always wanted to make that type of music that could make people happy and at the same time I can still be aggressively soulful.” Long time collaborator Aura Jackson who was present during the original writing sessions described the mood “Raphael wanted something specific and wasn't going to compromise. He even dressed the part...with vintage clothing and thick rimmed glasses” So why the threads? “I wanted to be all the way there the whole time; you know I really wanted to live like Eddie Kendricks & Smokey” Munich
It’s what’s in the groove that counts. It’s not easy to get that sound, as the engineer on the sessions, Chuck Brungardt (who has a video entertainment company with Raphael called www.illfonic.com) told me “Just before we started on Joss Stone’s album Raphael came into the studio with an old beat up 60’s drum kit, as soon as we heard them it was like ‘Oh my god’ – we’d tried taking drums and modifying them to sound older but we then realized it all starts with kit.” That set them on the path “using a Motown book, which listed the instruments they used, we found a great store in LA called Ocean Audio which is like an equipment graveyard”
It comes as a surprise given the genuine band sound dynamic that most of the playing was in fact played by Raphael, more so than ever before. Lead guitarist Rob Bacon (its him playing like Chuck Berry on Let’s Take A Walk), describes his involvement “I remember saying to him “you got it you don’t need me” but then he insisted “well there’s the thing right there on Love That Girl that guitar backbeat – I need a cha-chik! Cha-chik!” I added that. But it was all Raphael’s vision … that cake was baked! I was honoured to come in and sprinkle a little extra frosting on top.”
Everybody remembers the turning point when Motown percussionist Jack Ashford & string arranger Paul Riser (hundreds of Motown classics bear his strings including ‘Grapevine) turned up for the session. Raphael: “I saw the light. You could feel this presence when they walked in the room. I shook Paul Riser’s hand and he looked at me and said “it’s nice to meet you young man” Rob adds’ “You could see how excited Jack Ashford was about what he was hearing; he kept looking at Ray like “You did this? Man you cold!” Funk Brother Jack Ashford showed Raphael what he could do on Sure Hope You Mean It “When you hear the vibes when my verse starts, I wanted Jack to play them on the chorus to begin with. The song starts up ‘ooh hooh – Sure Hope …” I’m thinking he gonna come in but he don’t, shall I stop him and tell him to play on the chorus? But I then thought no, so I said “let it go, lets see what he’s gonna do” and then he comes in on the verse and it sounded genius. After that I never said nothing else, I just let him be Jack Ashford, he brought magic to the room and when I heard Paul Riser’s strings on Love That Girl it was very emotional, I had to go back and re-cut some of my vocals”
The song Never Give You Up features 3 generations of Soul heroes, Stevie Wonder’s the old bloke, Ray in the middle and hotshot CJ represents the future “CJ had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of different producers, production deals etc. so they brought him to me to do a couple of songs Change Everything (a brilliant Marvin meets 4 Tops soul slammer) & Girl Tonite and they started saying he was too young to sound that old and I was like “Yo Michael Jackson was 11 sounding 30!”. He’s soulful, younger girls like him older girls like him, he’s a great artist and he’s gonna be a great producer one day too.”
Chuck Brungardt also thinks CJ has something special: “He is so moved by music. It’s scary how that kid can pick music apart. I’ve seen him get influenced by Shuggie Otis and make the sound his own. When he came to Blakeslee (Saadiq’s studio) he would sit with Raphael and just listen to music (Marvin Gaye songs that he had never heard like I Met A Little Girl). He’s just so talented, he already played piano and drums but I’ve now watched him learn bass practically in front of my eyes.”
Raphael is hoping to sign CJ to his new label Velma, along with trio Tha Boogie - a place where, raphael promises, “people can express themselves like I have on The Way I See It, so basically dream something up and go with it.”
So How did the collaboration with Wonder on Never Give You Up come about? “I called him up and talked Stevie onto the record, I was going to make it funny, if he don’t show up I was gonna say “well doesn’t it sound like you should be on the record” then [mimicking him] I would start singing, but I called and he said “when do you need me” he was over in an hour and 30mins.
After producing Stevie and Beyoncé for the Luther Vandross tribute project maybe he should do it again. “I could never say I’m producing him, but he asks me he says “when you gonna do some more stuff with me” but I’m just so not use to him being in my rolodex or being my friend so I have to call him Stevie Wonder, he says “Call me Stevie” And I’m like “Stevie Wonder?” and he’s like “No Stevie!” and I’ll still say “Stevie Wonder”. But if we do it would be more like doing an album together.
Joss Stone features on the excellent Just One Kiss, I ask Raphael what he thought of the Brit backlash she received (after doing a Sheena Easton on prime time TV and talking in an American accent).
“I didn’t understand that, everybody in her band is damn near American what did they expect? Look at Mark Ronson, he’s from
yet he’s speaking like he’s British … I made jokes about it “They ought to get a plane over to hear cause she don’t sound like no American to me.” What I know about the Brits is that they love music. You make [good] music then that will get over anything” New York
So how does Raphael think the album will be received? “I didn’t realize what kind of record I’d made until I went out one night, me and Q-Tip went out in New York he took my CD into this club called the Apartment and Rich Medina spinned Big Easy. He mixed it in so I didn’t even hear it coming in the way he blended it and people just started dancing and having a good time and they didn’t know what it was. And I didn’t even know I could play it in a club that was the first time that I could look at the record from the outside.”
Big Easy has been getting exactly the same reaction in my house. And I’ve been hammering the album, discovering something new with virtually every play. Who knows? Maybe In 30 years time my daughter will look back with nostalgia to her years as a toddler, remembering Dad’s playlist … Marvin Gaye, Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, CJ,The Temptations & of course Raphael Saadiq. It’ll all be the same to her – genuine vintage Soul music.
Originally published September 2008 in Echoes Magazine
Originally published September 2008 in Echoes Magazine