Monday, 13 June 2011

Like A Rolling Stone - Raphael Saadiq Interview (Featuring Rob Fonksta Bacon, Taura Stinson & Chuck Brungardt)

“Sheeet, I remember it like it wuz yesterday, just down the block, in a small garage where all the neighbourhood players used to jam. If you ain’t got yo’ blues chops, then don’t bother comin’ through.  That’s when Charlie Wiggin’s son, Charlie Ray - just outta diapers, no more than niiine/tin years old – started axin’ if he could “sit in” with the band. “Sit in”, that’s what the boy said, we all damn near fell on the floor laughin’. Except for Bill, now he just stood there with his bass geetar, and leaned right down to get all up in lil’ Charlie Ray’s face, striking the first thump, fixin' the lil’ man with a baadass glare, his pencil moustache wrapped around his pursed mouth. Ray just sat there, noddin’ his head, you know, holdin’ his bass tight - the same guitar he would take with him everywhere, even down the grocery sto’. “Come on now, give it to me …” Bill growled at him. Nobody expected the boy to turn it out and move his itty bitty fingers like he did, Bill sho’ didn’t. When he was done we got it together enough for someone in the back to say “Oh shit Bill … lil’ Charlie Ray just smashed yo’ gig!”
Clarence Jones Jr. III, Castlemont, East Oakland, California

From the posh surroundings of London’s Hotel Marylebone, Charlie Ray Wiggins, or Raphael Saadiq as his name is now printed on album sleeves, recalls that day well: “I knew that terminology (“sit in”) would get their attention and stop them in they tracks but you know I wasn’t tryin’ to kill the bass player. I just wanted to play.”
It’s a dedication to musicianship that has been Saadiq’s trademark, flourishing despite contemporary R&B’s reliance on samples and the synthetic concoctions of bedroom producers. Whether with his first band, the critically acclaimed Oakland funky soul sextet Tony Toni Toné, formed at the genisis of New Jack Swing in the late eighties with brother from anutha mutha Dwayne Wiggins, year 2000 follow up super-trio Lucy Pearl (with Ali Shaheed Muhammed of A Tribe Called Quest & En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson) or as a lone star producer, called in to apply musical finesse to artists as diverse as D’Angelo, The Bee Gees, Sondre Lerch, Earth Wind & Fire, Joss Stone, Stevie Wonder & The Roots. Virtually inventing what would be termed Neo Soul and scooping up a slew of Grammy awards en route.

“It’s only now that he’s getting to do what he feels on record,” says Rob ‘Fonksta’ Bacon, Saadiq’s sharply dressed band director and lead guitarist, brought over by Columbia to accompany Saadiq along with the rhythm section (introduced by Rob: “this is Lemar Carter, a beast on drums. And Calvin Turner … I’m telling you - he’s the new James Jamerson!”) to showcase new material, the night before, at members only club Soho House for the label departments. Sat on a black leather couch, in the hotel’s dimly lit lounge, Fonksta continues “The beautiful thing is now he’s expected to be different. And that’s a good place to be.”  Just then a representative from the the UK label arrives in the lobby and interjects, recognizing Bacon: “How a-may-zing was last night? Wow … WOW. Jen (Saadiq’s manager) said it would make sense just hearing the tracks live, but then you did "Don’t Mess" and the crowd, went, CRAZY!”
It’s taken Saadiq 4 albums to go from the commercial pop soul of Don’t Mess With My Man (his biggest hit in the UK) to the more axe based rhythm and blues evident on new album Stone Rollin’, because an urban hitmaker can’t just switch to black slop star in one release – even Prince took five albums to get to Purple Rain - so Saadiq has had to subtly expand the musical palette of his loyal, though largely heavy guitar avoiding, fanbase.
From the lush, string laced contemporary soul of debut Instant Vintage, to the funkier, revue live workout All Hits At The House Of Blues, through 2004’s blaxploitation funk inspired indie As Ray Ray, to his mainstream breakthrough, 2008’s explicity soulful, sonically accurate late sixties/early seventies homage The Way I See It, which featured only one out and out rock cut - the Chuck Berry inspired Let’s Take A Walk. Getting that point had  been a delicate process.
 “This time, I’m throwing all my cards on the table and getting really serious,” says Raphael “that’s why I titled it Stone Rollin’ – I’m betting my life with my music. Nobody’s pitchin’ to A&R what I’m doing. It’s the road less travelled.”

Chuck & Raphael
Co-producer Chuck Brungardt, who crashed at Saadiq’s crib in Los Angeles during the entire sessions, says Stone Rollin’ originally began, at the studio Raphael owns in  North Hollywood (The Blakeslee Recording Company) with a seventies hippy influence. “Raphael sat on (opening slop monster) Heart Attack for years and with The Way I See It tour in full flow, whilst doing rock themed festivals, he got the idea to buy a Mellotron.” Soon Saadiq was stripping back Heart Attack and lacing the track with it, “We noticed he was playing the instrument a lot” explains Brungardt, laughing “and he said ‘well you know I gotta get the money’s worth!’”  Stone Rollin’ continues to imbed the needle deeper into the wax of his old vinyl, but unlike The Way I See It, with the addition of his personal pet sounds – the aforementioned Chuck Berry styled fender telecaster & Beatle-esque mellotron, along with sitar, marching band snares, opulent string charts, trumpets & trombones – he begins to cut his own groove.

With the project’s direction already in mind, Raphael once again approached long time song-writing collaborator and friend Taura Stinson (a former lead singer for 90’s girl group Emagé) to persuade her to work on Stone Rollin’ after she passed on contributing to The Way I See It because she struggled to channel Saadiq’s analog wavelength. Finding a solution to his co-writer’s retro block, Saadiq encouraged Stinson to take up a course in Stevie Wonder.
Writer Taura Stinson 
“When we first started writing Raphael’s like ‘What’s your favourite Stevie song?’ and I’m like ‘ummm, I dunno … All I Do?’ And he looks at me ‘really? Wow, you REALLY need to study’ so the next day he gifted me with the entire Stevie Wonder catalogue. And he made me promise, he said ‘the only thing you need to do is listen to every song. Then decide upon a favourite.’ (Incidentally Saadiq’s is Look Around)  The soap opera soul of Good Man is the first song they began writing for the project. “I sang the hook into my voice notes on my cell phone,” explains Stinson. “When Raphael heard it he said ‘that’s cool, you know you should lay that.’”
 “Raphael took me out running one day,” Brungardt picks up “and we we’re talking about a friend of his, a good guy who was having a bad time at home with his spouse, so he got the idea to use Taura’s sung hook, which he thought was great and give the song a different spin.”
Back to Stinson: “My angle was about what a woman wants,” she begins to sing her line: “Good man, up for having fun, got no kids and I love the lord – check!”
But if the nastay funk blues of the title track Stone Rollin’ is anything to go by, what Raphael really wants, is a fat booty’d BBW.
“Yeah we like the big lady’s, but we like the small ladies too now,” Saadiq laughs, “In America big ladies walk down the street rockin’ and you know I wanted to really, really focus on the big ladies on my record!”

Stanky, sleazy rhythm and blues, jiving about ‘booty’s’, reminding everyone of where race music was heading, with guitars, before some white boys from Memphis, Liverpool & Dartford repackaged it. The song is co-written by gospel veteran Roy Tyler; but it’s the religiously themed cut, the epic Brian Wilson styled Go To Hell, that serves as the albums centrepiece.
“Raphael had the first lines ‘Here’s the situation, the devil knows me well, I’m trying to do my best, not to go to hell’ and the rest of it was murmuring and blabber.” Says co-writer Taura Stinson “I basically came in and made some of it seamless, but I can’t take credit for that. I was just like ‘wow!’ To start a song like that, people were saying to Raphael, ‘are you crazy? You can’t name it that’ and I made fun of him ‘dude you got the devil’s song! They gonna go back, look at the Instant Vintage cover and see you sittin’ there Indian style with a circle around your eye. You sure you ain’t illuminati?!’
How can the raunchy blues of Stone Rollin’ and spiritually explicit Go To Hell lie together as bedfellows on the same album?
“Because the church key of g and the blues key of g is the same key. It is what it is,” Explains Saadiq. So then, how can somebody like R.Kelly drop Bump N’ Grind yet still “thank god” in the credits? When the teachings of the Bible clearly don’t play like that.

“R.Kelly that’s a whole different level though,” Saadiq laughs. “Church people man in America, its weird, no matter what they do they gonna say ‘thank god’ because then you could be forgiven for any sin. Still they sin, but by asking for forgiveness they’re not getting tricked by the devil. That’s where that comes from. But for me, when I say gospeldelic I’m just saying there’s some truth in what I’m saying. The ‘delic is the funky part - ‘Swing down sweet chariot and let me ride’ George Clinton talkin’ bout the mothership - everything we all do lays back to the beginning and our roots. Wade in the water – black music is always rooted deeply in religion. Whether they know it or not, they could be high as a giraffe’s ass, on coke but they gonna find Jesus somewhere in the back … ‘I wanna riyyyyde’ (laughs) But with music something like Radio (the first single) it’s the movement of people that’s when everybody finds they’re ‘one’ whether they’re black or white or asian. Everybody is like ‘what’s going on?’  You get a hold of a Chuck Berry record - that’s how barriers are broken. And that’s a world of unknown spirituality, it’s not church but it’s a global thing,” Saadiq grabs his shirt “that just yanks you.”

Saadiq & Riser
The strongest message song on the album is lushly arranged by Paul Riser (I Heard It Through The Grapevine & Ain’t No Mountain High Enough to name just two works of his genius); string drenched The Answerwith lyrics Saadiq hadn’t originally intended to write.
“Yeah the first line: ‘Stop. Saying the game is sold and not be told’ (a well worn line in gangsta rap) I never really understood that Hip Hop reference.” Explains Saadiq, “If you see me going the wrong way, tell me. You know I learned the hard way but I’ve seen others learn harder. When it’s a personal (song) I record the vocals on my own, because that way you can make the most faces; you can make the most sounds. But it just came out, because I was waiting on Taura to come write …”
“I was like one hour late and it was done.” Protests Taura, “he won’t NEVER let me forget that. He’s like (puts on Raphael’s voice) ‘yeah, you would have been on this song too if you hadn’t been late!’
Saadiq remembers it differently. “She was like (Raphael puts on Taura’s voice) “I’m going to be there in 3 hours” and I was like, I’m not waiting for 3 hours!  She turned up, late, and just said ‘yeah?!’”

Melvin "Wah Wah Watson" Raglin 
There are guest features galore on Stone Rollin’ – Motown guitar legend Wah Wah Watson, bribed his way onto the Marvinesque Movin’ Down The Line.  “He brought a big plate of spicy chicken wings to the studio when Paul Riser was there;” says Brungardt. “Then he called Raphael and said “I gotta get something on there!”  Later we emailed the track and he dropped everything, left his garden half cut, and ran into his studio and did all the guitar parts ‘til 1 in the morning but he really nailed it.” Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn & Yukimi Nagano from Little Dragon appear on the catchy slop trip Just Don’t which spins out into transcendental Shuggie Otis psychedelia. The lyrics written by Stinson at a time when she was going through a divorce:

“Raphael pulled me up on the song twice, the first time he said ‘this album is not your project … it’s not about your ex-husband.’ The second time he texted me out of the blue: ‘EMERGENCY SONGWRITERS MEETING!’ and I’m like ‘what the hell? And he says its only songwriters – so just the two of us’ so I get to the studio and he says ‘I can’t read your handwriting …’ you see I have really bad handwriting and he then says ‘what the hell are you saying?! You need to understand this album is my baby. And I been sitting here trying to make these words fit.’ He then let me hear what he had sung in reference to what I had written and it was soooo awfully funny, just wrong!”
The last song co-written by Saadiq & Stinson, The Perfect Storm, also includes the biggest guest star appearance, hidden as a bonus track.  Rob ‘Fonksta’ Bacon recalls: “Larry Graham was in town because he was opening for Prince and he came by the Studio in North Hollywood. Raphael’s from Oakland so to those guys, Larry Graham is like God and we just started jamming all the dope shit  I Can Handle It, Today and The Jam. Afterwards he emailed me and said you know you got the touch and I was thinkin’ ‘hopefully that’ll get back to the little man!’
For Saadiq, who had already played on tour with Prince in the eighties as part of Sheila E’s band, bass playing former Family Stone member Larry Graham was the person he wanted impress. “Nothin’ would come out, I was trying to play all Larry Graham’s songs, he was my idol.” Saadiq concludes. ‘He’s the reason I play bass. He was right behind me, standing over me, watchin’, and I just looked up at him and said ‘nothin’s coming out’. But later when I was playing my own stuff, he could tell I could play.”
Raphael Saadiq, the bass player, wasn’t trying to kill Larry Graham. He just wanted to play. 

An edited version first published in Echoes Magazine, May 2011.

Stone Rollers…

Taura Stinson 
(aka Aura Jackson)
Vocalist and Songwriter

Former Emagé lead singer, recently regained her name after divorcing Aftermath record exec Alonso Jackson, also retaining the masters to her unreleased solo debut stunner Menu. A project that features Andre 3000, Jamie Foxx & Kanye West, shelved after Warner’s failed to get clearance for proposed first single Crazy which sampled Joni Mitchell’s River. Mitchell personally blocking the release in disgust at Time Warner’s then support of George Bush’s gulf war.

Rob ‘Fonksta’ Bacon 
Lead guitarist and band leader

The funkiest guitarist alive - after the brain of Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel finally succumbed to maggots. From Detroit, he’s a legend in Los Skanless too (that’s LA my blood), appearing on many west coast G-funk rap sides from the 90’s, contributing his expert lick recreation skills to the tours of Amp Fiddler,  Leon Ware & Destiny’s Child. His own instrumental track Let It Go (Mental Enema) is every Slop guitarist and Air-Funk-Axe players Stairway To Heaven.
For More Info On Fonksta Click Here 

Charles ‘Chuck’ Brungardt 
Co-Producer and Engineer

In house Blakeslee Recording Company engineer & technical wiz, likened to a young Tom Dowd, who scored his first Co-Producer credit on Stone Rollin’ having worked with Saadiq exclusively for over 6 years.  Now based in Denver heading up IllFonic, a games development company he co-founded with Saadiq, working on new titles Nexuiz & Ghetto Golf. 

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