If Raphael Saadiq could have his way, he would have been born in the same era as early R&B greats like Ray Charles and Etta James. “I don’t mean to sound funny, but I’m timeless,” says the Oakland native in a phone interview. “I came out in ’88 but I would have preferred to come out in the ’50s.”
It’s an interesting, but not surprising, revelation from an artist whose impact on R&B transcends the early ’90s, when he became known for hits like “Anniversary” and “It Never Rains (In Southern California)” with his multi-platinum selling group, Tony! Toni! Toné! Saadiq is responsible for some of the biggest songs of the past two decades, and the roster of artists he’s worked with as a producer reads like a “best performers of all times” list: Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo, Solange, John Legend, Whitney Houston, and the Isley Brothers, just to name a few.
“I’m really surprised about my whole career a little bit,” says Saadiq, reflecting on his influence in the music industry. “I just went to get some coffee and this guy was like ‘Yo man, you’re a genius!’ The ‘genius’ word is so crazy to me because I know so many people who I think are geniuses!”
Today, you’ll hear Tony! Toni! Toné! songs sampled in two of this year’s biggest rap hits, “Whatever You Need” by Meek Mill featuring Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign and “OTW” by DJ Luke Nasty. And Saadiq recently made headlines with his soundtrack work on the popular HBO show Insecure, where he serves as a music composer. The series is known for its popular Spotify playlist, a mix of curated tracks that highlights Saadiq’s ability to write and select music based on the essence of a character.
Main character Issa Dee “has three different personalities, and you have to change the vibe of the music, so like, one part of her is ’90s hip-hop, another is a little jazzier, and one is a little more soulful,” he says. “You have to play music that will speak to their minds and everyone’s mind who is actually watching it on TV.”
Following a stretch of behind-the-scenes work, Saadiq is headed back in the spotlight. He has a sixth studio album in the works and is slated to perform on Oct. 8 as the opening act for Maxwell at the Concord Pavilion — a homecoming show for the musician, who now lives in Los Angeles.
“I love the Bay,” he says. “I can’t wait to get back home.”
Saadiq says his music is a peek into his own humble beginnings as a boy growing up in Oakland, where local gospel groups shaped him in addition to mainstream influences like Earth, Wind & Fire. “There were so many beautiful singers and musicians like the Hawkins family, the Gospel Hummingbirds, Superior Angels — local groups that don’t get the notoriety but are really responsible for my career.”
The youngest of 14 children, Saadiq discovered his musical ability early and began playing bass guitar at just six years old. His dad, however, was more of a talk radio kind of guy. “You’d get in my dad’s car and all you’d hear was ‘dah, dah, dah,’” laughs Saadiq. “Every once in a while there would be music, but not much.”
But Saadiq says his musical talent was something everyone around him could see. His friends, teachers, and classmates — even the guys in the neighborhood — always encouraged him to continue on his musical path. “Those guys saw something in me, they would always let me know that I should keep going.”
As Saadiq got older, music became an escape. “One of my brothers killed himself. He couldn’t stop doing drugs and he was embarrassed about it,” Saadiq recalls. When he was 11, another brother overdosed on heroin in the garage. Saadiq still remembers riding in a limousine to the funeral. “It’s why, to this day, I don’t like limos.”
Then, in 1990, while Saadiq was writing “It Never Rains (In Southern California),” his sister, an Oakland parole officer, was killed when a man fleeing police in a high-speed chase crashed into her car as she backed out of her driveway.
Despite the tragedy he’s endured, Saadiq looks to his religious roots as a source of strength. “There is a saying in church, ‘This joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me and the world can’t take it away,’” he reflects. “I just never let the world take away the joy I had as a kid and I just put that into my music.”
By 18 years old, Saadiq had already made major strides in his career: He was traveling the world as a bassist for another Oakland R&B icon, Sheila E., as part of Prince’s Parade Tour. Singing came later, after he returned from touring and formed Tony! Toni! Toné! with his brother Dwayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian Riley. Saadiq says he never really wanted to be the lead singer, but when the group went out in search of a record deal, their producers, Tommy McElroy and Denzil Foster, decided Saadiq should be front and center.
“I felt like I was naked without my bass, like the guy in Charlie Brown that had the blanket,” Saadiq says. “So all of those things I learned from those Bay Area gospel groups and quartet groups were all the techniques I used to stand in front of a mic without my bass. It was really annoying in the beginning!”
Still, Saadiq never let his love of bass guitar fade away. You hear it on the Toni! Tony! Toné! albums and on Saadiq’s 2009 solo album, The Way I See It, where he played most of the other instruments including the drums, piano, guitar, and sitar. “I’ve always had a respect for other genres. Rock, blues, country, reggae — even Middle Eastern music.”
So how does Saadiq know when he has a hit? The answer, he says, is complicated. “When I wrote ‘Anniversary,’ I just kept humming to myself over and over the line, ‘It’s our anniversary, it’s our anniversary’ and I thought, ‘Oh this sounds good, it just rolled off my tongue.’ I had no idea it was going to turn into like, a ‘Happy Birthday’ song for everybody,” says Saadiq. “But the line I liked the most was when I said ‘Victoria will be no secret.’ I just thought I was the best! My ego kinda came out a little bit, I was like ‘I am killin’ it right now!’”
For a man who feels like he should have been born in a different era, Saadiq has solidified himself as a major influence to contemporary R&B while also serving as a futurist of sorts, setting the mark for what’s considered hot.
With a laugh Saadiq says, “It’s almost like I shapeshift, I can turn into different things when I want to.”
Raphael Saadiq performs with Maxwell and Jazmine Sullivan at Concord Pavilion on Oct. 8. More info here.