Angus Batey meets R&B artist Raphael Saadiq

Many an artist owes their career to Raphael Saadiq's pioneering work, but now he wants urban music to embrace its heritage, as rock'n'roll so often does. Angus Batey meets him

As a teenager, he got a job on Prince's Parade tour by accident. In his 20s he was a member of one of the biggest pop-R&B outfits and in his early 30s, he wrote and produced a Grammy-winning masterpiece one afternoon when he popped in to a studio to cadge a spliff. If he thinks a song really needs a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo, he picks up the phone and an hour later, Stevie's in the studio, laying down the part. Today the erstwhile Charlie Ray Wiggins is relaxed and dapper in the London office of his record company, yet despite all the evidence, it's not always easy being Raphael Saadiq.

"I like to say it's like bein' a smart person that's very good at math, but you don't really need your friends to know that you're really that good," he says, as he starts to explain why it's only on his third solo studio album, The Way I See It, that he's been able to make music that directly references the classic soul sounds he grew up with. "You could engineer a bridge, but people don't really need to know that, so you don't let that part out. I felt like, at this point, I'll just let you know, 'This is what's left for me, to really explore what I like to do.'"

It's perhaps a strange revelation from an artist who appears to have done more than most to reimagine soul and R&B as future-oriented musics. After years alongside his brother and cousin in the group Tony! Toni! Toné! and pioneering production work for the likes of D'Angelo, Bilal and John Legend, The Way I See It finds Saadiq getting in touch with his inner Motown. It's not the recent successes of the Winehouses and the Duffys that have turned his head: the majority of the album was made three years ago, before Back to Black made retro-sounding new-school soul one of the most saleable musical commodities. And anyway, he argues, it's about time black musicians felt able to reference their musical heritage more directly.

"I feel like a lot of white bands do it all the time," he says. "I didn't want to see another white-boy band come out and do a Motown sound, while all the black dudes are singin' with that thing [autotune] on their voices, rappin' and doin' all kindsa tap dancin'. I was like, 'No! I'm not gonna let the Killers come out and be in some suits an' some ties, and somebody else comes out doin' the Beatles, when I eat and sleep that!' Not to take anything from them - I love it when bands like the Killers or the Kings of Leon go back and pull somethin' from the past and make it theirs, I think that's the best thing. But I don't see too many urban groups doin' it."

If it requires the kind of cast-list that Saadiq has assembled, maybe the lack of competition is easier to comprehend. As well as Stevie Wonder's late-night dash to answer his distress call ("He picked up the phone and said 'What's up, fool?' He called me 'fool'! I said, 'Man, I need you on this record really bad.' He said, 'When do you need me?' I said, 'An hour,' thinkin' maybe he'd say 'I'll come next week.' And he just came right over that night"), he also called on Joss Stone and veteran Motown percussionist Jack Ashford.

"On Sure Hope You Mean It, Jack played the bells," Raphael recalls. "He was supposed to play a different line, but he did his own thing, and it was magical. When you've got a veteran in the room, you don't say anything. And Joss? The Brits need to not be so hard on her. I've been around a lot of soulful people, and she has it. When she opens up her mouth to sing, you feel it."

Saadiq was born in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, the second-youngest of 14 siblings and half-siblings. "I grew up in a neighbourhood where I was the rare person," he reflects. "I was the person drivin' a moped, listenin' to Dirty Mind or Octopus's Garden. You're drivin' through a ghetto, but you're listenin' to Prince or the Beatles. I was makin' my own little movie in my head."

His obsession and aptitude for music put him in the right place at the right time shortly after his 18th birthday in 1984. He was hanging out in an Oakland studio when a call came in announcing an audition was being held the following day in San Francisco, with places in the touring band for Prince protegee Sheila E up for grabs. While others were decked out in Prince-inspired clothes, working on their dance moves in the queue, Wiggins, in baseball cap and jeans, quietly went about his business. Unimpressed with Sheila's sister, who he felt had too much attitude, he gave a spur-of-the-moment false name; and rather than lose face when Sheila told him he'd got the job, he had to quickly learn to answer to the name Raphael.

"Next thing I was in Tokyo, in a stadium, singin' Erotic City," he marvels. "We were in huge venues with the biggest sound systems in the world; all these roadies throwin' me basses, and a bunch of models hangin' round Prince to party. For almost two years. That was my university."

With Prince's band, the Revolution, "on the outs,", the teenage newcomer often found himself playing bass with the headliner at after-gig club shows. "I think he liked my feel, otherwise he wouldn't have invited me to play," Saadiq reasons. "He introduced us to some nice girls, too. He was really cool about that: he'd always walk up to you and say, 'There enough girls here for you tonight?' Yes, sir!"

"University" over, he returned to Oakland, and got serious about Tony! Toni! Toné! Initially, Raphael was content to let other members produce, but by the time of their second album, in 1990, all the band were involved in crafting the sound. He adopted the surname Saadiq - it means "man of his word" in Arabic, though he is not a Muslim - to avoid confusion in writing and production credits with his brother, Dwayne , who was also in the group.

"I started feeling the at-homeness," Saadiq says of becoming a producer. "You could go outside, get something to eat, go back in the studio: no 'Flight out at four, Raphael - meet you downstairs in five minutes ... ' In my heart I love performing just as much, but I think producing is somethin' everybody should do."

By the time the Tonys made their last album in 1996, Saadiq was established as a songwriter, producer and session bass player, roles he has sustained alongside projects such as the short-lived supergroup Lucy Pearl (with A Tribe Called Quest producer and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and En Vogue singer Dawn Robinson) and a solo career that began with the acclaimed Instant Vintage album in 2002.

In 1998, he spent a few days working with D'Angelo on the singer's second album, but the painful pace of the protracted sessions at Electric Lady studios in New York meant Saadiq couldn't hang around to complete anything.

"His manager said he was a little upset," Saadiq smiles, "but I'm an Oakland boy - we don't care! A month and a half later I was in New York, walkin' through the Village with this girl, and I wanted a spliff. I was really bein' a little disrespectful - just knock on the door and be like, 'Yo, gimme a spliff,' when he's supposed to be mad at me. But that's what I did! He ran up to the door and said, 'Aaaaah! We gotta do somethin'!'" By the time Saadiq left a few hours later, the pair had finished a track. Untitled (How Does It Feel) won best male R&B vocal at the Grammys in 2000.

After so many years being so many different things to so many different people, helping others find a voice for their own hurts and heartaches, it's a little odd that, aside from a brief mention on Instant Vintage's first track, Saadiq has kept his own pain and loss out of his music.

"My brother was murdered when I was seven," he says, matter-of-factly. "Then another brother ODed - heroin - and my other brother committed suicide because he couldn't get off drugs. My sister was a singer, she sang blues. A cop was chasin' some kid through a residential neighbourhood, and the kid killed her when he ran into her car. And through all of that I was makin' records, but it wasn't comin' out in the music. I did it to kinda show people you can have some real tough things happen in your life, but you don't have to wear it on your sleeve."

There are no dark clouds hovering over The Way I See It; the record is a euphoric celebration, made by someone who has spent a lifetime getting to trust his intuition. "I was more or less makin' a record that I like," he says. "Goin' on stage and playin' these songs is the most natural I've ever felt in my whole career. It took me a while to be able to say that; I've made so many records and performed so many times I wasn't sure what I was feelin' was true. But I'm more open with myself on the stage, and I feel that everybody's there with me and we're all gettin' something really big out of it, together. The energy goes both ways, from the listeners to me and the band, and everybody has the same feeling. Through rough times we're getting this vibration - which is how it's supposed to be."

• Raphael Saadiq plays at the IndigO2 in London on Monday 27 April.


Angus Batey

The GuardianTramp

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