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[whitespace] Raphael Saadiq
The Return of the Funky Child: Free of commitments, Raphael Saadiq tastes the solo waters.

Vintage Soul

Oakland's Raphael Saadiq gets back to his 'gospeldelic' roots on 'Instant Vintage'

By Todd Inoue

THERE'S A stretch of road on southbound Interstate 80--right near the curve with Albany on your left and the racetrack on your right--where the cool ocean breezes and horse-stable aromas smack you in the face. Oakland-born Raphael Saadiq knows the smell well. When he rounds the bend, he opens up the windows and starts huffing.

"There's nothing like driving from Sacramento and getting right by Golden Gate Fields and rolling down the windows," he declares. "I do that every time! Since I moved to Sac, it's hot and nice, but when I'm driving back, the windows go down. Sniiifffff! That's what I love about the bay. I love the fresh air."

A founding member of hip-hop soul pioneers Tony! Tone! Toni! (with his cousin Timothy Christian Riley and brother D'wayne Wiggins) and Lucy Pearl (with En Vogue's Dawn Robinson and A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammed), Raphael Saadiq is also in demand as a bassist and producer. He's twiddled knobs for up-and-comers like Joi, Angie Stone and TLC, as well as established artists like the Bee Gees, the Isley Brothers and Babyface. His collaborations with D'Angelo--"Lady" and "Untitled"--earned him Grammy accolades.

Saadiq has come a long way since he was a 17-year-old playing bass for Sheila E.'s band and touring Japan on Prince's Lovesexy tour. His first solo album, Instant Vintage, is set to drop on June 11. The album is filled with supple athletic funk ("Doing What I Can," "Body Parts," "Faithful" and "Tick Tock"), experimental "gospeldelic" touches ("Still Ray," "Charlie Ray") and David Ruffin-like social commentary ("Blind Man," "People"). A single, "Be Here," another collaboration with D'Angelo, is already on rotation on KMEL.

Saadiq opened up to Metro about meeting his bass hero, Larry Graham, using Lionel Richie's phone, the current status of the Tonies and Lucy Pearl, and his new "gospeldelic" sound.

Talk about meeting [Sly and the Family Stone/Graham Central Station bassist] Larry Graham

I met Larry Graham when I was in the sixth grade. It was in the grocery store. It was him and this other girl in his group. I looked through the cereal racks and ran out of the store. I freaked out and sat on the bench to wait for the bus. The lady saw me looking at him, and she walked Larry over to me. He had the full wig on, the platforms--the whole Graham Central Station gear. I was like, "You Larry Graham!" He's like, "Yeah man, I'm Larry. How you doing?"

Graham was definitely an influence on everyone from our neighborhood. He was the biggest thing for bass playing. If you were an emcee, he was like Rakim or Biggie. You gotta listen to him if you were going to play and have something about you.

How did you know bass was the instrument for you?

One time, my mother and father went fishing. I was sitting in the van, and they were playing this tape of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You." James Jamerson played bass on that. I heard that bass line, and I was sitting there going, "What the hell is that?" I didn't know what instrument it was, but it struck me in the heart. From that minute on, I started asking for an instrument. The guitar had too many strings. I was like, "Let me have the one with the four on it." I was playing Rufus and Chaka Khan songs the first week that I got it.

Bass is my love. I got to play a lot more when I was doing D'Angelo's records. I played bass with the Tonies, but I got to really have fun with D'Angelo.

The Tonies were one of the few '90s R&B acts that had a real show. How important was that aspect of not just playing music but entertaining?

The experience being with Sheila E. and Prince in Japan helped. I rehearsed so hard and watched everything on tape. It was like playing basketball and watching tape after the game--Prince and Sheila E. watched tape like that. When I put the Tonies together, I was the person that watched tape to see what we could do better. You have to dedicate yourself to it like a sport. To this day, I watch tape and see stuff we do. People want to see a show. If you're going to risk your life--fly all over the world, not see your parents and friends--you should really make it worth their time. Don't spend your lifetime flying around doing nothing when you get to town to perform.

D'wayne has said, "Instruments got us out of the ghetto and around the world."

It definitely did. Music kept everything fun. We never realized we were in the ghetto. I thought my family was rich! I told everyone we were paid! We never did want for nothing, but we lived in the 'hood.

I remember I was playing with Sheila E., and I went over to Lionel Richie's house in Beverly Hills. That's when I found out we wasn't rich. I was walking through the house. I called my mom from Lionel's house and said, "Hey Mom, I don't think we rich, but we did a great job." We were spiritually rich from day one. I was a happy kid from day one.

You call your new sound "gospeldelic." Where did that come from?

A friend of mine called it gospeldelic, and I've been calling it that ever since. "You got this thing--it ain't really gospel--but it comes from gospel, and it's funky." It just summed it up. The Bay Area is the biggest influence--the gospel groups, not the popular ones but more like the quartets or the unknowns. I call it "slum gospel." They get together and rehearse in the garage and sing in some hole-in-the-wall churches. "Slum gospel" came from the slums of north Oakland, west Oakland, the Acorns. I grew up playing for those groups.

What is the transition like from performing in a group to solo?

The transition was scary, man. When I first started working on this album, I wasn't nervous. I came in more like a producer for the first two weeks. I had to find my zone. Once I found my zone, I started talking to people and journalists and hearing some of the questions they were asking--then I felt like a solo artist.

Well, Instant Vintage finally comes out on Tuesday. You must be excited.

I can't wait. I'm amped. I'm juiced. I can't wait to see people clapping and the girls' hips move. Carlos Santana told me this: if you put the right drums and instruments around a song, they move different, they think different--their body language is so much better. I can't wait to see that and feel that and make people feel happier about their day. This is going to be a dream come true to put my hands up and say ... finally!

Raphael Saadiq performs on June 15 at 9pm at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22 and available through Ticketweb.

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From the June 6-12, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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