Raphael Saadiq: Learning From The Greats

Originally published on May 15, 2011 7:14 pm

If you passed Raphael Saadiq on the street, you might wonder whether you'd stepped back in time. He wears tightly fitted suits, skinny black ties and thick, black-framed glasses. He makes music that almost seems like it's from another era, so it's no surprise that he's increasingly seen as the standard-bearer of old-school American R&B.

Saadiq has been around a long time — since the 1980s, when he toured with Prince and sang in the R&B trio Tony! Toni! Toné! On his latest solo album, Stone Rollin', he not only sings, but also plays a lot of the instruments — Mellotron, keys, guitar, percussion and bass. Saadiq tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz that, in making new music with a vintage sound, he likes to think like an athlete.

"When you look at athletes, they have fundamentals. Kobe [Bryant] will go back and watch a Magic Johnson, or LeBron [James] will go back and watch a Michael Jordan," he says. "If you want to be like the greats, you learn from the greats."

As for the term "old school," Saadiq says he doesn't mind it, but that it doesn't hold much water, either.

"Isaac Hayes told me once, 'There's no such thing as old-school,' " Saadiq says. "Either you went to school or you didn't."

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART ATTACK")

GUY RAZ, Host:

If you passed Raphael Saadiq on the street, you might wonder whether you've stepped back in time. He wears his suits tightly fitted, skinny black ties and thick black-framed glasses. He makes music that almost seems like it's from another era. And it's for this and many other reasons that Raphael Saadiq is increasingly seen as the standard-bearer of old-school American R&B.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART ATTACK")

RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) You giving me a heart attack. Girl I want you back. I just can't stand it no more.

RAZ: How you did that, Raphael Saadiq, I have no idea. Welcome to the program.

SAADIQ: Good to be here.

RAZ: I'm hearing this track, "Heart Attack," and I'm thinking, wow. I mean, you really captured this moment, a sound. How do you describe your music?

SAADIQ: I call it, like, global soul rock and roll. You know, this is a sound that invites you to a lot of fun, a lot of singing and a lot of great music. And it's just - I like to say I'm moving forward, even though it feels vintage, and it feels like from a different era, I like to think like an athlete, you know? Great athletes study great athletes, and you just - I just sell the shot differently.

RAZ: I've seen you describe your sound as gospeldelic, which I guess is sort of a hybrid of gospel and psychedelic.

SAADIQ: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAADIQ: Yeah. You know, I was just - I was always, you know, fighting to come up with something, because I knew it was sort of hard for, like, journalists to figure out what I was doing. So they would put me in this category, like, neo soul or new soul. I never really wanted to have a new soul, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAADIQ: ...you know, I was like, you know what, I'm going to come up with something, gospeldelic. It's like gospel (unintelligible) and delic is like psychedelic, like Jimmy Hendrix and, you know, funkadelic. I was like, I'm going to find something, you know?

RAZ: All right. Let's hear some gospeldelic. This track is called "Daydreams."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYDREAMS")

SAADIQ: Have you ever wanted to buy someone you love something, but you couldn't afford it, but you just bought it anyway? You know how that goes.

SAADIQ: (Singing) Yes, I'm living on daydreams. Gonna buy me something I can't afford...

RAZ: I think I'm hearing Jimmy Hendrix in church on Sunday here.

SAADIQ: Yeah, a little bit, you know, but it's more of the storytelling. It was more like Elvis and Johnny Cash.

RAZ: Yeah, that's what it is.

SAADIQ: You know, Johnny Cash would tell a real deep voice story, (unintelligible).

RAZ: What's the story you're telling?

SAADIQ: I'm just telling a story about, you know, living in a place like Los Angeles, and you go shopping, and the sun comes out, and you just buy everything because the sun is out, it's a beautiful day. You want to buy your girl everything. And you know you shouldn't buying, that you can't afford it, but you just buy it anyway because the sun is out.

RAZ: Yeah. But you have those days every day. So presumably you're buying stuff every day.

SAADIQ: And that's why I'm broke. Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYDREAMS")

SAADIQ: (Singing) When the sun comes out I find myself spending money on foolish necessities. This woman I got is worth a lot but man she sure hits the spot. Nothing more special than bring them gifts to you. I'm living on daydreams. I'm gonna buy me something I can't afford, oh, oh.

RAZ: I guess for people who don't know your music, it's often called old-school R&B. And I've read that you hate that term, old-school.

SAADIQ: No, I don't mind old-school.

RAZ: You don't mind it?

SAADIQ: No. I don't mind old-school. But (unintelligible) told me once there's no such thing as old-school these days. Either went to school, or you didn't, you know? So I just think, you know, I was trying always to figure it out. And like I said earlier, it's like, you know, when you look at athletes to have fundamentals, you know, so they go back, you know, Kobe will go back and watch a Magic Johnson, or LeBron will go watch a Michael Jordan, or...

RAZ: Right. You would hope they do.

SAADIQ: They do. They have to because it's all footwork. And I feel with music, it's all footwork, and you just have to sell the shot a different way. And I just believe - I just took from the greats. And if you want to be like the greats, you learn from the greats.

RAZ: I mean, you are channeling 1960's-era Stevie Wonder and Chuck Berry and Little Walter on this record.

SAADIQ: Yeah. Yeah. Those are some of my favorite guys. You know, I wake up in the morning, you know, to Little Walter sometime, you know? Everybody's, like, are you paying homage? I say, man, I've been paying homage to everything my whole life that's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO")

SAADIQ: (Singing) I met this girl on radio. Said the signal was low. She wasn't getting my sound. She kept (unintelligible) down. I told her turn up the bass. And then she gives me in my face. I told her I had a girl that meant the world to me.

RAZ: I love this song. I can't believe this is a new song. It's incredible. You have so much success with your sound, I mean, Grammys and album sales and stuff. But I mean, it is kind of unusual for an American artist. I mean, we're hearing that classic R&B sound in the U.K., you know, Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone and Duffy and Adele. Why do you think there aren't more American artists who are channeling the sound that you're going after?

SAADIQ: You know, I don't know. It's weird. I guess because, you know, all the Brits - the Brits live this. They dress like this, you know, year-round, even when the music wasn't popular before Amy did it. You know, I think it's something in the air right now.

RAZ: And it's not just a sound. I mean, as you say, it's a look. It's a whole package, right?

SAADIQ: It's just a way of life, you know? If you love great things, you know, man, this is some of the greatest music ever made, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO")

SAADIQ: (Singing) See that girl is so fast. (Unintelligible) smoking and making cash. She knows I like it like that. She knows exactly where it's at. She knows I like it like that.

RAZ: Sort of hidden, I guess, within these songs, really beautiful songs on this record, are messages, especially in the song "The Answer." Can you tell me what that song is about?

SAADIQ: And I said, you know, when somebody gets in the business, you should give them the answers. And I was just sort of talking to the kids and giving them (unintelligible) how my career was and how my life was growing up in the Bay Area and just something people could read into. And I believe people have that experience wherever they're from.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ANSWER")

SAADIQ: (Singing) Some people ask me how is life for me growing up in a dark pretty city. It was scary but life was good in my neighborhood.

RAZ: I feel there's a political edge to the record. Is that true?

SAADIQ: There's a little hidden political, you know, aspect. It's not that deep that you can't see it. But a lot of it is about, you know, like, you know, I have a song called "Go To Hell," but it's actually saying let love bring us together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO TO HELL")

SAADIQ: (Singing) Let love bring us together. Let love bring us together.

SAADIQ: You know, for the most part, we don't control politics. Politics are like a pile of tricks, you know? That's what it's about.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAADIQ: And we just have to, you know, live in this world the best that we can and read the cartoon section sometimes before we read the hard news, and, you know, put on a little bit of Bob Marley and...

RAZ: I hear you on that one. Politics is a pile of tricks is my next bumper sticker. That's great.

SAADIQ: Yes.

RAZ: And I'll send you the royalties. I know that Prince was a huge influence on you. I mean, he basically plucked you from obscurity when you were a kid. And you were touring with Price and Sheila E. Who gets you excited today? Who's making music that just blows you away?

SAADIQ: You know, there's this group that I like called Little Dragon. I like Mumford & Sons.

RAZ: Mumford & Sons. They've been on this program, yeah.

SAADIQ: Yeah. I really like them because I like groups that really take chances in the commercial world and then break through. It's like the most incredible thing to get me, like, excited.

RAZ: Raphael, thank you so much for coming in and joining us.

SAADIQ: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO TO HELL")

SAADIQ: (Singing) Let love bring us together.

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. It's called WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode Sunday nights. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening, have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.