Raphael Saadiq has continuously rejuvenated and reshaped aspects of traditional black music since his breakthrough with Tony! Toni! Toné!'s "Little Walter" (1988). In retrospect, that number one R&B/hip-hop hit -- with its modern sound and clever incorporation of the melody from the spiritual "Wade in the Water" -- seems like a statement of intent that has guided the stylish retro-contemporary singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer throughout a discography of tremendous depth. As the multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated Tony! Toni! Toné! wound down in the mid-'90s, Saadiq eased into a second life as an all-purpose collaborator. He didn't get around to making his first solo album, Instant Vintage (2002), until after hits with D'Angelo ("Lady," "Untitled"), Lucy Pearl ("Dance Tonight"), and Bilal ("Soul Sista"). Since winning a Grammy shortly thereafter as a co-writer of Erykah Badu's "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)," Saadiq has balanced commissioned work and solo projects, alternating between high achievements beside peers and inspirations and imaginative throwback LPs such as the Top 20 hits The Way I See It (2008) and Stone Rollin' (2011), and Jimmy Lee (2019).
Raphael Saadiq grew up in a musical family and neighborhood. The Oakland native, born Charles Ray Wiggins, was engrossed in music as a child. He started playing bass at the age of six, taught by an older brother -- among a dozen other siblings in a blended family -- and received additional tutelage from some of the fellow budding musicians in his community. Before long, he was playing in groups, first as a kid with the Gospel Hummingbirds, and benefitted from the strong music program at Castlemont High School. Shortly after he turned 18, he successfully auditioned to join the backing band of fellow Oaklander Sheila E. for Prince's Parade tour. As a consequence, Wiggins, known at that point as Raphael instead of Ray, sometimes performed with the headliner at surprise after-show gigs.
The same year Wiggins was heard as a bassist and background vocalist on Sheila E.'s self-titled album, he debuted with a group of his own, Tony! Toni! Toné!, flanked by brother D'Wayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian Riley. The trio appeared in 1987 with the independently released "One Night Stand" -- an uptempo 12" in the realm of Cameo and the Time -- and then signed with Mercury subsidiary Wing. From 1988 through 1996, Tony! Toni! Toné! released four distinguished albums, all of which went gold, platinum, or multi-platinum. Among 12 supporting Top Ten R&B/hip-hop hits beginning with "Little Walter" were "Feels Good," "If I Had No Loot," and the Grammy-nominated "Anniversary," crossover smashes that cracked the Top Ten of the Hot 100.
Near the end of Tony! Toni! Toné!'s decade together, Wiggins adopted the last name Saadiq and recorded "Ask of You" for the Higher Learning soundtrack. Issued as a single, the song entered the R&B/hip-hop chart in March 1995 and reached the second spot. Rather than capitalize upon that success to launch a solo career, Saadiq was content away from the spotlight as a collaborator and even dipped into A&R as the operator of Pookie Records. Sought out in the latter half of the '90s by artists ranging from John Mellencamp to Snoop Dogg, he charted highest with D'Angelo's "Lady" (number two R&B/hip-hop), followed by the Roots' "What They Do" (number 21), Solo's "Touch Me" (number 28), and Willie Max's "Can't Get Enough" (number 20). He also scored with a second solo single, "Get Involved" (number 21), off the soundtrack for stop-motion sitcom The P.J.s.
Still a couple years away from a solo LP, Saadiq had another hit as a co-writer and co-producer in early 2000 with D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" (number two R&B, number 25 pop). Later in the year, the short-lived Lucy Pearl, featuring Saadiq, En Vogue's Dawn Robinson, and A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad, delivered their lone, self-titled album. It went gold on the strength of "Dance Tonight" (number five R&B, number 36 pop), and like "Untitled" was nominated for a Grammy in the R&B field. Saadiq's songbook of early-2000s hits expanded with the likes of Bilal's "Soul Sista" (number 18 R&B) and Angie Stone's "Brotha" (number 13).
Fifteen years deep into an already remarkable career, Saadiq finally released his first solo album. Instant Vintage arrived on major-label Universal in June 2002. Evidently uninterested in being associated with neo-soul -- the marketing term turned subgenre he unintentionally instigated -- Saadiq branded the back sleeve of the expansive LP with the label "gospeldelic." Significantly wider in scope than any neologism applied to it, Instant Vintage still had mass appeal with a number 25 showing on the Billboard 200 and a number eight placement on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. No solitary effort, it involved Angie Stone and T-Boz, plus D'Angelo, the featured artist on "Be Here," the biggest single. Commercially, it was quickly eclipsed by "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)" (number one R&B/hip-hop, number nine pop), produced and co-written by Saadiq with long-term associates Glenn Standridge and Bobby Ozuna for neo-soul queen Erykah Badu -- the artist for whom "neo-soul" was termed. This hit prevailed over "Be Here" as the 2002 Grammy winner for Best R&B Song, nonetheless earning Saadiq his first award from the Recording Academy. He picked up more nominations that year: Instant Vintage was up for Best R&B Album, while "Be Here" was also among the first nominees for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.
Saadiq touched numerous additional recordings racked between Instant Vintage and second solo studio LPs -- high-charting entries by TLC, Kelly Price, Nappy Roots, Kelis, and Truth Hurts, for starters. In the middle of this flurry, released through Pookie, the two-disc live performance All Hits at the House of Blues, a career-spanning celebration with a short set of Tony! Toni! Toné! classics. Pookie was also the outlet for the proper Instant Vintage follow-up, Ray Ray. Issued in October 2004, the funkier, blaxploitation-inspired LP allowed room for a second Tony! Toni! Toné! reunion and drop-ins from Joi and Babyface. Teedra Moses, who had just debuted with the Saadiq-assisted Complex Simplicity, sang on two songs. The album entered the Independent Albums chart at number three. Saadiq soon picked up his third Best R&B Performance Grammy nomination, this time as the featured artist on Earth, Wind & Fire's "Show Me the Way," which he also produced and co-wrote.
Between solo projects, Saadiq expanded his side discography with contributions to another round of hit LPs, including titles from Anthony Hamilton, Mary J. Blige, Kelis, and John Legend, as well as Lionel Richie, Joss Stone, and Musiq Soulchild. Saadiq co-starred on Blige's "I Found My Everything," nominated by the Recording Academy for Best Traditional R&B Performance. After he struck a deal with a second major, Columbia, Saadiq returned in September 2008 with The Way I See It. The number 19 Billboard 200 LP was the product of a deepening fascination with the classic R&B of his early childhood, from the construction of the songs to the equipment and recording techniques. Motown legends such as Stevie Wonder, arranger Paul Riser, and percussionist Jack Ashford were on-board. Three more Grammy nominations resulted: Best R&B Album, Best Traditional R&B Performance ("Love That Girl"), and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals ("Never Give You Up").
Supporting work continued apace with Stone, Blige, Ledisi, and Rick Ross the primary beneficiaries of Saadiq's free time. Faster than normal, even with touring and additional creative obligations outside music studios, Saadiq was able to conceive and complete his fourth LP, Stone Rollin', for arrival in March 2011. Retaining some of the same players from his previous session while performing more of the instrumentation -- not just four- and six-string guitars, but Mellotron, clavinet, and some drums as well -- Stone Rollin' was a comparatively immediate and rawer throwback synthesis. On a commercial hot streak despite a willful ignorance of commercial R&B trends, Saadiq found himself in the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 again, achieving his career peak at number 14. The LP's "Trouble Man soul"-styled "Good Man," written with "Show Me the Way" songwriting partner and background vocalist Taura Stinson, was Grammy-nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance.
Over eight years passed between Saadiq's fourth and fifth solo albums. The artist still seemed occupied for the duration, as he surfaced on recordings by collaborators crossing cultures and generations, from Larry Graham, Booker T. Jones, and Elton John to Andra Day, Big K.R.I.T., and Miguel. Most prominently, he was a key factor in Solange's number one 2016 album A Seat at the Table -- the co-writer and co-producer of eight songs, including "Cranes in the Sky," and also credited beside the singer as executive producer. Saadiq and Stinson then worked with Mary J. Blige on the Academy Award-nominated "Mighty River," written and recorded for the 2017 period drama Mudbound. After Justin Timberlake, Ne-Yo, the Midnight Hour (Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad), and John Legend each took a number for his services, Saadiq knocked out a fifth album, Jimmy Lee, in August 2019. The following year, he and composer Laura Karpman collaborated on the score for the television series L.A.'s Finest. Saadiq also produced and sang on the compilation Stand Up for the international advocacy organization Global Citizen.
© Andy Kellman /TiVo