Tony! Toni! Toné! founder D’Wayne Wiggins speaks in depth about their 1990 smash album The Revival
At the beginning of the 1990s, D’Wayne Wiggins, Raphael Saadiq, and Timothy Christian Riley—collectively known as Tony! Toni! Toné!—had spent years together honing their skills as musicians in Oakland, California, by performing in various bands and touring with legendary artists. After signing a record deal with Wing Records, they released their debut album, Who?, in 1988. The trio received assistance from then hit producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, and the album achieved gold-selling status. For their sophomore effort, they decided to helm the majority of the producing duties. As a result, this album would set in motion a string of hit recordings for the trio through the middle of the decade. On May 8, 1990, The Revival was released by Wing/Mercury Records, and it became their first multiplatinum success. The album spawned five singles: “The Blues,” “Oakland Stroke,” “Feels Good,” “It Never Rains in Southern California,” and “Whatever You Want.” For the album’s twenty-fifth anniversary, we spoke with group founder D’Wayne Wiggins about crafting this classic album.
What is the story behind the forming of the group?
D’Wayne Wiggins: The group started in 1986. The group started out just being a family thing, you know. It was a family hobby thing that we did around the house. All of us had different groups that we were in. I’m the oldest brother. I had a group that was pretty solid in Oakland. My brother Ray [Raphael Saadiq] and my cousin Tim [Christian] were always able to come to the rehearsals to see how stuff was getting done. We started doing our thing at home just by jamming with each other. Raphael and Tim had a band that was doing some stuff in Oakland. From the clubs that my group would perform in, everyone looked at us like we were the group they wanted to be like. We were the Earth, Wind & Fire of Oakland. [laughs] We were called Alpha Omega. Once I decided I wanted to start jamming with my brother and cousin, it was something that came together naturally because it was what we used to do at home while looking at videos on MTV or on a local TV station that was popular called Soul Beat. Soul Beat was an early version of what BET would become later on. It was only shown in the San Francisco/Oakland/Bay Area. The show broke a lot of artists groups including MC Hammer, En Vogue, and Too Short. All of us came through that system.
From all the jamming we did together, we had an opportunity to go on the road and tour with some major acts. Raphael and Tim and other people from my band like Carl Wheeler were playing with Sheila E. I was able to introduce them to Sheila through a good friend of mine named Levi Seacer. He was a great guitarist from Richmond, California, and he was the musical director for Sheila E. He told me one day, “Hey, man. She needs a bass player. She needs someone who can move with the bass, sing a little bit, and dance, too.” I replied, “Well, my little brother can.” He was eighteen or nineteen back then. Levi asked, “Can he really play?” I said, “Hell yeah! He can play.” So I took him to the tryouts, and he made it. They called and said that they needed a drummer too. So, Tim came and he made it as well. This was long before we started the group Tony! Toni! Toné!
After coming up through Sheila, I was out on the road with a gospel artist named Tramaine Hawkins, and that gig ended well. When we got off of the road with each other, we realized that all of the stuff we were doing together at home, and if we really focused on our craft, we could make this thing go. Our name for the group, Tony! Toni! Toné! was a nickname that we had for how we used to get dressed to go out partying. When we used to put on our clothes and get fly, we would say, “Yeah. Tony! Toni! Toné!” The name, originally, came from a cap session on a roommate of mine. We came up with that name by calling him that as a joke. Later on, we made it the name of our group. This is how it all came together. We played at a wedding for our aunt’s supervisor. He had something going on in Los Angeles. He heard us rehearse one day, and he asked us if we could play. We told him we weren’t really a band; we were family, then somebody in the crowd asked us for our band name, and we said Tony! Toni! Toné! as a joke. And here we are today. [laughs]
How did your group secure its record deal with Wing/Mercury Records?
See, you went back right there with Wing/Mercury. That’s the truth right there. It was a powerful, little indie that was a subsidiary through Polygram Records. The label was put together by Ed Eckstine. Ed Eckstine is the son of Billy Eckstine, the famous jazz musician. He was interested in signing a band, but bands weren’t really hot back then. The rap and hip-hop scene was going down. But then again, Club Nouveau came out, and they were from the Bay Area. So when he decided that he was going to sign a band, we had to send some music down to Wing and some other independent labels. Before we signed a deal with Wing, we were signed to another independent label called Macola Records. NWA was releasing music through Macola Records back then. Eazy-E and all of them. We were approached by Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster. They produced “Rumors” for Timex Social Club. After the success of that record, they started doing production outside of that group. They formed Club Nouveau with Jay King. So they were known as being hot producers. They needed a group to produce, and strangely enough, they went to Wing Records and told them they were going to produce this new group, Toni! Tony! Toné! Well, Ed Eckstine already knew about us and those guys as producers, so he thought the marriage would be great. It was a great marriage because all of us were friends anyways. This is initially how we got our record deal. Record deals, back then, we were more producer driven. We were a self-contained band. We had our show together long before we got a record deal. We performed our songs onstage doing cartwheels and splits and everything else. [laughs] We were a very entertaining band, and not many bands back then were doing that type of stuff. We just brought everything we had to the table and it really worked for us. Wing Records did a great job of building the brand for Tony! Toni! Toné!
When did you first meet Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy?
Well, we grew up together. I didn’t know Denny as much, but Tommy used to ball with my brother Desmond. He passed away right before our first album was released. This is why we led with the song “Little Walter” to deliver a message. Nevertheless, Tommy was in one of the hottest groups around in Oakland, and we came together because he knew my group Alpha Omega. We had big, stupid horns and percussion all the way around. We had a big band. This is how we hooked up. Our manager was named Carlos Stansfield, and he made sure everything was tied up. The next thing I know, we had a record deal. Many people would look back and say we had the worst record deal in America, and it may have been, but to us, we wanted to make music. Although, we probably got every bit of $6000 each from it. The first tour we did was with Earth, Wind & Fire, then we were on the road for a month or two with NWA. The label noticed that every city that we left we were selling units. Every time we left a city, we were moving five thousand units. This is when the label really started paying attention to us.
Can you describe the music scene in Oakland during that time period?
We looked up to groups like Sly and the Family Stone, Grand Central Station, Con Funk Shun, the Ohio Players, Tower of Power, Santana, and Journey. There were a lot of groups from the Bay Area. There were a ton of musicians and bands from Oakland. We had backyard jam sessions and backyard boogies. I started playing music in clubs at thirteen years old, so I really learned how to put together a show and how to entertain. There were a lot of rappers coming on board, too. There was a strong rap scene. We played music by ear because we didn’t know how to read music, and we learned from the streets of Oakland and the church scene. All of us had a gospel foundation. Raphael, Tim, and Carl Wheeler had more of the real Baptist church sound with them. It’s where we really honed our skills as musicians.
After your group released its debut album, Who? in 1988, what was the group’s musical approach and thought process coming into your follow-up record, The Revival, two years later?
Even to this day, we don’t feel like we’ve reached our full potential because we’ve never considered ourselves one of those technically sound groups. We just let the feeling come when it comes to our music. Some of our biggest songs are songs we didn’t like at first, like “Feels Good.” I remember when we went into the studio to start on that album. We worked out of the Record Plant Studios. This is the place where Rick James, Sly Stone, and all those legends created their music. So, this place had ghosts and energy. Hits just came out of there. We would be in studios with people who were laying out tracks for Whitney Houston. We came to the studio unprepared because we weren’t producers. We had just been introduced to drum machines, and that drum machine was the SP-1200. That drum machine ended up changing our lives, along with the Wurlitzer. Using instruments like the Wurlitzer and SP-1200 drum machine the way we used them, and especially the guitar, gave us our sonic structure. This is what they call the neo-soul sound. We didn’t know that. We didn’t call ourselves neo-soul. We just called it soul, real soul.
We went to the studio, and we really didn’t have any of that stuff. The studio happened to have a half-million dollar system called the Synclavier. Stevie Wonder was one of the few huge artists who used it. This was a huge computer that looked like a piano. It had all these different sounds in it. It did everything that an Apple computer can do today, but back then, it cost a half-million dollars. It was the first thing that we recorded on. We broke it in. We pulled out banjos and all types of stuff, but we didn’t know what we wanted to record. I remember we were at Quarter Pounder, a burger spot in Oakland, and we were on our way to the studio. Raphael said, “We need something bluesy because we have a Blues base, and that’s where we’re from.” The first song we came up with was “The Blues.” This was the first track. We went with that bass line and put the beat behind it and put down the blues guitar. The sound of that guitar gave us the direction for this album. We never considered ourselves a New Jack Swing group, although we were a part of that family. We’ve always considered ourselves a blues/soul group. Blues is our base.
You mentioned your group’s usage of the SP-1200 earlier. What were some of the other instruments you used in creating the music for this album?
We used the Maestro which was the rhythm machine. It was a big box that had these pre-programmed drum sounds like one of those old church piano type of organs that had the beats already inside of them. We also used the Wurlitzer. It gave us a really unique sound with our music. I played on a vintage 1974 Fender Coronado. If you ask most guitar players, they would ask, “Why are you playing on that piece of shit?” [laughs] My reply would be, “Because it has made me a few million.” To me, it’s all about the person playing it. The guitars that we’ve used are wide-body guitars. That Fender Coronado has been my savior. It has been one of the instruments that has given us another flavor.
Take me through the group’s songwriting techniques and collaboration process during the making of this album.
All of us have our certain styles and things that we’re craftier at. For example, Tim [Christian] is a damn genius behind the piano, even though he plays drums. He’s even better on the piano. He went to the studio and created all of the music for “It Never Rains in Southern California.” We came in and laid things over the top. When the three of us got into the studio, we were able to come up with magic. Our songwriting process usually began with playing the guitar. After the guitar, we’d figure out drums and then fill in with the keyboards. Then we started thinking about the lyrics. There were certain lyrics that we wanted to say and there were some that we didn’t want to put in our music because it showed that your vocabulary was weak, you couldn’t think outside the box, or you hadn’t experienced much in life. Generally, everything began with the guitar, though.
How did Vanessa Williams get involved on your group’s song, “Oakland Stroke?”
When we first signed with Wing Records, there were only four artists there: Tony! Toni! Toné!, Brian McKnight, Vanessa Williams, and a group named Lace. Vanessa Williams was making it big with her big ballad song. Ed [Eckstine] said, “You guys need to get Vanessa Williams on that “Oakland Stroke” song.” We were like, “Yeah. That’ll be cool.” So – we were in the studio, and we knew how beautiful she was in the pictures we saw, but it was so cool when we met her because she was so down-to-earth and very talented. She came through to the studio, and we had her saying “Uh, huh. Oakland, California.” And all of that stuff on the record. We were at our spot getting the vocals done, but we didn’t have a vocal booth, so we turned the closet into a vocal booth. So she had to go into the closet, and I was sitting behind this big twenty-four track analog board. The closet was behind us, and Ray comes up and asks me, “Is she in there?” I replied, “Yep.” He said, “We got Vanessa Williams in the closet. Whoa!” [laughs] We had a lot of fun recording this song. She laid down some great vocals for us. The song ended up on the album, and she came back to East Oakland to shoot the video with us. The worst part was I had to go shopping with Vanessa and watch her try on bathing suits to see which one was the right one. It was a terrible job. [laughs]
Were there any other special recording techniques you used for this album?
When I laid down my vocals, I used to slow down the two-inch tape and then do all of my backgrounds. Then I would speed it up. When I sped it up, it would thin the vocals out and give them a higher pressure, so they wouldn’t cut. Those were for my backgrounds. So that’s an example of one of the tricks we used. Our vocals would be piercing right up in the front. We learned certain tricks about our voices that we kept in everything we did. There were certain programs that we used on outboard gear like the Lexicon 480L. We used this thing called barber’s pole on our backgrounds. It was something you could feel.
Let’s go in depth on the other singles that were released from this album.
“Feels Good” came together in a studio called J-Jam. The unique thing about J-Jam studio was it was a full blown twenty-four track studio in a house in Oakland that most musicians recorded in. Hammer, En Vogue, and Digital Underground used to cut tracks there. The studio was run by the engineer who played keyboards too. He was blind, but he ran the whole studio. The song started in the studio with the drum machine. It started out one way, but once we got that DJ, in-the-club feel, the song took on an entirely different character. That is what gave us that whole blues/hip-hop crossover sound. The way it started out was like shout music. When we changed it up, it had that blues, hip-hop, and gospel in there. When we were recording this in the studio, we couldn’t come up with any words. Ray kept saying, “It feels good.” We were on the road touring with Salt-N-Pepa and Kid ’N Play. We were inspired by how they would rock the stage. We wanted the song to feel like a party song, so we decided “Feels Good” would become a chant.
On “It Never Rains in Southern California,” whenever we were on the East Coast, it was always cold. We would be in our Isley Brothers gear. [laughs] We would have our fur coats on. Our lawyers were located in L.A. This one particular lawyer, whenever we would show up to meet with him, we would come in the room with our big furs on and all of that. Before we could sit down, he would say, “Why do you have those furs on? Don’t y’all know it never rains in Southern California?” He would always say that. [laughs] This time I wrote it down. We had what we called a hook book. Any little sayings or anything we would write it in there, for when we would go into the studio, we could go back to it to see what ideas we had. The title for the song came from that. It took a while for us to put the song together. One night, Tim was at The Record Plant in Sausalito, California, and did all of the music for everything. He came back real, real late. He said, “I left this track up. It sounds pretty cool.” Ray called me and said, “Hey, man. Tim did this song so dope. The structure of it and everything. You know that hook…it never rains in southern California.” I replied, “Yeah.” Ray said, “I’m singing it to this and it goes.” That is how this song came together. Lyrically, we were a little bit all over the place with it. We were saying things that would flatter a woman. The video for this song was produced by Lisa Bonet. She felt the song. She said, “It doesn’t matter what the weather is like. When you’re with the right one, it ain’t raining.” We were like, “Yeah. That is what it is. It never rains in southern California because that’s where your girl is. It may be raining like hell, but I’m holding onto her and she is my sunshine.”
“Whatever You Want” was written on a very popular street here in Oakland called Seminary. You didn’t want to be caught on Seminary. [laughs] We wrote this song in the attic of Carl Wheeler’s house off Seminary on a four track. It wasn’t called “Whatever You Want” at that time. It was called “Impress Her.” When I got to the studio to lay my vocals down, I forgot the words, and I kept on saying, “Whatever you want. Whatever you need.” I said to myself there’s the hook right there. I had a real cool relationship with a young lady that helped me finish writing that last verse. Some of it was taken from a letter that she wrote to me. The first verse is pretty much how I came with it.
As you look back twenty-five years later, how do you feel about the album’s impact on popular culture? It’s one of those albums that people haven’t forgotten about because the music is timeless.
Well, we’ve always tried to write music that was timeless. When you’re performing, people get bored sometimes with the music. We wanted to make sure we never got bored with the music and what we were doing. Every time we perform, it feels like the first time. I always have a great time onstage. It feels like a house party. It’s hard for me to call it a concert. This is the score to our lives.
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