Rollin’ with Raphael
Multi-instrumentalist Raphael Saadiq on his new album
by Ericka Blount Danois
Like Raphael Saadiq’s acclaimed 2008 album, The Way I See It—a downtown ode to the Motown-Stax-Philly International eras—his latest album due out May 10, Stone Rollin’, conjures up nostalgia, with dust-track roads and sock-hop, bluesy, British soul fusion. Saadiq keeps proving that he is a master of musical reinvention and one of the last pure musicians and great songwriters from the New Jack Swing era operating in commercial music.
“He’s not doing what he was doing—never mind when he first started out—he’s not doing what he was doing on his last album,” notes Gary Harris, industry veteran and musical director for the upcoming Tribe Called Quest documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life.
Not everyone can rock out in homage to Solomon Burke with Mick Jagger and have the Grammy audience in a near raucous church stomp. In that artistic spirit, the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, and vocalist ushers in a new soul invasion with Stone Rollin’—invoking fresh-faced beach boys, church growlers, blues twanging, marching bands, old-school crooning, and legendary bass lines.
Saadiq sings vocals on every track and plays the clavinet, drums, bass, guitar, tambourines, and Mellotron throughout the album. Standouts include “Just Don’t Fall,” with vocals from Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, Saadiq on the Mellotron evoking the Moody Blues, and a gorgeous piano and Minimoog extended solo from former Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn. “When you record with somebody, you figure they’re gonna edit it,” says Dunn. “He was like, ‘No, man, I’m just gonna let you go!’”
Saadiq says Dunn was one of his idols growing up in Oakland in a neighborhood where everybody played an instrument—the thugs, the holy-rollers, and club clappers. “I know all of his solos to the live records—the Gratitude album,” says Saadiq. “All his outfits, I know everything he wore.”
The admiration is mutual: “He reminds me of Maurice [White] back in the day when we were cutting some of the tracks,” says Dunn. “As far as production and arranging and vocals, he’s in a league with Stevie to me. If he had to, he could do every damn thing by himself. But he enjoys working with people with different flavors.”
The most enduring track is the second single, “Good Man,” a song about unrequited love, ghetto angst, and trying to do the right thing by your woman. The video features model Ya Ya Da Costa and actor Chad Coleman (Cutty from The Wire) in a complicated romance where Coleman, barely making ends meet, has a beautiful woman who is prostituting herself for cash. No stranger to good men who have become victims of their circumstances, three of Saadiq’s brothers died tragically, one by an overdose, another by murder, and another committed suicide. His sister died in a car accident. He has tattoos in memoriam to each of them.
In “Good Man,” the hook hovers over melancholy trumpets buoyed by witty lyricism from journalist-turned-rapper/vocalist Taura Stinson: “I’m a good man/Food on the table, working two jobs, ready, willing and able. Check./Good man. Love having fun. Got no kids and I love the Lord. Check./ Good man, I’m monogamous/Never did time….well maybe just once.”
Among the album’s most infectious cuts are: “Go to Hell,” full of reverb with a mix of plaintive moaning, a gospel choir, and muted violins; the tambourine-stomping “Moving Down the Line”; and the Muddy Waters–inspired, harmonica-squeezing, rockabilly title track, “Stone Rollin’.”
Like everything he touches, Saadiq, weaves this album into a gold patchwork quilt of music from nearly every genre and every generation. There are no throwaways on this album. Despite the nostalgic feel of Stone Rollin’, his now trademark David Ruffin–style glasses, and sometimes skinny ties and plaid pants, Saadiq cringes at any “retro” labeling. After all, he’s just making music, he says, as he quotes a soul king: “Like Isaac Hayes says, there’s no such thing as old school. Either you went to school, or you didn’t.”
I saw that EW&F’s keyboardist Larry Dunn is on this album. How did you reach out to him?
I ran into him at the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. I was singing an Earth, Wind & Fire song when they were being brought into the Hall of Fame. All of the writers were there, and we just kind of hooked up, and I said I would love to work with you, get you on my record. And he said, “Man, call me when you get back to L.A.” I called him and I hear from him all the time now.
I read that you said it was more ’60s and ’70s R&B influences, but I thought it had more of a blues-oriented, rock-and-roll feel. You mentioned some of the people that influenced you, like Chuck Berry, but I was wondering about the title track, if that was related to Muddy Waters. I know it’s twisted around, but…
It’s twisted around, but that was definitely in the air. And then, of course, the Rolling Stones. For me, I took the whole Stone Rolling thing and kind of flipped it, because I felt like my whole career, I took chances, from concepts to clothes to music, so “Stone Rolling,” I’m rolling the dice on what I’m doing all the time. My whole career, I’m rolling the dice. In the lyrics, I say, “I’m stone rolling, throwing the dice on the table with you.”
So, you got your first big break on the Parade Tour with Prince?
That was one of my starts. That was probably one of the biggest tours I’ve ever been on. But my start was growing up in Oakland, knowing Sly and the Family Stone were from Oakland and Journey and Tower of Power, and I had all of those things to look up to. My high school teacher was like a Duke Ellington type of character. My jazz teacher went to Grambling, and he was in the marching band, so I had all of those kind of really strong influences in my life as a kid. So by the time I got to the Parade Tour with Sheila E. and Prince, I was pretty much trained by these really strict blues people and this gospel quartet in Oakland that was like the Mighty Clouds of Joy. That was really my upbringing, more than any R&B ever. By the time I got to Prince, I was already playing music that he was influenced by like Sly and Jimi. I did also have that upbringing playing Broadway music—“Satin Doll” and “Take the A Train,” and I was playing bass for Chorus Line.
When I did get to go out on the Parade Tour, I learned how focused they were. Prince’s work ethic is bananas. The leadership, it was just another level of education I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else, to be around somebody that’s a legend like that. I got a chance to be around one of the biggest legends in the world. It’s almost like being around Jimi Hendrix at the peak of his career. I was there. I would hang out with him at the club, and he’d always ask me if there were enough chicks there for me. He’d always have two or three models around me. And we’d listen to music. He was like, “Let’s go listen to ‘Housequake.’” I heard “Housequake” before it came out, and “Sign ‘O’ the Times.”
I was into him because he played guitar. Like, I was into B. B. King, I was into Elvis, Jimi, or anybody who held a guitar. The neighborhood I grew up in, everybody played an instrument. A guy that played with Larry Graham, Wilton Rabb, he’s like a legend in Oakland on guitar. He played with Larry out of high school like I played with Sheila E. out of high school.
How did you first learn to play?
Yeah, I learned guitar first and then guitar was too hard to play, and so I wanted to play what my brother, Dwayne, was playing. My mother bought me my first guitar from the flea market. It was just a cheap five-dollar guitar, and then my dad bought me my first bass, amps, guitar; he bought the big-money stuff. She told him, “Don’t buy it for him, ’cause he’s just gonna tear it up.”
So you learned on your own?
No, I learned from everybody. Dwayne was a huge influence on me. My uncle, Elijah Baker, he had a lot of instruments in my house. And then my neighborhood—it was like MCs in New York and being from Brooklyn or being in Queens. In my neighborhood, everybody played guitar. If you were a thug, you played guitar. You knew Hendrix solos. Everybody was into Hendrix, and everybody was into Ernie Isley’s [playing on the Isley Brothers’] “Voyage to Atlantis.” If you couldn’t play that, you couldn’t really be in a band. I grew up watching that. My brother played guitar, and I thought, if I wanted to be around my brother at all, I should play bass—and I could probably hang out with him and get to play. I got a chance to hang out with older guys—my brother’s band, they needed a bass player—so I decided to learn how to play so I could hang out late at night.
On some of these tracks, you’re playing all the instruments…
I grew up around a lot of kids who play instruments, and we would switch off;, you know, “Let me play yours. You can play mine.” I did that a lot. I liked playing guitar, bass, drums, keys, horn parts, but I also used some of my musicians on the tracks—bass player Calvin Turner, Rob Bacon on guitar, Charles Jones playing keyboard. But then sometimes there’s not anybody when you’re creating, and you want to hear it back really bad, so you just play it so you can hear it back, and then, next thing you know, the song is done.
How did you find some of the guests on the album?
Monet Owens, she’s also from Oakland. She wrote a lot of stuff on the Lucy Pearl album. Robert Randolph—I felt like he fit the record, I’ve been trying to get him on record for maybe six or seven years. After he got here, he could have damn near played on everything that I had.
What do think about mixing and older and futuristic styles, even with the instruments you play, like the Mellotron?
Honestly, I’m just really doing me. I just do it, I don’t think about it. People call it retro, but if you drive a ’67 Cougar, you’re not being retro; it’s just a ’67 Cougar. I’m just making music.