Raphael Saadiq has a different kind of story to tell, and it’s personal

Raphael Saadiq at the Royal Albert Hall in London in December 2019.
Raphael Saadiq at the Royal Albert Hall in London in December 2019.Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Global Citizen

After a conversation with Raphael Saadiq, it’s easy to understand why he’s been one of the most vital and in-demand singer/songwriters and producers in pop music since he emerged as the creative leader of Tony! Toni! Toné! in the late 1980s. He speaks with genuine enthusiasm about his craft and music from all genres while offering revealing stories about his creative process and career. This is a man who clearly loves making music.

The gracious and amiable Saadiq, who plays Big Night Live Saturday, has a hefty resume with five solo records and writing and production work for a who’s who in pop, including John Legend, Solange, and D’Angelo, to accompany his countless collaborations and an Academy Award nomination.


While he is best known as one of the gods of the good groove, his latest album, “Jimmy Lee,” finds him tackling sobering material through a mix of R&B, spoken word, and gospel. The introspective song cycle explores his older brother’s troubled, drug-addicted life and death from a heroin overdose. It’s a change of pace for the 53-year-old Oakland native, but an album he was compelled to make.

“After making records for so long and writing about so many different things, you go back to think about the people who were most important to you, and I thought about Jimmy Lee who really meant a lot to me," Saadiq says by phone recently. “I realized his struggles weren’t just his struggle. I knew a lot of people he was hanging with were going through the same things. Addiction affects so many families and is a global issue.”

The musically diverse songs are born out of pain as they look at the complexity of drug addiction, its collateral damage, and the social issues surrounding its causes and consequences. “When I was younger, I never really thought about what he was going through,” says Saadiq, who is the second-youngest of 14 siblings. “We were just brothers while he was living. He didn’t talk about it, and his life was so different than my life. I have a different perspective on it now. I think everyone knows someone like him, but I haven’t heard it in records.


“You might hear it in a Bobby Womack record or a Bob Dylan or Neil Young," he clarifies. "You have to search for it, though. I know a lot of people have written about drug abuse, but you don’t hear it so plain and simple. I wanted to make a record where people could enjoy the music and composition — the rhythm, beats, and chord structures but also hear the story. A story that everybody can relate to.”

Saadiq is quite aware of the wave of deaths of young musicians who have succumbed drug overdoses in recent years. He says he’s troubled by what he sees but is empathetic. “I grew up with so many rock players who were doing drugs and alcohol. I think sometimes they think one thing goes with the other,” he maintains. “I’m never judgmental. The question is how do you do it without getting so high and out there. You can get a little high, but you always have to remember drugs are designed to make you come back.”

After he tours behind “Jimmy Lee,” Saadiq says he intends to release a backlog of music and new things he’s working on through a series of EPs in the coming years. As with all his records, they will be filled with collaborations with artists across the music spectrum. “I like working with people whose musical caliber is closer to mine,” he says without a trace of hubris. “It may not be the same style. but there’s integrity in what they do. I feel like we’re all from the same tree, but just on different branches.”


A discursive conversationalist, Saadiq contemplates the diversity of the music he’s been working on and his continued passion for his art. “I enjoy music a lot. I like it so much, it’s crazy. I can walk down the street and hear a band in a garage, and I will just sit on the porch of their house and play. They won’t even know I’m there. I love everything about music. Love chord progressions, love strings, love brass instruments, old jazz. I like classic rock, ‘70s rock, Queen, Journey, Steve Perry, Latino, Sam Cooke, mariachi, ah man,” he pauses with a laugh.

“I can go on and on. That’s the problem for me, I’m more like a chameleon. If I hear something, my first thought is maybe I can take a bit from it and see how clever I can be. I just absorb. It’s like a game to me.”

He adds that he’s proud of his wildly influential work with Tony! Toni! Toné!, which still sounds relevant. “We were listening to the greats like Earth Wind & Fire, Ernie Isley and the Isleys, Tower of Power — that horn section was very important to us. We loved gospel. I was really into the Hawkins Family. We were just following all those people, so it doesn’t surprise me that our music stands the test of time. I wanted it to be like if those people heard our music, they’d give us the head nod and think, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ There were very high standards for us.”


A musician’s musician, Saadiq thinks about the secret to his success and breaks it down simply. “Here’s the key. I’ve always remained a fan, and I never look down on anybody.

"Look at something like trap. I might not bring it in my house and play it, but I respect it. They’re doing their thing. You have to believe in what you do and commit to it. It’s really not that big a mystery.”


With Jamila Woods. At Big Night Live, Feb. 15 at 6 p.m., Tickets $37.50, www.bignightlive.com