Without overstating the case, singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Raphael Saadiq has had an almost Zelig-like career over the past 30 years. Yet at 51, the peak of that career may have arrived: An Academy Award nomination for Best Song for “Mighty River,” the song he wrote with Mary J. Blige and frequent collaborator Taura Stinson for “Mudbound,” the harrowing Netflix film about a black family in the Jim Crow-era South for which Blige received both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her acting as well as her singing.
It’s a long way from the Oakland native’s first big break, which came as Sheila E’s bassist during tours as an opening act for Prince and Lionel Richie. After that band split, he returned to Oakland and formed the R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone!, which had a string of hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s (remember “Feels Good” and “If I Had No Loot”?). By the time that group split in 1996, Saadiq was already well on his way as a producer, working with D’Angelo (he cowrote two of the singer’s biggest hits, “Lady” and “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”), the Roots, Total and more. In 1999 he formed the group Lucy Pearl with Dawn Robinson from En Vogue and Ali Shaheed Muhammed from A Tribe Called Quest, then released a pair of solo albums; 2002’s “Instant Vintage” was nominated for five Grammy Awards. More production work ensued (over the years he’s worked with Blige, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Andra Day, Miguel, Snoop Dogg, The Isley Brothers, TLC, Whitney Houston, the Bee Gees among many others) until he came back with another pair of solo albums, 2008’s Motown-channeling “The Way I See It” — which he pegs as his favorite — and “Stone Rollin’ in 2011; that same year he led the band that backed Mick Jagger on the Grammy Awards.
Over the past couple of years, he executive-produced Solange’s Grammy-winning critical favorite “A Seat at the Table”; collaborated on hits with Rick Ross and Little Dragon; played bass with A Tribe Called Quest; and has worked extensively in film and TV music: He’s the composer for the HBO series “Insecure,” executive-produced and co-scored the Sundance documentary “Step,” and contributed music to BET’s “Rebel” and the boxing movie “Hands of Stone.”
“I don’t think much about awards,” Saadiq told Variety over the phone from Los Angeles earlier this week. “But I am excited about the Oscars!”
How did “Mighty River” come together? “Mudbound” director Dee Rees told us that she didn’t ask Mary to write a song for the film until very late in the game.
Mary called me and said she was shooting a film and wanted to work with me on a song for the end title, but I had no idea what the film was. When she was done she came to L.A. and she and I and Taura [Stinson, the song’s cowriter] sat down and talked about the movie and started going over ideas. All we had was to look in Mary’s eyes and listen to her tell the story of these two families — she told it very profoundly — and we took it from there.
So you based the song entirely on her description of the film — you hadn’t seen any of it?
She has so much passion when she speaks — and of course when she sings — that it was okay. [“Boyz in the Hood” director] John Singleton is really the one I give credit for getting me into writing songs for films. He asked me to write a song for “Boyz in the Hood” but he never let me see the film! He just gave me a synopsis and I wrote a song called “Just Me and You” — it was really my first solo record but the label made me write that it was a Tony! Toni! Tone! song. But that was my first lesson in having a director tell me what a film was about, and Mary basically played that card for me and Taura.
“Mighty River” and “Jump,” your song from “Step,” sound like they come from a similar place.
Yeah, they do, because they were end-titles for films. Plus, Mary told I couldn’t play the bass a lot on that record.
No, I’m just joking (laughs).
You and Mary have collaborated on just a few songs — “I Found My Everything,” “I Can See in Color” from the film “Precious” — but they’re all so different from each other and you always seem to take her someplace she hasn’t been. What’s special about the relationship?
Mary is such a Yonkers/New York/American/soul-music dream fused with being a hip-hop junkie, and I’m an East Coast hip-hop junkie too, but I also like soul, classical, jazz and gospel. So I think when I work with Mary I pull out some things that maybe some other people aren’t paying attention to. Plus, if you put the right thing in front of Mary she knows exactly where to go — she knows. When you’re in a room with different people, you give a different performance. I’m not a good actor but if Denzel threw me a line, I’d probably give back the line the right way (laughs). Mary knows where I’m from and where she’s from, so she throws it back the right way.
Are you planning to work together again anytime soon?
We always talk about it, but I think I’m gonna make sure it happens. We both get really busy and so many people want to work with her and she tours a lot, but at this point in my career I want to lock Mary down for an album — just me and her.
Going way back, how did you end up playing with Sheila E. and Prince?
What happened was, I auditioned for a guy named Levi Seacer Jr., he was in Sheila’s first band and [most of] that band had quit. Then I got my friends Timothy Riley and Carl Wheeler, and all three of us went on tour. We played with Sheila, and then at Prince’s afterparties we’d hang out with him and play as Prince’s band, because at the time [the Revolution] were on the outs. [A few months later], Levi, Sheila and the keyboardist Boni Boyer joined Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times” band and we went home and formed [Tony! Toni! Tone!]. Prince offered us a record deal but we decided not to go with Paisley Park. We were [in the Sheila/Prince camp] for like two years.
Did you see much of him after that?
Oh yeah. I did a festival with him and Chaka Khan in Copenhagen [in 2011]. I remember I was onstage playing “Stone Rollin’.” The crowd was already having a good time, partying, and I did a spin and the crowd went nuts. I’m thinkin’ “I’m really killin’ it right now!” — and then I look behind me and Prince is onstage, dancing behind me. I was killing it — but I wasn’t killing it that much! (laughter)
How did you end up playing such a big role in Solange’s “A Seat at the Table”?
I gave her a track back in 2008 — we were just talking about writing together — and she came back eight years later. She already had a bundle of music — I added some production, I played on certain things, my nephew Dylan Wiggins played on some of it — and we completed the record. She’s a very great producer and a very forward-thinking person, everybody knows this, but I was telling her that she’s like [‘70s R&B artist] Shuggie Otis, where whether people like you or don’t like you, they still borrow things from you.
Last fall you said you were almost done with your next solo album — where’s it at now?
It’s probably a little further along than I said it was last fall! (laughs) But I’m working to get it done in the next few months, I have a lot of records that I really like but it’s about putting out the right combination of songs. Everything I do has some souful feeling to it, but this one is a little spacey, a little vibey, I kinda go in on the bass a little bit. I like to do period-piece records and then an expressive, fun record and that’s what this record is.
I just make records that I like and, like a book, people will maybe find out about it two or three years from now. I’d rather have people find out about me through a concert or a movie or Solange’s records than being some hot artist — my career has never been like that. I’ll do a Motown-sounding record and then four years later other people are doing it and they’ll get the props for it and I don’t. But that makes me smile – because I just want people to be the best they can be.
Are you shy, or you don’t like the spotlight, or do you just not care about being a star?
I just don’t care, man. I just like being around regular people — I don’t like weird artists and all that. I don’t get caught up in the hype — although I am excited about the Oscars! I never got excited about Grammys or other awards.
I mean, Britney Spears got a Grammy before Steely Dan — that’s weird to me, I don’t really know how to measure that. I respect the Academy but I feel like sometimes it’s not about music, it’s about other things.
Couldn’t you say the same thing about the Oscars that you’re saying about the Grammys?
I think they could be the same but come on, Sidney Poitier has an Oscar. I guess that’s the difference. I don’t see a lot of my idols holding Grammys — Sam and Dave, Sly & the Family Stone, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles… Stevie Wonder does, but there’s so many that I don’t see. Although if I won five of ‘em, I’d be holding them up, smiling, like everyone else!