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Interview with Raphael Saadiq: Running A Marathon

His charming smile, and good looks will you fool, Raphael Saadiq is forty-two years old, and has been making music since the late 80s when he started with Tony! Toni! TonĂ©! Almost thirty years later, eight Grammy nominations, and a list of production credits from the likes of Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, D’Angelo, Q-Tip, Ludacris, The Bee Gees, Joss Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire and many others--many people still don't know his name. That's okay with him, because the way he sees it, he's just running the marathon at his own pace.

Where in the Bay Area are you from?
I grew up in east Oakland, not too far from the coliseum.

What is your favorite type of food?
Mexican food.

If you had to choose one, Mexican food or soul music, what would it be?
I’d choose soul music, rather than listen to mariachi music and eat soul food.

You have had a long career as an artist, and producer, where do you feel like you are now with completing your goals and your future?
It’s looking like I wanted it to, a natural progression for me. The saying goes, “It doesn’t happen in a sprint, it’s a marathon,” and I always looked at it like that. I’m at that stretch where I’m speeding up on everybody. In front, I have created myself over and over again as an artist, which really helped me prepare where I am right now in my career.

Over the years your sound has changed a lot from Toni Tone Toné to Lucy Pearl, to now. Are you in a different place now, are you listening to different music, or have different influences?
I have more freedom to be me and define myself by not being in a group. It’s different thinking for yourself and not having to answer to anybody. I had great times with the groups that I was in, but you still have to alter your thinking to the group. Now, I don’t really have to that.

Even your work from Instant Vintage to The Way I See It is very different, as solo work, where were you going with The Way I See It?
Yeah. It takes a while for you to get to know who you are. After Instant Vintage, I was coming off of Lucy Pearl. I titled the album [The Way I See It] because I finally can see where I need to go. If you listen to Instant Vintage I have songs like “Charlie Ray,” which makes a statement “I see you / and you see me / how serious can this be” and what that was saying was at that point I started seeing my full potential as an artist. At the time I was really talking to myself, telling myself where I need to go to the next level.

I’ve heard you describe The Way I See It as the way I see it “downtown,” would you explain?
Downtown is my vision of Motown. Like being a little boy you want to hang out downtown with the grown folks who are claiming nice things and good clothes. All the things I probably meant or want living at twenty-four or twenty-five in Detroit or Memphis or Harlem. That is my downtown, that’s why I call it downtown sound.

You reference Motown a lot, but what about Stax?
I have always had a lot of Stax records. This album reflects more Motown for most people. When making this album I was reflecting on a lot of things that a lot of black bands really forgot about with the soul of Stax and Motown. They might listen to them, but they don’t use it in their production. A lot of rock bands, a lot of white bands, pay attention to Motown and Stax and I didn’t see myself doing that. So I wanted to make myself a part of it in my own way, and bring it to the future. If you want to be like the greats, you got to borrow from the greats.

In your press release, a lot of your tracks are compared to old 60s Motown groups, do you want to be compared to that?
No, I can’t say I want to be compared to them, though it’s great company to be in. I just want to make music. Most rappers, bass players, guitarists, and drummers love that rhythm section of Motown and Stax records. To be compared is an honor, but I’m just doing me and the best that I can.

How do you feel about contemporary artists that are called “neo-soul?”
[He laughs] I don’t think any of the artists would have anything to do with. I think it was a corporate label to sell records to fans. It's just a name that should probably die and people should make music.

If you get rid of “neo-soul,” would you have a different term you’d prefer?
[He laughs] “Music,” man. Neo-soul means new soul, and I don’t want to have a different soul than Al Green. Call it music. R&B was rock and roll at first, so call it rock and roll. What I’m playing is not neo-soul, it’s more than that. Neo-soul is a sinful word.

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