a long talk

‘I Was Good by Myself. I’m Better With the Guys.’

Raphael Saadiq wasn’t sure a Tony! Toni! Tone! reunion would happen.

Photo: David “Odiwams” Wright
Photo: David “Odiwams” Wright

Inside Raphael Saadiq’s sprawling North Hollywood compound, you’ll find a bit of Oakland everywhere: An Athletics street sign resting on a bookshelf above a recording studio; a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon with vanity plates dedicated to Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton parked nearby; and, just across the way, all three Bay Area–bred members of Tony! Toni! Toné! rehearsing together for the first time in decades.

“We definitely gonna do an album after this tour,” Saadiq tells me during a short break. “We’re working on it as we speak, in all these rooms.”

Founded in 1986 by Saadiq, his brother D’Wayne Wiggins, and cousin Timothy Christian Riley, the Tonyies (Saadiq’s preferred spelling) were one of the last vestiges of an older era of R&B. Across four albums, the trio blended gospel, ’60s soul, ’70s funk, and ’80s New Jack Swing into a kaleidoscope of infectious slow jams (“Whatever You Want,” “Anniversary”), rubbery dance records (“Feels Good”), and slick homages to past eras (“Thinking of You,” “Little Walter,” “Let’s Get Down”), achieving critical and commercial success along the way. But by 1997 the group had splintered, with Saadiq off to pursue his own career. He quickly found success as a producer and writer, crafting hits with D’Angelo, Total, TLC, Whitney Houston, Erykah Badu, Solange, Jill Scott, and Mary J. Blige while occasionally releasing his own acclaimed solo work. Yet the Tonyies endured: D’Wayne and Tim kept touring under the name, and the band’s songs were interpolated by newer generations of artists.

Over the years, Saadiq would occasionally give fans a few bread crumbs about an actual Tony! reunion, but it never materialized. That changed this June, when they finally announced a 25-date fall tour, the first with all three original members since 1997. “I just felt it was time to get together where we still can play at the level we had when we were first starting,” says Saadiq during a sprawling conversation about the group and his four decades as a decorated writer, producer, and session player. “Now new people get to rediscover us.”

There have been false starts and teases of a proper Tony! reunion for years. What made now the perfect time to do it?
For a long time I said I wouldn’t. Then I lost my dad five years ago, and my father was always asking me about it. We have nieces and nephews who’ve never really seen us play. And I don’t feel like making another solo record right now. I’d actually been approaching the guys for maybe four or five years to hang out. I was getting everybody’s temperature. Being back together, it felt like the energy was right. I was good by myself, and they did okay on their own, but I’m better with the guys.

The three of you haven’t performed together in over 25 years. Has anything changed in the group’s dynamic? 
The camaraderie is still amazing. I wasn’t surprised by what we would sound like. One of the reasons I wanted to do this was so we can all get in the room together and just look at each other — we were in shock, we were smiling, we were talking trash. Like, Tim is overplaying something on keyboards, and we go, “That’s not on the record.” He’s like, “Yes, it is.” He knows it’s not on the record. But that’s Tim.

There’s a lot of focus on this tour about letting people know where we came from. Now we’re able to bring all that energy that we had from back in the day. It’s hard to even speak to it, because you don’t know the feeling until you in it. I’ve become a fan of what we do in a different way. Like Phil Jackson once telling Kobe to slow down and “let the game come to you,” I feel like now we’re slower and there’s a level of class to this show. We know we don’t have to rush it.

I assume the three of you have been fielding calls for years from promoters to reunite. 
I don’t know that we ever got asked, I guess because the Tonyies were always touring without me. I think when promoters look at that, they’re sort of happy because they can get them for less. To be honest, I left ’cause I wanted a different trajectory for my career. If I stayed, I would have been locked into one thing. I never wanted to do one thing in the business. I didn’t want to get stuck in a group. I also never liked the way Black groups were promoted. I never spoke on it before, but I feel like a lot of promoters don’t give groups the proper production; they give the bare minimum. You can see a 7-Eleven behind a group ’cause there’s no backdrop. Only a couple from our era, New Edition, Keith Sweat, get their due. Some from that era don’t.

D’Wayne and Tim continued touring under the group name after you left. They even recorded a feature under the Tony! moniker (Alicia Keys’s “Diary”) without you. How did you feel about that?
I didn’t judge Tim and D’Wayne. They had to do what they had to do. I never looked down on it. I mean, I knew it wasn’t at the level, because the three of us were still growing. We could have been doing arenas like Frankie Beverly and Maze. But “Diary” was great. I loved it. Clive wanted us to get together to do it, but I was like, “I’m not getting together for Clive if we can’t get together ourselves.” I wanted to do other things. I ended up producing for Lucy Pearl, Total, and Solo, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s R&B group. I didn’t sit down and say, “I want to be a producer,” but that’s what was next.

And yet the group continued to live on in pop culture. You were referenced in both Rick and Morty and the movie Popstar
Andy Samberg didn’t reach out initially, we just saw it. People were hitting me, telling me about it. I love Andy and Tim Meadows. And then of course we were all over Rick and Morty. It’s good to know that the name carries the brand. The other reference I love is when Biggie said, “Make me feel good like Tony! Toni! Toné!” People like hearing “Tony” three times. It was always pretty crazy to say it three times! It started as a joke, and then we started taking it seriously.

I didn’t even know if we was going to make it at first. I just knew I was good enough to play for somebody. I was working at UPS. I called my father and said, “Man, I just got this offer to play for this indie band, but I can’t tell Mom that I’m quitting.” He said, “Well, just go play for the band, but don’t tell her. If you ever need a little money, I got you.” Three years later, we became the Tonyies and had a record out and was on Arsenio Hall. And my mother saw me on TV singing. That’s when she found out I quit. It was the only way I could tell her. I don’t think it was real to my mom until she heard people talking about us. She didn’t know Clive Davis or anything like that. She just knew Oakland was rough and asked, “What is it going to be for you?”

What were those early Oakland shows like?
We were playing at the Lucky Lion. All the best bands went to the Lucky Lion. It was like First Avenue in Minneapolis, but smaller. You didn’t make no money. We went up to different schools and put flyers on people’s cars.

And a few years later, the three of you were on the Straight Outta Compton tour with N.W.A.
That was our biggest tour to date at the time. The cops were all lined up ready to go if somebody got out of line. We were staying at motels. I hung out with Ice Cube a lot. He said, “You know what? I’m going to do movies one day.” We were coming on in the middle of the show, which made it terrible because we needed a set change. I remember Salt-N-Pepa didn’t want us to be there. They wasn’t being mean, they just didn’t like that the set change was taking so long. Some nights we would kill it, and most nights N.W.A would kill it. It was always a battle with the groups. We was all just a bunch of kids out there: J.J. Fad, Candyman, MC Hammer, Salt-N-Pepa, Kwamé, all on the same bill. Everybody had water guns. Everybody was at the Waffle House. Everybody was eating pizza after the show. We were the only band, which didn’t make sense to some folks on the tour. But we were there because we had hot records and we could put asses in the seats. I also think they needed somebody to get better insurance for the shows. If it was all rappers, the insurance would’ve been out the sky.

Whatever You Want: Tim Riley, Raphael Saadiq, and D’Wayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Toné!, 1991. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

You’re prepping a lot of songs for the Tony! tour. But I have to assume certain tracks won’t be played, like “261.5,” which is about someone getting caught sleeping with a 15-year-old girl. Do you have regrets about that song?
No. But the other day when we started rehearsing, somebody said something about “261.5” on the ’gram. I looked at D’Wayne like … [makes an exasperated face]. We’re definitely not singing that song on tour. D’Wayne came up with that idea originally because he knew this girl whose mother or auntie was a lawyer, and she told him the penal code for sleeping with a minor was 261.5. And for some reason he thought it was clever to make a song for that. Things you said back then you couldn’t get away with today.

Do you think it’s the same for the hook on “My Ex-Girlfriend”?
Again, that’s D’Wayne! He came to the studio and said, “I got this hook.” And I was like, “I don’t know, man.” But it sounded good. The crazy thing, when we performed it, the girls were singing louder than everybody.

You left Tony! in the mid-’90s. What was it like going from being a front man to mostly behind the scenes?
I never really wanted to sing. I only wanted to play bass. My brother liked singing and being out front. I just think I was marketable — I had a high tenor voice, the label and producers liked that. I sung a couple records and they were like, “You got to sing more songs.” I knew what it took to be a lead singer, because I played behind a lot of great ones — in school, in different churches, in quartet groups. So I just mimicked everybody that I liked. But it’s hard work to be a front man, to know exactly what you want. I think I put “point guard” under my promo picture for House of Music — and Tim didn’t know why I did it, so he just put under his picture “race car driver.” But I’ve always seen myself as that. I don’t always have to be with the ball, I want to be a person that can actually dish it off to somebody: Here’s something that could help you. I was like that with D’Angelo. Same with Solange. I could also be like, Clear the floor, I got this. Move.

One of the first big songs you ever worked on as a producer was D’Angelo’s 1995 track “Lady.” How did that come together?
I had written it for the Tonyies. But nobody really liked it. So D and I hooked up and I played it for him on the guitar. Then after that, I mean, D don’t need no producing. You can throw it in the air and he’s going to jump out and get it. He’s Randy Moss. That’s how we worked. It wasn’t even work, really. It was all fun. D started playing keyboards on it, then Tim played piano on it. I walked out while D was singing, and when I walked back in, I was like, Damn!

Was it a similar feeling when you two did “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”?
Definitely. I came to New York to do something with D, and in regular D fashion, he was late. I had other business I had to take care of, so I went back to L.A. His manager was like, “That’s wrong that you left.” I was like, Whatever. I came back a couple months later, not for D, and I was walking around the Village and I wanted a joint. I was with this girl. So let me just knock on D’s door. He’s like, “Let’s do something!”

Wait, the genesis of “Untitled” is “I need a joint, let’s make this record”?
He was at Electric Lady, and I’m like, “Nigga, you got a joint?” Being disrespectful. And he goes, “Yeah, I got a damn joint.” Then we go downstairs, we do “Untitled” in maybe two hours, then I just walk out. And then the next thing, I see the video. That’s how it happened, it wasn’t scheduled.

After the music video for the song dropped, it completely changed fans’ perception of D’Angelo. He became a sex symbol, which he did not adapt to well. Did you two ever talk about that?
Yeah. It’s the fame game. You run with the football, somebody going to hit you. For “Untitled,” somebody said to me, “You know that song only hit because he was naked.” And I said, “Trust me, he couldn’t have been naked with a wack song.” Maxwell had something similar — a joint in the bathtub with a rubber duckie for “Luxury:Cococure” — but the song wasn’t that hot, didn’t work.

The same thing that happened to “Untitled” could have happened for Tony! on “Pillow.” Everybody in the video is pretty much naked.
But D’s was just way more him! Ours wasn’t us; we had doubles on most of it. Leon Ware told me it’s all timing with music, and how much you’re willing to … I don’t want to say sacrifice, because I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing when I’m sitting at a piano, or playing guitar or bass. It’s what I’m here to do. Also, when you work with people who put in the same time that you want to put into it, it just works out. It’s like being an athlete. You have to have your mind conditioned — your spirit’s got to be right. People think I could write a good song every day. I write a lot of trash. Out of two good songs, it’s probably about 15 not-so-good joints.

“Untitled” was originally written as a tribute to Prince, who you were lucky enough to tour with at the start of your career, during the Parade Tour. Did he ever tell you what he thought of the track? 
He loved that song so much.

What was it like being on the road with him? 
I had auditioned for Sheila E. I went with some 501s on, some Nike Cortez, a Detroit baseball cap, and a windbreaker. ​​That was basically it. And there was people outside in the line practicing dance steps to “A Love Bizarre.” I was nervous, but I knew the music. I was a fan. Sheila was definitely a legend already, the Escovedos were legendary people in our town. When I got the job, I had full makeup onstage, liquid eyeliner on the bottom of my eyes, liquid eyeliner on the top of my eyes, eye shadow, blush, the blouses, the shoes, the black hat from Cherry Moon with the rhinestones around it. That was my gear. You had to wear it. It was mandatory. The tour had the biggest sound system and lights I’ve ever seen — amps as tall as me, paisley all over the stage. I had cars picking me up. And there’s models everywhere — nothing but 12s walking up to me in the club. Prince is introducing me. He’s asking if I’m okay, if there’s enough girls here. And I got a chance to see him go from having ladies pretty much naked on the stage to later on asking them to go put on some clothes. It was really beautiful to see somebody evolve from this little devil to this Jesus guy.

That feels like the greatest introduction to the music business ever.
A lot of my studies are from watching Prince. That’s something I could have never paid for. I basically shadowed him when he didn’t even know it. Once I was singing “Erotic City” with Sheila on tour in Tokyo, and Prince said, “Somebody has a wonderful voice” over the mic. The next time he paid me a compliment was when he heard “Stone Rollin’,” in 2011. He told me, “I was up watching Jay Leno, and you came on. I recorded it! I was looking at the TV saying, ‘Ray Ray, you done snuck one on me.’” I also opened up one of his shows in Copenhagen that same year. I’m singing and the crowd was just going nuts. And I was going to myself like, I’m really killing it! But then I looked behind me, Prince was dancing on the stage. So it wasn’t really me that amped the crowd up.

Clockwise from left: Saadiq with Quincy Jones, Mick Jagger, and supergroup Lucy Pearl (with Dawn Robinson and Ali Shaheed Muhammad). Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty ImagesPhoto: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagicPhoto: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
From top: Saadiq with Quincy Jones, Mick Jagger, and supergroup Lucy Pearl (with Dawn Robinson and Ali Shaheed Muhammad). Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty I... From top: Saadiq with Quincy Jones, Mick Jagger, and supergroup Lucy Pearl (with Dawn Robinson and Ali Shaheed Muhammad). Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty ImagesPhoto: Raymond Boyd/Getty ImagesPhoto: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Speaking of compliments, Michael Jackson loved how you spoke about Off the Wall. Did y’all ever talk about recording something?
We did, and it was funny when he called. It was like, “Michael wants to talk to you.” And I’m like, “Michael who?” I had met him before. So we just got on the phone, and he said, “I never hear no one talk about Off the Wall like you, about the sequence of the record. That was the hardest thing for me to do, to sequence that record.” We definitely would’ve ended up working together. I would’ve loved to.

Was there a record you ever recorded with someone you wish got more love?
I did this song with Solo, called “Touch Me.” That was pretty much the only one. Other than that, once it’s out of my hands, it’s out of my hands.

We’re mostly talking about your work in the ‘90s, but you’ve notched some culture-shifting songs recently, including Beyoncé’s “Cuff It.” Have you seen what the energy is like when people hear it in public?
I haven’t been to the Renaissance Tour, but I have seen the challenges online. That record was going to be a Tonyies record, the part that just sounds like [mimics the “Cuff It” guitar riff]. But I gave it to a friend of mine and said, “I got this record. I was going to do it, but what about Beyoncé?” She’s one of those people where if she’s feeling it, she’s going 100 percent in. I said, “It’s going to move people. It’s going to work, I’m telling you.” I think she just put it away. From what I heard, The-Dream eventually found it. And he was like, “What is that?!” I already knew it was one of them joints. I always said, if you drop the right music on an artist, it could go, but I’m glad she has so many eyeballs on her, you know what I mean? You can’t really trick people, it’s got to be good.

You’re also one of the few producers who’ve written and produced with both Knowles sisters, having worked on Solange’s A Seat at the Table.
Beyoncé’s a hard worker. I told her, “I’ve always knew we would work together at some point.” Like I said, it’s all about timing. What I know about Solange is, she knows exactly what she wants. It was amazing to see it with A Seat at the Table. I was working with her, but I was watching how she thinks. When it came out, people just kept geekin’ and telling me about it. If I’m at home watching Solange sing “Cranes in the Sky,” or I’m at dinner or some little club, and it comes on and I see a ton of girls singing it and they don’t even know I had anything to do with it. That feeling is just indescribable to me.

Do you think Lucy Pearl, your group with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Dawn Robinson, was a timing situation too? That this is where you needed to be at this moment in your career?
Everybody had this idea about supergroups. In the beginning, it was just going to be me, Q-Tip, and D’Angelo in a group called Lynwood Rose. And everybody was pretty much busy doing their own thing. So I was like, “I should do it with Ali.” And we said, “We should get us a girl.” Then we thought of Dawn. The record was just coming together, I call a friend of mine to help write Dawn’s parts. And I just rolled it out. I just had my own label at the time, which ended up being a fucking disaster because of … I was working with Allen Kovac, which was not the best, you can say that. But as far as marketing and promo, he was really good at that. And we made a great album, the fans loved it, and we had fun. It was beautiful to watch. Everybody shifted and grew. But I don’t know what happened too much with Dawn, I hope she’s okay. I wish I could do another Lucy Pearl record with her, but it’s not even possible given how we aren’t even in touch anymore.

Me and Ali had a great friendship — we still do — because of that record. And he started playing bass because he was hanging out with me; now he’s an amazing bass player. So a lot came out of it. And like I said, I love Tribe. I always brag about how on Midnight Marauders, I’m the only R&B cat on that album. Ain’t another R&B cat on that.

Let’s talk about your solo work. You found early success with 1995’s “Ask of You,” which hit No. 2 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. Yet it took another seven years for you to drop your own album, 2002’s Instant Vintage. Why was that?
I was just enjoying the little money that I had. And I’m a fan of artists. Anything that’s going to keep me playing music, I don’t want to be tainted by being an artist. It’s all negative. He’s the artist. He’s never on time. Oh, they don’t know what they want. I had to defy the odds. I was like, “Bullshit, I know exactly what I want and I’m on time.” I had to go do something where people could see me in a different light. I just wanted to prove I could show up.

You’ve been in the music industry now for decades. Were you ever scornful about what you witnessed?
Definitely. It’s an ongoing joke with me that every time I was at a label, the president always got fired and I would be inherited by the next president, who didn’t give a shit about my record. Instant Vintage was on Universal, but it was going to be on Motown, but then that person got fired. It’s been happening since the beginning of the Tonyies. I’ve never had a go-to guy like L.A. Reid has Usher and Clive had Whitney. We had one go-to person with Ed Eckstein on the Tonyies’ first record. But we’ve been pretty much out here in these streets just making it happen on our own with records. We knew touring always helped. I remember our first tour, we were walking on the stage and, I don’t know if he was a promoter, I couldn’t see his face, but I never forgot what he said: “Yeah, you got this record. I want to see what your next record do.” And that’s how I went into the second album, thinking that this guy is calling us a one-hit wonder. So I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder. How do I catapult this to the next level?

Other artists began picking up on what Tony! did sonically years later by sampling your tracks, like Kirk Franklin’s “Melodies From Heaven” or Meek Mill’s “Whatever You Need.” How do you feel when people flip your stuff?
I always say, “Is your music worth somebody re-creating something from it?” I don’t knock anybody’s creativity, because I’d rather them be creating than outside accidentally shooting somebody. So if they’re in the studio, I’m cool with it. But I feel like those records, with Ray Ray, people would come back to it and go, “When was this?” I feel like if you put out gems and you let them sit, it becomes like a deposit.

Are there any songs you wrote for artists that you wish you kept for yourself?
No, not one. One of my mentors is John McClain. He actually brought Death Row to Interscope. John told me one time, “You should never hold songs, because if you hold them, you don’t write any better ones.” Once he told me that, if I had something and somebody wanted it, nine times out of ten, I would give it to them. Except one song I did on Instant Vintage, “Excuse Me.” Angie Stone was singing on it. And I wrote it for her, and Calvin Richardson was on the song, but in the studio I was like, “I got to have this one.” That was the only time I actually took a song back. I just loved the beat. I was in the middle of my album, and it fit perfectly.

You’ve almost exclusively worked in the R&B space. But this year you produced a song for Marcus Mumford. How did he wind up in your orbit?
He just called and said he wanted to work together. I’m a fan, I love his band, and he’s an amazing songwriter, and he loves acoustic instruments. He turned me onto one of the baddest acoustic guitars I could ever have. When he came over, he played this record. I was like, “Wait, wait, what’s that?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I got it here in L.A.” I think I bought four of those guitars.

Sounds like your phone is the secret line for everybody to bail them out of a musical jam. Like Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction
I feel like people call me when they just want to do something more real. People come to me sometimes when they just ran into a wall and they just want to see if maybe something can work. And I’m okay with being in that position.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Dawn Robinson in a photo with Raphael Saadiq and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The piece has since been updated with the correct picture.

In Popstar, Tim Meadows’s character says he got kicked out of an earlier incarnation of Tony! Toni! Toné!, called Tony! Toni! Toné! Tonee? On the 112 song “Only You.” The legendary club immortalized in Prince’s Purple Rain. The hook goes, “My ex-girlfriend … is a hoeeee.” The former head of Interscope Records.
‘I Was Good by Myself. I’m Better With the Guys.’