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How Raphael Saadiq is quietly keeping R&B on film, TV and the radio

Musician and producer Raphael Saadiq in Cuba.
Musician and producer Raphael Saadiq in Cuba.
Evita M. Castine

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“Cranes In The Sky” by Solange Knowles recently won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance. It was produced by R&B guru Raphael Saadiq. 

He’s had an accomplished career that started as a teenager when he landed a gig playing with no less than Prince and Sheila E.

Later he formed his own group, Tony! Toni! Toné! From there, he went on to release four solo albums and produce records for R&B heavy-hitters such as D’Angelo, Whitney Houston, John Legend, Miguel and Solange. But lately, he’s taking on a new challenge — composing for film and television.

Together with frequent collaborator, composer Laura Karpman, he scored the film, “Black Nativity,” and the documentary, “Step.” The latter film is about a girls dance team in Baltimore that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

When Saadiq isn't producing records or composing scores, he’s contributing music to TV shows like “Insecure,” “Underground” and “Luke Cage.”

So you get the point, right? This man’s musical fingerprints are everywhere.

Interview Highlights:

On working with Sheila E and Prince:

Sheila was the pilot and Prince was the one signing the checks. I played with Sheila but, on tour, with Prince a lot. Also Lionel Ritchie. Those were the two tours I was on. It was very educational to be around both of those people at the peak of their careers. From Prince [I learned] to be clever and that hard work pays off. He [was] a hard worker — 15 hours a day, sometimes, rehearsing the band. 

On producing for Solange's "Seat At The Table":

You don’t have to shape Solange. Solange shapes Solange. And I like that. She’ll pull something out of you that you wouldn’t do for somebody else. As a producer I like for artists to challenge me. I've gotten a chance to work with people who come to me to challenge me, to see their vision and add mine to it. 

Raphael Saadiq and composer Laura Karpman have collaborated on a number of film scores.
Raphael Saadiq and composer Laura Karpman have collaborated on a number of film scores.
Evita M. Castine

On working with Laura Karpman on "Step":

We watched it and thought it was great — the girls in it were really captivating. The girls really reminded me of some of the young ladies I grew up with in Oakland. So I felt like I knew these characters. The producer and director were really paying attention to these girls' lives and we thought it was necessary to be a part of it.

Going back to that thing I was talking about with Prince — you have to stay in a room every day and be really focused to make it come together, to make people want to watch it. I didn't get a chance to get to Sundance. I was working. But from what I heard, they did a great job there also. That's from a lot of practicing and a lot of rehearsal and having passion for what you do. That's how it touched me because I was watching it so much. When I was scoring it I was looking at the steps. Are everybody's feet hitting the ground at the same time? Is everybody clapping at the same time? Are they getting frustrated? You can't quit like playing golf. You can't just throw your clubs. You can never throw your clubs. You gotta stay in there even if you're hacking it up. 

On the way music reflects an artist's experiences:

Music can shape you in many ways. I know firsthand. I've lost three brothers and a sister. My sister was hit by a car. A guy was running from a cop and the cop chased the kid into my sister's car. She got permanent brain damage and we had to unplug her from the machine — actually, when I was recording that song, "It Never Rains In Southern California." So I still had to go back and make that record and I never really talked about it until years later. The only reason I spoke about it at that point was just to show people [that] you don't have to be mad and put it in your records. Now, if you look back, you can feel me in these records. You can feel how it shaped me. You can hear the soul, you can hear the gut. You come see me at a show and you can feel all that stuff that I carry.

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