Ali Shaheed Muhammad
“I can see my name written across the sky,” Raphael Saadiq sings on “Go To Hell,” from his stunning new album, Stone Rollin’, as a B3 organ swells, cymbals dance, and a fluttering string section spirals towards the heavens. “Victory is near… I can feel it getting closer, closer every day.”
Since Saadiq’s early days the Grammy Award winning singer, songwriter and record producer has carried the torch for old school R&B. In addition to releasing critically acclaimed albums like Ray Ray and Instant Vintage (nominated for five GRAMMYs), for the last two decades Saadiq has worked behind the scenes as a celebrated producer, collaborator and sideman for big-time acts like D’Angelo, John Legend, Joss Stone, The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Stevie Wonder, the Bee Gees, The Isley Brothers, Mary J. Blige, TLC, Whitney Houston, Snoop Dogg, Earth, Wind and Fire and the list goes on and on. Now, at the peak of his creativity, Saadiq is finally ready to soak up the spotlight alone with Stone Rollin’.
A few years ago Saadiq signed a deal with Columbia Records. “When I first got the deal with Columbia they knew I had produced some records, but they didn’t know me as a solo act,” he explains. But when label guru Rick Rubin paid a visit to Saadiq’s home studio, he was blown away by what he’d heard. “He told me to never box myself in,” says Saadiq. “I just have to be myself. You’ve got to follow your own path. I’ve always gone down the road less traveled, but now I do it even more aggressively.” His instincts have paid dividends. Saadiq’s debut album for Columbia, 2008’s The Way I See It, which boasted four Billboard R&B chart singles and was nominated for three GRAMMY Awards including Best R&B Album. “It’s definitely surprised me how far things have come,” he says.
Stone Rollin’ – written and produced by Saadiq, who also plays bass, mellotron, keys, guitar, percussion and even drums on most of the tracks — is even more powerful, urgent and bold than it’s predecessor. The new songs are firmly planted in classic R&B, and nod to Saadiq’s heroes like Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, Little Walter and Sly Stone. However Saadiq offers his own contemporary spin, one born out of a combination of his recent touring experiences, as well as inspiration derived from indie acts that hold regular rotation in his ipod.”I still want to be a throwback artist, but with a futuristic twist,” he says.
After a memorable powwow with Rick Rubin, Saadiq felt emboldened, vowing to pursue his solo work with no compromises. This is the reason, he feels, why The Way I See It struck such a universal chord. With that album’s release, Raphael Saadiq truly made his mark as a touring artist. Fans, new and old, came in droves to see Saadiq perform at festival shows throughout Europe and the States — including Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza, South By Southwest and Voodoo Experience, and a recent opening slot on the Dave Matthews Band’s amphitheater tour.
Stone Rollin’ was born on the road, and recorded at his studio complex the Blakeslee Recording Company in Los Angeles, just around the corner from the Hollywood Bowl. “I damn near live in that studio,” he says. Saadiq wrote the stomping opening track, “Heart Attack” while in France, inspired by Sly Stone jams like “Dance To the Music” and “M’Lady” (Saadiq also grew up in the East Bay, where the Family Stone was born.) “I wanted the album to start out with that sense of urgency, that global soul and rock & roll feel,” he says. “After having so much fun out there touring, I really wanted to make an album that I could go out there and play.” Stone Rollin’ continues with the stunning standout track, “Go To Hell,” featuring his studio squad of musicians who are melodically complimented by an angelic choir intoning the mantra, “Let Love Keep Us Together,” and a vocal ad-lib by Saadiq that recalls Seventies Stevie Wonder. “I’m just screaming my feelings,” says Saadiq.
Stone Rollin’ does feature it’s share of special guests. Robert Randolph dropped by Blakeslee to lay down some nasty steel guitar on “Day Dreams.” Saadiq opens the track — evocative of a Dixieland rag. Also guesting on “Just Don’t” is one of Saadiq indie rock favorites, Swedish-Japanese singer Yukimi Nagano, from the band Little Dragon. “She put some great vocals on top,” he says. “On that song I also had the chance to play with one of my idols, Larry Dunn from Earth, Wind and Fire. He played piano and took a long, epic Moog solo. That’s why the song is so long, because I wanted to give him the space and the respect on my record that he truly deserves.”
Saadiq had Chuck Berry’s feel-good rock & roll on his mind when he wrote “Radio.” “I always wanted to do something like Chuck,” says Saadiq. Another standout track on the collection is “Good Man,” which brilliantly blends golden age Soul with a killer hip-hop hook, co-written and sung by upstart Taura Stinson.
“I’m going to have a great time playing this album live,” says Saadiq. Until then, he’s spending every day in preparation. After he wakes up in the morning he bikes down to the local high school for some sprints around the track. “To get my wind up, ready for the tour.”
“I don’t know where the title Stone Rollin’ came from,” says Saadiq. “It just came out of my mouth one day, but it just made sense with where I’m at right now. I feel like I’m stone rollin’, like I’m ready to rock. I’m ready to go. Throw me anywhere and I’ll make it happen. I feel really good about this album.”
Ali Shaheed Muhammad
DJ/Producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad is known around the world as one-third of the legendary hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, but he began his musical career in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. It was there that his uncle, Michael Jones, a bass player and DJ himself, pulled aside 8-year-old Ali and began teaching him music. Ali then spent years DJ-ing parties in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and recorded a slew of demos before co-founding Tribe in 1985 with Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Jarobi. He was just 19 when the group released its first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, in 1990, and four more followed: The Low End Theory (released in 1991); Midnight Marauders (1993); Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996); and The Love Movement (1998). All went either gold or platinum, with The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders both widely considered hip-hop classics. The group’s socially conscious lyrics – coupled with their unique production: heavy on jazz, funk and ’70s rock samples – helped push it to the forefront of rap, and scores of current artists/producers, including Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and Will. I. Am, cite Tribe as an influence.
Though Tribe disbanded in 1998, the group’s place in hip hop’s pantheon has long been secured. It is unclear if the group will record another album, but Tribe remains relevant, recently eclipsing their contemporaries as co-headliners on the Rock the Bells 2010 Tour and starring in the 2010 documentary, Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.
Tribe, however, is just one representation of Ali’s talent. He formed the production company The Ummah in the ’90s with Jay Dee and Q-Tip, and he’s worked with a wide range of artists, including Faith Evans, Mos Def, and D’Angelo, the last of whom he collaborated on the Grammy-nominated single, Brown Sugar, in 1995. That song led the way for the “neo-soul” movement, making possible the rise of such performers as Erykah Badu, Musiq Soulchild and Jill Scott. Ali has also remixed songs for Janet Jackson Maxwell, Maroon 5and KRS-One. In all, he has credits as writer, producer or co-producer on 23 albums, most recently with the Irish band The Kanyu Tree. The group’s lively, fresh sound convinced Ali to work in a new genre – alternative music – and the debut album is due out summer 2011.
Ali also has a sharp eye for talent. Seeking to gain insider’s perspective on the record industry, he took a job in 1996 as an A&R for Quincy Jones’ Qwest Records. While there, he scouted and tried to sign Corey Glover, Common, The Black Eyed Peas and The Neptunes. Qwest passed on all. Feeling that he was unable to satisfy the needs of Qwest, Ali parted ways with the label. Separately, he was introduced by his friend, producer Dahoud Darien, to Bilal, and Ali tried to get him signed, as well, but Ali could not convince his contacts to make the deal. Though he soon returned to his own artistic ambitions, it is worth noting that Ali’s instincts were correct: those artists have gone on to sell millions of records.
In 1999 he co-founded the star trio Lucy Pearl, aligning with Dawn Robinson, formerly of En Vogue, and Raphael Saadiq, of Tony! Toni! Toné! Lucy Pearl fused funk, rock, R&B and hip-hop to create an organic, sexy sound that was unprecedented at the time and still unmatched today. The group’s self-titled debut album produced the hits Don’t Mess With My Man, and Dance Tonight, the latter nominated for a Grammy in the best vocal performance by a duo or group category.
Ali has also built up a solo career, beginning with his 2004 debut LP Shaheedulah and Stereotypes, featuring the dance song All Night. Beyond engineering a unique sound for his first LP, Ali also performed songs on it, and he has two more albums scheduled for release in summer 2011. The first is pure hip hop and boasts collaborations with Phife Dawg, De La Soul and Raphael Saadiq; the second is a dance album, continuing the vibe he started with All Night.
While the music world awaits those two albums, Ali keeps busy by performing as a DJ around the globe, reaching music fans of all types, each gig adding to the journey he started as an 8-year-old in Brooklyn.