Raphael Saadiq: R&B's Renaissance Man on Working With Solange, 'Luke Cage' & Issa Rae

Emily Berl/Redux
Raphael Saadiq poses for a portrait at his studio in North Hollywood, CA.

In a swank nightclub called Harlem Paradise, a dapper singer in a cravat and fedora stands under a smoky spotlight, soulfully cooing. A woman in a sequined mini-dress turns to the bartender: “Saadiq still got it!”

The club, on Netflix’s new Marvel drama Luke Cage, is fictional, but the man onstage really is Raphael Saadiq, the 50-year-old singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. “Everybody always says, ‘Raphael Saadiq, he’s the most slept-on artist,’ ” says Saadiq from his Blakeslee Recording studio in North Hollywood. “But they’ve been saying that my whole career. So when I pop up, people go, ‘Oh, my God!’”

Lately, Saadiq is popping up a lot: Besides performing on Luke Cage, he is the composer for HBO’s acclaimed new Issa Rae comedy, Insecure. He also produced and played on Solange Knowles’ new album, A Seat at the Table, and recently collaborated with NBA star Damian Lillard on “Hero,” a track for Yours Truly and Adidas Originals’ Songs From Scratch project.

“I work every day — I barely see daylight unless I go out to get something to eat,” jokes Saadiq, who’s single with no kids. At his mid-century mark, he’s entering the latest chapter of a continually evolving career. After getting his break as an Oakland, Calif., teen playing bass for Sheila E. while opening for Prince’s Parade Tour — a time he has called “my university” — Saadiq became famous as one-third of early-’90s R&B trio Tony! Toni! Toné! He then released four solo studio albums, remaining equally busy behind the scenes: a laundry list of contemporary R&B stars (Erykah Badu, D’Angelo) have sought out his studio skills.

Saadiq first met Solange when she was touring her 2008 album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams; the pair hung out in Washington, D.C., and he sent her instrumentals. They didn’t reunite until Solange had completed most of Seat, but standout “Cranes in the Sky” revived some of the music Saadiq had given her eight years prior. “It’s not many people I trust to know a dope bassline,” says Saadiq, “and Solange not only knows a dope bassline — she’ll sing it to you too.”

In 2015, Saadiq was working on Seat with Solange, who knew at the time she would be working as a music consultant on Insecure. She introduced him to the show’s director, Melina Matsoukas, who helmed Beyoncé’s “Formation” video and was familiar with Saadiq’s scoring work on the WGN America series Underground. Now, as Insecure’s composer, he’s constantly in conversation with Solange, music supervisor Kier Lehman (The Night Of, Entourage) and Rae. “We wanted the score to feel like its own soundtrack,” says Rae. “I wish I could own every piece as a single.”

With Seat debuting atop the Billboard 200 and season one of Insecure wrapped, Saadiq’s still busy: He’s got more undisclosed film and TV jobs in the offing, plus a new album of his own in progress for Columbia. “I don’t care what part I’m playing — if I’m scoring film or producing or singing,” he says. “I want to be good at everything that entails. I’m always ready for that challenge.” 

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 29 issue of Billboard.