Raphael Saadiq knows a thing or two about music. The Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, producer and musician has been a guiding force in two memorable groups (Tony! Toni! Toné!, Lucy Pearl) and has worked with everyone from Mick Jagger and D’Angelo to John Legend, Mary J. Blige and Elton John. Over the last two years, he has been mentoring R&B protégé Adrian Marcel. Attracting noteworthy buzz for the single “2AM” featuring Sage the Gemini and two mixtapes, 7 Days of Weak and Weak After Next, Marcel is signed to El Seven/Republic.
Now, Saadiq is one of three artists — along with fellow R&B practitioners Lee Fields and BJ the Chicago Kid — starring in E&J Brandy’s 40th-anniversary celebration Generations of Soul. Launched March 4 via a 10-part online video series of conversations, the campaign kicked into live mode April 2 with riveting performances by the trio at Mack Sennett Studios in Los Angeles. Next up: E&J will release exclusive vinyl recordings throughout the year from all three artists. Also on the agenda are plans to stage another Generations of Soul live event in Chicago this fall.
Before rehearsals for his Mack Sennett performance, Saadiq sat down with Billboard. In addition to defining soul, he chatted about the Kendrick Lamar effect, working with Solange and when fans can expect his next Columbia project — his fifth studio album and first since 2011’s Stone Rollin’.
How do you define soul?
The black heritage of music is very soulful. And I’m just a branch or leaf off the tree of soul that came before me, like Otis Redding, Eddie Kendricks, the Isley Brothers. It’s everything I grew up listening to: my parents going fishing and playing 8-tracks in the van. Lee, BJ and I are three dimensions of soul. That’s a cool package. Soul is like great vintage furniture. It’s that one piece you just need in your house.
BJ covers your “Charlie Ray” on one of the upcoming vinyl releases. Were you surprised?
No, BJ’s from Chicago. He’s probably heard people way older than me. Kids are adventurous with music. I was listening to B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland at 5 years old that I thought kids were supposed to be listening to. We’re just in an industry now that tries to make it like young kids have to be pacified by what I call bubblegum music. But It’s really not true. If you listen to Kendrick Lamar, he’s got George Clinton and Ronnie Isley on his new album. So somebody in his house was listening to their music.
Do you think TV’s Empire will further boost R&B’s mainstream status?
I think every little bit helps. But I think Kendrick helps a lot more than everybody because he’s talking about things happening in our community now. It’s real, poetic; it’s introducing people to a neighborhood again of regular, actual people. His movement along with Adrian Younge, Bilal, Ali Shaheed … that generation with Kendrick’s generation and other people? That will have offspring. I feel like we just haven’t had anybody to jump off another offspring of music.
The cool thing is these kids are going to be at festivals. That’s what I like about it the most. I love groups like Guy and the Tonys, but usually groups like that get packaged with seven other groups on one ticket. I feel our music needs to go out and be at Bonnaroo, at festivals around the world. Kendrick is doing that, Adrian Younge is doing that. To me that’s the future.
So when can fans expect a new album?
It will be this year. I’ve been transitioning with what I want to do with my record. I have a lot of songs I’ve recorded. Some of them I like, some I don’t like. For me to come back out, I want it to be something special that I can tour with and feel good about. I feel good about a lot of the record, but my whole philosophy is I want to like them before you get a chance to like them. I want to know when I start playing that I’m excited about going to the next venue and playing them again.
In the meantime, it’s been pretty cool to be able to work with Solange. It’s given me time to get away from my project. We call her Solo because she’s so left. She has all these ideas and changes everything. She’ll be like, “Ah, I like that.” Or, “No, leave it sloppy like that.” It’s kind of like throwing darts at me. [Laughs]