There’s a certain irony in the fact that a musician considered to be one of the pioneers of neo-soul, Raphael Saadiq, has rejected the label as merely a marketing ploy. “Neo-soul is disrespectful for me because you’re calling something new soul,” he said in a 2002 interview. “When did it stop? It never stopped. I understand it for marketing reasons…But people who really love music cannot respect that because it’s not new soul. You either have soul or you don’t.”
The term was coined by producer and record executive Kedar Massenburg in the mid-‘90s for the purposes of promoting two new artists who would come to define the genre: D’Angelo, whom Massenburg has described as the impetus for the label, and Erykah Badu, who (like Saadiq) famously eschewed the label over concerns that it boxed her music into a narrow category.
But if you really want to mark the genre’s birth, you have to look a little earlier in the decade at an album Saadiq helped create. 25 years ago today (June 22), Oakland R&B/soul group Tony! Toni! Toné! released its third and most successful studio album, Sons of Soul. The record, which eventually went double-platinum, was designed to pay tribute to black soul groups of the 1960s and 70s that had influenced Raphael Wiggins (who changed his last name to Saadiq in the mid-1990s), his brother D’Wayne Wiggins, and their cousin Timothy Christian Riley. The album was hailed by critics for its use of live instrumentation, particularly at a time when drum machines and samples were becoming the standard, but it also still incorporated elements of hip-hop and commercial R&B — in other words, it was the exact blueprint for what Massenburg would come to describe later as “neo-soul.”
“This is what they call the neo-soul sound,” D’Wayne Wiggins recalled in a 2016 interview. “We didn’t know that. We didn’t call ourselves neo-soul. We just called it soul, real soul.” D’Angelo, whose massively popular first album, 1995’s Brown Sugar, would become one of the genre’s crown jewels, signaled out Saadiq and Tony! Toni! Toné! as major inspirations, and the band’s sound — which by Sons of Soul was entirely self-produced — would soon become an obvious influence on other neo-soul mainstays like Maxwell and Tony Rich. Even Saadiq, whose distaste for the term is well-documented, understood the significance of what his group was doing, saying at the time, “We were like the bridge between hip-hop and soul and R&B.” In the years since, he’s written and produced for some of the artists most closely associated with the style, including D’Angelo, Badu, Angie Stone, and Musiq Soulchild.
Despite the claims by both Wiggins brothers that Tony! Toni! Toné! was merely carrying on a tradition of black popular music that began over a century ago with the blues, no one would describe Sons of Soul as hostile to contemporary styles of the 1990s. In fact, one of the album’s biggest hits, “If I Had No Loot,” is built on the back of Teddy Riley’s hip-hop influenced New Jack Swing style and incorporates samples and scratching. With a rhythmic opening that includes hip hop-style scatting and an Ice Cube sample directly referencing New Jack Swing, the song is thoroughly of its time for the early 1990s. Its head-bopping bridge is a perfect example of the way the group merges past and contemporary sounds, with a stripped-down instrumental that brings the beat to the forefront and funky horn riffs that recall 1970s soul. Then, when the chorus comes back in after the bridge, the band brings in guitar riffs that owe a clear debt to classic blues.
The album’s fourth single, “Leavin,’” is a similar collision of styles: Saadiq’s falsetto vocals are a throwback to artists like Smokey Robinson, while the track itself employs another hip-hop sample, this time from “If the Papes Come” by A Tribe Called Quest. Given that ATCQ DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad has a programming credit on the album — his jazzy hip hop aesthetic is particularly noticeable on “Tonyies! in the Wrong Key” — this choice isn’t surprising. But the fusion of genres would prove to be a formative moment for the producer: He later claimed that his work on Sons of Soul showed him the potential of mixing hip hop production with live instrumentation, and he’d go on to be one of the hip-hop DJs most closely associated with neo-soul, collaborating with D’Angelo and co-founding Lucy Pearl (Saadiq’s first post-Tony! Toni! Toné! endeavor, which also featured ex-En Vogue singer Dawn Robinson).
While Tony! Toni! Toné! was one of the most skillful groups to adopt the up-tempo New Jack Swing style (see their first, most enduring hit, “Feels Good”), the group is at least as famous for its soulful ballads, and Sons of Soul gave us two of these gems: “(Lay Your Head on My) Pillow,” which was its notable for its forward-thinking music video, and “Anniversary,” which was ultimately nominated for two Grammys. The use of sentimental string lines in the latter song is a departure from the overall funkiness of album, but “Anniversary” is a ballad firmly in the vein of the group’s previous hits, including “Whatever You Want” and “It Never Rains (in Southern California).”
New musical styles can rarely be attributed to only one group or artist, and neo-soul is no exception — especially since its existence and parameters are so hotly debated. And it’s true that looking at the album strictly in terms of its neo-soul bona fides ignores other parts of its rich legacy: The band recorded part of the album in Trinidad, and, given the number of Caribbean influences apparent on songs like “Slow Wine” and “Dance Hall,” it isn’t hyperbole to suggest that Sons of Soul was one of the most diversely conceived albums in ‘90s urban music. But whatever name you want to give to the style that had its heyday from the mid-90s to the early/mid-aughts, featured black singer-songwriters backed by live instruments, and drew on various musical influences, it’s undeniable that with Sons of Soul, Tony! Toni! Toné, were the forefathers of this movement.