Raphael Saadiq Creates the Sound of L.A. for ‘Insecure’
The soul veteran talks about his new gig making music for movies and TV shows
Raphael Saadiq has created a diverse and enduring career over his three decades in the music industry. After beginning with the Bay Area R&B trio Tony! Toni! Toné!, he developed a solo career indebted to impeccable vintage soul. He’s also amassed production credits with artists including D’Angelo ( “Untitled” and “Lady”), Erykah Badu (“Love of My Life”) and Solange (eight tracks off A Seat at the Table, including “Cranes in the Sky”). But most recently he’s added scoring films and TV shows. Keen viewers may noticed his “music by” credit at the end of Insecure, the HBO comedy that wraps up its second season this Sunday. His composing work can also be found on the cancelled-too-soon TV series Underground and the recently released documentary Step.
MASS APPEAL spoke with Saadiq shortly after his set at Brooklyn’s Afropunk Festival about how he got into the scoring world and how a trip to 7-Eleven in Los Angeles might change your life.
Over the years a lot of musicians have told me that they’re interested in doing scoring work for films and TV in the future. Was that something you were always interested in?
It’s something that we musicians say, I don’t know if we really want to do it. It’s something that we say because it seems like the natural transition. I’ve always sort of wanted to do it, but people came to me and started asking me if I would be interested. It just sort of happened for me that way.
I’m sure scoring is a very different process than just recording your own material or working with other artists. At first did you have anyone working with you through the process?
No, not really, I just watch people and just listen to different scores. I’ve had the pleasure of working with people like Laura Karpman, who was one of the first people I worked with when I scored Black Nativity. She’s a composer, she taught at a couple of different universities. I was working with a professor and I just sort of came in as a student.
What were some of the most crucial things you learned during that time?
You have to hear the dialogue as the voice. As a producer, that was important to hear. Some would say, “You let the dialogue sing, and you follow it.” That’s what’s been my key. And when to get in and when to get out. Sometimes as a musician, you can spend too much time on a cue when you have to get things done. You have to learn how to manage your time, to try and make everything grow. You want it to feel important to the listener, to the viewer, to the director. I want to get a lot better at it than I am now. You always want to grow each project you do.
I would imagine with scoring there’s a lot more compromise than in your own work. Have you had to change your ideas a lot more?
It’s a compromise. You’re definitely adjusting who you are, unless it’s a period piece and they come to you because this is what they know you do. But at the same time if you’re slick enough, you can always slide the things in that nobody would think of, and that’s what I like to do too.
Are you like actively seeking out scoring work?
No, not really. I’ve always been the type of person where I just work when things come to me. I’m also working on an album, too. It’s not like I really want to be crowded with a ton of scoring. I want to score two or three things and then take a break and work on music. Scoring also opens you up to making really great music, because you have so many ideas for one show. You start flying through ideas that are just bursting out from everywhere.
I was going to ask if you’re still working on your own material.
Yes. All the time, every day.
How do you allot your time?
When I’m at home, I work. I have a studio in North Hollywood. It has, like, six rooms. Every room is filled with music, guitars, drums, Ableton, tapes. I go to tape a lot. Sometimes I just run into a room and just jump on the drums and I record the drum track first and then I’ll jump on guitar, I’ll play piano.
I have a ton of musicians around. My nephew’s around, he plays piano, and guitar. He’s a producer also. He works with the Weeknd and different artists. It’s a lot of musical energy around the studio. I’ve been working on an album now for maybe four years. I’m maybe three months out before I’m done recording it.
If you’ve been working on an album for four years, how can you judge that your three months out from finishing it?
I think I’m just saying that. I don’t really know if it’s three months out. I think that just sounds good. It sounds good to management. You never really can say, but I think I’m only putting 10 or 11 songs on the record. I have over 50 songs, but I know I love six of them. Of course I could fill it up with filler, but I just feel like after you’ve been making records for as long as I’ve been making records, it’s hard for people to process you.
I’ve been pretty successful with putting out new records as a solo act where people want to hear the whole album and I can play most of my new album to an audience. That’s what I want this record to be, when they come to a show, they want to hear at least five of the new songs.
Can you give any indication of what direction you’ve been going?
I got some Delfonics vibe, it’s kind of dark, but lovely—nice lush strings, but really, really, really dirty drums. I have some Slick Rick vibes on there, if that makes any sense. I’ve been feeling a little bit of Rick James. A lot of Ricks going on.
How long have you been living in Los Angeles?
I’ve been in L.A. for close to 14 years.
When you made that move from Oakland, was getting into scoring even part of your consideration?
No. It was easier to work with people in L.A. instead of bringing people up to Oakland, If you live in L.A., people are working with different people, having meetings, finding agents or doing something. And if you’re working as a producer, you can meet people at the 7-Eleven and the next thing you know, you’re writing a hit song with them the next day. That’s why I moved there.