When he's creating music, Raphael Saadiq often escapes to another time for inspiration -- that era of randy Pam Grier movies, tacky velvet paintings and marigold shag carpet. But the singer-songwriter-producer brings a modern, hip-hop-informed sensibility to his '70s-inspired formula: the rich brew of deep bass lines, layered guitars, syncopated strings. And there's always a quirky sense of humor in the lyrics.
Raphael Saadiq as Ray Ray, the follow-up to the singer's 2002 Grammy-nominated solo debut Instant Vintage, extends the artist's obsession with the funk era. On the album, which hit stores this month, Saadiq reveals another character.
"It's expressing more of the fun side," says the former member of Tony! Toni! Tone! and Lucy Pearl. "It's a direct record. It's a different concept, a different movie. I've always thought of my albums as movies. This is my Uptown Saturday Night flick," he says, referring to the 1974 Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier classic.
Saadiq, who plays the Funk Box Monday night, indulges his love for the '70s in the packaging of Ray Ray, titled after his childhood nickname. (The singer was born Charlie Ray Wiggins.) The album cover suggests an old blaxpoitation movie poster: The singer leans on a chalk-white '67 Cougar, dressed in a vintage cornflower-blue suit with knicker pants and lime-green argyle socks.
Calling from his Los Angeles office, the 36-year-old artist says, "I was watching some Rudy Ray Moore flicks, some Superfly and got to thinking that all this is a part of our history, you know? It seems more Caucasians use [black] images more than we do. Quentin Tarantino uses them in his movies, especially the '70s stuff ... With Ray Ray, I thought I could, you know, embrace that part of our history and those images from that time."
Though not as stylistically varied as Instant Vintage, Ray Ray feels lighter than its predecessor. Where the solo debut was a little hesitant and self-indulgent, the sophomore record is more relaxed and concise. The song cycle, which loosely presents Saadiq as a playboy-musician who leaves chicks brokenhearted in every city he visits, is fun and immediate. Prince, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield influences haunt the production.
"Instant Vintage, that was me coming out for the first time," says the Oakland, Calif., native. "That was me overseeing my career. Like, on the cover of that record, I had the makeup artist draw a circle around my eye like the dog on Little Rascals. It was fun to watch people make up what it meant. I didn't even know what the hell it meant. Later, I thought it meant that I was focused, that I had my eye on what I wanted out of my career."
Although Instant Vintage garnered favorable reviews and a Grammy nomination for best R&B; album, it didn't sell well. And Universal, Saadiq's label, promptly dropped him. Undaunted, the artist concentrated on his own label, Pookie Entertainment, whose roster includes R&B; singer Truth Hurts and underground funk-soul goddess Joi. Through the company, Saadiq released his live album, last year's All Hits at the House of Blues, and Ray Ray.
His production work for others has also kept him busy. (For his contribution to Erykah Badu's massive 2002 hit "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)," the performer took home a Grammy.) His recent credits include songs on albums by Kelis, Jill Scott, Nappy Roots, Calvin Richardson. And he's working on coming releases by Earth, Wind & Fire, Sunshine Anderson and Jaguar Wright.
"When I'm producing, I think of myself as working for the artist," Saadiq says. "I'm a member of the band. Every artist is different, so I work differently with whoever I'm working with. It depends on the chemistry."
In the early '90s, with his brother Dwayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian, Saadiq helped paved the way for the "neo-soul" sound, a fusion of '70s soul sensibilities with contemporary flourishes. The trio -- known to the world as Tony! Toni! Tone! -- scored a No. 1 hit right out the box with 1988's "Little Walter," which borrowed the melody from the gospel song "Wade in the Water." In nearly a decade, TTT released four successful albums that brilliantly displayed Saadiq's Wonder-inspired vocals and burgeoning production skills. The group fractured after 1996's House of Music, but the singer says there were no ill feelings about the split.
"It was about growth," Saadiq says. "Nobody knew on those Tony! Toni! Tone! records that we were going through some sad times. We lost three brothers, one sister and our stepdad during those years. But we had such love for the music, we didn't want to use what we were going through for [songwriting material]. We wanted to keep it moving in another direction."
After TTT, Saadiq founded another R&B; trio, Lucy Pearl, which included Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest and Dawn Robinson from EnVogue. A self-titled debut came out in 2000 and sold gold, fueled by the hit "Dance Tonight." But Robinson left soon afterward to pursue a solo career; then Muhammad parted to do his own thing, leaving Saadiq to focus more on his solo work and Pookie Entertainment.
"I have to be a businessman and a musician," the multi-instrumentalist says. "You can't hide behind the art. You have to look at the bills and mind the cash register. A lot of cats just think they can make music and -- abracadabra! -- everything is cool. It's not like that. You can't let somebody oversee your career but you."
Although Saadiq has been a respected, sought-after figure in urban music for more than 15 years, he maintains a low profile. His private life is just that -- private.
"Nobody seems to know jack about me," Saadiq says with a sly chuckle. "I'm not all up in the Hamptons. I can be. But I'm down on Crenshaw (L.A.'s famed black strip), eating grits and turkey bacon and biscuits with jelly. I'm playing basketball. Yeah, I be where the cameras don't be."
See Raphael Saadiq at the Funk Box, 8-10 E. Cross St., Monday night at 7. Tickets are $30 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.tick etmaster.com. Saadiq also plays the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday night at 7:30. Tickets are $35 and are available through Ticketmaster.