For producers Raphael Saadiq and Steve Lacy, collaboration is key
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For producers Raphael Saadiq and Steve Lacy, collaboration is key
Though from different generations, the producers Raphael Saadiq and Steve Lacy share a belief in musicianship and the power of a band. (Adriana Bellet/The New York Times)

by Jeremy Gordon

NEW YORK, NY.- Years before Steve Lacy’s single “Bad Habit” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts and became one of the biggest songs of 2022, he connected with R&B veteran Raphael Saadiq in an unusually serendipitous way: by running into him in a parking lot.

At the time, around 2017, Saadiq was living above an old bowling alley in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. “All my friends thought I was crazy to live there, but I was just trying to get out of the typical spaces,” he recalled in a recent video interview. One day, when he was walking through the parking lot behind the building, he saw “two cats in the car, listening to music.” It sounded good, so he tapped on the window to pay his respects. One of the guys in the car was Jameel Bruner, formerly of the R&B collective the Internet, who had recently hit a new peak with their 2015 album “Ego Death.” “He said, ‘I’m Thundercat’s little brother’” — referring to bassist and singer Stephen Bruner — “‘and this is Steve Lacy.’”

That fortuitous encounter sparked a mutual respect and friendship between the artists, whose careers share some parallels. In the late 1980s, Saadiq, now 56, broke out as the lead singer of the band Tony! Toni! Toné!, whose sweet-voiced new jack swing compositions presaged the neo-soul movement that would come to define the ’90s. After leaving the band, he became an in-demand producer for artists like Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, and he also established himself as a solo artist with records like 2002’s “Instant Vintage” and 2008’s “The Way I See It.” Most recently, he worked on Beyoncé’s 2022 LP “Renaissance” and earned an Emmy nomination for his music composition on the HBO show “Lovecraft Country.”

Lacy was barely a teenager when he was recruited by the Internet after meeting Bruner in their high school’s jazz band. (After being nominated for his first Grammy, thanks to his playing on “Ego Death” when he was 17, he couldn’t tour with the band because he had to finish school.) Just as the members of Tony! Toni! Toné! had coaxed Saadiq into becoming their singer, Lacy’s Internet fans urged him to record his own material, beginning with the 2017 EP “Steve Lacy’s Demo.” Last year, Lacy broke out as a bona fide solo star with his “Gemini Rights” LP, which included “Bad Habit” and won the Grammy for best progressive R&B album. He’s also continued to carve out a career as a producer, lending his languid yet sunny guitar tone to artists like Ravyn Lenae, Kali Uchis and Solange.

These respective ascents have allowed Saadiq and Lacy, now 24, to occupy an unusual position in the industry: behind the boards and in front of the microphone. They’ve thought deeply about what it takes to support and encourage other artists, while also channeling the confidence required to perform on their own. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Saadiq said he doesn’t like to be called a producer. “I just like to feel like I’m part of a band,” he said. He talked about making music as a holistic process — not quite a job, but something that requires finding the same emotional wavelength as a fellow musician.

Lacy agreed, adding that Saadiq’s outlook had influenced his own approach to collaboration. “I used to come into every space with a bass and guitar in my hand, and a backpack with my laptop,” he said, evoking an image of an extremely earnest, ready-to-please young man. “Now, I scope the scene, have a conversation, see where it’s going. Maybe we’ll get it out of the car? Maybe?”

For this conversation, which has been condensed and edited, Lacy was speaking from Paris, where he was on vacation, while Saadiq dialed in from his studio in Los Angeles.

What makes a good group of collaborators?

STEVE LACY: It’s all based in resonance — where you guys are, who you’re connected to at that point. It’s always flowing. Team building is constantly a search, everywhere you go. I don’t think I’ve found my “squad” yet.

RAPHAEL SAADIQ: For me, it’s always been about music. It’s never been about labels or any titles. You have a roundtable and everybody should bring something; if they don’t, then why have them?

You know, we made a sacrifice to be musicians; we didn’t go to college to get a degree. Music is your pension, it’s your life. You have to love the people around you, and it’s important to have good energy.

How do you get on the same page with another musician before collaborating?

SAADIQ: I like to take the lead from someone else. I don’t like to be the person who comes in with everything; I’d rather an artist have their own ideas about their identity and who they want to be. Maybe I can just play bass. Maybe I could play some chords. Maybe they could just ask me questions. Producers who come in with shirts on that say “I’m a producer” are the worst people to deal with.

LACY: These days, it’s very personal: It’s people who’ve been around me. With [R&B singer-songwriter] Ravyn Lenae, for instance, it’s kind of what Saadiq is saying about taking the back seat and letting the energy flow to wherever she wants to go. As producers, sometimes you can intuitively feel where someone wants to go and keep an energy alive.

How do you shift between being in a band to working on other people’s records or for yourself?

LACY: It’s funny: If you do something that works, you have to find a whole new process. Creating an Internet record [referring to the R&B collective of which he is a member], it’s all of us in a room trying to find a certain direction; the solo work is more like shooting darts. But it’s all a part of it. I learn different approaches and new things to bring into music-making whenever I work with somebody. Everybody works a certain way, and what I love about producing for people is just looking at them and being like [pitches his voice upward], “Oh, OK.”

SAADIQ: Making records with Tony! Toni! Tone! was completely different for me because when I’m in a band, I feel like I have protection — this wall of people behind me. I always look at myself like a point guard; I push the ball to different people and try to make them better. But I could never have done what I’ve done in my career without the Tonys. They were so good at what they did, and they made me feel comfortable because they accepted my singing when I was really a bass player. The bass was my shield, and to put it down and walk up to a microphone was very uncomfortable — but I had these guys behind me, and I felt like I could do anything.

When I did a solo record, I had no shield. It was weird and different. There are some perks to being a solo artist, too: You don’t have to ask anybody anything. But there’s nothing like growing up in a band situation. It’s the best thing for anybody wanting to be a musician — almost like being in college, and then going to the pros.

LACY: That’s so true. I think about that experience all the time — the “Ego Death” moment, and going to “Steve Lacy’s Demo” after that, because they completely pushed me to do that. I always just had ideas for other people — I would make a hook and be like, “You want this?”

What have you learned from the people around you?

LACY: Being around the band at such a young age sculpted me — how to be a real person and do music. How they treated people, that set the tone for how I wanted to be in the music world. Now, that’s how I work: It’s always about the music. That’s why I can connect with Saadiq and we just talk, because it’s good to have an older figure who’s done something similar on all scales. I see that and I’m like, “OK, it’s possible for me to do what I love and sustain it.”

SAADIQ: I love what Steve just said — you didn’t really get into it thinking about an industry, and that’s the most beautiful thing. When I came in, it felt like Motown in the ’60s, or Vegas — the house always wins, the artist never wins. Now, the new generation doesn’t care about being on a label. They didn’t come under the false pretense of, “I have to be part of this industry” — they just naturally flow into and out of their rooms playing music, and all of a sudden you’re playing somewhere huge. My generation went through the guards at the door — you can’t get in, and you have to fight through all this garbage. But none of those people have jobs anymore, and nobody cares about who they were. The music is still here.

LACY: Saadiq gave me some advice recently, after I won the Grammy: Always take out your own trash.

SAADIQ: If you start believing that you don’t have to touch a trash bag or pump gas in your car, you’re begging for some craziness to happen.

Where do you see the industry going?

SAADIQ: A label is going to have to work really hard now to have somebody like Steve. Everyone’s concerned about ownership and how the streaming business is going to work in a few years. It’s just going to be a different world for the next generation. I can already feel it.

LACY: This is a very viral era of music. I’m curious to see how it goes after — how do you get a hit song without TikTok? I don’t have an answer, but Saadiq is definitely right that the relationship to labels is changing. My team, we’d been talking to RCA since early on, and I just wasn’t ready. At the time, I’m living at my mom’s house, on this spring mattress that’s sticking me in the back — but I’m turning down crazy money, because it just wasn’t the right thing. For [the 2022 album] “Gemini Rights,” I was like, “Let’s give them a try,” and we signed for super low. It worked out well for all of us because we prioritize the ownership of the music.

There have been some crazy offers; I always say that if I was corny, I would be so rich. But I’m fine with what I have. I don’t eat that much. I know what it’s like to live at my mom’s house. I know what it’s like to live in Compton. Money doesn’t run my life.

SAADIQ: That’s just music to my ears.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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