When it came time to promote Erykah Badu’s 1997 album Baduizm, William “Kedar” Massenburg started looking for the right name to describe the sound. It needed to be short, snazzy, something to capture how artists like Badu and D’Angelo—both of whom Massenburg was managing—incorporated modern hip-hop and electronic styles into their music. He landed on “neo-soul,” and it stuck.
Neo-soul caught on quickly in no small part because it was a marketing term. The name was useful shorthand for fans and critics, but many of the artists who fell under the neo-soul umbrella didn’t appreciate it. “There’s nothing ‘neo’ about it. It’s just soul,” Raphael Saadiq said of the label during an interview about his 2002 solo debut Instant Vintage. A son of soul who, by this time, had produced and played sessions for both D’Angelo and Badu, Saadiq saw the label as limiting, an unnecessary divide between the innovation of the present and the foundation of the past: “Otis Redding would turn over in his grave right now if he heard someone say ‘neo-soul.’” Saadiq floated his own term: gospeldelic. “Gospel is for the truth in the sound and the words,” he continued. “-Delic represents the funky part and the room to experiment.”
Gospeldelic never caught on in the same way (or at all), but Saadiq committed to it anyway. Sampled voices saying the phrase are scratched into Instant Vintage’s triumphant opening track “Doing What I Can,” all shuffling bass riffs, swirling strings, and crisp drum programming. And he stands by it on the second half of the album’s closing track “Skyy, Can You Feel Me,” saying “it came from God” over a bed of wah-wah pedal and warbling synths. Functionally, gospeldelic pulls from the same tradition as neo-soul—they’re both preoccupied with the intersection of soul, hip-hop, rock, funk, blues, and electronic music. But where some artists in the neo-soul movement strove to blur the lines between old and new, Saadiq honored the old school. Instant Vintage wasn’t a vehicle for spirituality or a way to reap the benefits of a newly popular subgenre. He saw it as his duty to not just revolutionize what audiences considered to be soul music, but to breathe new life into tradition, to carry on a legacy.
Saadiq’s vision had its share of arrogance, backed up by a career that had already spanned two decades. Born Charles Ray Wiggins in 1966, he was the only one of 14 siblings to be born in Oakland, California. Music came early: He first took interest at age 6, teaching himself to play guitar, drums, and—his favorite—bass. By middle school, he was singing in gospel groups and spending summers at the Young Musicians Program at Berklee, where he was already approaching the level of a professional session musician. Days before his 18th birthday, he stumbled into the opportunity of a lifetime. He was at a studio in Oakland when he got a call that drummer Sheila E. was seeking touring musicians to join the Revolution on Prince’s upcoming Parade tour. Auditions were the next day. Other hopefuls showed up in flamboyant Prince gear but Wiggins, dressed down in jeans and a baseball cap, made quick work of his audition. When Sheila’s people asked for his name, he responded with the first one that came to mind: Raphael.
“Next thing I was in Tokyo, in a stadium, singing ‘Erotic City,’” he told The Guardian in 2009. “We were in huge venues with the biggest sound systems in the world; all these roadies throwin’ me basses, and a bunch of models hangin’ round Prince to party. For almost two years. That was my university.” But Wiggins did more than just party. Prince invited him to play bass for him at a handful of after parties on tour, which did wonders for his confidence. Two years after that first audition, he returned to Oakland and formed his own band with brother D’wayne and cousin Timothy Christian Riley, which they called Tony! Toni! Toné! (Each member remembers the name’s origins slightly differently, but all agree it started as an inside joke about a person who thinks they’re too cool for this planet.) Wiggins provided lead vocals and played bass; he wouldn’t begin producing until their second album, 1990’s The Revival. It was around this time that he officially took on the last name Saadiq, which is Arabic for “man of his word.”
The newly crowned Raphael Saadiq laid a strong foundation with his family, cultivating their modern blend of R&B and soul and earning a double platinum album, 1993’s Sons of Soul, for their troubles. But after 11 years of giving the world the Oakland stroke, Tony! Toni! Toné! parted ways in 1997 amid allegations that D’wayne, the eldest member, had mismanaged the group’s funds. (“Things just weren’t operating right,” Saadiq told NME in 2019. “We were young, we all really didn’t understand everything and [D’wayne] was sort of the leader of the group. We all had the same bank account at one time.”)
Saadiq didn’t rest long. In 1995, with the Tony! Toni! Toné! credits under his belt, he had begun to branch out as a producer. A beat with a simmering bassline he’d shopped around for six years caught the attention of D’Angelo; the two of them turned it into “Lady,” the third single from Brown Sugar. This was followed by “Ask of You,” a solo single recorded for the soundtrack of the John Singleton movie Higher Learning, which debuted at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. There was also his induction as an honorary member of the Ummah—a collective of musicians including Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and Detroit producer J Dilla—a connection that led him to help craft Tribe’s final two classic studio albums, Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement. After his time with the Ummah, Saadiq joined forces with Muhammad and former En Vogue member Dawn Robinson—who Saadiq had been friends with since they were 16—in the short-lived supergroup Lucy Pearl, who dropped a single self-titled album in 2000. But the partnership ended on bad terms through a combination of professional jealousy on Saadiq’s part and his reneging on plans to financially support Robinson, who’d turned down a major record deal in order to make Lucy Pearl, which resulted in Robinson losing her house.
By this time, Saadiq had burned a few bridges, but he felt he was on top of the world. What can you tell an artist who had just come off of two successful groups and produced gargantuan hits for everyone from D’Angelo—they’d scored another with 2000’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”—and the Isley Brothers to TLC? But while Saadiq had accomplished a lot, he was better known as a producer and a group member than as an individual artist or a marketable solo act. Instant Vintage was the first time he took center stage, a performer, hypeman, and backing band rolled into one.
And contrary to his tutelage under a notorious perfectionist like Prince, the atmosphere Saadiq facilitated was fast and loose. That isn’t to say Instant Vintage sounds lackadaisical. By now, Saadiq’s mastery over the bass was profound: He could make a song jump, melt, or simmer with a handful of notes. Basslines on “Body Parts” and “Be Here” practically coax you between the satin sheets, while the one running through “Uptown” drips like spilled soda snaking down a hot sidewalk. The finished album has a sleek, professional quality, but throughout the recording process, Saadiq’s presence ensured the laid-back vibe of a jam session. Several guest features from artists like TLC’s T-Boz (“Different Times”) and Angie Stone and Calvin Richardson (“Excuse Me”) came from spurr of the moment recording sessions for other songs.
This spontaneity added variety to the album’s comfortingly sunny disposition. “You’re the One That I Like” and “Tick Tock” are more traditional bass-driven songs that feel like modern interpretations of Prince’s funk era. “Body Parts” and “Faithful,” two of the most spirited cuts, match the zany grooves of Fresh-era Sly & the Family Stone with orchestral embellishments: Digitized drum thumps mesh with cowbell and electric guitar streaks mingle with violins. “Be Here,” another D’Angelo collab, takes the aesthetic to cinematic heights, Saadiq’s bass notes dancing around an orchestra’s worth of strings and a steady flow of beatbox gasps. It writhes like the soundtrack to what romantic dramedy screenwriters call the “All Is Lost moment,” voicing the pain that comes with not being able to lay up with—or make breakfast for—the person you love.
Ironically, Instant Vintage comes into its own when it dips into the genre fusions of neo-soul, especially when production duo Jake & the Phatman bring hip-hop elements into the fold. The fellow Bay Area natives first connected with Saadiq while producing tracks for Lucy Pearl and became his go-to producers for years. Saadiq was already a rap fan: The Tonys made a song with DJ Quik, and Instant Vintage features interludes produced by friend Hi-Tek, as well as drum programming on “Faithful” by California DJ and producer Battlecat. But Jake & the Phatman brought their own full-bodied sheen to 10 of the album’s 18 tracks. Horns and strings on “Doing What I Can” were recorded to vinyl and then physically scratched back onto the records for added effect. The beating heart of “Still Ray” is an interpolation of Scott Storch’s iconic piano melody from Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.,” which blooms around programmed kickdrums and an inexplicable tuba solo. Even on tracks that draw from more traditional soul sounds, like late highlight “Blind Man,” the snap and thump of the low end is all rap. The melodies and chord progressions on Instant Vintage would sound as comfortable in 1973 as 2003 or 2023, but they’re also begging to be chopped and looped into the shape of 16 bars.
Lyrically, Instant Vintage is decidedly less complicated than its musical arrangements might suggest. Time-tested romantic notions, like the pining of “Be Here,” “Still Ray,” and “Make My Day,” and the shoulder-to-cry-on thoughtfulness of “Tick Tock” had been Saadiq’s bread and butter since the days of the Tonys. A line like “Let me show you what you’re missing every day” sounds generic on paper, but there’s a boyish charm to his smooth, almost golden voice that helps it land like a first kiss. On the 15-minute closer “Skyy, Can You Feel Me,” Saadiq gives his most involved and passionate performance. He has said he wrote the song on the night Aaliyah died in a plane crash (“I was just feeling kinda angel-y about her,” he later told Billboard), and every high note or low rumble falls like a tear on the mic.
When it was released on June 11, 2002, Instant Vintage was inevitably lumped in with the then-peaking sounds of neo-soul. But it was both too reverent and too amorphous to find solid footing there. For all of the album’s genre fusions, there are songs that feel like boxes on a checklist: the Sly song, the Stevie song, the Smokey song. Nothing sounds ingenuine, but Saadiq occasionally leans a little too hard on emulation, and the album is at pains to show its work in a way that, say, Badu’s Mama’s Gun and D’Angelo’s Voodoo aren’t. Instant Vintage is timeless when it wants to be, but also desperate to be of a time, flexing for the traditionalists, making sure you recognize the significance of every moving part. This made it catnip for loyalists who’d followed Saadiq since his Tony! Toni! Toné! days, and even earned some award nods: He scored a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album and two more for “Be Here” (Best R&B Song and Best Urban/Alternative Performance). But commercially, Instant Vintage was no Voodoo—the album debuted at No. 25 on the Billboard 200 and stalled at 168,000 copies sold, numbers that inspired MCA/Universal to end Saadiq’s contract.
Regardless, he emerged from Instant Vintage with his head high, gushing to the press about the influence of Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder and how, after years of collaboration and compromise, he’d made something that felt completely, unapologetically his. The prominence of neo-soul has faded and “gospeldelic” never really got off the ground, but Saadiq’s particular hybrid strain created a ripple effect that remains easy to detect. The second act of California band the Internet’s career, from their 2015 breakthrough Ego Death through the members’ respective solo projects and their 2018 reunion Hive Mind, shares a spiritual kinship. Multihyphenate crooners like Leon Bridges, Anderson .Paak, Bruno Mars, and Steve Lacy all borrow from Saadiq’s blueprint, a vision of music’s future grounded in the warmest and funkiest sounds of its past.
After being dropped from Universal, Saadiq started his own label, called Pookie, and used his next albums, 2004’s Ray Ray and 2008’s The Way I See It (released with Sony), to dig further into the musical histories of Blaxploitation funk and doo-wop. He’s released solo albums, scored television and movies, and produced for Beyoncé, Solange, and Brent Faiayz. Perhaps it all could have happened without Instant Vintage—he was already a respected producer—but Saadiq needed to be sure that his vision would survive outside the security of a group. For all its virtuosity, Vintage is home to some of his catchiest earworms and warmest basslines—an imperfect but inspired reminder of the value of grooving to your own beat.