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Stepping out

Raphael Saadiq comes forward to claim his neo-soul

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Raphael Saadiq is what industry folks refer to as a highly sought-after R&B producer. He's right up there with the Neptunes, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Timbaland, Dr. Dre, James Poyser, Mike City -- all the sort of heavy-hitters artists hire if they want an album full of hits.

Needless to say, Saadiq wouldn't be popular if he wasn't good at his job -- which he is. Ginuwine, the Isley Brothers, the Roots, even the Bee Gees have solicited his services. He even came up with a song for Whitney Houston, "Fine," that made her sound funky for the first time in her career. He's been a musician-for-hire since the 1980s, playing guitar, bass, keyboards and more for the likes of Lionel Richie and Prince. Yet for Saadiq, his in-demand status hasn't quite sunk in.

"I don't really notice how it feels," he says. "It's good to be looked at by the industry and your peers. But I just never really look at it until somebody asks a question [about it]."

Now Saadiq is venturing out on his own (sort of) with Instant Vintage, the solo debut fans have been waiting a long time for. But the artist insists it wasn't outside pressure that compelled him to Instant Vintage.

"I was just doing it for myself," he says. "I just felt it was time, you know. You can't do art if you're just doing it for other artists. They can't carry it the way you carry it. So it was my way of putting out stuff that was inside of me."

More than a decade ago, the Oakland, Calif., native broke out as the frontman for the funk/R&B outfit -- and arguably neo-soul forefathers -- Tony! Toni! Tone!, a group anchored by Saadiq, his brother, D'Wayne Wiggins, and his cousin, Timothy Christian Riley. Whether Tony! Toni! Tone! was the first act to open the neo-soul floodgates is up for debate. But there's little doubt that Saadiq -- who left the band in 1995 -- has been integral in enhancing the sound of several of the movement's most valuable players. He's produced tracks for Angie Stone ("Brotha"), Bilal ("Soul Sista") and Macy Gray ("Don't Come Around").

But he's found the largest success in the genre with his most frequent collaborator, D'Angelo. Saadiq produced "Lady" on his Brown Sugar debut back in 1995, which earned a Grammy nomination. But it wasn't until the intensely erotic "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)," off the follow-up Voodoo, that they finally scored a Grammy win.

"It's like we're brothers," Saadiq says of their relationship. "We speak the same language."

It's on Instant Vintage where Saadiq finally comes up with a word that best describes his patented angelic old-school soul: "gospeldelic."

"I make records from stuff I heard growing up -- what you hear in the neighborhood, your mother's records, your brother's, your sister's, the TV," he says. "That stuff just kinda, you know, lives with you."

A few of Saadiq's previous collaborators -- including D'Angelo, Stone and Tonies crony Riley -- appear on Instant Vintage. Atlanta contributors include Ray Murray of Organized Noize, who produced and co-wrote three songs, and TLC's T-Boz, who sings on one track. Two artists you won't find on Instant Vintage are Dawn Robinson (En Vogue) and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest), his former mates in R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl. Despite the accolades the group received for its self-titled 2000 CD (on Saadiq's boutique label, Pookie Records), personal, financial and creative friction led to an abrupt breakup. To quote Jermaine Jackson, how could something so right go so wrong?

"It's like an organization," Saadiq notes, heaping some of the blame on himself and the rest on his unidentified partner at Pookie. "If the organization is not right from the top, it can't be. And that's it."

But even if the chances of Lucy Pearl reassembling are about as slim as a Tony! Toni! Tone! reunion, Saadiq's got plenty to keep him busy. Most recently, he's produced tracks for Kelly Price, 98 Degrees' Nick Lachey and TLC.

"I just do what I can," he says. "And that's what matters."

Raphael Saadiq performs Wed.,

June 12, at the Cotton Club, 152 Luckie St. 8 p.m. $17. 404-249-6400. www.atlantaconcerts.com.

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