For the Producers Raphael Saadiq and Steve Lacy, Collaboration Is Key

The two generations share a belief in musicianship and the power of a band.

For the Producers Raphael Saadiq and Steve Lacy, Collaboration Is Key

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Although they are from different generations, both share a belief that musicians and bands can be powerful.

Steve Lacy stated that producers sometimes can sense where someone is going and keep their energy alive. Credit to Tonje Thilesen, The New York Times

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By Jeremy Gordon

April 4, 2023

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Steve Lacy's hit single "Bad Habit" was No. 1 on the Billboard charts years before. He reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and it became one of the most popular songs of 2022. However, he met Raphael Saadiq, an R&B legend, by running into him in the parking lot.

Saadiq lived above an abandoned bowling alley in Echo Park, Los Angeles at the time. In a video interview, he said that all his friends thought he was crazy to live there. However, he was trying to escape the "normal spaces". He was walking in the parking lot behind the building one day when he noticed two cats sitting in a car listening to music. He heard it and tapped the window to pay his respects. Jamel Bruner, an alumnus of R&B collective The Internet, was one of the men in the car. Their 2015 album, "Ego Death", had just reached a new height. "He said, "I'm Thundercat’s little brother" -- referring to Stephen Bruner, the singer and bassist -- "And this is Steve Lacy."

This fortuitous meeting sparked mutual respect and friendship between these artists, whose careers have some similarities. Toni! He left the band and became a sought-after producer for Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu. In addition, he established himself as a solo artist, with records such as 2002's "Instant Vintage" and 2008's "The Way I See It." He was most recently involved in Beyonce's 2022 album 'Renaissance.' An Emmy nomination was also received for his music compositions on HBO's 'Lovecraft Country.

When Lacy met Bruner in his high school jazz band, he was just a teenager. He was 17 when he played on "Ego Death" and was nominated for his first Grammy. However, he couldn’t travel with the band as he had to go to school. Tone! With his 'Gemini Rights LP which featured 'Bad Habit', Lacy became a true solo star. He won the Grammy for best R&B album. He has also maintained a successful career as a producer, lending his sunny, languid guitar tone to artists such as Ravyn Lenae and Kali Uchis.

Saadiq, now 24, and Lacy have been able to climb the ranks and now sit in a unique position in the industry: both behind the scenes and in front of the mic. They have thought about how to encourage and support other artists while still allowing them to be confident in their own abilities. Saadiq stated that he does not like being called a producer. He said, "I just like to feel like a part of a group." He spoke about music making as a holistic experience. It's not a job but it requires that you find the same emotional wavelength with fellow musicians.

Lacy also agreed and said that Saadiq had influenced him in his approach to collaboration. He said that he used to go into every space carrying a guitar and bass in my hands and a backpack with my computer, conjuring up images of a young man who was eager to please and very earnest. "Now I look at the scene, have a chat, and see where it's going. Perhaps we can get it out the car? Maybe?'

This conversation was edited and condensed by Lacy, who was in Paris on vacation while Saadiq called in from his Los Angeles studio.


What makes a great group of collaborators?

STEVE LACY All of it is based on resonance -- where you are and who you are connected to at that moment. It flows. Everywhere you go, team building is a constant search. I don't believe I have found my "squad" yet.

RAPHAEL SAADIQ Music has always been my passion. It has never been about labels, or any titles. There is a roundtable, and everyone should bring something. If they don't then why not?

We made a huge sacrifice to become musicians. We didn't go to college for a degree. Music is your retirement, it's your whole life. It's essential to love your family and friends, and to be positive.

How can you collaborate with another musician?

SAADIQ I prefer to follow someone else's lead. SAADIQ I don't like being the one who does everything. I prefer artists to have their own visions and goals. Perhaps I could just play the bass. Perhaps I could learn some chords. They could ask me questions. The worst producers to deal with are those who arrive at work with shirts that read 'I'm producer'.

LACY It's personal these days: It's people who have been around me. Ravyn Lenae is an example of this. She says that she takes the backseat and lets the energy flow wherever she wants. Sometimes producers can sense where someone is going and keep the energy going.

How can you make the transition from being in a band and working on records for other people or yourself?

LACY It's funny. If something works, it is necessary to create a new process. The Internet record is created by the R&B collective, of which he's a member. It's all of us trying to find a direction. Solo work is more like shooting darts. It's all part of the process. Every time I work with someone, I learn new approaches and things to add to music-making. Everyone works in a particular way. What I love about producing music for people is looking at them and feeling like, "Oh, okay."

It was completely different for myself because I feel like I have protection when I'm with a band -- this wall behind me. I view myself as a point guard. I push the ball to other people and try my best to make them better. Without the Tonys, I wouldn't have been able to do what I have. They were great at what they did and made me feel at ease because they allowed me to sing when I was a bass player. It was my shield and it was difficult to get up to the microphone without being hampered by the bass. But I knew I could do anything with these guys.

I didn't have a shield when I did a solo recording. It was strange and different. Solo artists have some advantages. You don't need to ask anyone anything. There's nothing quite like being in a band. It's almost like going to college and then becoming a professional musician.

LACY It's true. It's something I still think about all the time. The 'Ego Death" moment and the subsequent 'Steve Lacy Demo' were two of my favorite moments. They really pushed me to do this. I was always open to ideas. I would create a hook and say, "You want this?"


What have you learned about your surroundings?

LACY I was shaped by being around the band as a child. It taught me how to be a person and make music. The way they treated everyone set the stage for me in my music career. That's how I now work: It's all about the music. Saadiq is a great example of this. We can just chat, and it's nice to have someone older who has done the same thing on all scales. That's what I see and I think, "OK, it's possible to do what you love and sustain it."

SAADIQ I love Steve's words. You don't get into it thinking about an entire industry. That's the most beautiful thing. It felt like Motown or Vegas in the '60s. The house always wins and the artist doesn't win. The new generation doesn’t care about being on any label. They weren't brought in under false pretenses of being part of the industry. Instead, they simply flow into their rooms and start to play music. My generation was stopped by the security guards. None of these people have jobs, and nobody remembers who they are. The music is still playing.

LACY Saadiq offered me some advice after I won the Grammy: Always pick up your trash.

SAADIQ When you believe that you don’t need to use a trash bag to get gas, it’s begging for crazy things to happen.

What direction do you see the industry heading?

SAADIQ To have someone like Steve, a label will have to put in a lot of work now. Everyone is concerned about who will own the streaming business and how it will work over the next few years. It will be a completely different world for the next generation. It's already tangible for me.

LACY This is an era of music that has been very popular. It will be interesting to see what happens next. How do you get a hit without TikTok. Although I don't know the answer, Saadiq has made it clear that labels are changing. We had been in contact with RCA from the beginning, and I wasn't ready. At the moment, I live at my mom's on a spring mattress that sticks me in the back. I turned down insane money because it wasn't the right thing. We signed super low for [the 2022 album] "Gemini Rights." We all enjoyed it because we value the music as our own.

There have been many crazy offers. I often say that I'd be rich if I were so corny. But, I am content with what I have. I don't eat as much. I've experienced what it's like living at my moms house. I've lived in Compton. My life is not controlled by money.

SAADIQ This is just music to me.