Tonyies! In the Right Key?
Some times I wonder how we stuck together
But I’m so glad and happy we did
It’s four long years and we’re still ready to go.”
—Tony Toni Tone, “Tonyies! in the Wrong Key.” Vocals: Raphael Wiggins
Featured upon their 1993 album Sons of Soul, Tony Toni Tone’s “Tonyies! in the Wrong Key” is a song which displays just how quickly things change in the world of music. With their classic fourth album House of Music (1996) failing to measure up to the success of its predecessors and rumours of an internal conflict between the group’s brothers Dwayne Wiggins and Raphael Saadiq (now a Muslim), the release of the customary Greatest Hits album (1997) began to fuel rumours that the band had split. Significantly, it would not be long before Saadiq would officially announce that the Tonyies were no longer “ready to go.” Now, over two years later, both Wiggins and Saadiq have released their first full-length work since House of Music. However, the appearance of Eyes Never Lie and the eponymous Lucy Pearl album by no means mark the first time that either brother has operated outside of their original group dynamic.
Indeed, Saadiq has displayed his creative talent on numerous occasions by producing, writing, and performing with the likes of Pure Soul (“What Did We Do”), Total (“Kissin’ You”), D’ Angelo (“Lady”/“How Does It Feel”), The Roots (“What They Do”), and most recently with Whitney Houston on “Fine.” In addition to these ventures, Saadiq has also worked with the likes of Laurnea, John Mellencamp, the Bee Gees, and his two protégé groups Willie Max and Otis & Shugg. Signed to his production unit Pookie Records, female outfit Willie Max released a moderately successful album entitled Bona Fide through Motown last year. Unfortunately, also signed to Pookie Records through Interscope, Otis & Shugg’s acclaimed debut failed to materialise despite the single release of the undeniable Saadiq written/produced soul classic “Journey.” Furthermore, back in 1995 Saadiq released his first solo single “Ask of You” from the soundtrack to John Singleton’s racially tense Higher Learning, whilst 1999 saw him collaborate with Q-Tip on “Get Involved” for the animated television series The PJ’s. Signed to Motown as a solo artist, his much-vaunted debut has yet to surface. Thus, in spite of being very much regarded as the Tonyies lead singer, Saadiq is not the first Tony to release a solo project. This is an honour that has been bestowed upon his sibling, Dwayne.
Much like his brother, Wiggins has also pursued his own writing and production projects. As well as also working with Laurnea, he has collaborated with Jody Watley and signed production deals with Blu (Out of the Blu: Motown, 1995), and more significantly Destiny’s Child, through his Grass Roots entertainment set-up. However, as a highly talented singer, songwriter, musician and producer it was only to be a matter of time before he delivered his own solo project. Released through the recently revamped Motown, Eyes Never Lie fits perfectly into the Neo-Classic Soul movement propagated by label-head Kedar Massenburg through the likes of Vertical Hold, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Chico DeBarge. If the Tonyies’ Sons of Soul had seen the outfit blend old school soul and modern funk, Eyes sees Wiggins create a hybrid style which incorporates vintage soul, folk, jazz and more contemporary sounds.
Nevertheless, in spite of the album’s contemporary twist, the opening interlude, in which Wiggins reworks “Fly Me to the Moon”, displays the need for a more progressive sound: “Please be true / In other words/ Change the groove.” In many ways this concept is developed further on the albums first full-length track “R&B Singer.” A light-hearted moment, the song continues the playful anthemic tradition that his former group established with the likes of “If I Had No Loot” and “I Couldn’t Keep It to Myself.” Asserting that he is “not just another nasty little R&B singer,” Dwayne sets his sights upon delivering a refreshing album which will distinguish him from an increasingly large core of male solo artists. Significantly, this is largely what he does.
Constructed around a trumpet loop, the lead-single “What’s Really Going On (Strange Fruit)” was inspired by an incident of police brutality, of which Wiggins was the victim. Having worked its title around the work of Marvin Gaye and Billie Holiday, Wiggins utilises the opening lines of the harrowing Lewis Allan penned jazz-classic for part of the songs hook: “Southern trees bare strange fruit / Blood on the leaves / Blood on the roots.” By suggesting that he was targeted because he fit the vague description of “that black man rollin’ down the street,” he begins to tackle the kind of serious issues that many artists would clearly avoid.
Interestingly, saxophonist Najee also features on a smooth jazz version of the track that appears as a bonus on the CD. Following this, fresh from his monstrous Grammy success, the current man of the moment Carlos Santana co-writes and appears on “Move With Me.” The track also features the less visible yet no less talented member of the Tonyies, Timothy Christian Riley on keyboards. For proof of his production talents just listen to Art N’ Soul’s sublime Touch of Soul (1996).
The quality continues with the moody “Flower”, the mid-tempo groover “Eyes Never Lie,” and the smooth slice of laid-back summer soul that is “Pushin’ On.” In addition to these, Wiggins explores his folk/blues roots with an almost reggae twist on “Rollin’ Mountain,” and links up with Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish to address the issue of racism once again on a reworking of Graham Central Station’s “Hair,” entitled “Music Is Power.” Elsewhere, if a baby boom was accredited to the likes of Barry White, The Isley Brothers and other such “luuurve men,” then “Let’s Make a Baby” sees Dwayne recalling that by-gone era of late night soul balladry. Co-written by comedian Jamie Foxx this acoustic number also features a string arrangement by former Tonyies collaborator Claire Fischer (“Til Last Summer” & “Anniversary”).
As the first member of Tony Toni Tone to release a solo project, Wiggins has had to deal with a certain amount of expectation from the group’s fanbase. However, rather than releasing a soundalike album, he utilises his considerable talent to more than prove that he can exist outside, and independent, of his former trio. With its unpolished, almost raw feel Eyes Never Lie is very much structured around Wiggins’ guitar playing (check the solo interlude entitled “Tribecca”) and draws on numerous influences to create a refreshingly different feel. Indeed, by providing social commentary, anthemic numbers, laid-back soul, mid-tempo grooves and smooth ballads, he may draw on the past but does so in a variety of manners and moods which ensure that he succeeds in both “changing the groove” and ensuring that he is “not just another nasty little R&B singer.” pearllucy-dwaynewigginsb.jpg
In contrast to Wiggins’ solo effort, Saadiq’s first full-length output since the demise of the Tonyies comes in the form of a new collaborative functioning under the moniker of Lucy Pearl. Released just three weeks after Eyes Never Lie, this self-titled debut sees Raphael teaming up with Dawn Robinson (ex-En Vogue) and Ali Shaheed Muhammed (ex-A Tribe Called Quest) to create what can only be described as an R&B/hip-hop supergroup. With combined sales of over 14 million albums and eight million singles, their website (www.lucypearl.com) ensures us that their collective discography “plays like the soundtrack to an entire era of pop, R&B and prban music.” Whilst each artist brings something of their distinguished past to the group, the result is a hybrid style which cannot simply be attached to any of the group’s members. As if to accentuate this, the album opens with “Lucy Pearl’s Way.” In many ways outlining their collective aims Saadiq’s voice-over states:
“This song simply says: Tribe Called Quest, En Vogue and Tony Toni Tone.
It’s a new definition in the 2000. That the whole world is talking about”
From here Raphael proceeds to break into his solo single “Ask of You” over a reconstructed version of Tribe’s classic “Electric Relaxation,” which appeared on 1993’s Midnight Marauders. In addition to this, Robinson invokes her En Vogue past by alternatively singing “Hold On/Don’t Let Go” (taken from 1989’s Born to Sing and 1996’s Set It Off).
Formed during the summer of 1999, the members of Lucy Pearl are by no means seeking to disinherit their legendary pasts, but rather to move on to pastures new. In relation to this “They Can’t” is also particularly interesting: “We got the hell up off the train before it ran off the track / Got up on the Lucy thing and we never looked back.” Indeed, Saadiq, Robinson, and particularly Shaheed, had all found themselves within situations that were on the verge of stagnation and decline. Thus in opposition to record company wishes each member decided that rather than violating their distinguished legacy they would move into a less constrained creative situation.
“They can’t handle us
‘Cause they can’t step on us
And they can’t use us up no more
They tried to funk with us
But they can’t put a stop to us
‘Cause they can’t control us no more”
Existing very much as a paean to artistic freedom, “They Can’t” is highly effective. To some extent, it is the most hip-hop-inspired track on the album, the heavy beat is reminiscent of the work of Primo and is interspersed with Shaheed’s scratching of Biggie’s “Long Kiss Goodnight.” Rather than simply putting out product the trio seek to “Do It for the People.”
Much like Saadiq, Ali Shaheed Muhammed has also developed and maintained his profile by working extensively outside of the Tribe. Still a member of the Tribe, he worked with D’Angelo to create “Brown Sugar,” and with Jon.B on “Cool Relax.” Since then his talent as a producer outside of the world of hip-hop has been displayed on Eric Benet’s A Day in the Life (“That’s Just My Way,” “Why You Follow Me” and “Lamentation”), Angie Stone’s Black Diamond (“Bone 2 Pic (Wit U)”), and Laurnea’s II (“Keep Your Head Up,” “She’s Hurtin” and “Groovin”). In contrast, Dawn Robinson has remained relatively quiet since she decided to depart En Vogue in 1997. Having left the legacy of a sterling final performance on “(Don’t Let Go) Love” from the soundtrack to F.Gary Gray’s Set It Off, a rumoured solo deal with Dr.Dre’s Aftermath label lead to her providing the hook for The Firm’s (Nas, Foxy Brown, Az & Nature) 1997 single “Firm Biz,” but an album never materialised.
In opposition to D’Angelo’s sprawling Voodoo opus, Lucy Pearl’s debut often recalls those old 45s that rarely lasted too much longer than three minutes. Of the album’s 15 tracks, only four go beyond three-and-a-half-minutes, whilst the entire work lasts for a mere 45. Far from being disadvantageous this methodology contributes to the album’s freshness and accessibility. Rather than being locked into the down-tempo mode which characterises much of today’s R&B, the mood of Lucy Pearl consistently changes and defies the onset of tedium.
Having digested the hard-edged “Trippin,” we segue straight into the retro groover, and lead-single, “Dance Tonight.” Complete with an appealing string arrangement, the South Central Chamber Orchestra also contributes intermittent brass stabs towards the track’s conclusion. Nevertheless, what is most significant is the manner in which the vocals of Robinson and Saadiq complement each other in the creation of the wispy choral vocals.
From here we move on to the simple yet catchy “La La” and “Everyday.” Commencing as a jam session, the latter of these is a down-tempo but heavy-beated funker with an almost spontaneous feel. Elsewhere, the quality vocals and harmonies of the superb “I Can’t Stand Your Mother” are particularly noteworthy, as is the collection’s most down-tempo moment, “Good Love.” With the S.C.C.O once again providing some subtle strings, the warm melody and gentle sentiments create four minutes of the most entrancing soul.
Driven by Saadiq’s outstanding rhythm guitar the mood once again changes for the groovy mid-paced “Without You.” With its dirty underlying bass and percussion provided by the legendary Paulinho DaCosta, this is significantly the only full song that does not feature Robinson on lead vocal duty. However, as if to balance this situation, Robinson has sole lead chores on the up-tempo dancer which follows (“Don’t Mess With My Man”). From here the tempo drops again for the retrospective “Remember the Times,” which once again features the scratching of Shaheed, whilst a more obvious future single is presented in the shape of the Snoop/Q-Tip featured “You.”
Lucy Pearl is in many ways a total collaboration. Though predominantly written by Saadiq, it is collaboratively produced with Shaheed and features major writing input from both he and Robinson. If Wiggins gave a nod to Sly & the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, then Lucy Pearl is also at times steeped in the legacy of such groups. However, in alliance with such funk roots there are traces of numerous other influences. By fusing Shaheed’s hip-hop/jazz roots (as a teenager he played the saxophone), Saadiq’s retro-soul heritage, and the downright sassiness that saw Robinson and En Vogue forever change the face of the “girl group,” Lucy Pearl creates an album which is anything but contrived. When this trio announced that they were going to release a collective project the world of urban music was caught in anticipation of the resulting sound. Thus born out of their love of music, it seems the group’s foundation is based upon unexpected collaborations. However, whilst this is largely true, Saadiq has of course already appeared on Tribe’s “Midnight” from Midnight Marauders, as well as remixing and guesting on “Stressed Out” from 1996’s Beats Rhymes & Life. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel the freshness of the resulting sound. By effortlessly fusing a wide range of seemingly disparate elements Lucy Pearl have indeed created an album full of good time soul grooves and laid back hip-hop that “the whole world [should] be talking about.”
Released only three weeks apart, the Tonyies brothers have brought forth material of the highest quality. Surprisingly, Dwayne was first to release a solo project, but Saadiq’s choice to form Lucy Pearl has been more than vindicated. The most interesting aspect of these works is the manner in which both brothers successfully manage to progress beyond Tony Toni Tone in order to construct new sounds. Nevertheless, in spite of this fans of the Tonyies will still yearn for that hallowed reunion album. Interestingly, Motown chief Kedar Massenburg stated on a radio interview for Kiss Fm London that he was interested in the possibility. However, with Saadiq signed on a solo deal to Motown the most likely next move for the brothers Tony is the emergence of his eagerly awaited set. If his past productions and performances are anything to go by, it will undoubtedly be something special. In the meantime savour the talent of this multi-talented performer/musician/writer/producer as he works in tandem with the highly gifted Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Dawn Robinson. Also be sure not to underestimate the part that Dwayne Wiggins played within the Tonyies by investigating the talent that is on display upon Eyes Never Lie. Following the demise of Tony Toni Tone both brothers have gone on to (co-)create works that will surely enhance their already illustrious legacy. Thus we have two Tonyies that are certainly in the right key.
// Notes from the Road
"Powerful Chicago soul-singer dips into the '60s and '70s while dabbling in Urdu, Punjabi and Italian.READ the article