His career began in 1987 as the lead singer in Tony! Toni! Tone!, and although he’s released only five solo LPs, most recently Stone Rollin’ in 2011, his behind the scenes work has made him a secret weapon in the world of hip-hop and R&B. Mega-hits like D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, critically lauded albums like Solange’s A Seat at the Table, and memorable scores for shows like HBO’s Insecure all bear his signature soulfulness and vibe-crafting.
At the 2018 Pitchfork Music Festival, Saadiq debuted songs off his forthcoming album Jimmy Lee to one of the most jubilant crowds of the weekend. An hour after his set, we sat down with him on a stoop outside the Union Park gymnasium while Blood Orange jammed live in the background, sipping Goose Island Old Man Grumpy Pale Ales and chatting about his diverse taste in music, what it was like to tour with Prince in the ‘80s, and his favorite hat.
What type of beer do you like to drink?
I like tripel, hefeweizen and wheat beers. There’s a French beer I love called End of the World, or maybe it’s Belgian, I don’t know what it is (Note: It’s La Fin du Monde, which is French name for the Belgian-style beer brewed in a Canadian brewery). And I eat at this restaurant in Echo Park called Same Same, they have a cider that I like.
When you’re writing in the studio do you sip on beer?
No, only when I’m in a restaurant…which is every day. I like drinking beer with food, especially spicy food. I love Thai food. Beer calms me down. When I grew up, my Mom would drink Hamm’s. It’s a hipster beer now, but my Mom used to drink it.
At Pitchfork Music Fest, you opened your set with a song that was much jammier than most people would expect. Is that off the new album?
No, that was Stereolab. I love Stereolab, I do that for the intro to shows now.
That’s surprising, do you like a lot of electronic music?
I’ve always liked electronic music and I work in Ableton, so I’m always experimenting and trying new things. Anytime I have the opportunity to jump in, I’m jumping in.
You’ve done a lot of scoring, what have you been working on lately?
I just got done scoring Insecure and working on Godfather of Harlem, this new show that’s coming out on Epix with Forest Whitaker.
I’ve read that you often write songs while a TV plays on mute. What sort of TV scenes does the new album envoke?
For my new album, it’s more like mobster. Late ‘60s, Italian, black, mafia, narcos drama. Really dreamy throw outs to make people think and kind of get into another mind. I’m playing with effects and sound a lot.
That sounds like a tense album.
It’s a little more tense. It’s really thoughtful, it was a dreamy process. I think people can make up their own mind about what it is, instead of me making up my own mind for other people.
What are you listening to right now?
So much stuff. I try to find new music, sometimes I don’t even know names. I’ll be in a store or I’ll hear something on NPR. I’ll just Shazam it. But I always have my go-tos: Sly and the Family Stone, Stereolab, Kendrick, old Tears For Fears records.
Any others favorites that would surprise people?
I’m a huge Mamas and Papas fan, I’m a huge Metallica fan because they’re from the Bay Area. I like Fishbone, I love punk. And mariachi music. Oh, and I’ve gotta say my favorite is Neil Young. All time favorite. His acoustic playing and his storytelling is what I really love. It makes me relax. I can just just drive on the highway and listen to Neil.
You’ve collaborated with some incredible musicians. Can we do a little lightning round of what you’ve learned from some of these people?
Earlier you said D’angelo might appear on the new album, let’s start with him.
I tell people I’m not really a producer, I’m a band member. With him, we’ve been working together for so long that it’s not like working. We just catch good vibes, listen to music we love, listen to chords. We feel each other out by playing different things and talking about music. It’s a confirmation to just have fun with whatever you do.
You worked on Solange’s last album, what about her?
From her I learned that you have to give people space to do what they do. I had to give Solange space to think, and watch her think. We’d talk, we’d laugh, we’d joke, but were always working towards something. At the end of the day, we came out with great music.
This one goes way back, but when you were young you toured with Prince...
That’s the all-time king right there. At that point I’d learned a lot from my school jazz band and choral teachers. By the time I got to Prince, I was ready for that level of professionalism. I just learned that hard work pays off. And, be a star, but don’t be a star fully.
At Pitchfork you played a cover of a J Dilla song, what about him?
I’m still learning from Dilla. Such a great musician, such a great innovator, and such good vibes. And a cut master, no one can cut up a sample like Dilla. I’m still listening to stuff, and like, wow.
Stevie Wonder played harmonica on one of your records...
I’ve hung out with Stevie a lot. Just being a young kid listening to Stevie and to know he’s my friend, I can’t get over it. I still call him Stevie Wonder. He’s like, no, it’s Stevie! As a kid I’d listen to his melodies, mine are similar. My voice isn’t like his, but he made me believe I could sing. Just like Michael Jackson, Sam and Dave, Memphis blues, Howling Wolf, Philadelphia, Motown, Sam Cooke, all of those are embedded in me.
Speaking of Sam Cooke, what’s your favorite Sam Cooke song?
Bring It on Home to Me. And some of the stuff he sung with The Soul Stirrers when he was younger. I grew up playing quartet music, same thing as Sam Cooke did. I played for men who sing like Sam Cooke when I was 10 or 11.
It was tough for him to leave gospel music for pop, was that similar for you?
I had to sneak out. They told me I was going to hell. But they were all sleeping with each other’s wives, so I thought, I couldn’t be too much worse.
The new record is named after your brother, who died of a drug overdose when you were young. How did you come to the decision to name it that?
The record ended up becoming about addiction. With my brother, I didn’t really ever understand his addiction. One day I just popped up in the morning and wanted to name the album 'Jimmy Lee.'
Anything else about the new album you want to talk about?
It’s very experimental for me, and I’m excited to see what people think. I never play new music to people live live, I don’t think they want to hear it, so that was huge for me. And I think fans got up and were really into it.
Typically you dress in suit jackets when performing, but today you’re dressed a little differently than I expected...
I dress like this all the time! I had other clothes with me, it was a cropped suit, but I just didn’t feel like putting it on. Today I was like, I’m not putting on that shit. This is what I dress like every day.
And I’ve got to ask about your hat...
It’s my favorite hat. I bought it from a little store in Silver Lake. I was going to wear a wide brim Chicago Stetson, but I left it at home and I couldn’t get back over there because there was too much traffic, so I thought, my favorite hat is going on stage tonight!