Saturday, December 17, 2022

Tony Toni Tone - Weary Sons of Soul

The Music Snobs were discussing Tony Toni Toné the other day - sterling as usual, covering the band's breakup, the legacy and the music. Still, they always leave an opening and I have some thoughts...

I was at university with a Wiggins cousin and like all of the Wiggins, he was a beautiful soul, insanely talented but famously prickly and always wary - he had seen some things. I later learned this friendly-but-guarded business is true of many black Bay Area folk.

He would speak of his cousins who were in a band and how they used to mess around at home and in talent shows, trying to find studio time. They were already doing well, The Revival had a serious impact the previous year. Musically minded, their family reunions had epic soundtracks.

Still, there was something a little frayed, a faint thread that ran beneath the smooth surface of these guys. It's in the music, in all their albums even as they became more confident performers. And maybe it's best to point to a lyric...

Lovin' You is arguably Tony Toni Toné's masterpiece. It stands in the pantheon of slow jams, an impeccable and lush ballad. And yet I'm drawn to a lyric that Raphael throws in: "This world is drunk and everybody's mad". How did that get into this seduction suite?

Skip forward to 2019 and Raphael Saadiq with nothing to prove to anyone, releases his most personal album, Jimmy Lee, a song suite musing about his uncle's addiction. And what do you see? Track 3: This World is Drunk

The driving chorus:

This world is drunk
And the people are mad
Lovin' You was their Adore perhaps, and just like Prince deflating things with "but maybe not the ride", Raphael drops "this world is drunk" to ground the beauty... They had moved beyond bubblegum by this stage. They could drop the mic and walk away. Grit was part of their legacy.


True story. Late at night. The mixtape is ready. Prince got us in the mood, then Maxwell's suite, the satin sheets are prepped, Meshell Ndegeocello, a declaration of intent, we're going to get freaky, D'Angelo, Brown Sugar baby! Then the Tony's come in, Lovin' You, to seal the deal.

Mood, low lighting, you're drawing close to steal a kiss, singing along "loving you..." Crooning. Let's sing together, it's on tonight... Then: "the world is drunk and everyone is mad" !!!

What? What did we just sing? That's like a reminder to use a condom, to make sure you have birth control measures in place... That is a warning.

I'd been thinking Let's get it on, not Brenda's got a Baby. I'd been thinking Turn off the Lights, I was suggesting Lay Your Head On My Pillow. Caveats and responsibilities were the furthest from my mind. Had I picked the wrong track?

These weary sons of soul put a parental advisory notice on the most sensual of moods. Rain check that night, I'm sad to say. I'd have to change the playlist going forward.

So... Tony Toni Tone put the contraception in baby-making music.

I started a family 15 years later...

If they were in finance instead of family planning, they'd have said sure go for the money but choose cement instead of crypto, choose dividends over dotcom dreams. Careful out there.


My introduction was Born Not to Know. A friend had brought the tape back from the States, I was hooked. But I stayed for Baby Doll (which had a Teddy Riley remix) and the songcraft. While Foster/McElroy were doing production duties on their first album, the Tonies were doing the writing and it was intriguing at that.

They were traditionalists, they had a band sound and were students of the greats. You heard that even in the first album, Who?. Their second, The Revival explicitly referenced their Oakland antecedents, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana etc. They had ties to Sheila E's band after all.

Sons of Soul and House of Music were further studies of the craft, hearkening to the different styles of the greats. But it wasn't just homage; they were modernizers, conscious of the legacy. Throughout, their soulful grooves came with real talk.

Little Walter was a little controversial for interpolating a spiritual. Sinbad appeared in the video - comic relief at the outset of their career, but there's no hiding that it was a cautionary tale that ends with "When Walter went to open it, he was blown to the floor".

261.5 features Dwayne singing about "falling in love with a minor" and risking breaking the eponymous California Penal code number. Playing for laughs and done with subtlety - PG-rated. It's an age old story and some later predators would ignore the warnings (say R Kelly)...

There's a lot of dysfunction in their songbook. Take Jo-Jo - Raphael singing about a family situation - Jo Jo who goes missing, or My Ex-Girlfriend - learning about infidelity and being cuckolded with the immortal chorus "My ex-girlfriend (girlfriend) is a hoe". Vicious fun.

Don't Fall in Love is up there:
Have you ever fell in love with a woman, that wasn't a woman?
I mean, all the time, you thought she had the things it takes to be a woman
That's the Eddie Murphy line: "I was just giving the person a ride", that's The Crying Game denouement sung with soul.

I know, I know, that's a poor interpretation of the song, he's really singing about picking the right woman and even sings "You better let God pick your one". But the ambiguity of great songwriters is to make you find layers in their musical world even as you sing along.

Or take Annie May - their stripper anthem.
"Annie May's gotta make up her mind
Is it a girl or is it a guy?"
Is it a love triangle, gender confusion, sexual ambivalence, a discourse on binary themes? Or just a fun thought piece about a dancer? Shut up and dance. "Let your hair down"

Sidenote: at a certain point they dropped the punctuation in the band name: Tony! Toni! Toné! became Tony Toni Toné. They didn't need the exclamation points perhaps. Or was it like The Jacksons being born out of The Jackson 5, contract negotiations? Industry shenanigans? (ducks)

Like Janet Jackson, if there were only faint traces of bubblegum at the outset, they very quickly leaned in to chart their own direction. Regardless, when they took over production duties, there was no need for any histrionics, the music spoke for itself and lingers. We still talk about them and play their well crafted albums years later.

I'm glad that they weren't absorbed into the Prince universe, that going to Paisley Park didn't work out. I'm glad they remained a band and charted their own course. Being soul men was not easy in that era. But the writing was on the wall as to their longevity.

Still, they did warn, listen to Tonyies! In The Wrong Key: "Sometimes I wonder how we stuck together / But I'm so glad and happy we did". On hearing that, I wasn't sure that there would be another album after Sons of Soul. In that sense, House of Music was a double blessing.

Sons Of Soul

I saw Raphael Saadiq live at The Fillmore in San Francisco in 2009, he was touring The Way I See It. I think that he would have been happier playing in the East Bay. When he went into his gospel, revival mode, very few in the crowd followed. It seemed I was the only one whooping and singing hosannas.

I did my 8 years in the Bay Area, my children were born in Oakland, proper African Americans. I'd like to think that there's something of the East Bay that rubs off on you. To live a remove from the moneyed power centers but also where the Black Panthers were founded. But I digress...

To be black in the East Bay is not to be living out Medicine for Melancholy, or even The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It's more in the vein of Sorry To Bother You and Fruitvale Station (especially). Restless joy but with a weary edge, and Tony Toni Tone laid down the soundtrack.


Tony Toni Tone had been through a lot but they had a formula: they seduce you with lush soul but made sure there was grit underneath. That's the Oakland Stroke, that's The Blues, the necessary counterweight to It Never Rains and Lay your Head on my Pillow. Family friendly but never shying away from reality.

Their legacy is to be central to the conversation amidst the soul movements of their era. They proudly wore the mantle of The Isley Brothers, The O'Jays, Maze and The Ohio Players.

Their brand of soul was beautifully constructed, the sound of a band, danceable grown folks music. It feels good and is something that lingers. I'm conflicted that they went out on a high but glad they they gave us what they did.

"This world is drunk and everybody's mad"

Tony Toni Tone, a playlist

A soundtrack for these weary sons of soul. Spend some time in their catalog, it's worth your time (spotify version)

(Orignally written for twitter)

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Writing log. November 11, 2022

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