Happy 20th Anniversary to Tony! Toni! Toné!’s House of Music, originally released November 19, 1996.
“Don’t cry, dry your eyes, don’t cry…”
As the title of their crown jewel Sons of Soul (1993) boldly declared, Tony! Toni! Toné!—Raphael Wiggins (popularly known as Raphael Saadiq), his brother D’wayne Wiggins, and their cousin Timothy Christian Riley—were true descendants of soul and funk music’s golden age from the very start.
Hailing from the undeniably tough and vibrant streets of Oakland, California, the family trio absorbed the social, cultural, and political climate that defined the Bay Area during its most incendiary era. Above all, the Bay Area was one of the powerhouse cornerstones of funk and soul, where several influential luminaries like Sly & the Family Stone, Larry Graham & Graham Central Station, Tower of Power, and Con Funk Shun laid down their gusty, muscular, and righteous grooves all over the music landscape.
It was the very foundation that sparked the Tonies’ unique musical personality and vision, fueling their audacity and inventiveness to further the possibilities of classic funk and soul during the burgeoning New Jack Swing movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Never fully conforming to the trends of the current, they followed the beat of their own drum when they arrived on the scene with their gold-certified debut album Who? in 1988.
It was during a time when Black popular music was hit with crucial deviations. Hip-hop’s mainstream dominance in the mid-1980s acclimated to a direct sociopolitical dynamic by the late-1980s, where a slew of its figures spoke on the plight of Reagan-era capitalism and social issues that plagued the conditions of Black lives across the country. On the other side of the spectrum, contemporary R&B largely became a producer-accorded genre, where digitalized beats, synth-driven rhythms, and buoyant, pop-oriented grooves rose atop the charts and ruled the airwaves all in the same sweep. Crossover was still seen as a major coup for several artists.
Funk music was given a revitalized space in the realms of turntablism, in which DJs sampled classic rhythm breaks and incorporated them in hip-hop productions. Although new legions of people were introduced to the versatility of the funk genre through samples, its commercial vitality was in an embattled state. Large ensemble bands that actually played live instruments were few and far between by the late 1980s, as the music industry turned its attention back toward heartthrob singing groups that combined high energy dance routines with dynamic vocal harmonies.
While they didn’t set the music world ablaze with their meek debut album Who?, which spawned a string of solid singles produced and co-written by Foster & McElroy including the anti-drug dealer anthem “Little Walter,” Tony! Toni! Toné! certainly set a standard. With their distinctive knack for cleverly mixing classic soul influences with hip-hop informed New Jack Swing elements, the collective was seen as an unexpected anomaly in contemporary R&B.
Nonetheless, they were a band that were truly rooted in the tradition of yesteryear funk and soul bands, devoting themselves to retaining the beauty of live instrumentation, while utilizing hip-hop technology of the time. Their durable sophomore platter The Revival (1990) found the band sprucing up the masterful boundaries set in the flashy New Jack Swing era, by greatly venturing through Black music’s wondrous past for inspiration and schooling the young and bold generation on the music they grew accustomed to since their formative years as Baptist choirboys in West Oakland.
The humbling nuances that bubbled under the surface of their debut now beamed brightly through the grooves of such staples like the celebratory “Feels Good,” the funk-laden “The Blues,” and the quiet storm sincerity of “Whatever You Want” and “It Never Rains (In Southern California).”
If The Revival hinted at how forward-thinking and imaginative the Oakland prodigies were in an era when R&B found itself stuck within a creative drought, then their classic offering Sons of Soul heralded them as the genre’s revivalist saviors, resulting in the band’s definitive achievement. As evidenced in “If I Had No Loot” with the smartly lifted line, “and you can New Jack swing on my nuts” from Ice Cube’s 1991 song, “The Wrong Nigga to Fuck With,” the Tonies eschewed their earlier experiments with New Jack Swing and rose as accomplished modern-day funk and soul bohemians, crafting a kaleidoscopic, thirteen-song revivalist soul trip that paid respectful homage to several of their old and new influences.
For this slamming masterpiece, the trio redefined their own Oakland funk vision and bum-rushed all musical cylinders with ease, melding vintage sounds of the Isley Brothers, James Brown, and Sly Stone with the sultry dancehall and hip-hop styles of the current. The witty humor and sweet sentimentality that stood as the distinctive trademarks of their craft reached their mightiest peak. Never before had the band sounded so assured, original, and dazzlingly colorful all at once. They were truly in a class of their own and the fruits they experienced from it were sweet.
But it would take Oakland’s first family three long years to follow it up.
It was in those three years that the trio was met with professional and personal changes that shook their once-unified funk to its core. Each of its members pursued individual musical projects, producing and writing material for a slew of hip-hop and R&B’s most beloved acts, including D’Angelo, En Vogue, Tevin Campbell, Art N’ Soul, Karyn White, and A Tribe Called Quest. Raphael Wiggins, in particular, staged an early solo endeavor with the release “Ask of You,” his acclaimed single from 1995’s Higher Learning motion-picture soundtrack, while showcasing his newly-adopted surname “Saadiq.”
Shortly after the release of Sons of Soul, rumors began floating that the Tonies had disbanded and while there was strife among its members, those rumors only intensified because of the long break between albums. Nonetheless, the trio regrouped in 1995 to record what would be their fourth and final statement as a collective.
Expanding upon the explosive synergy of traditionalist and contemporary Black pop they pushed to perfection on Sons of Soul, one could conclude that Tony! Tony! Toné! simply treaded familiar ground by the time they released House of Music in the fall of 1996. But that was far from the case. House of Music was birthed during a rather transitional era in the R&B landscape, where the grittier hip-hop influences that were greatly emphasized in the genre’s grooves became subdued, in favor of a noticeably overproduced and slicker approach.
The burgeoning neo-soul movement was still making tidal waves across the Atlantic, with its artists gaining critical acclaim and commercial success. By the mid-1990s, the Tonies’ signature touch was felt all over the R&B world, and rather than betray their revisionist approach in an attempt to depart from the core sound that won over millions, they took it up a notch. Instead of merely wearing their influences on their sleeve, as they’d done on previous offerings, the trio embodied them organically and proudly on House of Music, making it the most classically overt and sophisticated dip in the revisionist waters of Black pop they pioneered for over a decade.
Breezy doses of yesteryear Motown, Stax, Hi, and Philadelphia International were pervasive throughout the album’s fourteen grand compositions. There was a diligently mature emphasis on songwriting, musicianship, and production that Saadiq, Wiggins, and Riley committed to maintain, allowing them to craft songs that could survive in the context of the past as well as the present. The kinetic, genre-mixing adventurism that defined Sons of Soul and the unusual New Jack soul derivatives of The Revival were long gone here, as there was a sturdier focus on showcasing the band’s versatile modes as R&B’s ambitious gatekeepers.
Famed photographer William Claxton captured the rare poignancy of the Oakland brothers for the album’s cover and booklet photographs. A contrast from their earlier outlandish looks, the band dressed and groomed in vintage casual and formal attire, determined to flaunt the elegance of 1960s-era Black America and legendary soul acts to a modern generation. The trio was offering more than just a four-decade spanning history lesson on classic funk and soul. They were soul masters, creating in the space of the bygone eras they were directly inspired by, going so far as to utilize analogue live instrumentation and older studio techniques that defined these eras. If this was their final stand together, they were surely leaving their mark with class, tenderness, and grace.
The album generously opens with “Thinking of You,” a delicate slice of Southern soul that has Saadiq channeling the ferocity and flair of Al Green during his Hi Records peak. Interpreting the gospel-fueled yearnings and testified pleas that Green was known for, Saadiq earnestly reminiscences over the love he and his partner once shared, in the hopes that he will recapture it someday.
Continuing the theme of lighthearted romance, “Top Notch” follows, with laidback, jazzy soul elements that strongly recall Marvin Gaye’s 1971 standard “What’s Going On.” The vibe picks up with the album’s first single, “Let’s Get Down,” a festive funk-dance number that features West Coast rapper-producer DJ Quik gracefully punctuated between Saadiq’s witty crooning on partying with women in the nightlife. As the only song on the album that featured outside production from Saadiq, Quik, and G-One, “Let’s Get Down” was a slight detour from the more traditional soul sound that the band were known for producing and found them returning to the celebratory nature of tracks like “Feels Good.”
The bittersweet, Philly soul-tinged ballad “Til Last Summer” had D’wayne Wiggins delivering a passionate solo with his honeyed falsetto, detailing the pains and regrets of a broken romance. Their positive paean to being in love “Lovin’ You” finds the trio paying homage to the celestial funk balladry of Earth, Wind & Fire. Throughout the song, Saadiq channels the late Maurice White’s distinctive nasal-toned tenor with a certain confidence that is hard to deny or dismiss. If one were to ever make a case of how versatile and enchanting Saadiq became as a vocalist, one would have to point to his commanding vocal performance throughout the heartbreaking, lovelorn epic that is “Still a Man” as a definite highlight.
In “Still a Man,” Saadiq explores the devastation and heartache of a man who is losing a woman he can’t live without. In all of the song’s seven-minute glory, you instantly become swept up by the story of deserted love Saadiq is emoting with his breathtaking cries and pleas for understanding and empathy. You even put yourself in the position of the intense agony he feels.
The downer mood livens up with the band celebrating Motown pop and Chicago soul on “Don’t Fall in Love.” Perhaps the album’s most transcendent moment comes with their sweeping ode to the Stylistics on “Holy Smokes and Gee Whiz,” where brother Randall Wiggins steps out front and delivers a priceless falsetto performance that would leave Russell Thompkins Jr. himself in total astonishment. The bouncy funked-up jazz of “Annie May” finds the group dipping back into their social commentary bag, detailing the quests of a “good girl who turned bad.”
In the final half of the album, soul balladry from various modes rounds out the set. The ultra-sensitive “Let Me Know” wondrously melds Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound approach with 1970s-era symphonic Memphis soul, while “Tossin’ and Turnin’” dips back into the sensual flavors of their enchanting slow jams “Lay Your Head (On My Pillow)” and “Slow Grind” from 1993’s Sons of Soul. The band delivers a slow-burning, quiet-storm groove for “Wild Child,” which captures the best qualities of several male soul quintets from the 1970s.
Spirituality blends with mortality in the streetwise philosophy of “Party Don’t Cry,” which features hushed jazz overtones that complement D’wayne Wiggins’ understated tenor lead. Throughout the song, Wiggins ponders the true meaning of life and convinces listeners to relinquish their worries to live it to its fullest capacity. The album ends in pure Black gospel glory, with a rousing piano-organ combo reprise of “Lovin’ You,” which smartly features a voice that lifts a Biblical proverb straight from the Book of John: “Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world.”
Perhaps people didn’t catch the double entendre of that profound proverbial word, or failed to notice the chilled-out haze in the music’s triumphant blend of classic and contemporary Black pop, but House of Music quietly revealed a band that was at a crossroads. The internal strife that resided within the family band grew tense and external forces of the music business were pulling them apart. Upon its initial release in November of 1996, House of Music peaked on the Billboard 200 chart at number thirty-two, while reaching Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart at number ten. By the summer of the following year, the album was certified platinum.
Following a nearly ten-year standing as one of R&B’s most creative vanguards, the Tonies officially called it quits a year after the release of this album. House of Music may not have equaled or exceeded the commercial heights that Sons of Soul and The Revival reached, but it proved to be the summation of everything the Oakland soul brothers ever sought to accomplish musically (often rivaling its predecessor Sons of Soul as their peak record). They went out on top and didn’t look back. While they managed to take on successful endeavors in their post-Tony! Toni! Toné! careers, its members have yet to match the bar of excellence and tranquility captured on this glorious epic.
In listening to this beautiful masterpiece of revivalist soul twenty years later, thoughts will congregate in your mind on what could have been had the band stayed together. Then, memories will begin to unfold on where you were when you first heard it. House of Music may have been built out of madness, but it sure feels good when its groove hits you.