Happy 25th Anniversary to Tony! Toni! Toné!’s Sons of Soul, originally released June 22, 1993.
Ray Wiggins (famously known today as Raphael Saadiq), his brother D’Wayne, and their cousin Timothy Christian Riley never dug anyone who classified Tony! Toni! Toné! as a pastiche band. In fact, they often cringed at the word retro itself.
When their debut album Who? arrived to an unsuspecting public in 1988, it was a promising, yet inconspicuous start for them. It wasn’t that their agenda of crossing the past and future realms of soul music didn’t have merit. Their streamlined approach just wasn’t primed for its time.
They went back to the drawing board and came up with 1990’s The Revival. Ironing out the tentative kinks of their debut, the band refined the confinements set by those from the flashy new jack swing generation, while strengthening their lyrical and production prowess. Balancing high-powered party anthems (“Feels Good,” “The Blues,” and “Oakland Stroke”) with airy, quiet storm-laden balladry (“Whatever You Want,” “It Never Rains (In Southern California),” and “I Care”), the album gave the band their first taste of artistic independence (they produced all but two songs) and crossover appeal.
But the Bay Area’s first family was still ripe for respect and ingenuity.
By all means, nothing could prepare anyone for what their long-awaited follow-up to The Revival would entail. The Tonies weren’t entirely prepared either, as they hastily jumped from studio to studio throughout California, and then mysteriously skirted out of the States to the tropics of Trinidad and Tobago to refocus their energies on the album. The band’s former collaborators Foster & McElroy were long out of the picture, too.
In the interim of 1991 to 1992, the band rode the success of The Revival, touring in support of the album. They also managed to cut decent songs for notable film soundtracks—Boyz N the Hood (“Just Me and You”), House Party 2 (“House Party (I Don’t Know What You Came to Do)”), and Poetic Justice (“Waiting on You”)—that were stylistically evocative of The Revival’s straitlaced R&B zest.
Suddenly as the ‘90s dawned, the black music climate slowly fell out of favor with glossy new jack swing sensibilities and embraced the grittier modes of a new subgenre hybrid coined “hip-hop soul.” West Coast hip-hop moved to the mainstream and East Coast hip-hop muscled throughout the music landscape. The Tonies opted to pivot from these shifts and dub themselves as a soul outfit, going so far as to denounce their association with contemporary clichés in R&B.
“We don’t dislike the term, but it’s used kind of wrong,” Saadiq remarked during a 1993 New York Times interview. “We call what we do ‘soul R-and-B.’ Just saying ‘R-and-B’ gives the impression that it’s watered down. Our music is more the older-style R-and-B. We go back to the days when it was taken seriously.”
The grueling, yet fruitful experimentation that spawned Sons of Soul marked an artistic reawakening for Tony! Toni! Toné!, as they eschewed their earlier experiments with new jack swing and rose as preeminent modern-day funk and soul bohemians. In crafting this kaleidoscopic masterpiece that paid respectful homage to several of their old and new influences, they constituted classic soul of the past with sultry currents of the present.
The trio refined their own Oakland funk vision, bringing live instrumentation to the forefront and bum-rushing all musical cylinders with ease. The wry humor and sweet sentimentality that stood as the distinctive trademarks in their craft reached a fever pitch. Never before had the band sounded confidently original and dazzling all at once.
“If I Had No Loot” kicks off the album, with a peppy, lithe voiced Saadiq crooning on the deceit and unfaithfulness of fair-weathered friends. A slamming fusion of new jack swing and southern soul, the song features bluesy guitar licks and clever samples from Boogie Down Productions’ “Remix for P is Free” and Ice Cube’s “The Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit.” While the interpolated Ice Cube line: “and you can new jack swing on my nuts,” comically correlates to the subject matter of the song, there’s no coincidence it ignites the sonic palette of this album. In some ways, one can conclude that it’s the band’s extroverted diatribe to the public’s soured assumptions of where they would venture, shortly after the unexpected crossover success of The Revival. Others may even view the line as a badge of freedom from the new jack swing confinements they wanted to part from.
Building on the momentum of “Loot,” Sons of Soul slithers gracefully through a seamless maze of R&B styles and influences, from bristling hip-hop soul (“What Goes Around Comes Around” and “My Ex-Girlfriend”) and plush Philadelphia soul ( “I Couldn’t Keep It to Myself”), to psychedelic pop-soul (“Tell Me Mama” and “Leavin’”) and zonked-out funk (“Gangsta Groove” and “Tonyies! in the Wrong Key”). The Tonies raise their penchant for eclecticism to escapist levels, embracing thumping dancehall flavors (the aptly titled “Dance Hall”) as well as delirium-charged acid jazz (“Fun”).
In the tradition of their usual ballad fare, the band craft supple come-ons that not only effectively set a sensual mood, but flaunt their charming sentimentality. Inspired by the band’s observation of locals slow grinding at block parties during their two-month stay in Trinidad, the silky-smooth “Slow Wine” evokes the sticky-hot chill of an after-hours juke party. The elegant “(Lay Your Head on My) Pillow” follows suit, with a seductive caress and majestic coo that never settles on becoming sleazy or aggressive.
The love-fest moves into transcendental territory with the undeniably grand “Anniversary,” which sports the late great Clare Fischer’s classy string arrangements delectably offset by a laidback, modern soul rhythm. The sumptuous, bolero-inspired ballad has retained its timeless beauty over the years, thanks in part to the song’s earnest lyrics that center on a man’s respect and admiration towards his significant other, while observing the day they first fell in love. Their heavenly sweet tribute to their former high school chorus group, “Castleers” rounds out the set.
The Revival hinted how forward-thinking the Oakland prodigies were in an era where R&B plunged into a creative stupor, but the Tonies upstaged it with flying colors. Sons of Soul solidified their standing as soul music’s defining revivalists and its rewards were sweet. A commercial watershed for the band, the album peaked at #38 on Billboard’s 200 Albums chart and #3 on its R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. It sold upwards of a million copies, eventually becoming their best-selling album. They also scored tons of acclaim and press, elevating their status as critical darlings across the Atlantic. It would take two years for them to regroup to record their 1996 swansong House of Music, before disbanding shortly after.
While their achievements are well-deserved and well-documented, Tony! Toni! Toné!’s indelible imprint on black contemporary music seems undervalued these days. Frustratingly, only their hit singles have garnered mainstream attention as nostalgic relics of a bygone era, while their small, yet worthy catalog is wholly overlooked. Years before a subgenre in the soul pantheon was coined “neo-soul” and jumpstarted the storied careers of fresh-faced youngsters like D’Angelo, Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill, the Tonies were one of its major forbearers, building the foundation with their savvy merger of traditional and contemporary styles.
Sons of Soul’s genre-bending breadth and clever timelessness defied the conventional trends that were exploding in modern R&B, setting a seminal standard for ages to come. Today, its prismatic sonic torch has been passed over to the likes of Anderson .Paak, the Internet, and Moonchild in their respective trajectories. The Bay Area may not have had much else to prove by 1993, but at such a contentious period in the urban music landscape, it certainly had a lot to say. 25 years later, it speaks even louder.