When Raphael Saadiq, formerly of the dynamic funky/soul band Tony! Toni! Tone!, Dawn Robinson of the trend-setting diva girl group En Vogue and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of the ground-breaking hip-hop unit A Tribe Called Quest came together, it wasn’t to harness nuclear power, reduce the national deficit or plug up the ozone. Hey, it’s cool if those things happen, but grooving under the name Lucy Pearl, the trio’s unified desire is simply to have fun while making some great music.
The group’s debut CD, collectively written, produced and performed by Saadiq, Robinson and Muhammad and to be released on Saadiq’s Pookie Records in conjunction with Beyond Music, is as disparate, passionate, funky, fun and occasionally downright brilliant as you’d expect from the former integral members of three of black pop’s most influential platinum groups of the 90’s.
Just who, or more precisely what, is Lucy Pearl? Well, it’s more than just the cool moniker that embodies the music; Lucy Pearl is the melodic fourth entity morphed from the dynamic ambition of three multi-talented singers, songwriters and musicians, all of whom bring their own brown bags to the musical party.
Think of a progressive melange of hip-hop and R&B, thoroughly modern, yet supremely organic. And sexy. Think soulful singing, often couched in sultry harmonies, over funky, head-bobbing grooves. Think Sly and the Family Stone (just a little) if that legendary band had embraced turntables and scratching. Think cutting-edge hip-hop lab work accented by real bass and guitar. Think the Mod Squad if everybody could musically throw down. Envision an alternative to today’s Funk-From-Concentrate, and you’ve got Lucy Pearl. And Lucy’s got you.
“This group is about three people just getting together and doing what they do,” Raphael says of the new musical venture. “I think many artists of our stature who are in bands and make records have been looking for a unique situation like this.”
“I know I have,” says Dawn. “It’s a great opportunity that I didn’t want to miss.”
Lucy Pearl was formed in the summer of ’99. All three members were free of their respective musical situations and seeking new challenges when Raphael presented first Muhammad and then Dawn with the idea of a new musical unit.
“It wasn’t anything definite at first,” says Ali, “and we’d talked about inviting other musicians as well. The idea, whatever it was going to be, was to collaborate with people that you wouldn’t really imagine being together. That’s ultimately how this happened.”
Dawn was about to sign a solo contract with a major label when she got word that Raphael and Ali wanted her to make their brave new world complete. “When they told me what they wanted to do, I was immediately excited,” she says. “To think, I almost missed out!”
The trio wasted little time getting into the studio, and once there, the creative synergy was immediate. “The music started coming so quickly,” says Ali. “I’m used to taking, like, a year to make a record, and we were coming up with songs the first day. As a DJ, I hadn’t worked with a lot of music that is actually played, so that was also a new experience for me. But it inspired me.” So much so, that Ali, who’d been playing bass guitar a couple of years before Lucy Pearl, has picked up guitar as well.
Dawn revels in Lucy Pearl’s seat-of-the-pants creative process. “These guys will lay a musical snippet down and abandon it, I’ll hear it and start writing on it and suddenly it’s a song. That’s the great thing, the spontaneity.”
Of course, neither Dawn, Ali, nor Raphael are strangers to major pop music success. Dawn, born in Connecticut and raised in Oakland, California, hails from a family where everyone sings. She honed her big voice first in church choirs and later Top 40 club bands.
Her 1988 audition as a founding member of the Atlantic girl group En Vogue changed her life. In turn, the group, via best-selling albums such as Born To Sing and Funky Divas and hit singles like “Hold On,” “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” and “Free Your Mind,” altered the international girl group terrain. Dawn left the group for higher ground in 1997, but not before tearing a vocal hole in the hit “(Don’t Let Go) Love” from the Set It Off soundtrack. The group hasn’t been the same since.
Ali, meanwhile was born and raised in (where else?) Brooklyn, New York, or, as he calls it, “The home of hip-hop.” When he was just a child, he listened to the radio, believing that the records played were actually performed by all those acts live from the radio station. His imagination served him well when, not even in his teens, he began studying rap DJ’s spin and scratch at Brooklyn block parties.
He picked up sax at age 13 but directed his true creative energies to mastering the turntable and participating in the fierce musical battles of rappers and DJ’s that would make muggy Brooklyn weekends even hotter. In high school, he met a young rapper/writer calling himself Q-Tip, and ultimately all hell broke loose. Jumping off in 1990, A Tribe Called Quest (which included rapper Phife), through intelligent, funky Jive CDs such as People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders and Beats, Rhymes and Life, re-wrote hip-hop history. A force in the hip-hop world, as a DJ, producer and writer, Ali is credited with changing the game by ingeniously fusing R&B and jazz in hip-hop. Ali was also part of the musical team that created singer/songwriter D’Angelo’s landmark 1995 hip-hop infused soul CD, Brown Sugar.
Raphael, born and raised in Oakland’s hotbed of musicality, came up listening to everyone from gospel to Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell and Sly and the Family Stone. The influences served the bassist/singer/songwriter well in his musical molding of Tony! Toni! Tone!, the band he formed with brother guitarist Dwayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian.
Tonies cohesive, fun and romantic meld of old school soul and modern funk proved irresistible to a legion of fans internationally, who made best-selling albums out of such Mercury/Wing albums as the 1988 debut Who?, The Revival, Sons of Soul and House of Music and hit singles as soulfully diverse as the smooth “Anniversary” and the funky “Let’s Get Down.” Saadiq, who officially split the band in 1998, has worked with artists as varied as rocker John Mellencamp, pop icons the Bee Gees and D’Angelo, and is the last of a rare breed of multi-musician working in black music, proficient on guitar and keyboards as well.
All that is in the past. Right now, for Raphael, Dawn and Ali, it’s all about Lucy Pearl. “The beauty is that it is a total collaboration,” says Dawn. “We can go anywhere at any time, do whatever we want and then come back. It’s like home.”
“But it is a real group,” adds Ali. “The challenge is to translate Lucy Pearl from the studio to the stage.”
According to Raphael, that’ll be easy. “We’ll just do whatever we feel.”
And with these three musical renegades, that could be anything. Because it’s Lucy Pearl’s world.
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