For the Producers Raphael Saadiq and Steve Lacy, Collaboration Is Key

For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.

Years before Steve Lacy’s single “Bad Habit” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts and became one of the biggest songs of 2022, he connected with the R&B veteran Raphael Saadiq in an unusually serendipitous way: by running into him in a parking lot.

At the time, around 2017, Saadiq was living above an old bowling alley in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. “All my friends thought I was crazy to live there, but I was just trying to get out of the typical spaces,” he recalled in a recent video interview. One day, when he was walking through the parking lot behind the building, he saw two cats in a car, “listening to music.” It sounded good, so he tapped on the window to pay his respects. One of the guys in the car was Jameel Bruner, formerly of the R&B collective the Internet, who had recently hit a new peak with their 2015 album “Ego Death.” “He said, ‘I’m Thundercat’s little brother’” — referring to the bassist and singer Stephen Bruner — “‘and this is Steve Lacy.’”

That fortuitous encounter sparked a mutual respect and friendship between the artists, whose careers share some parallels. In the late 1980s, Saadiq, now 56, broke out as the lead singer of the band Tony! Toni! Toné!, whose sweet-voiced new jack swing compositions presaged the neo-soul movement that would come to define the ’90s. After leaving the band, he became an in-demand producer for artists like Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, and he also established himself as a solo artist with records like 2002’s “Instant Vintage” and 2008’s “The Way I See It.” Most recently, he worked on Beyoncé’s 2022 LP “Renaissance” and earned an Emmy nomination for his music composition on the HBO show “Lovecraft Country.”

Lacy was barely a teenager when he was recruited by the Internet after meeting Bruner in their high school’s jazz band. (After being nominated for his first Grammy, thanks to his playing on “Ego Death” when he was 17, he couldn’t tour with the band because he had to finish school.) Just as the members of Tony! Toni! Toné! had coaxed Saadiq into becoming their singer, Lacy’s Internet fans urged him to record his own material, beginning with the 2017 EP “Steve Lacy’s Demo.” Last year, Lacy broke out as a bona fide solo star with his “Gemini Rights” LP, which included “Bad Habit” and won the Grammy for best progressive R&B album. He’s also continued to carve out a career as a producer, lending his languid yet sunny guitar tone to artists like Ravyn Lenae, Kali Uchis and Solange.

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