Interview conducted by Marcus Harrison Green
Never call legendary R&B group Tony!Toni! Tone! “old school.” Ageless better befits the group that ruled urban airwaves for the first half of the 90’s according to founding member Dwayne Wiggins. With their ode to long term matrimony(Anniversary), a compulsive dance anthem (dance spasm) (Feels Good), and their musical aphrodisiac for baby conception (Lay your head on my Pillow) still blaring from the ear buds of those born after the groups pinnacle the assessments hard to argue.
Though founded in Oakland by brothers Wiggins and Raphael Saadiq, along with their cousin Timothy Christian Riley, the group cut their teeth at local Seattle clubs during their early days between tours with Earth, Wind and Fire and N.W.A. “I’m surprised the streets aren’t still on fire from our time there,” jokes Wiggins about the group’s time performing twice a day for weekly bookings in the Emerald City.
Wiggins, and a new look Tony! Toni! Tone return near those streets on Saturday with their unique blend of soul, dance, and funk to headline the Second Annual Houser Street Music Festival benefiting the Emergency Feeding Program of Seattle and King County. They’ll join local favorites the Black Stax, Mycle Wastman and Tiffany Wilson.
The Emerald spoke with Wiggins about the group’s evolution, the need for artists to become activists, the state of the music industry, independent media, and why despite nearly two decades in the business Tony! Toni! Tone! is just getting started.
What’s been the starkest change in the music industry since you guys first started out in the late 80’s?
Dwayne Wiggins: Music has seen at least 4 different formats since we’ve been performing. I’ve seen it go from records, to 8-Tracks, to CDs, and now digital. What’s really changed though is the budget record labels give groups. We were on the tail end of the artist development phase. A label would really put time into nurturing an artist, nowadays they put someone out there with a hit single but who’s not able to perform. True artists go out and put on an exciting show and let the crowd be their A & R for them. They have good hooks and good lyrics.
How have you guys evolved as a group?
Wiggins: We didn’t learn to really professionally produce an album until after our first one dropped. Before that, our production was more just raw energetic black music, Jimi Hendrix style. Ed Eckstein [our first producer] brought that commercial vibe to us. As far as our continued evolution, we’re still about drums, guitar, and beat machines, which is why we’re still fresh and new. I still view us as very creative. If you look now, the style we were using in the 90’s has come back in today’s sound. Turn on the radio today or tomorrow and you can hear our style in there. We’ve always merged the old school and new school, that’s why we’ve always appealed to audiences from the 60’s, 70’s and today.
You guys have a new look from what most fans remember. Your cousin Amar Khalil replaced your brother and lead singer Raphael Saadiq. Are you concerned you guys might have missed a beat?
Wiggins: Hell to the nah (laughter)!!! We haven’t missed a beat at all. Every time we perform it’s a party, not a concert. Even though Raphael won’t be there, he’ll be there in spirit. Our younger cousin Amar holds it down. We look at Tony! Toni! Tone like a winery… a family business. Everyone comes in and contributes and it’s cool.
Looking around at the musical landscape today, who would you say is an heir apparent to Tony! Toni! Tone!?
Wiggins: I know he’s actually more rap, but J Cole has some really nice lyrical content. I’m of the mindset that if you don’t have anything to say, you should just shut up. Artists today have a tremendous opportunity to speak out and say something about the state of our world today, and they should say it. Artists need to be more tactful in what they do instead of being pimped by the almighty green dollar.
You guys have been heavily involved in political activism early on in your careers. You say artists need to stop being pimped by dollar signs and get engaged. How so?
Wiggins: Artists, especially Black artists, need to do a lot less talking and a lot more doing. The stage is a powerful thing. I like performing live. I always tell people that the only reason radio supported us when we started out was because the people supported us. We cannot use this opportunity as performers to take b.s. to the people. We don’t have that luxury as Black artists to do that to our people.
Black lives have always mattered, which is why we need to continue to support our people. Anything that I’m doing I’m supporting my people. If I’m in need of a mechanic I’m taking my car to a Black one in my community even if it cost $20 more. Music can really be the backbone of that support.
What artists do you applaud for their current level of political engagement?
Wiggins: I think many of the people we helped develop at the early stages of their careers. I see Beyonce, Alicia Keys, and Keyshia Cole doing great things. Even though we’re not directly around them anymore it’s just great to see what they’ve done since their early days. I just love to see our people winning because you feel like you’re winning too. People talk about player hating, but I never got what was so great about hating on a person just because they’re successful.
Outside of touring, what projects are you working on currently?
Wiggins: I’m getting into media. Media is what controls how people see each other, as you know. This information we have, if we don’t pass it on to the next generation to help educate them it’ll be a sin. With coding, hack-a-thons and everything else that is popping up in Black communities across the country we need to get our kids educated about these opportunities and media is the way to do it.
What can people expect Saturday night? You guys recently played Wembley Stadium, Saturday’s venue at the Emergency Feeding Program will definitely be much more intimate.
Wiggins: We absolutely love the smaller clubs. I’m a child of the 70’s and grew up performing in small clubs all the time. In fact, when we first started out, fresh from East Oakland we would come up to Seattle and do residencies at clubs downtown playing two shows a night. I always tell new artists that they need the experience of being in one place for a week or two, to really develop your craft and learn how to read a crowd. Seattle is perfect for that. People can expect one of the best shows they’ve ever seen, because we’re about to do it big time Saturday night!
Emerald Staff’s Top 5 Tony! Toni! Tone! Songs
The Second Annual Houser Street Music Festival takes place on Saturday, Aug 20 from 11am to 8pm at 851 Houser Way N 98057. Tickets are available here.