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Tony! Toni! Toné! / Tony Toni Tone

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In certain circles, Tony Toni Tone can do no wrong. In the ten years that have passed from recording their stunning debut Who? (1988) to their fourth disc House of Music (1997), this trio of Bay Area born-boys have built a brilliant new soundfactory that has incorporated various elements of doo-wop, funky cosmic stop, riverboat jazz, holy rolling gospel, tumbling dice hip-hop and the blare of rock show guitars, as they created their own brand of funk from this strange brew of sounds. "Where we grew up there was always music blasting out of people's front doors," says Raphael Saadiq. "There were just all of these influences literally flying through the air." With the release of their much-anticipated Greatest Hits collection, these sons of soul get a chance to be musically flashy while stacking there collected works for the world to hear. The Greatest Hits collection should be viewed like an art-show at a museum. These are the best pieces from the band's first ten years, but the next ten years will be even better.

With a blend of old school soulboy rawness and the cutting edge inventiveness of new school hiphop culture; Tony Toni Tone first crashed out of their musical ghetto in 1988 with their gold debut Who?, introducing the world to their own funky hybrid of new world order. "We came at a time when there were few Black bands on the charts," recalls the group's butter-voiced singer Raphael Saadiq. At the time they had no concept that they would be the architects of a new movement in music. Yet along with his dread-locked guitarist brother D'wayne Wiggins and the soft-spoken drummer/friend Timothy Christian Riley, this rhythmic trio of West Coast jukebox junkies would become the spiritual godfathers for a bunch of '90s soul-heads including Family Stand, D'Angelo, Maxwell, Tony Rich, Cory Glover, among others.

In the beginning the fellows from Tony Toni Tone weren't trying to follow their dreams, they were just having fun. Chillin' in their hometown of Oakland, California -- the Mecca of West Coast hipness that is the stomping grounds for musical legends Larry Graham, Ike Turner and Tower of Power -- the fellas were already known as the baddest players in the hood. "When we first started playing gigs it was more like a hobby than a business," remembers D'wayne. "We would play in backyards and bars, folks walking around wearing our name on t-shirts. In other words, we had the vibe."

It began when Tony Toni Tone went into the Sacramento-based Moon Studios to record the gospel inspired "Little Walter," the group's first single. While their contemporaries were busting a move and new jack swinging until dawn, Tony Toni Tone were revisiting their Union Baptist Church memories. Inspired by the traditional gospel song "Wade in the Water," Tony Toni Tone created "Little Walter," beginning the alternative soul revolution on urban radio. From the gospel-inspired to the purely secular, the follow-up track "Baby Doll" was a pure Mack Daddy vibe that helped restore real music to the airwaves. With its piano solos, kick ass bassline and chocolate harmonies, the Foster/McElroy produced track, which was written by the Tony's is a mid-uptempo lullaby sung to their personal sweethearts. "Our only goal with "Baby Doll" was to create a song that was rooted in authentic soul," says D'wayne. "We didn't think of ourselves as being retro, we just made the kind of music that we liked ourselves.

After performing countless showcases and practicing their skills in the studio, Tony Toni Tone slowly progressed into the powerful self-contained trio of beat masters who kept their eyes on the prize. "When we told people we were going to produce our second album, they thought we were crazy," laughs Raphael. "But in order for us to continue growing as a band, it was important that we also did our thing in the studio."

Released in 1990 to both critical and popular acclaim, Tony Toni Tone's second album The Revival was the project where the boys in the band would come together against all odds to create a dope masterwork. The single "It Never Rains (In Southern California)" was one of the first tracks recorded for the project. "We were trying to create a classic vibe," says D'wayne. "I remember that Tim dropped off the track at the hotel and Saadiq just started writing and rearranged it to its final stage." As a melodic red-light-bulb in the basement, slow-grind after-midnight ballad, "It Never Rains (In Southern California)" strokes one's cheek with the slow hand.

The track "The Blues," was perhaps intended as the perfect anthem for all the broken-hearted, high-heeled gold diggers in their designer threads. "All of our music at that time was created by trial and error," kids Raphael. "Sometimes there was more error than I'd care to remember." Producing "The Blues" was a learning experience for us all," he continues. "It was a magical time for everyone involved, because the music was just flowing from us. Our only goal was to compose great songs, it wasn't about maintaining trends."

Recorded at the legendary Cam-Am studios, the uplifting soul jam "Feel's Good" was a song that could make a mountain shake its booty and change its name to volcano. "Although we were lacking in the proper equipment and production skills, we knew what it took to make people dance," says D'wayne. "On this song we wanted people to have fun. There were balloons hanging in the studio and incense burning, it was like we were having our own party."

Laughing, Raphael adds, "We were trying to create a song that would work. What we got was like light-weight Funkadelic, but it worked for us."

On their third disc Sons of Soul (1990), most of which was recorded in a remote studio in Trinidad, Tony Toni Tone composed "Anniversary," perhaps one of their most perfect ballads since Earth, Wind & Fire's "Reasons," a '70s soul classic. "That's a song I will never forget recording," says Saadiq. "I had laid down some tracks in Los Angeles, but I finished it at the Hit Factory Studios in New York at 6 a.m. Looking out of the window as the sun began to creep out, there was a purely romantic feeling in the pre-dawn New York air."

From ultra-romantic to funhouse funky, the track "If I Had No Loot," was the dancing machine fever factory, that in the words of D'wayne, "Combined blues drama and breakbeat, to talk about some fair-weather friends one gets when they're in the music business. When people say 'Money changes everything it's true."

After touring the world and taking time off to work on outside projects (Raphael contributed to D'Angelo's stellar debut disc Brown Sugar), Tony Toni Tone regrouped in their Cali studios to create their outstanding last disc House of Music, named after the mom 'n' pop record shack where the fellas once bought their black velvet posters and roach clips. As Raphael wold tell Vibe magazine, "The stuff I was singing on House of Music was a raw testimonial of passion. There's no way I could sing those songs and not feel them."

The first single dropped was the raw "Let's Get Down," which used the services of popular West Coast rapper DJ Quik. "We were aiming for a funky guitar vibe on that track," says D'wayne. "Merging styles once again by combining our own smooth texture with what Quik was doing." On "Annie Mae," D'wayne Wiggins journeys to the underground world of strip clubs and dirty dancing. "The person I wrote that track about is a girl I knew in Berkley who was a student. Later, I found out that she was an exotic dancer at a local spot. At first it bugged me out, because she wasn't the type of person I associated with strippers," says D'wayne. With a wicked saxophone solo that recalls the Tower of Power horn section, "Annie Mae" sails towards the ghetto heaven on the wing of a noire angel.

The country-boy smoothness of "Thinking of You" was recorded at three o'clock in the morning. "I'm not sure what was going through my mind," says Saadiq, "but for some reason I had Al Green in my mind and that's what I released."

In addition to their countless jams from yesterday, Tony Toni Tone gives the listener a hint of what is in store for the future. Originally produced by Babyface and Saadiq for the Soul Food soundtrack and remixed by Quik for this project, "Boys and Girls" is a welcome addition to Tony Toni Tone's lexicon of soul. "Working with Babyface was great," says Raphael Saadiq. "I not only enjoyed his skills as a producer/guitar player, but we also got into some deep conversations about the state of Black music. He's an alright brother to rap with."

With the release of Tony Toni Tone's Greatest Hits, the band ends one chapter of their career while beginning to build on where the next ten years will be taking them. "Our greatest achievement as a band is just the fact that we've stayed together all these years," says D'wayne. "And hopefully we will be here forever."

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