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Diamond in the Rough

Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Dawn Robinson and Raphael Saadiq form an R&B trinity in Lucy Pearl.

Superstar collaborations now seem de rigueur for any hip-hop album or movie soundtrack that utilizes urban contemporary vibes to score points with audiences. But how many of these collaborations actually occur and succeed on the artist's own terms, and how many just exist as a result of some executive producer's conception of a wet-dream team? Consider the Firm, the Dre-produced super group of Nas, Nature, AZ and Foxy Brown that no one's heard a damn thing from lately: After dropping the much-hyped The Album in 1997, the combo didn't even brave a sophomore release. Far too often, the result of these supergroup projects is a product that fails to measure up to the standards set by the individuals in their respective previous musical efforts. But if any group can take on this argument, Lucy Pearl seems well positioned to do so.

Composed of Raphael Saadiq of the R&B/smooth-funk band Tony!Toni!Toné!, En Vogue alum Dawn Robinson, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, longtime DJ for the recently defunct A Tribe Called Quest, the group got its first exposure with "Dance Tonight," a song that was featured on the soundtrack to the Spike Lee/Sam Kitt film Love & Basketball and the band's debut self-titled full-length, both of which were released this past spring. According to Saadiq, the group had existed as a musical entity long before the single's inclusion on the film's soundtrack. "I had a vision for a while of just putting together a group of collective artists," he says. "Me and Ali Shaheed have done a lot of production work together, and we were like, 'Let's put a group together.' We just started from there.'"

Initially conceived as Linwood Rose, a project that also involved D'Angelo, the duo eventually had to look for another singer, because the soulster was immersed in the recording of his own sophomore CD, Voodoo (which featured Saadiq, who co-penned and produced the album's number-one hit single "Untitled"). For Saadiq, the decision to enlist Robinson as the band's vocalist was an easy one. Saadiq and Robinson had known each other growing up in Oakland; when he approached her about joining Lucy Pearl, she felt so enthused about the project that she temporarily put her own solo work on the back burner. Despite reservations from RCA, who had offered Robinson a solo deal, the singer embraced the opportunity to express her own creative desires rather then have them dictated from a record label and outside producers, which she says was often the case with her former group. Saadiq clearly stresses the benefit of enlisting a voice that helped sell millions of records in the '90s. "Dawn definitely brings the vocals," he says. It's a mild understatement: Robinson's smooth, saucy vocals give the group a more balanced, well-rounded sound. Not to mention a heap of diva appeal.

Ali, who helped create Tribe's signature sound, spices up the group with a hip-hop flavor that adds just the right amount of texture to its urban-sophisticate flow. "Ali definitely brings the hip-hop side. He brings the whole strong beat and the strong will to take it further, and to keep the beats not wack," Saadiq says. "He is always thinking about that." As a DJ, Ali hasn't had a whole lot of experience of playing with live musicians; judging by the band's recording, working with Lucy Pearl has inspired him to envision the turntable in a band context and to further develop his skills on the bass and the guitar, all of which he utilizes on Lucy Pearl.

It is this live instrumentation that helps set Lucy Pearl apart from the average prefabricated R&B groups currently dominating urban commercial radio -- an aspect that has everything to do with Saadiq's talents as a multi-instrumentalist. When an R&B or hip-hop artist wants someone to lace their tracks with some blazing, soulful guitar, Saadiq is often the player whose phone starts ringing; Q-Tip and D'Angelo are some of the more notable artists with whom he has worked recently. As an artist influenced by everyone from Albert King and Albert Collins to Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Spanky" Alford and Kenny Burrell, Saadiq laments the fact that his penchant for plugging in is viewed as uncommon on urban radio. "You just don't hear that on the radio in black music," he says. "It's sad that you don't -- 'cause they're sleeping on what we created."

Initially, radio slept on Lucy Pearl in general. Eventually, though, listener response forced more stations to add the band to their playlists. Radio stations like KKBT-FM/The Beat in Los Angeles began to get so many requests for "Dance Tonight" that the single initially became the station's number-one record -- no small feat, considering the station reaches more than 4.5 million listeners. Most likely, it was the symmetry that exists in the interplay between Saadiq and Robinson's voices that caused listeners and programmers to take notice of what Lucy was doing. The pairing might not make people forget Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell just yet, but it does showcase two artists whose silky-smooth voices complement one another well. The album demonstrates a truly democratic approach to production and performance, as each member has opportunities to showcase his individuality in a way that gently reminds the listener of the artist's past work.

 

"We more or less thought about representing each other as best as we could, because we had already been successful," says Saadiq. "We saw it as something that represented A Tribe Called Quest, the Tonies and En Vogue. We tried to do something we liked and something we thought that the people would like without giving up the things we liked -- and to not do it to be too commercial."

The record definitely has its share of radio-friendly tracks, but it also takes chances. The cut "Hollywood," which Ali put together, is a straightahead blues rocker that interpolates Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Cry the Bad Man." The group rewrites this track as an indictment against the record industry, with Robinson at the vocal helm. In a manner that suggests a cross between a drinking-days Bonnie Raitt on a bender and Rufus-era Chaka Khan, she sings, "Like a cheating man's mission/They take you out commission/Suck you dry and then move on to the next/Fill your head with stardom promises/ Make their money then they leave you for dead...Hollywood I don't agree what you want me to be." Similarly defiant is the track "They Can't," which starts off with Ali scratching over Notorious B.I.G.'s "The Long Kiss Goodnight." In a style characteristic of her En Vogue days, Robinson sings: "They can't handle us 'cause they can't step on us/And they can't use us up no more/They tried to funk with us/but they can't put a stop to us 'cause they can't control us no more." Knowing Tribe's acrimonious relationship with Jive Records and Robinson's split with En Vogue, one could read this as a declaration of independence of sorts. Saadiq released the record out on his own Pookie Records -- a fact that allows these formerly major-label-affiliated artists to have more creative and financial control over their product.

Lucy Pearl earns points for deft eclecticism as it moves seamlessly from a Skynyrd revamp to the folkish "Remember the Times," which has a Beck-like melody (as if sung by Prince) and features a sultry classic R&B chorus sung by Robinson. Some of the other diverse tracks include the song "Do it for the People" -- which sounds like it could have felt right at home on fellow Bay Area brethren Sly and the Family Stone's classic There's a Riot Goin' On -- as well as a marching-band version of "Dance Tonight," which Saadiq recorded with the Alabama A&M marching band. "Some friends of mine went to Alabama A&M and they wrote music for A&M. I was like 'Yo, wouldn't it be hot if a college band were to play one of my songs?' I always wanted to do that. I kept [imagining] people like Master P using a band in his video and Destiny's Child using a band in their video. I was like, 'Somebody's going to actually do it.'"

Does he think they'll play the song during halftime at football games?

"Oh, yeah, they'll be bumping it," he says. "I'll be surprised if I don't hear it."

Overall, Lucy Pearl sounds best when its members lock into the in-your-face funk of tracks like "Trippin'" and "Can't Stand your Mother" and the optimistic mellow grooves of "Everyday" and "Good Love." This album is not your typical watered-down R&B, nor is it so experimental that it will alienate the average listener. Musically, the record is positioned somewhere between En Vogue's cover of Curtis Mayfield's "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," the Tonies' "Anniversary" and D'Angelo's latest. For Saadiq, the ultimate Lucy Pearl experience comes about when the band translates its record onto the stage. Live performances don't consist of knob-twisters, lip-syncers, and flashy choreographed dance routines. Rather, Saadiq aspires to show what a real R&B group is capable of doing on stage. "My experience of doing a record and playing live is totally different," he says, "because my vision is to always play live even though the record sounds a certain way. I know that sometimes, in a weird way, the industry and the radio world can't really swallow an album that's really live right now, so we have to give it to 'em that way in spoonfuls, baby-feed them. Then, at the show, you just have to break it out on them and give them the Big Kahuna. It's live, no holding back. You've got your guitar solos, guitars screaming. You don't have that on radio."

 

Expectations will certainly be high for this group. And there will be those who will expect Lucy Pearl to suffer the same kind of sophomore jinx that has plagued similarly star-studded affairs. According to Saadiq, that won't be the case with his group, which is already at work writing material for a new album.

That's good news for those who love Lucy.


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