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Time to Jam--or Jam?

The guys in Tony Toni Tone still love playing music together, but core member Raphael Saadiq is ready to explore other outlets before it gets phony, phoni, phone.

January 12, 1997|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

It's raining outside the Paramount Studios sound stage where the members of Tony Toni Tone are jamming, which is curious, since it was a song called "It Never Rains (in Southern California)" that cemented the group's platinum status in the pop and R&B worlds in 1990.

But then, almost everything about Tony Toni Tone is a bit off-kilter.

To start with, none of the three principals is named Tony or Toni or Tone. In addition, the group, which also includes five backing musicians, relies on real musical instruments in an age when most of its best-selling peers depend on samples from old records. And the band performs live rather than lip-syncing on TV shows--including this appearance, a taping for Nickelodeon's "All That."

But the overriding anomaly for the group is that Raphael Saadiq and D'wayne Wiggins, the half brothers who do most of the singing and writing, are growing increasingly apart, with Saadiq talking openly about embarking on a solo career.

If he follows through, longtime fans of the band will certainly think the timing is unfortunate.

It was Tony Toni Tone's "Sons of Soul' album in 1993 that largely sparked the soul music revival that has opened the door for a new generation of singers who build on the tradition of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

The question of the group's future has naturally caused some tension between the brothers, though Wiggins, 34, downplays the matter.

"You can have problems in the business and even problems in the family, but when we're jamming, the energy is just there," he says. "The solo stuff pops up, but first and foremost we're a band. We come from the old school, like the Rolling Stones, where Mick Jagger or Keith Richards can break out and do their own thing but then come back together and it's cool. That's where our heads are at right now."

But Saadiq--who changed his last name from Wiggins in 1994--continues to express disillusionment with the group.

"We're just growing in different directions," the 30-year-old musician says later in a separate interview. "I love my brother and the rest of the guys, but I think that we need to do what we need to do on our own thing, and if it's in the cards for us to do another record as Tony Toni Tone, then that's what will happen. . . .

"I think we'll always get together as a family and jam. But at the same time, it's like being a basketball player--if you have skills, you can play on any other team. I just don't want to stay in the group for another 50 years."

"They have a healthy dose of sibling rivalry," says Ed Eckstine, the former president of Mercury Records, who originaly signed the group while at the subsidiary Wing Records. "When I first signed them, D'wayne, the oldest, had the voice that carried. I think as things progressed, their personalities matured. D'wayne tends to be more laid back while Raphael is driven, and more skeptical.

"I used to tell them . . . , 'You guys need to sit down, haggle out your problems, discuss business issues, and make sense of things.' What would tend to happen is that those issues would get mired in family things, and instead of acting like adults, they'd argue like little kids. Instead of talking it out, a cancer began to grow."

For now, however, everyone in Tony Toni Tone--whose other principal is cousin and drummer Timothy Christian Riley, 30--remains committed to promoting the group's latest album, "House of Music." Whatever the future holds, the Tonys have a long, hard-won legacy that they don't want to tarnish.

Even with the growing tensions, the brothers say there is a special magic when they perform together. That's apparent as bassist Saadiq and guitarist Wiggins trade riffs on the Paramount stage during rehearsal, smiling with each other as if sharing a private joke.

"When we jam, everything's on point," Wiggins says during a lunch interview the day after the rehearsal. The group thrives on performance and looks forward to the live taping of the show later on in the evening. Indeed, the band stopped rehearsing only when stagehands literally unplugged the equipment and started moving it offstage.

"That's what it was like before we got the record deal," Wiggins continues, talking about his relationship with his younger brother. "We'd rehearse and feed off of each other's energy. We were raised together and would hear the same chords when we compose. . . . We have the same feel."

The half brothers, who have the same father but different mothers, grew up in an East Oakland house with eight siblings. Music, especially soul and gospel, nourished them as much as the soul food cooked in their home.

Wiggins remembers the black music of the Bay Area that gave birth to the funk of Sly & the Family Stone and Graham Central Station.

"The way every block now has 10 rappers, there were 10 bands on every block back then," he says. "We used to have battles of the bands and all types of talent shows. Real music in the late '70s, early '80s--that was second nature to us."

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