Hundreds of years from now archaeologists might uncover neon colored artifacts from the late ’80s and early 90s and wonder what the big jewelry, and puffy clothes were all about. Of course, they would be unearthing elements of hip hop and new jack swing (NJS). In many ways it was a horrible period stylistically with just a few individuals leading the way creatively while heards of hastily made record company clones followed as best they could.
The problem was that everyone wanted that new jack swing sound, to the detriment of just about any other style that was not Prince-centric. Even offshoots of the Minneapolis camp would eventually give in to NJS. That’s what makes the Oakland based band Tony! Toni! Tone! so special. In the midst of sound alike cookie cutter R&B acts, a few friends based across the bay developed a style that payed homage to the soul greats of the past while embracing modern R&B conventions.
Led primarily by Dwayne and Ralphel Wiggins who originally came from Virginia, Tony! Toni! Tone! was first and foremost a real band with members who actually played instruments, not just video dancers. Their first album Who? mixed vintage soul with the slick sheen of modern new jack swing.
While not particularly acclaimed by the press at the time, few would have foreseen Tony! Toni! Tone!’s creative and commercial rise in the years to come. They went on to create what would become a spring board for a string of interesting albums and a solo career for Raphael Wiggins (later known as Raphael Saadiq). They were also instrumental in kindling the fires of the early Retro Soul movement.
As the silly name Tony! Toni! Tone! might suggest, Why? would be a playful collection of fun songs with left field influences. Songs like the funky “Born Not to Know” and swinging “Baby Doll” were great examples of the harmony, rhythm and melody the band became known for. It was like hearing early Keith Sweat, but with some musical depth.
Perhaps the albums best song was its biggest hit and first single. “Little Walter” was both modern new jack swing and retro ’60s all at once – like much of the album. The songs subject matter served as a warning to those who might be suduced by the allure of the streets. Despite its heavy message,”Little Walter” broke the glass ceiling of R&B radio, top the urban charts and landed on Billboard’s top 50 Pop Chart.
Parts of Why? sound a bit dated today, thanks to the heavy handed production from Denzil and Thomas McElroy, but there is no denying that Tony! Toni! Tone! was on to something special. New fans of Ralpheal Saadiq might want to dig up Why? and see what all the fuss was about. Why? is just one in a list of artifacts from Tony! Toni! Tone! worth uncovering or re-discovering – bright neon parachute pants aside.