Former Tonyies man Elijah “E.B.” Baker is out of jail and back on Park Avenue.
Story by Dan Dodds
When Oakland based producer and original Tony Toni Toné member Elijah “E.B.” Baker walked out of prison – the Big Spring Federal Correctional Institution in Texas – he left with more than just the shirt on his back. Released from the joint with a fresh batch of new songs in the back pocket of the clothes he had last worn when he arrived 4 years prior, he immediately set about gathering the group members of Park Avenue back together, a northern Californian super-group that he created shortly before he was incarcerated, to record the tunes he fleshed out on the clink’s own acoustic guitar.
“We called the album Soulpilation because the music is played with that passion,” explains Elijah, in a baritone speaking voice, almost as deep as the sound his bass made when he plucked it on tour with the Tonyies. “It’s live instrumentation, authentic and timeless,” he continues, “a sound kept true to what we, Park Avenue, believe as a group. Not a sound that’s gonna change every three months – the variety of R&B we would listen to back when local Bay Area station KSOL used to play funk, soul, medium tempo and slow, like a classic soul compilation.”
Born and raised to the soundtrack of black music’s finest, Elijah can reel off the names of the artists who inspired him and the group, whilst on the come-up in Oakland, California.
“Marvin Gaye, Cameo, Bootsy Collins and Funkadelic, Al Green, The Stylistics, Earth Wind and Fire, Pilgrim Jubilee, Chic, Larry Graham… ah man, who else? Marvin Gaye… ” Elijah stops himself, “Wait, did I say Marvin twice?” He laughs.
Just like Gaye, EB is the son of a preacher man. His father, the Reverend Elijah Baker Sr, is a gospel singer, who, along with his wife, brought up the kids Lil’ Lij Junior and his brother Kenya [it was Kenya’s studio where the lion-share of Soulpilation was recorded] in a bonafide house of music. Elijah’s high school yearbook names him as “the best dancer” too, a title he earned after winning a body-poppin’ contest “The girls loved it,” says Elijah, adding, “In fact, the girls still love it!”
He graduated in ’86 and joined six-man rhythm and blues combo Tony Toni Toné with his first cousin Raphael Saadiq, handling the choreography and playing bass on tour. But Saadiq – who recorded every bassline, on every Tonyies recording – was such an expert bass player himself that Baker was determined to show what his own chops sounded like in the studio. After the false start of his 2006 debut Street Save Ya [which included the excellent slow jam My Everything, a duet with his God-sister Ms. Monet] was credited, due to a proof reading mishap, as a solo record by ‘Elijah’, Soulpilation is the first album to officially bear the name of the Park Avenue universe.
“This is ‘Town Business’!” says Baker who corralled a community of largely Bay Area based pro-musicians into one gospeldelic, funky soul unit. It displays a similar mentality to the Parliafunkadelicment thang when George Clinton opined, ‘I think Motown was a band – all the players, singers and producers, were all part of one great big band.”
Although the songs are personal, telling the story of his time in jail, it was natural, says Elijah – who learned how to master the guitar inside – for him to imagine them on other Park Avenue contributors.
“When I write a song it doesn’t matter what key it’s in and whether it’s in my key,” Elijah explains. “If it isn’t my key, then the song isn’t meant for me, but I always know exactly who I do want to sing it within the group.”
Park Avenue’s East Coast based Mario Corbino is a proper soul vocalist – like Jody took his girl and gone – who leads throughout Soulpilation, most notably on the Al Green styled I Can’t Take It and the gorgeous, bittersweet duet with Silk-E, entitled No More.
Says Elijah: “Mario can pretty much sing it all. He moves around the globe, on tour, singing soul, but we established a brotherhood, me and him, and when it’s time to work I can count on him. Silk-E is a vocal superstar, better than Lauryn Hill and just as good as a rapper. She will give 110 percent; I can’t turn her down!” Elijah laughs, “Man, I would put her up against anybody in the world.”
Baker’s brother-in-law, is guitar legend and former TTT colleague John ‘Jubu’ Smith. [Says Van Hunt: “I wish Jubu would do a gospel quartet album and stop playing around!”] He solos on the penultimate track, Special, [as does Doc Powell] – vocals by Elijah & Billy Ray Kemp.
“Me and Billy Ray [who was backing singer for Saadiq on his The Way I See It & Stone Rollin’ tours] sung quartet together as kids, and when he did a gospel CD I heard the strength in his writing. He’s an all-star, whatever-you-need kinda guy; he plays drums too, and bass… ”
Elijah starts laughing,
“He had the nerve to bring his bass to my session! I said ‘Whatchu doin’ Billy Ray? You ain’t gonna play bass on my record!’”
When Elijah was locked up, he re-imagined his dad’s feel-good congregation pleaser Never Had It So Good as a stylistic, sweet soul jam.
“I wanted to play that for my father soon as I got out, I called him on the phone and said, ‘I stole yo’ song and made it mine!’”
His Dad’s version has also been released on the Baker produced, Palm Of His Hand, a gospeldelic beauty. Along with Mario, EB & Otis Cooper [of Otis & Shugg], young Bay Area R&B hotshot Adrian Marcel also appears.
“Adrian loved the song. He made it sound like now, like something that should be on the radio today. It was just some of that ol’ magic when it came together.”
Ms. Monet also got to feature on a Park Avenue record again.
“She’s like, one of the guys. I mean she’s pretty harsh,” laughs Elijah, “I thought she was gonna miss out – she’s been on the road with Boz Scaggs, like, forever, but eventually came over and kicked the door down.”
Ms. Monet features on several cuts, including the hazy funk of 4/20 OG Kush [also featuring rappers E-40 and Too $hort]. Drummer extraordinaire John Roberts is in the mix on the funk of We Had To Do It – enticed to take part after watching one of the many, legendary “Lij’ Live” sessions on Facebook Live – as is Billy Ray on programming. “I told you, Billy Ray’s good ain’t he?” says Elijah.
The first single is the unabashedly romantic Touch My Stick, proper thang-music, co-written with Raphael Saadiq, who also features. The initial verse has Elijah boasting about one of his main physical attributes – a lyric so meaningful to its author he has to hit a “Rewind!” halfway through.
“I had to repeat it,” says Elijah, “just in case in you missed it.”
The sincere album opener Guilty and the moving Ride are also both sung by Baker, recalling his experiences and emotional state whilst serving time, incarcerated for a white collar crime.
“You’re an open book in there. Everybody knows when you eat, when you go to the bathroom, to the rec yard… your whole schedule. So you hear these profound stories, but you can’t talk to loved ones on the outside world. You can’t tell ‘em and I couldn’t take it. I felt nervous all the time. I Can’t Take It really is a true story.
“It was so bitter in there man; everybody was losing their girlfriends and their wives you know? It was a real tough.”
Despite producing and touring with the likes of Lucy Pearl, DJ Quik, Too $hort, Alicia Keys, The Smshng Hrts & Snoop Dogg after he left Tony Toni Toné, the name Elijah Baker is still relatively unsung outside of the Bay Area.
“I always got hidden behind the three [Raphael, Dwayne Wiggins & Tim Christian Riley],” says Baker, “No-one really knew – or believed – that I could do it on my own.”
They do now.
Soulpilation by Park Avenue is out now on Ambitious Records