It was the summer of ’74 when I first fell in love with Chaka Khan. Living in Harlem, every radio was tuned to WBLS where “the chief rocker” Frankie Cocker, perhaps the most influential radio jock in America during that era, constantly jammed Rufus’s thrilling Stevie Wonder-penned soul joint, “Tell Me Something Good.” Opening with a killer guitar riff that hooked the Broadway boogie down boys and girls from jump, a few seconds later Khan groaned, “You ain’t got no kind of feeling inside/I got something that sure enough set your stuff on fire.” Like a chocolate volcano erupting sticky lava, soul music just wasn’t the same after Chaka exploded on the scene.
Although at 11 years old, I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about, I was still ready to set myself ablaze if baby girl would just keep on singing. A few weeks later, when the racially mixed band performed on Soul Train to promote their sophomore album Rags to Rufus, many pimple-faced boys my age got the first peek of the fierce fem who’d rock our world for the next four decades.
While the young girls we knew were taping Right On! posters of Michael Jackson on their bedroom walls, my posse of young males was devoted to Chaka Khan. When we finally saw her on Soul Train—with that wild hair, tight jeans and purple sequined tube top—we knew that she was a keeper.
“Lips and hips,” as Frankie Crocker once described her, Chaka was also overflowing with talent. Anybody could be fine, but Chaka was also a genius. With Rufus winning their first Grammy Award the following year, Khan was determined to be to be more than just a sex symbol. As captured in the revealing hour-long documentary Being, (airing tomorrow at 9pm on Centric), the road towards artistic perfection wasn’t always smooth.
“There are so many components that make this icon tick,” says Tanika Ray, the former Extra correspondent who produced Khan’s episode. “Her life hasn’t always been easy, so we got her to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. We got the raw Chaka Khan.”
Ray, a self-professed ’80s baby who first heard Chaka soulfully wailing “I Feel For You” (Khan’s remake of a Prince track from his 1979 debut) says, “I didn’t know anything about her, but I loved her hair. I, too, was a girl with big hair, so when I saw her, I just loved her. Chaka is the type of singer you can’t put in a box. One minute she’s a rock star, the next she’s doing R&B, and then she’ll do some gospel.
When you’re a kid, whatever is taboo, that’s what you go for. I’ve always been about breaking the rules.
“What I admire about her is her spirit, because she doesn’t mince words. It’s impossible to put her in one category. For the show, we tried to get pieces of Chaka that viewers have never seen before, with her telling stories that have never been recorded.”
The Being episode features interviews with Jesse Jackson, Lelah Hathaway, myself (recruited as resident soul man aficionado to boast her skills), and various family members. “They talked to my mother, brother, sister and daughter,” Chaka Khan says via telephone from Los Angeles. “I think this is one of the best shows I’ve done, because it shows the balance between hardcore reality and show business, with me just telling it for real. I really trusted Tanika, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked.”
With a name that literally means “fire,” Chaka has felt her fair share of hellish flames. “I think ‘through the fire’ is the best way to describe what life is about, and what many of us continue to go through,” she says, referencing her 1984 hit. Born Yvette Marie Stevens in 1953, she grew up in the Hyde Park section of Chicago as the eldest of six children.
“Chicago was an interesting city and our neighborhood was very diverse,” Chaka recalls. “I was lucky to grow-up with a lot of culture, raised by parents who were very supportive and innovative. There is a tough side to the city that my parents tried to shield us from, but of course I tried to embrace it. You know, when you’re a kid, whatever is taboo, that’s what you go for. I’ve always been about breaking the rules.”
Forming her first group, the Crystalettes, when she was 11, Chaka got her break locally singing commercial jingles for A&P supermarkets. Joining Rufus in 1972, the group earned six gold or platinum albums before Chaka went solo in 1978. Releasing the Arif Mardin-produced solo project Chaka that same year, her bad mama single “I’m Every Woman” became the diva’s anthem.
“I moved to New York City throughout the ’80s to work with Arif, and he really made an impression on me in a big way,” she says. Mardin produced a few of Khan’s biggest hits including the Paradise Garage favorites “Clouds” and “Papillion,” as well as her mega-hit “I Feel for You.”
Explains Khan, “Arif really knew how to get stuff out of me. It was through him that I began to explore jazz. I knew jazz, but it wasn’t until I came to New York that I began to fully understand it. And that came from working with Arif.” In addition to helping Khan get her scat on, Mardin also produced my favorite upbeat ballad “Slow Dancing,” a duet with Rick James featured on the 1982 album, Chaka Khan.
“Rick fixed up the studio so it looked like a casbah,” she says, laughing. “We had pillows, candles and a damn good song. We had a good time.” Staying in New York City throughout the decade, she says, “I did some of my best music there, as well as meeting some interesting people who really helped me grow.” After leaving New York in the ’90s, she later settled in Europe for a few years before returning to the states.
While Chaka Khan’s singing career has been justifiably celebrated, the dark side of her fame has to be her struggle with drugs and drink, a subject she doesn’t shy away from on Being. “There was just so many issues Chaka didn’t want to deal with, including often thinking of how her constant touring and recording made her a neglectful mother,” says producer Tanika Ray.
“The viewer will get a taste of what she was going through when certain songs were recorded, as well as her teenaged years as a Black Panther and the complicated relationship with her son,” says Ray. “She might be only 5’1”, but Chaka is a true warrior. I’m convinced [that] if there was was no Chaka, there wouldn’t be a Beyoncé, Kelis and so many others that she has influenced. Chaka Khan is no joke.”
Currently working on her much-anticipated new project I-Khan, the singer says, “I’m leaning towards a funk/rock project. Rock music is where I started, and that’s where I really live. I’ve worked with Sheila E. on a song, and I have a few other collaborations I’m keeping under my hat. But there will be some good surprises on there.” Whatever Chaka Khan has brewing, I’m sure it’ll be worth the wait.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.