Journey to the Core of Chaka Khan: The Interview

“Let’s get one thing straight,” Chaka Khan says to me on the other end of the line from Los Angeles. I had just asked about where her fiery stage persona, “Chaka Khan”, ends and the woman who was born Yvette Marie Stevens begins. “At last count there were about 60 of us. Every morning I say, ‘Okay, who’s here today?'” she explains, only half-joking. “Over the years, I forgot about Yvette. I dissed her. She’s the girl that was born with me, that knew me before I came onto this planet. For many years I didn’t give her acknowledgment or respect. She knows things about me that I would never tell anybody — if I could remember”. Funk This, Khan’s superb debut for Sony BMG’s Burgundy imprint, traces the arc of how Yvette Stevens became Chaka Khan: before she joined Rufus, before she proclaimed “I’m Every Woman”, before she was immortalized as “Chaka-Chaka-Chaka Khan” on “I Feel For You” in a rap by Grandmaster Melle Mel. Khan adds, “I had to go back and get back to her. That’s my core being, that’s my core woman. [She] is the core spirit”.

If there is an understatement to be found on the album, it is the opening line: “Guess I grew up fast in Chi-town”. Since Chaka Khan first burst on the scene in 1973 as part of Rufus and then as a solo act in 1978, there’s seldom been a moment to slow down. In equal measure to a mantle of eight Grammy Awards, chart-topping hits, and critical acclaim, there has been loss, personal struggles, and substance abuse. While other artists bolt the door closed on their past, Khan courageously pushes it open and dances with the skeletons. Funk This is a bold personal statement and creative re-birth for Chaka Khan. It’s also funky as hell.

Three years after experimenting with jazz and pop standards on ClassiKhan (2004), the artist that Rolling Stone heralded as “already a mature talent” in a 1974 review of Rags to Rufus (she was only 21) delivers the album that re-affirms her legacy as one of popular music’s most beloved and awe-inspiring voices. Its arrival was not without trial and error. Arif Mardin, who produced Khan’s solo debut Chaka (1978) and many of her subsequent solo work, passed away in 2006. Khan struggled to find an equally adept producer, one who possessed Mardin’s studio omnipotence and could understand her creative process. “I met with two or three other producers”, she explains, “but they didn’t get me. I could feel it. They wanted me to sing ‘Chaka Khan in Memphis’. They got me mixed up with Etta James or something like that!”

Chaka Khan, 2007

The midas touch of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis yielded no such confusion. Tammy McCrary, president of Chaka Khan Enterprises, suggested that the legendary hit-making duo might suit Khan’s multi-faceted musicality. “It was an anointed move by the universe,” Khan says. “Honey, when we got together with them, it was like we all started genuflecting and falling on the floor and praising each other! They gave me the freedom. They were the best catalysts on the planet. We did most of it live.” Jam and Lewis helped Chaka Khan tell her story in the language of funk. From the opening riff by former Rufus guitarist Tony Maiden to new workouts like “Will You Love Me?” to an ingenious reworking of Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times”, Funk This quenches the thirst of Khan’s devoted audience and illustrates to a new generation of listeners why modern R&B singers are indebted to this woman.

One of those artists is Mary J. Blige, who famously covered Rufus’s 1975 hit “Sweet Thing” on her debut album, What’s the 411? (1992). Her deep-rooted respect for Chaka Khan erupts on the self-penned “Disrespectful”, a Herculean duet between the two vocalists that grabs hold and doesn’t cease its grip for five funkified minutes. No man would want to be in their line of fire when the two declare, “Boy, what is wrong with you?” It was a long-awaited pairing of musical might that Khan was only too happy to explore. She cites Blige’s “ability to convey and communicate” as her greatest artistic strength. “When she performs and she sings, you feel her. You feel the truth coming out. Honest. Just beautifully honest. I love that about her. She has an amazing ability to communicate.”

Artists that inspired Chaka Khan throughout the early chapter of her career also figure into the fold on Funk This. Here’s a clue to one of them: Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977). More than a handful of listeners hail Joni Mitchell’s sprawling two-record set as a bold musical experiment and innovative exploration of sonic vistas. In the company of guests like Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorious, you hear Chaka Khan infuse “Dreamland” and “The Tenth World” with vocal pyrotechnics. It was the first of several musical moments over the next 30 years where the talents of Chaka Khan and Joni Mitchell intersected, leading up to Funk This.

Khan’s idolatry of Mitchell almost renders her speechless: “That woman … let me tell you, there is no one like her on the planet. She’s the best. I want to be like her when I grow up”. During our conversation, Khan ruminated at length about why Mitchell is special, explaining first how “Woodstock” captured her attention in the early ’70s and then how “Ladies Man”, a jazzy tune from Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast (1982), found a home on Funk This:

“‘Woodstock’ — I love those words, ‘We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden’. That shit is relevant right now. I’ve been on her train since then. She’s a major influence in my life. I kind of fell off the train for maybe ten years and then Phoebe Snow brought me back to her again. In fact, just before I recorded ‘Ladies Man’, I was still in the studio, and Joni was being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in Toronto. She invited myself and Herbie Hancock. We did a funky, beautiful, amazing rendition of [Mitchell’s] ‘Help Me’. I talked to her after the show … and I told her that I wanted to do ‘Two Grey Rooms’ [from Mitchell’s Night Ride Home] — that’s my song. I play it for people and it’s like, ‘When did you do that?’ They really think it’s like me singing that song! We have weird kindred spirits. She said, ‘No, no Chaka, no. Don’t do ‘Two Grey Rooms’. You’ve got to do ‘Ladies Man’. I said, ‘You’re right. Let me get that out of my system. I’ll do Ladies Man'”.

Chaka Khan, 1975

Khan is faithful to the arrangement and coyly conveys the playful sparring between two lovers in Mitchell’s lyrics: “Couldn’t you just love me / Like you love cocaine?” The slinky groove is the perfect foil to Khan’s attack on the words and, in typical Chaka fashion, she adds a rhythmically winding coda (“I know you’re just another ladies man”) to the song’s conclusion.

A Jimi Hendrix tune also gets a reworking of simmering properties on Funk This. Jam and Lewis keep the patina of psychedelic soul in the foreground on “Castles Made of Sand” while Khan invokes the cool nuances of Hendrix’s performance, mixing in her own trademark vocal arrangements to the material. Like Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis, Hendrix stands as one of Khan’s most important musical influences. Many would agree with her assessment: “He’s the greatest guitar player that ever lived. Period. He’s a fantastic poet. He is an amazing lyricist — prophetic. Listen to some of hiswords,” she implores, continuing, “I’m going to vow to do a Hendrix song and a Mitchell song on every forthcoming album, just to educate the kids. Someone has to burn a light in a color that [the kids] are attracted to. I will attempt to do it. That’s one of my sojourns. That’s one of my duties.”

The jazz idiom is another area where Khan seeks to educate through future recordings. Named after a Gigi Gryce tune “Yvette”, which was popularized by Stan Getz, jazz feverishly flows through her blood. “It gives me a challenge,” she explains. “It is intellectual music. It’s cerebral. I love that about it. You have to think when you’re singing jazz. Every note has to be correct. It’s like playing chess as opposed to checkers. I revere it.” Even a cursory glance through Chaka Khan’s catalog reveals the singer’s reverence for jazz: the Echoes of an Era (1982) album with Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White; her renditions of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” and Lady Day-identified “The End of a Love Affair”, the Grammy-winning “Be-Bop Medley” from the curiously out-of-print Chaka Khan (1982) album, and contributions to the work of numerous jazz musicians like Lionel Hampton, Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock, and, of course, Miles.

Traces of jazz phrasing even dress Khan’s performance on “Angel”, a tune she wrote not too long ago that confronts her personal demons. The song begins,

Troubled little angel

Inconsistent, flying blind

Most of the time

Drama queen

Chaka Khan, 2003

“It’s me”, she says. “I’m talking about myself and how I was feeling about myself at the time I wrote it. I guess I still feel that way, kind of. I’m still scared of a lot of stuff but I know I have the protection of the universe and I have many angels around me. I forget that sometimes”.

In contrast to the how Khan depicts herself in “Angel” are her focused efforts to help women and children at risk. She established The Chaka Khan Foundation in 1999 to create and implement a variety of initiatives serving this constituency. Her most recent work is with autistic children, a population that strikes a very personal chord with Khan:

“One out of every 122 kids is born with it. It snatches a child’s personality — no more eye contact, no more speech. It’s like they withdraw into this place that you can’t penetrate. It’s really saddening. My nephew has it and he’s now ten. When he was two he went to bed one night — talking, a great guy, funny, intelligent. He woke up — I swear — it happened overnight. You couldn’t get eye contact. He stopped talking. Painful. It’s like someone stole the child. To me, it’s like a conspiracy. If it’s not a conspiracy that they’re giving these kids something under the table then I believe we have jumped in man’s evolution to another phase where verbal communication is not necessary — we are highly sensitive, we are savant. All these kids are savantic. They have some kind of amazing gift, either with mathematics or music. Part of our initiative is looking into what causes it and how to cure it.”

The second initiative is the Chaka Believes program. She’s adopted a class of sixth graders at a school in Watts, CA and will follow them for the next six years, preparing the students for college and helping secure grants for their education while also immersing them in the arts and the business community. “I think God made me a singer so I could empower and help children. We are expanding their awareness of what they’re doing and where they are. They’re on this planet — it belongs to them. I plan, probably just before they graduate or just after, to take them on a train through Europe. This is really why I’m here … but I sing good and all that stuff too,” she concludes with a knowing chuckle.

Chaka Khan, 1975

Echoing this sentiment is “Super Life”, a tune Khan sings in dedication to the “babies”. She opens with a stark but philosophical perspective:

A mama’s crying

‘Cause another young boy’s gone and died

He’s not some statistic

He’s another awesome destiny denied

So I’ve got to stand tall

I’m gonna live a super life

For the rest of my life

About the song, Khan says, “It’s really about following your instincts, you dig? If you see something that needs fixing, do what you can to fix it. Fearlessly. I can’t think of a more powerful reason to do something than to address some of the situations that children are going through today. They simply feel unloved. They almost feel invisible. They’re literally raising themselves.” For the woman who “grew up fast”, Khan is ensuring through her philanthropic work and the inspiring power of her own words and voice that future generations of children are well-equipped to chart their own destiny.

With a Funk This tour planned to close 2007, there really is no better time to experience a Chaka Khan performance. Longtime listeners will be thrilled to know that Tony Maiden, who played on classic Rufus tracks like “I’m a Woman (I’m a Backbone)” and “Pack’d My Bags”, will join Khan onstage. “He’s back on the set,” she exclaims. “We’ve come full circle. He and I have always had an undeniable connection, an undeniable chemistry that I have been missing. I have been missing it and missing him”.

“Undeniable chemistry” could also describe the dynamic between Chaka Khan and Yvette Stevens on Funk This: the personification of a fiery spirit and its “core woman”. Chaka “found” Yvette and the two mighty forces have created one of the most essential albums of 2007. Funk that!

Chaka Khan, 2007