Chaka Khan: Khanal
This piece originally featured in The Face magazine.
"ASK ME what you want, John. I can take it. I mean, what are you going to do — spank me?"
After two hours of conversation, Chaka Khan seems totally relaxed. She stretches on the sofa like she's in her own living room rather than a London hotel suite, eating chicken sandwiches, telling terrible jokes ("What do you call a guy who hangs from a nail on the wall? — Art"). "Good questions help me look at myself," she says, "and I enjoy being honest. Most people in this business are running scared. They have so much they want to hide. I'm 36 years old now and I don't play games any more."
Chaka started the interview as she meant to go on — with an unassuming handshake, showing none of the starry self-importance you might expect of someone who lived all her life in the music business. Smaller than you'd imagine, she is dressed in dark clothes to conceal the weight she's put on — a change which doesn't detract from the fiery sexual magnetism that has always been part of her public and, so rumour has it, private life. Manager Greg Alliapolous and boyfriend Harold flit in and out of the room, but don't interrupt as she attempts to answer my first questions politely, even though she has been asked hundreds of times before why, for example, she left the ultra-successful Seventies funk group Rufus.
Chaka Khan, that truly incredible voice at the burning centrepoint of the re-released ‘I'm Every Woman’, boasts a career which spans some 20 years. She has produced at least seven essential albums and a collection of singles ranging from the Seventies classic ‘Once You Get Started’ to the beautifully understated power of ‘Ain't Nobody’. Yet the She-Devil of the dance has yet to secure the public respect she deserves. In fact, the recent release of Life Is A Dance — a double album of state-of-the-art dance remixes that update underground classics like ‘Clouds’ and ‘Fate’ and respectfully rearrange the better-known material such as ‘This Is My Night’ and ‘Eye To Eye’ — comes at a time when it seems necessary to make a case for Chaka Khan.
More than a simple re-release, the record highlights the singer's status as the original Dance Diva. Little wonder that the cream of New York's club fraternity — people such as New Jersey DJ Tony Humphries, groundbreaking garage producer Paul Simpson, house originator Frankie Knuckles, rap innovator Marley Marl and the Public Enemy team of Shocklee and Sadler — had to fight it out to be involved. Such was the competition to secure the rights to remix ‘I'm Every Woman’ that British producer Danny D was chosen to stop the squabbling.
Despite Chaka's own reservations, the record, completed long before last year's disappointing and confused CK album, is a definitive remix collection, that should have those companies releasing tacky reworkings of tired material squirm in embarrassment. Drop the needle on Clivilles and Cole's freestyle-flavoured reinterpretation of ‘Clouds’ and the spectacle of DJs on both sides of the Atlantic fighting for bootleg tapes over the past year-and-a-half starts to make sense. In the light of a post-acid shift ‘back to soul’, Chaka's passionate vocal style seemed perfect, and many DJs just couldn't wait for the official release. The album's sleeve notes contain a message to "the English posse": "That's the last time you guys get cassettes."
Life Is A Dance pinpoints Chaka Khan as the originator of a tradition that made a strong female voice and a dance beat the staple diet in any club worth the price of admission. Without the dancer-friendly fire of ‘I'm Every Woman’, there would be no Adeva, and less style and substance to the vocal dance tracks now calling the shots in clubland. Despite the fact that she doesn't know what house is and has never heard of Frankie Knuckles, without her black dance music would be poorer and less powerful. The remixes acknowledge this and, reluctantly, Chaka is aware of their value. "I know there are reasons for this album. I hope that those who pick up on these songs for the first time will go back and investigate the original mixes.
"The whole thing was done without my knowledge. But this is how they work. I read about it somewhere and asked if I could hear it, and they told me I couldn't. As it turns out, some of it is good, but it made me angry. I would have liked to have been part of it. I'd even have been happy if they'd remixed the tracks and said, 'Chaka, have a listen and tell us what you think?.'
"But it's only to be expected. When you sign a contract, you forfeit certain rights. The only way around it is to have your own label and call the shots; how many people can afford to do that?"
Her less than warm reaction to the secretive circumstances surrounding the album makes me wonder if the Woman Of Fire can, as rumour has it, spontaneously combust.
"I don't really think about things," she admits. "I just react and worry about the consequences later. It's usually my mouth that does all the damage. As a child, I was slapped upside the head so many times by my mother for saying things I shouldn't have. I know I scare a lot of people and that bothers me, but I need to get upset before I'll want to hit you. If you're in my way then I'll say 'Excuse me'. But if you don't move, then I'll make you get the fuck out of my way."
Among other musicians and singers, she is respected for her fiery vocal ability and for her instinctive skill in interpreting her own songs and the work of others. People move mountains to work with Chaka, and while DJs point to timeless underground club tracks such as ‘I Know You, I Live You’, jazz fans admire her for tracks such as her stunning vocal interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie's ‘A Night In Tunisia’, which ably balances the twin concerns of respect and reinterpretation. The fact that Dizzy readily agreed to play on that track, from the 1981 album Watcha Gonna Do For Me, speaks volumes, as does the roll-call of names that have cropped up throughout her career: Quincy Jones, Luther Vandross, Miles Davis, Ashford & Simpson (best known for ‘Ain't No Stopping Us Now’ and authors of Chaka's ‘Clouds’ and ‘I'm Every Woman’), and Prince — who wrote two tracks for the recent CK album and provided her with her biggest international hit with ‘I Feel For You’. Arif Mardin, a long-time collaborator who produced many of the early Aretha tracks for Atlantic, describes Chaka's voice as "a source of inspiration".
Chaka herself is coldly analytical. "My singing is instinctive. But I get lost and don't feel comfortable with it. Most of the time, I don't really know where it's going. I've worked hard at fine-tuning it over the years, but I ain't shit yet. There's a long way to go, and I'm nowhere near where I want to be. When I grow up, I want to be a jazz singer."
Yvette Mane Stevens was 13 when she took part in "a whole religious spiritual trip" at the Yurbiba Tribe African Arts Centre, where a Baba named her Chaka Khan — The Woman Of Fire. Singing, she says, was part of her childhood in Chicago. "My dad was a beatnik who played congas and sang. He would play Max Roach and Miles Davis records all day, and when my mother got the chance she'd listen to opera and stuff like Sarah Vaughan. We'd all go about the house singing."
During her second year in high school, Chaka sang with various teenage bands. She left with the intention of studying painting but ended up working as a $2.60-an-hour file clerk during the day. At night, she would perform in the less reputable Chicago nightclubs "for about the same kind of money".
She joined Rufus, a funk outfit, in the early Seventies. It was only when their albums began to carry the addition "featuring Chaka Khan" that people began to take notice, but even on the wonderful early album Rags To Rufus, the voice on tracks such as ‘Tell Me Something Good’ and ‘You've Got The Love’ scraped the spine as something special. Unlike Aretha, who seems to occupy some constant plane above the ground, Chaka swoops and soars, sometimes almost disappearing from earshot. "I sounded like a little girl then," she says. "I sound like a woman now."
Soon Rufus, though talented in their own right, were forced into the shadows by her vocal abilities and the stories about her wild behaviour. Inevitably she became a solo artist, and in the late Seventies and early Eighties made a series of timeless albums like Chaka and Naughty with Arif Mardin, and her voice really began to fly on songs full of jazzy inflections. In 1978, with ‘I'm Every Woman’, she became a pop star of sorts, though her best work remained hidden on the albums.
The release of ‘I Feel For You’ in 1984 revitalised that chart status, but then as now, Chaka was reluctant to play the pop game. "I can sing that kind of stuff in my sleep," she says. "It doesn't test me. Jazz is the next step. It's the kind of music you have to buckle down to — you have to think about it."
Still signed to WEA, she says her next project will be more jazz-inspired; but if her music has grown cooler, more mature, her wild reputation remains. At the after-show party held by another visiting American star recently, Chaka is said to have flown off the handle in no uncertain terms, shouting how she "wanted" one well-known British male singer. It was clear that she didn't want him to do her ironing.
Despite this, it would be wrong to make claims for Chaka as a misunderstood genius, a maniac, or even a star. These are just labels created by those trying somehow to justify that inhuman voice. Many seem to believe that you can't sing like that and just enjoy watching scary movies on TV; you can't sing like that and not be some kind of unholy combination of Billie Holliday and Albert Camus. The truth is that you can, and that milkmen and shop assistants are just as likely to be subject to the angst we attribute to Miles Davis. Life is enough to cope with without pretending it's tearing you apart just because you can reach High C. Chaka Khan tries to befriend people who realise that the Woman Of Fire isn't necessarily a flaming nutcase.
"I'm not tripping on all this, but, without really knowing, people almost force you to. Without stopping to think, they treat you like something special, a star. You have to stop them seeing you as some kind of demi-god. Sometimes I have to remind people that I'm just real, that I shit on the toilet too. It can be shocking for them, but it usually does the job."
I ask if Chaka believes in God. She replies like any woman who suffers questions like that for a living. "I believe in Him in a very abstract sense." She falters. "But He doesn't wear sandals and He hasn't got a beard. I think He's too cool for sandals. He's probably got some alligator shoes because He definitely has to be a major dude."
She laughs, a loud, dirty, healthy laugh. The idea of the Lord as an extra in Shaft appeals to her sense of humour. But then, Chaka is full of ideas, mostly about her two favourite subjects — escaping people's preconceptions and singing.
"Singing is the closest thing to making love or what I imagine it would be like to be able to fly," she says with the conviction of one torn between the pleasures of the voice and the vagina. "It's a kind of euphoria. Sometimes, when my voice is playing up, then it doesn't happen and I'm mad as hell. But when it's been good, it gives you that same high as good sex. It's a unique experience, and I feel sorry for those who can't go through it. It's like coming and having people applaud too... Actually, that sounds like an interesting idea..." And she trails off with a lusty cackle that would have stopped Sid James in his tracks.
"But it has to be that way," she continues. "If it's not sexual, then it's not real. You can usually tell if people are giving everything by looking at their faces when they sing. They should be in a state of total abandon, total openness. The best singers always look like gorillas on heat."
Chaka scotches the notion of singing as a cathartic or even religious experience. "I've always thought of songs in terms of the sexual act — first comes the foreplay, then the climax. Everything I do is sexual. I need a lot of physical love. It's the energy behind everything I do.
"I try to talk about these things to other singers, but most of them just seem to get embarrassed. Most of them are afraid to talk about human frailty — I need, I want, I'm afraid, I suffer. These are really the most interesting things in life. Sadly, it's hard to find real people, people you can talk to about such things..."
Her voice trails off. Chaka is back on the ground again, back in that 95 per cent of the time when she kicks her heels and waits for the time when she gets to sing: "It's the only time in my life when I feel comfortable, when I feel I'm in control."
She admits she is surrounded by unreal people who run her life for her; people who keep telling her she is the greatest even when she isn't. When asked how she reacts to criticism, the response is unusual. "I love it! I get very excited when people are critical because I don't get a great deal of honesty from the people around me. I'm surrounded by flattery — it comes at me in so many sophisticated and intricate ways that it boggles the mind. Los Angeles is full of people whose job is watching you do your job. It's a fine fucking art there — they have their own union, and they're paid well too."
There are plans to move from LA to New York, but the respect she feels she has in Europe and England in particular makes a move across the Atlantic the ultimate aim. Her manager smacks his head. Such whims make life difficult for him, but his charge continues with her perhaps romanticised view of the people who have made The Sun Britain's best-selling daily.
"England means a lot to me. Y'all are still literate. Y'all still read books and shit and it's important to educate yourself. You'd be surprised at the number of people I know in America who have never read a single book. Not even a lousy fuck book, something like Mary Jane's Experiences In Central Park. That is unforgiveable. It affects me greatly. I can't survive in that kind of environment."
She'd like to see more of her children and has contemplated retirement. "But," she sighs, "I suppose all this bullshit keeps me out of trouble. If I wasn't doing this. I'd probably be beating on my kids, sniping somebody from the top of the Empire State Building, all kinds of crazy shit..." Laughing, she considers prostitution as a way out. "I'd probably be the worst. I wouldn't make any money. There'd be too many times when I'd say, 'OK, never mind, you're a few bucks short, go ahead'."
Things begin to fall apart as things do when people start to laugh a lot and there are no chicken sandwiches left. Chaka invites me to the studio where she has been invited to sing backing vocals on a Paul Young cover of Bobby Womack's ‘Stop On By’, a song strongly associated with Rufus after their definitive cover version. We go by limousine, with Chaka singing along to my tape of old Rufus tracks and getting vaguely nostalgic. She smokes a cigarette or three, and admits, "I can't stop. It's not good for my voice, but I enjoy it, so what the hell."
At the studio, she races through the song, brimming with enthusiasm and arranging four-part harmonies on the spot. She's having fun; the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Her voice has an incredible natural power, a power she clearly relishes. In the control room, everyone is speechless. "Was that OK?" she asks. I manage a smile. For the moment, words have failed me. At this point, Chaka Khan is in control.
© John McCready, 1989
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