Chaka Khan – I Feel for You
In October 1984 a great Rhythm’n’Blues performer who was in the second phase of her career broke into the charts and into the history of the 80s, after more than a decade as leader and voice of the legendary Rufus and Chaka Khan. Rufus had disbanded at the end of 1983, at the peak of their success thanks to songs like Ain’t Nobody, but also at the peak of the tensions within the group. Since then Chaka Khan (born Yvette Marie Stevens) recorded three solo albums, but their success had been less than expected. The record company pressured her to record something more pop, and Chaka agreed, although she wasn’t thrilled with the idea. Pop did not interest her, she was an artist for more sophisticated music, and she considered pop as something she could sing even in her sleep.
Producer Arif Mardin fished out a song written by Prince in 1979, which had already been relaunched in 1982 by the Pointer Sisters. Chaka Khan was a great admirer of Prince and this helped her accept the song. However, it was necessary to give a different, more modern touch to the song, as well as highlight Chaka’s voice.
Mardin had an innovative idea: to insert a rap section into the song. By the late 80s, hearing some rap parts in pop songs was quite common, but by 1984 this mix was quite unusual. Mardin called a rapper from the Grandmaster Flash crew, Melle Mel, and asked him one particular thing: a rap verse that introduced Chaka Khan, and that didn’t talk about the usual rap topics: money, luxury cars, parties, girls, in short, the same topics as today’s hip hop songs.
Melle Mel created a high impact rap with fairly simple words and no particular meanings other than admiration for Chaka Khan. While editing the song, the production accidentally made a mistake with the sound machines and activated the repeat function of a fragment of the song. Thus were born the very first seconds when Melle Mel repeats almost stuttering “Chaka Chaka Chaka Chaka Khan”. Mardin noticed the mistake, but when out of curiosity he heard the result, he decided it was the perfect intro for the version of I Feel for You he had in mind, and left that effect in the song.
Incidentally, Chaka Khan did not know that Mardin was planning to include a rap part in the song. The day after recording the main track with Chaka’s voice, Mardin came back to her and played the final version with the rap parts. Chaka Khan went mad and took it very badly. It took a lot of effort from the production to convince her that the result was great, and that the right thing was to accept this version. Chaka finally agreed, but she was not completely convinced. By the way, in the concerts that followed the release of the song, people often turned to her singing “Chaka Chaka Chaka Khan”, and it seems that she did not particularly like it.
The song was a resounding success, and in some countries including England it topped the charts and stayed there for three weeks in the run-up to Christmas. And to move it from there, it took two historical pieces like Purple Rain (clearly there was a recurring fate between Prince and Chaka Khan) and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham!
In the final part of the song we hear a very recognizable harmonica, played by Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder was also a very popular name for Chaka Khan, as he had been the author of the first Rufus’ hit years ago. Actually, Stevie Wonder recorded the harmonica track on on April 5, 1984, the same day when he attended the funeral of another soul music greats, Marvin Gaye, the unforgettable performer of Sexual Healing.
Two videos were shot for I Feel for You; the first was set in a night club with a series of dancers around Chaka. Then the second, more commercial and suitable for musical televisions, was shot, with Chaka in an industrial courtyard of an unspecified suburb rebuilt into a studio, complete with dj-sets and break dancers, and they were then the same dancers who appeared in the movie Breakin’.
I don’t think that even today Chaka Khan still considers I Feel for You as the top of her own production, but it is certainly the song that made her known and loved by a new generation of teenagers of the ’80s, which she was able to conquer precisely with a single song. And with some rap lines repeating her name, of course.
Chaka Khan on Wikipedia