Taken from Chicago Tribune (July 12, 2018)
Chaka Khan still pointing ahead despite decades of hits
by Greg Kot, Contact Reporter for Chicago Tribune
Chaka Khan is slated to play the Pitchfork Festival. (Justin Campbell photo)
Chaka Khan could be coasting right now. A legendary singer with decades full of hits, the singer could sell concert tickets simply by performing her classic songs night after night.
After all, she has at least a dozen classics spanning generations - the hard funk of Rufus ("Tell Me Something Good," "Ain't Nobody"), empowering anthems that sound more timely than ever ("I'm Every Woman") and her collaborations with the late Prince (including "I Feel for You"). But Khan has little patience for nostalgia. She's fired up by the new music she's working on.
"I'm an entertainer and an artist," says Khan, who was born 65 years ago in Chicago. "Think about Van Gogh or Botticelli, they painted till they died. I like intelligent lyrics. I'm a bit of a wordsmith. The sung word is very important and powerful. I want songs that say something, plus the melody, the beat, several components. As long as I have that, I see no reason to stop being creative."
At the top of her list is a new studio album, in collaboration with U.K. producer Switch, who has worked with M.I.A., Santigold and Beyonce as well as co-founding Major Lazer with Diplo. A blazing dance single, "Like Sugar," provides a teaser, with the album expected to be released this summer, Khan's first album of original material since 2007.
"The album's done," Khan says. "I met Switch a few years ago, and loved his mixes - very colorful with a kind of old-school feel."
In addition she has a tribute album to her friend Joni Mitchell in the mixing stage with producer Eve Nelson, the classically trained musician who worked with Khan on her "ClassiKhan" album with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2004.
"Joni and I - we are great friends, I adore her," Khan says, describing a relationship that began when she first heard Mitchell songs such as "Both Sides, Now" and "Woodstock." Khan also recorded a cover of Mitchell's "Ladies Man" on her last studio album. "Joni's music has gotten me through some tough times, and I picked all the songs for this project - it's very personal to me."
Khan is savoring her creativity while free of the record label obligations that she says derailed her career in the '90s. She is particularly discouraged that an album she worked on with Prince 20 years ago, "Come 2 My House," never got its due "because of the bureaucracy."
Musically, she hit it off with Prince and shared his frustrations with how music was distributed and marketed in the '80s and '90s.
"Prince and I talked about that a lot, the importance of an artist owning your masters and how the labels are screwing this up," she says. "With the internet opening things up, it's a very interesting time right now. People are doing innovative things, and I learned a lot from the younger generation about how you don't need a big dinosaur label to get your music out. Just go straight to the people. Most young artists aren't dealing with the industry anymore. That's how I got 'Like Sugar' out there. Go to the people and if the music is good, you'll be in good shape."
Though her relationship with Prince blossomed over three decades, it got off to a rocky start. In the late '70s while recording his first album, Prince was an ambitious but relatively unknown Minneapolis artist who would do just about anything to meet his idol, including impersonating one of Khan's friends.
"I first met Prince when I was up in the (San Francisco) Bay Area, doing some recording in the late '70s," Khan says. "I'm friends with Sly Stone and we were hanging out at the time. The phone rings in my hotel and when I answer I hear, 'This is Sly. Come on down to the studio,' so I did. The voice sounded just like Sly, but when I get to the studio, I just see this cool guy with a guitar. I had no idea who he was. He was nice enough and all, but I was not happy, and so I left."
Khan can laugh about it now. "Often the best friendships start out on the wrong foot," she says. "This was before he recorded anything and nobody knew who he was. But I heard what he was doing and I really liked that song ('I Feel for You,' on Prince's self-titled 1979 album). I heard the genius in him. Musically we thought a lot alike."
Khan's 1984 version, which included a groundbreaking rap vocal by Grandmaster Melle Mel that presaged the hybrid rap-R&B wave of the 2000s, became a hit and refueled her career. It also earned Prince a songwriting Grammy.
It was one of many comebacks in Khan's career, after she emerged in the '70s as the powerful lead voice of the Chicago-based band Rufus. Khan was not only a versatile singer, capable of power and tenderness, she was a child of the funk era - a brilliant drummer as well as a one-of-a-kind singer. She laughs about an appearance on a '70s talk show with Mike Douglas, when as a 22-year-old upstart she climbed behind the drum kit and led the house band through an instrumental dance tune.
"I am still playing some drums on some of the dance stuff we do," she says. "It's part of who I am. There's a part of me that is a drum. There's another part of me that is a saxophone. I like to play. I once had a drummer show me how to hold the sticks, and I took it from there. You need to have your coordination intact, that's the hardest part, but for me it was just a natural thing to do, a lot of fun."
That vibrancy partially explains Khan's longevity. It's also significant that early on she was regarded as an important voice for female empowerment, and why a song such as "I'm Every Woman," the 1978 hit written for her by Ashford and Simpson, resonates in the #MeToo era.
"It's not surprising to me that a song like that is still relevant, and always will be," she says. "It is definitely an empowering song, but when I sing it, I'm not thinking of gender. I see the song as bigger than that. I didn't do the song because of the way I was being treated. I wanted to get a larger point across. A great song will last. You may not necessarily be able to show or tell someone about your point of view, but if you can sing it, people will get it, and that's why that song still works today."