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The Guide to Getting Into Chaka Khan, Funk's Eternal Queen

'Hello Happiness' is Chaka Khan's first album in 12 years. As funk's standard-bearer, her dynamic voice is enough to stand the test of time—and genres.

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Feb 20 2019, 8:16pm

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Those of us who weren’t around for the ruffles of the 70s and hairspray of the 80s might have missed the true essence of Chaka Khan. Thank God YouTube is free, and you can still witness the famed funk singer in her twenties, commanding the stage in a two-piece fringe ensemble. Her exposed midriff and thigh-high pant slits might cause you to ignore the five-man band with the larger-than-life lapels, but this is the 70s, after all—1974 to be exact. "I got something that’ll sure ‘nough set your stuff on fire," Khan sings, stretching the word "fire" and setting it ablaze.

Onstage she steers Rufus, an interracial funk sextet from Chicago, with a voice that sounds bigger than the billowing curls framing her face. "Tell me something good," she sings in unison with the band. "Tell Me Something Good" solidified Khan as Rufus’s superpower. There weren’t many 21-year-olds from Chicago co-writing songs with Stevie Wonder, as she had with this one. The song spent 17 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100, peaking at No. 3. It was the start of her career as the reigning queen of funk, one where she would prove many times over what that "something" was.

Chaka Khan grew up as Yvette Marie Stephens in Chicago’s Hyde Park area, at the peak of the Civil Rights movement. At 16, she moved out and became a Black Panther, providing aid to Chicago’s youth through the organization’s free breakfast initiative. Chicago, and the rest of the country was afflicted by segregation, which rendered upward mobility institutionally impossible for most black Americans. Like many before her in the Black Power movement, she rejected her given name as a form of defiance against normative white society. She was Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi—or simply Chaka, which meant "woman of fire," according to the Yoruba priest who named her. As Rufus’s leading lady, she was pushing the boundaries of the spaces she could occupy. "I was a black chick with a white band and I could do that," she said in a 2008 interview with The Guardian. "It was powerful."

Khan’s career with Rufus was just a preview of what she was capable of. Her first solo single was 1978’s "I’m Every Woman," where she sang about being a strong woman and following one’s intuition over a dancey disco beat. (Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin would later record their own versions.) Written by the duo Ashford & Simpson, the song peaked at No. 30 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and arrived three years after TIME named American Women their "Man of the Year." Chaka Khan came of age alongside feminism’s second wave, and although it would be another ten years before Kimberlé Crenshaw would coin the term "intersectionality," the song’s success made Khan an authority on sharing her perspective as a double minority—even if she reportedly felt she was too young to speak on behalf of "every woman" at the time.

"I can cast a spell, with secrets you can’t tell / Mix a special brew, put fire inside of you," she sings on the song’s first verse. Penned by black songwriters and coming from the mouth of a black woman, her words were powerful; it was "black girl magic" before the phrase was monetized.

Since the song appeared on her 1978 debut album, Chaka, Khan managed to record an album a year—whether alone or with Rufus—until her 1984 remake of Prince’s "I Feel for You." The cover album came five years after the original, fusing her signature funk sound with scratching records, an innovation used in early hip-hop. Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five stammers in at the start of the song, repeating the name "Chaka Khan" enough times to make your head spin. Stevie Wonder reunited with Khan to lend his talents on the harmonica, while Shabba Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp from Breakin’ danced in the background of the video. The song even won her a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance that year.

Khan recorded nearly ten records in the 80s. But after that, Khan’s hot streak simmered; The Woman I Am was the only album she recorded in the 90s. Despite continuing to struggle with the addiction issues that have followed her throughout her career, since the turn of millennium, she has remained active. She even lent her voice to the updated version of the Reading Rainbow theme song. Rufus & Chaka Khan were nominated for the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and last week, the singer released Hello Happiness, her first album in 12 years. Like a true woman of fire, she’s still roaring.

So you want to get into: Chaka Khan, the Queen of Funk

You don’t get the nickname "Queen of Funk" by treading lightly. When the singer presented her 1978 debut, Chaka, to the world, her version of funk was flamboyant and in-your-face. With its seductive guitar licks and fluttering keyboards, the record felt like an extension of the sound she had crafted with Rufus—she was still in the band, after all.

"Life is a Dance" is Chaka’s climax, wrangling together trombones, drums, and saxophones to summon listeners to set aside their differences and rise up together in communal celebration. "Everywhere coast to coast, around the land / We all have one thing in common, we love to dance," Khan sings. The lyrics may be simple, but the groove is not, with horns, drums, and bass forming intricate, interlocking arrangements between Khan’s verses. "Life is a Dance" is such a notable Khan cut, she even named a 1989 remix compilation project after it, but the musicality of the original is unmatched.

But Khan wasn’t just the reigning Queen of Funk—she also transformed the genre. In the early 80s, cuts like "Move Me No Mountain" and 1982’s "Slow Dancin’" crept into a groove rather than brandishing psychedelic synthesizers at the beginning, middle, and end. By 1984’s I Feel for You, the manic melodies and bold basslines of the 70s were still imprinted in her sound, but it was also full of the funk-rock synths that would become synonymous with the 80s.

Formerly known as co-architects of the "Minneapolis Sound" with Morris Day and Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were experts at streamlining funk into drum machines and keyboards—especially with their work on Janet Jackson's 1986 album, Control. The mid-80s found Khan with over ten years of work behind her, but she was open to change, and songs like 1988’s “Make It Last” reflected the duo’s influence on pop music. Two decades later, Khan enlisted the pair to steer 2007’s Funk This, a 13-track return to her roots in funk. She even pays homage to her debut and sophomore albums with a medley of Rufus’ "Pack’d My Bags" and "You Got the Look."

Playlist: “Some Love” / “Slow Dancin’” / “Ain’t Nobody” / “Move Me No Mountain” / “Sleep on It” / “So Naughty” / “Life is a Dance” / “All Night’s All Right” / “What You Did” / “My Love is Alive” / “What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me” / “Everlasting Love” / “Pass It On” / “This is My Night” / “Hail to the Wrong” / “Jive Talkin’” / “Who’s It Gonna Be” / “Life is a Dance - Remix” / “Pack’d My Bags/You Got the Love” / “Sweet Thing” / “Have a Good Time” / ‘You Got the Love” / “Do You Love What You Feel”

So you want to get into: Chaka Khan, the Woman of Fire

"I think I realized I could sing when I was 12 or 13 at a talent show," Khan told The Guardian in a 2015 interview. "I did an Aretha [Franklin] song and people threw money on the stage." The comparisons between her and Franklin didn’t stop there. Even Bob Monaco, a producer who worked with Rufus, described Khan’s voice as akin to hearing "the next Aretha Franklin or the next coming of Christ." Khan didn’t get her start singing in a church, but she and Franklin shared more than a Midwestern upbringing and ambitious vocal range. Known as the Queen of Soul and the Queen of Funk respectively, both worked with Arif Mardin, the legendary producer behind Franklin’s "Respect" and Khan’s "I’m Every Woman." Still, Khan’s voice was distinct. Like Franklin’s, it had the ability to be the life of the party; but it could also be a wallflower when necessary.

When the Yoruba priest christened Khan “woman of fire,” no one could anticipate how often the motif would resurface throughout her career. “Love Has Fallen on Me,” from 1981, opens with heat: “Love is a burning inside,” she sings. The flame intensifies on 1984’s “Through the Fire,” a love song about a relationship that can withstand the test of any element. “Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall / For a chance to be with you, I’d gladly risk it all,” she sings on the chorus.

But 1984’s “La Flamme” is Khan’s most obvious dedication to the fire inside her. The song’s production is littered with record scratches, mimicking the hip-hop elements of “I Feel for You.” It’s got less of a groove than the singer is known for, but it’s still lively and flickering. “Why you want to play with fire,” she asks at the end of the first verse. “Here I am / Je m’appelle la Flamme.” You probably don’t need Google translate to catch Khan’s drift. Khan knows exactly who she is.

Playlist: “La Flamme” / “Love Has Fallen On Me” / “A Woman in a Man’s World” / “Disrespectful” / “The Woman I Am” / “Through the Fire” / “Nothing’s Gonna Take You Away” / “Clouds” / “Any Old Sunday” / “Give Me All” / “The Other Side of the World” / “My Destiny” / “Who’s It Gonna Be” / “Father He Said” / “Eye to Eye” / “Tearin’ It Up” / “I Know You, I Live You” / “Too Much Love” / “I’m Every Woman.”

So you want to get into: Chaka Khan, the Jazz Vocalist

It’s easy to pigeon-hole Chaka Khan as the Queen of Funk, but to do that would be to ignore how well she sang the blues and jazz. Her father played jazz records at home when she was growing up in Chicago, a soundtrack that may have provided a blueprint for her own foray in the genre.

She began dipping her toe into jazz on 1981’s What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me, a 10-minute section of music that included an interpolation of old standards (“And the Melody Still Lingers On/ Night in Tunisia” and “Night Moods”). “A long time ago in the 40s / Dizzy and Bird gave us this song / They called it ‘A Night in Tunisia,’” she sings. The production feels stripped back, and instead of competing with the clamorous funk notes, her voice rides the melody.

A year later, she released Echoes of an Era, enlisting an all-star ensemble of jazz fusion pioneers to back her up: horn players Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson, pianist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White. Together, the six of them reimagine songs from Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.

Echoes of an Era proved Khan was flexible—that she could fit comfortably in any lane she pleased. It would be 22 years before the singer would record Classikhan, another full jazz record, but elements of the genre were sprinkled throughout her material. When Khan was in jazz mode, she used her voice in staccato spurts that resembled the brass instruments that played around her—something you can hear on “Be Bop Medley,” which samples John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, among others.

Playlist: “And the Melody Still Lingers On - Night in Tunisia” / “Sticky Wicked” / “Be Bop Medley: Hot House/East of Suez [Come on Sailor]/Epistrophy [I Wanna Play]/Yardbird Suite/Con Alma/Giant Steps” / “Night Moods” / “I Hear Music” / “Hey Big Spender” / / “All of Me” / Baby Me” / “Make It Last” / “Hazel’s Hips” / “I’ll Be Around” / “Coltrane Dreams” / “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most"

So you want to get into: Chaka Khan, the Cover Artist

Chaka Khan is no stranger to giving an old song new legs. Echoes of an Era, as the name suggests, was an homage to the music she grew up listening to, and 2004’s Classikhan found the singer recreating classics like “The Best is Yet to Come,” “Hey Big Spender,” and “Is That All There Is.” On “Is That All There Is,” she keeps much of Peggy Lee’s original the same, reenacting a skit where the narrator describes the experience of watching her childhood house burn down. Khan develops the last minute of the song beyond the constraints that Lee’s voice would allow, bursting into a scat section until she hits a raspy register, holding the last note for as long as she can.

In addition to dedicating full-length jazz and funk albums (Funk This) to her favorite covers, she scattered songs like Jackson 5’s “Got to Be There” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sign, Sealed, Delivered” throughout her 80s releases. According to a recent interview with The Guardian, she even has a Joni Mitchell cover album on the way. Khan is incredibly skilled at lending her voice to the vision of others—and that’s because she learned long ago how to master her own.

Playlist: “We Can Work It Out” / “I Feel for You” / “Got to Be There” / “The Best is Yet to Come” / Castles Made of Sand” / “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” / “Sign ‘O’ The Times” / “Ladies’ Man” / “Is That All There Is” / “Take the A Train” / “I Love You Porgy” / “Diamonds Are Forever”

Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.

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