The year was 1984, and the streets were ablaze with Chaka Khan’s hot single, “I Feel For You”. Although many of us happened across her albums while rifling through our parents’ stacks of vinyl, this Chaka definitely wasn’t the same Chaka our parents bumped during their basement house parties. This Chaka took a chance with a burgeoning genre of music called Hip-Hop, as evidenced by the verse dropped by Melle Mel and the images of b-boys that filled her video.
That is Chaka Khan though — always taking chances. Over the course of her 30-year career, Chaka Khan’s name has become synonymous with risk-taking. Whether it be her clothing, her music or both, the eight-time Grammy Award winner has never attempted to be anyone other than herself. Her groundbreaking work hasn’t gone unnoticed either. Her hits have been covered and sampled by countless artists, including Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Kanye West. Many of today’s hitmakers and artists list her as one of their strongest influences.
With the recent release of her new album Classikhan on her newly formed Earthsong Records, Chaka Khan continues to break down doors. As the talented singer, songwriter and community activist chats with AllHipHop.com, she quickly reveals why the best is yet to come.
AllHipHop.com: We hear you just received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music. How does it feel to be given such an honor?
Chaka Khan: I feel like I’ve accomplished something, for real. [laughs] It’s a real, true accomplishment. It feels good. These don’t come easy, I know.
AHHA: Is this the first time you’ve received an honorary doctorate?
Chaka Khan: Yes, it’s the first.
AHHA: You’ve broken a lot of boundaries in your career. At the time, did you realize that you’d be opening the doors for future artists?
Chaka Khan: I just did what I was doing. That’s all. You know, I apply little thought to the artistic aspect of what I do anyway. If it feels good and feels right, I do it.
AHHA: How does it feel to know that so many of today’s artists are looking to you and revere what you’ve created?
Chaka Khan: I’m really honored. That’s all I can say. I don’t think about it a lot. But I’m really honored that I’m thought of enough to be emulated or even just noticed. The accolade in that is a beautiful thing.
AHHA: You’ve recorded with a lot of legends. Is there anyone out there who you haven’t recorded with, who you’d like to or someone you’d like to work with again?
Chaka Khan: Well, you know Stevie [Wonder] and I haven’t really worked together yet. I mean, he’s played harmonica on some stuff for me and I’ve covered his songs, but I’d like to get with him someday. That’d be nice. I think we probably will at some point. That would be a nice collaboration.
AHHA: What’s the biggest change that you’ve noticed in the music industry?
Chaka Khan: That it’s changed so much. It’s always fluctuating. It’s ever changing. And plus, the biggest change is that now, it doesn’t require any talent. [laughs] Everybody and their mama can do it now.
AHHA: What about from the label standpoint? Now, all the labels are merging and folding into one.
Chaka Khan: Well, it’s a joke because they were jokes. They weren’t doing right by the artists. It couldn’t last. I’m just so happy that they are on the way out because they are the exploiters, from my point of view anyway.
AHHA: Do you think this will make it a lot better for the artists?
Chaka Khan: Oh yeah. Anything that will give an artist any autonomy is a good thing.
AHHA: Are there any lessons that you’ve learned over the years?
Chaka Khan: Not be with a big label. I have my own label. My CD Classikhan is my first release.
AHHA: Is your label a venture with Sanctuary?
Chaka Khan: Yes. They’re really just doing the distribution.
AHHA: Tell us about your decision to partner with Sanctuary.
Chaka Khan: It was a no-brainer. They’re a great company. They believe in me and they’re doing good by me. As a partnership, we work really well together.
AHHA: Was it something that was difficult to make happen or did everything just fall into place?
Chaka Khan: You just have to do it, if you plan to own anything. Yeah, it’s difficult to do, but you just have to do it because otherwise, you’re sitting up here, 90 years old, and they’ll be playing your songs and you won’t be making any money [laughs] because it won’t belong to you.
AHHA: That seems to be the biggest complaint that a lot of artists have now.
Chaka Khan: And they’re absolutely correct.
AHHA: Will you be signing any other artists?
Chaka Khan: Hopefully in the future. I’m looking forward to doing that.
AHHA: Your daughter was in a group just a few years ago. Is she going to be releasing anything on your label?
Chaka Khan: Yeah, she’ll probably be on my label at some point. She really likes doing her own thing. I like that too.
AHHA: You live in London now, right?
Chaka Khan: I’ve been maintaining a residence in London for the past 15 years and I live in L.A. as well.
AHHA: How different is it living overseas as compared to being here in the U.S.?
Chaka Khan: It’s very different in almost every way. I mean, the only similarity between England and America is that they both speak English. [laughs] And even that is very different – the English that they speak over there is very different. There’s much less paranoia and just a wider, freer, more pro-life scene. I like it.
AHHA: Back to your new album – you recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra on it. Did you just know that’s who you wanted to work with on this project?
Chaka Khan: It was either going to be them or the New York Philharmonic. But since I had a home in London and I wanted to spend some time there, I decided on the L.S.O. I like working with them. They’re non-attitudinal – they just come in and they do the work. We’ve worked together on a couple of other occasions and I really like those people – they’re cool.
AHHA: How did you pick the songs that you covered? Also, how do you take these classics and add your own twist to it?
Chaka Khan: I do that with every song. Any song that I sing, I just sing it my way. I don’t give it a lot of thought. I had a woman named Eve Nelson do the production and she made it sort of my flavor, so that all I had to do was just go in and sing. I did my singing live with the orchestra, which was nice.
AHHA: So it was like the old school way of recording?
Chaka Khan: Exactly. It was beautiful. It was gorgeous.
AHHA: We know that you initially started your career performing jazz. In fact, your first solo album was a collection of standards. What finally prompted your decision to record a complete album of standards again?
Chaka Khan: Well, these are songs that have been part of my fiber since I was a kid. My mother and father used to play these songs when I was a little girl growing up. They’re just a part of me and I felt like I just needed to purge myself of this stuff. So why not now? Actually, I chose 13 out of like, over 100 songs, so this’ll probably be ‘Volume One’.
AHHA: Will you be recording an album of original material soon?
Chaka Khan: Yeah, I’ll be starting on my contemporary stuff probably sometime in January or February.
AHHA: Any current artists out that you like?
Chaka Khan: Well I like Rahsaan Patterson. I like Lalah Hathaway, Lauryn Hill. I like real singers.
AHHA: Not a lot of those now.
Chaka Khan: No there aren’t! I listen to mostly jazz at home and I rarely listen to the radio. It’s like ear pollution.
AHHA: How does radio overseas compare to here in the U.S.?
Chaka Khan: Yeah, it’s a lot more open. They don’t have the heavy play list like here. You may hear Frank Sinatra, then Sly [and the Family Stone] on the same station. That’s beautiful, girl – it’d be so nice if it was like that all over.
AHHA: You have been sampled a lot, and a lot of artists have mimicked your sound. Do you view that as a compliment or a lack of originality?
Chaka Khan: I don’t know. [laughs] I’d like to see it as a compliment. Who’s to say what the intent is – who can tell anymore? It depends on how they do it. How it’s done is usually a good indicator of what’s going on with them. Songs are a free agent – if they like the music, then they should use it. I’m just happy when I hear it done well.
AHHA: What’s kept you so passionate about music?
Chaka Khan: I think it’s the closest communication to angelic communication, or God-like communication. You can sing anywhere and people will know what you’re talking about because of the spirit of it. It’s spiritual communication. I think that has probably been part of the fascination with me. It’s a great thing to be able to communicate how you want.