Illustration by Spiros Halaris
As she prepares to release her twelfth studio album, Hello Happiness, the iconic Chaka Khan show no signs of slowing down. The Chicago legend has been touring and leading parades and collecting awards in the last decade, but she’s also been keeping up to date. A few years ago, she met the producer Switch, of hit pop outfit Major Lazer, and his songwriting partner, Ruba Taylor. The first album on their Diary Records label will be Hello Happiness, and it’s a major addition to Chaka’s essential catalog. Khan has never been less than magisterial as a singer but she hasn’t always had the production her voice deserves. With Switch and his collaborators, Chaka has returned to the rugged, no-nonsense dance vibes of the mid-1970s, when funk, soul, and disco were all one thing, and they were usually Chaka.
As her 1978 hit explained it, “life is a dance,” or in Chaka’s case, the life is a dance. As a kid in Chicago, Yvette Marie Stevens’s household was filled with jazz, the soil for her growth. Yvette was renamed Chaka by a Yoruba priest when she was only thirteen. A few years later, Chaka became a member of the Black Panthers and sold newspapers on the corners of her Southside neighborhood. After playing with several R&B groups in and around Hyde Park, Chaka actually had her first brush with hip-hop, still a decade from existing. Hip-hop started as the refashioning of the funk and soul that was already there and one of the most titanic breaks in hip-hop is Baby Huey’s “Hard Times,” a stomp sampled by The Game, Ghostface and A Tribe Called Quest.
Her biggest hit, for most people under forty, is not her own but it is hip-hop. In 2002, Kanye West sampled Chaka’s 1985 song “Through The Fire” for his breakthrough song, “Through The Wire.” (His video sampled her video, as well, so Chaka was very much a part of this moment.) Another artist who saw Chaka as a muse was collaborator and inspiration Prince. In 1985—on the same album as “Through The Fire”—Chaka remade an obscure early Prince song, “I Feel For You,” and turned it into a top ten hit along with rapper of the moment, Grandmaster Melle Mel. There is a distinct tradition within dance music, a way of singing that is not exactly jazz and not exactly gospel and not pop—much of that was coded and established by Chaka. The giant singers of R&B—Whitney, Beyoncé, Mariah—are masters of melisma, the death-defying slide of distinct notes tumbling into each other, a virtuoso move. Chaka Khan has always had her own approach, one that Miles once said sounded like his own horn. Chaka lets a long, pure note ring out for a second or two and then pulls out the last syllable and wiggles it, like a chef dragging a butter brush. (Prince, especially, loved this. Compare the end of his line readings to Chaka’s.) The sound of nineties house, the version that went huge with Snap! and Black Box is a refinement and reduction of what Chaka did. In short, when people say “diva” in the context of dance music, what they really mean is Chaka Khan.
Her influence is huge, but her own greatest hits are still the best part. Her longtime set closer, 1979’s “I’m Every Woman,” is one of the best of the disco era. It was so good that Whitney Houston swagger jacked it in 1992 for The Bodyguard soundtrack, still the best-selling soundtrack of all time. (I still routinely see people wondering aloud about “that disco cover of Whitney’s song.”) “Tell Me Something Good,” from her time in the early seventies with Rufus, is one of the funkiest songs ever recorded but Chaka’s vocal almost certainly wins the funk prize, and may be why, all by itself, she is routinely called the Queen of Funk. (That nod to Aretha, who she rarely sounds like, helps you understand all of American pop. If you can figure out the ground that Aretha and Chaka covered between them, you’ve got a lot of it figured out.) But the song that embodies the genius of Chaka Khan in a way that time never diminishes is “Sweet Thing,” released in 1975 when she was simply a featured member of Rufus. Low, warm, and funky, “Sweet Thing” was Sade before Sade, Lauryn Hill before Lauryn Hill, a song that crossed classic romance and pride. The sweet thing is the one, but won’t stick around: “I'm only what you make me, baby, don't walk away, don't be so shady.” Khan, the co-writer here, had 21st-century slang down decades ahead of time.
And if you dive, you find more every time. You believe Chaka Khan has the range but you doubt the catalog? Go to 1982’s “Slow Dancin’” a duet with Rick James that Hank Shocklee turned into a trip-hop masterpiece on Chaka’s 1989 remix project, Life Is A Dance. You think you know “Goldfinger”? Chaka lifts it right out of Shirley Bassey’s book on her 2004 album, Classikhan. That’s what a singer does. Now, you can mumble into a computer and call it a hook. Chaka Khan has always sung everything she ever sang, and she is still singing the hell out of it.