If Groeni is a kind of icy R&B, Chaka Khan would be the opposite. Infused with the energy of disco, she accelerated her move from disco to modern electronic R&B.
Other than the Bee Gees, I never gave disco much attention. Not because I was a cool 12 year old, but because I could not relate to it. The flashy divas I sorta understood, I would see people like them in church. The men in leather not so much. There were however some songs from late in the era that stood out for me because of their strong groove or catchy melody. Chaka Khan’s “Do You Love What You Feel” was one of those songs. It embodied late disco’s combination of emerging technology and good old analog based arrangements.
As I became a teenager, I associated Khan’s music with that of her days with Rufus and that great song complete with big horn driven melodies with smooth funky bass lines. By the time I was a senior in high school, that sound had fallen out of vogue as radio stations were turning away from veterans of the ’70s for electronic based funk. New wave had changed pop and was changing R&B too.
Not wanting to be left behind, Chaka Khan remade her sound, a process she started with 1981’s “What Cha Gonna Do For Me”. By 1984’s I Feel For You, she had established herself as the vanguard of modern R&B. With the tech savvy members of The System, Stevie Wonder and a long list of others in the studio, I Feel For You was a technological tour de force.
Far from the icy R&B of today, I Feel For You embodies the happy, warm and infectious sound of R&B before too much of hip hop’s angst settled in. As her biggest record to date it’s initial popularity was a driven by the title track.
“I Feel For You” was a Prince song from five years before that was re imagined with a hip hop styled break beat. Suddenly, Chaka Khan was an MTV star and was on a path to crossover success. Popping and locking aside, the famous sampling of Chaka Khan’s own spoken name had become synonymous with edgy dance music and Khan herself.
The early ’80s was still a time of heavily segregated radio formatting. The fact that a hip hop influenced R&B song could make the pop top ten was a major achievement. Like Prince, Micheal Jackson and later Tina Turner, Chaka Khan would join the small but growing list of black artists who would score on the mainstream pop charts and get MTV exposure.
I Feel for You was thoroughly modern in it’s production, yet it featured remakes of ’70s classics like Gary Wright‘s “My Love Is Alive” and Burt Bacharach’s “Stronger Than Before”. Any references to the past were lost on Khan’s new audience, many of whom may have never heard of her before I Feel For You.
In addition to scoring on the R&B chart, Khan revisited the dance charts with the album’s second single “This is My Night”, a song produced by Mic Murphy and David Frank of The System. After the successful ballad “Through the Fire” the albums other singles were relegated to the R&B charts.
Unfortunately, the long string of singles could not maintain the momentum for the two or so years it took to produce a follow up. Her “comeback” although impressive was not like that of Tina Turner who had no problem moving from rock to R&B and finally the pop charts for most of the ’80s.
Although he next effort Destiny was deemed successful, it never approached the crossover potential of I Feel For You. Khan however had a knack for finding the right production teams to stay current and remains an edgy performer to this day.