Born Yvette Marie Stevens, Chaka Khan, who changed her name whilst working as a teen for the Black Panthers as part of their Free Breakfast For Children program, is a modern day entertainment icon. From her group work as part of Rufus to her hugely successful solo career, she’s worked with everyone from Prince to Mary J. Blige, and her final product is always of a high standard. If it’s not her undeniable musical prowess, it’s her willingness to give back that sets her apart from the rest of the pack. Not only is she always prepared to help other musicians when called upon – her song ‘Through The Fire’ was resurrected with her permission when Kanye West sampled it on his debut smash ‘Through The Wire’, she also has her very own charity Foundation. Formed in 1999, the Chaka Khan Foundation helps women and children in crisis. Chaka has also taken part in many benefits dedicated to the conquering of AIDS and HIV prevention. Basically she’s someone who wants to give back.
Returning with a new album, which has already won two Grammy Awards, Chaka Khan has teamed up with virtuoso production team Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis to bring us ‘Funk This’. Gigwise managed to obtain a bit of time with the legendary lady of soul, here's what she had to say…
Gigwise: It’s been a while since we’ve heard anything new from you. Why did you decide to release an album now?
Chaka: “It really wasn’t that I decided to do an album now. I’ve courted a few labels over a ten year period, and then I decided things weren’t really right for me. So I continued to work on the road to pay the bills, and then finally a label came to me and wanted to sign me. They were a great label, very supportive and very helpful. Like many of my previous labels they tried to find me the right producers to work with, which they couldn’t. And then my sister/manager Tammy said, “Why don’t we take Jam & Lewis up on their offer that they want to work with you?” We had been talking about it for years in passing but had never laid anything down. Finally they moved from Minneapolis to Santa Monica, right up the street from me, and I paid them a visit. I asked them if they’d be interested in working with me. They were very interested, and then that’s where the new album started.”
‘Funk This’ contains a few covers and some of your own records, how did the concept come about that you were going to do the album this way?
“I have so many songs that have accumulated over the years, and we wanted to make sure that this album had some chance at commercial success. So, some of the covers are for that reason. We picked only the best, without sticking to a theme. There is a sort of underlining theme to the album but it’s very hidden. I don’t even know what it is. Everything just goes together nicely. I wanted it to go back to me and my authentic roots, the organic Chaka Khan. Basically what made people fall in love with me in the first place was hearing me with Rufus doing live music on a board with live musicians, as opposed to doing it via the internet and what not.”
Following the US release of the album you won two Grammy Awards for it. How does it feel to still be winning Grammy’s this far in to your career?
“It’s special. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised to have even been nominated. I mean… I was expecting something from this album I just wasn’t sure what. I didn’t expect to win two Grammy’s. I can tell you that for nothing. All my friends were telling me I was going to win both. I was like, “Yeah, right!” I was just happy to have even been acknowledged. I then gave it no more thought and carried on working. And lo and behold I got them both. To me, that was a sign that we did right by this album.”
You’ve had a long and successful career in music. What would you say has been the key to your success? What keeps you going?
“I mean c’mon, first of all it takes a certain amount of talent to stay relevant. And people have to recognise that. They need to know it and feel it. That’s part of it. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve paid a lot of dues in fact. I’ve been through a lot and I think because of that people recognise that I am authentic, at least in my musical communication. Other than that, I don’t really look at it or think about it that much. I’m just thankful.”
While some of today’s youngsters may not know who you are, especially in physical form, you allowed Kanye West, who at the time was trying to get his music heard, to sample your hit ‘Through The Fire’. It was definitely an important moment in music. You effectively helped kick start the career of one of today’s most credible hip-hop artists. How did this come about? Did you think it would help him?
“I thought it would help him. I really did. I did for a whole different reason though. He called me and asked me if he could use the song because he had been in an amazing accident and my song helped him to recover. So how could I say no? That was my primary reason for agreeing to it. Of course I didn’t expect him to speed it up and make me sound like a chipmunk. It wasn’t until later I found out that his trademark was in fact speeding up older records and using them on his tracks. I’m just glad I was of some assistance in helping him get better. However, I do believe there should be a lot more legislation when it comes to using other people’s music. If you can’t play the music, then why bother? Be a DJ. That’s how I feel personally. If you’re going to be a musician, be a musician. Play it. Play the instrument or get somebody that can to play it, because I think that things like Pro Tools and other electronic recording equipment are made to enhance music that’s already been done. It’s used to freak it, tweak it, whatever…”
Music has changed a lot since you first burst on to the scene. So who is it that you listen to?
“Through the years I’ve gone through five year patches where I’ll be in to five or six CD’s. That’s it. And I don’t really listen to music at home. I like to listen to it in the car. So in my car right now I think there is Joni (Mitchell), Miles (Davis) – ‘Tutu’ is probably in there, Kim Burrell, Rahsaan Patterson, Mica Paris. Oh, and I love Anthony Hamilton. He’s not in my car though. I need to get him in my car. I’m really particular when it comes to what I’m listening to. I don’t listen to the radio. Even satellite stuff I don’t deal with. I hate being at the mercy of someone else’s selection. I have to have my own. I can’t trash out my ears otherwise it messes with me. I need music equilibrium.”
You’re currently promoting the new album in the UK, including a show at the O2 Arena. What is it about touring that you love so much?
“That’s what it’s all about. At the end of the day it’s about communicating person to person. It’s about the giving of yourself, the offering of yourself, and then getting back whatever is given back to you. There’s nothing like it. If you want to talk about something that’s addictive then performing is it. Just that feeling once you step on stage is enough to drive you to do it over and over again.”
What’s next for you?
“Well… working this CD to death, to the limit, working it to the rafters, and doing all that I can to make a success of it. Then it’s back in to the studio I go. I also have a Foundation, which I’m going to hook up with a few key people here in the UK to help further it. It’s a Foundation that helps children and women in crisis. We have an education initiative that we’re working on right now. We also work with autism.”
Finally, any message for the UK fans?
“Yes! Of course. I’ve maintained a residence here for many years. I love England. I love my UK fans. This is my second home. I just wanna thank everybody for hanging in there with me all these years. It’s been phenomenal. Everybody’s been so good to me. They’ve been kind and really supportive even though I’ve stayed under the radar a bit. I feel so blessed to have been given so much love.”
'Funk This' is out now.