28
Aug 09

CHAKA KHAN – “I Feel For You”

FT + Popular111 comments • 12,826 views

#540, 10th November 1984, video

Asked to describe the I Feel For You album, Wikipedia offers “Genre: Funk, Hip Hop, Electronic dance music, soul, Rhythm and blues, Pop”. By a remarkable coincidence that is the exact genre of this single, too – a time-shifting stylistic summit meeting that offers nothing less than a Grand Unified Theory of black American pop over the past two decades.

Except that makes it sound calculated and formal and “I Feel For You” is nothing of the sort – its glory isn’t in the fact of genres mixing, it’s in what they each bring to the party, the track’s blend of the hard-assed, the passionate and the blithe. That last in the form of Stevie Wonder’s harmonica, fluttering and darting over the beat and breaking down history itself – suddenly it’s 1962 again and he’s Little Stevie, the crowd roaring at his prodigal talent.

Back in the present day there are new skills to be admired. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to figure where “I Feel For You” fits into hip-hop history but to me it feels significant, a direct and brilliant assertion of the new music’s place in the continuity of black pop, a graduation party. From our perspective, of course, nothing much like this has got to number one before – New Edition’s beats had a tinny thrill but hardly the punch of “I Feel For You”, with its slick, box-fresh synth-funk. And of course they didn’t have Melle Mel, whose rapid, almost whispered rap beckons you into the song.

The keyboard and harmonica interplay almost drives Chaka Khan out of her own track, but wisely she doesn’t try to dominate the music. She could have belted the chorus but she takes it more thoughtfully, sighing, shuddering and finally just saying “I think I – love you”, creating a stillness round which the rest of the track can move.

And behind it all, the songwriter: Prince’s own version of “I Feel For You”, which I’d never heard before today, sounds delighted and goofy with self-discovery. Hearing it you can’t quite believe that it could survive being expanded, exploded and empowered in this way. But perhaps it’s no surprise: the man who wrote it spent his peak years mapping the interzone “I Feel For You” dances so wonderfully in.

9

Comments

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  1. 1
    Billy Smart on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Hurray! This is glorious.

    What is fantastic about it is the sense of space that allows all of the thrilling effects to be spotlit to their full extent, especially the lightning bolt stabs of synth. On paper, the team-up of talents – Chaka, Prince, Stevie, Melle Mel – sounds like a potential supergroup mess, but actually the two cameos really act as support to Chaka. Few vocals convey as much sexiness and liberation as the “Wooah Wooah Woww! I FEEL!”

    I always wondered about how much of a supporting role Melle Mel played at the time – It’s not exactly like a lovesong, more like he’s an internal monologue in her head telling her how hot she is as she prepares to meet her desired other.

  2. 2
    LondonLee on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Oh happy day, I’d forgotten that this got to #1. What I find amazing listening to it again is how fresh it still sounds, despite it having so many early 80s ticks – rap, Stevie Wonder’s harmonica, electro beat and synths – it doesn’t sound dated at all, the beat is still tough and there isn’t a hint of cheese about the keyboards. Fantastic, 9 might be too low.

    The video is stuck in a time capsule though.

  3. 3
    Billy Smart on 28 Aug 2009 #

    This was extremely popular with all of my 11 year-old peers who liked pop music – my new school being a lot more inner-London and multiracial than I’d experienced before. I remember several of the more confident and cocky boys attempting the rap in class between lessons.

    I didn’t join in. I knew my place.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 28 Aug 2009 #

    #2 Watch. A week of Duran Duran’s ‘Wide Boys’. Clearly inferior to ‘I Feel For You’.

  5. 5
    Michael Daddino on 28 Aug 2009 #

    I came here hoping you gave Chaka high marks and I was not disappointed.

  6. 6
    Michael Daddino on 28 Aug 2009 #

    If I remember correctly, Chaka HATED this song, I think because it de-emphasized her, made her belting only one element in a funhouse whole, and also because from then on she was constantly dogged by people going CHAKACHAKACHAKACHAKACHAKAKHAN CHAKAKHAN at her.

  7. 7
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    And we should add a fifth name to the team: Arif Mardin, who produced this gloriously thrilling piece of work. Gosh, all those major talents on a Number One single; how could a stellar roll-call like that ever be topped? (He asked warily, glancing bunnywards.)

    I taped this off the radio before it hit the shops – most likely from Robbie Vincent’s Radio One soul show – and played it over and over again, adoring it without reservation. As for its role in hip hop history: hmm, not sure that it had much of a role to play, to be honest. Melle Mel’s guest rap didn’t have much in common with the hip hop of the day, which had yet to fully unshackle itself from the electro wagon. So if we’re looking for the big forward-pointers of 1984, I’d nominate Run DMC’s “Rock Box” and UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne”…

  8. 8
    rosie on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Sorry, but this leaves me cold and reminds me of why I was feeling alienated from the charts at this time. It’s a long way from the soul greats of the 1960s.

  9. 9
    Michael Daddino on 28 Aug 2009 #

    OK, I found a relevant quote from Khan in The Rock Yearbook 1986:

    “For five years I have been going into the studio, really working at creating masterpieces, mixing jazz and rock and funk. So now I do this song [I Feel For You] and put rapping on it–which really is the pits! The lowest thing you can do, from an artist’s standpoint.”

    I think this STFU statement alone is the primary reason I’ve never explored her beyond this song and the obvious Rufus/solo hits: I can’t trust an artist with such off-kilter self-regard.

  10. 10
    Kat but logged out innit on 28 Aug 2009 #

    This is in my top ten songs of all time – I was ECSTATIC when Jo played it at the last Poptimism (come along tonight! Horse Bar! Free entry etc!) and I have loved it since I was *yay* high. My sister bought the 7″ (I know that sleeve art up there like the back of my hand – same artist as the Motown Chartbusters LPs I think?) and I played it over and over again. Whoa-oa-oah-oah-WHOAH-OAH-OAH-oah-oh-ohhhhhh YEAH :) It never fails to put a smile on my face. Ten ten ten ten ten.

  11. 11
    Steve Mannion on 28 Aug 2009 #

    A terrific song – one of the first I encountered where the sense of sonic thrill and novelty felt so seismic…I’m talking about the vocals there as much as anything else from the inspired, instantly iconic stutter intro to Chaka’s ecstatic wail towards the end. Dancefloor devastation on a Billie Jean level? Sounds like it to me altho this was never quite THAT ubiquitous. 9.5!

  12. 12
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Well, I suppose my answer to Rosie – and Chaka! – would be: this is a pop record, not a soul (or jazz, or funk) record. A hybrid, not a thoroughbred(*) – and a classic example of pop nicking the good bits from other “purer” genres and shamelessly mixing them up to create something new and thrilling.

    (*) Even though it was produced by one of the prime architects of the classic Atlantic soul sound…

  13. 13
    Steve Mannion on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Interesiting Michael re #6 – maybe that explain why I love it. As great as her voice sounds to me it’s not the standout feature of the track as everything seems to be operating in full effect but not to the extent that it’s at war with itself.

  14. 14
    CarsmileSteve on 28 Aug 2009 #

    and the BASSLINE dudes, don’t forget the bassline!!! i think this might be more than a 9 too, even though i ♥ wild boys (WILD BOYS!) this is top top quality. i keep on remembering little bits of it (no music in the office) and thinking “HAHA, YES, THAT BIT TOO!!!”

  15. 15
    Rory on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Wow, I’m surprised to see such a warm reaction here; I’d remembered this as a fairly minor song, although it reached number four in Australia. Re-watching it reminds me of my main problem with it: that Chaka seemed such an anonymous presence, her vocals overshadowed by the rest of the production. She’s pretty static in the video, too. I had been unaware of her previous hits, and didn’t twig to Prince’s and Stevie’s involvement, so this didn’t feel like much of an event to me at the time.

    That said, it’s fascinating to see how meaningful this was and is to so many of you. Maybe a better-than-YouTube-quality recording would better reveal its charms. For now, a 5 from me.

  16. 16
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Chaka Khan — and maybe Nona Hendryx and Patti Labelle — were the might-have-beens of a second generation of 60s soul: interesting to wonder why that never happened, since there was obviously a keen market for it. Who got bored with what that it dried up and blew away? I can easily understand Khan’s frustrated crossness: plugging away for years in a direction she deeply care about, to have half a life’s work topped by something she thought was throwaway.

    The interim studio-pop soul of the mid 80s was a lot of it pretty terrific: whatever happened to Kashif? Or Evelyn King, come to that. The Emotions with EWF. Boxed in the respectable trad vastness of old-school R&B and the palatial splendour of nu-school R&B, not quite (at this stage) emergent. Whitney H — and Hendryx — both worked wth Bill Laswell’s avant–rock collision improv project Material: this record is pop collision, but the actual real 90s were still a long way away.

  17. 17
    Mark M on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Re 9: She’s hardly the first singer to have woeful taste in their own music: just one more reason not regard the artist as the ultimate authority on their work.

    The record (I was about to say the song, but of course the song is just a fraction of it) is an absolute classic. If various of the previous number ones have brought up discussions about what was bad about music in the mid-’80s, this is definitely what was great about music of the time.

  18. 18
    Kat but logged out innit on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Tom – I’m glad you picked up on the crowd noise. I almost feel like they’re cheering *me* on as I listen, like a sort of pat on the back for appreciating such a good record.

  19. 19
    will on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Yes, ’tis brilliant. So many catchy bits that all fit seamlessly together. I just lurve the way Chaka drawls in that seductive, yet slightly ditzy manner ‘I…..I think love ya’ before Melle Mel goes back into the ‘Chakakhanletmerockyouchakakhan’ rap.

  20. 20
    Conrad on 28 Aug 2009 #

    A belter.

    I listened to this last night thinking Tom might update today and the thing that struck me most was how fresh it sounded.

    The production is superb – who is the producer? Did Prince produce it?

    EDIT – have just read Mike’s comment. Arif Marden. Makes sense. His work on Scritti Politti’s brilliant singles “Wood Beez” and “Absolute”, also from 1984, make him the stand out producer of the year for me, now I know this is his work. The fusing of hip-hop and dance elements with pure pop source material is really stunning, although of course Green was well up for the whole blue-eyed soul trip – shame to read that Chaka wasn’t so happy with the way it turned out

    As others have said, “I Feel For You” (just noticed how close in title that is to Summer/Moroder) mixes its various elements so well. The vocal is just right, I love it when the singer doesn’t overplay their hand, and like Donna’s on “I Feel Love” the vocal sits on the mix perfectly.

    Instrumentally, my favourite part is the middle 8 where it strips down to the synths and slightly industrial sounding rhythm bleeps.

    And the intro is just so damn sexy – you know you’re listening to a hit within the first 5 seconds.

    An 8 or 9 for me, the best number 1 we’ve had this year.

  21. 21
    Conrad on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Billy, #4 Le Bon was never the slimmest, but that’s a bit harsh!

  22. 22
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    #16 Maybe Chaka and Nona and Patti allowed themselves to be blown off course: by not understanding how they could best have adapted, and hence hiring themselves out at random? Hence the occasional gem (this record, Nona/Material’s “Busting Out”) and a whole array of misfires. Aretha suffered from this is as well (although with a better hit-rate then many, but now’s not the time…)

    (N.B. Kashif’s work with Evelyn King on “Love Come Down” and “I’m In Love” was fantastic – but some of his other stuff was a bit blah, as I recall.)

    (Oh, and Whitney Houston/Material’s “Memories” – her recording debut, and OH JOY OH JOY A SOFT MACHINE COVER – still holds up well today. But again, now’s not the time…)

  23. 23
    Mark M on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Re 16: “the palatial splendour of nu-school R&B, not quite (at this stage) emergent […] the actual real 90s were still a long way away”

    Well, (have done a Bunny check), we’re less than a year and a half away from Control, which I would say was the nu-school R&B fully emergent, and also connects (via the producers) directly to the starting point for the sound of the 00s as described in Tom’s terrific Pitchfork essay.

  24. 24
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Well, fully emergent is a faraway sigourney-weaver-in-a-waldo*-battling-aliens bunnybotherer (10 years!): which I would quote koganbot’s legendary review of only I’m not allowed. Control has nu-R&B producers but surely not a nu-R&B singer /controversial

    *sorry waldo

  25. 25
    MikeMCSG on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Hmmm I was going to pose the question would this have got to number one without the rap at the beginning but given the eulogies above it’s obvious what the answer would be.

    Arif Mardin added the rap without Chaka’s involvement and as pointed out earlier she hated it and had to be talked round into keeping it on the track.

    I can’t hear it now without recalling Morris Major and The Minors’ “Stutter Rap” (I’m guessing those above hated that) which rendered it as “Chuck A Can” – so stupid it’s brilliant. Morris Major of course was Tony Hawks whose books I’d thoroughly recommend particularly “Round Ireland With A Fridge”.

    But I digress. This meant that, like Vince Carke, Prince got to the top as a writer long before he managed it as a performer. In his case of course he did it twice.

    Like Rosie this isn’t my kind of music but I do find it less annoying than the next one to feature a Wonder harmonica solo.

  26. 26
    LondonLee on 28 Aug 2009 #

    #22 I was going to add that a lot of ‘proper’ soul singers like Chaka and Patti Labelle, not to mention their male counterparts, had also been blown off course by disco. Then along comes rap/electro/hip-hop which was even further away from R&B as we knew it. No wonder she was peeved.

    Never mind Kashif, whatever happened to Narada Michael Waldren?

  27. 27
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 28 Aug 2009 #

    mike@22: ok my kashif-love is a bit perverse

    as for bad decisions, yes, this is part of the same thing think: it’s like the spark-gap between the theatre actor generation and the cinema actor generation — there’s an epoch of singers who were terrific in real space (and studio-ups thereof) and a successor epoch of singers terrific in collage space, and a lost generation queuing up to be great at the former just as it went out of style… what’s interesting about hendryx and labelle and khan is that they’re all pretty no-nonsensy in-control-of-their-own-lives types; and this was a quality that somehow worked against them? (whitney on the other hand: hoo boy)

  28. 28
    Steve Mannion on 28 Aug 2009 #

    talking of Janet wasn’t her duet with CLIFF denting the lower rungs of the chart badlands around this time?

  29. 29
    Steve Mannion on 28 Aug 2009 #

    ‘whatever happened to Narada Michael Waldren?

    I think I saw him on a soul documentary (maybe even Soul Brittania? hmm) a couple of years ago. I like ‘Divine Emotions’ :)

  30. 30
    Matt DC on 28 Aug 2009 #

    This is one of the few #1 records I think is actually perfect – 10 for me as well.

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