Aug 09

CHAKA KHAN – “I Feel For You”

FT + Popular111 comments • 12,825 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.



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  1. 31
    pink champale on 28 Aug 2009 #

    i’m having my paradigm shifted here, ma! if asked i’d always have said this was a good record but i now realise i’ve never really given a moment’s thought to it, not least in not twigging that prince was involved, let alone mellie mel. (i’m pretty sure i worked stevie out). i haven’t heard it in ages and can’t while i’m at work, but as i read all this more and more of the record is coming back to me and in my head at least it’s sounding more and more brilliant. can’t wait to see whether this is a genuine revelation or if i’m just easily led.

  2. 32
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Narada Michael Walden is once again touring with Allan Holdsworth and Gong! They are the UK’s answer to Material!

    OK that’s a lie.

  3. 33
    LondonLee on 28 Aug 2009 #

    I have the 12″ of ‘Divine Emotions’. Can’t remember the last time I played it though, might sound a bit rubbish now.

  4. 34
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Meanwhile, a 12″ was just surfacing on import, with a clear debt to another Nona Hendryx/Material track, by a genre-mashing artist who we’ll be discussing – repeatedly and no doubt exhaustively – in Popular comment boxes to come…

  5. 35
    misschillydisco on 28 Aug 2009 #

    i’m quite sure that i’ve posted on FT about this song before…? maybe not.

    this is, i think, my favourite number one ever, with wuthering heights running a close second. it can transport me straight back to 1984. love the bit especially where it breaks down in the middle and chaka says “i…i think i love you”. as close to perfect as any record could ever get.

    i thought i remembered that green gartside was somehow to be involved, thanks to the folks above for confirming

  6. 36
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Well, Green Gartside must have been in the studio with Arif Mardin by then, working on Cupid & Psyche 85… so who knows?!

  7. 37
    misschillydisco on 28 Aug 2009 #

    hi mike, i edited my comment after scrolling thru and reading yours. classic case of being too keen to post my own comment before reading the others first! [i am a dufus.]

  8. 38
    Tom on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Terrific comments thread so far by the way.

    At the time I hated this of course. I would go so far as to say it’s the second wrongest I’ve ever been about a number one. (“Third wrongest” harrumph the Don McLean posse)

  9. 39
    Tom on 28 Aug 2009 #

    The System, who do the band stuff on this, also did the band stuff on Cupid & Psyche 85, which is one reason that record sounds so gorgeous and so of-its-era.

  10. 40
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Wow, did The System play on this? I never knew that! I loved The System!

  11. 41
    Kat but logged out innit on 28 Aug 2009 #

    #35 – Pete did a review of this for the Top 100 Tracks of All Time list.

  12. 42
    LondonLee on 28 Aug 2009 #

    So I dug out my 12″ of ‘Divine Emotions’ (remix by Shep Pettibone!) which sounded OK but Walden’s vocal was a bit ropey.

    But looking for it I came across the 12″ of another record from earlier in 1984 that might have influenced this, at least they both seem to me like premier examples of how to mix electro and soul: “Let The Music Play” by Shannon.

  13. 43
    pink champale on 28 Aug 2009 #

    ha ha “do the band stuff”. this is also my understanding of what goes on in a recording studio. and that bloke on the other side of the glass with the big machine? apparently he does something too.

  14. 44
    Steve Mannion on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Narada’s voice similar to Matthew Wilder I thought – and I loved the relatively strange character of it, his accentuations etc.

  15. 45
    lockedintheattic on 28 Aug 2009 #

    That´s a brilliant description of Prince´s original version of this song – and in fact I think ´goofy self discovery´sums up the whole of the album it came from, 1980´s ´Prince´, his second album. Nowhere near as sophisticated as his later stuff, it´s still one of my favourites just due to the sense of an artist having fun throughout. I also bet he had no idea that the song could be made this much better by a cover – and this wouldn´t be the last time, although the bunny prevents me from discussing the next time an artist took a throwaway Prince track, made it their own and took it to the top.

  16. 46
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    (And then there was the Prince song that made #2 for another act in 1986…)

    Listening to “I Feel For You” again this afternoon, with the Scritti Politti connection in mind and newly aware of The System’s involvement, I’m struck for the first time by how the arrangement owes a certain debt to that dear old warhorse, New Pop. So many tricksy little details in there, which my low-bitrate mental jukebox had erased…

  17. 47
    enitharmon on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Well, I’ve just listened to this again and I’m not the wiser about what’s going on here. Maybe this here mp3 version wot I have acquired isn’t the same thing that everybody else is hearing. What I’m picking up is a lot of full-frontal electronic noise, smeared with a nice bit of Stevie Wonder-ish harmonica (is it really him playing it? Did he know about it at the time?) and interspersed with a chap rapping on Chaka Khan’s name, while pushed somewhere in the distant background is Ms Khan singing as if in the studio changing room shower.

    Is this how it is or have I missed something?

  18. 48
    Steve Mannion on 28 Aug 2009 #

    It sounds wonderful from your description.

    I don’t think of Chaka as really background on this though, nor overshadowed. Even if that were the case it wouldn’t necessarily be worse than her obscuring everything else about the song (it would have to sound/be produced differently for that anyway).

    I haven’t thought much about what gets taken away from her here or how she could’ve played a bigger role on the record – that’s just never struck me as a problem. There are other ways this song could work (less maximal production, increased space) but that wouldn’t improve it.

  19. 49
    Tom on 28 Aug 2009 #

    I think that hearing the Prince original helped push this from an 8 to a certain 9 (and I was tempted by the 10 too) – it crystallised how strong the song is but also how much great stuff gets done to it.

  20. 50
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    In a way, it does sound like Chaka is merely guesting on her own record; there are so many competing, equally fore-grounded elements at work that it almost feels like a Chaka Khan tribute record, with Chaka herself being borne aloft above the clattering fray, slightly at one remove from it all. Which is cool in my book, but perhaps less cool if you approach this record expecting to hear a traditional artist-led “performance”… and evidently much less cool if you’re Chaka herself! (Compare and contrast with the struggles which Diana Ross had with the Chic boys four years earlier…)

  21. 51
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 28 Aug 2009 #

    playing my trusty 12″ copy as i print out the semi-final version of “black science fiction revisited” !!!, the weakness i hear (which an mp3 would amplify) is an absence of really REALLY full rounded bass bottom and room: one of the things UK post-punkers with an ear for dub were spoiled for i think — except in actual proper discos, lots of classic electro dancemixes have this flimsiness where there should be something BIGGER — and doubtless was, on systems with excellent bass

    though my speakers are older than any two posters combined except rosie and myself, their bass isn’t ba-a-a-d: PiL and actual real dub they get a grip on, but not quite this..: still pretty terrific in a prog-scratch sense tho…

  22. 52
    enitharmon on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Well yes, a traditional artist-led performance (without the quotes) is what I look for. Is there a problem with that? It’s largely what we’ve had in Popular up until the last Popular-year or so.

  23. 53
    Tom on 28 Aug 2009 #

    I don’t think he’s saying there’s a problem with wanting that – but in this case (and many others) I’m happy not to GET that.

  24. 54
    Tom on 28 Aug 2009 #

    It’s no less a traditional artist-led performance than “Strawberry Fields Forever” is, tho.

  25. 55
    Steve Mannion on 28 Aug 2009 #

    ‘Compare and contrast with the struggles which Diana Ross had with the Chic boys four years earlier…’

    Tell me more! not necessarily here perhaps but I only heard ‘My Old Piano’ for the first time this year and would champion that almost as much as this if I didn’t have such a strong memory of this from the time and subsequent nice history.

  26. 56
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Maybe what thrilled me more than anything else about this record is that it says: here’s the old school (Chaka, Stevie, Arif), here’s the new school (Prince, Melle Mel, Scritti Politti knocking at the studio door, and yes to #42, this does sound post-Shannon), and it’s all coming together in one place, and we know that pop music is fundamentally changing, and we welcome it, and it’s great.

    (Whereas others might have been thinking: ugh, pop music IS changing, and bollocks to this racket, I’m outta here!)

  27. 57
    mike on 28 Aug 2009 #

    #55 – Miss Ross was Most Displeased that the Chic Boys had relegated her to a bit player on the Diana album, and so she grabbed hold of the master tapes and chopped out whole chunks of the Chic instrumental work-outs before its release, also pushing her own vocals higher in the mix – much to the annoyance of Rodgers and Edwards.

    Going back still further, The Temptations were similarly pissed off that Norman Whitfield had bit-parted them on the Masterpiece album, whole sections of which pass by without any vocal contribution at all, leading some wags of the day to re-christen them “The Norman Whitfield Chorale”….

  28. 58
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 28 Aug 2009 #

    music is a collective activity: singer-led music is a bit like actor-led movies; the output depends on the capacity of the actor to get all the other necessary stuff delivered well, basically: some are good at it (woody allen); some are pretty terrible (john travolta) (what d’you mean i’m cherrypicking my examples? some of woody’s films are in fact worse than battleship earth!)

    we’ve definitely moved into a phase of big-cast pop, where the cast is a lot of musical elements: quasi-orchestral though with a technologised orchestra, and delivered more by the conductor-composer than the performer — think it takes while (maybe till the rise of rave) for the mainly-instrumental stream and the songbased stream to separate

  29. 59
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 28 Aug 2009 #

    “the cast is a lot of musical elements” — er, yes, how eloquent i can be sometimes: i mean that the cast-orchestra is not made up of performer-instruments individually played, so much as sound-elements organised by the conductor-composer (the guy at the mixdesk, in other words)

  30. 60
    Steve Mannion on 28 Aug 2009 #

    I find all this fascinating and highly pertinent to arguments and discussions I’ve been having a lot lately e.g. I think it relates well to what Tom said in the pitchfork 00s essay regarding certain producers in rap and modern r&b becoming stars in their own right (or at least more than before) by crossing into pop and how it was their input which attracted people to the subsequent result of that rather than the performers…or at least the main performer (given how these producers would contribute more vocally themselves). Mind you in most of those cases we are not really talking about performers with voices like Diana’s or Chaka’s (that may be unfair).

    In summary, Woody Allen should’ve directed Battlefield Earth.

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