“I Feel For You”: Chaka Khan’s 1984 video featured breakdancing, rap & hip-hop fashion

By on July 6, 2017

On September 3, 1988, Night Flight opened up our “Mega Video Vault” to share videos by some of the most innovative artists of the day, including videos by Devo, Grace Jones, David Lee Roth, Elvis Costello and “I Feel For You,” which was a huge hit in late 1984 for R&B singer Chaka Khan. We’ve got the story behind the song and the video below, and you can watch this special music video episode over on Night Flight Plus.

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By the early 1980s, Chaka Khan — born Yvette Marie Stevens in Great Lakes, Illinois, in 1953 — was being pressured by her record label, Warner Bros. Records, to come up with a hit.

She’d already released four solo albums, three of which had been for Warner Bros., and one for Elektra, in addition to previously releasing six albums with the band Rufus back in the 1970s.

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Rufus

Rufus had struck gold with a song written by Stevie Wonder, “Tell Me Something Good,” and Chaka Khan scored a half dozen gold or platinum albums with that band before she decided to go solo in 1978.

She’d go on to have a few hits on her own, including “I’m Every Woman,” the first single from her debut album Chaka. Written by Ashford & Simpson, it topped the R&B charts. A follow-up single, “Life is a Dance,” also charted in the R&B Top Forty.

Subsequent singles and albums for Warner Bros., however, didn’t really hit the goals that the label had set for Khan as a hot, hitmaking R&B performer.

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Khan — who had been working steadily with her longtime producer and mentor, Arif Mardin — had been developing as an artist, but by the early ’80s really had very little interest in recording pop hits, preferring instead to record soul and jazz tracks.

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Arif Mardin

Her straight-ahead jazz album, 1982’s Echoes of an Era, in fact, wasn’t even released under her own name because the label, the Warner-distributed Elektra, didn’t think it would appeal to her fans.

In the June 10, 1985, issue of Jet magazine, Khan — in a feature that shows her posing in photos with her children and inside her home, preparing dinner in the kitchen and other domestic scenarios — said: “Whatever other people label me is peripheral. It’s idealism and it’s very distorted.”

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It was a conscious decision then, between Khan and Mardin, to try to come up with a pop hit while recording tracks for her next album for Warner Bros.

They were fairly certain that Warner Bros. might want her to work with a different producer if they didn’t deliver them a hit, and because Khan liked working with Mardin, she tried to give them what they wanted.

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Mardin, in fact, who was given a $500,000 budget for the new album, acted as “executive producer,” bringing in eight other producers to assist him on various cuts recorded for the album.

By the early ’80s, R&B music had gone through its own metamorphosis, and the horn-powered funk bands, string-laden Philly soul and orchestra-driven disco were all now out of favor.

In the year 1984, what R&B fans were listening to on the radio were heavily electronic, synth-powered songs with a synthetic studio sheen, and lots of fake drums and robotic-sounding keyboards.

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The legendary Prince had originally written “I Feel for You” — as well as another song, “I Wanna Be Your Lover — as a kind of love-letter/valentine for R&B singer and jazz pianist Patrice Rushen, who he apparently had a crush on, hoping that she’d record the songs.

Rushen — who is probably still best known for her 1982 hit single “Forget Me Nots” despite having quite a long career as R&B singer as well as working as a producer — had no interest in recording either of the songs (she rejected “I Wanna Be Your Lover” first, and after she rejected his song “I Feel For You,” Prince stopped sending her tracks to record).

Prince recorded both songs himself, and included them both on his 1979 self-titled second album, Prince.

His original disco-fied version from 1979 (he played all of the instruments himself, of course), turned out to the thinnest of all the versions of the song that were released, sounding subtle and restrained.

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In 1982, the Pointer Sisters recorded “I Feel For You” for their So Excited album, produced by Richard Perry, and their version hinted that there might yet be room for an even more expanded version of the track for a more visionary, innovative artist. That artist turned out to be Chaka Khan.

It was Prince, in fact, who sent a tape of his song to producer and mentor Arif Mardin, suggesting that Chaka Khan record the song (“What a voice this woman has!” was reportedly his comment about her vocal skills).

Other sources, meanwhile, claim that a representative at Prince’s publishing company sent a cassette of the track to Mardin, but we prefer to think that Prince was involved in encouraging Chaka Khan to record it.

She’d also been thinking about recording it for awhile, having heard the Pointer Sisters’ and Prince’s version too, and it seemed like a good fit.

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Chaka Khan — who was interviewed in I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft (Thunder Mouth’s Press, 2007) — had already recorded a lot of songs written by other artists, but nevertheless she said had to feel like she’d written a song before she sings it.

“It has to already feel like it’s mine way before I record it,” Khan said. “Also, I’ve been careful to sing songs written by artists whom I have a deep respect and deep admiration for, so that when I come to their songs it falls together in the most natural way.”

Khan’s adopted name, by the way, translated from its African origins, is said to mean “fire, war and the color red,” and in 1984 her career was just about to become red hot, and not a moment too late as far as Warner Bros. were concerned.

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Mardin — who was really feeling  the pressure from the record company to come up with a hit song — essentially breathed new life into Prince’s song, producing Chaka Khan’s electro-funky hip-hop version of “I Feel For You” and building the track from the bottom up, adding the bubbling slap bass, wailing harmonica and those blurpy shrieking 1980s-sounding synthesizer notes.

The guitar, drum programming, bass guitar, keyboards and song arrangement were all done by Reggie Griffin, but the bass synthesizer and computer programming were done by the System’s David Frank, using an Oberheim DSX sequencer which he’d connected to his Minimoog synth. Also featured were Steve Ferrone (drums), Philippe Saisse (keyboards, synthesizer, programming) and Robbie Buchanan (keyboards, synthesizer, programming).

Khan recorded her vocals for the track in just one evening recording session. Barry Manilow was among a handful of singers who sang backing vocals on the track.

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Prince was going to play guitar on the track but had to pull out of the session at the last minute; he was in the midst of recording tracks for his Purple Rain and Mardin has said, simply, he “had schedule problems, couldn’t do it.”

Stevie Wonder was invited to play chromatic harmonica on the track. Wonder had been a longtime friend of Chaka Khan’s, ever since Rufus had hit with his song “Tell Me Something Good.”

Wonder recorded his harmonica part in Los Angeles — later a sample of his own Sixties hit “Fingerprints Pt. 2″ was added — on April 4, 1984, which also happened to be the same day he attended Marvin Gaye’s funeral (and the 16th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr).

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Mardin like the way the track was sounding, but felt it needed something more, and so he asked Griffin to track down Melle Mel — who performed with Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, and a year earlier had rapped on their hit “White Lines” — to improvise a rap section for the track.

Melle Mel recorded his his rap, in eight short lines, at Sugarhill Studios.

Mardin told having Melle Mel he didn’t want him to rap hip-hop clichés like money and cars, he wanted the rap to be about “love,” and so Melle Mel kept repeating how much he loved Chaka Khan, saying her name over and over.

One of the lyrics he raps — “Let me take you in my arms, let me fill you with my charms” — was based on a lyric from the 1968 Delfonics song, “La-La Means I Love You,” which featured the same line.

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Mardin then got the idea to use Melle Mel’s repetition of her name as percussion.

The idea originally came from Chaka Khan’s brother, when he and Mardin were talking at Mardin’s piano, and he told Mardin that he had two sisters, Chaka Khan and Taka Boom, and thought it might be a good idea to use both of their names in the track, but Mardin — who in 2005 was interviewed by NPR — said that that particular idea didn’t happen (“But there was a germ of an idea,” he said, filing it away for later).

Mardin originally had added Melle Mel’s rap in the middle of the track, which is where most raps still tend to show up in a song, but eventually he decided to start off the song with the rap at the beginning and then added it at the end, bookending the song with Melle Mel’s performance.

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Mardin told NPR that the idea of repeating Chaka Khan’s name with a kind of stop-start stuttering staccato beat at the beginning of the track was one of those happy accidents that happen in the recording studio from time to time.

“As we were mounting the recording onto the main master, my hand slipped on the repeat machine. So it happened to be, ‘Chaka–Chaka–Chaka–Chaka–Chaka–Chaka Khan,’ and we said, Let’s keep that. That’s very interesting.’ And it was an accident.”

Chaka Khan reportedly hated Melle Mel’s rap, and didn’t like hearing her name repeated over and over in the song, but Mardin convinced her it would make the song a hit (years later Khan would talk in interviews about how annoying it was to have fans approach her and, in their imitation of the song, say her name over and over, stuttering).

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Khan wasn’t initially enamored with Mardif’s pop-tastic production on the track, either, but, as she would tell Billboard magazine (in a feature story published on November 17, 1984), she and Mardin had made a conscious effort to make the song appealing to a much younger crowd.

“”I Feel For You’ is obviously a song that appeals to a lot of the younger kids,” she told Billboard‘s Paul Grein, “And the stuff that Arif and I have been doing for the past five years hasn’t. We’ve been Michelangelo-ing out. We’ve been scratching each other’s backs, doing a lot of jazz and having a good time doing what we wanted to do. We didn’t really have an eared tuned to the rest of the world or the market. With this album, Warner Bros. did say, ‘We’d like to sell some albums now, guys, if you don’t mind.'”

For the cover of the album itself, which was titled for the hit song, I Feel For You, Khan decided to feature an illustration instead of her photo on the cover.

“I wanted the picture to appear colorless,” she told Billboard‘s Grein. “Art can be misleading, and that’s what I wanted to do, to mislead. I didn’t want anyone to get any idea of what I look like.”

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Director Jane Simpson — who had graduated from UCLA’s film school and worked in animation before shifting over to work on commercials — was brought in as the director for what would be her first music video.

Simpson and the production company who produced Chaka Khan’s video for the track had already been working on a video combining some of the early ’80s day-glo fashions with break dancing and rap.

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She’d already approached several designers who had rejected her concept before Norma Kamali agreed to let her clothing designs appear in the video, which was originally titled “Street Beat,” and shot in a studio mocked-up to look like the multi-racial hip hop club, Radio-Tron, based out of the MacArthur Park area in L.A..

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It also featured exciting and then-new dance moves by some of the hottest break dancers and pop-lockers around, including Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quiñones, Bruno “Pop N Taco” Falcon and Ana “Lollipop” Sánchez, all of whom had just appeared in a little movie called Breakin’.

If you’ll recall, Chambers was “Turbo,” and Quiñones was “Ozone,” in Breakin’, which had finished filming in February 1984 and was released in early May, beating its closest competitor Beat Street (1984) to the punch by a month.

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Some of the other dancers in the Chaka Khan video were a dance troupe calling themselves the Unique Dominos, and all of the dancers were wearing Kamali’s fluorescent hip-hop clothing.

To this pre-shot footage was added new footage of Chaka Khan and deejay Chris “The Glove” Taylor spinning a hot pink-colored 12-inch single with “Chaka” printed on the label, as well as Khan standing near a chain-link fence and other props — including graffiti-covered panels — on a studio soundstage.

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The video was added to MTV in heavy rotation, and no doubt helped to push the track to becoming a million-selling smash hit, charting at #1 on the Cash Box singles chart and #1 on both the US dance and R&B charts in late 1984, remaining atop both for three weeks each. It also reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart.

A remixed version of the video was created to match the 12″ vinyl version of the single, and it was a hit on the dancefloors all across the country.

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It reached its peak position of #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in November–December 1984 and remained on the Hot 100 for twenty-six weeks and became one of Billboard‘s five biggest pop songs of the year for 1985 (it also eclipsed and apparently also made everyone forget about Rebbie Jackson’s version, a competing cover version, which she’d recorded for her 1984 debut album Centipede).

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Prince, as a songwriter, won the 1985 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Song, and he and Chaka Khan performed “I Feel For You” as a duet when they toured together in 1998 in support of her collaborative album, Come 2 My House.

Watch this September 3, 1988 edition of Night Flight’s “Mega Video Vault” over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.