Chaka Khan Lives the 'Super Life' R&B icon Chaka Khan has just stepped into a starring role in the Broadway hit The Color Purple and recently released Funk This, her first studio album in 10 years. The soul diva explains what she's learned from her decades in the music business.

Chaka Khan Lives the 'Super Life'

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Chaka Khan is one of the rare artists who is known not just as a great singer, but as a great song lyric.

(Soundbite of song, "I Feel For You")

GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL (Rap Artist): (Rapping) Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan. Let me rock you. Chaka Khan, let me rock you. That's all I wanna do. Chaka Khan.

MARTIN: Of course, at the hook for "I Feel For You," Khan's smash hit in 1984. The song brought her to a whole new audience or fans of what was then a new genre - a little something called rap.

But that's not unusual, because over her four-decade long career, she's been winning fans over in just about every genre from disco to soul to jazz. She's won eight Grammy Awards, but she hasn't been in the studio for a while. But now she's back with a new album, "Funk This."

Chaka joins us now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California.

Chaka Khan, welcome.

Ms. CHAKA KHAN (Singer): Well, thank you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So what's it like being a lyric? Is it fun? Is it like having your face on a $50 bill, or is it annoying like you can't go to the GAP to get some jeans and people who can't sing want to go Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan?

Ms. KHAN: Well, the one thing - yeah, that's the one thing that is annoying. But, you know, I have to not look it that way. I had to train myself. When I got so mad, you know, one day I said, this is ridiculous. This is a form of homage. I…

MARTIN: But do people like walking up to you on the street, and they'll like…

Ms. KHAN: Yeah. They say my name three or four times. And I'm like once is sufficient. It's like, you know, but I knew that when Arif put the rap on there…

MARTIN: Do you hear…

MARTIN: I - you know, I had like some sort of epiphany that this is going to impact me in some major way.

(Soundbite of song, "I Feel For You")

GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL: (Rapping) Chaka Khan. Let me rock you. Chaka Khan. Let me rock you. That's all I wanna do. Chaka Khan. Let me rock you, Chaka Khan. Let me rock you , 'cause I feel for you, feel for you.

MARTIN: So talk about funk. How did funk come to be? It's like - it's not quite blues. It's not quite soul.

Ms. KHAN: Okay. Let's say funk deals with this.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. KHAN: I think funk is uniquely American black music. Its mother was this music that the slaves sang when they came from the motherland. Thus came gospel. I think that mix of gospel and jazz and blues, it's probably what funk is. In my mind, when I sing it, I don't know what the…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KHAN: …you know - let's say that funk is the mixture of the color blue and red.

MARTIN: Interesting. Yeah.

Ms. KHAN: Okay.

MARTIN: So what was your inspiration for this CD? What got you started?

Ms. KHAN: Part of that was I wanted, well, so - I mean, I was passively aggressively looking for a label for the last 10 years, since I left Warner Brothers. So finally, BMG and Tony came to and me and were interested in signing me.

MARTIN: I was wondering why you stayed out of the studio for so long.

Ms. KHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, I wasn't sure whether it was because you didn't want to record, or you were interested in other things.

Ms. KHAN: Well, I was definitely, you know, working on the road, but I was doing everything slow, you know. It gave me time to make a few, you know, life adjustments for the better. And, you know, I got to work on myself a bit, too, because I was, you know, I didn't really know where I stood.

All of us are human being on this planet. I was unsure of my path in life, what it was really about, why I was here. But inside, I really did know. I was just, you know, a coward…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KHAN: …you know, too cowardly to step up to the plate and go on, you know. And it was just one of the situations that I - I tend to really just make up my mind and look, okay. It's all or nothing, and it has to be that way with anything.

MARTIN: Do you think you were hiding behind your big voice? I mean, you got this big, powerful gift that most people don't have. And do you think that you kind of relied on that gift to the exclusion of working on other things?

Ms. KHAN: Oh, yes. Chaka Khan was a big barrier whom I had to get out of the way. I had to push her to the back to get to Yvette, you know. That girl that was a lyricist in '73, when I have my first hit. You know, I had to get back to her, because she's my core. And I've been ignoring her for many, many years. But Yvette is the most important, and I have to acknowledge her, apologize to her for ignoring her, and I got this inner strength back, you know. I really did. I got this something new on - that's new, and not really new but old, and it came back.

MARTIN: You know, you've got a cut in your album that seems to speak to that. It's called "Super Life." Shall we play a little bit of it?

Ms. KHAN: Exactly. Yeah.

MARTIN: Want play a little?

Ms. KHAN: Yeah, sure.

(Soundbite of song, "Super Life")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) You know, we can't get off more lightly. I didn't forget summertime. I know. On the night I (unintelligible) genocidal, baby. I can't believe it.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Right or wrong, I'm gonna live a super life.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Watch me live.

MARTIN: Now, this is the last track on your new album "Funk This," and I was actually going to play it last, but since we were talking about, you know, all the sort of changes you're making in your life, is this kind of a celebration of the new you?

Ms. KHAN: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: The new old you.

Ms. KHAN: Absolutely. And actually, that was the first song that Ricky Rouse and I composed for the CD, and it sort of set the course in the right direction.

MARTIN: Well, that's great.

(Soundbite of song, "Super Life")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) (unintelligible) together. Come on get with me or get on out my way.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I gonna live, gonna live a super life.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Ooh.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) For us, baby.

MARTIN: You know, it's been - I hope you don't mind my bringing it up because I've been reading up on you, and I understand that, you know, it has been a tough couple of years. And you had this situation with your son Damien, who was on trial for murder, and ultimately he was acquitted. But that had to have been a very difficult experience. It would certainly be a difficult experience for anybody, I don't know.

Ms. KHAN: Yeah. Well, you know, it was more about me than it was about him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KHAN: This is sick. This is a bomb situation. And it was crap based on crap and lies, but I had to suit up and show up every morning and be in that courtroom.


Ms. KHAN: How did it change my life? You know, sometimes it takes, you know, a horrible experience to galvanize, you know, a family. Also, you know, I learned a lot about myself and about him and about, you know, I started paying attention to a lot of things that I didn't want to think about.

MARTIN: Like what?

Ms. KHAN: Oh, I used to have extreme guilt about having when other people have not didn't have. And, you know, there are things you can do to help people. You know, my heart's virtue is to empower the young and the innocent. So that's what I'm about. So everything I do has to have something to do with that.

MARTIN: One of things I noticed about this latest CD - besides, you know, you're known for some great collaborations. You've been known for that, you know, throughout your career. But this latest CD has a really attention-getting track on it, this time with a great R&B singer, Mary J. Blige. The track is "Disrespectful," and I'd love to play a little bit of that.

Ms. KHAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Disrespectful")

Ms. MARY J. BLIGE (Singer): (Singing) Come on, baby.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Disrespectful.

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Yeah.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) You don't wanna treat me.

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Here you go.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) You don't wanna play around.

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) No.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) I could be history. Don't mess around with me.

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) No.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) I'm too good for you.

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Yeah.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) What do you take me for? I'm nobody's fool.

Ms. KHAN and Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Boy, what is wrong with you? I don't have time for this. You can't make me loose my mind. I'm too strong for you.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Disrespectful.

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Yeah.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) It's no mystery.

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Get them Chaka.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Best thing to happen to you.

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Uh-huh.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) No one compares to me.

MARTIN: You know, Mary J. is also known as an artist who's been through a lot.

Ms. KHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, and really…

Ms. KHAN: She's been through the fire.

MARTIN: Has been through the fire. Yes, indeed. Is - I was wondering if that was one of the reasons you were drawn to each other for this track.

Ms. KHAN: The fact that of it is the fire made this track possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How did you - how did it come together? Who's the…

Ms. KHAN: Well, actually, actually, she wrote it. I - and I went into work with Jam and Lewis, but Terry pulled up this track that…

MARTIN: I'm sorry just to clarify, the CD is produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who are well-known, you know, for their work with…

Ms. KHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: …Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Usher and so forth.

Ms. KHAN: Right. Well, anyway, he…


Ms. KHAN: …he said let me play something for you. So he pulled it up, and he said this is - when we were there writing with Mary, she wanted to write a, like, a Chaka Khan kind of song, so they came up with this track for her, and it didn't end up going anywhere. Anyway, she had her vocal down already, and I just inserted my vocals, you know.

MARTIN: It's pretty hot.

Ms. KHAN: Yeah. It is. It's like we're there together. And, you know, we are together in spirit, in a big way.

(Soundbite of song, "Disrespectful")

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) I remember when you loved me.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) But it doesn't matter to everything…

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) I remember when you used to love me.

MARTIN: What do you think have been some of your most rewarding collaborations?

Ms. KHAN: Well, Miles Davis.

(Soundbite of song, "Human Nature")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Why, why tell me about this human nature? Why, why does he do me that way…

Ms. KHAN: After that I was, like, okay, I can…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What was that like?

Ms. KHAN: Amazing. Well, you know, he and I were very good friends.


Ms. KHAN: I'm actually the only, you know, singer he worked with besides (unintelligible), but there's not a female singer that didn't mean anything with Miles. And he compared my voice to his horn, and that's the highest compliment I think I've ever gotten.

(Soundbite of song, "Human Nature")

MARTIN: One of your longest friendships, of course, is with Prince. You know, "I Feel For You," another huge hit, was a track on one of his albums. Now, you've appeared on his album and he produced your 1998 "Come 2 My House" and…

Ms. KHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: …now on this - in this album, you're covering another Prince song "Sign O' The Times." Do you want to play a little bit of that?

Ms. KHAN: Oh, let's hear a little bit of that. Why not?

(Soundbite of song, "Sign O' The Times")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name. By chance his girlfriend came across a needle, and soon she did the same. At home, there are 17-year-old boys and their idea of fun is being in a gang called the Disciples, high on crack, totin' a machine gun.

MARTIN: This track got my attention for a lot of reasons. Number one, a lot of the songs on that album are about, you know, love and, you know…

Ms. KHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: …the usual, the classic themes. And this one's right out of the headlines. So I was wondering a couple of things, which is, are you feeling something political? Is there something on your mind? Or is this a tribute to the friendship with Prince? Or (unintelligible)…

Ms. KHAN: No, come on. Look at the world, come on. I mean, this is nuts. And what else can you talk about, man, but how we are like…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KHAN: …turning this place into a veritable grave yard?

(Soundbite of song, "Sign O' The Times")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) It's silly, you know, when a rocket ship explodes, everybody still wants to fly. Some say a man ain't happy (unintelligible) truly dies. Oh, why time?

MARTIN: Is there something in particular that got you thinking about this? Do you follow politics? Or is this something that…

Ms. KHAN: Oh, yeah, I know.

MARTIN: …happened that made you think, you know what, I have to say something about this? I have to speak on it.

Ms. KHAN: Well, I have a foundation called the Chaka Khan Foundation, and we deal with women and children in crisis. And I've adopted a middle school in Compton, Charles Drew. And I'm going to stick with these kids for six years, until they go into college. In that time, I plan to take them all over the planet, if I can, as many places as I can. And then at the end of the six-year term, to just - to make sure that they go to the college to suit their choice and help them with that.

MARTIN: So it sounds, in a way, like you're personally hopeful, but when it comes to the broader community, society, you have a sense of pessimism. Is that right? Is that what I'm hearing?

Ms. KHAN: Well, not pessimism. I just kind of know we need the kind of power system that we need. It has to come from us as a people. And so little of it has to do with who's elected today, because no matter who is elected, there are certain things that need to be in place, and that we need to fix, that only we can fix, you know, as people in our communities.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of things that need to get fixed, we're not going to have to wait another 10 years for another album from you, are we?

Ms. KHAN: No. I don't think my new label will let me do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Get busy.

Ms. KHAN: And - you know, plus I've got a treasure trove of stuff that I have written.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. KHAN: And I'd also like to, like, re-release some of the CD that Prince and I did together. I don't think that got proper exposure. I've done, you know, I've recorded a couple of CDs in the 10-year time that I was away. And obviously they're not on the airwaves. And I plan to use some of that material, too.

MARTIN: It sounds great. We'll look forward to it. I don't think my producers and listeners would forgive me if I didn't play a little bit of "Tell Me Something Good."

(Soundbite of song, "Tell Me Something Good")

MARTIN: I'm not sure they'll let me out of here in one piece, so I think I need to play a little of that.

Ms. KHAN: All right.

(Soundbite of song, "Tell Me Something Good")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Tell me something good.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Tell me that you love me, yeah.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Tell me something good.

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Tell me that you like it, yeah.

MARTIN: I don't really have a question about that. Just tell me something good about what are you going to do next.

Ms. KHAN: Well, right now, I'm getting really great response with the CD. Amazing. It's doing better right now than the "I Fell for You" album, CD did.


Ms. KHAN: So things are looking very good with the CD, so I'm going to do a world tour. I'm also going to do a part in "The Color Purple."


Ms. KHAN: That I will start on Broadway in New York, starting in January through to April.

MARTIN: What part are you going to play?

Ms. KHAN: Sofia.


Ms. KHAN: Who else?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KHAN: Oh, I could play Shug. In fact, you know, when the movie was coming out, Steven Spielberg did ask me to play Shug, but I was busy doing other things. Anyway, so here comes my ground full circle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KHAN: And…

MARTIN: How about that? What shall we play as we say goodbye? And thank you for your time. What shall we play for (unintelligible) send you out?

Ms. KHAN: How about "Back in the Day"?

(Soundbite of song "Back in the Day")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Guess, you drew up fast inside time, school (unintelligible) homework. I vowed to come (unintelligible). Back in the day.

MARTIN: Okay, "Back in the Day." Chaka Khan. Her new album is "Funk This." She was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City.

Ms. KHAN: It was my pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Back in the Day")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Back in the day.

MARTIN: To listen to more of the music you just heard, and for more on our program, please go to

(Soundbite of song, "Back in the Day")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Back in the day.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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