Chaka Khan moves on with Rufus


September 18, 2001



She's every woman--Chicago-born Yvette Marie Stevens, better known as the powerhouse vocalist Chaka Khan.

At age 48, Khan once again is fronting the legendary '70s funk band Rufus, with whom she scored classic hits such as "Tell Me Something Good," "Sweet Thing," "I'm Every Woman" and "Ain't Nobody."

I spoke with Khan as the reunited group was in the midst of its tour opening for Earth, Wind & Fire; the tour stops Thursday at the Arie Crown Theatre.

Earth, Wind & Fire

Rufus with Chaka Khan

7:30 p.m. Thursday

Arie Crown Theatre, McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore
Tickets, $50-$75
(312) 559-1212


Q. Two of the finest rhythm and blues/soul/funk/concerts that I've seen in recent years were your shows at Taste of Chicago and with Prince at the Aragon. Is it always special when you come back home?

A. It's like I never left! It's always good to come back, although it's always work: Half of my family is still here, and they expect me to deliver! [Laughs.]

Q. This Rufus reunion seems to have had its roots in a celebration of funk that was hosted last summer by the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

A. That may have helped to set this whole thing up, but we had been discussing it way before that. Finally someone made an offer, and we got it together. One of the guys was in Japan, and we were all spread out, but someone came forward and gave us an offer that was good enough for us to drop everything else to do this.

On the Internet and with my younger audience base, they see my name associated with Rufus all the time, but they don't have a clue. They're like, "Who's this guy Rufus?" So this is sort of an educational tour. And it's perfect because we go on and we open for Earth, Wind & Fire--and I don't mind opening for them at all--and we're on for an hour, then I get back to the hotel in time to catch "The X-Files"! We're able to pack enough stuff into the show, all the really pivotal material, and we just stick to the point, hit it and quit it.

Q. You have always been anti-nostalgia, moving forward in your career instead of looking back. Is it hard for you in that regard, linking up with these guys again?

A. I am definitely not one of those kind of people; I'm totally a "next!" girl. I fought this [reunion] for many years. But there's something spiritual here, and I have to look at that. There's a pull, and it's something I'm not going to be able to deny. It's like some kind of karmic debt I have to pay. These are the guys who, without them, I would not be where I am today. When I realized that, then I was OK with it.

Q. What's been happening with the rest of the band?

A. Bobby [Watson], the bass player, was in Japan; he was doing great work with a band there that was working steadily, and he was doing session work, too. Tony [Maiden], the lead guitar player and singer, was working Dave Koz, getting his jazz chops together. So was [keyboardist David] "Hawk" [Wolinsky], who was from Chicago. He went to England, he made a lot of money from "Ain't Nobody," but he screwed it all off, and then he got his jazz chops together. [Keyboardist] Kevin Murphy, who was originally from Minnesota, went back there and started a label. John Robinson, of course, we know has been very busy. [J.R., "The Hit Man," is a much-in-demand studio drummer who has played with Eric Clapton, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Elton John and others.] So everybody's been doing their own thing.

Q. This tour pairing Rufus and Earth, Wind & Fire coincides with the "neo soul" or "natural R&B" movement among artists such as Macy Gray, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and D'Angelo, who are returning to sweatier, "realer" grooves after years of that sort of slick, digital, overproduced sound.

A. Yeah, there's been no soul. There's no giving! A lot of that ain't movin' me, either. You need to take a breath; there's gotta be some heartbeat going on! Jill Scott has got the right idea; she's sort of retroesque. There is this return of music coming back--I went to see Erykah Badu, and it was all right! Now it seems like people are kind of catching on.

Q. De La Soul scored a hit single last year on "All Good?" They seem to have crafted the whole song and video around you. Was there a lot of admiration there?

A. There was a lot of love. They are great guys, and I've always liked their stuff. I was living in England in the late '80s and early '90s, and they were very prominent on the charts there, almost cult figures. They've always remained true to music as an art form, and that's one of the things that I appreciated about them and why I was happy to work with them. And I was pleasantly surprised--I didn't think it was a hit.

Q. You and Prince really seem to have chemistry whenever you work together. Have you done anything with him recently?

A. No. Since he signed with Arista, I guess he's on lockdown!

Q. Maybe that's a good thing. I've always thought that his problem is focusing: He does too many things and is sort of scattered.

A. It's a Gemini thing, isn't it? [Laughs.] He is scattered. He's got great ideas, he's very smart, very bright, very articulate, very capable, but just unfocused. You've got to love him, but he just can't focus.

Q. So what will you do next after the Rufus reunion?

A. Rufus will release a greatest-hits live CD, with four or five new bonus cuts on it. Then I have a CD ready, another solo album. Doug Rasheed is the producer, and it's really good--smokin'! In between, I'm always on the road, touring all the time.

Q. Does it ever get old?

A. I still enjoy it. I love people, and I love travel. Certain aspects of it do get old, of course, but that's life. You take the good with the bad.