Prince wrote this song and released it on his second album, Prince, in 1979. Chaka Khan's version uses more instrumentation and an array of production elements that aren't present in Prince's more stripped-down original. The song is sung in the first person, so the lyrics about being in lust with someone are gender neutral and translated well to a female singer.
The distinctive rap made the song stand out - it certainly grabbed your attention when it came on the radio with the stuttering staccato.
Melle Mel, who was a rapper with Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, did the rap. The previous year, he rapped on the hit "White Lines
Late in the '80s, it was very common for raps to show up in pop songs, but in 1984 rap was still very much a novelty to most listeners. The genius of this song was how it integrated Melle Mel's part without scaring off the pop audience. To do this, producer Arif Mardin specified that the rap have a theme of "Love," with no hip-hop clichés like money and cars. It was also kept short: eight lines with Mel rhyming about Chaka and how much he digs her. The stutter at the very beginning also helped, making the section more comical and less aggressive. Mardin came up with the stutter by accident. He explained to NPR
: "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.'"
Stevie Wonder played the harmonica on this track. He recorded it the same day he attended Marvin Gaye's funeral. Wonder wrote the first hit for Chaka's band Rufus: "Tell Me Something Good
Chaka had no idea this song was going to contain a rap. The day after she recorded the vocals, her producer Arif Mardin surprised her by playing it for her with Melle Mel's rap. Chaka hated it and couldn't stand hearing her name repeated over and over in the song, but Mardin convinced her it would make the song a hit. The downside is that Chaka was confronted by people rapping her name in imitation of the song, which drove her nuts.
Chaka has a sister named Taka Boom, and Arif Mardin loved the idea of using the names of the sisters as a percussion element in a song. When it came time to order up the rap, he had his arranger Reggie Griffin track down Melle Mel and have him do the rap using the words "Chaka Khan" like a drum beat. Mel did his rap at Sugarhill Studios, and when Mardin first attached it to the song, he put it in the middle, which is where groups like New Edition would place their raps. He eventually decided to move the rap to the beginning and let it bookend the song, with Mel appearing at the beginning and end.
I Feel For You was Chaka's third album as a solo artist, but she released six albums in the '70s with the band Rufus and was well established as an R&B star. Her outsized talent rarely translated to pop success, but Chaka had little interest in pop music, preferring soul or jazz music that she felt was much more challenging. "I Feel For You" served her well financially and allowed her to take on other projects, but it doesn't represent her body of work. "I can sing that kind of stuff in my sleep," she said of the song.
Chaka's label, Warner Bros. Records, was pressuring her for a hit, since her previous solo albums did not sell well. She and her producer, Arif Mardin, decided to appease the label and give them their hit; they were afraid that if they did not deliver, the label would make Chaka record with another producer. Mardin had produced Bette Midler, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, so he could coax a hit out of a diva when he set his mind to it. He worked with Chaka to give the song a very contemporary arrangement, which meant a lot of synth and a faster tempo than she was used to. The strategy worked and the record company had their hit.
According to Arif Mardin, he selected this song after a representative at Prince's publishing company sent it to him on cassette. Chaka says she was a big Prince fan and had been thinking about recording it for a while, and when they were ordered to make a hit, she remembered it.
The arrangement of this song varied over the years when Chaka performed it in concert. Early on, she would leave out the rap completely, but she eventually warmed up to the intro, which would either be performed by a band member or played back from a recording.
Chaka is a prolific songwriter, but like this song, many of her hits were written by others. She explained in I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft
, "I have to feel like I wrote the song before I sing it. It has to already feel like it's mine way before I record it. 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."
Chaka wasn't the first to cover this song: The Pointer Sisters recorded it on their 1982 album So Excited!
. When Prince wrote the song, he offered it to Patrice Rushen, who turned it down. He had previously offered Rushen "I Wanna Be Your Lover
," but she passed on that one too.
Melle Mel's line in the rap, "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 goes, "Let me take you in my arms and fill you with my charms."
Melle Mel reprised his rap from this song in the Furious Five track "Step Off," which was released later in 1984.