Now and Then: A Conversation with Kashif, part 2

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Was the synthesizer aspect something you had been wanting to delve into for awhile? Your use of it was very progressive at the time that "I'm in Love" came out of it.

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Was the synthesizer aspect something you had been wanting to delve into for awhile? Your use of it was very progressive at the time that "I'm in Love" came out of it.

The traditional approach to songwriting and production came from my love of R&B and jazz. I remember being in a band called Future 2000. The first time they put on a record by Weather Report during rehearsal, my head exploded! I thought, "Oh my God! You can have this much space and still make a statement." There was stuff not only in the left ear, but way out in front! The sparseness of the melodies from Zawinal, Wayne Shorter, and Jaco Pastorius made a great impression on me. When they came out with Heavy Weather, they finally had a big hit. The arrangement and choice of timbres being created with the synthesizers really influenced me. I already had the Mini Moog, the Korg, and the Prophet; but something clicked into place that is still there today—how to surround a great melody with accompaniment without stepping on it. From a songwriter's point of view, that takes a lot of courage. Miles Davis told me that. Sometimes it's just as important where notes aren't as where they are.

Did you consciously pursue a solo recording contract? How did you end up signing your own deal with Arista?

My demo had been circulated to all of the record companies, and all of them said the same thing: "We like this music, but it sounds so different than everything else out there. So, we're not going to take a chance." But when I had the success with "I'm in Love" and "Inside Love" by George Benson, all of the record companies called and said, "We knew you could do it!" All of the calls were from A&R people, except for Arista. I got a personal call from Clive Davis. A&R people were limited as to what they could do, so I wasn't as impressed by those.

It's notable that concurrent to your solo success, you continued to produce records for a number of artists. Do you have particular memories of some of the artists you worked with—for example, George Benson?

I got a call from Arif Mardin, an amazingly talented, gentle soul. He was friends with Ahmet Ertegun and loved R&B music. He asked me to co-produce George with him. George was my idol. His ability to cross genres from straight-ahead jazz to contemporary jazz to R&B to classical. You name it, George could play it! As I was working on several projects for Arista, I told him that I'd need a little time. He'd call every couple of weeks to ask how it was coming along. I told him it was coming along well. Then, it came up to the day we had promised to meet in the studio—and I had not written a note!

We went into Atlantic Studios in Manhattan. I was there with all of my keyboards set up a couple of hours early. George and Arif walked into the room and said, "Let's listen to the song." "Okay, so you wanna hear the song?" I just reached over to the drum machine and pressed play. Whatever played was what it was going to be. They liked the beat. "Let's hear the bass line." I started playing, then they wanted to know what the chords were. So, I started playing with my right hand. And I have to say, the engineer was brilliant! He had pressed "record." I was just making this stuff up as I was going along.

They asked, "What about the lyrics?" Then, the phone rang. It was a private line to the studio. So, the first thing that popped into my mind was, "Using our private lines, we planned for a quiet night." It just flowed. It came out and was a number-one record.

You worked with Jermaine Jackson, who's also both a singer and instrumentalist. What do you remember about that experience?

He's a quiet spirit. He speaks quietly, as well. I'd tell him, "Jermaine, sing louder, harder...growl!" He was always willing to do what he was asked. We worked long hours in several studios, including the studio in the Jacksons' house in Encino. We had a lot of fun. He'd get on the phone and call Michael sometimes. I'd tell him, "Jermaine, tell mike to come over here. I want to teach him how to cuss." I just wanted to be a part of Michael's pedestrian experience.

Someone underrated you worked with was the late June Pointer. What do you remember about her?

What a great singer! I tapped into a different part of her voice than on any of the Pointer Sisters record. Burt Bacharach hired me to do that album. He and Carole Bayer Sager were so gracious and accommodating to the process. They said they had never heard her voice sound so vibrant and youthful.

How about Stacy Lattisaw, whom you worked with on "Jump into My Life"?

It was important for me that the sessions be a good memory for her. Her parents were around and she was so young. I wanted the experience to push her a little bit more. I'm known as "You hate him when you're in the studio with him, but you love him when the record comes out!" I push my artists beyond their current limitations. Her voice is like a bell. She reminds me of Roberta Flack, as far as the purity of her tune.

When you look back at your own albums for Arista, are there any moments of which you're especially proud?

The first album was a delight. I got to open up and do everything I wanted, unencumbered. The second album had "Edgartown Groove" with Al Jarreau. We were nominated for a Grammy. The third album is when I started to feel a bit of pressure. I was doing so many things at one time. I had just bought a new home and was building a mega recording studio there. I was recording Whitney, Dionne, and Kenny G at the same time.

Of course, working with Dionne Warwick! We had started working in Connecticut at my home studio on "Reservations for Two," then she had to go to California. We flew there, and the next night went into Ocean Way Studios. I had the flu. Dionne was very encouraging. She was sitting in the studio in one isolation booth on a stool—just smoking! The microphone was four to five feet away from her. This was during our performances. I was standing in front of a microphone that was right on my face and singing as hard as I could! Dionne was just sitting with her legs crossed, just singing! That's like Mike Tyson fighting a toddler. [laughs]

On the Love Changes album, you had a large number of guest artists. Were you encouraged to take that route, or was it your own idea?

The interesting thing is, as time went on, Clive got more meddlesome. That has been his personality over the course of his career—he's very passionate about music; he's a song-man. But sometimes, he doesn't understand [certain aspects of] black music. Sometimes, I felt disrespected in terms of knowing my own core audience. "Love Changes" was intended for Whitney Houston. He felt it wasn't good for her second album. I think that was a critical error. That was the album where she had issues with black radio, because there were no songs on there for her core audience. In retrospect, you think of "Love Changes," as big of a song as it was, how big it could have been for Whitney.

But I was into collaborating. It kept life interesting. It's tough to sit in the studio everyday, when you're playing most of the instruments and doing most of the arrangements. It makes for a lonely existence sometimes. So, the collaborations were one of my ways of having a more social life.

Were the different sounds you experimented with on your 1989 Arista album—like new jack swing—something you had a desire to go into?

That was more of a request from A&R and Clive that I adjust my style. I resented it heavily. I didn't care for it. I wanted to just do what I do. My fans didn't want to hear me do new jack swing. They wanted me to just be Kashif. Just like with Luther Vandross. I remember Clive telling me, "You can't have a platinum record just doing R&B. You have to cross over." I thought, "That's crazy. Have you ever heard of Luther?" I think it's important when you have [artists who are]  real music people, to let them do what they do. You can expose them to different things; but you shouldn't try to take them away from their core audience.

So, you definitely were more focused on catering to your core audience than crossing over?

Absolutely. With that being said, however, I'm the one who picked "Reservations for Two" for me and Dionne to record. I played it for Clive, and he loved it. Clive, meanwhile, is the one who picked "It All Begins Again." That was a good choice. One that I wrote and on which I thought the performance was really good was "Dancing in the Dark." I thought they really should have gone after that record. They really jacked that one up by just totally ignoring it. Not every song that I write or produce is a hit. But the ones that are, I know because I get that gut feeling. "Dancing in the Dark" was one such song.

Were those types of experiences what caused you to move away from recording for awhile?

Actually, no. In 1989, I had an asthma attack. I was living in Connecticut. I went to the hospital and was given medication that I was allergic to. I ended up in ICU. When I got out, I said, "I've been working at this level since 1974 without a substantial vacation." I needed to take a break. That's when I first came to Maui. When I left, I was spoiled and didn't want to move back to the cold weather on the east coast. So, I moved to Los Angeles. I asked myself what else I'd like to achieve. The answer was to dabble in some of my other interests: science, software, education, and literary writing. I'm a ferocious reader. I sat down and started writing the book, Everything You'd Better Know about the Record Industry. I didn't really know what I was going to do with it, nor did I have any idea that it was going to take on a life of its own. It became a very popular book when we put it out. We sold 375,000 units. It was very influential in changing the paradigm of musicians' and artists' approach [to the business].

I taught a class at UCLA as research to find out what people really wanted to know and what parts of the music industry were most elusive for them. It was a lot of fun. Then, I sat down with the task of writing chapter by chapter. It was important for me that my voice in the book was one with which I was speaking directly to the reader—inviting, and not intimidating. It was important that the information was condensed down to a form that was immediately useful and practical, so they didn't have to try to decipher what I was trying to say.

You started Kashif University in recent years. Is that a physical campus, or online? What types of courses are you teaching?

When I was in Los Angeles, I had an academy serving 165 students. Our focus was supporting foster-care youth in addressing their academic deficits. They're constantly moving from one living environment to another, often times way across town and maybe even in different states. They lose a lot of school time, so early on they begin to dig this hole that plagues them throughout their academic career. We sought to identify where the missing academic widgets were. We tested them academically and also with the Meyers-Briggs. In rudimentary mathematics, if you miss two or three days, you're jacked up! We plugged in the widgets. You would not believe how they began to prosper in those subjects.

We focused on language arts and mathematics. Most people don't know that if you don't have appropriate language-arts skills, you can't do any of the other work. Even with math, you have to be able to read. So, we focused heavily on language arts. We found out that a kid in the ninth grade who's reading at a fourth-grade level was jacked up in all of his other subjects. The moment we plugged in that language-arts widget, he began to prosper in all of his other subjects—so much so that we had teachers from other schools walking up to our campus. They'd ask me what I was doing to change the kids so quickly.

Since you've relocated to Hawaii, have there been specific courses you've taught as far as music business?

I have something called Kashif University 101. I work with individuals to develop their career path. Some of my students want to focus on songwriting; others on music production. Some want to start companies. Each one of them has a unique experience with me.

How are the sessions done?

Some are through video-conferencing. When I'm in L.A. or New York, I deal with people in person

Being based in Hawaii, do you find that your focus is on production? Are there other career aspects you can tap into?

The level of professionalism that I'm used to is down a few notches. So, I end up flying in a lot of musicians. I also still do a lot of work in Los Angeles. But the uptake is that it's such a tranquil environment here, I can be very prolific. I can sit down and write a song a day. There's a tradeoff. In life we have to choose the timbre of our experience. What kind of life do I want to have? I can live it a little bit more anonymously here without going into the grocery store and somebody tapping me on the back of the shoulder, saying, "Hey Kashif, you know what you need? You need to let me run your company!"

On the recording end, the last CD you released was Music of My Mind in 2004. Do you plan to release any more music as an artist?

It's certainly a very current passion. I'm amassing some great songs and making a decision as to how I want to present them. I'm putting together an ensemble of players and singers. When I go to Europe later this year, I'll research collaborating with some other younger players, as well.

Where can people find out more information about your current projects?

We recently launched our Facebook page for The History of R&B Music, at You can keep up with us there. We're in the process of developing, which will be a one-stop shop for everything I do as a filmmaker, documentarian, commercial director, and music producer and writer.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk with you today. I enjoyed it very much!

Thank you, as well. Let's not make this the last time! 

Connect with Justin on Facebook.


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