Kashif may not be a household name, but he virtually defined early 1980s R&B. His blend of layered vocals, smooth keyboards, and modern beats appealed to both pop and soul audiences, and set the stage for musical potpourri genres such as New Jack Swing.
Born in Brooklyn, NY in 1959, Kashif endured a rough childhood. Both parents died when he was quite young, and he subsequently endured abuse in a variety of foster homes. Music was his salvation, however, and keyboards became his chosen instrument. His first break occurred at 15 years old, when he joined B.T. Express (best known for "Do It 'TIl You're Satisfied"), and began using synthesizer bass and the miniMoog. These tools proved crucial to his signature sound, and he became a musician in demand due to his fluency with the then-new technology.
After leaving B.T. Express, Kashif flourished as a songwriter and producer. His breakthrough was with Evelyn "Champagne" King, a strong R&B vocalist who had initially experienced success as a teenager with the disco classic "Shame." Looking to revitalize her career, King teamed with emerging artist Kashif to produce early 80s R&B classics such as "Love Come Down" (on which he played all instruments except guitar) "I'm in Love," and "Betcha She Don't Love You." The massive poularity of these tracks led to collaborations with major artists such as George Benson; Kashif co-produced the 1983 track "Inside Love (So Personal)" for the jazz legend. At the same time he began experimenting with the New England Digital Synclavier, which allowed him to incorporate samples and duplicate vocals for layering purposes.
Kashif also signed with Arista as a solo artist, scoring R&B hits such as "Love Changes," a duet with Meli'sa Morgan. Today, he is even more notable as launching Whitney Houston's career. He produced her debut number one single "You Give Good Love," a silky ballad featuring synthesizers cushioning Whitney's powerful voice. Another track off Houston's 1985 album, "Thinking About You," demonstrated Kashif's knack for penning hits that crossed musical boundaries (he even sang background on the track). Were these songs R&B? Soul? Pop? Jazz? He seamlessly blended all genres to create a highly accessible but sophisticated sound.
In a February 2016 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Kashif explained his wide musical range. "My influences when I was coming up were McCoy Tyner, Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Return To Forever, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Barry White, you know, some grand names in the scheme of popular and even jazz and classical music," he said. "I think there were influences from bands like Earth, Wind & Fire and Weather Report. The jazz band Weather Report had such a huge influence on my sense of space and organization."
While "You Give Good Love" may be Kashif's most famous production, Howard Johnson's "So Fine" best represents the songwriter/producer's style. Newly split from his R&B group Niteflyte, Johnson had recently signed a solo contract with A&M and was looking for material for his debut release, Keepin' Love New. The label wisely paired Johnson with Kashif, who wrote and produced his biggest hit. Strangely, it began as a commercial jingle for Drake's snack cakes ("Drake's cakes / Drake's cakes taste great") until Kashif rewrote the hook to "So fine / So fine, blow my mind." The track begins with Howard's vocals layered on top of one another (thanks to the New England Digital Synclavier), instantly designating it as a Kashif track. The synths and funky beat then kick in, the relatively long introduction establishing the irresistible groove. Johnson's clear voice is never overpowered by the production. While the overall sound may be smooth, the heavy bass and electronic drums firmly root the song in the present.
The lyrics tell a familiar story: a man enters the club and notices an attractive woman on the dance floor. "Ca we dance, can we talk, can we spend some time?" Howard pleads. At first this may seem like a temporary hookup, as he croons that he wants to discuss "possibilities for love tonight / Concentrate on the source / And releasing what we feel inside." But as the multiplied voices echo key words, Johnson is in a more contemplative mood. "When night ends / Find a quiet place to be together / We'll take our time / Maybe it will last forever." There are clearly no promises made, but the possibility is there. The glossy production and lush harmonies exude romance, enabling Johnson's voice to become more seductive.
Howard reminisced about "So Fine" in a February 2016 interview with Wax Poetics, and explained how Kashif's sound helped transform modern R&B. "He was definitely at the forefront of the whole dance music movement that led directly into hip-hop," he said. "'So Fine' was a precursor to New Jack Swing. It was Kashif who linked Teddy Riley with Jonny Kemp for 'Just Got Paid.'" Not surprisingly, "So Fine" fared best on the Billboard dance charts, peaking at number one; it also reached number six on the Billboard R&B singles charts.
Today Kashif spends more time as an educator, author, and activist. However, his influence lingers through New Jack Swing, neo-soul, and even electronic music. Modern R&B encompasses numerous genres, and Kashif remains a pioneer in blending these styles to create a new and appealing sound.