Like "Soul Makossa," "Risin' to the Top" is a song you know, yet you may not be aware of it. Keni Burke's jazzy 1982 track has been sampled by a dazzling number of artists, and has become a "steppin" classic in Chicago and elsewhere. While his name may not be instantly recognizable, his previous group may be: The Five Stairsteps.
Born in Chicago, Burke experienced his first taste of fame with the family group the Five Stairsteps, best known for their 1970 classic "O-o-h Child." Shortly after that hit, two family members departed the act, forcing the remaining members to rename themselves the Stairsteps. Pianist/singer Billy Preston introduced the group to pal George Harrison, who was forming the label Dark Horse. Harrison signed the Stairsteps, and Preston co-produced their 1976 Dark Horse debut 2nd Insurrection. The group soon disbanded, but Burke remained with the label as a solo artist. After releasing his self-titled 1977 album, he found work as an in-demand studio musician, playing bass and singing backup for Sly & the Family Stone, Natalie Cole, Preston, the Emotions, the Four Tops, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, Ramsey Lewis, Dusty Springfield, Diana Ross, and Gladys Knight.
By 1981 he had moved to RCA and recorded a modestly successful album, 1981's You're the Best. But his next release, 1982's Changes, proved his major breakthrough. Recorded in Philadelphia, Changes exudes smooth soul featuring jazzy chord changes and sophisticated arrangements. Burke co-wrote the Changes track "Risin' to the Top" with Philly Soul songwriter Allan Felder and ex-Chic member Norma Jean Wright, and the elegant Philadelphia Sound weaves in and out of Burke's memorable bass line. The mid-tempo groove suits the Chicago-based "steppin'" dance perfectly, and Burke's laid-back vocals fit the relaxed vibe of the track.
The lyrics mainly serve to enhance the rhythm; the bass and keyboards are the stars of this show. Burke chants certain phrases to emphasize the beat, such as "wake up your body" and the title phrase. Backup singers croon "give it all you got" during the chorus, engaging in a fun back-and-forth exchange with Burke. The overall intent is to create a mood, and Burke's understated vocals and funky bass line accomplishes just that.
While "Risin' to the Top" may not have been a gigantic hit, it lives on in countless R&B, rap, and hip hop songs. The artists mostly borrow the bass, drum, and keyboard sections of the tune, since they are distinctive and instantly recognizable. Interestingly some samples have been mistakenly attributed to the very similar-sounding "All Night Long" by the Mary Jane Girls, which was actually released a year later. The following lists just a selection of such tracks:
Doug E. Fresh - "Keep Risin' to the Top" (1988)
LL Cool J - "Around the Way Girl" (1990)
Mary J. Blige - "Love No Limit" (Puffy's Remix)" (1993)
Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth - "Take You There" (1994)
Heavy D feat. Soul for Real, Lost Boyz, and Method Man - You Can Get It (1997)
LL Cool J featuring Amerie - "Paradise" (2002)