For a couple years in the early eighties, the artist once known as Michael Jones bounced and ounced. Figuring out how to synthesize the rubbery bass lines of disco while adding a touch of Zapp-tastic crunch, Kashif would be immortal for writing Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “Love Come Down,” a #1 on the Hot Black Singles and dance charts so omnipresent that you’d be forgiven for thinking it ruled the summer of 1982 (it stopped at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100). He began his career as a journeyman keyboardist and songwriter for Stephanie Mills and Howard Johnson (“So Fine,” a thumper that’s cyborg Ray Parker, Jr. and clean Rick James). The big paychecks came when Arista Records thought he’d be a good match for Whitney Houston; the result was “You Give Good Love,” a gem of wink-wink G-rated lubriciousness.
Kashif never scored a #1 under his own name. A pity: he wrote just as well for himself and was a serviceable singer. The 1983 eponymous debut is one of the many minor masterpieces of post-disco R&B before MIDI and radio commodification gave artists a case of the blands (for which, let us admit, the success of Whitney Houston deserves blame). His first single “I Just Gotta Have You (Lover Turn Me On)” has a tumbler’s grace in the way it maneuvers between poise and pain. “Help Yourself to My Love” consolidated the Kashif sound: syncopating a programmed bass against sparse guitar over which the singer made his point without embellishment; Kashif was a producer who prized space. Four other R&B top tens followed, the biggest of which was 1986’s Meli’sa Morgan duet “Love Changes.” He even got a pop crossover with the Dionne Warwick duet “Reservations For Two,” a maudlin stab at piss elegance. Don’t blame Warwick though — she was as good as her material. Adrift in the era of LaFace and Teddy Riley, Kashif listened as his innovations became the industry standard.
As indelible is a teensy George Benson single called “Inside Love (So Personal),” one of his attempts to repeat the crossover success of “Turn Your Love Around.” The bump ‘n’ grind of acoustic and electronic instruments that was Kashif’s métier is at its peak. Hearing Benson’s licks scratch against that familiar synth bass summons a time and place as surely as Return of the Jedi; Benson’s wordless onomatopoetic opening hook introduces lines as finely etched as Bryan Ferry’s for Avalon, released the previous year: “Using our private light/We plan for the quiet night.”
That Kashif was unable to adapt to the late decade’s tectonic shifts only makes him as human as Kool and the Gang. Or Rick James himself. A smoothie is a smoothie, a nomad who lives or dies by production. But let’s savor Kashif’s slick tricks, so many of which remain staples.