2016 has truly been unkind to old school musicians and their fans, with the passing of too many of our artists – particularly during the first half of the year.
After a bit of a break from tragedy, we’ve now lost yet another ’80s R&B star in Kashif Saleem (born Michael Jones), who suddenly passed away in his home on Sunday, September 25 at age 56 (or 59 depending upon the source). With a unique keyboard-and-synthesizer-driven sound that made him one of the most innovative and sought-after song creators of his era, the gifted producer/songwriter/singer/author leaves behind a respectable catalog of hits by both himself and by other singers – a catalog that many of us have no doubt investigated in the past six days as we’ve fondly remembered this great musician’s contributions to music – particularly ’80s R&B and soft-funk.
Kashif wrote, produced or sung roughly a dozen top-10 R&B hits during the 1980s, including three #1 songs, making him one of the most prolific music makers of an era.
Kashif was a child prodigy when it came to music. He taught himself to play the flute at age 7 while bouncing from one foster home to another, and later he mastered several more instruments while taking music courses in his high school’s arts curriculum.
He got his first taste of professional success as a teenage member of the 1970s funk/disco ensemble B.T. Express, which had the hits “Do It (‘Til Your Satisfied),” “Express,” and “Peace Pipe.” He officially joined the band after those songs had already been popular, but became a full-fledged member just in time for their third album, Energy To Burn, which contained a few minor hits, including the top-ten R&B single, “Can’t Stop Groovin’ Now (Wanna Do It Some More).” He mainly contributed keyboards but was the sole writer of one of the tracks on the album, the disco tune “Time Tunnel.”
Then, in the late 1970s, due to creative differences – namely that he wanted to create and they didn’t – Kashif left B. T. Express to begin his career as a producer for other artists and as a solo performer.
Kashif Saleem, who went professionally by his first name only (a name given to him by one of his B.T. Express band mates while both were studying Islam in the late 1970s), was truly a product of his era, coming to prominence in a decade when full self-contained bands had begun to give way to more efficient – if less authentic sounding – synthesizers, keyboards and drum machines. His mastery of that technology in the 1980s helped popularize the unique, minimalist techno-funk blend that became his signature sound.
Kashif especially had success in applying that sound while producing hits for the ladies, including up-and-coming singers as well as other, more established divas whose careers needed a bit of a boost. To start, he revived the career of former disco princess Evelyn “Champagne” King in 1981 by producing her first #1 R&B hit, “I’m In Love,” then followed that a year later with the even bigger #1 smash, “Love Come Down.” Those post-disco funk jams and their respective parent albums were her first real commercial successes since the disco gems “Shame” and “I Don’t Know If It’s Right” from three years earlier.
In 1985, he produced what would become the first #1 R&B song for newcomer Whitney Houston, “You Give Good Love,” the lead-off single from her landmark self-titled début album. That song also became the biggest pop hit he would produce, peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. He was sort of returning the favor by producing the track, considering his then relatively unknown label mate Houston had provided featured vocals on his 1984 single, “Are You The Woman.”
A year after Houston’s breakout, he helped elevate the success of multi-talented songstress Melba Moore to its highest levels with the song “Love The One I’m With (A Lot of Love),” a top-five R&B single from the biggest album of her career (and one on which Kashif also provided vocals).
Then in 1987, he teamed up with Dionne Warwick to get the only Hot 100 pop single of his singing career with “Reservations For Two.” That same year, the followup single – a duet with R&B star Meli’sa Morgan on the remake of Mother’s Finest’s 1978 song “Love Changes” – became his biggest hit as a singer, reaching #2 R&B.
So Kashif was a bit of a ladies man when it came to his collaborators-in-song. But he also had a few hits on his own, with soul-funk jams like “I Just Gotta Have You (Lover Turn Me On)” and “Baby Don’t Break Your Baby’s Heart,” both top-ten R&B hits that just missed making the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983 and 1984, respectively.
He produced some respectable tunes for other fellas as well. He created the big R&B and dance chart smash for one-hit wonder Howard Johnson, entitled “So Fine.” Like most of Kashif’s other productions, the funky keyboard-laced record failed to make the Billboard Hot 100, having the misfortune of being released in 1982 at the height of pop radio’s effective ban of all things R&B. However, the tune is still considered a classic funk jam in old-school R&B circles to this day.
A year after “So Fine,” he produced a top-3 R&B single for legendary jazz-pop veteran George Benson, the stylish “Inside Love (So Personal), a record that just missed making the pop Top 40.
Kashif was also instrumental in launching the career of then unknown saxophonist Kenny G – a little known fact, but one that further illustrates the real impact that the producer had on the 1980s. He collaborated with G on the top-30 R&B single, “Love On The Rise,” in 1985.
Unfortunately, Kashif’s recording and producing careers slowed to a crawl in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But unlike most artists who suffer that inevitable fate, he made the most of his extensive gift of musical knowledge with a second-half career that included founding the Kashif University at the Morningside High School in Inglewood, CA, a program which integrated education and arts.
He also wrote the book, “Everything You’d Better Know About the Record Industry,” which was originally published in 1995. With the tag line, “The New Record Industry Bible,” Kashif’s book is considered by critics to be a must-read for anyone seeking entry into the business, including artists, songwriters, producers, musicians and entrepreneurs. Its credentials were certainly good, considering they were all jobs that the author had mastered at one point or another in his storied career.
Yet despite their prolific nature, Kashif’s many talents went largely unsung after his peak years, likely because of the minimal mainstream crossover success he achieved as an artist/producer. To that end, Kashif was one of those artists that we just kind of took for granted. His catalog of hits was like an old photo album, one that you always knew was there and that you pulled out on rare occasions, only to be reminded of just how good those times – and those tunes – really were.
His six Grammy nominations, but zero wins, are dubious in that respect as well. This often-overlooked stature of his was acknowledged with a 2015 feature story on the hit TV-one series “Unsung,” in which many of us were pleasantly reminded just how under-appreciated and super talented this man actually was.
It’s a talent that now will surely be missed, from a man whose legacy will remain a permanent part of the R&B tapestry for many of us old-schoolers, old and new.
And it’s because of his legacy that I’ve created this special tribute to Kashif – a musician’s musician – by ranking the 10 Greatest Songs Written, Produced or Sung by the man. Scroll down to begin the countdown, which is based on the songs’ relative popularity, as indicated by their chart successes during the time of their initial release as well as their endurance over the years since.
I’ve also created a special playlist of those songs, which you can access by clicking here. As you play them, try to picture this talented brother in the studio and on the mic who overcame some long odds during his childhood to put himself in position to create these tunes for us.
Kashif Saleem may you rest well in peace.
The Ten Greatest Songs Written, Produced or Sung by Kashif
The countdown lifts off with the first single from Kashif's second album, 1984's Send Me Your Love. "Baby Don't Break Your Baby's Heart" wasn't much of a stretch from the material from his first album, but nevertheless became his second top-ten on the Billboard R&B singles chart, peaking at #6. It was another of the many top-ten R&B songs he produced that failed to crossover to pop, never even making the Billboard Hot 100.