Obituary: Kashif, R&b Singer, Writer, Producer


Kashif, whose contributions as a singer, producer, and songwriter were vital to the post-disco development of R&B in the 1980s, and who played a crucial role in the creation of Whitney Houston's earliest recordings, died Sept. 25 at his home in the Playa del Rey neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 59.

A spokeswoman, Jalila Larsuel, confirmed the death but said the cause had not been determined.

In the 1980s, Kashif was in the stylistic vanguard of R&B, a deft musical experimentalist who undid the soul-band luxury of the disco era with a dance-floor-ready approach that leaned heavily on synthesizers.

He rode that sea change as a solo artist and as a writer and producer for others, leaving his mark on a wide swath of the era's black pop.

He was born Michael Jones in Harlem in 1956, and at 4 months old entered the foster care system after his mother was incarcerated. He shuttled among several host families, enduring years of physical and emotional abuse.

Encouraged by a middle school music teacher, he was playing in New York nightclubs by the time he was 12; he was sometimes sneaked in beneath his teacher's wife's fur coat, his feet atop hers.

In his teens, he joined the funk outfit B.T. Express as a keyboardist. After a few years, he was fired from the group, but not before he decided to take a new name as a way of signaling a new start in life. He chose the first name Kashif, which means discoverer and inventor, and the last name Saleem from a book of Islamic names given to him by a member of the group who was Muslim. (He went on to perform professionally using only the first name.)

After a stint producing and writing for others, Kashif was signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records in the early 1980s. His first three solo albums, “Kashif,” “Send Me Your Love,” and “Condition of the Heart,” were full of sprightly R&B indebted to electro-funk. His trademark was his fluency with synthesizers, and he was an early adopter of the Minimoog.

At the peak of his 1980s success — he received six Grammy nominations — Kashif bought an estate in southern Connecticut that had previously belonged to Jackie Robinson, and built a recording studio in the basement.

Apart from his own recordings, Kashif collaborated on hits by Evelyn “Champagne” King, Melba Moore, George Benson, Meli'sa Morgan, and many others. He wrote and produced tracks on the first albums by smooth-jazz saxophonist Kenny G to go platinum, “G Force” and “Gravity.”

After Davis took him to see Houston, who was then still honing her chops singing in nightclubs. Kashif set out to find songs for her debut album. “You Give Good Love,” which he produced, became Houston's first major hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and No. 3 on the pop chart in 1985 and setting the table for her crossover megasuccess. (He also sang a duet with Houston on that album: “Thinking About You,” which he produced and co-wrote.)

By the late 1980s, the hard, hypersexed offspring of R&B known as New Jack Swing was on the rise. Kashif attempted to play along — he had a Bobby Brown-esque hit, “Personality,” in 1989 — but he largely retreated to behind-the-scenes work in the 1990s. In 1996, he wrote and published a book, “Everything You'd Better Know About the Record Industry,” a business guide for aspiring performers that reportedly sold more than 300,000 copies.

He was also active in securing mentorships for foster children.

Over the past year, after a long quiet spell, Kashif had performed several concerts in Los Angeles, his first there in almost three decades. When he died, he was working on a planned 10-part documentary series about the history of R&B, for which he had conducted some 200 interviews around the world.