The Origins of Keni Burke's "Risin' To The Top"

From The Five Stairsteps and “O-o-h Child” to an oft-sampled feel-good classic.

Chicago natives Betty and Clarence Burke Sr. helped their five children Alohe Jean, Clarence Jr., Dennis, James, and Kenneth "Keni" form the The Five Stairsteps in 1958, with younger brother Cubie briefly joining the fold in the late-1960s.

They were both a fascinating and uniquely talented familial act. Father Clarence Sr. was a skilled bass player, the group’s manager, and a detective for the Chicago Police Department. Several of the Burke children were also impressive musicians, with Keni following in his father’s footsteps and showing an early aptitude for the bass.

Dubbed “The First Family of Soul” for their streak of early chart successes that began eight years after their formation, The Five Stairsteps’ 1966 single “World of Fantasy” spent two months charting while their well-executed, Curtis Mayfield-produced cover of The Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” helped them hit #34 on the Billboard R & B charts in July of 1967.

Three years later, their spring of 1970 single “O-o-h Child” b/w “Dear Prudence” truly put them on the national radar. After Buddah Records released the 7-inch, the Burke siblings saw “O-o-h Child” move a cool 500,000 units while peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The gorgeous Beatles’ cover b-side also spent two weeks on the Billboard charts. These early successes seemed to indicate a long and healthy career for The Five Stairsteps, but several members of the group left in the early ‘70s for other pursuits.

They eventually rebranded themselves The Stairsteps and signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse Records. Sadly, their 1976 album 2nd Resurrection was the last project released under the Stairsteps monicker—though the group had yet another rebirth of sorts in the early 1980s as The Invisible Man's Band.

In the time between 2nd Resurrection and their early ‘80s reunion, Keni Burke remained on Dark Horse and went to work on his first solo project. After the release of his 1977 self-produced, self-titled debut, he became a highly sought after session musician who recorded with the likes of Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, Diana Ross, Sly & the Family Stone, Bill Withers, and countless others. In 1981 Burke relocated to RCA Records, once again showing his studio savvy by dropping You’re The Besthis second self-produced effort.

Wasting no time in the wake of his RCA debut, Burke immediately began recording Changes once his sophomore album hit shelves. Released in 1982, the album received positive reviews, with Billboard magazine raving, “Burke is a one-man groove filled with enough soul/funk to power a dozen parties for weeks without recharging.”

The single “Shakin’” proved a popular dance floor party starter, while the catchy love song “One Minute More” featured the songwriting talents of the late Linda Creed—perhaps best-known for penning the George Benson version of “The Greatest Love of All.”

But it was the infectious and inspirational “Risin’ To The Top” that proved to be the album’s most memorable moment, inspiring generations of producers to repurpose Burke’s beautiful instrumentation and vocals for decades to come.

The sampling of Burke’s single began the year after it’s release with the Rick James-produced Mary Jane Girls hit “All Night Long.” Featuring an generous interpolation of the “Risin’ To The Top” bassline, “All Night Long” also kickstarted a sampling frenzy of its own and has since played a key role in many major rap hits.

In terms of rap songs that looked to Burke for inspiration, the Original Mix of Eric B and Rakim’s “My Melody” (1986) and MC Shan’s “I Pioneered This” (1988) provided two early notable examples. It was Doug E. Fresh, however, who really set things off with his 1988 Bomb Squad-produced single “Keep Risin’ To The Top.”

Known for making pause tape beats, sampling 808 drums off records in lieu of basslines, and preferring limited samplers to their technologically superior counterparts, pairing The Bomb Squad with such an obvious and commercially accessible sample source may have seemed like an odd choice at the time.

Despite the unlikely union, Doug E. Fresh had a keen feeling they could turn Burke’s song into a hit. “It was a song that I felt hip-hop needed at the time to transition from the regular type of records that were coming out to what I would call a feel-good, Harlem-style record,” he told me in a 2018 Okayplayer interview.

His instincts proved right—“Keep Risin’ To The Top” spent over four months on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart and peaked at #4, proving to be the biggest moment from Doug’s 1988 sophomore album World’s Greatest Entertainer.

In the years since esteemed producers like The Beatminerz, Buckwild, Diddy, Dilla, Madlib, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, 9th Wonder, and countless others have gone to Burke’s 1982 single as a sample source. The dreamy, gorgeous opening synth sounds—which play “open” in a sample friendly segment at the song’s beginning—have become something of a staple for beatmakers.

In honor of Burke’s biggest musical moment as a solo artist, I’ve compiled some of my favorite reimaginings of “Risin’ To The Top” in a Spotify playlist. I hope you’ll take some time to enjoy the playlist, Burke’s impressive solo albums, and the beautiful back catalog of The Five Stairsteps.

Thanks for reading, see you on Monday!