Nile Rodgers and the height of Chic
Nile Rodgers is the man behind Chic and countless disco classics and mega hits. Always moving with the times and updating his classic guitar licks and grooves for new generations, he’s about to release a long- awaited new album filled with modern collaborators. DJ Mag met Nile to talk about staying current, the significance of the disco movement, and why he continues to do what he does so well...
WORDS: Declan McGlynn
PICS: Dan Reid
In late 1976, a guitarist named Nile Rodgers and a bass player named Bernard Edwards bribed an elevator operator $10 to keep quiet about an after-hours session. Their friend and DJ Robert Drake was working as a maintenance man at Sound Ideas Studios. Along with the rhythm section of their former group The Big Apple Band and by roping in friends such as a pre-fame Luther Vandross, they recorded a song called ‘Everybody Dance’. Rodgers was convinced the idea of a ‘breakdown’, that he’d seen done to perfection at R&B live shows — stripping back the musical parts to leave just the basic elements of the groove — would translate to a recording. A few weeks later, Drake called Nile, cryptically demanding he come to the Night Owl, a prominent nightclub where Drake was DJing, claiming it was an emergency. Rodgers made his way to the club and waded through the predominantly wealthy, black and well-dressed crowd.
Spotting Nile through the cigarette smoke haze, Drake dropped the needle on a lacquer he’d cut of ‘Everybody Dance’ straight from the studio. Immediately the crowd wailed in approval, as Bernard Edwards’s syncopated bassline kicked in, the dancefloor filling just in time to loudly sing the choral refrain back at the booth. As the song finished, Drake started it again on a second lacquer, going through seven plays of the demo, over an hour of the same song, with the dancefloor staying in full frenzy for the whole 60 minutes.
“I realised the power of the groove and the power of a DJ to talk to the audience,” Rodgers would later tell an RBMA lecture room in 2011. “All of a sudden, we really believed in ourselves.”
Chic’s story begins in the club. Inspired by Roxy Music and partially influenced by a stage fright that would almost cost him his life, Rodgers created Chic as an anonymous enigma, where there was no front man and “music was the star”. Their ‘breakdown’ sound attracted the attention of many, including Grace Jones, who invited them to her New Year’s Eve show at the iconic Studio 54 at the end of 1977. Turned away at the door, they returned to Robert Drake’s apartment and went on to write a protest song that became the biggest-selling record in Warner Bros’ history: ‘Le Freak’.
Chic’s self-proclaimed “sophisto-funk” was based around taking dense and intricate chords not typically heard in pop music and masking their complexity behind an infectious and distinguished groove. ‘Everybody Dance’ and ‘Le Freak’ were quickly followed by ‘I Want Your Love’, ‘My Forbidden Lover’ and the track that went on to influence the beginning of hip- hop, ‘Good Times’. At the core of their creative relationship was Rodgers’ and Edwards’ “golden rule” production technique DHM: Deep Hidden Meaning. Every song had to have an underlying significance beyond the initial lyrics and perception, “understanding the song’s DNA and seeing it from many angles”.
The formula worked, and Chic were flying high until disco was stopped in its tracks almost overnight by a radio DJ named Steve Dahl. Fired from his station when the music policy switched from rock to disco, he started the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement, encouraging a mostly white audience to bring their disco records to a Chicago baseball stadium where they would be blown up at half- time. A riot ensued, it made national press and disco became a dirty word, with record executives turning their back on the sound that had made them millions. The movement was, and still is, viewed by many as a protest against black, gay and Latino dominance in disco, while others argue it pushed the movement back underground, forming the roots for what eventually became house music. For Chic, who never saw themselves as exclusively part of the disco phenomenon, it was a challenging time.
“I remember [Disco Demolition] so clearly,” says Nile Rodgers. We’re sat in London’s Abbey Road Studios, where Nile has just been appointed Chief Creative Advisor, a role he relishes as a lifelong Beatles fan. Slickly dressed, he’s tired from the previous night’s show, but no less warm, friendly and effortlessly cool for it, his voice low and smooth, his trademark smile rarely wiped from his face.
“We didn’t think it applied to us. When we first heard about it, we were on a plane and I was reading about this thing, it’d already happened by that point. We were like, ‘Wow, that’s weird — I wonder why they did that to those records’. We didn’t think our records were in there because we didn’t think of ourselves as a disco group, we thought of ourselves as a jazz-R&B act that had a few really good songs that were played in discos. What’s really funny is that by being ‘accused’ of being a disco group, and having people call us that, we realised that most people didn’t know who we were.”
Chic’s prominence in what was now a toxic scene, according to mainstream radio and labels, meant they’d never have a hit record after that night in July 1979. But instead of Rodgers rejecting the disco marque, he embraced it, in defiance of what he saw as an attack on the social values and inclusivity of the disco scene.
“I now wear the disco emblem proudly,” Rodgers says, “because if you’re gonna tell me that I’m something that I’m not, if you’re gonna define me, and I know who I am, I say, ‘OK, I’ll be that and guess what? You think it’s bad, and just because you think it’s so bad I’m happy to be that’. I grew up as a hippie, so if you say simply because someone’s gay they’re fucked up, I think you’re fucked up and I like the gay person better.”
He sits up straight in his chair, visually agitated. “I had an upbringing that was built on acceptance, and I was socialised to care about other people. When I finally found a music that did that, how could I not gravitate towards it?”
While the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement may have eventually led to the demise of Chic, it kick-started what became Nile and Bernard’s lasting legacy: The Chic Organization. As a duo they went on to become two of the most successful producers and composers in history, creating and crafting multi-million-selling records with Madonna, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Diana Ross, INXS, Sister Sledge, Grace Jones and many, many more. Discogs.com currently lists Nile with 1,558 credits from session guitar to orchestration, production and songwriting, while WhoSampled.com lists his work as being sampled 906 times by everyone from Kanye West, P Diddy and Will Smith, to Modjo, Moodymann and Mr Oizo.
After being diagnosed with “aggressive prostate cancer” in 2011, he hit the road with his band Chic feat. Nile Rodgers, throwing himself into his work, which led to a ‘sound of the summer’ collaboration with Daft Punk, as well as a now-legendary performance at Glastonbury 2013. Since, he’s worked with a group of discernibly electronic acts including Disclosure, Tensnake, NERVO, Chase & Status and Avicii, while accolades have been pouring in, including an induction into a trio of Hall Of Fames: Songwriters’, Grammy and Rock ’n’ Roll. After another scare in 2017, he’s now cancer free, and the 26-year wait for a new Chic album is finally over.
IT'S ABOUT TIME
Chic’s new album, ‘It’s About Time’, is the first of two new records that will make up the “new Chic experience”. Originally scheduled for 2015, Nile’s cancer diagnosis, and the deaths of some close friends and collaborators, delayed the record’s release. While the stylised cover is a throwback to the first Chic album, the sound is anything but pastiche. With guests including Craig David, Janelle Monae and Elton John, the album has adopted the more modern sound of Rodgers’ recent collaborators. Each song feels like a summer anthem, Rodgers’ iconic ‘chucking’ never too far from centre stage. As a man who’s sold 500,000,000 records (yes, the 0s are for effect), who doesn’t need to work another day in his life, we wondered aloud: why now?
“The very simple honest answer is, exposing your work as a composer is one of the most difficult art-forms to have a satisfactory ending,” Rodgers says. “In other words, I could write all day and play this stuff for myself — honestly, I have a great time doing it. But just like any other art-form, no matter what it is, the whole concept is about communication.”
He pauses, as he often does, ensuring he phrases things just right. “If I had never released ‘Le Freak’, it woulda been fine. But when [Bernard] looked at me and said, ‘You know this is happening?’ Well, isn’t it right to share? We honestly didn’t write that to sell, we wrote it as a song called ‘Fuck Off’, a protest against Studio 54. It ended up being the biggest-selling record in the entire history of Warner Bros. Would that have been fair, to not record that and put it out? That means it gave so many people joy. If you’re a composer, that’s the art of communication and that’s the end goal. It’s sharing, that’s what we do.”
His openness to sharing his musical ability and production prowess has gone on to define his career, his more recent work continuing to veer towards contemporary electronic music. As well as the aforementioned artists, ‘It’s About Time’ also features Mura Masa, the Grammy-nominated UK producer and Stormzy and Charlie XCX collaborator, as well as PC Music’s Danny L Harle. What keeps bringing him back to electronic music culture?
“To me there’s nothing more essential in my life than walking into a room of strangers and feeling someone connect with their hearts and their souls, basically move their butt. That’s what changed my life — I used to be more of a jazz guy and my girlfriend and I walked into a club, and the DJ played Donna Summer ‘Love To Love You, Baby’, Eddie Kendrick’s ‘Girl You Need A Change Of Mind’ and the Village People’s first single, which was a test pressing from San Francisco. I saw people of all backgrounds: gay people, black people, white people, Asian people, Latino people, all dancing together and losing their shit, and I thought, this is what I want to be a part of.”
It’s no surprise Nile has a deep understanding of DJ culture. As Chic’s fame grew along with his own cocaine and alcohol addiction, Nile spent the late ’70s pursuing New York’s nightlife, including legendary clubs such as Paradise Garage, Danceteria and of course Studio 54. “People don’t realise that when I was a kid, a concert was about going to hear new music,” he says. “Now, if you go to a show and you hear music that you don’t really know, most people will go to the bathroom or go to the concession stand. When I was a kid, I wanted to be turned on to something new that moves my soul. The only thing that’s even close to that now are DJs. DJs wind up breaking new records — you’re on the floor and you hear something you’ve never heard before. That’s what’s closest to my life, so when I go to these shows, it feels very similar, spiritually, to how I grew up. The medium is different of course, but so what? It’s music.”
“People don’t realise that when I was a kid, a concert was about going to hear new music. Now, if you go to a show and you hear music that you don’t really know, most people will go to the bathroom or go to the concession stand. When I was a kid, I wanted to be turned on to something new that moves my soul. The only thing that’s even close to that now are DJs”
In the US, part of that medium change was the rise of EDM, when festivals became the new mainstream DJ platform. Avicii, an artist Nile had previously called “the most natural melody writer I have ever worked with”, became one of the poster boys of the genre, his tragic suicide in early 2018 shocking the music industry and wider world — no one more than Nile.
“All of my friends who’ve passed away in the last few years have come as a complete shock,” he says. “Bowie was a shock, only because the people he was working with I guess were under NDA and didn’t say anything, so I didn’t know how sick he was. Prince — I didn’t understand. Prince, die of a drug overdose? I’ve never even seen him take a drink! That was absurd to me. But Avicii committing suicide in such a violent way...”
He pauses, clearly still trying to come to terms with the nature in which his friend and collaborator passed away. Nile’s own battle with addiction saw his heart stop eight times before a cocaine-induced psychotic episode in 1994 forced him to check himself into rehab. “Tim [Bergling] was wonderful, but I do realise that sometimes when you’re in the presence of certain people that you respect and admire, you don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, so you take on their personality. When I was first around Eric Clapton and he was sober and I wasn’t, I was trying to act sober as much as possible, although I couldn’t help it. Around Bowie, I tried really hard, because this guy had a tattoo of the Serenity Prayer in Japanese on his body. I tried to be cognisant of the people’s vibe to make them feel comfortable because I was working for them.
“The only time I saw Tim in a bad mood,” he continues, “was when some DJ had a problem with him, saying he’s not a real DJ. I was saying ‘Right, he’s a producer, he’s a composer’. He’s a DJ because he gets to perform his music by himself in front of people — that’s the world he was born into. He creates it by himself. You can’t hate on him because the world you were born into involved two turntables.”
It’s the first time Nile looks visibly frustrated, as if he’s defended Avicii many times before. As a man whose close friends are among the DJs who helped define the early days of clubbing culture, and the dividing rift the EDM explosion caused among the more established DJ scene, it’s no surprise he’s found himself on the end of these conversations. He shifts in his chair and pauses again, before explaining.
“A lot of people, especially DJs, who are snobs at times, they find it interesting when I talk of Avicii in such high regard. I’ve worked with the greatest composers that have walked this earth and I’ve never met a more natural melody writer in my life than Tim. He had no idea technically what he was doing, but within five minutes, he’d sit there and write the most beautiful shit you’d ever heard — it’d be like, ‘Oh my God, how does this guy do it?’ He’d be pulling MIDI out of the air and re-arranging it and it’s coming out beautiful — how could I criticise that, when the end product is so beautiful?”
Rodgers’ own experience is one of traditional composition, scoring and conducting every orchestral part, so the move to laptops, MIDI, modern software and in-the-box production must have taken some getting used to. “Nah, easy as pie,” he says. “My brain is still working in the same way. The result may come from fewer bodies, but the compositional aspect is still exactly the same. That’s why I loved working with Avicii so much. I could educate, and be educated, so fast. He didn’t have any formal training at all. He didn’t even understand the word ‘tertiary’, I mean, how can you be a musician and not understand the word tertiary? How do you even make a fucking chord if you don’t know what a chord is? If you said, ‘Hey Tim, give me a C-minor-9 and flat the fifth’, he’d look at you like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ But he was smart enough to say, ‘Hey Nile, what notes are in that chord?’ and he’d map it out.
“He wouldn’t know why I was doing it, but I’d explain it to him, and the satisfaction he got from the explanation would make me feel like Albert Einstein. And I was just teaching him basic music theory. He was already well beyond the basics as far as being a composer, he just didn’t know how to explain it. Disclosure always said they loved working with me because, ‘Nile always plays these million-dollar chords’, because it was sophisticated harmony. I was like ‘Guys, no, no, no — I’m just using musical theory. It starts with my heart and soul but then it becomes an intellectual exercise’.”
JUST A FEELING
Nile Rodgers is charmingly verbose. His flowing monologues often last minutes, peppered with pauses, regularly drifting off-topic before bringing the point home with extra emphasis. His knowledge of music, referencing Mozart symphonies, jazz theory and complex compositional language, often leaves you struggling to keep up, yet hanging on his every word like an experienced master and engaged apprentice. “In my mind it feels like more than one thing happening, and it’s all the time,” he explains when quizzed on how he’s sustained an unfathomable creative output across his career. “When I’m composing, I’m never at a loss for ideas — the important thing is to know that they’re not always good.”
Surely by now, with a staggeringly successful back catalogue, it’s easier to recognise when those ideas are worth pursuing? “I can’t spot a hit,” he explains, unimpressed, almost offended. “Don’t you think if we had that ability, every record we did would be a hit? We don’t know. We don’t know shit. We just feel and think, we feel good about something, and that’s what I’m saying when I’m talking about sharing, not just out of generosity but because it’s kinda cool — and it might be a hit! But I have no idea or have no confirmation it’ll be ‘We Are Family’. It’s just a feeling, and that hasn’t changed since the day I started.”
His remarkable modesty is another reason people warm to Nile. As he explains that, “most of the records I’ve made are flops that don’t even recoup, never mind entering some viable chart position”, you get the feeling he’s not comfortable with praise or attention — something that informed Chic’s original premise of anonymity. “A star is a star. I’m not a star. I’ve never been that and I never saw myself as that, I’ve always used the concept of my work being the star. When I became a composer, I thought, ‘It’s great to have the music be the star’ so I could hide because I was basically very shy. I could hide and let the music carry it, I could put other people up front and they could sing my compositions.”
As our time together comes to an end, disco’s social impact, its unifying qualities and inclusiveness once again come up. You get the feeling Chic, and disco’s, wider ability to bring disparate social classes, colours and creeds together is something Nile’s most proud of. “Disco was the only time where I ever felt in my heart that it was never really ‘them’ and ‘us’,” Rodgers says. “Even though I grew up as a hippie and we were all, ‘free love, blah blah blah’, the truth is you could always spot me coming down the street because hippies looked like hippies. With disco, you didn’t know who was a disco fanatic. We’d go into a club and you’d see the straightest of straight people with the most outrageous drag queens and everybody’s having a blast. I was like ‘Wow’.
"[Disco] felt more political than anything I had ever done, and I thought, ‘What’s the purpose of any movement — be it politics, be it art, be it religion — if it’s not to try and get as many people on your side as possible?’ Disco conquered more people, that’s why the records were massive. That’s why The Bee Gees were massive, that’s why ‘Random Access Memories’ was massive, that’s why ‘Let’s Dance’ was massive. I knew black people who had never bought a Bowie record, they’d never even heard of David Bowie, until ‘Let’s Dance’ came out. All of a sudden, you have everybody going ‘I love this’. It’s one of the few art-forms that I’ve been involved with where one day it could be 90% black people [in the audience], and the next day it could be 80% gay people and the next day it’s 50-50. “Now our audience has gotten younger in age, there’s a lot of older people who grew up with Chic, but there’s a huge amount of young people because of videogames, films and things like that. Our audience is quite diverse and very youthful for a guy who’s 65-years-old,” concludes Rodgers, a contented smile forming on his face.
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