The name Nile Rodgers may not ring a bell right off the bat, but everyone has heard some of the songs he played a role in creating. Between 1977 and 1983 he was the leader of Chic, one of disco’s most successful groups, thanks to songs like Le Freak and Good Times (which, in turn, unintentionally invented hip hop; it was sampled by The Sugarhill Gang in the genre’s first hit, Rapper’s Delight). But the 70-year-old native New Yorker was also the producer of Madonna’s Like a Virgin, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, many of Duran Duran’s hit records and a host of songs and albums of all kinds, from Sister Sledge’s We Are Family to The B-52′s Cosmic Thing to the solo debuts of Diana Ross, Debbie Harry and Mick Jagger.
One might think that Rodgers’ glory days were in the 1970s and 1980s, but that’s not entirely true. After overcoming a drug addiction in the 1990s that left him clinically dead and surviving two battles with cancer, last year Rodgers worked with Beyoncé on her single Cuff It and with the female K-pop band Le Sserafim; he is also producing the next works of Coldplay and St. Vincent.
Nile Rodgers has had several lives and a few comebacks, but the decisive one was probably as co-writer and guitarist on Daft Punk’s global smash hit Get Lucky; now ten years old, that song introduced Rodgers to a whole new audience. “[That was] because the only humans that you could see in the video were Pharrell [Williams] and myself,” Rodgers jokes in a video interview from a hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee. “But Pharrell was already a superstar, so people know Pharrell. But who’s that guy playing guitar? They didn’t realize that I had probably written songs that they all knew and songs that their parents knew, which is so strange for me, because now when people take a selfie, they say, Oh, I can’t wait to show this to my mother.”
Talkative throughout the interview, Rodgers laughs out loud as he tells this story. He is exultant, wearing a black beret and sporting his trademark braided hair and horn-rimmed glasses. He’s in Nashville because he’s in the middle of a North American tour as the opening act for Duran Duran, with whom he’s been close friends for four decades. “I feel so good because I love playing. I forget that I’m 70… I mean, to me, 70 sounds like I should have retired and stopped playing. But, in fact, I have more fun. Now, if you see a Chic show it’s more exciting than it’s ever been,” he says.
His main band has had a few comebacks as well. After first calling it quits in 1983, Chic returned in 1992 with an eighth album, but after a gig in Tokyo, their co-leader and Rodgers’ close friend, bassist Bernard Edwards, died of pneumonia. Rodgers found him dead in his hotel room. He survived the shock and unexpectedly reinvented the lineup in 2018 with another album, It’s About Time. He continues to recreate his repertoire on the Nile Rodgers & Chic tour, which heads to Europe this summer.
Q. What motivates you to keep getting on stage?
A. I love it. I just love making people feel good. And that’s the kind of music that I compose. I write music that you feel inside. People tell me now that sometimes [for] as long as a week after a Chic concert, they feel good. That’s an incredible feeling.
Q. What do you enjoy more, producing, composing or performing?
A. It’s an easy question. I always like doing what I’m not doing. So, now I’m performing, and I can’t wait to get into the studio to write new music. I mean, as soon as I’m in the studio writing, I wish I were performing.
Q. In your youth, you had a relationship with Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, and later created Chic at the start of disco’s golden age. The lyrics talked about hedonism and dancing but also about bringing people together. That had a stronger political component than it might seem, didn’t it?
A. It was extremely political. But we tried to make it happy and fun, even if you didn’t understand the politics. I write like a reporter at a newspaper. And when we first started writing with Chic, we talked about fashion. We talked about the economic situation. We talked about relationships between people. And the best way that we could understand that was by going back in history. [It] seemed like the time of disco was [happening] during the Great Depression, or in Europe, especially Germany. They called it the golden years right after World War I, the Roaring Twenties in America. And it worked exactly the same way. America was prosperous and all of a sudden we had the Great Depression. [The] same thing happened during the era of Chic and disco. We had the greatest financial recession in American history since the Great Depression. So, the two periods seemed almost the same. But we were doing the same thing, like, you know, having more fun than you can imagine and celebrating the victories that we thought we had won, [like] an end to the Vietnam War, women’s liberation, the gay movement, all of those things that we were fighting for, for justice and equality.
Q. Disco music also had many detractors. In the U.S. there were very strong movements against it in the late 1970s, including boycotts and the massive destruction of recordings. How did that affect you?
A. Well, it affected Chic, that’s for sure. Because, see, the group didn’t exist before 1976 [and] we put out our first record in 1977. So, we were totally associated with disco, whereas groups like Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool & the Gang who also were starting to play disco music, they [had] existed before, so they weren’t associated just with disco. We unfortunately were. And [it was the] same with the Bee Gees, even though they had been making music before. Saturday Night Fever was so big, and they won Record of the Year… The only dance-oriented record in history to ever win was Saturday Night Fever until [Daft Punk’s] Random Access Memories… But that was a big deal. And for a dance record to win Album of the Year just sort of made the rock people [nervous] and, you know, people don’t like change; they feel uncomfortable...
The disco movement really brought people together, unlike other types of music where they try and separate and categorize the listeners. And, believe it or not, that’s political. Disco became political in a different way in that all of a sudden people were coming together and you were seeing people together [who] didn’t necessarily associate with each other. That [frightened] the establishment or the powers that be because it seems like they’re losing control, and big business always wants to control the consumer. That’s just how it is. As a musician, I know that my music has to be consumed in order to make a living and in order to satisfy the audience, because I don’t make the music just for me. If that [were] the case, I would just stay home and practice. I have to think in terms of making music that’s going to be commercially successful. And once you start to compete, you’re always going to have opposition. And if you are too successful, the opposition becomes really afraid. Look, at the end of the day, you can understand. So, a simple group like Chic, [which] no one ever heard of still [has] the biggest selling single of all time for Atlantic Records. Le Freak is bigger than any [songs by] Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Ray Charles, any Aretha Franklin... That’s dangerous.
Q. The same thing has happened in this century with reggaeton, hasn’t it?
A. Yeah, it very well could be. I mean, Bad Bunny is the biggest solo artist in the world, right? I just did [work with] Daddy Yankee. I’ve already done two songs with Pitbull, and I worked with Rauw Alejandro. I live in Miami now, [so I] know Latin-influenced music. When I was younger, I used to play with people like Celia Cruz and Joe Bataan. My whole life was about playing salsa. I just love music, and I will do whatever comes around me. I’m not afraid to try anything.
Q. What do you think of Rosalia?
A. I think she’s great. As a matter of fact, it’s funny because we were up for a Grammy against Rosalia. I knew right away. I looked at that like, well, I don’t think we’re going to win this one because her song is just so catchy and so great, you know? And that’s cool. I mean, I lose to people all the time. People think that if I have a big record that it’s the biggest record and it’s great, [but] it’s not true. You know, Daft Punk thought that I had tons of Grammys. They thought that I won for Let’s Dance. They thought I won for We Are Family, you know? [But] wait a minute. You’ve got to remember [that] David Bowie was up against [Michael Jackson’s] Thriller, the biggest album of all time. We did not win a Grammy again. [But] if you lose to records that touched people’s soul, it’s cool. It’s just fun to be in the race.
Q. When you worked with Madonna, she was not yet the superstar she would become. In fact, it was Like a Virgin that propelled her to fame. How do you remember her?
A. When I met Madonna, I asked her, what do you want to do? She says, ‘rule the world.’ I loved her confidence. And I love the fact that she worked harder than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I could have her sing a song 25 times and she would do it and never complain. And that’s amazing, because that meant that she believed in me so much that if I felt like I heard something that she didn’t hear she would go along with me. And I never realized this until she and I [were at] a party not too long ago. After the party, I saw the credits for all of her albums. The only album that Madonna has ever had that’s had [only] one producer is Like a Virgin. It’s the biggest album of my life, and I did it without anyone, you know? She did it with only me.
Q. In 1990, you produced the songs Soldados del amor [Soldiers of Love] and Te daré todo [I’ll Give You Everything], by the Spanish group Olé Olé. How did that come about?
A. I’m not sure. I met [Spanish singer] Marta [Sanchez] first and we’re still friends. And when we perform in Spain or somewhere near Spain, she comes to see us. So, it’s great. I don’t remember exactly how we met first, but I do remember meeting her… Oh, it was great. We had so much fun. And then we did a project for [Quentin] Tarantino [the song Obsession] for a film [Curdled] with Slash, which was great. The movie didn’t do well, but still, you know, we just had so much fun as artists and collaborators.
Q. You’ve worked with the biggest stars in the world. Where do you place Marta Sanchez?
A. Marta was great. She’s funny. She’s still great. I don’t have a chance to see her [perform] that often now, but she was fantastic. She came over [to the studio]. She sang like that. We didn’t use autotune or anything. She was great. And you can feel [that ]she just had so much personality. She was a star, a real star.
Q. Do you remember all the records you’ve produced?
A. Not everything. No... Come on. I’ve done so many. When people remind me, then I go back and go, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’ But it’s impossible [to remember them all]. I mean, if you look at the list of records that I’ve made, I started professionally recording at about the age of 21... I am now 70 years old, so for 50 years I’ve been recording almost, believe it or not, every day. I don’t go a week without making a recording.
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