In praise of Nile Rodgers
Why the return of the Chic frontman to the limelight thanks to Daft Punk is something to cheer
His time is now…again. Watching Nile Rodgers enjoy another spell in the limelight on the back of his contributions to the new Daft Punk album is one of the highlights of the year for many reasons. On the back of “Get Lucky”, the Chic pioneer is in demand for interviews and profiles left, right and centre. As those who saw Rodgers’ band steal the show at Forbidden Fruit at the weekend will know (or, indeed, anyone who has seen the band in action in the last few years on their many trips to Ireland), there ain’t no show like a Chic show.
But this renaissance didn’t just happen overnight – or simply because two French lads in motorbike helmets gave him a call and arranged to hang out at his gaff for an afternoon playing Snap. While the fact that Daft Punk were playing at Nile’s house does account for the current slew of interest, you can probably trace Rodgers and Chic’s revival back a few years. Somewhere in OTR’s dusty office, there’s an old Nokia with video of the crowd’s reaction to the band’s appearance at Sonar in 2006 when they lifted the roof off the place. It was a moment: the cutting-edge electronic music festival in Barcelona paying tribute to the disco pioneer and making it all work.
It was also the start of many such moments as Chic suddenly appeared on the radar for many festival bookers. Three summers later, the band arrived in Stradbally for the Electric Picnic and that storied debut Irish appearance became the first of many shows here. Inbetween times, Rodgers has also published his autobiography Le Freak and shown himself to be one of the best pop interviewees in the business. Unlike some people we’ve come across, Rodgers gives you the full enchillada every time. In terms of the various Banters we’ve done to date, our conversation with the Chic dude at the Galway Arts Festival is one of the all-time highlights, while you’ll find my interview with Rodgers from The Irish Times from 2009 after the jump below.
You can only imagine the demand from here on in for Chic live shows on the back of “Get Lucky”. Rodgers hinted at what was to come when he spoke at Banter last year and in various interviews around his 2012 Irish dates, but few could have imagined just how vital he would be to the hit song of this year. You can’t mistake that awesome guitar sound of his for anything else and Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo knew exactly what they were doing when they searched him out. Within a few seconds of “Give Life Back to Music” (or indeed “Lose Yourself to Dance”), that liquid, mesmeric, gloriously euphoric riff is instantly identifiable as the work of Rodgers. It’s the same groove, the same sound, which has informed a previous generation of disco hits, the sound of a thousand nights out under a glittering mirrorball. The best tracks on “Random Access Memories” are the ones touched by the hand of Rodgers (well, aside from the spinetingling “Doin’ It Right” with Panda Bear).
You can also only imagine what other collaborative or production offers will come Rodgers’ way on the back of the current attention. He talked last year about working on Broadway musicals, but “Get Lucky” shows that Rodgers still has much to offer the pop charts. Have guitar, will thrill.
Interview with Nile Rodgers from The Irish Times, August 2009
For Nile Rodgers, it all began on Sesame Street. “Straight up, that’s true”, he chuckles down the line. “The first job where I got paid for making music was with the Sesame Street band.”
Rodgers, though, didn’t hang around too long providing music for various Muppets. A hop and a skip took the talented young guitarist from there to the house band with Harlem’s fabled Apollo theatre where he backed Aretha Franklin and James Brown and went on the road supporting the Jackson 5 in the early 1970s.
While he was there, he met a young buck called Bernard Edwards. They started an ensemble called The Boys, got a few knock-backs, decided to take a different route and Chic were born. The rest is a history best reviewed under a glittering discoball.
Chic went on to produce a string of solid gold classic tunes like “Le Freak”, “Good Times”, “Dance Dance Dance” and “Everybody Dance”. When they weren’t doing that, they were transforming an also-ran vocal group called Sister Sledge with blockbuster hits like “We Are Family” and “Lost In Music” or reinventing Diana Ross as a glamorous diva with “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”.
After Chic, Rodgers applied his magic touch to the work of David Bowie, Duran Duran, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Paul Simon and many more. The good times rolled for quite some time.
Rodgers has been doing a lot of reminiscing about the old days of late as he works on his autobiography. “I’m supposed to be on vacation at the moment but I’m here at my villa on the Turk & Caicos Islands with a writer working on the book. Some vacation, huh?”
There’s also been a slew of interviews to promote Chic’s appearances on the festival circuit (they play the Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois next month). Rodgers is still gigging under the Chic banner, but playing on a stage in a muddy field with a bunch of other acts is not how he usually pays the bills.
“We do tour quite a bit, but it’s mostly private gigs”, says Rodgers. “The bulk of gigs we do are where a brand or company are throwing a big shindig and they know we’re coming with a huge bunch of party songs and everyone will have a good old time. We’ve built up a reputation as the world’s most expensive bar-mitzvah band.”
Chic may always be associated with the disco movement of the late Seventies, but Rodgers interestingly doesn’t buy that one. “We were never a disco band and it would be disengenuious of me to say that we were”, he says firmly. “At the time, we knew who the real disco artists were and we weren’t one of them. We were opportunistic. We used the fact that our r’n’b and jazz heroes were getting hit records all of a sudden and went in the same direction.
“If you looked at the charts prior to Chic, you had Herbie Hancock with “Rockit”, you had Joe Beck with “What A Difference A Day Makes” and you had Herbie Mann doing “Hijack”. They were all artists I’d grown up listening to. Roy Ayers and Ubiquity? They were a jazz-fusion band and then, boom, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” came along and they were on the r’n’b chart.
“It was the first time that jazz artists could compete with big pop artists. You’d Herbie Hancock taking on Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull and it was all down to this all-inclusive genre called disco. To people of colour in America, that was massively liberating and we jumped onboard.”
Back when Chic were starting out and looking for a break, Rodgers maintains that many labels wouldn’t give them the time of day because of their colour. Such racism, the former member of the Black Panther Party says, has not gone away.
“Look at America right now. We have an African-American president and yet it seems that the racial divide is getting wider much quicker. Instead of rallying around this president who is brilliant and bright and charming and all that stuff, people seem to concentrate more on the differences than our commonality.”
Rodgers found working with British acts like Bowie and Duran Duran to be a breath of fresh air in this regard. “Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” record was massive for us. It was the first time you’d a big pop/rock star with a largely non-white band. English acts never experienced the same racial comparmentalisation of music.
“Bowie explained it to me perfectly: ‘Nile, in England, we have BBC Radio One and they play whatever they want to play’. To him and Duran Duran, music was just music. In the case of Duran, the band they were most trying to be was Chic, which I found very interesting.”
The British acts proved to be easier clients too than some others who came seeking Chic and Rodgers’ assistance. “Diana Ross was the most difficult record of Chic’s entire career”, he states firmly. “Nothing was more challenging on every level than that record.
“She was a big superstar and she was also the first superstar that we worked with so we had the responsibility of delivering a hit record for her and elevate her career. That’s a tough ask for new guys. But it was easier to beat up on us because we were new. We hadn’t proven ourselves by working with someone else – all we’d done up to that point was Chic and Sister Sledge.”
Inbetween all that studio work, Rodgers partied like it was going out of fashion. Everyone else was doing it, he argued, so why shouldn’t he join in?
“The partying that went on, that was par for the course”, says Rodgers. “The hedonism seemed to be a natural reaction to political gains we thought we had achieved. We ended the Vietnam war, it was the beginning of the women’s liberation and gay rights movements and it seemed like we were one big organisation.
“If you look at photos from those days, you could see people like me from a group like the Black Panthers marching with gay groups or Vietnam vets. We all felt like one big liberal open-minded coalition. When the war ended, there was nothing to do but celebrate and the party went on for a very long time.”
It was a time when Rodgers felt he wasn’t the only one who thought normal rules had been put to one side. “Man, there were no rules! It seemed that artists were rewriting the rules and we became the new power elite. And we all know that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
“Artists writing the rules? It was insane. All these very hedonistic, artistically-driven kinds of recreation became the norm for an awful lot of people. Other people either turned a blind eye to it or just accepted it. I don’t remember anyone complaining when they saw me having sex with a girl on an airplane, for instance. And remember I was not unique, I wasn’t some egotistical guy who had some exclusive right to have sex on airplanes.”
But the party couldn’t go on forever. Rodgers can instantly recall when it came time for him to go home. “My party ended at Madonna’s house at her birthday in August 1994. I was out of control, I don’t remember 99.9 per cent of it. What I know about that day is what people told me afterwards. The 0.1 per cent I do remember is me and Mickey Rourke in the bathroom until 6 or 7 in the morning trying to save the world with all sorts of ridiculous notions inbetween doing hits of blow.”
The drinking and drugging stopped right away. Two years later, Rodgers got another reality check when his old Chic buddy Bernard Edwards died of pneumonia. It was time to dial things down even more.
The work continued to come in and Rodgers took a few diversions. These days, when Chic aren’t playing for the corporate paycheck or he’s not remembering the old days, he’s working on the music for forthcoming Broadway shows or soundtracks for video games like Halo and Hitman.
“It’s in my DNA”, he says of the latter gig. “I grew up playing video games, but I also went to school to learn classical music so this is a way I get to speak the language of classical music with a new audience and get to teach them about the old masters. I talk to them about some of the motifs and themes which are in the current crop of video games and show them the lines between the old and the new.”
Yet put Rodgers and Chic in front of an up-for-it audience and sparks will fly. “Our live show is about energy and intensity”, he says proudly. “When we play live, we want to play music you can dance your heart out to. You can just forget about everything else and be free.”