Nile Rodgers interview

This week Daft Punk have been ‘teasing’ some of their new album Random Access Memories online. Nile Rodgers is one of the high profile collaborators on the album. He is the subject of a BBC Four documentary tomorrow night (i.e. March 29th) at 9pm, so I thought I’d post up an interview I did with Nile in 2009. This was done before his cancer diagnosis; he has blogged about that subject on his Planet C blog and in his autobiography. I’ve also done a Chic/Nile Rodgers related Spotify playlist. Of course I have (see below).

To call Chic a disco band would be a disservice akin to calling the Beatles “a Merseybeat band” or calling Kraftwerk “that novelty group – you know, Germans, did that funny song about driving down the autobahn”. If Chic had never existed it’s impossible to imagine what modern pop would sound like. Their sound has influenced Daft Punk, house music, LCD Soundsystem and Kylie’s disco-pop; the records they had a hand in as writers and producers have been covered by Robert Wyatt (At Last I Am Free) and The Fall (Lost In Music). Even eternal indiebloke Johnny Marr named his son Nile after Chic’s legendary rhythm guitarist Nile Rodgers: producer to Bowie and Madonna, and the man I’m here to interview today.

Chic played Electric Picnic last year, a performance that Rodgers describes as “outrageously unbelievable and incredible. We could have just let the rhythm section play and the audience would have sung along and done the rest for us.” Having smash hit singles is no longer the driving force of what Rodgers calls The Chic Organization, but a similar quest for excellence informs everything he does. “It’s almost like performing in your living room for relatives”, he tells me, “the only way I can do work is to try and give it my all every time – almost like an athlete. That’s also how I treat writing songs and the possibilities of riffs and chords. I’ve just worked on Bryan Ferry’s record – doing 30 songs in a few days, and that’s how I approached that. Every time you hit that stage you’ve got to be prepared to give the best show you possibly can. I see that as my job”.
Surprisingly, Rodgers only had six top ten hits in the UK as a member of Chic, but had many more as a producer for Sister Sledge, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran and many more, not many people can claim to have influenced modern pop to extent Nile Rodgers has done. He never stood still for long enough to really appreciate the success those records delivered. “I know what the sales figures are, but we never got the chance to live it as it was happening. It only took a matter of weeks to record each record – it took six weeks to make the entire Like A Virgin album with Madonna and Bowie’s Let’s Dance took seventeen days. By the time a record came out it was like ‘oh right, that record we made a while back. Onto the next one!’”

With an apparently endless list of production duties to his credit it must have been difficult to maintain the quality control, and it transpires the only way out of this trap is to leave notions of being a super-producer behind. “I’m always thinking of the person I’m working with. At that time they’re the most important person in the world. I remember working with Sister Sledge – we thought they were so important, and we just gave them our all. And if you look at that record We Are Family, pound for pound it was probably the single best record we ever made.” It’s a surprise the equally great follow-up Love Somebody Today is hardly remembered at all. Did it suffer from the disco backlash? Rodgers has no doubt about it: “I’m positive that’s what it was due to. In fact when I think about my career, the highlight was Good Times going to number one while the entire American music industry hated us. I mean we were persona non grata because of the whole “disco sucks” thing. Good Times came out in the summer of ‘79 during that whole disco melee – which looked to me like book burning.”

During the summer of 1979, DJ Steve Dahl organized something called “Disco Demolition Night” in a football stadium in Chicago. Thousands of people wearing t-shirts adorned with the legend “Disco Sucks” turned up to throw things like The Trampp’s Disco Inferno onto, well, a disco inferno. Wasn’t that all a bit dubiously racist and homophobic? “It was incredible. I have a pretty good sense of humour and I used to wear ‘disco sucks’ buttons too, but I didn’t realise that they were tapping into this undercurrent of visceral racial hate. The DJ who organized it was just pissed off because the radio station he worked for fired him when they changed their format. He was associated with rock and roll, and disco was so popular they felt if they dumped him they would seem like a credible radio station. It was a bad managerial decision and he protested – but what he didn’t know was he was tapping into that whole undercurrent of racism, homophobia, and all that other stuff. That was the negative by-product of what was, basically, a joke.”

Incredibly, the president of Atlantic Records was so keen to work with Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards that he offered them his entire roster of acts to pick from. I ask why they chose to work with the relatively unknown soul act Sister Sledge. “We had known a little bit about them because they had a record we liked called Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me but we didn’t really know who they were. When we sat down with the president of the record company we tried to handle ourselves like we were real record producers. We went into his office and effectively interviewed him! We wanted to know what his vision was and he offered us artists like the Rolling Stones and Bette Midler. I always mention those because they were the names we remember that made us go “wow!” But we thought if we made a hit record with them no-one would know who we were, we’d just be faceless producers. We wanted to have an opportunity to show what we could do. I mean, what are we gonna tell Mick Jagger: “oh we’re gonna write every song on the next Rolling Stones record”? That’s not gonna fly!” It’s tempting to imagine what a Chic-produced Rolling Stones album would sound like. “It would have been great!” asserts Rodgers, “but at that point in our careers it wouldn’t have done for us what the Sister Sledge record did. We were able to use pop and fashion iconography and apply it to them. They probably hadn’t even heard of Gucci or Fiorrucci and so on because they were very religious girls from Philadelphia – and we decided to play Pygmalion and we created a version of them which we believed was relevant for the times.”
After the success of Chic you could be forgiven for thinking Nile Rodgers was given carte-blanche to do whatever work he wanted with anybody even tangentially connected with pop. Work with The B-52s, The Dan Reed Network and even bonkers performance artist Laurie Anderson stretched into the 90s; an incredibly eclectic bunch, I’m sure you’ll agree. How on earth did Rodgers decide who to work with? “99% of the artists I’ve worked with have all come about by happenstance or a chance meeting. Duran Duran were the opening act for Blondie, and we fell in love with each other. INXS were opening for Hall & Oates, who I was working with at the time. Actually I got Hall & Oates to sing back-up on the INXS single Original Sin, a lot of people don’t realise that. The only artist I can remember pursuing was Peter Gabriel. Everyone else I met in a night club or you know, walking down the street.” So now you know, aspiring musicians of Dublin. Hang about the stage door of Tripod towards the end of May and seize your chance.

A track from an unreleased collaboration with Johnny Mathis (I Love My Lady, recorded in 1981) surfaced recently on the internet. Time to shed some light on this obscure aspect of the Chic back-catalogue. Spill the beans, Nile. “Ah, that brings back some of the greatest memories of my life – too many to mention. One thing I can say is that out of all the people I’ve ever worked with in (world-famous studio) The Power Station, no-one ever caused the tumult that Johnny Mathis caused – and I’m talking David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Madonna – the only one who people asked for their autograph was Johnny Mathis – he was that magical. The record we made together was really brilliant and I don’t usually brag about my products. If I were to produce it again though, I’d probably try to make it a little less Chic-centric and a little more Johnny Mathis-centric. We could probably have done for him what we did for Diana Ross but because he was so iconic we felt like pushing the envelope like we did with Diana and I think we probably pushed the envelope a little too far this time. We felt we’d let him down and let ourselves down, which is sad, but it is a great record.”

Is it true that Diana Ross didn’t know what the phrase “I’m Coming Out” referred to? “She knew what it was about, but we denied it! Heheheh! She asked us ‘isn’t that what gay people say when they come out of the closet?’ We said ‘I don’t know! How we would we know what gay people say – we’re just record producers and songwriters.’ We didn’t want to make the same mistake we made with Sister Sledge. Even though that record was a hit, there was a little bit of friction between us because they didn’t know what we were talking about – they didn’t like that we’d write a song like He’s The Greatest Dancer and make them sing the line ‘my creme de la creme, please take me home’ like they were loose women, when really they were ‘good girls’. Up to this point (Diana, 1980) we’d never produced anyone from outside our own label. So we decided we needed to know everything about her life and then chose the bits we found interesting which could go along with the current culture. But it still had to be something that Diana could pre-approve. The album is like a documentary about the life of Diana Ross as we saw it. It’s highly subjective.” It’s also a highly brilliant record and one of the best things recorded under the Chic Organization banner.

What exactly is The Chic Organization now? “The Chic Organization is what it always has been – a wrapper or a picture frame that Bernard and I came up with for our ideas. I’ve decided that from now on I’m devoting the rest of my life to producing what I call The Chic Organization Box Set. Recently I found thousands of lost tapes, things we worked on but were never finished, out-takes done as a joke but which are fantastic and I’d forgotten about all of them. They will be released for the rest of life as I discover them.” Bernard Edwards died in 1996 and took the secrets of his inimitable bass sound with him – how did Chic go about finding someone to fill his place? It must have been entirely impossible. “Anyone who wants to play bass with me has two tests – they have to play Everybody Dance and Dance Dance Dance – if they can do something on those songs that makes me feel good, that’s it.”

So much for pop’s past, what does Rodgers think of pop now? “The most innovative music now is pop – which is funny because thirty years ago pop was the vital proving ground for music that had come from the underground. I mean I look at a Lady Gaga video and in the old days that would have been something underground. ”What do you think of when I say the word ‘Madonna’? “Drive, determination and dedication – more than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked some pretty determined people, but no-one to match her.” Do you ever feel the urge to compete for chart space with Gaga, Beyonce and Rihanna? “That’s not the fuel that drives my interest. Performing is what drives me now. When The Chic Organization disbanded for those years I recorded a massive amount of stuff – there were things that sounded like hits but I never put them out. I also did soundtrack work where the film came out and bombed so the music never got republished. There’s a ton of that stuff. Every tour from now on will be called The Box Set Tour and every record I release from now on will be part of The Box Set. I’d love to see outtakes from The 39 Steps or something. This will be like that. Plus I’m doing video game soundtracks.” Think playing video games usually involves drawing the curtains for eight hours? Turns out they can oil the creative wheels, so to speak. “When Chic started out we did most of our recording during the graveyard shift from midnight until six or seven am,” Nile says, “and Bernard and I would go to video arcades to clear our grey matter pallets – you felt refreshed after doing that.”

(The original version of this interview appeared in Totally Dublin magazine, summer 2009. ‘Nile Rodgers: The Hitmaker’ is on BBC Four tonight (Friday March 29th) at 9pm.)

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