After last year’s Electric Picnic, with its Pitchfork-approved headliners, the post-gig ‘who was the best live act of the weekend?’ conversations were intriguing. A straw poll – regardless of age, musical preferences or how tired they were – was won by Chic, whose disco funk and sheer energy outclassed and outplayed everyone else. It’s also probably the reason they’re in Dublin next week for two gigs, with Friday night sold out. Nile Rodgers, is the mainstay of the band, but then Rodgers isn’t shy of telling you he’s not just Mr. Chic. He’s a sought after collaborator, the producer who steered David Bowie in a different direction with Let’s Dance and the man who recorded Madonna’s Like a Virgin. He has written, produced, or performed on songs which have sold over a hundred million records. It’s not hyperbole; simply put, he is a legend. A grand old man (almost – he’s 58) that has been credited with the rise of disco, cross-pollination with punk and the genesis of hip-hop. A recording device disaster (I have to resort to a mini-disc that could feature on the Antiques Road Show) means I’m ten minutes late for our phone interview slot. Expecting a ticking off, he shoos away my apology. “Hey, it’s cool!”.
Rodgers started his musical career with the Sesame Street band, and worked as a house guitarist at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre backing acts like Aretha Franklin and Screaming Jay Hawkins, but when he met Bernard Edwards, everything changed. “The first time I spoke to Bernard was on the phone. I told him I was putting together a new act, and based on my description of the band and my personality, he decided that he never wanted to speak to me again”. Were they very different? “Oh, he and I are polar opposites… night and day, but that’s why it worked so well. We were the two closest people in the world – eventually – but at the end of that first conversation he said ‘hey man, can you do me a favour and lose my number?'” They met by accident a few months later working the same paid gig and Chic was born. Almost by stealth, their disco funk stylings tore up dancefloors. It was something fresh and radical, but Rodgers knew they could pull it off. “We didn’t know Chic would work on a grand scale, but we were positive it would work on a some level. I remember writing Everybody Dance and playing it for Bernard. It sounded really complicated so I sang the bit ‘Every-body-dance-do-do-do’. I’ll never forget that moment he looked at me and said, ‘yeah man, that’s pretty hip, but what does do-do-do mean?’ That was my audience of one. I knew that if I could move Bernard, I could move a lot of people.” And they certainly did. Hits like Good Times and Le Freak soundtracked the hedonism of late 1970s New York. The latter track was written after the duo were refused entry to the famous club Studio 54.
“Grace Jones had invited us to the club to discuss the idea of working with her, and they wouldn’t let us in. It was New Year’s Eve, we weren’t on the list, we weren’t that well known….even at our peak, we were quite faceless.” Rodgers is laid back, engaging, and even though he’s probably got rictus from telling the same stories, he’s fascinating to listen to. He speaks in sub-clauses, goes off on tangents, but is fiercely knowledgeable about his craft. Before he even finishes the Grace Jones story, he has casually revealed that he was working with Sister Sledge at the time and that ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer’ was nearly a Chic single instead. He returns to his point about the band’s anonymity by recalling an incident in the bathroom at a music awards ceremony with the BeeGees. “They had won everything the previous year with Saturday Night Fever, and they were like ‘who the fuck are these guys winning everything?’ People thought Chic were two girls. I loved the anonymity, because Bernard and I knew we didn’t look like stars – the music had to be the star. We always believed that Chic was a faceless opening act, who were trying to grab people’s attention while they were waiting for the big star to come out. It meant we worked twice as hard, and applies to my whole career.”
Despite a hugely successful career – working with Bowie, Sister Sledge, Grace Jones, Madonna – Rodgers maintains that it didn’t come easy for him. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself, but says he faced adversity from various sources and struggled to make several of his biggest records. “When I worked with Duran Duran on The Reflex, the record company didn’t want to put it out because they said I’d made the band sound ‘too black’. The Duran guys said ‘this is exactly what we want to sound like’. Same reasoning with Diana Ross; we had to sue the label to get the album released – how could Diana Ross be too black? Was it code for too funky? It didn’t make sense.”
When disco when kicking off on one side of the Atlantic, punk was having a messy birth in the UK. Rodgers found more affinity with punk than disco and hung out with The Clash and Blondie. “The politics that spawned punk were the same ones that spawned disco, even hip hop. The cultures had overlapped and it all germinated in the underground. In 2010, all the things that used to be underground are now in mainstream pop. In the old days, Lady Gaga would have been completely underground, or been in gay clubs for four or five years and broken through after she’d had a bunch of hit songs. The artistic evolution is interesting and I’m not sure there’s even an underground anymore.”
Rodgers constantly mentions Edwards throughout our conversation, and interestingly, still talks of his friend and band member in the present tense, even though he’s been dead for 14 years. After that infamous first meeting, he says that “physically, musically, we were never separated again.” Which is not entirely true. The post-Chic spats are legendary, but even when they weren’t speaking, they looked for each other. When David Bowie wanted to contact Rodgers about working together, he accidentally called Edwards, who dutifully passed on Nile’s number. Their falling out in the ’80s was probably not helped by the decade’s mood of indulgence, which was “way worse than the ’70s”, according to Rodgers. “The ’70s were exciting because something new was emerging; it was very political [he is former member of the Black Panters] and I was into activism and helping others. There were so many victories – gay liberation, black liberation, women’s rights and then it went from ‘it’s all about us’ in that decade to ‘it’s all about me’ in the 80s. The celebrations became the antithesis of the hippy movement and I got caught up in it. But I approached it with a selfless, ‘ 70s attitude – so I was the guy who gave AWAY all the drugs”. He embraced the excesses, which he calls the “Studio 54 mentality”. “I’d get on a plane and have sex with a total stranger while flying to Europe. It wasn’t unusual. Lots of people were doing the same thing, but it never felt uncomfortable. I used to have an office in the women’s bathroom in Studio 54; that’s where my drinks were served. Women would come and go and no one ever asked me to leave. I partied, did lots of drugs, I lived there.”
The good times eventually caught up with Rodgers, who says he knew it was time to stop, when he and Mickey Rourke ended up caned in the bathroom at 7am at Madonna’s birthday party. It wasn’t Rourke’s company or the amount of drugs consumed that actually made him quit – someone played him back a recording of him playing guitar that night and he didn’t like what he heard. The producer has been sober for 14 years and his productivity shows no sign of slowing down. While not involved in activism anymore, he takes an interest in politics. How does he feel about Barack Obama? “I’ve not met him, but when I was younger, I believed this would be possible. But I didn’t think we’d be in this place in 2010. Even though we have a black President, America doesn’t feel freer; it feels that we’re going backwards. The jubilance of that event was instantly quelled by the opposition and there is what my friends would call a ‘blacklash’. We’ve regressed a lot.” It’s the only down note of a fascinating interview. Rodgers leaves you wanting more, but we’ll have to wait for his autobiography which is due out next year.
This article originally appeared in The Ticket, in The Irish Times on Friday, May 28th, 2010.