Producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers and the future of dance music with Daft Punk and Avicii
The Hitmaker Part 2
by Andre Torres
Wax Poetics: You’ve called Thomas and Guy-Man from Daft Punk geniuses. What drew you to want to work with them?
Nile Rodgers: When you’re a musician and you’re working with other musicians, there’s something magical that happens when the process starts to unfold. It’s hard to explain it if a person isn’t a musician and they haven’t been in that position, but let me just try and clarify.
We’re making something, we’re creating something from nothing. There’s nothing that exists at the time you’re talking and you go from verbalization to visualization to execution. You actually start to do this thing that you think of and you talked about and all that stuff and it starts to have a physical representation in the form of music.
When I went into this process with these guys, I had a lot of expectations because of what they’ve done in this past, but I’ve also realized that what they’ve done in the past has been heavily influenced by things that preceded them, which is a case for all of us.
When we got into the studio, they were treating me or working with me almost exactly the same way it was when I was working back in the days with Luther Vandross or anybody who would call me in to collaborate and make art. You just have this idea and you’re talking and you just do and things come together in such a way that it becomes magical.
I’m going to quote them and this is probably not fair because I just found this out last night. I had a big meeting with the Daft arts people and they said that after the session was over, they called all their people and said, “Wow! We just touched magic.”
They were talking about me, but what was really weird to me is that when I left the studio, that’s what I was thinking. [laughs] I was really thinking, “Oh my God, I just touched magic,” because it was nothing before. It was like they had some ideas and I would say, “And this is what we did,” and then they just stripped it away and said, “You just play now. You play. You just do what this made you feel.”
Then I started to just play to the basic drums that were there and started to map out the harmony in single notes, almost like I was doing a bass line but I wasn’t trying to do a musical bass line, I was just mapping out a melodic blueprint which is basically what I used to do on old Chic recordings.
That’s why when you hear the guitar parts on Chic records…and I don’t mean every record but a lot of the bass lines, you figure out, why can’t I play this? It’s like I learn the chorus, I see the chorus but how come when I play it, it doesn’t sound like Nile? It’s because there’s a layering technique that I do where there’s voices moving around inside the chorus.
They just let me do that and when I explained it to them, they allowed me to do that in this situation. Then they got inspired and it just felt like magic because they transmitted me back to a time where this was just the way you make records. This was nothing extraordinary and it was just a process.
In the old days, I’d walk into a room and there were two other guitar players, Cornell Dupree or somebody else and I’d sit down and take my chair and they’d take their chair. The arranger would have it mapped out for us and inevitably, all three of those guitar parts would come together and make this wonderful R&B funk or they even pop it around recording. If you listen to Rolling Stones, you have all these layering of guitars and stuff.
In today’s world, a lot of the artists don’t do it, especially the electronic artists because they can layer it with other sound and they’ve become used to those sounds that it sounds interesting to them. They never think quite necessarily or they rarely think in terms of actually going back and creating it from the ground up. They just feel, “Well, let’s just take this because it sounds pretty cool and it’s beginning to…”
That’s also very interesting but when you start from the ground up, there’s something very special when it comes to starting with nothing. You have nothing. In other words, when you have a bunch of samples and you just go loose and loose and loose, then, “Okay, I’ll put that one in. I’ll put that one in;” but when you talk and you visualize and then you say, “Do you mean this and do you mean this? Do you mean this?” and they go, “Oh, my God! That’s what we meant but that’s even more.”
Then I go, “Well then, if you think that, can you check this out?” and they go, “Oh, shit!” Then I go, “This is usually what we did on Good Times.” “Oh, my God!” It was like that kind of thing. I know I’m being long with you, so I hope you can make it brief there.
Okay, cool. That’s what the magic is and when I say that’s genius is had they directed me, I would have just probably done what they wanted to do and it would have been a clear blueprint; but by allowing me to create and write, if you will, something magical happened because I would inspire them.
They, in turn, would inspire me and then we would just ping-pong this emotion back and forth and it turned into music. It turned into a viable performance from the beginning to the middle and the end. Then when the other musicians got involved, they heard that and were like, “Oh shit, man! Let me… I can’t wait to jump on this.”
Because you can hear that I’m playing the song but you can also hear it’s developing. You can hear little inflections and little riffy things, like an R&B record can do. You don’t just play the song over and over again. You’re interpreting all along throughout the song.
Where does dance music go from here?
I never try and predict the future because there’s always some artist, somewhere, stuck away somewhere doing something that’s going to be leading edge that we don’t even know about. I ain’t that guy to make predictions. All I do is every time I do something, I think of it as future music but I’m just talking about myself. I don’t know what somebody else locked away in a garage somewhere is doing. I only know me.
I’m trying to make music today that’s relevant tomorrow. That’s all I ever try and do but I don’t really… I’m not trying to look way down the road. I’m just trying to look somewhat down the road as if you’re driving a car. I don’t look right in front of me because that doesn’t mean anything. I look down the road like I’m driving a car because if you look right in front of you and you’re driving a car, that’s not so good. You look down the road and then that’s how you go. You can judge your speed.
When I make records, I look down the road because I don’t know when the record is coming out. This stuff is a perfect example. I was talking about this almost a year ago when I was in Ibiza. We did this a long time ago and the fact that we did it a long time ago and it’s come out now, you never know when the records coming out. You don’t know and really just get lucky it’s out. It’s not like the whole album is out.
The whole album, right.
You’re making music in the here and now for something that’s going to happen later on. If you’re overly concerned with what’s going on around you, I don’t think that you can do classic music because what you’re doing is you’re already saying I’m going to do music for this moment and by the time your record comes out, this moment has already passed. You have to do music for the future because you never know.
Like when we were working on it, they didn’t have a record deal. I didn’t know where it was going. I didn’t know when it was going to come out, when they were going to get a deal or anything. We were just living in the moment and trying to predict the future with our music, period. That’s all you can do. You can’t… It’s not trying to predict other people’s future; it’s only our own future.
It’s like, “Okay, we’re going to do this now and hopefully, by the time you get a record deal and by the time it comes out, it’s going to be dope.”
It certainly looks like that is working out. I asked them why it took two White guys from Paris to get together two generations of legends of American R&B in you and Pharrell. Is it the outsider perspective?
Maybe. Maybe that’s a question they can answer but here’s the ironic and almost funny irony as it pertains to me. When we started our band Chic, Chic was a concept. It was not something that existed.
Basically, we had to frame an outline and then be those characters in that story. In that story, basically, we decided that when Black musicians became popular, this was during the jazz days. That’s what Chic was. We were basically a high breed of jazz era type of stuff.
What happened is that when Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band came out and August Darnell had the whole Cab Calloway thing down, it was like, “Well, we don’t want to be retro. We want to be current but we want to base it in that sentimentality.”
Anyway, we decided when a lot of Black jazz artists become famous, they move to Europe because you’re treated better, particularly, France. It’s like you think of Nina Simone and even in the modern world how Tina Turner has moved to Switzerland and … It’s like, that’s the thing because they treat us better. Our own country where we pioneer our music after we do it would say, “Ah, ho-hum;” but you go on the other side of the ocean and all of a sudden they go, “Wow! Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington!”
Anyway, we decided with Chic, “Why don’t we try this? Let’s cut out the middle man process. Why don’t we pretend to be French and we come back to America because we’re Black men and we come back. We’re coming over from France, so we don’t have to deal with the racism because we’re already French.”
It was just a stupid concept. It was a stupid concept but it made sense to us and it’s what I call “band logic,” not to be confused with actual real world logic. It’s something that made complete sense to us but to the lay person sounds like, “You guys are ridiculous.” To us, it’s a map and a blueprint for how to proceed.
The fact that Daft Punk have come into my life now… The truth is they came into my life at least ten years ago, but we just never got a chance to do a song. It’s actually very ironic and funny because we were Black American men pretending to be from France.
Now, obviously, after we got going… You may not have been around for that moment, so you may not have understood the initial hype of Chic.
Yeah, we didn’t have our pictures on the cover. We put models on the cover of our first record and people didn’t even know to pronounce it.
Yeah. They didn’t know whether to pronounce our names as Chick or Chic and they thought, “Okay, maybe the band is called Chic.” Then we said, “No, no, no. It’s French, Chic” and if you look on the album and you look at the song title, you have “Est-ce que c’est Chic?” and Ou simplement ordinaire and they’re like … people are like, “Wow! Who are these French guys and they can funk and they can dance music? What is this?” It was like we were like Milli Vanilli but real.
It was like they can accept us coming from another country but it’s like you can’t accept your own. That was our strategy to get to pop radio because if we were just thought of as another R&B band from New York, blah blah blah, this and that when Cameo was happening and Kool and the Gang, how do we set ourselves up?
Well, we’re not from New York; we’re from France. We have this cool R&B music that’s continental and it works over in Europe as well as it would work here. You break us here; you get to break us all over the world. Then when they found that we were just guys from New York, it was like, “Well, we’re already fine and the record’s already hot.”
It’s too late by then.
There’s another parallel I was going to ask about with Daft Punk and the whole robot anonymous thing.
It had anonymity, absolutely. There are many, many coincidences and parallels between Chic and Daft Punk. It would make sense that they… They did exactly what we did. They were French guys who decided, “Okay, let’s go back to our roots in America. Go back to American R&B dance, disco, funk, whatever you want to call it and maybe we’re not French robots. Maybe, we’re actually American robots hiding out in France pretending to be French.”
It’s like, who knows what their philosophy is. Who knows what the original rap was the day they first came out. Because I remember when I met them, it was a listening party here in New York, not in Paris. It was in New York, and when I met them it wasn’t like this was stuff coming from Europe. It all felt very homegrown.
That first listening party where we all hung at, I can’t remember who was in the room so I don’t want to misstate facts, but it was very American feeling. Puff could have been in the room, all sorts of people, it was like all my boys from New York. I think Twenty-first Street somewhere.
It was like all the guys I see all the time. It was a very New York kind of feeling thing; so I just felt like these are just some cool guys that came up with a really dope record. I had no idea they were guys from France or anything like that because at the time we’re just in a nightclub listening to the music.
This was around the time of their first record?
Yes. This was during the first record.
What’s next for you?
You’re calling me now, I’m in California. For the last few days, I’ve been on a tear writing all these amazing songs with people and you know what’s funny? I’ve never done this. I’ve never written songs where you just write a song and then you give it to someone else.
I even said to the guys that I was working with, I said, “Look, I don’t do that. I just … every song I write is written to order. You’ve got to give me some idea of who we’re writing it for and then I will write the next great record for that person.” Please believe me, but I’m not saying this egotistically. I’m saying this as a craftsperson. I’m saying that I learned about craft and that craft is an artistic one but the only way it works. If you’ve read my book, you’d understand when I talk about DHM (Deep Hidden Meaning). “I need to know. If I don’t know, I can’t help you understand. If I don’t fully understand, how the hell am I going to make that record for you?”
A lot of these writers, like regular songwriters, they just write a bunch of great songs and then they just try to get people to cover them and pick them up and do them. I just said, “I’m not that guy. I have to tell the truth and if I don’t know the truth, I can’t do it. I’m not your guy to work with.”
I wrote like three or four songs for David Guetta the other day and I said, “Look, man. Let me just look back upon your life and even if this may not be the truth, just let me think like this because I can’t do it any other way.” I said, “You know, I love the stuff you did with Rihanna.” I said, “Well, let me write the next great big Rihanna record. Whether she even hears me or not, that’s what I do.”
I said, “If I’m picturing where Rihanna should go, that’s the song I want to write with you.” I sat down with him, did this incredibly funky thing and he said, “Wow! Now, that sounds underground to me.” I said, “David, that sounds underground?” I said, “Really?”
I said, “This is so commercial but it’s commercial because it’s funky and it’s edgy and it’s different and it would be the next Rihanna record, not the current or the last. It’s the next Rihanna record and given her history and given your history, I’m doing that next thing down the road. I don’t know if she’s going to hear it or when she’s going to hear it or whatever; so I’m doing it hoping that if she uses it in six months, she’ll go ‘Damn that’s fresh! Who did that? What is that?”
He thought it was avant-garde. Me, I don’t mean to say too much because I don’t mean this in a negative way at all. I was going, “It’s just how I think.” He felt like it was underground. He loved it. Don’t get me wrong. He thought it was amazing. He was like, “Wow! This is incredible but it’s underground.” I said, “Wow! You think that’s underground? Okay, well. No, it’s like what I imagine where Rihanna would go because she’s such a big star now and she’s going to have to go on a different direction.”
Anyway, long story short, he played the track to five different people around and they all went, “This is so dope.” They think it’s unbelievable and they’re like going, “This is an underground. This is like next level. This is like wow!” That was the last thing because he called me up last night and he said, “Nile, I’ve played them for five people and they’re all saying like what you said. They said no, this is totally commercial.” It’s just different. It’s not old. It’s just different, but it’s really commercial.
It was interesting. It showed the difference between living in the moment right now and trying to look down the road; and so like today, he wants me to cut another joint. He said, “Man, let’s do another one because we think so differently but it comes together.”
Then I’ve been writing with a guy, with Avicii and I’ve got to tell you, man and I really mean this. I will go on the record. I’ve seen a lot of people dissing this dude.
I see all these guys dissing Avicii, talking about he’s this and that. I’m like going, “What?”
One thing that really gets my bender up is when people… Look, I don’t expect everybody to like my music. As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite. I know I write weird music. I know that, so they don’t have to tell me. They don’t have to remind me. I wake every day and look in the mirror and I know how weird I am. I’m cool with that but when it works, it works because I’m trying to be like somebody who’s around now because I never know when the records going to come out. I just don’t have any idea.
If I try and make a record that sounds like today’s record, that’s the kiss of death for me, so I’m always trying to do something original. If you look back over the course of my work, there’s no record that sounds like Diana. It’s the only one that sounds like that. It was specifically for Diana. There’s no record that sounds like Sister Sledge and “We Are Family” and “Lost in Music.” I’ve never written anything like that before or since. It was only written for them.
Now, when I’m working with Avicii and I see people dissing the dude—so okay, if we just assume people are being honest and they don’t like his music, I understand that; but if they’re dissing him because he’s twenty-two years old and making $30 million or something like that, well, that’s just jealousy and hating.
Let me say something. I have worked with… and I say this with all humility. I have worked with some of the greatest musicians that ever walked this planet and homeboy Avicii is the complete real deal, the complete real deal. When he and I are in the room together, not only is he on my level and trying to hang at twenty-three years old, anything that I teach him, he stocks up and files away.
It’s like I’m saying, “No, no, no. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do a half-diminished chord right here, and then what we’re going to do is we’re going to keep the root in the bass and then we’re going to turn that in into an eleventh chord while still keeping that half-diminished framework,” and he just goes, “Oh, I never heard of any …”
After we did our session he said, “I learned more about music theory in one night than I did in my whole life with Nile Rodgers.” It wasn’t like he was intimidated at all. He just loved it and all I kept thinking about was that’s how I learned to make records.
I was hanging out with Luther Vandross and Luther would say to me, “Oh, Nile, no. Here’s how you get that vocal sound. What you do is you slow the tape down to right here, we sing it in that key. Then we speed the pitch up and all of a sudden, we all sound like we’re seventeen years old.” I was like, “Wow, Luther! That’s great.” You don’t make it so slow that you sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. You just make it slow enough where it adds some nice timbre of quality to yourself when it goes back into the original key.
If you go and you listen to the earlier Chic singles, the reason why they sound out of tune is not that they’re out of tune within themselves, they’re out of tune with what we call “equal temper tuning.” It’s because after we cut those songs, Luther taught us how to VSO [Variable Speed Oscillator] it up. So we sped the records up a little bit.
Like “Dance, Dance, Dance” is in F minor but it’s not really an F minor because it’s out of tune. It’s between F minor and F-sharp minor. “Le Freak” is not really an A minor. It’s in between A minor and B-flat minor. Because Luther taught us those tricks and they worked, they made our records sound bright. They made us sound more youthful and we were not.
True, we were only twenty-six years old but it made it sound like these French guys who’ve come over and they’re young, French dudes and they’re trying to take America by storm and it’s the old little trick that people who are older than you and smarter than you, share with you and then you take it and you incorporate it into your sound.
Avicii and I, we worked together and I showed him. It’s just like we talked about. I showed him some little techniques to make… “Oh, dude. We’ve got to incorporate this into what we’re doing.” I really wish people would understand that artist. We’re just all looking for answers. These are questions that we’re looking for answers and we’re not…
Avicii is an artist, man. So what, he’s young. A lot of people criticize me when I was younger when we wrote “Good Times” and “Freak Out” and all that stuff. People were saying that it was just mindless, dance music and so on and so on. I’m like going, “Mindless? Do you know how we toil over these concepts and these lyrics and trying to make a great wonderful intellectual story?”
This is not throwaway stuff here. We toil over this stuff to come up with the concept for Sister Sledge and have them sing “Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci.” That had never been done in pop R&B or even pop and rock. Nowadays, try and listen to the R&B and don’t hear them mention a Bugatti or a… We did it in one song, one song.
Yeah, but we were just looking for an answer to a question at that time and that question was, what would it be like to be sixteen-year-old Black girls who are on the cutting edge of fashion and blah-blah-blah? What would your life be like? What would you talk about?
You would talk about Halston, Gucci. These were the designers and the hot stores in those days, but that’s it. By the time we make the next record, they’re not sixteen years old anymore. They may have moved on, but that’s just a moment in time.
Now, what happened is that if somebody did something and it’s a formula that works, then they just drive it into the ground. I said to another person I’m writing with, I don’t want to mention names. He’s a little bit too famous but I said, “If I hear the word ‘moment’ again in another song again, I’m going to pull my skin off. I’m waiting for this moment. It’s the most special moment. Tonight is my moment. Moment, moment, moment. My swagger’s like that, swagger, swagger, swagger. Jacket, jacket, jacket.” Swagger, swagger, swagger. Bugatti, Bugatti, Bugatti,” and I’m going, “Goddamnit.” Have you ever heard of when we were studying English, there was a thing called synonym. You don’t have to say that same word. You just come up with an artistic way of stating the exact same thing.
Like strive to be original because maybe the greatest, if you’re going to use the moment, maybe the greatest moment you’re ever going to have is being original and wonderful in that studio because your records may never sell; so be artistic. Be creative. Look to answer those elusive questions about life; but I understand.
For a lot of people, this is their living and they make good money in it and that’s their formula and they do it and that’s okay; but that’s just not who I am. I don’t … I’m not putting a person down for it. I’m just observing it and I think that life could be richer if you strive, if you are trying to solve a problem. I know I went off there. I didn’t mean that.
You asked what I’m working on; so what I’m working on is stuff that hopefully, down the road will come out and people go, “Wow! That’s pretty cool.“ Because frankly, I don’t know where these songs are going. I don’t know where they’re going to wind up; but I just like experimenting with some people that they work out like in the past. I said, “Well, if I liked to work in the past, maybe I can like to work in the future too. Let’s try some stuff.”
If I can talk about one thing real quick just because…
This happened yesterday and I still don’t think I’ve recovered from the shock of it. I found all my old Chic demos a couple of years ago.
Then I found a bunch of songs that we never put out. All the guys who were with me on those records have passed away: Luther Vandross, Tony Thompson and my partner, Bernard Edwards, our onboard player, Raymond Jones. Dude, I found this stuff and I had a meeting yesterday with the guys at Warner’s. I’m going to put it out. Hopefully, I’ll have it done this year.
I get to finally release my unreleased Chic and Nile Rodgers solo music with Bernard and Tony. I get to play with my boys, and it’s just the most exciting thing ever, man.
When you hear this, remember we wrote this thirty-five years ago. We wrote this at a time where our hearts were broken. The whole industry had kicked us to the curb and we were trying to figure out our way back and you’re going to hear the essence of the song like “Let’s Dance” by Bowie. You’re going to hear that starting to grow out of Chic, but we hadn’t quite gotten it right yet but you could hear it coming.
That’s what I’m really excited about. Hopefully, I will have that done before the end of this year and I can give myself a Christmas present and drop at least one or two of these tracks on you because it’s great.
I’m so proud and Warner Bros. is so behind. They want it to come out. They said, “We heard this stuff and we’re like how could it not have been released?” I said, “Well, you dropped us. You didn’t let us finish it.”
They were like going… I’m really excited, man, and they were showing me tons of love yesterday. We were meeting on the weekend and just talking and chilling and I said, “Listen to this.” I played it and they were like, “Oh my God. You did that thirty-five years ago?” I said, “Yeah, listen to that. That’s Bernard. That’s Tony. That’s Raymond. That’s Luther. Listen to us. We were smoking.” It was way ahead of its time and because we were afraid we couldn’t play disco, as they called it, anymore, we were trying to come out with future thoughts.
That’s what we would need to do but they dropped us and we never got a chance to finish it because then I went on and I produced David Bowie.
How much material is there?
Well, I have a whole film soundtrack called Alphabet City. It never came out.
A lot of people asked for that. It’s a song that’s at least—I hate to like tell people how old it is because they go, “Ah, that’s old music”; but if you if you Google, maybe you can find it. If you Google the movie Rush Hour 2 and listen to a song called “Let’s Bounce,” that song was written twenty-something years ago but I put it in Rush Hour 2, I don’t know, maybe ten years ago whenever that movie came out. That’s the only place that we put a little snippet of it. This stuff with that song is really old. See if you can find it on the web, because it should be there.
Yeah, because we were just starting to get into a new thing and we hadn’t figured it out yet. Then the other stuff is a whole film score from the movie called Alphabet City, a whole bunch of Nile Rodgers solo album demos and the start of a Chic record that never got finished because we got dropped. We didn’t know we were gonna get dropped.
You had already started working on the record.
Right. Once we got dropped, I was demoralized. We broke up the band and it never got finished and because Bernard and I, we wouldn’t send in the… We wouldn’t ask the company to pay for something until after we did it because we never knew what we were doing. We would just make music and then figure out who we’re making it. I wound up paying for everything, rescuing it and fixing it all up and I would love to have that record come out sometime this year.
Purchase Issue 55 with Part 1 of this interview.
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