Chic producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers is an unsung hero of modern dance music
by Andre Torres
That’s right, you hadn’t heard it since you recorded it?
I’d only heard the song in the studio, and now I go to a club and everybody’s singing it like they know my song. They’re on the dance floor loving it, and as soon as they find out who I am, I’m getting free drinks, I’m the man. We tried to use that to get a record deal, used the few connections we had: “You gotta see this phenomenon, come on down and see everybody responding to our music.” It would happen every night. By the way, the way that we cut “Everybody Dance,” it was about eight and a half minutes long, and the DJ had two copies. The very first time I heard it outside the studio, he played it for more than an hour, just back to forth, over and over again. And when he tried to play the record that was the number one record on the Billboard charts that week—which was, by the way, Walter Murphy “A Fifth of Beethoven”—the crowd started going, “Boooooo!” So he had to play “Everybody Dance” like four or five more times before they let him play that record.
And you still couldn’t get a deal?
We couldn’t get a record deal and wound up cutting the next single, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” cut as a B-side for a television commercial. That was the song that got us the record deal. We figured that because the doors had been closed in our faces so many times, and we knew it was racism. Because we’d walk in to have a meeting, and they would talk to the one guy in the group who looked White. He was actually Puerto Rican, but he looked White to the record label executives, so they would direct all the conversation to him. And he would finally go, “Talk to them. I just got hired a couple weeks ago. I don’t know; it’s their band.” So we realized they think he’s the boss cause he’s White, or he looks White—he looks like the boss. We finally got Buddha Records to buy into our whole sophistofunk dance concept, Chic. But there was one clause; they had to get the record out in time for the Billboard Disco Convention. I guess Buddha was having a problem with money at the time, and they couldn’t get the record pressed up in time.
So we went to the president of Atlantic Records; we met with him on a Thursday, and the Billboard convention happened the next Monday or Tuesday. What Jerry Greenberg did—who is my lifelong friend to this very day—he kept the pressing plant open the entire weekend and flew the record in by helicopter, Warner’s helicopter, to the eastside heliport, and then had a fleet of limos deliver the record all up and down the eastern seaboard like Boston, Philly, Pittsburgh, New York. They knew they were gonna have a lawsuit on their hands, because we were in Billboard magazine signing the record to Buddha. You know those pictures where you’re signing? But they couldn’t get it out, so technically, they had defaulted on the deal. We were smart enough to go to Atlantic, and Atlantic heard the record and said, “This is a smash.” They pressed the records all weekend long, rushed to every club.
And here’s the thing that they did really smart. They took it to all the clubs that were Billboard-reporting clubs, ’cause in those days, the dance charts were DJs that would get records and report. This is before record pools. So we went to Studio 54, and we paid the guy who was the DJ at Studio 54 to put his name on our record. It said, “Chic ‘Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),’” and bigger than our name we had “Mix by Tom Saverese.” In those days, Tom Saverese was famous, and Studio 54 was the center of the disco universe. By having this guy’s name on the record bigger than ours, all the other DJs would play the record. This is no kidding, before that week was out, now we have our names on Atlantic Records with Tom Saverese. Every DJ is playing it, and we are now a legitimate viable band.
We’re now signed to Atlantic Records, and our first single goes platinum on both labels, Buddha and Atlantic. Our settlement with Buddha, because we were legally bound to them even though they defaulted, we actually let them keep all the money. They didn’t pay us one cent of royalties. So that was like a million dollars or something out the window that we never got, but we got our freedom. Atlantic Records didn’t realize that we were signed to a production company, and after the record took off, the production company started going gangster on us. We let our contract run out, so next thing you know, we’re sitting with a number one record and we have no legal record deal. So we go back to Atlantic and negotiate a deal directly with Atlantic. Now we were the boss of everything, we owned everything, it was our band, our publishing, our everything. Our whole lives changed then, because now we were just dealing with the head guy; we didn’t have to deal with A&Rs, nothing. They believed that we had the magic of Studio 54 in a bottle and we could just sprinkle that dust on anybody.
So they actually offered us the Rolling Stones. We’re just twenty-five, twenty-six years old, and they want us to produce the Rolling Stones. The smartest thing we ever did in our lives was not produce the Rolling Stones, we said, “Look, if we produce the Rolling Stones and they get a hit, people are going to think it’s just another Rolling Stones hit record; they’re not going to think about us.” I said to the president of Atlantic Records, “How ’bout this? What if instead of producing the Rolling Stones, I produce your secretary.” He says, “What?!” I said, “Yeah, I can make your secretary a hit. I can actually write a song for her about how frustrating it is for her to sit there and all of these big stars are walking in the office and she’s better than they are. I’m gonna write a better song for her than all those other big stars on your label.” He was so impressed with my cockiness, he says, “Well how about this? Let me meet you halfway, I’m going to give you the roster, and you do that same thing for some other group on the roster.”
We looked at the whole roster and we saw Sister Sledge. We had heard of them before ’cause they had a nice little record, but they were not famous, they were not popular. We decided that we were gonna sit down and design a group called Sister Sledge just like we designed Chic. We wrote “We Are Family,” “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” “Thinking of You,” and basically laid out their careers on this first record. Remember, Kathy Sledge was sixteen years old, and we told them that they were going to be these sophisticated young Black girls because of the whole buppie movement. They were gonna live this grand life that other girls were gonna dream about. They looked at us like we were from Mars. These were church-going girls, virgins.
And I’ll never forget this. We got into a big fight the first day they came to the studio because we don’t give artists demos. They come in and sing it. It’s like, “Here’s the song, you don’t get a demo in advance. I’m a musician, I don’t get a demo before I get there. I show up to the studio and I read the music. So you just come in, and I’ll teach you the song.” They walked into the studio, and we were still writing “We Are Family,” and they’re sitting there looking at us like, “Huh? What did we get into?” We cut “We Are Family,” and they just love it, they can’t believe it. Then they cut the second song, “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” and there was a line that we had written, “My crème de la crème, please take me home,” which meant she was gonna have a one-night stand. A sixteen-year-old church-going virgin was gonna have a one-night stand with a guy. [laughs]
I know I’m the first person who ever, ever, ever wrote, in this world, a song that talked about designers. I wrote, “Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci.” One fucking time! Don’t put it in every record, don’t go, [mimics rapper] “My Bugatti, my Ferrari, my Caddy, got my watch, got my Rollie.” One record, I did it one time! Because I was designing this thing for these girls, and we did that “Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci,” and these girls are looking at me going, “Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci, what is that?” I said, “Don’t worry, everybody’s gonna relate to it, ’cause you’re elevating your lifestyle to a level that other girls and other people just dream about. You’re gonna talk about it like you’re living it.” She’s, like, sixteen years old, going, “Huh?” I said, “Trust me, it’s gonna work.”
Kathy and I are such great friends to this day, because she said she was laying in her bed getting ready to go to school and she hears her voice come on the radio. ’Cause that’s the song we used to break Sister Sledge. People think we broke them with “We Are Family,” but we broke them with “He’s the Greatest Dancer.” Which, believe it or not, was a platinum single; and in those days, platinum was two million. Right out of the box, that record came out and flew to the top of the charts. And she said she was lying in her bed getting ready for school and she hears her voice coming over the radio, “Halson, Gucci, Fiorucci,” and starts crying. She says everything that I had predicted came true.
What happened on New Year’s Eve in 1977 when you and Bernard were trying to get into Studio 54 with Grace Jones performing?
Grace Jones heard our first album and she loved “Everybody Dance”—that was her jam. She was thinking that she wanted us to produce what would have been her next album. For anyone that’s heard Grace, she has this very affected way of speaking. We didn’t have a meeting; we just talked to her on the phone. So she says, [in Grace Jones voice] “So darling, just knock on the back door and tell them that you’re personal friends of Ms. Grace Jones.” Now we’re young bloods, we’re very new to this whole music thing. We thought this was some kind of secret code; you don’t want to question Grace Jones, ’cause to us she’s a superstar. So we thought she wants us to imitate that stuff she’s saying. So we knock on the door at Studio 54, the bouncer opens the door, and this is New Year’s Eve, this is the hottest ticket in the world. [in affected Grace Jones voice] “We are personal friends of Ms. Grace Jones,” and homeboy slams the door in our face and goes, “Ahh, man, fuck off!” We thought we got the accent wrong, so we knock on the door again. [in even more affected Grace Jones voice] “We’re personal friends of Ms. Grace Jones,” and he says, “Fuck off, man, I told you!” We tried to get it together and said, “No, man, we’re really personal friends with Grace Jones,” but it was pretty clear that we weren’t getting into Studio 54 that night.
I lived around the corner on Fifty-second Street, so we went to my house. In those days, we played music for fun as much as we did for money; it was our livelihood and our recreation. So we started jamming and I started playing [plays guitar line from “Freak Out”] and I started singing, “Ahh, fuck off! Fuck Studio 54!” And my boy Bernard went and got his bass, and we got into it. We were jamming, making up all these crazy lyrics, “The cab driver cut you off, fuck off!” Finally, Bernard, who’s like the ultimate smooth brother, pulled his glasses down over his nose, which he did whenever he wanted me to pay attention, “My man, you know this shit is happening, right?” Now this is way before hip-hop, this is like three years before hip-hop, and I’m like, “How we gonna get ‘fuck off’ on the radio?” So we fooled around with it, changed it to “freak off,” and that wasn’t working. We changed it to “freak out” and I went hippy on him like crazy, I went, [in hippy voice] “Oh man, let’s call it ‘Freak Out,’ you know, like when you drop some acid and have a bad trip man, you know?” And he’s looking at me like, “What?!” And I’m like, “I’m sorry,” and I got my Black union card out: “No man, you know what I’m saying, when you’re on the dance floor with a hot girl and you’re freaking out, and you’re going crazy and the bass is booming?” And he went, “Oh, yeah, there’s this new dance my little kids are doing called the Freak.” So we modeled it on Chubby Checker’s record “The Twist” and created a dance record about this dance that we didn’t really know how to do. We didn’t talk about how you do it because we didn’t know how to do it, but we knew it existed. So we talked in double entendres, we talked about, “Have you heard of this new dance craze?” Instead of cursing Studio 54 out, we praised Studio 54, which wound up making us gods. Because “Le Freak,” out of all the records that I’ve been involved with—and I’ve been involved in some huge records in my life, I’m a very lucky man—“Le Freak” is the only triple platinum record in the history of Atlantic Records. It means we sold six million singles in America alone. We went gold in Atlanta, we sold a million singles in the Atlanta branch. [laughs]
The next album we put out was called Risque, and we did “Good Times” and it changed our world as we know it, because “Good Times” was the first record that was sampled and became a popular commercial hip-hop record. The Sugarhill Gang took our whole concept, not just the bass line, but the way we built the track up, the breakdown, the strings. They sold it only as a twelve-inch for a long time, and it was the first time that we got co-publishing on a record that we had originally composed and then somebody else came along and added something to it, actually creating greater value. We wound up now owning a portion of another copyright, and we basically could just sit back and be like, “Okay, do that, Sugarhill. You got my blessing.” The next thing you know, for the rest of my life, even up until this very day, I earn a few million dollars every year on other people taking my songs. I mean, “Getting Jiggy With It” by Will Smith, so many number one pop records from songs that I wrote thirty years ago just because they had good grooves, good bass lines, or something that just inspired other artists. I’ve watched how people who are artistic, who can feel it, they just figure out a way to do it. They don’t care what the impediments are; they don’t care what the problems are. You figure out how to do it because you love it so much, you wanna be in the game. I’ve seen everything you could imagine in this business, but I do what I do because I really just love music, and it saved my life countless times. I’m so thrilled to be alive. A couple of years ago I was blindsided with cancer. It was really aggressive cancer, and they actually didn’t believe I’d live two months. Now I got two years, last year we did more concerts than I’ve ever done since we founded the Chic organization. I’ve got a book that’s a best seller in the U.K., doing pretty well in America, turning down movie deals left and right. It’s been an amazing life for me, and the greatest thing in my life is that every artist I’ve worked with, I’ve done the biggest records of their career. I did the biggest record of Sister Sledge’s career, the biggest record of Diana Ross’s career, the biggest record of Duran Duran’s career, the biggest record of David Bowie’s career, the biggest record of Madonna’s career, the biggest record of the Thompson Twins’ career, and “Le Freak” being the biggest record of Atlantic’s career, so I’ve got a real blessed life.
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