Chic producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers is an unsung hero of modern dance music
by Andre Torres
Though he’s sold over a hundred million albums, Nile Rodgers is still a mystery to most people. Which is exactly how he planned it. Since the beginning of a fruitful career that’s spanned over three decades, Nile has remained comfortably in the shadows. While most people may not recognize the face, they most certainly recognize the songs. With his musical soul mate, bassist Bernard Edwards, Nile formed Chic, marrying the sophisticated stylings of Roxy Music with the anonymity of KISS—an unlikely, if not highly effective, pairing. Bernard’s bubbling bass lines and Nile’s soaring guitar licks are at the heart of a seemingly simple, but complex, form of disco that dominated clubs and airways at the end of the ’70s and early ’80s. By applying that successful formula to others, the duo created some of the most anthemic popular music of the last century. Songs like “Good Times,” “We Are Family,” and “I’m Coming Out” have become the celebratory soundtrack to the lives of millions, embedded in our collective consciousness.
“Rapper’s Delight” changed the course of music history on the back of Bernard’s bass, not the Sugarhill Gang. You could stick Nile in a room with a cardboard box, and somehow he’ll come out with a hit. His collaborations with Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, and Duran Duran provided them all with the biggest and funkiest records of their careers. In an autobiography published a couple of years ago, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, Nile opened up about everything from his troubled childhood to his close relationship with Bernard Edwards, cocaine addiction, and his recent cancer scare.
We sat down with Nile last year, but unbeknownst to us at the time, he was sprinkling some of that magic Chic dust on a couple of tracks for Daft Punk, just as he has for so many others over the years. The following interview was done before a live audience at the opening reception dinner of the Scion Music(less) Conference in Los Angeles, California, on Wednesday, October 3, 2012. Be sure to check waxpoetics.com for Part II that includes an April 2013 follow-up on the Daft Punk collaboration.
Wax Poetics: You published a revealing autobiography last year, documenting your unorthodox childhood from growing up with two parents that were junkies to dropping acid with Timothy Leary during your teenaged years. Yet, you triumphed despite the adversity and mischievous behavior. How has music remained a salvation for you throughout it all?
Nile Rodgers: I started out learning music in the public school system. I started out learning classical music, and even though I loved R&B and I loved pop music, they didn’t teach that at school, so I didn’t play that in school. I just listened to it and loved it at home. I was born in New York City, and I moved to L.A. when I was seven years old. A lot of times, people ask me about all the different accolades and accomplishments in my life. When I was seven years old, I lived in South Central L.A. near Exposition Park, and I went to a Catholic school. I set the national truancy record for parochial school when I was seven years old. I cut school for seventy-five days in a row! [laughs] I used to go downtown to an area in L.A.; they used to call it Skid Row. They used to have grind house movie theaters, and I used to take my money from Catholic school and go to the movie theaters and listen to music in the films all the time. In those days, they didn’t have any ratings, so kids could do what adults did, and I would watch all these different films with lots and lots of music. It just consumed my life and gave me a sense of purpose at a time where my life was very lonely. I was the only Black kid at this particular Catholic school, and I felt very disenfranchised. But somehow, music was so special to me, and I could tell it at that young age. It just kept me going and going.
After cutting school for seventy-five days straight, they finally caught me. I came home and the police were at my house, and they shipped me back to New York. My mom was suffering from postpartum depression, where she used to threaten to kill my little brother and myself every day. But by the time I had spent time in L.A., I guess they cured her or something, and I moved back to New York. In New York, I really started to cherish music in a way that it was a life-saving force in my world; I just did it every day. I went to school hard, I studied hard, and I basically became a classical musician. It was jazz that was being played around my household, so I elevated to a jazz musician. Because I learned to become a jazz musician, was a proper classical musician, and I could write, orchestrate, and arrange, I never had a boss. So when I got my first big break, the money came right to me. Well, we did have one middleman who helped us get the deal, but the great thing about my life is that I’ve actually managed to have all those hit records and that big career just on my own. I would just meet a person like you, and we would talk, and we’d say, “Damn, let’s do a record.” We’d do a record, that person would happen to be Diana Ross. Or that person would happen to be David Bowie. Or that person would happen to be Duran Duran. Or that person would happen to be any one of a number of really big people who could control their own destiny to a certain extent.
It’s a great arc from your entry into the industry. Can you talk a bit about your beginnings in the Sesame Street band and the Apollo?
At the time, I was studying classical guitar, and my teacher wanted me to go to either Juilliard or Manhattan School of Music because they both had what they called the extension division. Guitar is not part of the symphony orchestra so you had to study in the extension curriculum. I went to Juilliard—that was cool, it felt okay. Then I popped up to Manhattan where a lot of my friends were hanging out, and right up on the bulletin board, they were hosting auditions for Sesame Street. I went and I auditioned, and I got the job the first day. That was the beginning of a whole life change for me, because after I did Sesame Street for a year—they were only in their second season [in 1971]—the woman who was in charge of Sesame Street, Loretta Long, her husband Peter Long was the manager of the Apollo Theater.
A year into my Sesame Street gig, [the Apollo] had an opening because Carlos Alomar left to join David Bowie’s Young Americans. Now in those days, I grew up as a hippy, so my appearance was always weird. I’d always have weird hair, and when I went to audition at the Apollo, I had green hair—big green Afro. You used to cornrow and then braid it, and let it out before the show and your Afro is all big and green. But then after you sweat, it’s all tight on your head. [laughs] I went and I auditioned, and the old-time dudes were making fun of me because I was a hippy with big platform shoes. I was real skinny; I towered over everybody. So they were like, “Let’s teach this cocky young kid a lesson.” They said that I got the gig, that I was a good music reader. The opening act was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I’m gonna get around to Parliament-Funkadelic, ’cause that’s the shit that changed my life, but Parliament was the next week. This first show I did was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Betty Wright, and Maxine Brown. I was just that bad young brotha who could just read everything. You know, just throw it my way. They let me take off and told me I didn’t have to make rehearsal because I was such a good reader that I could just go out and hang in the neighborhood.
About a year prior to getting that job, I used to be in the Black Panther Party, and the Black Panther office was right around the corner from the Apollo Theater. I went to see what was going on, and I was lamenting ’cause the Panthers were over and I was sad. So I walked around the neighborhood, came back, sat down, took my chair, and the conductor puts his hand up and he gets ready to start out “I Put a Spell on You.” I didn’t really know the song, but I could just look at the charts and say, “I could just read this shit, nothing to it.” I didn’t know Screamin’ Jay’s routine, so I didn’t pay attention to this coffin that had been wheeled in stage right and was just sitting over there. Conductor puts his hand up and goes, “Bom Bom Bom Bom,” and as soon as he does that the coffin opens up, Screamin’ Jay jumps out. Now they got all this stuff planned, but I don’t know. So Screamin’ Jay jumps out, I jump out of my skin.
Meanwhile, I’m bad Mr. Black Panther, right? Jump out of my skin, grab the plug out of my amp, my guitar under my hands, and go running off stage left. Now they blocked the wings, so I can’t get out. So I gotta run back towards Screamin’ Jay, but they got the other side of the stage blocked. So I’m running back and forth screaming, “Ahhh, ahhh, ahhh, power to the people! Black Panther Party, power to the people!” The whole Apollo Theater was cracking up; I mean, they were crying. It brought me down a peg, and they could tell it was genuine emotion. You know flight or fight? I was flying; I mean, I was running all across the stage. [laughs] Screamin’ Jay had his rattle with the skull coming after me [mimics Screamin’ Jay’s ghoul-like moan], and the band was accenting, the band was playing that shit. So we turned it into a routine.
After that, the old-timers took me under their wing and decided to school me in R&B. They said the notation looks the same, but you don’t interpret the same. It’s not like classical music, it’s not even really like jazz, but it’s closer to jazz. At that point, I got a little humble; took my little chair and played the gig. I stayed in the Apollo house band for a while, and during that time, I met this incredible man who changed my life named Bernard Edwards. Bernard Edwards was the greatest bass player, if not the greatest musician I ever met. He and I formed the band that would go on to become Chic. After that, life just—it’s never a straight line to success; it’s a lot of ups and downs—but once he and I formed that partnership, to us in our hearts, we were invincible. I kept thinking to myself, let Screamin’ Jay chase me now. I got my boy with me; let’s see what happens now.
Roxy Music and KISS both had a big impact on the concept behind Chic. Can you talk a little bit about their influence?
Even though we lived in New York, funk is what ruled our world, bro; that was it. I had already played at the Apollo for a year, so I was down with Parliament; I had gigged with them. I gigged with New Birth, all these other bands; it was incredible. What we tried to do is formulate this concept of what we called sophistofunk. We just made it up, it didn’t mean nothin’. We knew that Cameo was from near us but sounded like they were from the West Coast. Our first tour, we were on tour with Cameo, Con Funk Shun, Rufus, bands like that. But we wanted to be different; we didn’t want to come out wearing the outfits that everybody was wearing. It just felt like if we’re in New York, we gotta be different. Bernard and I were backing up this group called New York City. They only had one hit record, a Philly sound cut by Thom Bell, and we gigged off that record for about two years. We did our final show in London, and my hotel room got robbed. They stole my passport, so I had no passport, no money, and no way to get home. So the band left me, but like all musicians, if you have a girlfriend, you have a place to stay.
I had a girlfriend, and she let me stay with her, and she was working as a hostess in a club. She told me she wanted me to come and check out one of the bands that she liked. I was getting a nice little rep in London; I was playing and they were trying to make me the funk version of Jimi Hendrix. So I went out with her one night to see this band called Roxy Music, and they were playing at this spot called the Roxy. It was the first time I had seen an audience so in tune with the artist. I had never seen anything like that before. In the old days, if you saw James Brown, Parliament, or anybody like that, you clearly knew they were on another level and you were just in the audience in awe. But Roxy Music had this thing where they had almost like spiritual tentacles that came out and touched the audience. The audience was sort of glamorous, and [Roxy Music was] glamorous, and their sound was sort of awash with texture—it was a different kind of thing. It wasn’t like any funk or any rock I had seen before. I just never heard anything like that before, never experienced it. Plus, they were at a joint called the Roxy. I was like, “Damn!”
So I called up my partner Bernard who left with all the other guys, left me stranded. I made up this concept called “a totally immersive artistic experience in music.” But remember, even though I loved funk, I was still a hippy at heart. So I called up my boy and went, [in cool hippy voice] “Ah, Bernard, man, so, like, what I just experienced is a totally immersive artistic experience in music. And I think that’s what we should do, man, when I get back home and we put our band together.” And he looked at me and said, “What the—‘n-word’ what? What are you talking about?” [in hippy voice] “No, man, I’m telling you, man, I just saw it, it was incredible. So like, if we do the Black version of that, you know, what would we be?”
We were still called the Big Apple Band and decided to keep that name. Except one of the dudes from my school—this guy named Walter Murphy who was an incredible composer—he did a record called “A Fifth of Beethoven” where he took Beethoven’s Fifth and made a disco record out of it. You can hear it in Saturday Night Fever. So everybody thought that was us; they were calling us up going, “Yeah, y’all finally made it! I love that, man, ‘Fifth of Beethoven,’ Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band.” We were like, “Nah, that’s not our Big Apple Band.” So Bernard said, “Well, yo, my man, you know about that totally immersive artistic experience thing in music? Why don’t we call ourselves Chic?” [Me] and Tony [Thompson], who was our drummer at the time, we were on the floor laughing; we could not stop laughing. We thought Chic was the dumbest name ever, until we realized that Walter Murphy had the Big Apple Band, and we had to change our name.
So now we went out on this sophistofunk hunt. Because if you look at Parliament, you look at the Geto Boys, you look at a lot of bands, everybody had characters and roles to play. So we went out to hire the people that would represent this sophistofunk thing called Chic that we were just making up, we didn’t have any music yet. We hired this drummer named Tony Thompson, who had just finished a stint with LaBelle. And LaBelle, they were sort of into the fantasy funk fusion, so it was like, “Okay, cool, that brotha, he’s cool, he’s gets it.” Then we hired this guy named Rob Sabino, and he was into this band called KISS. Now, KISS didn’t have a record deal yet, but he told us that we had to go see them. Now, my boy Bernard [is] Mr. R&B and “I don’t understand the totally immersive artistic experience, my brother.” All of a sudden, we see KISS, and they got their grease paint, the high platforms, the tongue, and the blood. They had no record deal, but, meanwhile, the crowd—these guys had New York, the punk scene, on lockdown. They just had fans that were going crazy.
I was so happy, because now I could show Bernard by example. I said, “Now we can see an artist who’s totally unique, totally original, no record deal, they got a fan base. Look what’s going on; that’s what I want us to do.” So we tried to come up with the Black version of melding what we called the anonymity of KISS with a lot of stylization, and the sophiso-whatever of Roxy Music. And then Bernard said, “So what’s wrong with the name Chic?” And then Tony and I said, “Okay, cool, we’ll call ourselves Chic.”
[In 1977,] I wrote the very first Chic song, which was called “Everybody Dance.” And I’ll never forget when I played it for my boy, when Bernard came back to rehearsal and I played the cut for him. Our stuff is pretty sophisticated. It’s not the regular kind of R&B; it’s got really jazzy chord changes. I played [hums melody to “Everybody Dance”] and I started singing, “Everybody dance, do-do-do-do, clap your hands, clap your hands.” And my partner Bernard went, “Ah, yo, my man.” “Yeah?” I got all defensive. “The song is cool man, but what the fuck does ‘do-do-do-do’ mean?” [laughs] I said, “It means the same as ‘la-la-la-la.’ ” He said, “Then why don’t we go, ‘Everybody dance, la-la-la-la clap your hands.’ ” I said, “Haven’t you been listening to music lately, nobody goes ‘la’ anymore, everybody goes, like Soul Train, [hums “do-do-do-duh-do-do” from the Soul Train theme].” I said, “ ‘La-la-la-la’ ain’t happening anymore. It’s gotta go ‘do-do-do-do.’ So just shut the fuck up and play, ‘do-do-do-do, clap your hands.’ ” At the time, we were backing up Luther Vandross; Luther was playing at Radio City the night we cut “Everybody Dance.” “Everybody Dance” costs ten dollars to make, and Luther Vandross and everybody in his band sang on it for free ’cause we were his backup band. We walked into the studio, and the ten dollars actually—we didn’t have to pay any engineer—was to keep the elevator man quiet to not let the boss know we were recording in his studio after hours. Luther Vandross taught us how to arrange vocals, and that was our very first recording session. In those days, we didn’t have any cassettes to take home, so the only way you could take the music home was to cut an acetate. We didn’t have any money, so we just played the song and listened to it in the control room over and over again until we had to leave.
I never heard the song again until about three weeks later. My boy who had paid the ten dollars had made two acetates of the record and had taken it to his club; he was a DJ. He called me up three weeks later and said, “Nile, you gotta come see this.” I said, “Come and see what?” He said, “I can’t explain, you just gotta come and see this.” So I come down to his club, it was called the Night Owl. In those days, Black people were just starting to get dressed up, look sophisticated, and work on Wall Street. In New York, we used to call it the “Buppie Movement,” the Black Urban Professional Movement. And we walked into a buppie club, the kind of place that Bernard and I could never get in—we didn’t have the money, the look, nothing. But we get to the door, and this is the beginning of the big bouncers and the red velvet rope and stuff. We walk up to the club and my man goes, “Yo, my man, you can’t come up in the club dressed like that.”
And I remembered my boy who told me to come down, he said, “When they stop you”—’cause he knew they were gonna stop me—“when they stop you, just tell ’em you wrote ‘Everybody Dance.’ ” The shit sounded like code to me. I thought I was in the CIA or something. So they stopped me at the door and I said, “I’m a friend of Robert Drake’s.” And his exact words were, “I don’t care if you are Robert Drake,” who was the DJ. And I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, also I did ‘Everybody Dance.’ ” Swear to God, the bouncer went, “ ‘Everybody Dance’?! My brother, come in, man!” He started hugging me, a scary big dude. I don’t know this guy from Adam, and he’s hugging on me, and I thought he was gonna start trying to tongue-kiss me and shit. He walks me inside past the girl collecting the money and there’s another bouncer inside, and he’s like, “Whoa, you can’t come inside dressed like that!” And the bouncer said, “No, tell him who you are.” I said, “Oh, my name is Nile.” “Yeah?” “I wrote, ‘Everybody Dance.’ ” [He says,] “ ‘Everybody Dance’? Come here, man, come here! Let me take you up and introduce you to Tom.”
So we go into this joint; the guy who owns the club is a guy named Tom. It was a Black club, but Tom is a White guy; he’s the owner. The part we didn’t get into was my own family life. My stepfather is Jewish, so you had an interracial couple in my family. He married my mom in 1959; you never saw couples rolling like that. Usually, you would see a Black man with a White woman, ’cause the Black man was a jazz musician or something like that. You would rarely see a White man married to a Black woman. So I go into this club and meet this dude Tom. Tom is like my stepfather; he’s got Jungle Fever—nothing but sistas. We walk in and the guy says, “Tom, this is Nile, he wrote ‘Everybody Dance.’ ” [Tom says,] “Ahh man, ‘Everybody Dance’!”
Tom is my boy now, he’s giving me drinks, and I’m saying, “Okay, this is a trick, when is it gonna backfire on me?” My boy who recorded the record sees me come in with the owner, we’re walking across the dance floor, the club is filled with smoke, he could barely see me. I fight my way through the smoke, and my boy sees me and just starts laughing right away. I get to the DJ booth, and he goes, “Nile, watch this.” Puts on the record, right away drum fill, [starts humming melody and lyrics to “Everybody Dance”] swear to God the entire club screamed and jumped up. The whole club is packed on the dance floor. They’re out there, practicing, playing air guitar and air bass, jamming it and singing it. I’m like, “I just wrote this shit three weeks ago.”
Continue to Page 2 for the extended interview.
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