He’s one of pop’s most prolific hitmakers, but Nile Rodgers can count on two fingers the number of times he knew that he had a smash on his hands.
“On only a couple did I ever believe in my heart that it absolutely was going to work and the record company wasn’t going to screw it up, no matter what it did,” the multiple Grammy winner confides to Music Week.
The first was Chic’s Le Freak (“And man did I know that one!”), the 1978 Studio 54-inspired disco standard that went on to become the best-selling single in the history of Warner Music. The second involved US siblings Sister Sledge’s 1979 single He’s The Greatest Dancer (later sampled on Will Smith’s 1997 No.1 Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It), when Rodgers convinced the label – Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion Records – to play the long game and release the track before the sure-fire classic We Are Family.
“The tricky one was playing We Are Family for the record company and saying, ‘That song is so good that no one will ever hear any other Sister Sledge song again. That’s all they are ever going to be – one hit wonders,’” recalls Rodgers. “They said, ‘But it’s so good, you’ve got to put it out!’ I insisted, ‘No, He’s The Greatest Dancer is a great song,’ and that song is how we broke Sister Sledge. It was a platinum single in America, so we were right.”
He continues: “If you went to a club with 200 people and played a song none of them had ever heard before and those 200 people went ‘whoosh’ on the dance floor, you thought, ‘Boom, we’ve got it’ because that was the only barometer we had. You didn’t put out a record and then, all of a sudden, a million people could hear it on the same day, it was all about emotion and vibe.”
Rodgers’ career has been one for the ages. A composer, producer, arranger and guitarist, his fingerprints can be found across more than 500 million album sales and 75m singles through his work with greats such as David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Madonna (Like A Virgin), Diana Ross (I’m Coming Out), Duran Duran (Notorious), Daft Punk (Get Lucky) and Chic, the band he co-founded with songwriting partner Bernard Edwards, who died in 1996.
Rodgers’ pulling power remains imperious: The disco legend has hooked up with stars such as Elton John, Lady Gaga and Haim on It’s About Time, the first Chic album in 26 years. Lead single Till The World Falls features Mura Masa, Coasha and Vic Mensa.
“Chic were so enormously successful,” reflects Hipgnosis Music’s Merck Mercuriadis, Rodgers’ manager, whose past clients include Guns N’Roses and Elton John. “Their commercial success was so enormous that people sometimes forget how next level the music was. But if you talk to artists, artists know. They’re here because they know Nile has his finger on the pulse.”
“Every artist I work with knows I have their best interests at heart,” adds Rodgers. “The first thing I do is I become a fan of the person. I did a record with Emeli Sandé and when we met I said, ‘Let me go back and listen to everything you’ve done, because I don’t want to make your last record – I always want to make your next record.’
“I always believe that your life is on an arc, and if that’s where you are on the arc now, I want to take you [gestures upwards] there. That’s tricky to try to do for yourself. That’s why these collaborations are great, because I give them a bit of my philosophy and the collaborations become fantastic.”
Out on September 14, It’s About Time is his first record on Virgin EMI.
“We are in quite unchartered waters, and that’s the excitement of it,” notes label boss Ted Cockle. “He’s non-comparable as a character. I work with a lot of great artists who end up making nostalgic records, but there’s absolutely no time for nostalgia on this record. The main issue we have is trying to close it down – each and every day this fucker is working on some other song!”
A 2016 inductee into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, Rodgers was elected chairman of the organisation earlier this summer and speaks proudly of the sector’s diversity.
“That segment of the business is almost equally represented by men and women, it doesn’t make any difference what nationality you are or anything like that,” he suggests. “It’s the one segment of the music business that feels like my life.”
At 65 years of age Rodgers, who entered the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame last year, is as famous as at any point in his career, his profile bolstered by co-writing the megahit Get Lucky (1,928,634 UK sales –OCC) with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams, and further swelled by collaborations with modern acts including Disclosure, Sam Smith and the late Avicii. With Chic, he has also enjoyed a rebirth on the live circuit, playing to full houses in the UK and beyond.
Earlier this year, New York-born Rodgers was appointed as the first chief creative advisor of the fabled Abbey Road Studios, where he greets Music Week alongside Cockle and Mercuriadis on another sweltering afternoon in St John’s Wood.
“Every day when I go to work it feels like magic,” says Rodgers with that trademark broad grin. “It’s all one big musical community that I cannot believe I am a part of on such a high level. This is the only studio in the world – and I’ve recorded at a lot of studios all over the world – where you can just get in a cab and go, ‘Abbey Road Studios?’ And the guy goes, ‘OK!’ And I only record in pretty famous places.”
“At some points in your life you would have struggled to say the studio you were recording at out loud,” quips Cockle, to raucous laughter from the once hard-partying star.
There’s plenty more where that came from when the trio settle down to talk business in the cutting edge confines of Abbey Road’s new Mix Stage room. Let the good times roll…
Let’s talk about the new record, It’s About Time. It was originally planned to come out in 2015...
Nile Rodgers: “It evolved. I had this whole concept of how I was going to use bits and pieces of records I had worked on in the past, because with today’s technology I can string things together seamlessly, you can’t even hear an edit, it’s so beautiful. So it would basically be a collage of artists and people that I love, in various moments, actually performing songs with me. Then people started passing away – Bowie, then Prince, which was an incredible shock. The last thing I wanted people to feel was that I’d be capitalising on their death, so I thought, ‘I have to do a new thing.’”
Merck Mercuriadis: “The album is, in many ways, a summation of Nile’s working process. Nile wakes up and he’s making music. The other day, he was with a friend of ours. The friend was asking him about a medical condition and Nile suddenly just went, ‘Can we just interrupt this for a minute, I have to finish writing this song,’ because his brain is constantly creating. The whole concept behind the record is to just do what you’re best at. Instead of just making songs with a group of people, we have Mura Masa, Nao, Kasha, Anderson Paak, Elton John, Debbie Harry, Haim and Lady Gaga, all rolling through...”
NR: “The band has got bigger! Chic just got bigger for a day or two!”
MM: “It’s taking what Nile has done for everyone else and doing it for himself.”
So what made 2018 the right time?
NR: “Over the last 25 years or so I have been collaborating with people, ever since my partner Bernard Edwards died. I had been doing that even before he passed away, because I work with other people all the time, I do ensemble music. So I was working with lots of people, writing and writing and writing, and all of a sudden I realised how good I feel when I’m writing with those people. I suddenly realised that’s what my music is all about – trying to make people feel good.”
MM: “Whenever you have an artist that’s had that kind of success, it’s sometimes better to not make new music. But I was very keen for the world to re-evaluate Nile. One of the things that convinced me that this was the right moment for that was that, when I came into this business, 90% of the artists we signed wrote their own songs and had a very good idea of who they were and who they might become – they were self-contained. Today, 90% of the artists being signed are not self-contained; the one album on the American charts last year that was written solely by the artist was by Bob Dylan. In many ways, the industry has caught up with what Nile has always done. He doesn’t go in there with the ego of an artist, he goes in there with the perspective of, ‘I’m here to serve the artist, how can I make this better?’ To take it full circle, with It’s About Time, his attitude is, ‘How can I bring all these other people into the mix to make my record better at the same time?’ You can’t afford to be apathetic because you don’t want to let yourself down in front of those people. Every single day you have to be the best, and that’s really exciting.”
What’s the target audience?
Ted Cockle: “The album is constantly evolving, which makes it harder to figure out the demographic. That’s a marvellous challenge. We’re trying to identify a target market of somewhere between Debbie Harry, David Bowie, Mura Masa, Nao and Hailee Steinfeld, so we are trying to open it up. The really direct answer is that with a 65-year-old cat, traditionally, we’d have no expectations of reaching the younger radio format. They’re the rules. We’re trying to pay as little attention to that rulebook as we possibly can.”
MM: “I think he’s the only 65-year old man to get played on BBC Radio 1 recently…”
How did the featured artists come together?
NR: “Most of the people that I’ve worked with are people that I just meet, hang out with and then say ‘You feel like making a record together?’ Almost every record in my life has been like that with the exception of just a small handful. When I met David Bowie, I didn’t think it would turn into a record, but we liked each other and it turned into the most powerful record of his life, with the most powerful seismic shifts that could ever have happened in my career. It was completely accidental. I call it hippy happenstance – just hippies running into people.”
MM: “But you are unusual, in that so many people do withdraw from life as their success takes over. And you’ve clearly not done that. The recluse thing is not for you, you’re a gregarious, street guy aren’t you?”
NR: “Well, the thing is, I just love doing this. My history was written a long time ago, and I could have stopped by now. I do this because I love it, I carry my guitar on my shoulder because I love it.”
TC: “I can safely say there would not be a single managerial or agent call in the connection of artists. They are all organic contacts made between the artists. A lot of musicians I’ve worked with have a bit of a, ‘It’s not as good as it used to be’ mentality, but with Nile there isn’t the same jadedness and cynicism. There are lots of amazing people who can’t always capture the energy and excitement that Nile has – I don’t know where he gets it from.”
NR: “The Chic Organisation just got a hell of a lot bigger! I’m just as comfortable conducting a symphony orchestra and writing for 150 people as I am for 15, but I don’t want to write for one. Somebody asked me, ‘How come you don’t just call it Nile Rodgers, why do you call it Chic?’ And I said, ‘Because Chic is a really great band! And if I’m in a band, that’s the band I want to be in.’ Why would I not want to be in Chic? When they put me in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, I said, ‘My whole life, all anyone has ever let me do is join their band.’ That’s all Madonna did, she just let me join her band; that’s all Robert Plant did, he just let me join The Honeydrippers; Mick Jagger let me join the Stones for a day; Bowie let me join his band for as long as it took us to make [Let’s Dance].”
How has the role of the producer evolved?
NR: “From my perspective, I don’t think my role has changed. The only thing that’s changed is the gear and trying to stay up on all of it. I love it when somebody as young as Mura Masa comes in and he can’t believe that we know more than he does, that always gives me a kick!”
TC: “You don’t have to make as much tea, I assume, as a producer now?”
NR: “No, actually I never really had to make tea because my first record was a hit!”
What do you hope to achieve as chairman of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame?
NR: “Songwriters are the bedrock of the entire music business. Prior to The Beatles, it was all about songwriters because the big artists had to go to them for the songs. After The Beatles, the bands and artists that were being signed were all composers, you had to be self-contained. That was the downfall of The Monkees, when people found out that they didn’t write their own songs. What’s happened is that our music business has changed back to the old Tin Pan Alley formula, where songwriters are the bedrock of the community. The stars are so popular, they’re on social media, they’re at every single event, so how can they write all of their own songs? It’s mathematically impossible. Songwriters have always been underpaid for what they do, because they’re delivering the thing that keeps the business afloat. I want to be able to go in and renegotiate the deals and the way that they value songs. Songs, to me, are commodities. Every single composition has its own profit and loss statement and almost every one of those songs, based on the deal that you originally do, is a profitable entity if you handle it right. I want to make sure that those artists are protected.”
How important was Get Lucky to introducing you to a younger audience?
NR: “Every record that’s a hit introduces me to a new audience, but Get Lucky was particularly big. The day I did Get Lucky I actually did three songs with Daft Punk – Lose Yourself To Dance and Give Life Back To Music. I felt just as happy about Lose Yourself To Dance; in fact, I felt better about it and I think Daft Punk did, too. We thought that one was going to be the big one. Get Lucky was a big surprise to us – and that’s the great thing about this job: We just do the best we can and it’s the public that lets us know if this thing is resonating with them.”
TC: “You introduce these songs to the public and the public decides your biggest hit. That’s the biggest, craziest dynamic that goes on. Get Lucky, considering some songs have such a protracted birth, was much more of an instant hit.”
NR: “It shocked the hell out of us! It was so fast that it threw us off guard.”
What are your projections for the new album?
TC: “We’re out there to cause as much damage as we possibly can.”
NR: “I believe I’m making this record for every single person in the world and I believe that most artists do the same thing – we want to be heard. I don’t need to record, I’ve chosen to record and make a record because I want it to be as big as it can possibly be. I’d love it to be No.1.”
MM: “Here’s a note to leave you on. All three of us are people who if you asked, ‘What would you rather be involved with – music that you’re proud of, or music that’s commercially successful’ – would say, ‘Music that we’re proud of’. Nile is one of the few that actually makes commercial music that we can be proud of.”
NR: “I’ve written so many songs with so many cool people, and in the old days I would have said, ‘They’re fucking disgustingly pop.’ That’s always been a bit of a bad word to me, but I ultimately love writing disgustingly poppy records. What I’ve wound up with now is a record that I absolutely am enamoured with, and what I love about it is the disgusting pop accessibility. It’s just so damn catchy, every song.”