Nile Rodgers: 'Chic is a living, breathing thing'

Nile Rodgers: 'Chic is a living, breathing thing'

Disco may have suffered a backlash in the late ‘70s, but Nile Rodgers, co-founder of one of the genre’s most celebrated groups, Chic, has managed to maintain his cultural relevance in every decade since. Rodgers has worked with some of the biggest names in music, from Madonna and David Bowie, to Avicii and Daft Punk, selling over 200 million units across collaborative works throughout his 40 year career. And he is still very much in demand. Chic feat Nile Rodgers joined Grace Jones and Kylie Minogue on the bill for British Summer Time Hyde Park on Sunday June 21 and he also has recently produced Duran Duran’s new album Paper Gods with Mark Ronson.

In February, he signed a global deal with Warner Bros. Records, with Chic’s first new album since 1991’s CHIC-ism expected in August. The first single, I’ll Be There, was released on March 20, to coincide with a total solar eclipse, or “Chic-lipse”. The track has since climbed to No.1 on the Billboard Dance Chart. 1992 was the last time Chic scored a No.1 Dance single, with Chic Mystique.

I’ll be there is a tribute to Rodgers’ musical partner, the band’s late co-founder and bassist Bernard Edwards. It’s a re-working of an outtake from 1979, which Rodgers discovered when he received a box of old tapes with recordings from the ‘70s and ‘80s. 

“The tapes showed up about four years ago,” explains Rodgers. “I was like, Woah, there’s an outtake! So I listened [to it] and we were talking about all of this stuff that was going on in 1979 - like the ‘disco sucks’ thing. We were laughing and having a blast. It just felt like fun to me and I went down and recorded [the percussion] with The Martinez Brothers.”

Rodgers was diagnosed with cancer a few months after he received the tapes and explains that he decided to work on as much music as possible to aid his recovery. “I thought, I’ll have so much work to do that I can’t think about dying or feeling sorry for myself or any of that shit. I’d just show up and go to work. 

“So I started booking more shows than you’ve ever seen in your life and I started writing more songs than you can ever imagine. I did so many that people couldn’t even keep track of them to put them out.”

The subsequent writing sessions saw Rodgers work with some of the biggest acts in electronic dance music, including Disclosure, Avicii and Chase & Status.

“I was on a roll,” he says. “I wrote at least 10 or 12 songs with Avicii and they’re all really good. I also did, like, 12 things with Carl Cox. 

“But at a certain point I decided to get back to the Chic stuff, when I was declared cancer free after my sixth or seventh examination.”

Rodgers tells Music Week that two of the first people to approach him were Daft Punk. “That’s when I did Lose Yourself To Dance, Get Lucky and Give Life Back To Music,” he says. “I did those all in one day. I never went to the studio twice.” Rodgers recorded the three tracks off Random Access Memories with Daft Punk at Electric Lady Studios in New York, the place where Chic recorded their first hit single Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah). 

“[Daft Punk] were like, Dude, how do you make Chic records?,” says Rodgers. “I was like, Well, this is what we do. So they played me what would eventually become Get Lucky. It worked out so well the guys said, Damn, do that to this, too!”

Get Lucky was one of the biggest singles of 2013, marking an incredibly successful comeback for the French electronic duo as well as a pretty big year in dance music for Rodgers. “That was one of the more successful collaborations of that whole writing process,” he says.

Here, Rodgers recounts his recent collobarations with some of the world’s top electronic dance producers and tells Music Week about his insipration behind the new Chic album.


Tell us more about that box of unfinished material and how you were reuinited with it...

I wasn’t aggressively looking for what I would call the lost Chic tapes, because I was busy working, just doing a bunch of video games and stuff. I hadn’t thought about it and then I got a photograph from someone at the Warner tape library and he said, I was digitising the whole tape catalogue and now we’re in Chic, and I don’t think this belongs to us. 

When you opened the tape box, you could see all different names of artists, so I said, Look do you mind taking pictures of everything? He said, No problem, we don’t want to keep what doesn’t belong to us. So he took pictures of all the stuff and I said, Holy Shit, that’s where all that stuff went. It was my film scores and my solo records. Then just a bunch of ideas - licks that I played when we had the tape rolling. 

So when they sent it all back to me I said, Why don’t you just send me everything? Even though, technically, it belongs to Warner. If it was an outtake then technically it’s theirs, because it was Atlantic and it was recorded on their dime. 

So contractually, it would be theirs if you got into a shooting match. But the realistic truth was that, because we were always working and recording every day, we only turned in purchase orders for what we did. 

That’s why there are no outtakes of anything, because usually whatever we did is what we sent through. There’s no hidden version of Let’s Dance, because we go over it and there’s only one copy of it. So there are not very many outtakes and there are not very many things that are duplicated.


Why was I’ll Be There released on the day of the total solar eclipse?

I decided that there had to be a real sort of spiritual and artistic reason to do this, to not just try and get a hit record, but to frame it around a concept. So I framed the concept around time, because cancer really made me realise that we all have limited time on this earth. We all know it but we don’t acknowledge it most of the time. I thought, Wow, out of all the records that I have put out, and there have been a lot of them, I don’t know what day [they have] ever gone out. So I said to myself, I want to remember the day I put this record out. 

I knew the solar eclipse was going to happen so I said, What is more important than remembering to me? All I have now is the memories. 

When you’re a composer, you know you are going to have a fairly anonymous life, which is cool, that’s how I wanted it to be. But music has changed my life. For something that’s so important, I can’t even think of a release date for one single song in my whole life? That almost makes it seem blasphemous or trivial. You would think that I would remember the first day of the first Chic single, I mean, why wouldn’t I remember that? If you’re a golfer, and you hit a hole in one, you will remember that day.


Is that because you’ve released so much music?

No, it’s because I never thought about it before. And I never had a context for remembering. I never even thought that it was important. All I was thinking at the time was strategising. How do you get the most out of this or the most out of that? So you release records on Tuesday and this is coming out then - that kind of stuff. I thought, I don’t make any sense anyway. It doesn’t make any sense to hire me or to sign me to a record deal. That doesn’t make sense in today’s world. 


Why do you say that it doesn’t make any sense to hire you or to sign you to a record deal?

Because, demographically, I don’t fit what the sales pattern is, if you look at music and fashion and things like that. I look at those things as sort of trends. When we’re wearing suits and our lapels are thin, there’s a trend for thin ties, or skinny ties or whatever. You know what I’m saying? So it goes like that. It goes in cycles, so whatever cycle we are in now, a live dance band does not fit that cycle. Because all dance music now is electronic. Daft Punk broke that mould a little bit, but there were a lot of Daft Punk fans that were offended and would rather have the old Daft Punk back, which I understand, because you build your thing and that’s your thing. But Chic, on some level, really makes no sense, which is cool to me and it also gives me a real artistic reason for wanting to remember because I don’t know what the future is going to hold. I never try and predict the future, but I know it sure made me feel good learning the new songs. And I can’t imagine why somebody wouldn’t like that because it feels so great. But, if you don’t grow up looking at music through that lens, especially dance music, and you’re not accustomed to that, then I don’t know if it can sound better to you. It may not work, but it was killer playing it live, it just sounds so amazing. 


Who is the target audience for the new Chic album?

Well, all Chic records have always been for everybody. My concept is that, I try to make records for people as young as six and as old as 66. That’s what I’ve always believed in. I love it when I see kids singing, We Are Family and they say, My teacher wrote that song, because that’s the person who sang it to them.

And some of those things are still in the atmosphere that sound really cool to people. I’ve met many DJs who have said that when things are going bad, they just throw on a Chic record. If the crowd is not with me and I’m playing my deepest house and it just doesn’t feel like I’ve got the whole room; boom, just play, I Want Your Love, or Good Times, and all of sudden they are all together. And that is a huge compliment to me, even for their crowds who are totally into electronic music. If they can play a Chic record it brings people together. That makes me feel seriously proud. I don’t know how much it’s them just sort of blowing smoke up my butt or whatever. I believe it’s sincere because I don’t have any reason to hear that. So I’m just doing music that I feel in my heart. I like it and I hope that other people like it, which is what we’ve always done. Maybe in the beginning we were a little more desperate. But now that I don’t have to make a living writing new songs, now I can really just write what I do and what I feel is cool. And that’s just from my point of view. And that’s the thing, man. I understand more than anyone that it’s just from my point of view. I could play this for Mark Ronson and he could say, This shit is totally wack and it’s fine, because it’s written from my point of view. Chic is a real, living and breathing thing with a philosophy. 


Who has worked with you on this record?

No one really worked with me, well, no other producers so to speak, in a sort of eco capacity, because I really wanted to keep it Chic. However, I have worked with The Martinez Brothers on this first cut because all Chic records have percussion and, because this was an outtake, we didn’t get a chance to record the percussion. I sent it to The Martinez Brothers, and I had already played with them once before. It was killer. These are guys that like to play live and play dance music and usually do deep hardcore shit. 

It was a natural marriage between The Martinez Brothers and me, so that was cool. But I just hired them as sidemen to play percussion. They thought it was the coolest thing in the world. They were thrilled. I said, Hey guys, you’ve got to join the musicians union for this, and they were like, Fuck, really? This is so cool! I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying, You could quit afterwards if you want and they were like, No man, we get to be in the manual and everything. That was sweet. I didn’t think they would actually [do it]. They loved being session musicians, and loved being hired for a Chic record and to play percussion on it.

And then I’ve written a couple of songs with other artists I’ve been working with lately. I’ve done a thing with Nicky Romero, which is amazing. I can’t wait to turn that in to the record company, it is so killer. It’s crazy. And it’s just something I did by accident. I was doing a little thing for David Guetta and I was doing this little guitar lick and the engineer wasn’t in the room yet so Nicky was sitting on the couch and I had never met him before. I was like, Man, can you just turn on your iPhone or something so we can capture this so I don’t forget it? He said, Well you can plug into my laptop. So I did and when the engineer came in I had been practicing it so I was ready to jam it and Nicky already put a beat to it. And Guetta walked in and said, This is amazing. This is like avant garde. I was like, No man, that’s pop music to me. So I worked with Nicky and the Nervo twins and that shit is killer. It’s really good. And then that’s it really; the rest of it is just Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards and Chic material.


I read that everyone who was on the very first Chic record is also on this record, is that correct?

Yeah, almost the entire band and every singer, every person who was singing on the first Chic record is singing on this record - Luther Vandross and the whole crew as well as my singers now. So even though they’re just little cameo appearances, still, they’re on the record. That was important to me, because symbolically, I’ll Be There is the beginning of Chic, and Back In The Old School, is symbolically the end of the first iteration of Chic. That was the last song I cut, three days before I cut Let’s Dance with Bowie. Back in The Old School is from 1982 and I’ll Be There is from 1979.


In your autobiography you discuss DHM or Deep Hidden Meaning. What’s the philosphy behind that?

Well basically when Bernard and I met, I had a very political past and a very political background. And his background was incredibly straight. So when Bernard and I met he was already married with a kid on the way. We were only teenagers, like 18, 19. So he looked like a grown up to me. And I looked like a wild hippy teenager. But we just clicked. There was something magical about the way I played guitar next to his bass. As a matter of fact, one of his last interviews was one of the greatest things for me. It’s emotional, so I’ll try get through it without crying, but in his last interview, they were asking him why we put Chic back together and he said, Well, the truth is that the most fun I ever have on earth is playing with Nile. He was like, I love playing with other people, but the most fun is playing with Nile. I’m his bass player, and he’s my guitar player. That was the greatest compliment I ever heard in my life. Every time I say it I almost want to cry. This is the first time I’ve actually been able to hold back. But that’s it, Chic has always had this magical simple philosophy, I’m his guitar player. He’s my bass player. And everyone else backs us up, if you will. It’s just something that works and it’s always worked that way.

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