At nearly 70 years of age, Nile Rodgers is perhaps one of music’s most unlikely comeback kids. He’s played, produced, and been involved in some of popular music’s most popular and most endearing records through a career that spans soul, funk, disco, pop, and house.
Now Rodgers has flown back into public consciousness in 2013, fronting a dance-pop hybrid that has soundtracked everything from fashion shows to basement sweat dives to mums and dads daytime radio.
In advance of a headlining Australian tour and the release of his latest (but surely not final) greatest hits collection, Rodgers opened up on the birth of disco, his undisputed legacy, and what’s really going on with the so-called EDM scene in America.
Born into a bohemian home in New York in the 50s, like many great musicians, Rodgers was exposed to music at an early age; “my great interest was jazz,” he says.
“I grew up listening to the greats, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie. Those jazz guys had phrasing like you wouldn’t imagine. When I got a little older I could understand guys like Jimi Hendrix as it was just the groove, but not the obvious groove, and that’s what stuck with me.”
A prodigious talent from an early age, Rodgers pickled up the guitar and made his way to the East Village to play in what where known as pick-up bands. Here he met Bernard Edwards, the other half of what was soon to become the world-conquering Chic organization.
“Me an ‘Nard jus clicked, “ says Rodgers. “It was ‘Nard that taught me how to play the chicken scratch and it was ‘Nard that introduced me to the funkier side of what we called RnB.”
Heavily influenced by Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, and the faster side of music being played in clubs like Manhattan’s, Rodgers and Edwards set up The Chic Organisation to cater to the likes of (infamous disco club) Studio 54. “For me I never want to go down just one road. I like all music and so house and techno were just parts of that palette. I’m a performer.”
“54 was something else, we used to go there every night of the week and just hang out. Everybody could be a star and many of the regulars were,” he recalls.
“We started Chic because we wanted that level of French sophistication to go with the music we were playing. Chic was Uptown, you know? From the start we wanted to stand tall and let everyone know we owned the place.”
Disco was, of course, to come crashing down with the arrival of the now famous ‘Disco Sucks’ movement in 1979. But what did that mean to Chic? Who by then were topping charts worldwide with genre anthems such as ‘Le Freak’ and ‘Good Times’, that would go on to define the era?
“Disco was a lot of things, but mostly it was about the previously stepped-on parts of society getting out there and enjoying themselves,” reminisces Rodgers. “And of course when that happens it’s going to really annoy a lot of people. I can see it happening now, right there in Australia in fact,” says the legendary musician.
“It’s easy to blame the migrants and the coloured people for the bad stuff happening in society. But in fact it’s not the migrants taking the jobs away from anyone else, in most cases these are things that nobody else wants to do.”
Having written and played on many of disco’s finest musical memories, and inadvertently helped to spawn hip-hop with the ‘Good Times’-sampling ‘Rappers Delight’ from formative rap group, The Sugarhill Gang; “First time I heard it I was like, ‘I never knew Larry (Levan famous NY DJ at The Paradise Garage) could rhyme? Wait a minute here’.” Rodgers found himself, and Chic, no longer in vogue.
However a chance meeting with David Bowie in a nightclub, (“He was just sitting there on his own, so I walked over and said let’s party – it got pretty wild!”) led to Rodgers becoming one of the most successful producers of the 80s with not only Bowie’s Let’s Dance, but work with Madonna, Duran Duran, and even INXS.
“Everybody else was like, ‘Wow!’ but not me,” says Rodgers. “I’d had some of my biggest hits with Sister Sledge and Diana Ross already, I knew about getting the best out of other artists.”
Fast forward to 2013 and music’s king of collaborations has another worldwide smash on his hands with French house duo Daft Punk and the all-conquering Random Access Memories. But how did the hook-up come about?
“Everything I have ever done has just come about by meeting people,” says Rodgers. “I’ve never even had a manager throughout my entire career. Daft Punk and I just got chatting, and I thought ‘yeah these guys are cool and they really get it’. Although those robot helmets – man I’ll stick to my white suits because they get real sweaty in there; if you know what I mean?”
When asked if he was aware of the massive influence disco had on the house scene since the late 80s, and his part in shaping sound, he replies: “Of course I was aware, but for me I never want to go down just one road. I like all music and so house and techno were just parts of that palette. I’m a performer.” “No matter what I’ve done or who it’s with, I just make hits.”
So what does the stadium filling superstar think of today’s much-hyped DJ culture? “Listen people always want to dance, I get that and it’s great.”
“If anyone wants to play with me, I’ll give them a try, good luck to these guys because maybe finally the US gets it. We got called all sorts of names back in the day for dancing to rhythms in night clubs and maybe it has come full-circle?” he ponders.
Which brings us nicely to the latest greatest hits collection and Chic’s upcoming Australian tour. Up All Night, the newest in a long line of compilations of Rodgers’ career may hopefully open up him and Bernard Edwards’ sound to a new generation of fans.
“I’m proud of what we did and all I ever set out to do was create a hit; no matter what I’ve done or who it’s with, I just make hits,” he declares. “People seem to like what I do and I’m forever grateful for that.”
As for him and his band’s upcoming appearance at Meredith Music Festival and accompanying headline shows – “I was over in Australia last year,” he says of his much-lauded Golden Plains slot of 2012. “You know what?” he chuckles when asked if he enjoyed his set, “I said to everyone when I got home, you just be very, very careful when you go to Australia, because believe me – you are not going to want to leave.”
“I’m playing at The Sydney Opera House,” he says of his forthcoming December visit. “I’ve done some pretty crazy things in my time but I can’t wait.”
With an influence that touches almost every branch of modern music, Rodgers is surprisingly care-free about the future. “I’ve produced hits, I travelled the world, I’ve beaten cancer, whatever’s next bring it on. Who knows? But one thing I do know is it’s going to be a blast.”
Nile Rodgers Presents The Chic Organization – Up All Night: Greatest Hits is out now through Warner Music Australia.
Nile Rodgers and Chic Australian Tour 2013
Thursday 5th December – Barrington Tops
Friday 6th December – Riverwood Downs Subsonic Music Festival, Monkerai
Friday 6th December – Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Sunday 8th December – Melbourne
Thursday 12th December – Brisbane
Friday 13th December – Perth
Details at www.nilerodgers.com/events-list
Also appearing at:
Meredith Music Festival 2013 Dates & Tickets
Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre
head to http://2013.mmf.com.au for more info and to subscribe for the ticket ballot