“Less Is More In My World”: Nile Rodgers Speaks

Nile Rodgers talks to Helen Donlon about Madonna's dazzling work rate, the still-present racism of the music industry and Keith Richards playing barman in his local

“Miles Davis said it’s not the shit you play, it’s the shit you don’t play that counts… To me the more information you hear, the less funky it is. Less is more in my world.” – Nile Rodgers

According to popular legend, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson entered a Faustian pact with the devil in return for a perfectly tuned guitar and the wherewithal to tickle it. While Nile Rodgers’ sweeping musical flair may have innately come from his biological father (Nile Rodgers Sr. – a former beatnik bongo player), he was also blessed with an elaborate and extended family of intellectuals fluent in every hip cultural angle, including the jazz guitar. After mastering the clarinet for the school orchestra, along with a knowledge of how to read music, he picked up a guitar to audition for the band of a girl he was smitten with (figuring he “had this shit covered”) only to fail the audition miserably with a red light from his vexed inamorata. After spending many long and frustrating days desperately trying to get the right sound right while playing The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’, his mum’s boyfriend told him it was simply out of tune, retuned it for him and young Nile found to his immeasurable happiness that he could now play the song perfectly.

Nile Rodgers was raised in jazz doper Greenwich Village digs by his mother Beverly (who had him at 14) and Bobby, his white Jewish stepfather. He called them by their first names. They called him ‘Pud’. Family friends like Lenny Bruce, Thelonius Monk (who came by on one occasion to buy Beverly’s fur coat) and a host of other demi-monde characters would drop by at all hours. He was born with serious asthma and was often ill as a young child. During an extended stay in a boys convalescent home at the age of five, he witnessed sexual abuse (by a predatory caretaker) of some of the other boys in his room, which turned him into a lifelong insomniac with a heightened fear of the dark. He also spent part of his childhood living with his gran in LA, where he managed to both set the local catholic school record for truancy (racking up a princely 75 days solid, after paying a couple of local winos to write bogus exemption notes) and to finesse his cultural education by spending entire days in pre-ratings era grindhouse theatres downtown, soaking up everything from Antonioni to Howard Hawks. Like Marilyn Monroe, he did a stint as a child worker at Van Nuys Airport. Dressed in sharkskin suits in honour of The Temptations he and a friend casually wound up at Timothy Leary’s house for their first acid trip. He came back from LA a hippie.

His memoir, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco And Destiny is especially poignant and unreserved when talking about his childhood years, and the extreme hardships Beverly went through.

He says: "When I did my first book signing, people who had read the book said, ‘Wow, you know you really exposed your family! Does your mum feel uncomfortable about you talking about her being a heroin addict, and her abortions and stuff like that?’ and I’m like, ‘Huh? No, I interviewed her. Hold on a second, let me get her on the phone for you…’

"My mum is great. I’ve come to really respect her, because I never thought about it from her point of view until I did the book. I would just think about it from my point of view, as in ‘I’m the kid! I need the love, whats up mom?’ I never thought about, well, what if I were 14? And what if I were raising a kid? And I’m 60 now, and relatively well off but I still don’t think I have the skills to be a parent. I have known that my whole life, which is why I don’t have kids."

Nile’s first professional paid job was on the second season of Sesame Street, stepping in to replace Carlos Alomar, which he did once again when he moved on to the Harlem Apollo, from where Alomar and Luther Vandross had just left to work with Bowie on Young Americans. His first night at the Apollo was a baptism of fire, as the band and stagehands (who were all in on the caper) wheeled on a coffin out of which Screamin’ Jay Hawkins spontaneously hatched, much to the terror of young Nile who leapt around the stage in an effort to escape, as the Apollo audience thrilled to the whole spectacle.

He soon met Bernard Edwards, who he always referred to during the entire course of their relationship as “my partner” (Bernard Edwards died in his sleep in Japan, after a Chic gig at the Budokan in April, 1996), and the pair gigged with Last Poet Gylan Kain on the chitlin’ circuit of black American nightspots, before forming the Big Apple Band. Nile and Bernard were polar opposites: Nile was a hippie with green dreads and embroidered jeans, ‘Nard was old school R & B. Bernard gave Nile some basic R & B guitar instruction (and encouraged him to create the funk defining chord-muting ‘chucking’ technique which became so distinctive to his style). The jazz guitar was sold and replaced with a Stratocaster and, after cloistering himself away and honing his picking technique in the bathroom for a week, Nile emerged a funk master with a whole new sound. The picking style he perfected was based on the George van Eps technique, playing three string inversions. The effect of Nile’s guitar on the funk sound he was creating was a unique moment for R & B at that moment. Very little sounded anything like it then…and nothing has topped it since.

He explains: "Well, unfortunately these days we don’t have a preponderance of great R & B guitar players that are well known to the public, which is sad, because R & B music now is all made with samples, and the guitar players? You don’t really need them. Like I say it’s because R & B music has changed so much that you don’t see them as much, so most of the guitarists that stand out today are still rock guitarists. I mean, you know, some rock guitarists are still extraordinary to me. Even a lot of my old friends like Slash and those guys are still going great…and I saw Jeff Beck at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival a few weeks ago and I’d say he was even better than he’s ever been. It’s like ‘come on! Jeff Beck has always been ridiculous and now he’s better? I mean how can that be?’ Eric is still amazing too. Like I say though, in R & B it’s now the samples era, but maybe that will change…"

When Walter Murphy and a different Big Apple Band hit the charts with ‘A Fifth Of Beethoven’, Nile and Bernard needed a snappy rebrand. After seeing Roxy Music at the Roxy Theatre during a London trip Nile was turned on to the whole Roxy Music scene. Blown away their image and the way they used it on album covers he and Bernard conceived Chic (with a little Kiss influence thrown it). Fusing four-to-the-floor with his jazz funk guitar Nile wrote ‘Everybody Dance’, the lyrics inspired by the new black/white/gay/latino/pansexual crowds starting to emerge and merge on downtown Manhattan dancefloors. The song also featured what was to become a classic Chic breakdown, originally a jazz device that allowed a singer to rap freely or introduce the other musicians over the pared-back music, and which was also to lend itself perfectly to MC rap improv sessions.

The demo for ‘Everybody Dance’ became an underground sensation at the Night Owl club for ‘Buppie’ New Yorkers in Manhattan where the DJ played it back to back for an hour. It was the birth of what Nile calls breakdown sophisto-funk. Chic were already well aware of the authority of the DJ in breaking a new tune. Club dancefloors had started to predict hits. Not only were Chic songs masterfully composed, they were honest and at that moment reflected the new and desperately-needed glamour and optimism in the Manhattan club scene’s own Weimar era.

“All Chic songs are non-fiction. They tell the truth.” – Nile Rodgers

Chic used a revolving cast of the best players available, including drummer Tony Thompson with whom they worked frequently. The band signed to Atlantic in 1977, releasing the Bernard Edwards created ‘Dance Dance Dance’ (with Luther Vandross providing backing vocals) which got them on the radio. The use of another breakdown on this track meant they almost didn’t get signed, as Atlantic were conservatively nonplussed by its relevance. Chic hired Topettes singer Norma Jean Wright on vocals. They were given a mere 35,000 dollars to come up with an entire first (self-titled) album.

Despite the evident dancefloor popularity and radio play Chic’s worth was very undervalued. Racism was rife in the music industry and a white rock band could be commanding more than five times as much in advances and studio money, by virtue of their skin colour. Worse still is nothing’s really changed.

He says: "Absolutely… the thing about this, and this is an extraordinary fact, is that in the whole of the USA which has millions and millions of black people, to my knowledge (and I don’t like to quote stats, but I think I’m pretty close to accurate), there are probably only two black bands with proper record deals. One of them is The Roots and of course they have a TV show. They’re on TV every night! When I say that though, obviously there are probably black bands in maybe the jazz field, or, you know, at those kind of levels, but what I mean is within the major mainstream record industry there are probably only two. It’s extraordinary when you think of the rich American history of black music, loaded with one great black band after the next, after the next, after the next…

"See when the Beatles came along they changed the paradigm. Suddenly we had to be self contained and, I mean, black music flourished! Now all of a sudden you had to be the songwriter, the artist, the composer, the instrumentalist and the performer. In black culture that was perfect, because we’ve got lots of artists like that. And they haven’t gone away, but they just don’t have record deals anymore. It’s just extraordinary. But meanwhile, if there’s a new young rock band they somehow have the means of getting signed. If you have a new R & B band with musicians and instrumentalists? I really don’t know where they’re gonna get signed…"

In 1978, Chic’s third single was released (‘Everybody Dance’ had been the second). It was the only triple platinum in Atlantic’s history. It was called ‘Le Freak’, eventually… Famously, despite the fact that the groovers inside on the dancefloor of Studio 54 were all hot for Chic’s music, Nile and Bernard were once flatly denied entry to the club. Grace Jones (top of her game at that moment, and wanting to work with them) had invited them as her own special guests that night, but the notoriously ornery doormen weren’t playing onside. So a pissed off Chic went back to Nile’s and jammed a spontaneous song they called ‘Aaaaaah, Fuck Off!’, a musical retort to the club that had slammed the door in their faces. Suddenly realising that it was actually a great tune but too improbably titled for radio release, the lyrics were quickly retempered, and ‘Le Freak’ was born.

Following the huge success of the album, Chic were were asked to produce Atlantic labelmates The Rolling Stones but turned the offer down because they only wanted to produce any album their own way, and felt the Stones would almost certainly have a preconceived vision for it. Instead they agreed to start work on an album for Pennsylvania’s up and coming Sister Sledge. Producers and sisters met for the first time ever on the day of recording We Are Family.

Nile and Bernard never considered themselves stars, believing they didn’t have the charisma to be front people and preferring to see the music itself as the star. They were constantly on or ahead of the curve with the changes in dancefloor culture, and had now begun an illustrious career making other artists shine on top of their hi-fidelity work, by effectively becoming a major component of the artists’ work themselves, and applying themselves full time to the task.

Their next single, ‘Good Times’ ossified the Chic concept with its much-celebrated drum and bass breakdown. Written the night before they recorded it, it was released in the summer of 1979. However, hot on its heels was the strange Disco Demolition Night event at Comiskey Park in Chicago, during which a crate of “disco” records was blown up during a baseball game. The record industry leapt on the coat-tails of this insanity and in a flash it was ‘disco sucks!’ as a stealth of industry daisy cutters rushed to kill ‘disco music’ and bring good old white, male rock & roll back in place of the equal rights culture of the dancefloor that had mesmerised the mainstream. But according to Nile, ‘disco’ was the joint that the music was played in: “We didn’t call our music disco… we were an R & B band…”

Although both their second (C’est Chic) and third (Risqué) albums went platinum in the States, and the first album had reached gold sales status, Chic never had another hit record.

And then… exactly one year later, Queen’s ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ hit the number one spot with an astoundingly familiar bass line. While the two bands have always had an amiable relationship (John Deacon was in the studio hanging out when Chic recorded ‘Good Times’) it’s a great example of the power of industry marketing whimsy.

Diana Ross was the first major star Nile and Bernard produced, and together they created Diana, her eleventh studio album and still to date the bestselling album of her career. The concept for the album came to Nile after seeing a group of transvestites dressed as Dianas at Manhattan club GG Barnum’s, and he realised there and then that she had a way broader audience than her record company had been aware of.

The next star to call on them was Madonna. Nile was asked to produce her album Like A Virgin (while Bernard was brought in on bass and Tony Thompson on drums). As detailed in his memoir, their working relationship was terrific and they became great friends. By now a consummate professional with a solid work ethic himself, Nile was dazzled by Madonna’s crackerjack (“time is money, and the money is mine!”) working rituals.

The coolest thing with Madonna was that it was the perfect time in her life to meet me, and it was the perfect time for me to meet her. Whenever I meet artists I’m working with or that I’m going to work with there has to be something about them that I feel I’m gonna learn something from, or else it’s a very one-sided relationship and doesn’t make any sense. And I’m fortunate that with every single record I’ve made with people I have always learned something, and they’ve all been terrific people.

And Madonna taught me so much! She gave me more determination, more drive and ambition than I had, and I already thought I was pretty good! But I have never seen anyone work like Madonna. She is more driven I think than any person I have ever worked with, and I thought I was bad. I mean I’m horrible! I’m ‘hard work work work’. But, for example, she always used to make sure that she got to the studio before I got there. It was like ‘come ON! You’re competing with me!’ I almost thought she had spies, right outside my apartment watching me, like, ‘Is he leaving yet?’"

After running into Bowie at an after-hours club, they too hit it off, and the result was the 1983 album Let’s Dance, recorded in 17 days with Nile working 8 hour shifts. In fact it was only when Nile got to work on Duran Duran’s Wild Boys that he got his first studio lockout. Other numerous collaboration credits include working with close friend Debbie Harry on her solo album Koo Koo; with the B-52s on Cosmic Thing; with INXS on Original Sin and an extensive ongoing collaboration with Duran Duran. Apart from the quantity of work going on, Nile had also turned into a distinguished party animal, until he was eventually forced to clean up his act following a Scarface-level night of paranoia that started at Madonna’s place and ended up with him locking himself in a cupboard. He’d also just seen a newspaper headline saying his great friend Keith Richards had gone into rehab, which understandably shocked him into rethinking his rituals.

He says: "Keith is still my neighbour in Connecticut. What a fantastic guy. He’s the kind of guy who is probably one of the most down to earth rock stars in the world!

"I mean, to be that big and to be the kind of guy who can easily be showing up on the weekend and serving drinks at the local pub? I mean seriously, he will do exactly that. You’ll be walking into a pub and someone will look over and say ‘hey, isn’t that Keith Richards behind the bar?’ and yeah, it is, and of course he’s pouring way more than the establishment would like… but how do you tell him not to do it? I mean…"

After being diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in October 2010, Nile started a blog, Planet C, which is accessible to readers in nine different languages. Now spending the small hours connecting with the many fans of the site (including a lot of fellow cancer sufferers), he says it’s been the most comforting thing in his routine since the diagnosis.

Today he looks amazingly young and well. His keynote interview with Pete Tong at the Ibiza International (electronic) Music Summit understandably focused a lot on his recent work with Daft Punk, and he played his guitar part for us over a broadcast of ‘Get Lucky’, Thomas and Guy-Man’s bestselling single to date. Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s fourth studio album is a sort of dancefloor audio textbook for those not yet properly schooled in the history of electronic dance music, and it slyly references so much from the past that it’s a bit like watching a Tarantino film and trying to pick out all the nods and influences. ‘Get Lucky’ is one of three tracks on RAM featuring Nile and Neptunes’ vocalist Pharrell Williams, and all are brilliantly constructed. Like any Daft Punk album it’s conceptually ‘about’ sound, or the sound of sound. One track features a specially recorded monologue by Giorgio Moroder.

Wanting to bring things full circle must at least have been partly motioned by the fact that Thomas Bangalter’s father is songwriter/producer Daniel Vangarde (Sheila B. Devotion, The Gibson Bros, Ottowan), which provides a lovely link back through to 70s dance music.

He recalls: "It was so interesting when they told me that this is the music that was surrounding their lives. When we first met we talked a lot about Chic and you could see how it was completely sincere with them. They weren’t just saying it to gas me up or to make me feel… whatever, it was all genuine like, ‘Wow, look, Nile came to our party!’"

After wanting to work together for a long time, Nile got involved in Random Access Memories when the robots showed up at his NYC apartment out of the blue.

He says: "And I just looked at it as music. I wasn’t trying to make disco music. For the album concept with Random Access Memories the overall edict was to ‘make music as if the internet hadn’t been invented’, so to speak, and so that meant that real music had to be played, obviously, from beginning to end, then deconstructed, analysed, and put together, and we had to get it right!"

Chic are back on tour and have just started the UK dates, which will include the Glastonbury festival, Hyde Park and the London Forum.

He says: "I never stop touring. The day before I came here to Ibiza we were performing in Guadeloupe. It’s just my life. We never stop touring! Hyde Park will be fun. Those are old friends of mine. Lionel Richie and J-Lo. That will be cool…"

With rumours of a possible future collaboration with U2 in the works, Nile Rodgers has recently been working with David Guetta, Avicii and Feliz Da Housecat. Chic’s classic singles meanwhile continue to command respect. ‘Good Times’ remains one of the most remixed songs of all time. The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ (1979), often claimed to be the beginning of sampling culture, famously used a prominent ‘Good Times’ sample. Only available in 12" format, it sold by the millions. Chic loved the track, and eventually got co-credits for the sample. Daft Punk paid tribute to the bassline in ‘Around The World’ in 1997, as had Blondie on ‘Rapture’ in 1980, and a brand new 58-minute remix put together by Dick Porter, editor of punk webzineTrakMARX.

After a career spangled with production awards, this year the Miami WMC honoured Nile Rodgers with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and both he and Bernard Edwards have been inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. Beverly is one proud mother, and remains the apple of her son’s eye…

He says: "Yeah, my mum is unbelievably cool, and even now if I take her to the Grammys or the Academy Awards people think she’s my girlfriend! She’s still totally into fashion, still completely vain. You know, if my mum doesn’t want something to make her feel better I’d actually get worried. I’d go ‘oh no, I’ve lost my mum!’ She calls me up and says, ‘Oh, you know sweetie? I think I’d like to go to the so and so farm and work out and lose 20lbs..’. She’s still… she’s just great."

Nile Rodgers Presents The Chic Organisation Up All Night (The Greatest Hits) is out July 1

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