The video stream for this lecture can be watched here.
In the second part of our mammoth session with Nile Rodgers we focus on his work as a producer. Following the “disco sucks” backlash, the Chic visionary moved behind the boards, devising huge seminal records for established stars such as Diana Ross and David Bowie. He goes into depth about his biographical approach, how he has to master everything from the people to the songs to the food. And he explains why his favourite records are the ones he plays on and the biggest album of Bowie’s career was inspired by a Little Richard photo.
RBMA: I’m pretty sure there’s no one on the planet who hasn’t heard that record. Would it be fair to say that was the first time you were asked to produce an artist other than your own band?
Nile Rodgers: Yes, that would be fair.
RBMA: And that was Sister Sledge, of course. Tell us how it came about and how you approached it.
Nile Rodgers: When we finally got signed to Atlantic Records, the gentleman who signed us, who did the whole helicopter routine with the limos, for some reason he really believed in us. We were brand-new kids on the block. In the old days – (expansive gesture) in the old days, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the troglodytes – record companies were really dependent upon artists. They wanted to know what artists thought and what they felt. Certain artists could really feel the pulse of the record-buying public, because if you didn’t sell records, what difference did it make if you were a recording artist? Right from our first record, the head of the company believed we had something that connected to the radio and record-buying public, even though it wasn’t quite apparent to the rest of the people at the label. He asked us if we wanted to record The Rolling Stones (laughs). We were brand new, “And you want us to record The Rolling Stones?” “Yeah, it’ll be great.” Basically, he thought we had the key to the Studio 54. You go to Studio 54 you’d hear both of our singles playing, and he just thought maybe we could give some of that magic to other artists. So when we backed off The Rolling Stones and he offered us Bette Midler – he actually offered us the entire roster. We were nervous about it because we thought it was the sound and the songs that were the hits, it didn’t have to be artist-oriented, but if it were artist-oriented you’d have to craft it for those artists. So how can you go to Mick Jagger and tell him: “Don’t worry, Mick, we’ve got this”? (laughs) We were smart enough, having worked for stars all our lives, to know that stars see the world in a different way, whereas we were just ordinary working musicians, we just do our job. So we said to the head of the record company – not in an egotistical way, we were just trying to give an example of what we did – that in our lives, music is the star, not the people. That was the Chic concept, music is the star. He was: “What do you mean by that exactly?” I said: “I could turn your secretary into a star.” “Really?” “Absolutely.” “How would you do that?” “I would write a song about what it’s like to be the secretary at this big record company that’s got all these recording stars and she’s sitting there undiscovered.” He said: “Wow, that’s genius.” “Think about it, wouldn’t it be a great song? Imagine sitting there all day long, watching all these people come in and out and meanwhile you’re better than they are and you can’t get your shot. And I’d go write that song for her.” And he said: “Well, we’ve got this group, they’re all sisters and they’re signed to the label blah, blah, blah.” And he starts telling us about this group called Sister Sledge. Now, I had heard of Sister Sledge because of "Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me", which was a great record, but it didn’t propel them to the top of the pop charts. It was an r&b record, it did OK. So he suggested Sister Sledge to us. He told us about them and we were writing it down on legal pads, trying to act like we were pros. Anyway, we got home and looked at our notes and the words were literally the foundation to the song, "We Are Family". And that was the first song we wrote for Sister Sledge. Somehow he had tuned into what we were talking about, the secretary sitting there. So we talked about this group of girls that were ‘blah, blah, flock like birds’, that thing. We actually conceived the whole Sister Sledge concept, all the songs, everything, and we’d never met them. We never spoke to them, we never met them. The day we met Sister Sledge was the day that Kathy sang that song you’ve just heard. They walked into the studio, we were still writing it, but we knew what it was all about. It was this thing we have between us called DHM, which basically stands for 'deep hidden meaning' to us, but really it means to understand a song’s DNA, its essential truth. Once we understood the essential truth of Sister Sledge as we had conceived them, then we knew everything we needed to make a hit record.
RBMA: So what’s the fundamental difference between songwriting for an artist and producing an artist?
Nile Rodgers: You have to look at it from my point of view ‘cause I can only speak for me. I don’t know what other producers do and I don’t know what they think. All I know is what I think and my job as a producer is: I live to serve the project. That’s it, that’s my job. Quincy Jones described the record producer as basically like the director of a film, except our roles are a little bit expanded ‘cause we’re responsible for everything, the budget, the food – which is very important when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, I have to have my artists well fed, I have to know all the great restaurants. Before I did the album Notorious with Duran I did a song called "Wild Boys". I moved to England for a while and this was back in the day and they didn’t have restaurants that delivered food in England. I was: “No, no, no, no. We’re going to change that right now.” So I walked around and checked out all the restaurants near the studio and gave all the managers £100 apiece. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but back then it was a lot of money for nothing. Just gave it to them, they didn’t have to do anything. But I said to them, and this is going to sound like the mafia: “(affects Marlon Brando voice) One day, you’re going to get a phone call and they’re going to say there’s this guy Nile Rodgers calling and he’s going to want you to deliver food. Whatever you do, deliver that food.” (laughter) So I walked back and said to the guys: “Don’t worry, bring your own plates, we’ll wash them and send them back to you. But I want to be able to keep my artists happy, to create that atmosphere so they don’t have to worry about anything except making that great record.” So in my position, I’m responsible for the food, the atmosphere, the vibe. You have to be able to be part psychologist, and in my case I’m an arranger, so I do the arrangements, the orchestration and I always want to play on your record. I don’t like the record that much if I’m not playing on it. That’s not quite true, but almost true (laughs). And I help you conceive it, I help you come up with the vision for what it is. Sometimes artists don’t realise that the record you’re putting out now is your next record. It’s not your last record or your first record, it’s your current record that’s going to happen. The day we finish it is not the day the record’s coming out, at least in the world I came up in. The day we finish it, it may not come out for months, so you better make sure you’re ahead of the curve. So my job is always this – and it doesn’t matter who it is – I become a fan, I study them, and I make their next record. I become what I think is the next logical step. In order for you to get in that chair you had to walk in and sit down. If you hire me, I’m trying to do the thing that you’re going to do after you get up and leave that chair. So that’s my job, I have to figure out what you’re going to. That’s what I call a producer.
RBMA: I think we should introduce the next crucial relationship in your production time by playing…
Nile Rodgers: Diana Ross?
RBMA: Yeah. Do you want to play the version you made or the…?
Nile Rodgers: No, play the version that came out because this is what’s great about this. When we finished this record Motown told us in no uncertain terms that this was not a Diana Ross record. I said to them exactly what I’m saying to you now: “Yeah, you’re right, this isn’t an old Diana Ross record. It’s her next record.” The way we formulated it, we sat her down for days and days and days and we interviewed her, because we wanted it to be about this star’s life. We wanted to make a biographical record for Diana Ross, something that was a holistic version of what this superstar’s life would be like. Remember, this was our first star. I’m not trying to be saying anything derogatory here. We knew we had to placate her ego on some level, but also it was our responsibility to know where she was heading. So let’s deal with subject matters that are relevant to her life. Why make something that’s a Motown cookie-cutter? “OK, come in here and sing this and whoever sings it the best gets the record.” You’re Diana Ross, you’re a superstar, now we should be crafting things exactly for you. This is your record. But the problem is we do things our way. You may not agree with us, but we’ve done a lot of research and we’re on the outside looking in. And sometimes, as we all well know, other people can see us better than we can see ourselves. I can only see a reflection of me, but you can really see me. So that’s what we were trying to show Diana, that we really respect you and this is where you should be going. Even though you may not agree yet, you will when this record comes out.
RBMA: Motown certainly didn’t agree at first, did they?
Nile Rodgers: They did not agree at all. Remember how I said earlier that records are very profitable if you get one that connects? At some point in time, after all the fighting – and we threatened to sue them because we had an iron-clad contract. By the time we did the Diana Ross record we already had – I can’t count now, but in the book I counted ‘cause I could actually sit back and look – so many platinum-plus records, one triple platinum record under our belt, and not many people had ever had a triple platinum single in America, even to this day. So we’d had one triple platinum, a few double platinum – Diana Ross never had a double platinum single – many platinum singles and a shitload of gold singles. We had only been in business two and a half years and we had all that stuff behind us. So we said to Motown: “If we take time to do this with your valuable superstar, we could do this with anyone, so you’ve got to put our record out.” Even though we didn’t have creative control on paper, ‘cause they owned it and they were paying us. Man, that’s a couple of months out of our lives when we could be doing other double and triple platinum records. So we had a pretty good case. We went to court, lawsuits and all that bull. It shot to number one, biggest record of her entire career. We were like: “Why is this always so hard? Why is it no one understands what we’re trying to do? Is it that difficult?” Now when you hear these records they just sound like pop songs, but at the time it was very revolutionary. Her record company had never heard anything like this and we’d never written anything like it. And we’ve never done anything like it since ‘cause we’ve never worked with Diana [again]. Well, I did work with her much later, but at the point they were trying to chase something. We weren’t chasing anything, we were pushing.
(music: Diana Ross – I’m Coming Out)
And in the words of Notorious B.I.G.…
Even now it sounds radical to me. It’s not like any other Diana Ross record and we’ve never done any Chic records like that. But you’ve got to remember, this is artist-specific, that’s Diana Ross, who we consider the queen of pop/r&b. If you listen to that intro, no one got it. We said: “She’s the queen, it’s a fanfare.” “What do you mean it’s a fanfare?” And my exact words were: “OK, you’ve got the president of the United States. When the president of the United States walks into the room, you’ve got ‘Ladies and gentleman, the president of the United States (sings 'Hail To The Chief')'. That’s the president of the United States. How about the queen of r&b/pop-soul? ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Diana Ross’. Is that hard?” Nobody got it. Man. If you listen to the intro, that’s all it is, a fanfare. This is us writing the beginning of Diana Ross’ show. And the double entendre, the DHM of this song, was we were very aware of Diana Ross’ iconic status with the gay community. "I’m Coming Out" was a very powerful slogan and catchphrase at the time. Ba-ba-ba, she’s coming out of the closet, he’s coming out of the closet, I’m coming out, wow! We get to say: “I’m coming out,” we get to start her show, we get to play a fanfare for this r&b/pop diva. All this in one song. How clever is that? Well, obviously not very to some people (laughter). But it isn’t that hard, especially if you ask us the question and we explain it to you. It could be, ‘OK I get that, I get that right away’. But to me it’s weird ‘cause it’s their job to get that stuff. This is that high-level thinking that makes you qualified to be a record executive. You’ve got to be able to understand, artists are developing and growing. If you touch the edge, if you tap into somebody’s soul and you get it right – and you don’t always get it right – that’s the stuff you should take a chance on. You can’t always copy David Guetta records. Come on already! Let David Guetta do David Guetta records. It’s cool, let him do that, he’s got it down. It’s like everybody’s afraid to take a chance. It’s a highly profitable industry when you make all that money. You don’t have to translate it, you don’t have to do anything, just put it out, put it out. I just wasn’t raised like that. You’ve seen where my parents were coming from: it was always ‘push the envelope, push the envelope’. Speak with your own voice and if somebody hears you, you create your own market. Since I’ve never been a star I let the music speak for myself. Parliament/Funkadelic used to have this great saying that I loved: “Let’s just take it to the stage, sucka!” We don’t even to have all this bull, just get on the stage and I’ll show you what I’m talking about. This was us taking it to the stage and we thought it was clear as a bell. “Do we have to explain it anymore? Here it is.” Oops, lawsuit, wind up in court.
RBMA: And now that Diana Ross does use that as her opening song in every single show and it was a number one record, did you ever get that call where they say: “Uh, sorry boys, you were right”?
Nile Rodgers: How about this? This is even funnier. I’m finished writing my book. Diana and I are still really good friends, so I say: “Hey Diana, let’s go to the theatre tonight.” “OK, cool.” So we go to see Elton John’s Billy Elliot. We’re in the car, she and I and the security dude. The security guy ain’t gonna say anything, so it’s just me and Diana. I’m writing my book and I want to get her opinion on what was the deal. So I say: “Yo, D (laughter).” Well, I call her ‘D’, that’s what I do. “D, what exactly about "I’m Coming Out"did you not like? ‘Cause I remember the drama, it was crazy. Just me and you now, no problem.” She looks at me: “What are you talking about, Nile? I love that song.” “No, no, I know you love it now, I’ve been to your shows, I sit in the audience and: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Nile Rodgers, come on up and play’. I get it now, but what about then?” “I always loved it.” “No, Diana, we went to court, it’s a matter of public record. We sued each other, we were fighting. You can’t rewrite history, we were in court. ‘(affects judge’s voice) Ladies and gentlemen of the jury… Nile Rodgers, Chic Organisation, Diana Ross’. It’s there.” “I loved it.” So I don’t think she remembers not liking it, or us going to court or anything. She loves it. So I will never understand why they had a problem with it. But she really loves it now and I love it and I knew it was. This is the beginning of the Diana Ross show for the rest of her life and I’m really proud. It was always supposed to be – not for the rest of her life but just for that one album, but that’s what we expected. In the old days, when you went to see a live show you heard songs you didn’t know, then you waited for the end and you’d hear the four or five hits. But the cool thing is that in the old days we went to see live music to learn about new stuff. That was the place to deliver new music, and if it got over with the crowd, that was the song you were going to put on your new record, or you’d change the arrangements and see which version they responded to. My old band, we were on tour with the Jackson 5 when they were working out "Dancing Machine" on the road. We were like “wooh” – you knew that was going to be a monster. That’s how it was back in the day. When we wrote this song for Diana, her new show would’ve begun with "I’m Coming Out", she’d play almost everything she wanted to play from the new album, then the rest of the show would’ve been "Baby Love", "Come See About Me" and all The Supremes stuff. She’d probably hit with "Love Hangover", whatever. That’s how we envisioned that album.
RBMA: I’m under really strict orders. I could do this all day, but we’ve got a maximum of another 15 or 20. So the best way to introduce the next musical relationship I want to talk about is by playing undoubtedly one of the greatest grooves in popular music and certainly one of the best pop records ever recorded.
(music: David Bowie – Let’s Dance / applause)
David Bowie famously once said: “Nile Rodgers is the only person who could get me to sing a chorus straight away in a record.
Nile Rodgers: It's funny he said that. He’s right, "Rebel Rebel" starts with a lick, but he doesn’t start off singing it. Sorry, I started tearing there when I heard Stevie Ray [Vaughan]. When we did this record, a lot of people don’t understand that David Bowie didn’t even have a record deal. He was between record labels, I had just finished my first solo album, which I knew was not going to be a hit. I didn’t think that when I was making it – I thought it was great and innovative – but David came to my apartment one day and we listened to a test pressing. Just to show you how the two different minds think and how his world is one way and my world’s another. After we sat down and listened to my solo record – 100% true and I’m saying it and I’m on tape now, so I’m stuck like Diana Ross. David would say: “But you said it on tape!” The truth is that after we played my solo album – because the test pressings came in while we were conceiving Let’s Dance – and after we got through playing it I got really depressed ‘cause I knew I didn’t have a hit. In America, the only avenue open to me is black radio and my record was so not black radio. By then the DJ culture had been so co-opted into the industry. There were a few guys, Larry Levan played my stuff. Actually, I wound up getting a few people on the dancefloor playing my stuff, which was amazing to me ‘cause I was trying to get away from the disco thing, which I didn’t even understand because Chic wasn’t a disco group, we were an r&b group. So I kept thinking if I do anything like me I’m going to be considered disco, so I have to do something drastically different. But after I played David Bowie the test pressing, here’s the exact thing he said when we finished playing the record. He said: “Nile darling, if you make a record for me half as good as that I’ll be the happiest man in the world.” I was shocked, because it was clear to me on the spot that I’d messed up and did not make a commercial black record and was not going to be able to take that to the rock stations. When we finished "Why" by Carly Simon, the rock stations showed me exactly what I wasn’t going to be able to do. I tried to play that record on the most popular rock station in America. I was the guest DJ and they wouldn’t allow me to play it, ‘cause it was a dancehall reggae kind of record before dancehall reggae was dancehall reggae. The only song I’d heard before was "Pass The Dutchie" and we tried to imitate something like that in our own way. I bought a drummachine and was: “Hey, check this out (sings).” “Uh uh, we don’t play that on our rock station.” So I became aware of the politics slowly but surely and it started to sting, but when Bowie heard my record he was: “Wow, this is great stuff.” It was clear to me that the black world and the white world, no matter what I had achieved, I was still fighting the exact same battle the day I walked into the record company. Now with Bowie, I had the chance to go from being a disco producer to just being a producer. When David and I agreed to do this record and agreed on the direction, the DNA, the DHM, of this album; David can talk in very abstract terms, but that abstract language was the same language my parents spoke. It’s the same language way all the cool jazz people speak, all the artists, they can just talk about stuff, like I’m doing now. So when David and I were doing tons and tons of pre-promotion on the album that would become "Let’s Dance", after we did all this research, David summed up rock ‘n’ roll, or what this album was going to be, by a picture he found of Little Richard getting into a Cadillac. Little Richard was getting into his red drop-top Cadillac with his ‘do’ like that (leans forward) and he had a red suit, red Cadillac, bam, had the pomp, and David held it up and said: “(English accent) Nile, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.” And he showed me the picture and I said: “(laughs) I’ve got it, I’ve got it”. And we started making this record. Believe it or not, it took 17 days from start to mix done. On the 18th day there was a bunch of people sitting in the recording studio listening to it like this (leans back). The 19th day, Nile was out getting drunk, the 20th day, out getting drunk, the 21st day. We never touched this record again, it was done in 17 days, mixed, delivered. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bowie, all those solos, everything done. And I think that this record almost more than any other captures that thing, that enigmatic thing called rock ‘n’ roll. It’s r&b at its roots – it’s r&b, it’s black music, that’s what rock ‘n’ roll was. It changed and all of a sudden it became different. That’s what the picture of Little Richard was. It starts with The Isley Brothers singing "Twist & Shout", that (sings) singing the dominant 7th chord. Even The Beatles copied it; that was it, it gave us everything. The horn lick is a direct rip-off from another record. I get passionate about this stuff because I feel that world going away, maybe it should go away, that’s what we call progress. But this is what I grew up with and when I got with Bowie, he allowed me to be that dude. Before that I hadn’t had that. With the Diana Ross record, as revolutionary as it sounded to Motown, I understand why they thought it was revolutionary because we were pushing the boundaries because – shit – we had Diana Ross. We could do that with Diana Ross. We couldn’t do it with Chic, but we could do it with Diana. I could do this with Bowie, I couldn’t do it with Chic. When you think about this record and you talk about rock ‘n’ roll and musicians are anti-this and that, I’m like: “Guys, what are you talking about?” Everybody on that record, the rhythm section, it’s all black and Puerto Rican people playing Bowie’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll record. Bowie was so keen on that Little Richard thing and the essence of rock, it was: this is natural, this is the world I want to live in. That’s the world I always thought I would join when I signed a record deal. It’s like the UN, world cool. That’s why I had that revelation last night, I thought, ‘Man, if every world leader had to play an instrument or sing and then was forced to jam before you had a meeting, think about how much respect there’d be’. You’d have all these little affinity groups going: “How’d you do that solo? Who’s your favourite person? We’ll get to the budget later. Do you dig the Supremes? Tell the truth – do you really like the first Village People record?” All that stuff gets revealed, when you start jamming with people and you hear their influences, who they love and who they copy. Who’d have known Johnny Marr was this serious Chic fan? I knew ‘cause he named his kid. I’m sorry bro’, I know we have a limited time.
RBMA: We do have to open it up to the floor in a second. We should of course mention that you went on to work with Duran Duran, Madonna. Those records, like "Wild Boys"… "Notorious" is a record you should definitely hear. I don’t know if we’ve got time to play them right now.
Nile Rodgers: We probably don’t and I love to hear from these people. When I used to go to these things I always wanted to learn something. I’m just rambling, you can hit me on my website or Twitter. I can ramble on Twitter. I use those 140 characters. So we can do that. So do we have some personal questions?
RBMA: I’ve been told by the bosses that we can have three questions only ‘cause Nile has to leave us.
Nile Rodgers: Five, he just upped it to five.
RBMA: It’s participant’s only. But, of course, Nile’s band.
Nile Rodgers: He’s in my band, he can ask me anytime. OK. You could ask me this back in the room.
Nile Rodgers band member: But I want to ask you this. You mentioned earlier when you were doing "Everybody Dance", you said you were chucking, then Bernard genius-ly came up with the idea. But then we never came back. The bassline – did you give it to him? What did he change that was genius?
Nile Rodgers: The original bassline I wrote, my original chuck, was sort of the clavinet part that comes up later in the song. When I originally wrote "Everybody Dance" I was playing (sings guitar parts), like what we do in the live show. After we break down we go to the original chuck, ‘cause I want to play it after all these years. So Bernard’s bassline was going (sings bassline) and I knew he could play it, so we were just hanging (sings bassline). Just to give you guys a little history, which some of you may not get or even care, but there was a really big record in the early disco days called "Sugar Pie Guy" by a band called The Joneses and the record used to start off with (sings). So all the basslines we did in the old days would go (sings). In between we’d always make fun and go (sings), so that’s what it was. My original thing (sings), so when we started playing that, we both loved it. And then he went against me and made it really crowded. I was doing that chuck, which was ridiculous, then he went against me and I ceded to his bassline ‘cause it was so genius compared to the original thing I wrote. That’s why I came out into that thing. We were showing off. It was hard for us to get record producers when we first started. Whenever a producer came into the studio with us, once Bernard and I started chucking… usually they were keyboard players and, man, it would sound like a fusion battle. And everybody – I won’t mention any names ‘cause they’re my boys now – but they would start competing with us, chucking it here: the next thing you know, where the hell’s the song? Everybody’s… (imitates jazz fusion). So that’s why Chic records famously restrict the keyboard players and they’re just (sings simple keyboard parts). That’s what worked for us and that was the sound of our group.
Participant: Coming up you worked with a lot of artists. Was there anyone in the ‘80s you wanted to work with but didn’t get a chance to record?
Nile Rodgers: The only person I regret not working with was Miles Davis. We became really good friends for a minute, we did a photo session together. And now I believe in retrospect I know he was telling the truth. Miles and I became friends and he asked me to write some songs for him. The songs I wrote were these avant-garde new-agey jazz songs he does all the time. And he always said: “(imitates Miles Davis) Damn Nile, I could do that. Marcus could do that. I want you to write a motherfucking "Good Times". Give me a motherfucking "Good Times".” And I felt so uncomfortable ‘cause I thought he was just making fun of me, that he was just setting me up for a joke. That he’d go: “You think Miles Davis should play that?” But he was serious, dead, dead serious. It’s only now when I think back to some of the records he was trying to do that didn’t work. He was looking for a motherfucking "Good Times". But I felt weird. After Miles and I became buddies – we hung out and partied, never made any music together – I realised he was like David [Bowie] in that he could speak in abstract terms, but I didn’t believe he was telling the truth. That’s one thing I’ll go to my grave regretting, that I never did that record. It would’ve been amazing, once he’d made me believe; just like Bowie made me believe after that whole process we went through when he showed me the Little Richard picture. If Miles had come in and slapped down the "Good Times" 12-inch and said: “Man, give me that.” Of course, I wouldn’t have done that, I would’ve done Miles Davis’ version of that. Of course, we didn't do Little Richard, we did Bowie’s version of Little Richard. But I just didn’t believe it. I don’t lament many things, but I feel bad about that. It’s not that I want to have another notch on my belt – “Yo, I got a hit with Miles” – it’s artistically there’s something missing from my life. That would’ve filled that one thing in, to have a viable jazz artist, a revolutionary jazz artist. What if I could’ve given Miles his biggest record? That would’ve been unbelievable to me. That’s it. A person like Prince, I love him and he’s my friend and we’ve played together live and stuff, that’s good enough for me. I would like to make a record with Prince but I’m not sure what it would be, I don’t know how we would do that. I certainly know – like the thing with the world leaders – I know how to pick up a guitar with them and go jam, I know how to do that.
RBMA: Any more very short questions?
Nile Rodgers: Come on somebody, somebody in the back. Can we give him a mic or just speak up?
Nile Rodgers band member: Can you talk about Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Nile Rodgers: Yeah, I really go over this in more depth in my book, which everyone should get by the way (laughs). It’s a great book, hold it up (Benji, the interviewer, holds book up). The first time I met Stevie Ray Vaughan was like Sister Sledge, in the studio. Remember how I said I’m responsible for the food as a record producer? So Stevie Ray Vaughan comes in the studio, David is paying on his dime, he’s paying for everything. So that we don’t waste time and take too long over a break, all of the musicians order their food at the start of the day so we can take a break and go straight back to recording. So the first day Stevie Ray walks in, we’re just putting in our orders and Stevie Ray says: “No, I’ll treat everybody to food tomorrow.” He calls a barbecue joint down in Texas and has the food fed-exed and sent to the recording studio. I thought, ‘Man, this dude is the real deal’. I think it was called Sam’s Barbecue and it came from Texas and for many years to come we had the calendar hung up on the wall in the Power Station. Stevie was incredible, he was so real. For a person of his virtuosity, you never met a more humble person. And this guy was ridiculous, there was only a handful of people who could play like him. I don’t know if you remember, Rich, but Stevie Ray had to go and play a gig with The Isley Brothers, and he was terrified. At that time they had "Who’s That Lady" out and he was like: “Oh, I’ve gotta go play with them.” “Trust me, Stevie, you’ll be fine. You’re gonna be cool, you can hang, you can hang.” And he was not being fake humble, he was just like that. When we made the album Family Guy, which was his only recording with his brother, which he never got to hear ‘cause he died before we finished, I cannot tell you how charming, how sweet, how genuinely magnanimous and giving he was. He was so open to learning. When we were doing songs like "Long, Long Way From Home", remember that with the flashlights, and he was going in different keys, he was just so amazed we’d recorded his guitar track and we’d sampled it into the Synclavier, and then either Rich or I played a note, and he was like: “What was that?” “That’s your guitar.” “Holy crap, I can play a note and move it from here to here?” He was like a child who was a genius, I can’t say enough great things about him. There’s only a handful of people I’ve met in my life who’ve been that incredible and that cool.
Participant: I’m curious about your tracking process with Chic. You sound like you’re all in a room when you hear it back. Was it all one take? I feel like I’m sitting in a room with you guys.
Nile Rodgers: That’s why there are very few alternate Chic takes. There’s a famous quote from Madonna saying: “Time is money and the money is mine.” In those days tape cost money, so we were always concerned about stuff. When we’d get the song right, that was it, it was done. Usually, it was right the first or second time, maybe the third time. Later on in our career I retrieved all the tapes, I have every Chic recording now, more or less. There are very few alternate takes, ‘cause we didn’t need them, we played it right. Also we didn’t use metronomes, everything is free-played. The only time we used anything like a metronome or a clocking device is when I did that first record with Carly Simon, but that was after the whole “disco sucks” thing. It’s funny, after they said we were a disco band and we sucked, that’s when we started to use a drummachine.
Participant: The digital recording, you can’t get that thickness like you guys had with analogue. Do you think that’s why some of the stuff’s been lost?
Nile Rodgers: Well, things are different because as artists – and probably as human beings – we always strive to do what feels natural. The thing that tastes like sugar is the thing you like the best. So, no matter how many artificial sweeteners you have, what you’re trying to do is get back to sugar. Whatever sounds like natural music in our ears, that’s what you’re trying to get back to. The very first digital recording that I did, let’s say the first big digital recording, was Madonna, and we were trying to get back to the analogue sound. We loved the convenience of using the Sony, but our ears wouldn’t allow us to accept that. So we kept working with different outboard gear. I discovered early on that the D/A converters in the Sony consumer stuff sounded better than the professional stuff. I actually recorded my first solo album on a bunch of consumer digital products. Then there was all this crazy stuff ‘cause we’re just trying to get back to the world that we naturally live in, to sound that sounds the way we’re accustomed to hearing. Everything else sounds like an irritant. We’re cool, because it’s something organic and grooving and fundamentally hip. Now we’ve got accustomed to hearing tone-generated bass, even though it hurts you, you can feel it. I walk into a club and it’s the same thing right away. I won’t say there’s anything less, if anything there’s just more. The old doesn’t go away, if anything there’s just more stuff. I believe in progress. When Rich and I did Coming To America, we went into the vault and they played us Elvis recordings on three tracks. You never heard anything like that! The heads were like that big (holds fingers about two inches apart) and it sounded incredible. No one wants to go back to that, but it sounded better than anything I ever heard.
Can everybody say something? Like I say, I want you to learn something. (inaudible question) What do you mean about my video game stuff? I don’t understand the question. OK, this dude.
Participant: I want to talk about the “disco sucks” thing. I know you didn’t consider Chic a disco band, but the population largely did associate you directly with it. How did that make you feel as an artist? And having these huge hits under your belt afterwards, was that a form of retribution?
Nile Rodgers: I don’t know if I thought about it that clinically. The great thing about Bowie is that he righted the ship. He put me back on the course. What David said that I didn’t get a chance to tell you, David said after we fooled around with some different stuff – actually no, it was the same day when we played my solo record and he told me that if I did a record half as good, not better, but half as good, that he’d the happiest man in the world – he told me in that same session that he wanted me to do what I did best. I said: “Really? What’s that?” He said: “I want you to do hits.” “You think that’s what I do best?” I thought I probably had more flops than hits, which proves that I do flops better than hits. But I hoped David would help me achieve the status of being considered a producer and hopefully a good producer. So when he said he wanted me to do hits, here’s what David did for me: as I said, when I’m a producer my job is to serve the project. He told me to make hits. “That’s what your job is – make hits, Nile Rodgers, because that’s what you do best.” We had four hit records on that album and some of those were remakes. Imagine making a hit out of a song that wasn’t a hit and people looking at it like: “(affects voice) You’re defiling the gods of rock. You did an Iggy Pop song and it’s corny.” Yeah, but we sold two million of those corny records (laughs).
RBMA: So there’s a lot of aspiring producers, singers, instrumentalists in the room. If there’s one thing you can leave them from all that experience, what would it be?
Nile Rodgers: I think I said it earlier and I’ll reiterate. If you want to be in this business, make sure the first thing you commit to – it’s almost like a mantra – make sure that you really love it, that’s the biggest reward you can get. Like when we were listening back to those songs, I was like: “Oh yeah, that’s the Hammond B3 that we wheeled in for "Let’s Dance".” At first we weren’t going to add it, but Bowie said: “Is that a B3 over there?” And we wheeled it in and put it on it. Make sure you love doing it just for the sake of doing it. That’s your greatest reward. If you have a blast doing it, then if you get a record deal and have a hit, oh man, that’s incredible. ‘Cause that ain’t the real world. Chances are you’re not going to sign to a real label and you’re not going to get a hit record. But if you do get one, all the more fantastic and wonderful. The truth is I have just as much fun playing my little Epiphone in my bedroom every night as I do being in the studio with Bowie. It’s a different experience but it feels exactly the same to me to toil over some jazz songs that I used to play with my eyes closed 30 years ago. It feels exactly the same and I love it. And it’s not because of having close calls with death. I’ve never changed, I’ve been like this since I became a musician. A few weeks ago we had Valerie Simpson perform with us. This was just a few days after her husband Nick Ashford had died. Valerie was one of the first to recognise Bernard and I as viable producers. She says a girl had come over to her nightclub, which she has in New York, she has these open-mic things and it’s really popular – and a girl cornered her the other day and said: “Valerie, I really want to become a singer.” “Oh great, that’s fantastic. Can you sing, can you carry a tune?” “Oh yeah, I can sing pretty well.” “Oh, wait a minute, I thought you wanted to become a singer.” “I do, I want to be a singer.” “Well, sing for me.” And the girl sang and she sounded good. Valerie says: “Oh, but you are a singer.” “No, I want to be a real singer.” And Valerie stops her and says: “Oh, you want to become famous.” “Yeah.” “Oh, that’s different. I don’t know how to do that. I know how to be a singer, I know how you can become a singer, which you already are. Go home and sing and sing and sing and if you want to be famous, try and figure out a way of making it, because you sound great.” She was trying to explain to this girl, you have a gift, be happy, ‘cause not many people can sing and sound great. But she could see this woman had it distorted. She was defining a singer as being famous and that’s not the case. So I agree with Valerie, I love it. Why do you think I still do this? I don’t need to do this. I’m out there ‘cause I love it. Last night was one of the funnest nights I’ve had… in 30 hours, ‘cause I loved the night before. And two nights before that was fun and tomorrow’s going to be fun.
RBMA: Well, on that note I’d like to say it’s been a great privilege and on behalf of everyone in the room, please join me in thanking Mr Nile Rodgers.
Nile Rodgers: Thank you.