The video stream for this lecture can be watched here.
Nile Rodgers’ life story reads like the stuff of fiction. Born to a family of drug-addicted jazz Bohemians, he hung out with jazz stars and Hollywood superstars as a kid and went on to forge his own legend as the driving force behind Chic. His band defined the disco era like nothing else. When the “disco sucks” backlash cut off their stream of massive hits, Nile Rodgers sidestepped into production, where he was just as successful. Recently recovered from a battle with cancer, Nile Rodgers has a book out and a story to tell. And tell it he does, in Part 1 of our extraordinary interview. Like the river, this Nile runs and runs.
RBMA: All I can say simply is that it gives me absolutely great pleasure to welcome Mr Nile Rodgers.
Nile Rodgers: Thank you, Benji.
RBMA: So my thanks on behalf of everybody in this room for taking the time out to talk to us today, we all really appreciate it. And we all had a great time at the gig last night, right?
Nile Rodgers: Er, what was that? Ha, ha.
(applause / cheers)
I had a fantastic time last night, it was amazing. I played the night before in Manchester and literally one hour after the gig we were at the airport. So we had no sleep. Well, I slept on the plane. To come out and play to the audience was fantastic, it was exhilarating, exactly what we needed.
RBMA: I’m pretty sure there can be no one that’s musically aware who hasn’t come into contact with one of your productions, one of your songs, one of your records. So, with that said we have a great deal to cover today and we’re going to fit as much as we can into two hours. Having read your book, and having been a fan of your music for so long, I think in this case it makes sense to start at the beginning. As much as I I like to weave my way around, in this case it’d be good to start from an early age. You didn’t have what we think of as a conventional upbringing, did you?
Nile Rodgers: It depends who you hang out with. In my world it was completely normal. My family, everybody in my immediate area, all the adults, were heroin addicts. My biological father, my stepfather, my mother eventually became one, friends, just everybody, that’s just the environment. What happened in America in the ‘50s, heroin became some sort of chic drug in the ghetto. Prior to that people were just getting booze and marijuana – marijuana was sort of sexy – but heroin put you on another level. So the concept of being a junkie must have been pretty cool, because my parents are pretty cool and they wouldn’t do shit that wasn’t cool (laughs). So I guess they chose heroin ‘cause it was the thing to do. I don’t really judge them for their drug usage, but the problem was heroin eventually made them a little more self-centred than most adults. The act of procuring the drugs took so much time, it’s not like running down to the liquor store and buying booze. You got to go cop, cook it up, prepare it. The ritual of drug use was serious.«
RBMA: And the reason that dovetails into our conversation about music so significantly is ‘cause of the sort of people who’d be around that scene and the kind of music they’d be into and bring into your life. Do you want to talk about that and the beatnik scene that was around in the late ‘50s in America?
Nile Rodgers: My mum and dad, eventually to supply themselves, wound up dealing drugs. Once you’re a dealer you start getting interesting clients. A lot of famous jazz musicians would come to our house on a regular basis. I saw very famous people, which I didn’t know were famous at that time, I thought they were just coming to cop. But our house was a hotbed of artistic activity: a lot of musicians, artists, writers, and everybody was cool. Everybody spoke like: “(affects hip accent) Hey my man, what’s happening? Dig yourself. Well, look here baby, everything’s not copasetic. My man, little Nile, come here for a second.” I’m like four years old, that’s how they’d talk to me. I was four years old and they’d never say: “Don’t do that”. It was: “Nile, come here young blood. Dig yourself.” That meant, ‘We’re not going to discipline you. You need to look into yourself, be introspective.’ Oh, right.
RBMA: What kind of music was surrounding you at this point?
Nile Rodgers: Jazz, modern jazz. It was interesting, there was a difference between commercial jazz and modern jazz, especially in my household. My parents like the commercial stuff. They were into that and liked to go to the theatre. But they also liked bebop and avantgarde. I guess, it depended on the time of day. Daytime they’d listen to Mel Torme, stuff like that, but at night it turned into Monk, Miles, Bird and Dizz, hard bebop. So it was (imitates jazz solos). That’s just how it was and it was not peculiar. When you read my book, the reason I’m very romantic about them, is because they were great, they really were great. From the standpoint of regular Americana, what you saw on TV, they were definitely not like that. But it was the only existence I knew and it was wonderful and interesting and inspirational, totally inspiring.
RBMA: Do you want to talk a bit about your stepfather, the man who raised you? He would go on to have quite an effect in your interpretation of the world and in many ways he was an OG hipster in some ways.
Nile Rodgers: My stepfather was white and in those days it was a big deal. I didn’t know it was a big deal ‘cause he was just Bobby to me. The reason I called my father Bobby is that I called my mother Beverly, I called every adult that I knew by their first name. He was my friend, all the adults around me were my buddies. We knew lots of Bobby’s but because my father was white they called him White Bobby, so I called him White Bobby. But I didn’t think of it as, ‘Hey, Bobby the white man, moving into my crib, fucking up my mum’. It was just White Bobby, like there was Black Bobby, Gay Bobby and so-and-so Bobby. One day I went to school, eight years old, and I’m in this classroom, a big classroom, and we lived in a part of New York City called Alphabet City. My parents couldn’t afford the West Village so we moved to the East Village. I heard all the kids in the classroom going: “Oh, shit! His father’s white. Oh, shit! His father’s white.” I didn’t know that was a bad thing until I felt the kids, who were predominantly Puerto Rican, finding it uncomfortable. I didn’t know what the problem was, but there was clearly a problem at that point for them. That was around the time my book starts to pick up. That’s when my father had his first overdose, Thanksgiving Day, which is a holiday in America. I don’t know what the hell it represents, but what they tell us that the Americans, English settlers, made friends with the Native American people and they all ate dinner together. Yeah, right. Half the people were dead from flu and stuff. Whatever, it’s a very jovial celebratory American holiday. In my life, Thanksgiving wound up being tragic and from that first overdose our lives spiralled out of control. I basically became an adult, I was responsible for my… everything. Responsible for my own food, my own education, travel. Let me just say one thing that predates this event. I was born very sickly, so I was put in a convalescent home when I was young, because I used to live in oxygen tents. I had asthma. When I moved to this children’s home for about five or six months, they had a very robust early-childhood development programme. So I learned to read at an eighth-grade level, far above children at my level. When I got home I could navigate through the waters of adulthood. Does everybody understand what I’m talking about? Does everybody speak English in here? OK, cool. So I wasn’t vulnerable to the things that a lot of other six-year-olds were vulnerable to, ‘cause I could read. I could understand complicated polysyllabic thoughts. “Don’t do that.” “Why not? I saw you do it.” “Well, we’re adult.” “Really? So you mean to tell me it’s less dangerous for you than it is for me?” Uh, uh! So that was my childhood. People took that as me being rebellious but in fact I was just trying to learn. If I see you doing something, why can’t I do it? This is to help you get to the fact that I started doing drugs myself at 11 years old. It worked for them, I thought it’d work for me too.
RBMA: So as the child adult that you become, you’re a native New Yorker, right? But is it fair to say you lived a fairly bi-coastal existence when you were young, so you had experience of both New York and the west coast?
Nile Rodgers: Correcto! My mother, when she had her second child… my mom had three coathanger abortions, very dangerous, she almost died from the second one. I guess she decided to have a child finally, so she had my brother six years later. She suffered from post-partum depression where she threatened to kill my little baby brother every day ‘cause he couldn’t stop crying. The doctor told her she wasn’t fit to raise children, so I was shipped off to California to live with her mother, while she went to a mental hospital. She wasn’t incarcerated, but she went to a psychiatrist every day. That was my first trip to Los Angeles.
RBMA: This is early ‘60s, right?
Nile Rodgers: That was older than that. 1959, just.
RBMA: So can you paint us a picture of what your Manhattan and L.A. felt like that at that time, culturally, musically, anything really?
Nile Rodgers: He did read the book! The deal is that when we left New York, we took the bus all the way to Los Angeles, 3,000 miles, long trip. And when we got there we were in downtown L.A., which looks very much like New York. In my child’s mind I thought we just drove around a long time and wound up in the same place, maybe we just came in through the back door or something, the stage entrance to the bus terminal. Once we left the bus terminal, I noticed it was very different to New York in that we had a very powerful Latin American / Mexican influence. Everything was (Hispanic accent): “Overa, figeroa, blah, blah.” I was “Damn!” In New York we had Puerto Ricans but they were only in the movie West Side Story or in my family. They didn’t have things named. Now it’s Muenos Boulevard and blah, blah, blah. Then nothing was named after Puerto Rican or Latin American things in New York City. But in Los Angeles, everything was. We even had a place called Santa Ana. In my childhood memory he was the villain of America, he fought Davy Crockett. So in my mind, L.A. was cool. They celebrate criminals, it’s fantastic, they name streets and towns after them. When you’re a child and you’re analysing things, they’re very black and white. Not to make a joke, but it’s ‘this is this and that is that’ and the grey areas are not that clear yet. So L.A. felt like you could do whatever you want to do because they sanctioned it. I went pretty crazy because that year I’d just turned seven. So at that point it was just changing… no, still 1959. So at seven years old I set the national truancy record for the United States. I went to a Catholic school because my grandmother was Catholic, and I cut school 75 days in a row. I thought they were going to give me a plaque because I figured out how to do it. We used to have derelicts, winos, who’d hang out. In L.A. they have liquor stores, a special store to buy liquor, and it was right across the street from my house. And when you go a Catholic school, every day you have money to give to the church. I gave the money to the winos and they would write letters for me: “Please excuse Nile because his asthma…” For 75 days I got away with this.
RBMA: Did you fall in love with music during those 75 days or had that romance already started for you?
Nile Rodgers: It had already started but the real love was with cinema, with television. I found I could learn at a much faster rate by watching movies than in a classroom, which was sizeable, probably half the number of people in this room. Our classrooms were really big and we only had one teacher. But when you go to the movies you’re seeing Fellini. There were no ratings then. A child could see any film they wanted to see. If you didn’t understand it, too bad. But if you stayed there, because they didn’t turn the movies over in those days, you could sit there and watch the same movies all the time. In Los Angeles they had the grindhouse format, so I could sit there all day long and finally you’d learn a little Italian, Spanish, French, ‘cause they had the subtitles. So you had a film called La Dolce Vita. “OK cool, let me go and see that.” You learned about Mastroianni, Antonioni. The next thing I knew I was kind of smart, I guess. I was only eight years old and knew everything, or at least a lot about varied subjects. When it came to music, I just adored it. My father was a professional percussionist and as a result of the Latin music boom in America, he played with a lot of the big bands, because they started having a Latin influence. If you couple that with the beatnik culture, where they always had someone playing bongos. I like to think they were super-intellectual, but a lot of the time it just sounded ridiculous to me. So the great thing about early beat poetry, the profundity of absurd subject matter was so interesting. Like, I could say: “(affects beatnik voice) My man with the red shoes, oh red, like a bed.” And my dad would be going: “(mimics playing bongos) Red’s dead, the shoes, the bed.” It didn’t rhyme like that but you know what I’m saying. More like: “(affects voice) Re-e-e-e-e-ed (mimics bongos) the colour of my be-e-e-e-e-ed (mimics bongos), what I said, the people, the thing.” And I’d be looking at them going: “Are you kidding me? You can get a job doing that?” But that was my world and it was wonderful to me.
RBMA: It seems as though you can talk about the beatniks, beat poet generation, the Motown ‘60s generation – obviously, we’ll get to the ‘70s and ‘80s – but it feels that your existence in New York and L.A. as a young person gave you the launch pad to be able to throw yourself into show business in such a rounded way. Is that a fair thing to say?
Nile Rodgers: Let me speed up. After I ditched school for 75 days they shipped me back to my mother. At that point she had been cool. The doctor says: “OK, you can have kids now.” So my mom had a third child, but instead of raising it she gave it to her aunt. So I had a brother who’s never been raised in our family. When I came back to New York I just became completely inundated with culture, with learning, and I started playing in the school orchestras. And because I was always the last kid to enrol, the school orchestras would just assign you whatever instrument was lacking ‘cause no one could really play. Can you remember what eight-year-old bands used to sound like? What difference does it make? “Give this kid a tuba.” “But I’m all skinny.” “That’s it, you’re playing the sousaphone.” And it’s just (makes horrible noise), everything was quarter notes and then I rest or something. But it was fun, I loved the camaraderie of playing in bands and orchestras, moving from place to place. That was the one thing that allowed me to fit in, no matter where I went. We all stank together and it was very inspiring. But then I moved back to Los Angeles and that’s when things started to change for me dramatically. At that point my mum had yet another kid, so we moved back to L.A. She was a heroin addict at that point, every day user, and she tried to kick. So she kicked on the bus, we get to L.A., she moves back, now I’m by myself with her, with my grandparents. My grandmother had a boyfriend who worked at a very high-end airport. At that airport was Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley. These are the kind of people who’d fly in every day and because I was the only kid working there – I don’t know what the child labour laws were like, but kids had jobs in those days, you couldn’t live without a job. And the cool thing about it was you got to keep all your money. I worked at the airport, which was fantastic and all these people in show business were generous as hell. This was probably the first time that being black was a huge advantage, because I stood out. I walked up to people and everybody was cool to me. It was: “Hey kid, wash the plane, clean the windows.” And everybody was generous. Sinatra was an incredible tipper. He’d (reaches into pocket) $50, I could go buy the world.
RBMA: So was this your first encounter with celebrity?
Nile Rodgers: No, because they were around me all during my childhood when my parents were drug dealing. This was my first encounter when I knew that they were stars. When I was younger, they were just people coming over to buy drugs or trade, barter. But when I worked at the airport I was 12, 13 years old. I had seen all these people in movies. Imagine Ginger Rogers coming up to you and you’re like: “Do that song.” They used to love the fact that I knew all their stuff. It’s not in the book, because I didn’t have time to go into it, but I remember having a conversation with Dean Martin and we were singing songs, lyrics from some obscure film. He was happy that I knew it. It’s funny, big movie stars are just as fragile. You see them getting off a jet and say: “I loved that movie Three Sailors And A Girl.” “(surprised) You saw Three Sailors And A Girl?”
RBMA: What was Frank’s jet like?
Nile Rodgers: Frank’s jet was a Learjet and this was the early age of the private jet age. It was called the Christina II. I didn’t figure it out until I wrote this book – actually, truthfully I didn’t figure it out until a couple of days ago when I was talking to a person. At the airport I was always, ‘Where the hell is Christina I?’ Christina I was his daughter. Damn it Nile, you idiot. The plane was called Christina II, but his daughter was Christina Sinatra, Christina I. So I used to clean the Christina II and the tail number almost looked like my name, which was cool. I’d stand to the side and pretend it was my jet. Nile on the Christina II. Fast-forward into the future and Quincy Jones was producing a Frank Sinatra record and this was the early age of the Sony digital tape recorder and I was the only person in New York who owned one and they had to rent it from me. I was: “I got to go protect my machine”, but really I wanted to hang with Q and Frank. And I still called him Mr Sinatra even though they were renting my shit (laughter). So I walked into the room and I’m:“Mr Sinatra.” “Yes.” “I’m Pud,” which was my nickname. “Pud?” “Yeah, Pud from Van Nuys airport.” He went; “Oh my god!” It was the most cool thing that’s probably ever happened to me in the recording business. They were just sitting there. When Frank Sinatra’s recording, everything has to be perfect. He’s got to sing it right, the band’s got to play it right. So the musicians loved it ‘cause if he made one mistake, they’d get paid to do it again and again and again. There was no such thing as an overdub. I was watching Q going: “Hey Frank, we’ll just punch it in.” “Punch it in? I’ll punch you out.” (laughter) He took pride in seeing that I grew up to be that guy who’s in charge. And also to show how my life was really, really weird, it followed a pattern. I’d have something really good happen, then something really bad would happen. Everything seems to be connected. So Christina Sinatra is the person who named the first band I was in with Bernard Edwards, New York City, ‘cause she was married to the dude who owned the record abel. She was looking at New York magazine or something like that, and even though it was a Philly-sounding band, she said: “Hey, let’s call the group New York City.” And that’s how we became the ‘big apple band’ which went on to become Chic.
RBMA: So we’re in the ‘60s and you’ve cleaned Frank’s jet and you’ve spent some time in New York and L.A. and been around music. But tell me about developing your own musical tastes and getting into music that you loved yourself.
Nile Rodgers: Primarily, I think of myself as a jazz person, that’s what I still play in my spare time. Rich will tell you, when I’m around the house, you’ll never hear me practising Hendrix or funk. I don’t have to practise that, it’s in me now, I’m a funk guy, I think like a funk guy. But what I’d always practise – what we used to call woodshedding – ‘cause we’d sit around and go (pretends to play jazz), if I can get it that fast, but still I’m a bebop guy and that’s all what I want to play. A couple of weeks ago Rich and I were transcribing Eric Dolphy. Still, at this age! But when I met Bernard Edwards, that’s when my life shifted. He and I were polar opposites, but from the first day we played together, we were never apart, ever, even when we broke up and were all pissed off with each other. The way people get pissed off in Chic – at least me and Bernard – is: “(angry voice) Motherfucker, rah rah rah.” Then you call him: “Hey man, you feel like going out?” “OK, cool.” And if Bernard heard somebody say something disparaging about me, he’d be: “I can say that shit, but you can’t.” So we were always like this (holds fingers close). When I met him we were on a pick-up gig – and in those days you basically did what was on the jukebox, what was hot. And then a lot of jazz records were popular in r&b settings. Freddie Hubbard had "Red Clay", The Headhunters with Herbie Hancock. It was jazz artists on the r&b and dance charts. So we learned those songs. It would be: “We’re doing learn "Song For My Father".” And right behind it would be "Cissy Strut" and right behind it would be "Who’s Gonna Take The Weight". Disregard my cell phone (takes phone out of pocket), I’ll turn it off after it stops. So anyway I started to learn to love r&b because many of the gigs we did were primarily r&b gigs. Unfortunately all the jazz dudes, myself included, used to look on those gigs with a certain amount of disdain. We used to call them boogaloo gigs and boogaloo gigs were… (looks at phone) Oh, come on already! It’s my mum.
RBMA: Her ears were burning.
Nile Rodgers: »I was hit by cancer about a year ago and now my mum calls me every day. I’m like: “Mum, alright already. They don’t give you a test every day.” So what happened was we were doing a bunch of boogaloo gigs, the main one was with New York City, and somehow the opening act before us had lost all their equipment. The kid who was playing in the band before us played on my amplifier ‘cause his was stolen. Something miraculous happened that night. All along Bernard had been telling me to sell my big jazz guitar, which was feeding back and I had to play at low volumes. We didn’t have the great soundmen we have now. Usually, the sound onstage was what people heard in the audience. So I had to play quietly ‘cause my guitar was feeding back through these big amps, ‘cause we wanted to look like Sly And The Family Stone. Meanwhile I couldn’t play at that volume. So this kid borrowed my amp and he was playing a Fender Strat and all of a sudden my amplifier sounded like the most incredible amplifier I’d ever heard. And Bernard looked at me and said: “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Buy a Strat.” So I buy the Stratocaster and now it feels weird, the strings were light compared to my big, fat jazz guitar. But I got $300 back too – I traded my jazz guitar and got three bills. Then Bernard showed me the style of guitar playing that kid was playing, ‘cause we were playing some of the same songs but his playing sounded better than mine. Then Bernard picked up the guitar and started chucking, playing the same songs we’d been playing, but now he showed me how to play them. I was like: “Wow! Really?” Bernard was a regular guitar player – he was a good guitar player, but nothing spectacular – and he sounded better than me. The reason why is ‘cause he would hold the chord. Guitarists, usually when they know a chord, that’s the chord. They know the E chord, they hold the E chord. Maybe they know another, but that’s it. And whenever they play a song it’s just the same thing over and over again, and that’s what they call playing a song. When I play a song I’m moving the chords all around and inverting it and all this stuff. And when Bernard did that, just holding the song, it sounded more interesting. I noticed he was jumping around the strings, he would hold the position but then move all across the fingerboard. I was: “Damn, if you can do that with one position, what would I be able to do? I can go anywhere up and down the neck and pick out random notes and just play the extensions, never touch the root or the fifth. What would I be able to do?” So I moved into the bathroom for about four or five days. The guy who was on the road with me had about a million girls coming out with him, so I’d just stay in the bathroom and practise. And then about a week later I emerged as the guy that I am now, which is the funk guy who can play a bunch of chords and melodies at the same time.
RBMA: We should make it clear that Bernard, your long-time partner, was a bass player.
Nile Rodgers: A genius bass player.
RBMA: And of course we all know that guitar is your weapon of choice. As a jazz person, when did you decide on the guitar?
Nile Rodgers: The last time I moved back to New York was after my grandmother had died, I was about 15/16 years old. I was playing the clarinet with the school orchestra. We sucked, but we thought we played OK. We were just in junior high school, and I had gone out with my friends – we were big glue sniffers. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned that, but that was my drug of choice. I was a glue sniffer and we used to sniff amyl nitrate – that was heaven to us. The glue we paid for, the amyl nitrate we’d break into the school and get for free. One day we were going to the skating rink in Los Angeles and we ran into these guys that were what people wound up calling hippies. When we saw them we were: “Man, we’ve never seen guys look like you.” They had hair down there. And they said that they were freaks. I was: “Wow, freaks, cool. I’m down with that.” And the freaks asked me and my boy… Now imagine this, we were 15-year-old kids and you know how when you’re kids you dress like the artist you idolise? I remember when Madonna hit, all these little girls were there with the rubber bracelets and they were like 10 years old. So we were that. We idolised The Temptations. We were 15 and we had sharkskin suits with ruffle shirts and French collars going to the skating rink. Fifteen years old and we were the shit. Then we met these freaks and we thought they looked weird and we can just imagine what they thought of us ‘cause we were clean. And they asked us if we wanted to take a trip. We said: “Absolutely!” We had no idea they meant LSD, we thought they meant joyriding or something – that’s what we did when we took a trip, went to the beach. So we went up to the Hollywood Hills. And they gave us LSD. Woah! We didn’t even know what LSD was. I didn’t return home for two days. My sharkskin suit was all dirty and tattered and my rollerskates were all psychedelic and shit where girls had painted. They were all: “Ooh, spade cats with rollerskates and suits.” And they painted all over us and we were into it. So I’d left being completely into nothing but Motown and r&b and the deepest soul you could find on the radio. When I came home I said to my grandmother – I was talking completely different in just two days: “(affects hippie accent) Oh Granny, wow, you’re hassling my head, man (laughter). Must you play the Mighty Sparrow again?” I don’t think Mighty Sparrow was around, but she was into Caribbean music and gospel. “Oh no, I must hear The Monkees. I have to hear Them and The Troggs.” My grandmother died shortly after and I went back to New York to live with my mum. But before I got there I lived with my uncle and his girlfriend had a daughter who was the finest woman who ever walked this earth. And she had a band and the band didn’t have a guitar player. So she says to me: “Nile, we need a guitar player. Do you think you could play it?” “Of course!” But in the old school orchestra they just give you the instruments and say: “Here, play this.” And within a couple of weeks you’re (makes horrible brass noise). But this band was actually pretty good and they wanted me to play guitar on that level. At the time I’d been playing the clarinet in the school orchestra and it has the same written range as the guitar, like a low E on the clarinet. I looked at the music and was: “I’ve got this guitar shit covered!” So I looked at the music – I don’t remember what song it was – and I couldn’t figure it out to save my life. I embarrassed myself and the girl said something harsh to me, so I moved in with my mum, I couldn’t even face her anymore. I kept practising, I bought a Beatles songbook. I couldn’t get my clarinet etudes to speak properly, I was trying but it just didn’t make sense. I looked at the fingering, wasn’t working, something was wrong, so I bought a Beatles songbook, because (affects hippie voice) you know man, I was into the Beatles, and my favourite song was "Day In The Life" and I kept playing it over and over again, and I had the fingering down, I memorised it, but it never sounded quite like a "Day In The Life", it was weird. So my mother’s boyfriend came over and he realised I had the guitar out of tune. I guess I missed that part – I went right to the songs, I tuned it to sound like a violin or something. So the dude tuned the guitar and after he tuned it, I played the exact same fingering I’d been playing and it was heaven. It was euphoria, like the first time I ever got high or had sex. It was that level of unbelievable magic. And I played the chord and it was perfect. Then I attempted to sing ‘cause the lyrics were in the songbook: “(sings) I read the news today, oh boy. About a lucky man who made the grade.” And I was like (bobs from side to side), I was so high. Obviously, it was really slow, like boom, (sings slowly) I read the… I got through the song and at that point I decided I’d never play another instrument seriously again except the guitar. I’m going to concentrate, stick to this thing, get it down, get it down. And that’s when I became the jazz guy and blah blah, meet Bernard Edwards, blah blah, buy a Strat, blah blah, we get a record deal, first song we write…
RBMA: Hold up, hold up (laughter). One thing we should talk about, you went to L.A. and you won’t be offended if I say you came back a bit of a hippie, right?
Nile Rodgers: Offended? I wear that like a big badge of courage.
RBMA: And what’s interesting, you talk about the jazz heritage, being a big Temptations fan, being obsessed with that whole era. But when you met Bernard, you were actually the hippie and he was the r&b guy
Nile Rodgers: Completely 100% correct. Bernard Edwards was so old-school R&B, he really fitted in. I did not fit in. My first real job, where you get a paycheque and they take taxes out, was with Sesame Street. I got that gig ‘cause I auditioned and got the gig. They didn’t care that I had green cornrows and hair like that, so when I undid the green cornrows I had this big green afro. It wasn’t green like that (points to someone in the audience) ‘cause we didn’t have green like that; we used food colour, like something that would make your cupcakes green. Like on St Patrick’s Day: “(affects Irish accent) Ah, the cupcakes are green.” So we’d take that and put it in our hair for hours and hours and then it would be green. But my hair looked really black, but when you get in the light: “Holy shit, he’s got green hair.” But on Sesame Street they liked it. And I only did that gig for a year because the guy who vacated it was Carlos Alomar and he went to play in the Apollo Theater house band. Then David Bowie hired him with my other buddies, Luther Vandross and those guys, and they became the Young Americans and there was an opening at the Apollo and I auditioned for that. Wasn’t much of an audition. I was recommended by the woman from Sesame Street, whose husband was the manager of the Apollo Theater at that time. And I got the gig with the house band. It was Reuben Phillips and King Curtis who’d switch as the directors. And she told them that I was a really great guitarist and a fantastic reader. In those days you had to do two shows for certain and it may have even been and it would turn over like that. It was a review format. Every now and then they’d have one band that would do a bunch of songs, but typically, r&b, you have one-hit wonders, so a person would come out and do their one or two songs that were hits. All that the audience got were songs that were pretty familiar. Everyone had their little routine and shtick, but the band had to be ready for anything that was performed.
Nile Rodgers: Oh, yeah.
RBMA: So when you’re walking into the Apollo on 125th Street, were you walking in with the pressure on your shoulders, knowing what amazing stuff had already been recorded there?
Nile Rodgers: Not only that. I knew about Jimi Hendrix winning the talent show. Don’t get me wrong – even though I was a jazzy guy, everybody went to the Apollo every now and then. A lot of the bands I was playing with would wind up playing at the Apollo. So it wasn’t like when I got the gig as the house band guy that I’d never been to the Apollo. Luther Vandross was my friend and he took me there to see Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles and I never saw anything like that. So it was our place to hang.
RBMA: So you’d been in the audience section. It was famously a very unforgiving crowd that would go to the Apollo, they would not suffer fools gladly. So how did it feel when you walked out onstage and saw the unforgiving r&b thumbs-up, thumbs-down audience?
Nile Rodgers: I was lucky. The very first show I was onstage in the band, this is what happened to me: I get recommended by the woman from Sesame Street who says: ”This kid’s amazing, he can read anything that’s put in front of him, blah, blah, blah.” So I go and do the audition and the audition is Betty Wright’s "Clean Up Woman", which is in F-sharp and it’s 15 pages long. You have to have three music stands taped together, keep pulling that shit. And it’s just vamping (makes thick funky sound), but of course I play (makes thin sound) ‘cause I didn’t understand the r&b thing yet. But you get the chart and they go: “Alright, two, three,” (makes thin sound) and we’re jamming this. So the bandleader tells me I don’t have to make the rest of the audition ‘cause: “Wow, that’s incredible, you played ‘Clean Up Woman’ for 13 pages – you’re the man!” So they let me go walking around and told me to be back an hour before show time. At the Apollo – I don’t know if they still do this, but they’d go: “The half is in.” Do they still do that? No, OK, that’s old school. But they’d go: “The half is in,” and there was this klaxon (siren sound). “The half is in, the half is in,” and we’d all run round, getting ready to play. There’s a couple of guitar players, I’m sitting there and we’re waiting to go onstage and I’m so focused ‘cause this is the Apollo. I don’t want to lose this job, I’m getting $375 a week, I need to do this. I didn’t pay attention that they’d rolled in a coffin on the side of the stage. I’m looking at the conductor, he goes, “Bang!”, and as soon as he does that, this coffin opens and it’s Screamin' Jay Hawkins (laughter). I don’t know if you’ve ever seen his routine, but he looks like a skeleton, he’s got this rattle in his hand. I’m terrified. It happens on the downbeat. (bang) And we’re playing in 6/8, and then we’ve got the pickup. (screams) And I jump up and grab my guitar, take the cable out, and I’m running around with my big jazz guitar across stage, and Screaming is running after me (runs across). And I run stage right but now they’re blocking me, ‘cause all the people waiting to go on are standing there. And I run to the other side and the audience is crying ‘cause they know it’s totally real (laughter). Meanwhile, the thing that made it funny to my friends is, at that time, I was a kung fu master, I was studying kung fu. And I’m running across stage like a total chump. The audience at the Apollo is crying with laughter when I come back. Screamin' Jay just nailed the performance that night and the old guys in the band decided: “Let’s teach this young blood what it’s all about.” That was my first day (applause). Everybody had planned it, everybody was in on it. They couldn’t have done it without a rehearsal, they just wanted to show me what the Apollo was like. Trial by fire.
RBMA: So how do we go from that initiation experience to you starting your own band?
Nile Rodgers: At that point, I’d already been with Bernard Edwards and another guy named Harold Alexander and a guy named Gylan Kain who was in The Last Poets. So I was already gigging in New York and I had lots of other gigs, but I always tried to bring Bernard in. It just sounded better and he did the same thing.
RBMA: Why was that? What was it about your relationship that made you click?
Nile Rodgers: We wanted to be professional. In those days a lot of bands were sloppy and even though we were playing in the hood at dives, what we’d call the chitlin' circuit, people expected a good show. We had to show up in a bar with uniforms and people had capes. You see those people who jump off mountains and fly? I was in a band called The Metaphors and we had them back then, flying like bats. We did that because we’d get a little black light and these things were white underneath and you do the choreography (dances). And you went like that and the white things would be (faints). That’s what they expected in the hood, in the ghetto. We were getting $15 a night and we had to do four or five sets. They expected a show. Bernard and I always wanted to be good. Some of the guys would just get through the show ‘cause they figured they’d never be back, but Bernard and I had a powerful work ethic and we always wanted the shows to be great. If he didn’t know something, I would tell him. We were bandleaders and we didn’t know it.
RBMA: It’s interesting ‘cause often the rhythm section, the drums, the bass, can be the heart of the band. But it’s interesting for us to hear you talk about the relationship between guitar and bass and why that can be such a solid relationship.
Nile Rodgers: It’s funny, I recently posted on my blog. I talk about it like everyone knows everything, but a year ago I got stricken with cancer and was all paranoid. I tried to reach out to people but nobody wanted to talk about it. So I started a daily blog, I figured if they were anonymous they would open up. It wound up becoming everything I do every day. So a few weeks ago, a friend of mine I haven’t seen for years found an early videotape of me and Bernard and the band that eventually became Chic. You could tell from that tape how we clicked. We carried this thing, we could’ve just been a trio. This other cat was really great, but there were five of us – two guitars bass and drums and a lead singer. And when you hear the songs, I defy anyone to tell me it does not sound like Earth Wind & Fire, "Getaway" with the horns and that. We didn’t need horns, we had it in the parts and that’s what people were used to in the hood. If it didn’t sound like the record, you would get booed. It would go (imitates music with mouth) and everybody would learn the records and we’d do that, we were tight. Bernard and I were responsible for the melodic, the harmonic and the bass part. The drummers we figured would learn the grooves, we thought about doing it as a duo, because if Bernard and I showed up, we got it covered. We’ve got the songs covered, the licks covered, all that stuff. And that’s basically why we were so tight.
RBMA: And it’s interesting. Obviously, that will go on to be important with the grooves of Chic. Talking about performing just like the record, it’s in conflict with your jazz roots of improvising and that freeness. It’s interesting having the discipline to perform it exactly like it is on the record.
Nile Rodgers: The truth is, yes, we perform exactly like the record, but not exactly, exactly, exactly. Enough that the people in the audience feel like they’re hearing the song and they’re not disappointed. Now, if you go to a live show – I hate to say it – but it’s exactly the record ‘cause they’re just playing the damn record and lip-synching and dancing, because that’s what people have become accustomed to and hearing the thing sound exactly the same. So what we do, yeah, it’s the song, but we’re musicians so we want to have a good time. It’s not like a symphony orchestra where they have to play the same thing. We do make it feel like the record, but we fool around. It’s not about us, it’s about you guys, we want to make you happy, but we can’t make you happy over and over again if we don’t feel good too.
RBMA: So describe the scene, Bernard and how he looked and how you looked.
Nile Rodgers: When?
RBMA: When you met, when he was leaning to the slick r&b side and you were more to the hippie side.
Nile Rodgers: The night we met I was wearing hand-embroidered jeans with patches on them – which I’d done myself, I was all thrilled about it – gigantic bellbottoms – I was the skinniest guy in the world – with a hip hugger so the zip was just that long, riding way low. Huge platform shoes ‘cause at that point I had done a bunch of gigs, I was making money, so I went out and bought these platform shoes, I was like 6ft5. And Bernard on the other hand was wearing these knit shirts they used to wear back in the hood and silk trousers from a joint in Harlem called Mr Tony’s, probably not open anymore, and wearing shoes called Playboys that looked like hush puppies, but with an extra-thick soul. The shirts were called Blye's, so he wore Blye's and Plays and sharkskin pants from Mr Tony’s flapped up, as they would say. “Flap ‘em up for me, Mr Tony.”
RBMA: And you were saying earlier he was trying to get you to loosen up and you were talking about chucking on the guitar. Can you show us what you mean by chucking?
Nile Rodgers: Oh, I’d be happy to.
(applause / picks up guitar)
Nile Rodgers: I can’t even adjust my own strap (laughter). Hey Terry, put my shit to the right height. You can make it a little higher. So in the old days, guitar songs that had famous chucks… I’ll play somebody else’s. So, famous guitar songs that used to chuck.
(plays guitar: Ohio Players – Love Rollercoaster)
That’s a simple chuck. That’s the way the Ohio Players would play it, but when Bernard and I would do it as part of a trio, it would go more (plays guitar). From that style I started getting into… (plays guitar), the whole thing where I was still into the jazz thing, but then incorporating that. We started composing, and once you do it from scratch, there isn’t anything wrong ‘cause it’s my song, so now I can chuck as much as I want to. I didn’t have to worry about not interpreting the song the way the person wrote it. The first song I wrote for Chic was "Everybody Dance" and I remember at the beginning of Chic I was the only composer. Bernard hadn’t written a song with me yet. So the first was "Everybody Dance", it was (plays guitar). It’s not the typical chord changes for an r&b song ‘cause in those days they’d be like (plays guitar) and you would just groove (plays guitar). Just one chord, staying in the groove, but because I wanted to hear more harmonically, I wrote (plays guitar). Will you all pretend like I sound good, pretend like I’m in tune? So the first song was C-minor 7, B-flat 11 to C-11, A-flat-major 7. And this was the cool thing, this was the real Nile thing. You can look at this many different ways, but I like to look at it as a D-minor 11 with an A in the bass. So we’d do the passing ‘cause I wanted to have Bernard do this chromatic thing (plays guitar). I’m so traditional, whatever’s in the root, I would think of it as the chord. So I think of that as a A-minor 7 with a raised 5. Because if I hear that in the root, I want to hear an A chord, I don’t want to call it a D. The reason I think of it like that is ‘cause… Well, anyway, that’s what I call it, I'm not going to explain it. So the first song I wrote I came up to Bernard and was: “Here’s how the song goes.” (plays guitar) Then I got really into it and went (plays guitar). He was like: “OK, that shit is cool, but what am I going to play?” Then he started imitating me and we were both going (noise), then all of a sudden Bernard came up with that genius bassline and we both started chucking and I started out-chucking him and about a minute later, as the writer, I thought, ‘Maybe I should just play simple and let him play the song’. Remember, no one had played this song except for me until we got to the studio. So we get there – and by the way, we’re playing with Luther Vandross, two shows a day at Radio City, so during the intermission we ran to the recording studio, where my boy was the maintenance engineer, and he paid the elevator boy $10 to keep quiet and not tell the boss that we record after hours. So our first session cost $10 and we had Luther Vandross, David Lasley, all these great singers who were working with us at Radio City. After we wrote that first song, we didn’t have a chance to hear it back, only in the studio, ‘cause we didn’t have cassettes. The only way you could hear your music was if the engineer cut a lacquer and they’d cut it right there in the studio and you’d take that and take it home and listen on your record player. Or you could make a reel-to-reel tape but then had to have a reel-to-reel tape player. So we never heard the song again until three weeks later we were going to a disco and my man says: “Hey, come down and check this out.” “Check what out?” “You just got to see this.” And it was basically an instrumental that went (plays guitar, sings): “Everybody dance, clap your hands, clap your hands.” Then for an hour we’d play (plays guitar). Then we’d break it down, do that thing, break it down again, then get to my part where I go (plays guitar) with the clavinet playing. This is going on for eight and a half minutes. We walk into this club, and my boy is playing this. Those are the only vocals on the record and everyone is losing their minds. As soon as the opening drum hits everyone went (screams) and ran out to the dancefloor. I don’t remember what dance they were doing in those days, probably the rock or something. The people in the audience were playing air bass and stuff. This went on for an hour. I’d never seen anything like that and I realised the power of the groove, the power of the DJ to talk to the audience, and it had nothing to do with the radio. It had something to do with being in that environment and hitting you with something that moved your soul, moved your heart, moved your feet, and all of a sudden we really believed in ourselves. We thought, ‘Damn, if they like that, what if we develop more stuff?’ And after ‘Everybody Dance’ it took a long time to get record companies to believe in us. Even though we took A&R people down and showed them the reaction, this was not staged, this was real. And the DJ would play the record for an hour at a time. He took two acetates and played them back and forth. Crazy! But the A&R people didn’t quite understand it, they didn’t understand the repetitive breakdowns and basically an instrumental track. A few months later, Bernard was hired to do a record and they had to have a B-side to sell it commercially. And the B-side, a lot of the time producers would just say: “OK, here’s some money, I’ll finish the song later.” And they’d write the song and become the writers. You’d do your track and they’d finish it later ‘cause it was a filler song. There are a lot of filler songs that have become huge, like "I Will Survive". Gloria Gaynor’s biggest song was a B-side and she hated it. So Bernard – I wasn’t on this session – cut this B-side and it was basically what would become "Dance, Dance, Dance". Since I was the only writer with Chic at the time, the guy who produced the session called me up to write it with him.
RBMA: Before we go there, I think we should listen to the $10 record. I want to hear what you did that day, but please say thank you to Mr Rodgers for the guitar demonstration. I’ve only got the vocal version, but this is the tune that you heard in the club "Everybody Dance". And the B-side would be "Dance, Dance, Dance", right?
Nile Rodgers: No, you didn’t let me get there. We didn’t get a record deal from this, we got the deal from "Dance, Dance, Dance". So the reason this song now has lyrics, after we got the single deal for "Dance, Dance, Dance" it was a hit, so they said: “OK, we’ll exercise your option and give you an album deal.” So we wrote an album in three days and recorded it and put lyrics on "Everybody Dance", which is how it became a full vocal song.
(music: Chic – Everybody Dance)
Everything is exactly what they heard in the club until we got our friends to play on it.
RBMA: So there was an instrumental of that?
Nile Rodgers: Yeah, we never changed the music, we just put lyrics on top of it. The girl whose voice is singing the lead vocal is very distinctive, you notice when the chorus comes in, that girl goes away. We hired her after we had the hit record. We didn’t even know Norma Jean Wright yet. Matter of fact she wasn’t even called that, she was called Norma Wright. We thought that sounds like the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, so we had her put her middle name in, make it sound more sophisticated, more like Marilyn Monroe, who I’d actually seen many times ‘cause she got her first job working at Van Nuys airport like me (laughs / applause). She got her first job at that airport for Lockheed as a riveter or something like that.
RBMA: You were about to say, before I interrupted you, that in order to make your record a hit for the record company people, you needed a B-side.
Nile Rodgers: I think I’m telling it wrong or you misunderstood. "Everybody Dance" did not get us the record deal. That was just happening in the clubs and no matter what I did they just didn’t get it. So Kenny Lehman - the guy who also found the videotapes of us playing that you can see on my website - Kenny was a record producer and he hired Bernard to play on the B-side of a record he had performed. Kenny then came to me to write that song as an A-side. That song was called "Dance, Dance, Dance". And remember Bernard had never written a song yet, so Kenny brought it to me and I heard the bassline. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, that’s Bernard playing. There’s no one else in the world who plays like that’. And he said: “Yeah, it’s just this thing I did for this record.” And at that point I thought we should bring Bernard back in because there’s nothing there but bass and drums and, I think, one keyboard player. Bass, drums, and a keyboard player, that’s all that was there. I played guitar on it, I wrote or so I thought (plays guitar). So when he brought it to me it was just a bassline and what I put on top of it. Also, when I’m in the studio I play it very differently. The way I play now is the way I play live, but when I’m in the studio I just go (plays guitar), all tight and shit. Live I play (plays guitar), so that became (sings), but that’s not what I wrote. I wrote (sings). Bernard came in and went: “Yo my man, why’s that so complicated?” “What do you mean?” “Why are you saying all that? Just say: ‘Dance, dance, dance’.” Now, Bernard had never written a song before, but he’d heard what I had written (plays guitar), so the song was just all the extensions, it never went to the root, never went to F. So Bernard stayed in that mood, he’d just go (plays guitar). I was: “Wow, that sounds pretty good.” So now when you listen to the record, the part I wrote as the hook is relegated to a secondary role on a Micromoog, which is my man going (makes Moog sound), a counterpoint across the melody (sings). I’m just a complicated guy. But when Bernard did that, it was so precise I made him my songwriting partner. From that moment on, we never had to be equal as far as the amount of words. We never went: “Well, I wrote 30% of that.” That was it, it was done. It doesn’t make any difference whether he started the song, him changing the hook just to that changed my whole song. I don’t think we’d have got a record deal with the complicated thing I wrote. Maybe we would have, but that’s the record we wrote and that’s the record we finished and submitted. You should play that, it just shows you the genius of Bernard Edwards’ power to arrange (applause).
(music: Chic – Dance, Dance, Dance)
Now, this is why we almost didn’t get signed. They didn’t understand the big breakdown, they thought on the radio people would turn the dial.
In these days we perform everything out, so we sing every chorus over and over again.
And if you notice my guitar parts, I’m all over the place, I just don’t stop inverting this thing.
(music continues / applause)
That’s why these songs never get boring to us, we play them all over the map. But it still sounds like "Dance, Dance, Dance". It’s that jazziness, that freedom that’s built into the composition, it’s on the record like that. When I’m listening to it I can remember where they are, but when I played it I had no idea where all those inversions go. And it’s not even fun for me to remember, it’s more fun to do it the way I do it.
RBMA: For those who aren’t sure, what do you mean when you say inversions…?
Nile Rodgers: Typically – and this is no disrespect – but when I was a kid and a person taught me a chord, that was the chord. So "Dance, Dance, Dance" is F-minor 7 to B-flat 7 (plays guitar), it’s a basic thing but that already doesn’t sound cool, right. So I make it a B-flat 13 and it sounds more like "Dance, Dance, Dance". The difference between going (plays guitar) and (plays guitar) or (plays guitar), that’s fucking lame. Wow! That kills me to do it. So that’s B-flat 7, B-flat 13. Sorry, F-minor 7 to B-flat 13. So when I say inversion, that’s an F-minor 7 (plays guitar), that’s an F-minor 7 (plays guitar), that’s an F-minor 7 (plays guitar). My favourite. So that’s also an F-minor 7, there’s just no fifth in it, it’s just one, three and a seven. If you’re a guitar player and you learn a song it’s (plays guitar), that’s what you play the whole record, but I only do that in the intro to establish the harmony. But when I start playing the song I go (plays guitar). I just do anything I want that’s harmonically reflective of F-minor 7, F-minor 11. I’ll even go weird like that every now and then and go (plays guitar). Which is cool, you can get away with that in Chic. I do it all the time (plays guitar). And that’s what makes it Chic.
RBMA: So the record we just listened to finally got released by Atlantic?
Nile Rodgers: Yes, and it became a big hit so they picked up our option and said: “OK, do an album.” And being smart marketers they knew we had to follow this record really quickly. We’d already had "Everybody Dance" recorded the way it was played in the disco, so then we went out to hire people ‘cause we didn’t have anybody hired, ‘cause this was all studio friends. We met Norma Jean, had her change her name – well, we didn’t have her change her name to make the record – made the record really fast and came up with this concept for the album. It’s a long story, but we came up with this concept a combination between Roxy Music and Kiss.
RBMA: And what year are we talking about?
Nile Rodgers: Ooh, 1977.
RBMA: The reason it’s relevant to talk about Atlantic Records is that pretty much everyone in this room is involved or looking to be involved with the music industry and the music industry that they’re entering in 2011 is pretty different to the one of 1979. Can you describe the process of the money and the power they had to get these 12-inch records out?
Nile Rodgers: The interesting thing about our record, when we came in with "Dance, Dance, Dance", we’d already got signed to another record label. We were in Billboard, signing in suits. But what happened is the label we signed to was fundamentally bankrupt, they were notorious for not paying royalties, not paying their accounts. I’m not giving you news here, this is well documented. Contractually, we had them bound to get our record on the streets by a certain date ‘cause we had this Billboard Disco Convention coming up and we thought that’d be the best way to break our record ‘cause we’d be in a room full of DJs. That was the only people we trusted. We didn’t trust radio ‘cause we didn’t know anything about radio, but we knew DJs had the power to make a few hundred people a night go ‘whoo!’ And that was fine with us. We figured if we can go to this disco convention and get our record played, we can get 20 or 30 DJs to play it and replicate what happened in that club. So the company we were signed to was called Buddha. Buddha didn’t meet their commitment, so we went to Atlantic and Atlantic had to have the record done… check this out. We met with the head of Atlantic on a Friday and we said you have to have the record out by Monday. In America records typically go out on a Tuesday. We said: “You have to have the record out by Monday so the other guys can’t beat you.” So Atlantic had the record pressed over the weekend, had a helicopter fly the records back to New York and a fleet of limos delivering them to all the hot clubs up and down the eastern seaboard so they can say: “We didn’t just bring it to the disco convention, we’ve actually serviced the record already.” All the top DJs had this record, they showed up at the convention with it in their hand and our name on it and the label of Atlantic. In those days Studio 54 was the top club in the world, so we got one of their DJs to put his name on the record saying he mixed it. He didn’t mix it, he didn’t know how to mix, he’d never been in a recording studio in his life. But it was cool, it was fun, it was marketing, it was guerrilla, we’d figured out what we had to do to get noticed. Every DJ wanted to be the DJ at Studio 54 and he’s mixing records too? Damn, Studio 54 is hip. They saw his name, they saw this group called Chick or something and they started pumping it with that bassline and as soon as they heard that bassline they were hooked (sings it). Now it doesn’t sound heavy like basslines now, with 808s and tone generators and subsonic bass, ‘cause no one had subwoofers in those days. Back then we typically rolled off everything that was under 60 cycles. Now you add that shit. But this was heavy in those days, ‘cause this was relatively mono, so it was left right, left right, and we knew that the clubs were going to be the places that broke us, and when you fold that down to mono it sounds almost the same ‘cause it’s not very stereo. And that was our edge. You played that record and our record sounded heavy to people (sings bass) and all the DJs go: “I want that record with that bass,” ‘cause it was a new phenomenon to them. It was the hit of the convention and within a matter of weeks it hit radio. One radio station called WDAS broke that record, one guy. What happened was New York had this powerful dude called Frankie Crocker who never wanted to be behind anybody. This one station broke us and the following week we got on the secondary r&b/dance station, which was brand spanking new, it was called 99X. And this woman was the second person to go on us, so you have this woman in New York City playing this new group called Chic and Frankie Crocker’s not on it? He had to go on it, we forced him. And from that moment on, we realised we could be in control of our own destiny by making certain moves with the public or programmers or DJs, you create a buzz. The corporate powers would have to listen to you. So the difference between those days is not that different now, ‘cause now you have the tools available that you can create a buzz. We really only created a buzz with a few hundred people and that turned to a few thousand, then tens of thousands, then literally millions. "Dance, Dance, Dance", our first single, was a platinum single. Most people don’t realise this because we went gold on both labels. We sold a million on Atlantic and a million on Buddha, ‘cause they didn’t pay anyway. But our agreement was we allowed them to not pay us so they wouldn’t sue us, ‘cause we were literally signed to them first.
RBMA: So much of what you’re talking about is a precursor to the dance music that everyone in this room is familiar with, whether it be the importance of the DJ, the labels, the 12-inch edit. But one thing that’s synonymous with your productions and has had a huge effect all down the line is the breakdown. Talk to me about the breakdown and why that was so infectious in club culture.
Nile Rodgers: We knew it ‘cause even in live r&b the breakdown is important. If you see us play, we’re loud and then boom! – when the singer comes in we try and break it down. And in certain settings we have to break it down even further, just because of the dynamics of the house. That’s an integral part of r&b and groove music, to us at least, that’s the culture I grew up in. That first night at the Apollo, where Betty Wright’s sheet music took up 13 pages, it’s not ‘cause she was singing for 13 pages, but ‘cause the band was breaking down and she was talking: “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s a lot of clean-up women in the audience but I know some clean-up men out there, blah, blah.” While she was talking it went on and on and on and on, but it was that breakdown and then the band would come in and it was those different levels of groove, and that’s the Chic formula. What we do is we break it down to almost nothing and then we rebuild the track in the listeners’ ears. You hear one instrument coming in at a time. You hear it on "Dance, Dance, Dance", our first single, but you really hear us take it to a higher artform in the song "Good Times". In "Dance, Dance, Dance", obviously the two stars are me and Bernard ‘cause it’s our band. We didn’t know anyone except for Luther and those guys in those days. Me, Bernard and Rob, the keyboard player, we’re the guys, so we’re the three people who solo. Later on, when we become more of a unit, we start to feature more of the people and in "Good Times", that’s when we really have more of a solid footing. We get the breakdown, we develop it to a real artform, we believe the listeners will be able to take that long development of the groove. I’m the leader of the band and it takes me forever before we get to my part. We start to realise that all of those layers are beautiful to people. That’s when hip hop was in its infancy and we realise we have the perfect record for MCs, because the breakdown took so long to develop that they could have rhymes that would go on forever, and by coming in by coming in with different parts of the grooves, it would add dynamics to their raps. So they could just go on and on, and the next thing you know the band behind them would start to grow and they’d have different flows for different parts of the breakdowns. The Chic motto was: a song is an excuse to go to a chorus. That’s why our song start with the chorus, that’s the hook, that’s what gets you. So the song is just an excuse to go to the chorus and the chorus is just an excuse to go to the breakdown. That’s all we want to do, we just want to get to the part where we’re playing. Can you play "Good Times"?
(music: Chic – Good Times / applause)
Sorry about that – that’s the single version. So anyway, even to get out with an instrumental like that, that was revolutionary in the world of pop and r&b. You didn’t just go out and let the band play! But Chic is all about letting the band play, the interplay between the vocals and the unit, it’s all about the unit and the space. This song came out in the summer of ’79, and a really powerful incident called “disco sucks” hit America. It scorched our careers. Chic never had a hit record after that, the industry just shut us down. However, a year after this record went to number one, the two records that were running at the same time were "My Sharona" by The Knack, that was a brand-new band with their first single, and "Good Times". "My Sharona", the entire music industry in America carried it on their backs to number one. Don’t get me wrong, "My Sharona" was a great song, a really good ditty, but it was a quirky individual thing, almost like when Devo hit with – actually, that’s clever, sorry, Devo is genius – but when Devo redid "Satisfaction", whoosh! You can’t do that, only Devo can do that. When "My Sharona" came out, it was like this quirky ditty, almost a novelty record. You never heard another record go (sings it), but a year after the industry said we sucked, one year to the day, the number one record on Billboard was Queen’s "Another One Bites The Dust". And it sounds remarkably like "Good Times".
(music: Queen – Another One Bites The Dust)
And we used to play that in our live shows and the crowd would bug out. In fairness, the bass player who wrote this was in the studio when we wrote "Good Times". John Deacon of Queen, he was our boy. People don’t realise that musicians never have a problem with other musicians, unfortunately it’s the fans who go: “Oh no, I’m only into punk rock, I’m only into…” The other day we played with Johnny Marr up in Manchester. He named his son Nile, he was so into my style of playing. But no one would think of Chic and The Smiths in the same category, people who are into Chic are not into The Smiths, usually. But the truth is, musicians, we all get along. Last night, I couldn’t sleep as usual, and after looking at the photos everyone had posted of us playing with Johnny Marr, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Damn, what would the world look like if in order to run for public office or to be a world leader it was mandatory that you had to be able to play an instrument, at least sing or play an instrument?’ And then in order to have any kind of relevant public policy meeting, you had to jam first (laughter). Seriously, I’m dead serious. You all had to get into a room with your axe and make music. What do you think would happen after that session? Everyone’s being cynical and saying: “Well, so and so would be fighting and…” Let me tell you something: I have been with musicians who we were playing with for the first time in our lives, and it becomes like Chic, we become a unit. Every record I’ve ever produced, I join the band. It’s not Duran Duran produced by Nile Rodgers, it’s Nile Rodgers who’s in Duran Duran for a few months and we’re in it together. It’s just my job to make sure a record is delivered, but if you’ve ever seen me in the studio, we’re down together, we’re in it together. And I know when musicians have a mission to accomplish, you become like a sports team, like soldiers, it’s that spirit of camaraderie. It’s the same thing I felt that day those dudes said: “(hippie accent) Oh wow, look at those spade dudes with the rollerskates.” We became like a family, we became comrades, so me and the hippies, we all became one family, we were together. Once we dropped acid, it was: “Hey man, what records are you into?” “I’m into "The Hunter Only Gets Captured By The Game". What records are you into?” “I’m into "Gloria".” Next thing you know we’re down together. I know if people were forced to play together, as I was in all of my different school orchestras, people used to have to carry you ‘cause the orchestra had to sound good. You don’t want somebody to sound band. That’s my observation, my soapbox routine for the day.
RBMA: So Queen were not the only band to be influenced by "Good Times". There was a whole swathe of records that seemed to tip their hat to the "Good Times" groove.
Nile Rodgers: It’s funny, ‘cause the industry said disco – meaning Chic, ‘cause at that time we were really the band selling the most records… Atlantic Records, in the entire illustrious history of that label – and I know you all knew who they are, it’s a major tour de force when it comes to bands and originality and changing the way the world listens to music – has never had a triple platinum other than "Le Freak". That’s it, the only one in their history. People used to make fun of us and say: “You guys are paying the rent while Ahmet is signing all these other bands who aren’t doing anything.” He can go out to dinner with the Rolling Stones, meanwhile we’re the ones selling all the records. The Stones, I think at that time released "Miss You" and it sold three million units. Man, our single sold six million units! The thing that was great about the disco era is it allowed all of these baby bands to compete with these people at the top of the food chain because it was just all about what you felt like, there was no any politics involved. Then when The Knack dropped "My Sharona", all of a sudden it became political and people had to choose sides. Once they had to choose sides, it was: “Well, we’re going to choose sides with the guys who look more like us instead of those freaky dudes singing about freaks and disco.” And it was weird because the guys in The Knack actually became good friends and I even knew Sharona well. Well, shit, we’ve had fun (laughter). A year later a whole slew of records that paid homage to "Good Times" came out one after the next. Also, the beginnings of hip hop, "Rapper’s Delight" was huge.
RBMA: And Blondie definitely borrowed from you, "Rapture".
(music: Blondie – Rapture)
Nile Rodgers: Play something more radical. Do you have…?
RBMA: Like this?
Nile Rodgers: Well, this one’s obvious. We played this live, too, we used to put it into a medley of "Good Times" songs. "Radio Clash", do you have something like that? Or INXS, (sings it) "New Sensation". None of the bands had a problem. Do you have "Radio Clash"?
(music: INXS – New Sensation)
RBMA: And of course this would lead to the original rap lawsuit, right?
Nile Rodgers: Yeah, but hey, do you have "Rapper’s Delight"? Because that was more revolutionary, because this was the beginning of sampling. Up until this time no one had taken a bit from someone else’s record and stuck it on their record. And everyone used to think this was Chic playing but I knew right away this wasn’t Chic playing.
(music: The Clash – Radio Clash)
In these days, what bands used to do before people sampled, we were be inspired by the artist and then we’d do our version of their groove. So it’s not exactly the same but in the style of.
RBMA: Let’s talk about one of the most famous samples ever.
Nile Rodgers: »So this record changed my life and it changed music, it changed all music.
(music: Sugarhill Gang – Rapper’s Delight)
There’s the sample [, the string sweep].
(laughs / music continues)
RBMA: We all know that record.
Nile Rodgers: No, kidding.
RBMA: Apart from being one of the first examples of hip hop recorded onto vinyl and without question the most famous record that Sugar Hill ever released, it was probably the first high-profile example of sampling and the lawsuit that followed. Tell us about that.
Nile Rodgers: What’s interesting is they put the sample right up front like that, right out in the open. Remember we’re part of the culture, we’re hanging in the clubs and know all the DJs. We knew when a DJ puts on a song that’s really, really long, that’s when the DJ went to the bathroom. So he had either a reel-to-reel tape recorder or some apprentice in there playing the song, so he can go to the bathroom or talk to some girls or get a drink. So when I heard this obviously I knew that’s not Bernard playing the bass or me on guitar. And I was cool with that because we all did this. There’s still a famous remix of "Love Is The Message", a two-track, that me and my partner did. It’s had like 30 different lives, ‘cause that sample, that loop (sings it), we created that loop in the studio. We had a tape going outdoors and it was a bunch mic stands going around and around and around. And that two-track keeps getting added to over and over again and that’s our loop. It’s funny, when we created that loop, we had it running outdoors and it started raining and it was going (sings it), then all of a sudden it went (slows down). What the fuck is that? It had rained outside and the tape loop went all the way outside and back into the studio. ‘Cause you had to keep the tension on the tape so the tape recorder would keep at the same speed. Anyway, so we were accustomed to people recording the exact groove or something that sounded like that and then you’d do an insert on the two-track and sell it to DJs ‘cause everyone wanted a breakdown. But we were cool; when I heard that sample right at the front of the record, I knew that was my record ‘cause I’m the producer, I know what my records sound like, I know what the strings sound like and I know what the Power Station where we recorded it sounds like, and I know those echo chambers – we used to call it the women’s bathroom, you know what it sounds like and it’s so distinctive – and I heard it go (high-pitched noise). And I thought he had our record and I looked over and he was standing at the bar. I thought it was some magical trick. How did he do that? And he admitted he’d bought it in Harlem that afternoon and he showed me the album and it had Sugar Hill Records and all these names on it and one of them wasn’t mine or Bernard’s. I was like: “Woah! What’s up with that?” We tracked them down and it’s so funny how everything in my life is so damned ironic. When you get to the end of the Sugar Hill chain, you wind up with one guy, Morris Levy. When you get to the end of the Buddha chain, you wind up with… So now we have to sue probably the most terrifying, powerful person in the record business. And we had to do it all by ourselves because the record label would not go up against him. Morris Levy was so bad – how bad was he? – he was so powerful he sued John Lennon and won. Nobody wanted to go up against Morris Levy because he didn’t even went into court. Probably people figured he had the judge paid off. So anyway, we sued by ourselves and at the end of the day – I really truly believe this, I talk in my book about where guys come in with guns and threaten us and all sorts of stuff, but we still stand our ground – in the end we sued. And if you look at Rapper’s Delight now, our names are on it, a 50/50 split. And we established that precedent in hip hop and in sampling, ‘cause they’re sampling rock records, too, don’t get it twisted, there are samples all over the place. But what happened was we’d said: “Man, you can’t do that to a film.” At the time we got signed, Star Wars was the big movie. Imagine I’m doing a music video and if I snatched a bit of Star Wars and stick it in my music video, you can’t do that. You can’t snatch a piece of my record and stick it on your record ‘cause you don’t want to pay for the string players we had to pay for, you don’t want to pay for Bob Clearmountain, you don’t want to pay for Bernard Edwards. That’s it. Those copyright laws were already in effect, but somebody needed to challenge it and we challenged it and eventually they acquiesced and we settled. It was pretty incredible because – I don’t know if you guys have ever seen it, I’ve only ever seen it once in my life – but a half-million in cash is unbelievable to look at (laughs). Especially when it’s all street money, it’s all different sizes, not neatly packed. So after we finished our lawsuit, which wound up not going to court and we settled, Morris Levy, even though he’s really tough and everybody’s afraid of him, cooler heads prevailed. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was only available as a 12-inch for a very long time. I don’t even know the 7-inch version of it. That means the suggested retail price was three times of the normal single and it went multi-platinum. Can you imagine the royalties from that single? It was unheard of. So I guess at the time it was: “Yes, it’s a lot of money, but is it worth it?” The unsung hero at the time is our attorney at the time, who used to work for Morris Levy in the early days, he probably knew where all the bodies were buried, literally, and he said: “Look Morris, these are great guys, super-fair, you need to be fair with them.” So after we settled and established this new precedent, which actually already existed, everything wound up fine and my life changed. I’ve had a number of records go number one, songs that I made years and years ago, that I never thought would have a secondary life, but which we loved, but it was after the “disco sucks” thing happened and, as I said, Chic never had another hit single again – meaning the band Chic, the Chic organisation did great, but the band never had another hit. But we did a song called "Soup For One", which was sampled by Modjo and they made a hit record out of it called "Lady". It was amazing to me that someone could make a hit out of ‘Soup For One’. We thought it was a great record at the time, but you know when you do a record and it’s not having it and you think it’s your fault. But then Modjo did "Lady" and it was the bomb. And then, of course, Will Smith did "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It". The joke in America for a while was when Puff – who’s my boy, so I can say this – when Puff wanted another number one record he’d just sample another Nile Rodgers song (laughter).
RBMA: It’s true, it’s true. Can you list them for a second?
RBMA: "Notorious", Duran Duran.
Nile Rodgers: Yes, Notorious B.I.G.. That was Duran Duran even, right? Then Ma$e, "Been Around The World". And the famous one, Diana Ross, "I’m Coming Out" for "Mo Money Mo Problems". All of those records, when you come to my house, you can see that I have the BMI list for one million plays. When a song hits one million plays on the radio, you get a special certificate. So I have a million plays for the original one and a million plays for "Getting Jiggy Wit It" for the other songs (applause).
(music: Chic - Soup For One / applause)
It makes me really proud when new musicians find tracks like that, which I love. I understand it may not be commercial on the same level as something like "Le Freak" or "I Want Your Love", but it has a certain je ne sais quoi, it’s chic and arty, got those cool chord changes. It’s wow!
RBMA: The fact you are so sampled obviously indicates you are the master of that groove. I was always interested to know when you’re songwriting does the groove or the song come first?
Nile Rodgers: It changes depending upon the mood, the time of day, the job. If I’m hired to write an album, a song, it’s all over the map. I did a film called Coming To America with my partner over there Rich (points to Rich sitting in the audience) for the first time when we were working together. Give it up for Rich (applause). The first time we worked together he came – did you audition? How did I hire you? (inaudible) And then brought your ass to L.A. (inaudible response). So now I’m hired to do this film Coming To America and what happened was – this is the way the story was told to me – John Landis, the director of the film, said Eddie Murphy had seen this film called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, about the quatrains of Nostradamus and he predicted the exact day of the big earthquake where California was going to fall into the ocean. So we had to have principal photography wrapped by a certain day. So we moved to California, basically we moved in on the Paramount lot. Rich and I were there 17 hours a day, some days would be even longer than that. The way I composed for that film, they would give us dailies ‘cause they didn’t know what part was going to be scored. You film the movie, they edit it all together and then you stand with the director and do what they call spotting, and he goes: “OK, right here the villains are doing it…” Or: “Here they fall in love.” So they’d give me dailies and I’d have to watch the film and understand what was going on and write to that right on the spot, take those thumbnails home and work on it. I’d get together with Rich the next day ‘cause I had a Synclavier, and we’d do mock orchestrations of it and then we had to present it for the director. So in that case I was being an artistic technocrat. I had a job to do and I had to do it on the spot. I couldn’t say: “(hippie voice) Oh man, I’m not feeling it today, let me drop a little tab of acid.” I was hired to do something and I had to do it and in my opinion it had to be great. In the end Coming To America turned out amazing and I don’t think it would have been that amazing had it not been for voluntary indentured slavery. It was a tough job and we did it and it came out wonderful, as opposed to sometimes with Chic records, which are at my leisure. I’d get a collection of songs and go: “Oh, I think maybe I’m supposed to do an album now.” I’m not being evasive, it just changes and I love being put under pressure. Actually now I think about it, almost every Chic record was done under pressure ‘cause we put ourselves under pressure ‘cause I think we worked better that way. So grooves come first. In the case of "Le Freak", we had been denied access to Studio 54, even though Grace Jones had told us that we were her personal guests. So we wrote a song called "Ah Fuck Off". It was great to us. Maybe if we broadcast this I’ll say it was "Ah Eff Off" and it was totally based on a groove. We just sat around doing (plays guitar) and what is great is that when I did this Bernard was sitting there and letting me groove. He was laughing and making up words. I was (plays guitar, sings): “Eff off! At Studio 54.” We got into it and started writing a bridge and he was saying (sings). He got really into it and said: “Wow, that’s really happening, man.” We used to groove all the time for fun. We had a blast just jamming and we turned that groove into a song, so we reverse engineered it, from something that felt good and groovy we wrote a song. Like "Everybody Dance", that was written from a groove and then hip chord changes afterwards.
(music: Chic – Le Freak / applause)
You know what’s really funny is when I listen to it – when I’m playing onstage I don’t think about this – but now when I listen to it we were very conscious of the fact we were making a record. When you hear the transitions, when we go from a verse to a chorus, it’s those simple nuances that let you know, as a band, as a unit, we’re switching to the chorus. So the part becomes modified, there are transition fills that let you know we’re going to the next section. It’s not like a loop record where the thing comes and then dramatically shifts. The thing I’ve noticed about some of the great producers who make records from other people’s live performances is they’re so conscious of that, they get the only part of the record that’s viable to loop. When you watch Timbaland, he already knows to get to the bit at four and a half minutes, because that’s the part that’s loopable, because we’re playing it differently all the time. Especially, when I play those 16-note accents - and I don’t play it going to the verse - if you loop that part, it’s going to be different than if you loop another part. We sang and performed every bit of it, the notes, the claps, there’s nothing that has the benefit of a loop. The very first time that I superimposed something we made as a uniform group and then put it into a record, I was doing a record with Hall & Oates called "Adult Education". I had my Synclavier and I told Daryl and John that all we had to do is get it right once. “What do you mean?” “Yeah, we just have to really get it right once, the exact way we want it to be.” “Then what happens?” “I’m going to sample it on my Synclavier and then fly it in.” “You’re kidding me. We don’t have to sing this all day long?” “No.” I went out onto 8th Street and grabbed a bunch of girls who were walking around and said: “I just want you to go ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah.’” And they said: “But we’re not really singers.” And I said: “Exactly! You’re supposed to sound like students in a classroom, the way we sounded when we were kids.” And I think that’s changed our records to a huge extent, the randomness of this type of thing is its own wonderful old-school r&b thing. That’s not to say other stuff isn’t valid, it’s just a different artform. The thing is there’s something a little different when you listen to random events and when people are performing at random events. When I did the album with Madonna, "Like A Virgin", she came in and all of the demos were all sequenced. I said to her: “What if we play most of this stuff?” She said: “But how can you play that?” I said: “No, we can actually do that.” And the first thing I showed her was this song "Dress You Up". And the demo of "Dress You Up" is sequenced, the bass was (sings). I had my guys come in and I said: “Watch this shit.” I had Robbie go (sings bass staccato). So most of that record is played. There’s a couple of tracks that do use drummachine ‘cause it’s an integral part of the sound of the demo and the sound of the song. But almost everything on that record is basically Chic playing the record. The reason it doesn’t sound like a Chic record is because we see to that artist – we’re not trying to make a Chic record, we’re making a Madonna record. The reason I tried to insist upon it is I wanted her to be seen as an artist on a higher level. And unfortunately when she gave me those demos – and you’ve got to remember, you’ve gotta go back in time and remember it was different, like today the singer is basically just beating you up – there’s no part where Shakira ain’t singing. Singing, singing, singing, singing. But that’s not what we did in those days. A dance record was eight or nine minutes long. How you going to sing for eight or nine minutes? It’s not interesting. Now I’ll go to a club and I’m amazed at how short a dance record is. It’s like, damn, three minutes? Where’s the rest of it? And the breakdown and the whole of the record is inside of three and a half/four minutes, and it’s done. And they’ll play a massive amount of songs in a night, but in the old days you could hear 60/70 songs in the entire night, because songs would have long breakdowns and the DJ would groove forever. So I wanted Madonna to be thought of more as an artist, where there’s an interplay with the band. And I know that artists sing differently when the track is moving around, you interpret differently, you can’t help it, if you’re a real artist. And I wanted her to become that real thing, ‘cause by the time we made that record she had proven to me that she had that work ethic. She was that magical thing. I’ve never made a record as successful as "Like A Virgin" and neither has she. So there’s something to be said for that combination of old school and new school. There’s a marriage that does something very unique and I think that’s why so many sampled records are phenomenal ‘cause they capture the essence of the thing and they catch it in a moment of time and they keep whipping it back on you. It’s like you can’t resist that thing. That’s just an opinion, but that’s what it sounds like to me.
RBMA: So we’ve just listened to "Le Freak" and that really sums up Chic at their hottest, when it was really jumping off in the quote/unquote disco era. I just wanted to ask you what your relationship is like with the word disco, because you’ve talked about the “disco sucks” and being associated with it. What did that do for you and how did it hinder you being directly associated with that time and that movement?
Nile Rodgers: At the time I was really hurt, not because I was anti-disco. I loved disco, I was the first one to go to a disco, hanging out, dancing all the time. But I thought it was disingenuous because Chic wasn’t a disco band, we had a couple of disco hits, but if you buy a Chic album, we were just a regular r&b band. We were doing the same thing Kool & The Gang were doing, we had instrumentals, ballads. If you compare the first Chic record to the first Village People record or Cerrone, Silver Convention, all of these really hot disco acts happening at the time, our records were nothing like theirs. We always had an instrumental, the band played, nothing was sequenced. I didn’t even know what a sequencer was, I swear. When I first heard Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder doing that stuff, I thought the guy was God – I still think he’s God – but I thought he was God from a groove point of view. I couldn’t believe how anyone could play like that. I was: “Damn, I can’t wait to meet this dude and make records.” That’s how I developed I ‘Want Your Love’. If you listen to that, that’s me imitating a sequencer. I didn’t know you could buy something that goes (imitates sequencer), I didn’t know you could buy something that would go… (imitates sequencer) “Damn, I need to learn that.” I wanted to learn that so bad. I actually dreamt that song, I wanted to be that guy so much, wanted that precise (imitates sequencer). I just thought it was the funkiest thing I could imagine. And when I wrote "I Want Your Love" I was literally trying to do that and it wasn’t until a month later that I found out there was something called a sequencer. I thought it was just the name of a synthesiser, just a cool name. I didn’t know it had a clock function. We used to achieve that same effect by using a device called a Keypex that would basically open and close the audible signal. We did this on our very first record, "Everybody Dance", the keyboard player I used, one of my jazz friends, and I loved the dude and wanted him on my record, but he couldn’t play funky. So he played the best he could and Bob Clearmountain had me key his rhythm from my guitar playing. I’m (sings) and he’s doing whatever he’s doing, but when you hear it on the record you’ll hear all sorts of mistakes, he can’t play the chord changes. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this guy used to be my hero. Now he’s on my record and he can’t hang with Chic’. It was incredible. But when you hear that 12-inch and that funky clavinet, that’s me playing the rhythm and he’s holding the chord changes. So we did that on a number of records. If you listen to Diana Ross’ "Upside Down", the strings are going (imitates sequencer). That’s how much I wanted to be Giorgio. We didn’t know how to do it. We had the strings playing half notes and Tony’s hi-hat going (imitates sequencer), bring the gates in. I’m not sure everybody knows this, but when we turned that album in Motown hated and weren’t going to release it. They tried to remix it and at some point they called us up and they were furious: “Why did you erase those strings?” “What are you talking about?” “The strings you gave us on the demo…” – which wasn’t a demo, we actually mixed the record – “tThe strings you gave us on the mix are all gone. Are you that pissed off at us? It’s our property?” “Tch! What kind of engineers do you have? You can’t even figure out we did this on our first record. So, all you have to do is this, this and that and you’ll have the strings.” So they did that, they copied it, and the next thing you know, even their lame mix – although it was still a huge record, the biggest of our career – used that technique. I was always influenced by some of the disco innovations, but we didn’t know how to do it. So we pulled if off our way. Maybe it was a good thing we didn’t have a sequencer, it forced me to do that thing. I probably would never have done "I Want Your Love" like that.
RBMA: Before we step into the ‘80s and Chic in the production realm, indulge us and let us know what New York was like at that time. I know you were a regular at some of the most famous clubnights of all time and you paint a vivid picture of what it was like to hang out at Studio 54 and all of those classic spots.
Nile Rodgers: It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had. If you took that chunk out of life, you boys and girls wouldn’t be who you are. That era was so powerful and so Bohemian, so revolutionary and so open, it gave us probably a false sense of power, a false sense of what we could do. In fact, the big companies were still in control, but we felt like we were able to push against the boundaries. I don’t know if they still have record pools, because I don’t know if they still service DJs with vinyl, but in my day every record came out on vinyl. I think the record companies used the record pools to co-opt the power that the artists had, because when we could go to the DJ with our own record we had an edge. But when the company says: “We’ll give you all the records free,” and all you had to do was report. Oh, oh! They took away our power because now they had a tool. The DJs didn’t have to buy all those records, they could get them free. And I’m pretty sure they’d say: “Report on our records.” I can’t swear to it, but why not, if you have that kind of financial power over people? So it went from this great Bohemian people-propelled ground-up movement – ‘cause we really were in control – it shifted. You had the whole “disco sucks” thing and they had to circle the wagons, protect the industry and the money. The money was massive. You think it’s big now – yeah, it’s big if you’re Gaga or Jay-Z or Rihanna, yeah it’s ridiculous – but in the old days you didn’t have to be anywhere near that and you were still generating millions and millions of dollars. How many artists were signed to Atlantic Records when we went triple platinum? Dozens and dozens and dozens. And they would get second and third albums because they were still making money, they were still part of this gigantic food chain. They only got dropped when they stopped making money. You could have a flop, relatively speaking, and still be pretty successful. One thing a lot of people don’t understand, the great thing about music, unlike the other electronic arts, it doesn’t have to be translated. We can all understand it. I can go and play ‘Le Freak’ in Russia and sing it just like that and everyone sings the songs. A few years ago we did a gig in Vegas and it was all Pacific Rim, what they call mini-dragons, all Asian millionaires and billionaires and the hotel had paid for them to come there. Nobody could speak English. Man, we go into a song and next thing you know it’s perfect English in the room: “(sings) Have you heard about the new dance craze?” Song’s over and it’s (speaks foreign language), Mandarin or Cantonese. Then the next record comes in and it’s like: “(sings) My forbidden lover.” The record’s over and it’s boom, back to Chinese. Think about it, how profitable is that? If you do a film, you’ve got to put in subtitles. You do a book – I have a book out now – in Spain no one can read it unless it’s translated. A record, super-profitable. I remember we did the album with ‘Good Times’ and the company was so greedy that they over-pressed with the stamp. There’s only a certain amount you can get out of one vinyl stamp to press vinyl. “Push the limits here, let’s do double the amount.” When Bernard and I went into quality control it, we saw that half the records didn’t play – they just shipped them to Indonesia. I couldn’t believe it, I was so embarrassed. But in Indonesia it was just fine, they’d put it on and went: “(sings) Good times.” It’s a highly profitable business ‘cause once you make it and you hit that number, just ship it out the door. You don’t have to do any more work. Obviously, the powers that be really want to protect that business and I understand why that type of greed is very seductive. People who are in the business or want to get in to the business, the first thing you have to do is better to make sure you love this. Chances are you will never make it to the level of Jay-Z and Rihanna. I never believed I’d make it to the level I made it to, but I always believed I’d be a working musicians and be able to pay my bills and live the life I wanted to live. And that I’d be able to play music for a living. And if you want to do that, that’s absolutely achievable, you can do it, be you a DJ, singer, musician, whatever. It’s great to set your sights on the brass ring, but make sure you love what you’re doing, that even if you don’t get paid you still show up for work.
RBMA: So we’ve spoken about your experiences as an artist, in the band, as a songwriter, I think it’s really important we dedicate a portion of this talk to the art of producing ‘cause that’s dominated so much.
Nile Rodgers: Yeah, do we get a break so I can go to the bathroom?
RBMA: Absolutely, you can get a bathroom break at any time, I need to as well.
Nile Rodgers: Bathroom breaks are an essential part of record production.
RBMA: Here we go.
Nile Rodgers: That’s three.
RBMA: Five-minute bathroom break.
(music: Chic – I Want Your Love)