In his 25-year career, Nile Rodgers has gathered an amazing
array of credits: producer, songwriter, guitarist, and entrepreneur. He
is the phantom-like figure behind the work of many superstar artists, including
Madonna, Diana Ross, and David Bowie. Records bearing the stamp of his unique
talents have sold more than 110 million copies and generated an estimated
$3.5 billion in revenues.
At 47, Rodgers is a respected veteran in a business in
which careers are notoriously short. In 1992, he received a Lifetime Achievement
Award from the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences. For
over 25 years, as a producer, composer, arranger and performer, Nile Rodgers
has promoted an astonishingly wide range of musicians and musical styles.
Now he aims to do the same with his business ventures, which are infused
with a spirit of social activism befitting the one-time Black Panther. "I
want to have a company that will give people a voice," he says.
Q: How does it feel to be at a point in your life and career where people are citing you as an influence?
A: It's weird, very strange. I was working on some music this morning, and these kids were in the studio, and they were like, "Nile Rodgers...wow, I started playing guitar because of you!" I thought, "Do I look that old?" [Laughs]
Q: Does it make you feel old when people respond to you that way?
A: It doesn't. But I don't always know how to react to
it. I'm at a point in my life where I now take a compliment in the same
way I take a slur. I just smile and say "cool." I don't want to
overdo either feeling.
Q: Does the reverence people show inhibit you in your work?
A: Not really. I'm a normal kind of guy. At the same time, I'm highly opinionated. I know that my opinions and work and ideas are somewhat left-of-center. Yet, I feel normal. Still, I know that when I look at my career, it's anything but normal. It's a life of contradictions.
On one level, it's successful and focused. In fact, it's
almost so successful that it makes the artists I've worked with rebel against
it. I can understand why someone who achieves a certain artistic stature
on his or her own does something wacky with me, and it stands out to the
point of feeling uncomfortable. I had that with Bowie and Madonna and even
Diana Ross. You do something quirky and then you wonder where did those
numbers come from? Ironically, I didn't do any of the follow-up records
with many of those artists.
Q: Was it because it freaked them out?
A: I have no idea. It could be that. If you have a record as big as "Like A Virgin," you think, "Why not do the same record?" I know that Madonna wanted to do the next record with me, but I was committed to another project already.
Q: It's interesting that those records were with artists who were viewed as being visionaries.
A: I've worried about my relationships with artists. Do I do too much? Do I back off and do less? Production for me is very psychological. It's taxing. When I'm in the studio, I'm trying to make the best record I can. I'm not trying to show how great I am, but how great the artist is.
Q: Although you have a very distinctive sound as a producer, you haven't always overpowered the artist. On "Like A Virgin," for example, you drew some very interesting, creative things out of Madonna at a time when it was necessary for her career.
A: I remember saying to her, "Here's the difference between people perceiving you as an artist or as a pop icon." We could've done "Like A Virgin" like her first record, with lots of sequencers. But I wanted to go deeper. I told her, "If we let the musicians perform it, then we benefit from their interpretation, their vibe and their experience." She went for it.
Q: Moving on to your other production projects, what would you say was the most striking or memorable element of making "Let's Dance" with David Bowie?
A: The absolute admiration I had for David as an artistic figure. Of all the people I've worked with, when I'm in the room with David, I feel like I'm in the room with the embodiment of musical art. That's heavy if you think about it. It's different than being with a great musical artist. When we were making "Let's Dance," I felt like I was in the room with the musical equivalent to Picasso.
Q: Did it surprise you that the record exploded like it did?
A: No, what surprised me was that David liked the record [laughs]! I knew it was a happening record, but I didn't know if he would feel it. He took a lot of criticism at that time for choosing a disco producer to make his record. But he was cool with it. He knew that we were making an important record. We were upsetting the foundation of the more traditional rock type of records.
Q: What about Diana Ross? She was already a superstar with a very specific sound before you worked with her.
A: The "Diana" record was about liberation on every level. She was willing to change everything about what she was doing up to that moment in time. That album reinvented a star from the ground up. She moved from the West Coast to Fifth Avenue. She went from wearing glamour-girl outfits to being the glamour herself. She became a jazzier, more sophisticated version of who she was previously.
Q: The record was lean. It spoke to kids ... kids on the street, and it spoke to her gay audience in a way her previous records hadn't.
A: This may not be common knowledge, but here's the story of "I'm Coming Out." Back in the day, New York was a hotbed of really hip nightclubs. The most innovative clubs were in New York. And at that time, the gay clubs were the most avant-garde. Anyone who was on the cutting edge would go to the gay clubs for the vibe, for the outspoken artistry. Every time I went to a club opening, there were people dressed up like Diana. I thought, what would that moment look like when Diana Ross steps out on stage and sings the words "I'm coming out?" What would the audience think? We interviewed Diana for the content of the record. It was all about the fact that she wanted to have a new life. It was all about "new" for her. I just kept thinking of the words "I'm coming out." But I'm also thinking about people hiding inside all their lives, and they're showing the world where they're coming from. I thought "I'm Coming Out" would be the perfect statement -- and I applied that to her life. I never made any reference to her about people coming out of the closet or anything like that. I just wrote the song, and I told her that she inspired the words, which is true. The sexual implications were just there. The song is ultimately about anyone in the prime of his or her life taking the bull by the horns. That song is among those that I'm most proud of. I went to a club recently, and the DJ played "I'm Coming Out," and it was wild. It still sounds amazing. I stood there feeling like a parent proud of his child.
Q: In your heart of hearts, did you think all of this would happen when you and Bernard Edwards got together?
A: Totally. We were so confident, and that kept us going during the tough times. It wasn't egotistical. We'd get on stage, play our music, and people would react well. Here's a true story: We had a booking agent right before we became Chic. We were toying with various names. I think we were still the Big Apple Band at that time. We were playing this club in Woodside, Queens. It was frequented by a lot of tough-types...bikers and the like. We get onstage, and the crowd wasn't initially digging us. But we kept at it, and we started to win them over. The owner walks in, and he hadn't seen us before we were booked. He sees us and he started flipping out, screaming "Get those niggers off my stage." His girlfriend was there, and she was like, "Listen to them. They've got something special going." When we got off stage, our friend came up to us and said, "Get outta here. The owner's racist, and he's flipping." Well, the owner comes over -- not only did he ask us to stay, but we raised the price on him [Laughs]! We wound up playing there for months. That was our proof that our grooves could seduce people. We knew we were more than just urban. I hate to use the term "crossover" to describe our music, but it was. We realized that we had music that crossed the color line. Our jazz friends like our music as much as the pop and rock world.
Q: Is there one Chic song that you feel best captures the band?
A: "Good Times." It's the ultimate Chic song. It was on our third album. We knew who we were by then. It was built on a jam-session groove, but it still had a unique string texture. That string is still sampled on thousands of records...forget about the groove!
Q: What do you think about sampling?
A: Nowadays, I look at it differently than when I first became aware of it. The Sugarhill Gang's record "Rapper's Delight" [which used much of "Good Times"] was copyright infringement. It was theft. Their record had my arrangements, my ideas, my everything. And then I'm not going to get paid for it? No way. The origin of that record came from my brain. It was my stuff; pay me for it. This offended me to the core of my being. I worked all my life to create music. I wasn't about to let someone take something I worked so hard for.
Q: What do you think about the more recent uses of your records?
A: Now I look at it as more of a tool to create music. It's like having a tool that can help you have a few shortcuts.
Q: Isn't it the cheap way out?
A: It could be. But it can also be the sensible way out. It can help you, on a practical level, get started. But it's not necessarily the answer on an artistic or spiritual level. Back with Bernard, even if something sounded remotely like something else, we'd change it.
Q: It must be hard to not have Bernard here.
A: It is. We were the best of friends. I miss his presence very much. We were different, but identical at the same time ... if that makes any sense.
Q: Could there be another Chic record without Bernard?
A: I don't think there can be at this time. But I'm now feeling confident enough to do another Nile Rodgers record. I can do it and not feel like I have to prove anything. I can make it and feel good about it, regardless.
Q: What will it sound like?
A: It will be based on incredible grooves -- and it will be the kind of record that will work in a club. I'm a club guy. When I write a song, it will be wholly dedicated to the club lifestyle ... to the dance lifestyle. When I look back on my life and career, that's the most free, most artistic place I could choose to be. You can go into a club and not feel intimidated. Once the doors close behind you, you can just dance your heart out.
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