Perhaps it's no coincidence
that Skyline Studios, Nile Rodgers' recording headquarters, is located a
few steps away from New York City's high-fashion district on Fifth Avenue.
After all, Nile influenced many pop music fashions while playing with or
producing trend-setting artists such as Chic, the Vaughan Brothers, Diana Ross, Jeff
Beck, David Bowie, Madonna, and the B-52's.
Countless others-INXS, Queen,
Naked Eyes and Captain Sensible among them-scored their biggest hits by
appropriating the rhythm guitar groove of Chic's "Good
Times." The song even kicked the rap movement into gear a dozen
years ago when the Sugarhill Gang stole its riff for the first certified
rap hit, "Rapper's Delight."
* Like the best fashions, Rodgers'
playing is timeless-funky, fresh and fine. And the man loves to play guitar.
He excitedly demonstrated rhythms on an early- '60s gold Strat throughout
the interview, his short dreadlocks swaying to the rhythm.
* "I love funky playing,"
Nile smiles. "I really developed my style while playing jazz standards
like 'So What' with my guitar teacher in a club. He was comping in the traditional
way. I thought, 'What am I going to do? He's got it covered.' So I tried
to fill in the holes, swinging it like a drummer, and the whole club went
'Whew! That, brother, is funky!' And I said, 'Yes sir, I guess it is.' I
thought we were just playing jazz. I didn't realize it was funky jazz. Then
I started doing it all the time."
* Rodgers' musical career took
off in the mid '70s when he formed Chic with bassist Bernard Edwards and
drummer Tony Thompson. Chic's first single, "Dance,
Dance, Dance" soared to the Top 10 during the height of the disco
craze. Their third hit, "Le
Freak," became Warner Brothers' all-time best-selling single. But
by the beginning of the '80s, the disco craze had faded, and Chic struggled
with internal and external conflicts. The group split in '83 after recording
its seventh album, and Rodgers and Edwards embarked on highly successful
But Chic had an informal reunion at Nile's birthday party
two years ago. "We played 'Good Times' and 'Le Freak,'" says Nile.
"The vibe was intense. People were crying and getting emotional, things
I don't necessarily associate with my type of music. We felt maybe we should
do this again." So in 1991 Rodgers and Edwards started working on a
new Chic album. The result, Chic-ism [Warner Bros.], updates the
group's signature sound-funky guitar and bass, dual female vocals, and strings-with
a '90s attitude.
"We were just playing and having a good time,"
notes Rodgers. "If we had thought it out more, we would have tried
to make a more blatantly commercial record. That's what lies in store for
us next time. But first we had to get to know each other again. We had to
play, write songs, and groove.
"In R&B and dance music, people don't play together
to make records anymore. That used to be the backbone. You couldn't be a
big R&B artist unless your band was amazing. You would go in with a
great rhythm section and lay down the foundation, but nowadays the foundation
is laid down by machines. It was such a big void in our lives that we needed
to fill again. We made this record for ourselves, even though as artists
and producers we should have made the record for the audience."
The groove on Chic-ism doesn't let up. From Rodgers'
multi-tracked, sequencer-like rhythms on "Chic
Mystique" to the low-down vibe of "Jusagroove"
to the funky instrumental chord melody of "M.M.F.T.C.F.,"
the record sounds like an audio catalog of the hippest '70s funk guitar
and bass styles.
"On 'M.M.F.T.C.F.' I was trying to bring back a lost
art," Rodgers comments. "When I started playing guitar, there
were hit records like 'Scorpio' where guitars played the melody with chords.
They were sexy. I don't hear that at all on records nowadays." To get
in the mood, Nile stroked a Gibson ES-335. "It was a romantic thing,"
"I always imagined those dudes playing those guitars.
It was the first time I ever recorded with one." Rodgers also used
a variety of Strats and Teles on the record.
On the title track and "In
It To Win It," Nile revives another classic funk sound: the wah-wah.
"Never keep time with the pedal," he cautions. "Use it for
expression, and keep time with your hands. The greatest example of that
kind of playing is 'Theme From Shaft.' You leave it down a certain
amount of time and use it for emphasis. Every now and then I'll keep time
with it to do a train effect, but most of the time I make it wah only when
I want it to wah."
Nile occasionally utilizes chorus and envelope filter effects,
but since he has a full array of outboard studio gear, he rarely uses effects
while recording guitar tracks; he plugs straight into the board and experiments
with effects later. "I don't want to be locked into using a particular
effect," he explains.
Nile is very particular about amps: "They're the hardest
thing for me to be satisfied with. I like warmth and roundness, but also
chunkiness, weight, and heaviness." His preference shifts between four
favorites: a Fender Concert, a Soldano, a Seymour Duncan Convertible, and
an original tweed 4x10 Bassman. While working with the B-52's, he also fell
in love with the sound of an original Vox AC-30 amp. Nile compared original
AC-30s and Bassmans with their respective reissues and says he prefers the
originals: "The reissues sound pretty good, but they're different.
I'd buy one to do its own thing, but not to replace the original. I did
a record where Jimmie Lee Vaughan played a solo with a new Bassman instead
of an original because the new one sounded coolest for what he was doing."
Nile's relationship with Stevie Ray Vaughan dated back
to Vaughan's appearance on David Bowie's Let's Dance album. "I
had never met a more kind, honest, sincere, great, and naive person,"
remarks Rodgers. "He was a wonderful person." After working with
Jimmie and Stevie on the Vaughan Brothers album and watching how they got
along together, Nile laments that they never had the chance to tour or create
the masterpiece album they heard in their hearts and heads: "In retrospect,
I'm a little dissappointed with myself. Something was developing-not only
between Jimmie and Stevie and myself, but between all of the musicians involved.
My responsibility at the time was to get the project done, to prove that
they could do it and have fun, and later get to work on the real deal. I
did the best job I could, but I never got to develop that relationship artistically
to the next level."
Rodgers also produced Jeff Beck's Grammy-winning Flash
album. While Beck and Rodgers had a great time making the record and going
to clubs and parties, Beck later expressed disappointment in Nile's efforts.
"I was a little hurt," Nile admits, "but my feelings and
respect for him are still exactly the same. Whenever I hear him play, I'm
blown away. Honestly, we were not prepared. I thought it peculiar that Jeff
wasn't more prepared. I guess he had other interests. Maybe things weren't
going right, you know, like when I tried to get him back together with Rod
Stewart, because I loved the Jeff Beck Group. But I thought we came out
with a fairly noble album."
Throughout the highs and lows of his career, Nile has remained
faithful to the power of music. While touring with Chic in the '70s, he
experienced firsthand how music can break down cultural barriers. "We
did a gig in a town in Tennessee where they hadn't had a concert since Elvis
played there in the '50s," he recalls. "They were so shocked by
his performance that they banned rock and roll concerts. All these families
and hicks showed up-you know, the kind of people who if they saw us on the
street would have been going, 'You niggers! Get out of here!' We played
the concert and people were groovin', having the time of their lives dancing
with their kids and partying. They went wild. We probably looked like we
were from Mars to these people, and they certainly looked like they were
from Mars to us. But the power of the music, the vibe, the honesty and purity
of musicians playing their hearts out really spoke to these people. Whatever
fears they had were nullified. That's what music is all about."