Article in down beat magazine, september 1985, 
by Gene Santoro, photos by Ebet Roberts

NILE RODGERS Sophisticated Funk


In Funkland there are many traditions, only two of which need concern us right now. The first comprises guitarists who could be described as Rhythm Masters, whose main role is to propel the music-and listernes' feet-with stuttering, syncopated chordal lines and arpeggiations that function like a riffing horn section; Jimmy Nolen and Stevie Cropper are among the art's best-known practitioners. The second consists of Producer/Auteurs who, from Chess' Leonard Chess to Motown's Berry Gordy to Sugarhill's Sylvia Robinson, pull together a stable of musical soulmates to make consistently good, chart-topping music. Nile Rodgers is one point where those traditions meet.

Which is why, for example, David Bowie approached Chic's co-founder/co-producer almost four years ago and asked him to co-produce and play on Let's Dance, and why the lineup for the 32-year-old techno-funketeer's services seems endless. Among those who have received the patented Rodgers studio treatment are Madonna, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Diana Ross, Kim Carnes and Sister Sledge; those awaiting it include Laurie Andersson, the Thompson Twins, Sheena Easton, and Philip Bailey. Clearly, Nile Rodgers must be doing something right.

And, with the release of his first solo LP since 1983's Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove, he's doing it for himself as well. Although the production credits list Tommy "Rock" Jymi as co-producer, Nile explains, "Tommy Jymi is me, my alter ego, the rock & roll part of me. The name comes from a comedy tape I heard a long time ago, so now whenever I do something weird I let Tommy Jymi take the weight [laughs]." Since the length and breadth of his musical training leave tell-tale signs all over the new LP, B-Movie Matinee, he needn't have worried.

That training started early. "I'd played in school bands-flute, clarinet, saxophone," is how he tells it, "and I always felt like I was going to be a musician. From an early age, I could get melodies and songs out of any instrument I picked up." Rodgers' father, a percussionist with Sam Cooke and Harry Belafonte, and an uncle with a knack for orchestration, supplemented the boy's schooling. "We could sit down and do full orchestral scores together," he recalls, "just sit down and write them out, and then play them. And it was like, goddamn, how'd you come up with those changes?"

The changes resulting from the 16-year-old's move from his grandparents' house in California to the Bronx led to his serious discovery of the guitar. "I started legitimately playing the guitar only because I knew some kids who had a band, and they didn't have a guitar player. I was this newcomer from California, so I wanted to do anything to get in with these guys, because to me they were really cool. So when they said they needed a guitar player, I said, 'I play guitar.' Of course, I couldn't play at all, but I could do melody lines and bass lines on one string at a time. Then I was so embarrassed about not being able to play that I got very, very serious about it."

Buying a Beatles songbook and learning to play A Day In The Life started the serious student off on his intense pursuit of musical knowledge. The way he remembers it, "At that time the war in Vietnam was on, and there were a lot of protest marches and the whole bit. I was into it: Phil Ochs, Pat Sky, Tom Paxton, and all that stuff. It all moved very rapidly. From there, it took me to folk artists who had moved on to electric stuff, like Country Joe and the Fish. So I got introduced to better guitar players, like Barry Melton and then Steve Miller. And of course, that took me to Jimi Hendrix; I still have every record, still know every song of his. Then I got into Jimmy Page, the power trios, that sort of thing. After power trios, one guy joined our band who was a jazz freak, and he got me into Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. Then I tried to hear guitar players who could play like that, which got me into John McLaughlin, and then I started listening to older stuff-Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt and people like that. I got into all these trips heavily." He certainly did: he managed to compress them into four years.

After some jazz training with Ted Dunbar and some classical training with Julio Prol, Rodgers' chops in 1971 were up to his first serious gig: playing in the house band of New York's famed Apollo Theater, where he recently returned to play behind Rod Stewart. "I played with everybody," he grins, "Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin, the Cadillacs, people like that. I had to work, learn new shows every day. You can't buy that kind of knowledge." His growing knowledge and list of connections combined to put the aspiring session man into New York's studio scene, where he dropped his distinctive guitar parts into hits like Betty Wright's Clean Up Woman.

Outside the studio, he began gigging around New York's bar and club scene behind a vocal group called New York City, with a bass player named Bernard Edwards. Needing to make their trio sound big, the duo, who'd been friends from their Bronx teenage days, learned to cover complex arrangements that included horn and string sections without losing the dance groove a talent that evolved into a musical concept called Chic. "At the time I had a very condescending attitude toward any kind of commercial music," recounts Nile, "because I was into jazz. But then one night in London I saw Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, and they had the two girls singing and the whole style. They just looked really cool, like the '40s. I associated with that, you know-the big bands. So I wrote out an arrangement for Bess, You Is My Woman Now disco style, and Bernard and I and some session men went into Sound Ideas Studios after hours."

Tape and concept in-hand, Chic shopped around the major labels without success for two years. "Before we did Everybody Dance," says Nile, referring to the first in Chic's string of dance-floor classics, "we tried doing fusion and rock stuff, and we couldn't even get to first base. Every time we took our tapes to a record company, they would say, 'Wov, not bad.' Then they'd meet the group, and we were black. They couldn't understand how we were singing traditionally white harmonies. That's why we got the girls to sing it that was fine."

Once Everybody Dance got its own legs at a black after-hours club called the Night Owl, it still took Atlantic almost a year to sign them; but that first platinum single translated Chic from a production venture into a working band. Drummer Tony Thompson, vocalists Alfa Andersson and Luci Martin, keyboardists Rob Sabino and Raymond Jones, and of course Nile and Bernard produced nine albums, all co-produced, co-arranged, and co-written by the Rodgers/Edwards team. Disparaged by many as a disco band, Chic's trademark sound resulted from solid musical chops and sophistication: dance beats pumped beneath jazz-inflected chord voicings, string sections swooped or hovered above the intense syncopation set up by Edwards' bass and Rodgers' guitar, female harmonies cooed rhythmically jagged melodies. "Each part could stand independently of all the others," explains Rodgers. "That was the basis. When we'd go to our breakdown sections they were all interesting, because each part had something you could lock onto."

One element people locked onto was Nile's characteristic out-of-phase Strat attack and horn-section-like voicings. Of that he says, "I came up with these old-timers, like Red Garland types, who would just sit around and

call out changes, like V or VII. And they knew you could hear enough to know what type of chord it was-Major, minor, dominant, whatever.

You could hear all the extensions in it, too. If you'd just define some kind of, say, minor chord, somebody in the band had every extension from the 7th on up. That's what so cool about jazz: you start to hear so much that you can play a little bit and it sound like a lot. For example, I got into a thing where I started playing only the upper definitions of chords. I wouldn't even deal with the root; I would only play extensions. Joe Pass has that down. Even to this day, that's the essence of my whole sound: I like static melody over a lot of moving harmony, and I love songs, no matter how simple."

Simple songs, complex arrangements, and state-of-the-art production are the hallmarks of Nile Rodgers' work. "I'm all dig'd out," he declares as he gestures around his new professional "home" at Skyline Studios. "It's amazing to me. The advantage of digital is obviously in the sound quality. See, I'm really into hearing the top end of my music. I love bright records. And the transients on digital records-well, that's what it's about, it's beautiful. It's how you feel when you hear a concert and you're standing right there."

But when a recording superstar is standing right there in the studio, it's the producer/musician, not the technology, who has to translate vision into reality. "You have to be really independent in your thinking," is the way Rodgers sums up his own approach. "You have to look at each artist as an individual. But the main thing is how they make you and the people around you feel. Most of the people I meet, we have countless meetings before we do any music together." The one recent project where that didn't happen remains a source of regret. "I wish I had known Jeff [Beck] better as a person before I started working with him, because he's a different kind of guy. And if you're going to write songs for somebody, you really have to know where they're coming from."

That's obviously a given when it's Nile the producer penning tunes for Nile the performer, and B-Movie Matinee samples the smorgasbord of Rodgers' tastes with his usual thoroughness. "It took me a long time to put the material together," he admits. The initial concept came when I was in London doing Duran Duran's Wild Boys, And I heard all these names for the first time, names like Frankie Goes To Hollywood or Everything But The Girl, and I just liked those sort of names with that cadence, you know. So I decided that I would start a group just for the name, and I thought of Nile Rodgers Into The Light. It sounded cool to me, so I wrote the first song for the album, called Stay Out Of The Light. That was inspired by Raiders Of The Lost Ark, when the guys are walking in the tunnel and Indiana Jones goes [in a deep voice] 'Stop, stay out of the light' [laughs]. Then I said to myself, 'Great movies, I love movies, so I'll write an album dedicated to movies.'" Titles like Doll Squad and Plan 9 soon emerged because, he declares, "I love the really low shit, you know-low fashion."

Low fashion, maybe, but definitely high techno-with typical Rodgers twists. Take the leadoff tune, Plan 9, as an example. As Nile reveals, "Half of all the guitar parts and half of all the bass parts were done by Jimmy Bralower, who sampled guitars and put them into chips in the LinnDrum and made them play all these complex rhythms. Then I did the stereo parts, where I'm playing guitar and bass on the other side. I got that idea from listening to James Brown." Then there's the Chic-ish State Your Mind, with its funky chordings, smooth harmonized vocals, string-simulating synth swells, and bop-flavored guitar. "It was written by Marty Celay, who's an old friend who comes out of the jazz school, like me, so the basic composition was a little tricky to play. The guitar lick was very tricky." Next up on side one is Face In The Window, which combines some power-chord crunch with chiming synths, chattering drum machines, and a doo-wop vocal breakdown. "That was definitely the most difficult song to record, because I wanted it to have my feel but I also wanted to make the guys who wrote it proud. See, they wrote it as a really rocky kind of thing, power crunch and all. So I put some power stuff on there, but I also gave it a more subtle kind of approach."

Doll Squad features a Rudy Vallee-style voiceover-through-a-megaphone echoing the lyric "Now hear this," which hearkens back to Chic's use of "Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah" on Dance, Dance, Dance. Groovemaster, which Rodgers cites as his favorite tune on the LP, has him doing double duty on guitar and bass for a pure James Brown-type groove. "It was the first time I had the confidence to play bass," he admits, "but I really like the way it feels."

Another characteristic touch comes with Nile's use of his "big jazz box," a 1937 D'Angelico New Yorker guitar, for the comping on Stay Out Of The Light. "I still consider myself a jazz guitarist," he insists, "because that's what I've studied, that's what I study now. When I go out to have fun, I hang out at Seventh Avenue South and play tunes. Even on my sessions, I'll stick a D'Aquisto on some track, even if it's just for two bars, just because I love the feel of it in my hands. On the Chic single Hangin' I did the solo on a D'Angelico, an old-fashioned Maceo kind of riff." In fact, shades of Wes Montgomery surface in Rodgers' guitar work for such Chic standards as So Fine and Flashback, while the whole concept behind Savoir Faire derives from his preoccupation with the sounds of the '40s. "It's still my favorite solo," he declares of that tune, "because it was the most complete for me. I started the melody with chords, then moved into the jazzy stuff. It was really emotional, and from a compositional point of view it's one of the best things I ever played."

His love for playing is actually what prompted this modern groovemaster to make B-Movie Matinee. "I was hoping I'd get a hit so I could get out of the studio and play live," he confesses. And, as you'd expect, he's got an idea what kind of personnel he'd like to take on the road with him. "I can't use Tony [Thompson] now because he's with the Power Station, but an ideal drummer would be somebody like Anton Fig or Steve Ferrone. I've got a guitarplayer in mind, this girl Felicia Collins, who plays real great funk. Bass players are rough: I mean, Bernard [Edwards] was my concept of a great bass player. Keyboards, well, I know quite a few good players like Rob [Sabino] and Raymond Jones. I'd use the Borneo Horns, and the Simms Brothers and Curtis King for backup singers. Mainly I'll need pros who can do a hard job, because it's gonna be hard. I'll have to recreate Chic stuff perfectly; I want to play Chic's music again, but it has to be convincing." It's hard to imagine him doing it any other way.

In addition to his treasured D'Angelico and D'Aquisto archtops, Nile Rodgers boasts an impressive collection of axes to choose from. "I probably use Tokai imitation Strats more than anything else," he says. "Second to that, I have a couple of old L-series Fenders (from the early '60s) and a '57 Stratocaster. I use a clear plexiglas custom-made Guitarman that has a nice clean sound for rhythm work. If I want a really good whammy bar kind of thing, I use this ESP guitar (Strat model) which has a great tremolo bar." For amps he favors a Marshall 610 and a Music Man 412. Strings are D'Addario XL Reds. His Juno 60 synth and Synclavier II are never far from his reach. "I've never used a guitar controller," he says, "not even once, because I play fast and I like it to track the way I play. But I just got some new software that they tell me will make it better." His current favorite new toy, however, is his Sony PCM-3324 digital recorder, which he enthuses about ecstatically.