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
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
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
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.
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.
NILE RODGERS' EQUIPMENT
|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