ARTICLE by Errol Nazareth ON THE TORONTO SUN's WEB PAGE Friday, March 5, 1999
Having an artist sing in your ear during a phone interview is one of the biggest treats of this gig. Super-producer Nile Rodgers joined a list that includes Al Green, Roberta Flack and Percy Sledge when he sang the original chorus of Chic's gazillion-selling single Le Freak during a conversation earlier this week. "Aaaaah, f--- off! do-doodle-do-do," he sings, approximating by voice the song's famous stacatto riff. "Aaaaah, f--- off!" While we're cracking up, Rodgers, who speaks at a Canadian Music Week panel tomorrow, explains how the song came about. "It was written in protest at not being allowed into Studio 54 one New Year's Eve," Rodgers says from his Connecticut home.
"They didn't let (Chic co-founder Bernard Edwards and I) in, so we went to my apartment and we started jamming and drinking and feeling good. "So, we're playing this riff and we start singing, 'Aaaah, f--- off!'," he says, laughing. "Next thing you know Bernard says, 'You know, this s---- is happenin'! This is a record, I'm tellin' you!' "And I'm like, 'We can't get a record on the radio going, 'F--- off,' and he says, 'We'll fix it up.' " They did, and ironically, Le Freak became a disco anthem that holds the record for being the largest-selling single in the history of Warner Music.
Earlier this week, Rodgers, who's worked on million-selling albums by Madonna, Diana Ross and the B-52s, to name just three, released Chic: Live At The Budokan on his Sumthing Else label. The '96 concert featured Sister Sledge, Slash, Steve Winwood and his dear friend Bernard Edwards, who passed away that night. "I feel closer to him now than ever," says Rodgers. "The music I'm writing now ... it feels like a lot of it is written with his hand because I've never written the way I'm writing."
Rodgers says Edwards and he knew what Chic would sound like when they formed the group 22 years back. "We wanted to do what the white musicians were doing," says the current president of the Music Producers' Guild of America. "People like Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker were stars based on their musicianship, whereas in black music the only people who stood out were the singers." Well, what about Jimi Hendrix? "Hendrix was really 'white music' when you think about it," Rodgers says. "Very rarely do you meet a young black person who knows who Jimi Hendrix is, but all the white kids know who Hendrix is."
When you're chatting with a former member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, you can't help but discuss the issue of race and how it "pervades everything in America," according to Rodgers. "To this day I'm aware of the fact that when I'm in a certain place I know they're looking at a black man first," says Rodgers. "I've noticed that when a white person is alone in the elevator with me (in the building which houses his label and distribution company), I can feel that person's tension. "And I find that I have to overly compensate for their tension and make them feel comfortable."
Talk turns to the sorry state of contemporary R&B and how image rules over talent. "R&B today just doesn't make it for me," he sighs. "Back then, having a record deal meant you could sing and play, and if you happened to be good-looking, that was a plus. "Now," and we crack up, anticipating his comment, "image is the deciding factor. Videos are more important, sometimes, than the music and if you look like a star, the label will put all the other stuff together."