Article in MUSICIAN magazine, April 1992,
by Jock Baird photo by Deborah Feingold


Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards rebuild
their friendship and their band



After 10 years of recorded silence, Chic has released a new album that sounds straight out of the latter days of disco. Entitled Chicism, it's a terrific record, a rubbery, 12-song groove-fest that's more than enough to remind you that Chic was one of the only disco bands worth a damn. But why Chic again? Why now?

"Somebody said to me the other day,'Man, your new album has that classic dance sound,'" says Nile Rodgers from under a mass of dreadlocks. "And I thought, 'Hey, "classic dance..." I like that.' We just had to get used to the fact that we didn't have a new techno sound; we had a classic dance sound, and it took a long time for us to get comfortable with that."

"When we started on this album, we were doing what we told ourselves we should be doing," adds his once and future partner Bernard Edwards, looking more like a college professor than an R&B kingpin. "We were trying to be what everybody else was, listening to the radio and trying to figure out where to place ourselves. And we didn't want to fail. We must have done nine rap songs, with samples. And we finally came to the realization that we had all the equipment that we wanted, but we didn't feel comfortable doing it. It didn't sound like Chic. We thought we'd be happy: 'Now I'm going to make Chic what it could be! But what we discovered is that Chic should be what it was."

Of course, there is some rapping on Chicism, but there are also strings, a trademark of the disco era. The old Chic applied strings liberally, and even toured with string players. "Strings always represented class to me," says Edwards, a self described poor kid from Borough Park, Brooklyn. "All of a sudden you have enough money to put strings in there. And I can remember the album when we took the strings off."

"Oh man, do you remember that?" Rodgers groans. "It was the album before the last, Take It Off, and we said, 'Take 'em off!' When we toured the last time, we took two horns instead of strings. It was a disaster. Ever since I've had people young and old walk up to me and say, 'Make sure you put the strings back on!'"

But through all the strings, the two new female singers, that smashing backbeat, the real meaning of the reunion of Chic can be clearly heard in the delightful interplay between Rodgers' guitar and Edwards' bass. It's a constant dialogue, with funny asides and punchlines and deft commentary, just like listening to the two of them being interviewd at their home base, NYC's Power Station. But it's not a friendship that has gone on interrupted-they essentially parted company in 1983, each to achieve platinum status as a producer on his own.

"We just grew apart," explains Edwards. "The success took its toll. We were always working-if we weren't in the studio, we were on the road. The drinking, the personalities, the partying, people getting involved in 'he said this' and 'she said this.' And we were guilty of some childish things. It eventually wore us down and we split."

That's the real subtext of Chicism: two old friends who have forgiven and forgotten, and have rediscovered a guitar-bass interplay that is unique in pop music. "When we got back together," says Rodgers, "it was obvious that although we had both become very successful, the vibe we share playing together is different than anyone I've ever played with. It's really different. And it just makes me happy. We just jam, and the songs always develop from that. And jamming's sort of a lost art. In R&B and dance music right now, very few people are actually playing the instruments. It's not a band concept."

"From the '80s on into the '90s, it was the Me Decade," smiles Edwards. "You could walk into the studio some nights when a record was being made and there was one person with a synthesizer making it. I love that feeling of walking in and talkin' to the guys, laughing, smokin' and jokin' and then making music. Stax, Motown, all the great rhytm sections-it was people."

Rodgers and Edwards freely admit that by the strict rules of R&B, they overplay. "We learned how to play as a bar band, a small, four-piece unit," says Rodgers, "and we had to cover every part that was on a pop record. We had to learn to incorporate those horn lines, all the sweetening, into our style. There's all this stuff going on at the same time, upbeats against downbeats. It's part of that working musician's vibe, go out and play anywhere, with anyone, for $25 or less." "Much less," grunts Edwards.

The two met as teenagers around 1970, when Nile's girlfriend's mother mentioned him to Bernard. "I always liked guitar players that put motion within a chord, and he had the knowledge and the ability," says Edwards. "So every time I'd get a job I'd call him, or he'd get a job and call me." Among their first club bands were Cal Douglas' Doctor's Orders and New York City.

Rodgers had some classical guitar training and Edwards had played sax in the Brooklyn All-Borough orchestra, but both fell prey to R&B. Edwards insists their early interests in rock were discouraged. "When we started playing there was Hendrix and Buddy Miles and Sly Stone-I grew up in Brooklyn listening to the Beatles and Stones and Nile grew up in the Village. So we tried to do an R&B rock'n'roll kind of thing, with a lot of energy, called the Big Apple Band, and no record company could understand it. Like, 'They're all black and they sure can play, but I don't hear the R&B single.'"

Edwards and Rodgers took the hint and went into dance, an arena that Nile had a particular affinity for. They made a demo at the studio of a friend, Robert Drake, and shopped it unsuccessfully for most of 1976. By '77, it was all or nothing: "We knew we had to break into the market somehow," says Edwards. "It was all calculated. 'Dance, Dance, Dance' was written to be a hit. We only had money to do one song, that was it. We were living and dying on this damn record! I mean, we're in the studio with the engineer who's looking at the girl's behind-he was laughing at us. And we're looking over his shoulder, making sure everything got done."

The track, with its now-familiar "Yowsuh, yowsuh yowsuh!" aside, was cut with Nile and Bernard's New York music biz cronies, and included Luther Vandross and guitarist Eddie Martinez. Atlantic picked up the demo and released it with a quick remix by Bob Clearmountain ("thank God," says Nile). Now they needed front people. "We always wanted to soften the look and sound with ladies," says Bernard. "We thought that was classier. Because me and Nile couldn't sing! And we were always changing people in the studio-a lot of times the ladies we took onstage didn't sing as well as the studio women did." Vocalist Norma Jean Wright was featured on that first album, Chic, and she did some early tours with the band-Edwards and Rodgers also produced her first solo album. But, as Edwards says, "We had some minor disagreements that snowballed as her popularity rose, and she felt it was time to go on her own." Fonzie Gordon, Michelle Cobb, Alfa Andersson and Luci Martin all served stints as Chic's rotating studio singing group.

A key member added at the time was drummer Tony Thompson, a former Labelle sideman who Nile and Bernard had met the year before. "He locked everything in," says Edwards. "He was tight and very inventive with his grooves." Thompson was the only hired member of Chic who remained throughout the band's existence, and his inventiveness and raw power were important components in getting Chic away from the monotony of disco's "four-on-the-floor" backbeat. (Thompson was unable to participate in the reunion album because he is now a member of another band and couldn't tour. His chair was filled by former Earth, Wind & Fire sideman Sonny Emory.)

With "Dance, Dance, Dance" a hit, and "Everybody Dance" a decent follow-up single, Edwards and Rodgers came back in '78 with a stripped-down jam called "Le Freak," but discovered their bosses at Atlantic hated the record. "It was a crowded conference room, all the department heads were there," recalls Rodgers. "By the time the song was finished playing, everybody had left, because they couldn't figure out what to say to us. It was just Bernard and me sitting there saying, 'Wow, what happened?' And then Ahmet Ertegun walks in and says, 'You guys got anything else on the record?' And we went, 'What?!' We felt so insulted."

"Le Freak" was released as it was. It went on to sell eight million copies, still the best-selling single in WEA's history. Chic had gone big-time, but the lesson to Edwards was clear: "No matter how important you think you are, how many records you sell, there's always someone you've got to get past to get it released. We hated laying our insides out on a table and having someone go, 'Ha ha. Anything else?' But it only made us more commited about what we wanted to do."

Chic followed their platinum second album Cést Chic with Risque, spawning the hit "Good Times" (later appropriated by Queen: "John Deacon told me he loved the bassline," laughs Bernard), but the band still felt a gnawing lack of respect from the press and even their own label. "We felt Atlantic was almost embarrassed by our success-we were their biggest R&B and pop act, with a novelty song, a disco song," says Rodgers. "It made us feel like we'd done something wrong. Bernard and I would be walking down the hall and see posters on the wall: Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and...Chic!" Rodgers laughs heartily. "I mean what's the difference between us and Led Zeppelin? I play guitar, Jimmy Page plays guitar, we write songs, he writes songs, he sells one million, we sell six million. What's the problem?"

"Don't think we don't understand the difference between 'Stairway to Heaven' and 'Le Freak,'" adds Edwards through the laughter. "Really we understand. But it was a hit."

"Hey, they're both in A minor," pipes up Rodgers. "Jimmy plays in A, and I play in A!"

"There's something I learned a long time ago," says Edwards, "which is that I don't understand a lot of what I'm doing. Nile likes to break things down, to know exactly what makes a sound. To me it just feels good."

"Bernard will play something because he hears it that way, and then I'll sit down and say, 'You're putting that B against my B flat minor,' and he'd say 'Yeah.' And then I'd say, Oh, You've got the flat nine in the bass...okay, cool. Maybe I can think of it as the B is the root...'"

"When the last thing on my mind is flatting a nine," laughs Edwards. "Nile would stay there the rest of the night analyzing it and call me the next day and give me the same answer why it worked that I'd given him the night before: 'The shit really feels good, man!'"

Buoyed by the success of 1979's "I Want Your Love," Rodgers and Edwards were also having hits producing other acts. Their work with Sister Sledge yielded "We Are Family," while the 1980 album they did for Diana Ross, Diana, remains her best-selling LP ever. Among their other clients were Debbie Harry (Koo Koo), Sheila and B Devotion and even Carly Simon ("Why"). They did a soundtrack for Soup for One. Their riff from "Good Times" was lifted for the Sugar Hill Gang's rap classic "Rapper's Delight" (and their writer's credit was later acknowledged).

Things began changing for the band in 1980. On their fourth studio album, Risque, the lyrical themes began to turn from disco escapism into what Edwards calls "rebel type songs, about drugs and politics." The change won them no plaudits from the disco-hating press, and served only to alienate their fans. Says Rodgers, "I remember walking into a store and a girl saying to me, 'I don't understand why you stopped writing songs about dancing and making love.' It was as if I'd betrayed her. Now I see it vividly: Only certain people are allowed to change sound and image. You love to see De Niro shoot and kill, you don't want to see him play a sweet part. Chic belonged to people, and Bernard and I didn't pay attention to it. We were too busy dealing with our own lives."

Another subtle enemy was predictability. That spontaneous guitar-bass interplay had become something of a schtick: "In the end it was, 'Here they come, I know what they're going to do,'" says Edwards. "I hated to walk into a room and do what's expected of us." And more importantly, that delicate balance of responsibilities was getting blurred. "In the beginning I wrote all the lyrics," says Edwards. "Nile would always come up with the choruses, the hooks. I liked the verses. Then, as it evolved, we were both doing everything, and that's when the arguments would start. We got in each other's way, and began to annoy each other. It's like a wife: 'What do you have to do that for?' It was petty at times.

"People don't realize what success does," Edwards continues. "It takes your life and just turns it around and all of a sudden you don't know or trust anyone. And a lot of times you end up turning on the person you love the most, my best friend. By the time you realize it, it's too late. We had already begun to bicker. We didn't have a good time in the studio, and the music just died. And you could hear it on the records [Tongue in Chic and Believer]. It was a sad, dark time for me, a stupid, idiotic time. When we broke up, I was very depressed. I didn't want to continue making music."

Rodgers, ever the workaholic, began working as a solo producer and lit up the scoreboard in 1983 with David Bowie's Let's Dance and in 1984 with Madonna's Like a Virgin, his searing guitar rhythms serving as launching pads for rock's new dance explosion. For a year or two afterwards he was the hottest producer in pop, attracting high-profile clients like Duran Duran, INXS, Mick Jagger and the Thompson Twins. But a funny things happened around 1985: The big hits stopped coming. Part of this was a result of Rodger's ongoing hunger for credibility.

"You start having all these hits," he says, "and after a while people take you for granted. Then I started working with Peter Gabriel and Laurie Andersson, and you start doing records to get that kind of respect, to do more important stuff. I'm always going to do that. Last year I did Ric Ocasek, a record I loved doing, but it was here and gone. It didn't even chart. I also did Stray Cats record which didn't even come out!"

So Rodgers' goals on projects like those is not to sell records? "You want it to be a hit," he insists. "Believe me, that's the reason. You're never doing it to sell. What you're trying to do is take things that don't have a high probability of doing well on the charts and somehow make artists that have respectability have pop success too." Among Rodgers' hundreds of productions are Jeff Beck's Flash, The Vaughan Brothers' Family Style, "Moonlighting" for Al Jarreau and the platinum Notorious for Duran Duran. In recent years Rodgers has gotten hot again, with the B-52's and dance newcomer Cathy Dennis.

Meanwhile, Edwards' fortunes seemed the exact opposite of his ex-partner's. In the mid-'80s, while Rodgers was red hot, Edwards sat on the sidelines for over a year, issuing an aptly named solo LP, Glad to Be Here. Then he got his feet wet producing a Diana Ross track, and was introduced by Tony Thompson to Andy and John Taylor of Duran Duran. The result was the 1985 smash Power Station, whoose salutary effect on the fortunes of singer Robert Palmer was compounded later that year by the Edwards produced Riptide album, with it's monster hit "Addicted to Love." Now it was Bernard's time to shine, surprisingly as a producer of white rock. He did do a dance record for ABC and helped Jody Watley launch her solo career (and win a Grammy) with Don't You Want Me, but his next success was Rod Stewart's 1988 Out of Order LP. "I always felt that with people like Robert Palmer and Rod Stewart, the best thing to do is what you do best and what everyone loves you for. The most difficult thing was convincing Rod and the people around him that as a producer you have to be a diplomat and a psychologist. You've got to motivate them."

As Edwards' fortunes soared and Rodgers' came back to earth, the two compared notes. "In this industry you're only as hot as your last record, unfortunately," says Edwards. "We'd get on the phone with each other and say, 'Oh god, I hope I have another hit.' And the scariest time is when you have a number one record, because you wonder, what are you going to follow it with?"

Almost three years ago, the two played together for the first time in six years, in a pickup band with Paul Shaffer and Anton Fig at NYC's China Club, to celebrate Nile's birthday. The old singers came back, the band cranked out "Le Freak" and "Good Times," and pandemonium broke loose. "Everybody was screeming, people were crying and we were having a ball," reports Edwards. "We looked at each other and said, 'We've got to do this again!'"

Once they got down to cutting tracks, the pair took a year to record what became Chicism. As they discarded their nine rap songs and sample loops, Edwards' advice to the other artists hit home: "Do what everybody loves you for." After over a hundred auditions, they chose two new singers from the D.C. area, Sylver Logan Sharp and Jenn Thomas. With at least four killer tracks-"In It To Win It," "High," "MMTTCF" and "Something You Can Feel"-and with the kicky trademark single "Chic Mystique" to start the ball rolling, Chicism seems like a sure hit. That's no accident. "We knew what we had to do," says Edwards. "We'd had big records, we'd come back, and we didn't want to fall on our faces. The pride thing has never left us. We've always wanted people to respect us, and it took a while to get to that point."

It's that same old craving for credibility, a jones Rodgers and Edwards seem to have shaken. Most of the time.... "A good friend of mine said something that disturbed me," Nile says. "He was watching that Nike ad on TV, where they use the Beatles' 'Revolution,' and he said, 'That's disgusting, that they would use such an important song to sell shoes.' Then two days later, the California Raisins come on doing 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine' and he says, 'That's my favorite commercial!' "I said, 'Let me get this straight. It's cool to use R&B, but there's something different about using the Beatles. Explain that.' And he said, 'Oh man, you're right.' And I said, 'Bingo. That's what we're fighting against.'

Even to certain musicians there's a class structure-rock'n'roll is considered more important than dance. Well, sometimes you can say things are thrown together and they're corny, but Bernard and I wrote songs, the same way the Beatles wrote songs, the same way any musicians write songs. You start jamming, and one thing leads to another."

"We just want the respect from people that we're good musicians and we didn't have to compromise our musicianship to make a hit record," adds Edwards. "Because the thing is, you've got to have a hit record."

Bernard Edwards, who considers James Jamerson "the greatest bass player ever," plays a bass with EMG pickups. He also uses a Spector. All the Chic hits were done on a Music Man. Strings are Roto-Sounds, which he rarely changes. He uses a Gallien-Krueger as a mini-amp, and a Trace Elliot onstage. Recording, he runs direct, but adds an amp in the room for "size and a little dirt." He gets that "Addicted to Love" guitar sound with Marshalls and "a lot of room mikes."
Nile Rodgers is a Fender Strat man in the studio, although he's been using Tokai Strat copies and an ESP Tele copy. Nowadays he's using different guitars on his recordings, which he first picked up from doing the Beck album. His clear plastic Guitar Man electric gets a hot tone, and he's also got a Gibson ES-335. Amps are Soldanos and Fender Bassmans. Nile owns a Synclavier, though he no longer uses the guitar input; he uses it for things like recording a group of Hare Krishna chanters for the new B-52's album. Hare Krishna chanters?