Hit-Maker to the Stars Nile Rodgers

By Andrew Chin, November 25, 2013

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It’s possible you haven’t heard the name Nile Rodgers, but you will have heard his latest record – a collaboration with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams spawned the summer anthem ‘Get Lucky,’ and saw the guitarist, producer and composer score yet another smash hit some four decades since he first set disco alive with his band Chic. In the meantime? Oh, just making music with the likes of Diana Ross, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, Madonna, the B52s and a whole lot more. Shanghai, we introduce to you a true musical legend…

“It’s been remarkable,” the 61-year-old New York native reflects on his latest success. “I’ve had a lot of number one records but when we did ‘Get Lucky,’ we were just doing what we felt was right in our heart and had no idea what we had. We just loved the funk.”

What may sound like a humble brag is just fact coming from Rodgers. He’s had a hand in a dazzling list of hits that include ‘Le Freak,’ ‘We Are Family,’ ‘Like A Virgin,’ ‘I’m Coming Out,’ ‘Let’s Dance,’ ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and ‘Love Shack.’

Rather than rest on his laurels, Rodgers is characteristically making the most of his resurgence in 2013; he’s played to over two million people this year, delighting the crowds with the current nine-piece line-up of Chic that he will be bringing to the Muse & Mixing Room at the Mercedes-Benz Arena on November 29.

He’s also been busy in the studio – on top of three appearances on acclaimed new Daft Punk album Random Access Memories,  there is a soon-to-be-released collaboration with Swedish producer Avicci – who coincidently will performing at the Shanghai Automobile Exhibition Center on Nov 29 (see p98). But to understand this hit maker extraordinaire we have to go back…

A Musical Education: the Manhattan School of Music, the Soul Coliseum and Sesame Street

Born on September 19, 1952 in New York City, Rodgers grew up in a musical household. His father was a jazz musician and a young Nile followed in his footsteps. By ten he was an advanced classical guitarist who would go on to study at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music.

A self-described “serious jazz musician,” Rodgers stumbled on a job posting while on campus for a children’s show that was looking for band members. When he turned up, he found himself surrounded by Big Bird, the Cookie Monster and Mr. Snuffleupagus, and landed the job to perform behind the show’s puppet stars as part of the Sesame Street band during their second season.

“We had a lot of fun, but the Sesame Street job was actually pretty hard,” he recalls. “The songs were performed and composed by the greatest jazz musicians, so it sounds cute, but it was actually intricate. I was a good sight reader so I nailed that job.”

That ability caught the eye of one of the show’s star, who recommended him to her husband, the manager of the legendary Apollo Theater, immortalized by classic 1963 James Brown album Live at the Apollo.

Rodgers would join the house band, backing up icons like Aretha Franklin, Parliament-Funkadelic, Ben E. King and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

“I call it the Soul or Black Coliseum – thumbs up or thumbs down,” Rodgers says. “It was very difficult but very rewarding. These were the days where everybody was pretty great. There was nobody at the Apollo who was just okay. I was there during the great funk years of these really great artists like Parliament, the O’Jays and James Brown.”

In limbo: The perils of being a black rock band

While on the Apollo bandstand in 1970, an 18-year-old Rodgers would meet his future songwriting partner and Chic founder Bernard Edwards. The two struck up an instant friendship through their shared passion for music.

“It was funny – after that first night, we never not wanted to play together, but we had actually spoken previously on the phone,” Rodgers says. “My girlfriend’s mother worked with Bernard at the post office and gave me his number. We spoke and I told him about the band I wanted to organize – a fusion rock band with folk elements. Bernard told me to never call him again and hung up the phone. (As Bernard) ‘Yo my man, lose my number.’”

By the time they put two and two together about their previous conversation, the two had formed a tight bond. After leaving the Apollo, they formed the Big Apple Band that partnered with doo wop group New York City on 1973 hit ‘I’m Doing Fine Now.’ The song reached No. 17 on the American charts and gave them the juice to tour for three years, including a stint opening for the Jackson 5.

After New York City’s second album flopped, the group disbanded. Edwards and Rodgers joined drummer Tony Thompson in the funk rock band The Boys. Despite being a popular draw along the East Coast, the group found itself unable to catch a break.

“It was impossible,” Rodgers says. “We had recorded all sorts of songs that were mainly rock songs. They loved the music but when they saw us, they didn’t know how to promote a black rock band. I was very frustrated.”
Hitting the big time: Chic makes sure Everybody Dances

With opportunities seemingly closed to him, Rodgers’ life and musical output changed after a conversation with his jazz teacher.

“He told me that I needed to open my mind. Before I started composing dance, I was a very serious musician that thought pop was below me.

Within a few months I wrote my first Chic song ‘Everybody Dance’ and played it at the highest end disco in New York. People loved it right away and it really opened my mind that, while people didn’t know me, they knew my song.”

Chic’s second single ‘Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)’ landed Rodgers that elusive record deal. Recorded for US$3,500 borrowed from friends, the song featured the backup vocals of a then-unknown Luther Vandross. It reached No. 6 on the American charts and propelled the band’s self-titled 1977 debut album to gold status (with over half a million records sold).

“It was unbelievable. My whole life changed from a guy having to beg for money to make records to having a really big hit album with two big singles,” he says.

Propelled by their dynamic rhythm section of Edwards and Thompson, Chic is arguably the most critically acclaimed disco act. Rodgers’ guitar added sophistication to the rhythms and the group featured a pair of lead female singers in Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin. The Chic album was also exclusively written and produced by Rodgers and Edwards, which opened additional avenues.

The hit-makers: Producing Sister Sledge and becoming Studio 54 royalty

“The album was very successful and people loved our sound. The head of our record company asked us right away to write and produce for the Rolling Stones. We knew that wasn’t a good idea and decided to work with Sister Sledge, who were pretty much unknown. We wanted to show the label that we could write for anybody.”

The late 70s pop charts were ruled by Rodgers and Edwards. Chic’s 1978 sophomore album C’est Chic topped the American R&B charts for eleven weeks and featured ‘Le Freak,’ which sold over six million copies in America alone. The next year spawned two hit albums: Chic’s third record Risque and Sister Sledge’s We Are Family, which topped the R&B charts, spawning four hit singles including the still-enduring title track.

Within a couple of years, Rodgers had gone from music industry misfit to solid gold. It was a good time to be a star, especially in New York where Rodgers became part of the inner circle at legendary club Studio 54.

“It was legendary then. I know a lot of great clubs, but it was the greatest club that ever existed because it was the dawn of a new age,” he says with reverence. “There were very few things that existed that were so hedonistic. It was sort of like Sodom and Gomorrah; it was really out of control and you could basically do anything you wanted. 

“It didn’t take long to become part of the inner circle, especially after ‘Le Freak’ which was basically about Studio 54. We went from not being able to come in to becoming superstars who wrote a song that defined that club.”

The legends come knocking: Chic disband, but Diana Ross and David Bowie makes sure they don’t lose their momentum

By the 1980s, even Chic couldn’t combat the rising tide of “disco sucks” fever. The group released four more albums to diminishing sales before calling it quits in 1983. Rodgers’ solo debut Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove also tanked, despite enthusiastic reviews and a famous fan in David Bowie.

Despite the changing musical landscape, Rodgers proved adept at evolution. The success with Sister Sledge opened songwriting and production opportunities for the Rodgers and Edwards partnership. The two wrote and produced Diana Ross’ 1980 best selling record Diana, that produced hits ‘I’m Coming Out,’ ‘Upside Down’ and ‘My Old Piano’ that remain staples in her live show.

The validation turned Rodgers into a producer for the stars and his track record includes David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Duran Duran’s Notorius, Mick Jagger’s solo debut She’s the Boss and The B-52’s Cosmic Thing.

“95 percent of those records are because I met that person in a nightclub or concert,” Rodgers says. “That was what happened with me and David. I went out to a new club called Continental and David Bowie was sitting there all by himself. I couldn’t believe it. 

“I went over and talked to him because all of the people in his band the Young Americans were my best friends. The conversation veered towards jazz and David was a real jazz aficionado and it felt right.”

Living in a material world: an unknown Madonna leaves a lasting impression

Clubs were a useful testing ground to judge a new singer making waves in New York City nightclubs. She was called Madonna. Despite having mutual friends and being impressed by her demeanor, Rodgers still had concerns. When her record label suggested he produce her second album, he chose to work on a project with Duran Duran instead.

“I thought she was cool, but I wasn’t sure she was good,” he says. “Duran Duran had a lot of hits by then, whereas Madonna at the time had  ‘Everybody,’ ‘Burning Up’ and ‘Holiday’ was just starting to get record play.

“But then one day, we started going out clubbing together and she was amazing. Look at it like this. By the time I had met her, I had already done INXS, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Diana Ross and all those Chic records. I was also born in New York and I knew everyone. Every time we went out together, nobody would say, “Yo Niles!” They would always go, “Who’s that girl?” and you could just hear it resonating in the entire club. I knew she was going to be a star.”

Rodgers eventually worked with the singer, producing on her 1984 sophomore album Like A Virgin, a record that catapulted Madonna to superstardom, selling over 21 million copies worldwide on the way. In addition to bringing Bowie and Jagger together for their first collaboration on the 1985 single ‘Dancing in the Street,’ Rodgers closed the 1980s guiding the B-52s from alternative rock pioneers to international stars buoyed by a trio of platinum hits, ‘Cosmic Thing,’ ‘Love Shack,’ and ‘Roam.’

Sampled: Gettin’ Jiggy With It

Rodgers first began collaborating with the B-52s while working on the soundtrack to the Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and Jim Carrey 1988 comedy Earth Girls Are Easy. By the 1990s, soundtrack work became a focus as he contributed to Coming to America, Thelma and Louise, Gremlins, Beavis and Butthead and the Will Ferrell vehicle Semi-Pro, for which he co-wrote the opening song ‘Love Me Sexy.’

An innovator, Rodgers founded Sumthing Else Works and Sumthing Distribution in 1998, with a focus on video game soundtracks. The largest African-American-owned distribution company in America, the company offers soundtracks to acclaimed video games like the Halo series, Resident Evil 6, Hitman: Bloodman, God of War III and many more. Rodgers produced the Halo 2: Volume One soundtrack, which remains the bestselling video game soundtrack of all time.

Despite focusing on the commerce end of the music business, Rodgers’ work could still be found in the hit songs of the era. The 1990s were a time with music production evolving and Chic had been a constant sample source dating back to The Sugarhill Gang’s use of Chic’s ‘Good Times’ on the seminal ‘Rapper’s Delight.’

Songs written and produced by Rodgers were sampled by artists ranging from De La Soul to Basement Jaxx to Nas to Quad City DJs to Rick Ross. Faith Evans channels the disco spirit of Chic with her ‘Chic Cheer,’ sampling 1998 hit ‘Love Like This.’ ‘I’m Coming Out’ was memorably flipped in Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Mo Money Mo Problems,’ while Will Smith rode a sample of Sister Sledge’s ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer’ as the backdrop of his inescapable hit ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It.

When asked to pick a favorite, Rodgers is torn. “I have to say ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems’ is pretty amazing. To be able to work in two different choruses with Diana Ross singing ‘I’m – Coming – Out’ and then you have (sings) ‘I don’t know what they want from me, looks like the ‘mo money’ It’s incredible singing but I have to admit that it was the Will Smith song [Getting Jiggy Wit’ It’] because he’s the greatest man.”

Back in 2013: The Midas touch with a whole new audience

While the success of ‘Get Lucky’ has brought him back into the limelight, Rodgers has kept as busy as ever. Earlier this year he announced on Twitter that he had been cleared of the prostate cancer that he was diagnosed with back in 2010. The energy of a man who wants to make the most of what time he has in this life remains apparent.

Working with a new crop of dance music stars has ruffled a few feathers amongst online critics, but Rodgers is unrepentant about his latest collaborations.

“Dance music changed my life,” he tells us. “Usually when I work with someone it has to be because of something spiritual and soulful they bring to the artistic party. I met Avicci backstage at Radio City in New York and talked, had a good time and have been writing partners ever since. 
“I started working with Disclosure a few weeks ago and it was the same thing where you just feel the magic and the connection. I’ve sort of had that all my life with Bowie, Diana Ross – this thing with artists where you feel it.”
Although Edwards passed away in 1996, Rogers has been busy touring with the reformed version of Chic he is bringing to Shanghai, logging their most successful touring year including scintillating sets at Glastonbury and at the iTunes Festival – which is available online. 

“We pretty much play the classic stuff, but we have so many hit records,” he declares. “Even after playing two and a half hours, we still wish we played more. You’ll see. We start off with Chic, then we play Sister Sledge, then some Diana Ross, some of the big songs that have been sampled and then it’s back to Chic. Next thing you know we’re done because we have so many big records.”

// Nile Rodgers and Chic headline the first annual Shanghai Electric Disco Carnival, Nov 29, starts 6pm, Nile Rodgers and Chic on at 10.30PM, RMB880 & RMB1028. Mixing Room @ Mercedes Benz Arena, 1200 Shibo Dadao, Pudong世博大道1200号 Booking: 5239 9192 (English) 400 610 3721 (Chinese – DaMai.cn) Online Booking: www.smartshanghai.com/smartticket (English) en.damai.cn/shh (English & Chinese)


We have a pair of tickets to Nile Rodgers to give away. Simply answer the following question:

Rodgers persuaded Mick Jagger and David Bowie to perform which song as a duo as part of the Live Aid charity movement?

Answers with the subject ‘Nile Rodgers’ to win@urbanatomy.com

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