Inside the Hit Machine: A candid conversation with Nile Rodgers
Where do you begin talking about Nile Rodgers? It would be very hard indeed to find one figure with a bigger impact on dance music, or the music industry itself. Reading a recap of his career, one becomes giddy pondering the enormity of it all – multiple era-defining hits, blockbuster collaborations and a gravitational influence over generations both in the limelight, on the mixing board and behind the scenes, for over 35 years.
His 1970s output with Chic alone would be enough to make him one of the all-time greats, of course. He and partner Bernard Edwards combined sophisticated funk, disco and pop into a deliriously appealing and timeless package, and took it to the top of the charts without selling out the music’s soul or edginess. (Go back and check out the slyly subversive lyrics of their hits if you wonder what I mean.) Along the way, they kick-started hip hop’s move towards the mainstream with “Good Times,” which was interpolated by the Sugar Hill Gang on the seminal “Rapper’s Delight.”
After the breakup of Chic, Rodgers only helped to define the ‘80s as we know it. He produced the biggest-selling records for David Bowie, Duran Duran and The B-52s; oversaw more classic hits by everyone from Carly Simon and Peter Gabriel to INXS; and shepherded Madonna to lasting fame as producer and muse on her epochal “Like a Virgin.” In the ‘90s he re-formed Chic with Edwards and began touring again before Edwards’ untimely death of pneumonia in 1996. Rodgers’ recent contributions to Daft Punk’s worldwide smash Random Access Memories have introduced him to a whole new generation, coinciding with a highly successful world tour with the latest incarnation of Chic. They’ve sold out arenas everywhere, headlined Glastonbury and will play at the iconic Sydney Opera House in December.
But Rodgers wants it known that it’s not a comeback. When I ask him if he sees reconciliation in the current disco revival – a perhaps all-too-easy narrative to which I contributed in my review of Random Access Memories – he firmly states that both he and disco have never gone away. This combination of pride and positivity is what has helped Rodgers to remain the master of good times – all the more inspiring given his clear-eyed outlook on the dark side of the music business, including the drug problems that he conquered 20 years ago.
You’ll be playing at Sydney Opera House in November. Are you looking forward to it?
I can’t wait. I mean, come on. That’s one of the most famous landmarks in the world, and, you know, that’s going to be a big day for us. I’ve never even been inside, I’ve just sort of taken pictures from the outside just like everybody else has.
How has the tour been going overall?
This is really weird. This is going to sound odd, because I’m not superstitious or anything like that. It may be happenstance – maybe it’s just fallen into place this way – but everywhere we’ve played, the sun is shining. Everywhere. [In Iceland we played on] the only day of sunshine. Now, check this out. They said it hasn’t rained this much in Iceland since 1947. Can you believe that? [And for our] concert, everybody came out.
You’re back in New York at the moment. Are you taking a break from the tour?
Just a short break. We played with Paul McCartney a few days ago, and that was tremendous – unbelievable. We’re playing next weekend, and then taking a few days off, and then we go back out on the road. We’re also in the studio. We’re recording a full album, which we’ll release on vinyl as well – and I don’t want it to be a double vinyl set, I want it to be just like the old school.
Will you have any collaborators on the album?
Yeah, probably Daft Punk. I can’t imagine not working with Avicii, because we are working so well together. I already know I’m going to work with The Roots, because we just did a…show a couple of days ago, and I talked to them about it and they were like, “Oh man, we’re totally into it!” [laughs] So that’s going to be interesting, because we’re going to be the only two black bands in America that have major record-label deals. It’s incredible. And for us to both be on the same album, that’ll be extraordinary.
I really haven’t quite figured it all out yet, because I’m so excited. At least one of the songs on the album is going to be one of my old Chic band, because of [the discovery of] my demos that I was doing for my solo album, [around the time] I did David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album.
Those are the tapes that were recently discovered in a box in the Warner music library? I read that you intend to work on them together with Daft Punk.
Exactly. Exactly. They’re dying to do it. I figured that they have such respect for the music, and we work so well together – yeah, I have to let them have a crack at it… We talked about it just the other day.
Speaking of Daft Punk, you said years ago that the “Disco Demolition Night” in Chicago in 1979 (where a stadium crowd infamously chanted “Disco sucks!” before a crate full of records was exploded) reminded you of a Nazi book burning, because it represented a backlash against the people of colour who created disco. With the rise of disco-inspired sounds and the massive success of records like “Get Lucky,” do you feel like there’s some sort of reconciliation?
I don’t look at it like that, because I’ve had a huge amount of success since “Disco Sucks.” [A few months after] “Disco Sucks,” “Good Times” was number one; and one year after that to the day, the record that was number one was Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” – which sounds a lot like “Good Times!” After “Good Times,” we had The Clash’s “This Is Radio Clash,” “Another One Bites the Dust”, “Rapper’s Delight” – all of these songs that “Good Times” was the surrogate father to.
And then I had “Let’s Dance” and “Like a Virgin,” and then [Duran Duran’s] “Notorious,” and INXS’s “Original Sin;” I had lots and lots and lots of successful dance records. So it’s not like it took all these years – it’s not like it took 35 years. I had lots and lots of hit records after “Disco Sucks.”
But not in terms of your success – I mean in terms of the current popularity of the music in general, especially for young people.
Yeah, but you know it’s always been that way. It’s never gone away. [In the mid-1990s, we] started working again a lot, which was when Bernard and I got back together again. Then unfortunately my partner passed away just a few years after we started to play again. People don’t really connect the dots, because when Bernard died, in April of 1996, we did three sold-out performances of the Budokan in Japan, like it was packed, every single [show was] packed. Every night.
And so we did that, and then I had decided that I wasn’t going to do this anymore, I had made more than enough money to live the way that I live – I have a pretty normal lifestyle. And, you know, the Chic publishing catalog throws off $20 million a year, so you take my half – I mean, that’s way more than a guy like me needs to live, so there was no reason to do it. But a Japanese promoter asked me to come back to Japan and pay tribute to Bernard, and I did, and when we played it was so much fun and so great that I haven’t stopped. I’ve just kept the momentum going. So ever since ‘97, I’ve been building and building and building and building.
And it was funny because every year we always ask promoters to invite us to Australia, and they never invite us – until last year was the first time that a promoter asked us to come to Australia. And even after we came, because our tickets weren’t selling the way he thought they should sell, one of our gigs was cancelled – our gig in Perth was cancelled, like, bam! [I told the promoter] wait a minute! You don’t understand that with the Chic band, it’s always a sellout – they show up at the end because they think it’s like going to a nightclub. I don’t know why, but it’s just the mentality, I guess, that goes along with our music. People still think of themselves as young and going out to clubs, so either they really are young, or they just have that mentality. I can’t explain it, but I just know the truth. And all you have to do to track our life – just go to my website, go to my blog, you’ll see every single day, every show we do, the audiences are very, very mixed, as far as the age range is concerned, and sometimes you look out at the audience and you can’t find anyone who’s over 30 years old. It’s been happening for years now.