Chic's Nile Rodgers on David Bowie and Disco's Greatest Band

Chic, which headlines the Paramount Theatre on February 19, has been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ten times (a record), but has not yet been enshrined — a fact that leaves group leader Nile Rodgers perplexed, to say the least.

But in many ways, that doesn't matter — since Rodgers, in a very real sense, is a hall of fame, as well as the most amazing name-dropper of all-time. Not that he seems to realize he's doing it. His mentions of friends, colleagues and acquaintances such as Paul McCartney, Pharrell, Prince, Elton John, Diana Ross, Adam Lambert and so many more are as casual as if he was discussing his plumber or the kid who sacks his groceries.

In addition to leading Chic, which is inarguably the best band to emerge from the disco movement, Rodgers is among the most accomplished producers of the past half-century. He's helmed benchmark projects such as Madonna's Like a Virgin and Let's Dance, the biggest-selling album ever made by David Bowie, who he remembers with grace and gratitude.

Moreover, Rodgers continues to be an active and vital presence on the contemporary music scene, putting his stamp on tracks from EDM superstars such as Avicii and playing a vital role on the 2013 Daft Punk album Random Access Memories, for which he won his first-ever Grammys — a fact that's flat-out astonishing.

Last year, "Le Freak," Chic's most popular song, joined the Grammy Hall of Fame, and Rodgers received the President's Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). But he has no interest in resting on his laurels. Chic is about to release its first album in decades, and Rodgers is producing the forthcoming collection by country-crossover artist Keith Urban, among other projects. Yet he still found time to chat with Westword about the width and breadth of his remarkable career.

Below, he talks about Chic's history, with references to the band's late co-founder, Bernard Edwards; the rise and fall of disco; family challenges, including a cancer battle; Chic's status as one of the most sampled bands ever ("Good Times" forms the backbone of hip-hop's first hit single, "Rappers Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang); cocaine psychosis (really); work with a who's who of music industry noteworthies (Bowie, Duran Duran, Blondie's Debbie Harry, Al Jarreau and so many more); the R&R Hall; and the ass-shaking wonder that is Chic live.

Prepare to freak out.

 With "Le Freak" having been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and you receiving the NARAS President's Award, not to mention prepping the first new Chic album in a long time, you've had an incredibly busy past year or so. How does your schedule today compare to the busiest periods you've had during your career?

Nile Rodgers: It's the busiest period I've had during my career, which has always been busy from my very first record.

Does it surprise you that you've hit a new peak of craziness after so many decades in the music business?

No, because it's actually just normal for me. I remember twenty, twenty-five years ago, I was up for an award as producer of the year and I didn't win it — and this guy said, "Maybe we should just come up with a special category for Nile Rodgers, just for sheer volume alone." The level, the sheer volume of music I put out in a year. People don't realize it. They only focus when I have hits.

So on a daily basis, are you always creating new music? Does a day go by when you don't?

Rarely. Even that statement seems weird to me. Out of 365 days a year, there may be one day, but I can't remember that day; I don't know it for a fact. So I might say "maybe," but in my recollections of my actions, I do music every single day of my life.

Does that mean there are not just hundreds but thousands of songs in various states of completion that people haven't heard yet?

That's a 100 percent correct statement.

Have you thought about how to get that out to people?

I don't think in terms of believing that everything I write and everything I love has to be loved and liked by somebody else. Many times I write songs purely for intellectual and artistic development. In other words, it makes me better as any artist, and that's what the song is for. It expresses some form of non-fiction event I'm going through. Like right now, I'm having the most traumatic time of my life with my family. My mom has Alzheimer's and it's really killing me. It just came on so suddenly and so severely, and show business doesn't care. I have to do my work. Like I'm working on Keith Urban's album right now. I can't not show up, even though he's the most loving, understanding guy in the world. He's got to tour, so I've got to finish it. And I've got to put out my Chic album. The date is locked. It's incredible.

I say there's a blessing and a curse in my life. I only get three hours of sleep a night — that's my blessing. And my curse is, I only sleep three hours a night! (Laughs.)

Are you able to keep your mother's health issues more in perspective given your own bout with cancer a few years back?

I think that helps me. But what cancer has really done for me the most is it made me have a certain amount of peace with the inevitability of death. When I was first diagnosed, I was terrified, and one of my great friends, who I've known since I was fifteen years old — he's a doctor and very well respected, has traveled all over the world. He sat me down and said, "Nile, this is something I've never told you before. When we were kids and I was going to medical school, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was in the o.r. for three days that week. Two days I was operating on patients. The other day, they were operating on me. I was stricken with cancer when I was 21 and I never told you." He helped me get through it, and it was the most beautiful session I ever had with him.

As an outsider looking in, it seems that beating cancer was actually energizing for you from a creative standpoint. Was that the case? Did the idea of a ticking clock motivate you to rev things up to even a higher level?

Yes, that part is actually true. But in my own mind, I don't look at myself as having beaten cancer. To me, if you beat something, you are in an equal fight and you have a chance. I look at cancer and think, well, maybe I won round one. I do the best I can, I do what the doctors tell me to do and I do more music than I've ever done in my life. So spiritually, it keeps me grounded. I wake up in the morning and I've got a job to do. My job isn't to fight cancer; my job is to make music. And hopefully my doctors can help me fight cancer.

I don't consciously think about cancer every day, now that I've reached the five-year plateau. But I've gotten very smart about it. I talk to a lot of people and I know that once you get it, it wants to come back. I know people who've had it five, six, seven, eight times. My guitar roadie died last year, one hour before we went on stage. He thought he had a cold and he had stage four lung cancer. My handyman here at my house had a stomach ache. He went to the doctor and he had stomach cancer.

Is what's happened to you personally, as well as to people close to you, a reminder that you need to make the most of the time you have?

That's really wonderfully put. Yes. That's what I try to do. My life is consumed with creative projects as much as possible. And then unfortunately comes the time when you have to do the business side. I hate that, but it's a necessary part of life. And my mom having severe Alzheimer's now puts me in the position of not only having to do all of my business but also all of her business. And then I have a charity that's operating 365 days a year. I have hundreds of kids who write me every day and call me every day. It's like, oh my God!

I get the sense, though, that you love having a full plate as opposed to wondering what you're going to do next.

Than being sedentary? Absolutely right. My life...I hope this doesn't come across as complaining, because I'm far from feeling overwhelmed. I've chosen this life and I love doing it. But the sheer volume of activity and stuff that I have to be responsible for is mind-boggling. And I'm not one of those producers.... If you look at modern producers, I don't think you could name one that doesn't have a staff of people writing all that stuff for him. I know them all. I meet them and I meet the guys who work for them. But that's not the way I do it. You walk into a room with me and I'm writing the music. I have one or two assistants and I usually work with one of them at a time. And they're doing either my copying or playing along with me, jamming, being the other musical orchestra in the room. Because I'm most comfortable in a room with twenty or thirty people, developing an idea from start to finish.

Let's talk about Chic. It's closely associated with the disco era, but it was also a real band, not a shifting group of studio musicians working anonymously with the kind of production team you were just talking about. Is that one of the most important distinctions for you — that Chic was and is a band?

Yeah. When you see Chic perform live — and once again, I really need to apologize, because it sounds like braggadocio — but when you see Chic perform live, you understand. You understand why I love it, why I'm completely dedicated to Chic as a band. Because there is no place we go in the world that we don't make people feel good. There's no situation we play in where we do not hold our own. And it makes no difference whether we're with Paul McCartney or Elton John or Earth, Wind and Fire or Herbie Hancock, quite frankly. We played many gigs with big, big, big, big jazz artists, and we have the time of our lives playing with Herbie Hancock, George Duke, John McLaughlin, who's one of my best friends, Carlos Santana. We're the real deal. We don't play to click tracks, we don't have other stuff running off-stage and we're synched to it. There aren't any hidden tracks playing. We're just a band. We call ourselves the Grateful Dead of dance music.

Is that one of the reasons that Chic stands apart from disco? Is that umbrella too small to cover everything you do?

That's very correct, but don't get me wrong. I am proud we can be on some level the representation of the musical embodiment of disco. If a person's brain hears the word "disco" and the default representative is Chic, well, my God. I feel like I'm king of the world. It's the greatest thing in the world to me.

My band is a very serious band. If you look at the players that my group has spawned, all the way from Luther Vandross to Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson and Omar Hakim, who's one of the most respected drummers in the world. Everybody in my band goes on to become a historically important musician, because I only work with people who are of that caliber. So, once again, not to brag, but I had a chat with Elton John a week or so ago and I said, "Have you ever seen a bad Chic show?" And he's seen me play a million times — and he said, "Wow. No, I haven't."

We don't have bad shows. Even when something goes wrong, we turn that into music and real life. There are variables you can't control, but because we don't have things mechanized with click tracks, we can just start the song again. If something goes wrong, I say, "Hold on, wait a minute. This sucks, and we don't suck! Let's count this off again. One, two, freak out!"

One of my favorite Chic stories — one of everybody's favorite Chic stories — is about how the "Le Freak" hook was originally "Fuck off" because you guys couldn't get into Studio 54. That may suggest to some people that you have a love-hate relationship with disco. But I'm hearing a lot more love than hate here.

Way more love. There's like zero hate. As a matter of fact, if it weren't for the openness of the disco movement, I don't know that we'd be talking to each other right now, because when I started out, I was wholly consumed by jazz and classical music. It was only when I started to watch my jazz heroes get hit records.... Like, whoa, you mean Joe Beck has a hit record? Herbie Mann has a hit record on the pop charts? Herbie Hancock has "Rock-It"? Holy cow, you can do that. I wrote my very first Chic song, "Everybody Dance," and it's basically a jazz kind of song. It's got pop lyrics, but the progression is very jazzy and cool, and if we didn't interpret it like that, it could easily be on a Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock album. But we interpreted it as disco, and it made people dance and it made people feel a certain intellectual satisfaction, as well as feeling primal.

It started my career, and I didn't even know it was good until I walked into a club and a DJ had stolen two copies of the record! I didn't even know he had them, and he invited me down to the club. He'd been playing it for three weeks and I walked into the club and I said, "That's my song!" And the people jumped up and let out a blood-curdling scream and they all started singing a record I didn't even have. I didn't have enough money to even make a tape of it. I had just enough money to record the song; we recorded it for $10 and I couldn't even get a copy. The first time I heard "Everybody Dance" outside a recording studio was when I walked into that disco and heard it.

When the backlash against disco hit, it definitely affected Chic. And now, when I hear some of the songs that weren't huge hits, like "Rebels Are We," they're just as good as the ones that were huge sellers. Was there a frustration in that? To watch people turning against Chic because they were turning against disco, even though the music was just as good as it ever was?

Yeah, it was very difficult for us, because we didn't think it applied to us. It was only once we started making phone calls to people who we thought were friends and they wouldn't even talk to us. We were like, "Wait a minute. What's going on? This is really serious," even though it looked like a joke to us. I've got a good sense of humor, and it looked professional wrestling. The whole disco demolition, I was fine with it. Like, you want to go blow up records? That was funny to me. But then I saw the violence and the vitriol. And I was like, "These guys are taking this seriously? Really? You mean to tell me all those people in that crowd don't like 'We are Family'? Are you kidding? You don't like 'He's the Greatest Dancer' or 'Everybody Dance'? Or are you now being led by a mob-violence mentality, which is the kind of thing that will make a person do what they normally wouldn't do?" And you know that's a fact.

There are kind, gentle people who are afraid of bullies — and when they get in a bully situation, rather than going against the bullies, they'd rather go against the person who's helped them in order to save their own skin.

This was a joke I thought was funny and people started to take it as real. And the next thing I know, nobody wouldn't answer our calls. And thank God we'd already had our contract signed with Diana Ross — and we gave her the biggest record of her whole life.

That album [1980's Diana] really launched your production career, and you wound up working with some of the biggest stars of the era, including David Bowie on Let's Dance. I know people have been asking you a lot about that lately. What was he like to work with? And what are some of your favorite recollections of that time?

Let me just put it to you simply: He was the greatest person to come along in my life at the greatest period in my life. I was so down after "disco sucks." I'd had six failures in a row and nobody would call me. But guess who calls me? David Bowie, a rock god, an iconic, god-like artist. And he calls me when normal people I'm trying to get work with won't talk to me. This guy calls me — we meet accidentally, and then we get together early in the morning and I talk to David. And just from that one conversation turned into Let's Dance within a few weeks.

A lot of the tributes to David Bowie that came out after his death focused on his earlier work. But the fact is, the hits from
Let's Dance  are the Bowie songs that have been played the most over the intervening decades and continue to be played the most. Why do you think those songs stand up so well?

Because they're awesome! (Laughs.) Look, David Bowie can't be defined by any one project. I called him the Picasso of rock and roll, because that's really how he was to me. He saw the world very differently. He gave you the world through his eyes, through my eyes, through anyone he was working with, and then reinterpreted the music based on that new partnership. But Let's Dance sold eleven million albums. There's no David Bowie album before or after that ever sold three million or four million, let alone eleven. That's just unheard of. Like I said, he was the right person in my life at the right time.

I was totally down in the dumps — and here's what's really interesting. David's record before Let's Dance was a flop, but he didn't feel like a flop. He had no record deal. He had nothing. We did the record on our own. He paid for it out of his own pocket. We weren't beholden to anyone but each other, and we made a record that was the biggest record of his life, an eleven-million seller.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts