Inside the Hit Machine: A candid conversation with Nile Rodgers


Where do you begin talking about ? 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 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 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 , and [aa.artist:The B-52s]; oversaw more classic hits by everyone from and to ; 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 ’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 , because we are working so well together. I already know I’m going to work with , 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.

(via DJAZZtv)

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 ’s “Another One Bites the Dust” – which sounds a lot like “Good Times!” After “Good Times,” we had ’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.

Speaking of clubs, do you go out much yourself?

Not really. I don’t go to clubs for enjoyment anymore. In other words, my idea of a great night out is not to go to a club specifically just to go clubbing. I’ll go there for a DJ or a party or something like that. But it’s just not what I do for recreation anymore. But I will go for somebody specific. Like if my friend [aa.artist:Q-Tip] is spinning at a club, or or or somebody from [aa.artist:Wu-Tang Clan]…you know, I’ll do something like that, but I’m just not a nightclub guy, because I don’t drink anymore, and I don’t get high – and I haven’t done that for almost 20 years now.

Recently [aa.artist:François K] talked into playing his first-ever DJ set at the age of 73. Could anyone talk you into becoming a DJ at this stage?

I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve known too many great DJs in my life, and I think what they do is phenomenal and incredible. I think that what I do as a live musician is very much like a DJ. I mean, I have my setlist on the floor – but you know, half of the fun of being in Chic is knowing that, yeah I know what my set’s going to start like, and I know what my set’s going to end like. It’s the middle that I have no idea what the hell’s going to happen – because I have to read the crowd and see what I think are the songs that are going to resonate with that crowd. So I have that experience, where I get that same kind of feeling, that masquerades as the DJ kind of experience.

So there’s a certain amount of improv.

Oh yeah, a huge amount. And that’s what keeps our shows fun, because you have to figure out, “OK we’re gonna do this.” And quite often you’ll see me turn around to the band and go, “Let’s do this!”

Your band is renowned for being very tight. Are you a taskmaster like – are you hard on your guys?

No, not at all. I’m hard in that I want things to be done a certain way, but you don’t have to act tough to do that, you hire the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant musicians that I’ve had around me all my life. And the great thing about my life is I’ve always worked with the finest musicians I know. So that’s just what I demand; if you’re not that good, I just don’t play with you, so… I don’t have to be tough, because they’re just as concerned about being as terrific as they can be as I am.

You’re famous for your positivity. Is it something that comes naturally to you, or do you have to work on it?

It sort of comes natural, but I do have to work on it. The way that I was able to give up drugs is that I had to see a better option – and that was hard because I like drugs so much. My whole life – I mean, I was raised by heroin addicts. Drugs were not taboo in my household at all. So in order for me to look at life differently and say, this could be more fun, I had to learn techniques. And the technique was what they call behavior-modification therapy. You know, when you feel like doing something, you do something else, because you know the thing that you feel like doing is the wrong thing. So I learned to appreciate the things that I have, and the next thing you know, I started loving those things more than the things that I thought I missed, more than the things I thought I wanted.

So by learning to love and appreciate the things you have, you wind up having a great life. That’s why I’m always so happy – I get to play “We Are Family” and “Good Times” for a living [laughs]. It’s like, are you kidding me? I get to walk out there and do that, and then get paid, and make people feel good. And people don’t realize that I’m having just as much fun as they’re having, if not more so. In a weird way, I should pay them, because I’m having a blast! I always say, we get paid for the traveling and eating the bad food; we actually perform for free – we’re thrilled to do that.

I’ve read before where you’ve said that you want to be known as the man who wrote “We Are Family.” Is that your favorite song that you’ve written?

No, not at all. It just became the song that was sort of the most ubiquitous, and the song that’s sort of the most associated with fun and positivity and togetherness, and the sort of bohemian, communal, hippie lifestyle that I come from…and to think that I can come from that kind of lifestyle, and that song winds up becoming a traditional pop song, almost more like “Happy Birthday” or something. “We Are Family” happens to be one of those very special songs that people gravitate towards, and they come up with their own reasons for its mythology enhancing their lives. I’m never the person to discourage it… People ask me for that song a lot, so it’s never gone away – ever since it’s become popular, every year I get requests for films, television commercials. I’ll go to sports stadiums and they want me to play it. It just doesn’t stop with that song.

The people you’ve worked with could make up their own music hall of fame. Who would you work with next if you had the choice?

Probably the artist that’s out there now that I respect the most, and I’m just really curious and I love her, is . I call her my little sister. We’re going to be gigging together right around the time of my birthday – and it’s funny, because last year we spent my birthday together, and I went to her show. Now this year on my birthday we’re actually playing together. We adore each other. You have no idea. I call her the next David Bowie – she could be that. She’s that big.

The Chic Organization: Up All Night is out now via Warner.

[The original version of this interview appeared on inthemix Australia.]