“I GET EMOTIONAL”
HE DEFINED THE SOUND OF DISCO, GAVE BIRTH TO HIP-HOP AND MADE A STAR OF MADONNA. BUT SELF-PROCLAIMED “HIPPIE AT HEART” NILE RODGERS SAYS HIS BIGGEST SUCCESS HAS SIMPLY BEEN STAYING ALIVE
He’s behind some of the most well known songs of all time, but Nile Rodgers says his greatest achievement is survival.
“We love Chic! We love Chic! We love Chic!”
It was a Monday night in March 2012, and Nile Rodgers was onstage at Sydney’s Metro Theatre, recipient of an impromptu cheer from the crowd. The guitarist and musical pioneer had just completed a blazing set with Chic, the disco outfit he co-founded in 1976. Tears welled in his eyes as shouts and applause tore through the room; Rodgers wiped them away, humbled and overwhelmed.
Five years later, he explains what was going through his mind. “I thought my days were numbered,” Rodgers tells Stellar. “My autobiography had just come out; I had been diagnosed with an extremely aggressive cancer [17 months earlier]. I really didn’t think I’d be around much longer, so I booked an extraordinary number of gigs.
“The appreciation overwhelmed me. It’s happened to me only a few times… well, probably more than that. A lot of times when I’m playing, I get emotional,” he adds with a laugh, “and I have to hide it.” RODGERS HAS ACTUALLY hidden in plain sight for much of his career. The 64-year-old may not be a household name, but it is no stretch to call him a key architect of modern music. Chic defined disco with hits including ‘Le Freak’ and ‘I Want Your Love’ and kick-started hip-hop with ‘Good Times’. As a producer and songwriter, he has worked with Madonna (‘Like A Virgin’), Diana Ross (‘Upside Down’), Duran Duran (‘The Reflex’), Sister Sledge (‘We Are Family’), David Bowie (‘Let’s Dance’), INXS (‘Original Sin’) and Daft Punk (‘Get Lucky’). The results were their biggest hits, earworms that will endure across generations.
“My story has sort of been told already, even though I’m still making new music,” Rodgers says. “But I don’t think anything will ever feel as urgent and desperate as the late ’70s and [early] ’80s when I met Bowie and Madonna and Diana… that’s when it felt like, man, we could change the world with our music.”
They were heady days for Rodgers – and they nearly killed him. In his 2011 memoir Le Freak, he wrote candidly about the crippling cocaine addiction
that almost derailed his brilliant career. When he attended Madonna’s 36th birthday party, “I hadn’t slept in four days”; a subsequent fit of psychosis led him to rehab. On his first day out of an eight-month stint, he got a phone call. It was Keith Richards, asking for a bump.
Rodgers stayed clean, and the ebullient mood he radiates down the line from his waterfront home in Connecticut can be credited to his sobriety as much as his upbringing.
“My parents were beatniks,” he says. “I’m still really a hippie at heart. I used to live in a commune. I used to be homeless. I was a street kid. That’s where I come from, that’s how I see myself.”
In fact, his parents at home were also addicts who attracted a dodgy crowd – his childhood was pockmarked with “drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, bookies and robbers”. As a boy, Rodgers would find escape in the old movie houses of downtown Los Angeles and the arms of his grandmother. He later joined the Black Panthers and got started in music by playing alongside Jimi Hendrix and, as part of Sesame Street’s touring band, Big Bird. Through it all, Rodgers maintained a staunch belief in the goodness of others.
“My personality is so laid-back,” he reasons. “I think everybody just wants to do the right thing. Musicians are kind, loving and generous – the most altruistic people I know. So whenever I’m working with people, I paint them with that brush.”
WHEN RODGERS SPEAKS to Stellar, he is less than 48 hours away from embarking on a northern summer tour with Earth, Wind & Fire. He’s already spent much of this year on the road. “We just calculated that in the last few months I have travelled 130,000 kilometres,” he says. “That’s a third of the way to the moon.”
He is also nursing a chest injury sustained after Chic played Glastonbury Festival in the UK last month: “It hurts like hell.” Rodgers remains cancer-free – he was given the all-clear just a few months after his diagnosis, but still gets checked twice a year. “Every six months, the same routine. You get so nervous, oh my God. Cancer always seems to want to come back.”
Asked how he stays fit and healthy, Rodgers admits he does not exercise. “I just work!” He does not sleep much, either. “Only three to four hours a night.” Isn’t he tired all the time? “If I were, how could I do all the work? That’s the thing: I feel great.”
He mentions a recent session with Bruno Mars, and says he still hopes to release the Chic album he delayed last year due to Bowie’s death and the heated US election. He would like to work with Madonna again, but reveals the contract they signed all those years ago – when she was yet to explode into the stratosphere – would give him such an eye-watering royalty fee he doubts it will ever come off.
“I would love to see who she is now, because I know who she was then,” he laughs, “but we have that paper between us!”
In September, Chic hits Australia with Lionel Richie for a nationwide tour. Rodgers says that when Richie used to play small clubs in the Bronx and Harlem with his old band the Commodores, “those guys would strike fear into our hearts. Lionel would come to New York and just scorch the earth.”
Still, he must have taken a few cues. Forty years in, Chic remains lucrative for promoters, and Rodgers prides himself on being “really old-school… my lead singer doesn’t even want in-ear monitors. We play live dance music, which is a dying art form.”
Rodgers shares a memory from their recent Glastonbury set. “We played for 200,000 people, and the energy that came from that audience felt electromagnetic. Sometimes – I know this sounds crazy – but sometimes it’s so strong I really feel like I could walk right off the stage and their energy would keep me up. I have to check myself: ‘Nile, you do understand the laws of physics. Trust me on this, inner brain: they cannot keep you up. You will not be able to defy gravity. Trust me.’”
“I DON’T THINK ANYTHING WILL FEEL AS URGENT AS THE LATE ’70S AND ’80S WHEN I MET BOWIE, MADONNA AND DIANA ROSS”
THE HIT MAKER (from top) Nile Rodgers (second right) with Chic in 1977; at the 2014 Grammy Awards with Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk; with David Bowie in 1983; Tom Bailey, Rodgers and Madonna at 1985’s Live Aid.