The Chic legend looks back on a lifetime of cheating death over Abbey Road chilli.
Nile Rodgers is connected. Not in a million-followers-onInstagram fashion, but in an honest-to-God, you-knowwho? way that puts him at the very centre of popular culture. The list of guests on It’s About Time, the first album in 26 years from his band Chic, reads like a directory of pop, new and old: Elton John, Janelle Monáe, Craig David and Stefflon Don. But he bats away any suggestion that he’s the most hooked-up person in music. “Nah man, it’s probably Beyoncé and Jay Z,” he says. We’re lunching in the courtyard of Abbey Road Studios in North London. An overhanging tree provides scant relief from the sun, and he inches around the table in an attempt to stay in what shade there is. Over the next hour Rodgers will totally undermine his own assertion that there are people out there with better contact books than him. The 65- year-old regales Q with tales of cracking jokes with Stephen Hawking (“He took 10 minutes to get to the punchline, but when he did it was so funny”), “making out” with Madonna on her 36th birthday (“To her it was a joke. To me, I don’t know what it was. That was the night I quit drugs for good”) and rubbing shoulders with an obnoxious property magnate named Donald J Trump in the ’ 80s. “Oh, I met him a lot back then,” says Rodgers. “But when he’d sit at your table, you’d go to the bathroom cos he was a jerk.” He’s spent a lot of time at Abbey Road in recent months, recording much of It’s About Time here. In April, he was appointed the studio’s first Chief Creative Advisor. His plate is piled with food from the studio canteen: freshly cooked beef chilli, a pile of salad leaves, tomatoes. Healthy eating helps him stay on top of his diabetes, one of several health issues he’s faced recently. “I had a secondary bout of cancer last year, which seems to have gone,” says Rodgers, who was first diagnosed with the disease in 2010. Lean and healthy today, he has the air of a man who’s not planning on going anywhere any time soon. But when he does finally check out, he can do so knowing his has been a life well lived. Fifty years ago, he was a skinny, martial arts-fixated kid who had just signed up for the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther party. “Cos I knew goju karate, they asked me to train everybody,” he says. “So I did. And I got promoted to sub-section leader that day.” Rodgers and his fellow Panthers worked as community activists. “We’d distribute food that would have been thrown away to kids who were so poor they couldn’t afford to eat.” A decade later, he found himself in the epicentre of the disco explosion with Chic. Heroically debauched New York nightclub Studio 54 was his second home – or, more specifically, the women’s bathroom was. “I would spend the whole night in there. I can still smell the perfume. Then after the club closed, we’d go upstairs to Steve’s Rubell, owner] office and do drugs. That was fun.” Rodgers was an enthusiastic consumer of narcotics. Too enthusiastic sometimes. He reckons he’s overdosed and “died” eight times. “First time, I woke up and thought, ‘Who redecorated my apartment with fluorescent lights?’ I didn’t know I was in hospital.” He recalls a doctor telling him that if he couldn’t stop getting high for himself, he should stop getting high for the people who worked hard to save him. “I thought, ‘Wow, you’re right’,” he says. “And I didn’t take a drink or drug for two weeks.” Another brush with death came at home a few weeks ago. Rodgers was running upstairs to his studio when he tripped over a step. “I hit the bridge of my nose at a 90 degree angle,” he says. “Poosh, blood everywhere. The doctors said one inch lower and I’d have lost my teeth, one inch higher and I’d be gone.” His plate is almost empty and he’s run out of shade. His manager stands behind him, trying to get his attention. Rodgers is working with a young British singer-songwriter named Kyan and there are upcoming Chic shows to think about. “I like to keep busy,” he says with a grin. “Keep myself out of trouble.” There’s music to play and people to connect with. The Grim Reaper will have to wait a while longer yet.
“I would spend the whole night in the women’s bathroom at Studio 54.”
These are the good times! Nile Rodgers escapes the heat at Abbey Road, London.