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HITS Daily Double

BLACK MUSIC MONTH PREVIEW: NILE RODGERS LOOKS BACK (PART 1)

Nile Rodgers is a badass.

To name a few of his bona fides: He’s a three-time Grammy winner, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, founder of the We Are Family Foundation and co-founder of Chic, which fired off multiple hits—“Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” “Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” “Good Times,” “My Forbidden Lover”—at the height of the disco era and helped lay the musical foundation of hip-hop. The band is still recording, selling out tours and winning legions of admirers.

Rodgers is also working with Hipgnosis Songs Fund, serving as Chief Creative Advisor for Abbey Road Studios and hosting the Deep Hidden Meaning show on Apple Music. And he is the author of the 2011 New York Times bestseller Le Freak.

His multiplatinum songwriting and production credits include collaborations with artists as diverse as Diana Ross, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Duran Duran, Pharrell Williams, Mariah Carey, Sister Sledge, Keith Urban, Grace Jones, Lady Gaga, Avicii and Daft Punk. Rodgers is in various ways responsible for worldwide sales of more than 500m albums and 75 million singles.

In addition to a global tour with Chic in 2022, he’ll continue his work with Hipgnosis and Abbey Road and contribute to a panoply of albums and songwriting projects, including works by John Legend, Idina Menzel and The Zutons.

Rodgers is a creator advocate, philanthropist and cancer survivor with an abundance of joie de vivre.

Following is an interview with Rodgers conducted by his friend and fellow New Yorker Dyana Williams (aka Ebony Moonbeams), a broadcaster/media strategist and co-founder of Black Music Month.

Tell me something about your childhood.
It was the most exciting childhood you could have. My parents were bohemians, beatniks, part of the scene. My biological father, Nile Rodgers Sr., wasn’t there all the time, but whenever I was in his company, you could feel the love. As far as my mom, Sidney Poitier proposed marriage to her five times.

What memories do you have of wanting to be a performer?
The first gift I ever got was from my paternal grandmother: Elvis Presley’s recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” and a pair of blue suede shoes to go with it. That’s when I became self-aware. When I turned six, I was enrolled in parochial school. Our colors were navy and gold. So I wore blue suede shoes to my christening and 
all of the Catholic services—I was really fashionable 
at six years old. I always thought that music and fashion were related. How cool that I wound up developing a group called “chic.”

What colors do you associate with New York City from when you were growing up?
Silver and green. Silver because of the skyscrapers. My grandfather was the chauffeur for the CEO of Woolworth, so we were around those sparkly, metallic-looking buildings. And green because of the parks. When we lived on the Lower East Side, I went to Tompkins Square Park. When we lived in Greenwich Village, I went to Washington Square Park. I played chess and that was the spot for chess players. That was my thing, jumping from table to table.

The guitar is your main instrument, but that was not your initial choice.
The first instrument I was given was the flute. And I was born with asthma—people don’t realize how much wind it takes to play the flute. Oh my God, I was huffing and puffing. So they switched me to the piccolo. That was much better. And then I wound up on the clarinet. I basically stayed in the woodwinds. The interesting thing is that because my parents were so nomadic, I went to different schools, and it seems like every school assigned me a different instrument. So I learned how every instrument in a symphony orchestra functions.

Your first pro gig was as a guitarist in the Sesame Street touring show. But then you went to work at the Apollo Theater as well. How old were you?
I was 19.

There were a ton of clubs in New York City and you worked with a lot of different people. When did you meet Luther Vandross, [drummer] Tony Thompson and [singer/songwriter and producer] Fonzi Thornton?
The first one I met—who turned out to be the most important person in my development as a producer and songwriter—was Bernard Edwards. I met him doing pickup gigs when I was just out of high school. I was living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and he lived just a few blocks away, in the building directly behind my mother’s. He lived near a guy named Eddie Martinez who was the guitar player for Run-DMC. Bernard and Eddie were the closest people to me.

The so-called “hot Persian scene” was happening in New York; those were the really cool clubs in Greenwich Village. We had a club called Darvis, and that’s where I met Tony Thompson. He and I played behind people who were really hip in the Persian scene. Tony was primarily a jazz drummer.

I met Fonzi Thornton at Sesame Street. Luther Vandross had the gig right before Fonzi, but Luther left to join David Bowie’s Young Americans tour. Luther was also in a group called Listen My Brother. All those people, Luther, guitarist Carlos Alomar, Carlos’ wife, [singer] Robin Clark—they all became part of the collective of musicians that we worked with on the early Chic recordings. We had this very tight circle.

When I was in Luther’s band Luther, we were playing Radio City Music Hall. It was incredible. In those days at Radio City, you had to do two shows—at the Apollo, we did four or five shows. During intermission at Radio City, we recorded “Everybody Dance,” the first pop song I ever wrote. Luther brought his singers in and they sang my first composition. It’s funny that I wrote that over 40 years ago—when we play “Everybody Dance” now, people respond like it’s a new song.

“Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” hit first, though.
Yes. It wound up becoming our first single. “Everybody Dance’’ was sort of an underground recording. One of the things I love about Spike Lee’s movie Summer of Sam is that he got that right; when Studio 54 opened, the hot Chic record was not “Dance, Dance, Dance”—it was still the underground recording of “Everybody Dance,” and Spike, rightly, put that in the movie. I’m sure he went to a club and they were playing “Everybody Dance.” That’s the record we thought would get us a deal, but it didn’t turn out that way.

Let’s talk about “Rapper’s Delight.” It sampled Chic’s “Good Times” without permission. Did you sue?
We threatened to sue. Sylvia and Joe Robinson were the figureheads of Sugar Hill Records, but the company was actually owned by Morris Levy, so we did our dealings directly with him.

Our attorney at the time had been Morris’ attorney, so he knew where all the bodies were buried, so to speak. We were listening in on this phone call, and our attorney says to Morris, “If my guys even come down with a hangnail, I’m gonna send a dossier to the D.A.” I don’t know if that was just a negotiating tactic, but at the end of the day we were credited. And “Rapper’s Delight” was originally only for sale as a 12-inch single. We were getting three times the suggested retail price on that, so the royalty was extremely high.

Were you ever concerned about your safety during that negotiation?
Some guys did come to the studio, the Power Station, and threaten us with guns. They said, “Even if you win, you’ll lose.” Either these guys took it upon themselves to score brownie points with Morris or they were more formally associated with him. Regardless, when three guys who looked like former football players came into the recording studio, the owners of the studio were so terrified that they sent all their employees out.

We couldn’t believe it because we were the ones who’d made the Power Station famous. Every Chic record was recorded at the Power Station. And musicians are superstitious, so once this unknown group of ours started making hit after hit there, it attracted Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits and all the rock people.

You and Bernard were sonic alchemists. Chic was trailblazing and putting numbers on the charts.
People thought we had this magic fairy dust we could just sprinkle on anybody. But it’s true that from that first single, every song we put out went gold, platinum or multiplatinum.

The two of you also started writing for and producing other artists.
In 1978, we broke Sister Sledge with “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” which came out of the box as a platinum single. They didn’t even know what “Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci” meant—there was no Fiorucci in Philadelphia, where they were from. It was like they were following the Chic playbook. What’s really rewarding is that we changed their lives as we were changing ours. Now, many years after the fact, they say, “We were just happy to go along for the ride.” Though at the time, a major rift came between us because they were religious girls and Kathy was only 16 years old—and the record that broke them was about having a one-night stand.