RE-ISSUE: ARCHIVE: NILE RODGERS FREAKONOMICS
Having spent some time in the company of the living legend, we’re changing all those lame Chuck Norris jokes to NIle Rodgers jokes. As in: “Nile Rodgers doesn’t turn the lights on. He turns the dark off.”
“I’m not famous – never have been,” Nile Rodgers is saying – and I guess, if fame is living la vida loca as a bonafide household name, then maybe Rodgers is right, he’s dodged that bullet. But there’s still a good chance that, at any given moment, someone, somewhere, is helplessly grooving as inconspicuously as possible in an office chair to a song he’s helped stoke into being. Like the inventor of deodorant, or maybs, the spatula, Rodger’s work is as ubiquitous as it comes without being overtly traceable to any one act, sound or famous set of pipes and has roots so deep in pop history that incarnations of his vibes are still thriving in the planet’s cooler nightclubs, bedrooms and major record studios.
Despite, or as probably because of, his humble and deeply weird beginnings (Rodgers started life inside his teen mom about ten seconds after the first time she had sex, she hooked up with a junkie boyfriend and dropped acid with Timothy Leary as a teen), he has spent his life making the greats greater. Starting out as a session guitarist in the Sesame Street band, he played for Aretha Franklin, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Parliament-Funkadelic [check out our George Clinton interview]. He went on to co-found record-smashing disco group Chic, as in ‘Le Freak, C’est Chic’, whose hit ‘Good Times’ was sampled in the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rappers Delight’, which aka the “Holy crap!” moment for hip-hop.
He became a sought-after producer, taking on Sister Sledge’s gaygantuan anthem ‘We are Family’ and Diana Ross’s ‘Upside Down’ and ‘I’m Comin’ Out’, in between holding court in a Studio 54 cubicle over piles of white stuff with everyone who was anyone for about nine seminal disco-baller years.
After the tsunami-scaled disco backlash in the late Seventies by everyone except coke hags and those cool Central Park rollerskate dudes, Rodgers turned his Midas touch to gilding the artistic reputations of the biggest icons going. Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Duran Duran. He burnished Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ into a chart topping junkie-swagger anthem (he put the chorus at the beginning). He produced Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’- and was also kicked out of her 36th birthday party on account of being too strung out to stand. The man has lived. He’s also been pronounced dead eight times, mostly after a binge with Mickey Rourke, which kind of makes him kind of like an immortal dude from an alien planet you couldn’t get in to without having seriously amazing hair.
Between a Chic tour, working on a Broadway rendition of his life story, promoting his incredible autobiography ‘Le Freak’ and assisting several budding artists with production, Rodgers is a busy man, but he took a time out to chat to us about dressing like you don’t give a fuck, but also do – and serenaded us a little too.
J & A
You go on daily therapeutic walks and sing to yourself. What did you sing today?
Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll do it at some point during this conversation. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of who I am. I’ll give you an example, like, see this green? [points to my sweater], I promise you, without conscious thought, in my head, it’s gonna go [sings] “Green, green, it’s green, they say, the dark side of the hill,” but I won’t say that to you, you won’t know it. I think that it’s the composer’s curse—you can’t stop writing.
In ‘Le Freak’, you mention the “Deep Hidden Meaning” (DHM) criteria system you developed you’re your musical soulmate Bernard Edwards. Can you explain the idea of the “DNA” of a song?
My book proposal was originally done as a Broadway show. And if I had my computer, and I showed you the two documents, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out which was the book proposal and which was the Broadway show. If you have a good sense of artistic storytelling in a production, you know when it’s not doing that, and you can stop the artist, and you can stop the production and say, uhhhh… we’ve gone off the rails here; we’re telling a different story. So that’s all DHM means. We’re saying the song needs to say this to us, and if it’s no longer saying that, if all the sudden it’s like… if we were writing a song about an engineer and, all of the sudden, that engineer’s become a cab driver, we’d go, “Oops! Why are we calling the song, ‘Hey Mister Engineer?’ It should be, ‘Hey Cab Driver’.
What do you think is a trend people will be like, WTF about in a few years?
This thing (points to fringe/dreadlock combo) that I’ve been growing for the past 20 years now! When I was coming to perform these dates, I said to the girls in my band, wow, for some reason, I feel like wearing bellbottoms with really big shoulder pads… And they were like, are you sure? And I knew those two things didn’t go together, but I wanna do it! When you grow up with something, I think that, if you were really into it, it always has a place in your heart. Like, I think that if you’re like, a goth kid – you’re lucky enough to live to 80 years old, you look at yourself in the mirror and you still wish you had black fingernails! I really think that. Like, I see the world the way that I’ve always seen it. I feel very uncomfortable when I go to a college and they say, “Mr. Rodgers” – I look behind me and I go, “Oh shit, he’s here?” And I’m thinking they’re talking about Mr. Rogers that was on television when I was a kid, and I don’t realize that… I’m 59 years old! They’re talkin’ to me!
Do you think there are any drawbacks to using iPhones and iPads as instruments? Have you ever used the Tenori-On app, or anything like it?
I don’t think there’s any drawbacks to using anything. Like I know there’s a huge anti-Auto-Tune movement in America and I keep thinking to myself, if there’s such a huge backlash, and there’s ten new Auto-Tune records everyday… someone must like ‘em!
I think people get caught up in things not being “real” and organic.
Uh, pardon? [in a French accent]. So people just pick on Auto-Tune? What about the instrument you just mentioned? (laughs)
I saw that you’d done some music for the Beavis and Butthead movie. How did that happen? Are there any ‘90s cartoons you’d like to see brought back?
Mike Judge called me. Almost everything I’ve done in my life, the person has called me! Which is fortunate, cause I don’t have an agent or a manager. So thank God, they call me! But yeah, I’m not huge on commercial American cartoon stuff; although, I must say, Southpark is probably my favourite thing ever created, and whenever they do movies, it’s genius – and I can’t wait to see their Broadway show. It’s gonna be one of the most amazing shows of all time!
Nile Rodger’s book, Le Freak is out now…
FREAKY FACTS WITH NILE!
He did the soundtracks to Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America and, um, Snow Dogs.
And… two Halo soundtracks.
And Thelonius Monk dropped by one day to buy his mum’s fur coat off her so she could buy injectible essentials for around the house.
And as a teen he was hospitalized along with Andy Warhol after being spiked with bad acid.
He also became a Black Panther and jammed with Hendrix.
He became close to MDNA herself while producing ‘Like a Virgin’. “Why don’t you want to fuck me?” asked Madge, irritated at his un-DTF-ness. “I’m your producer,” goes Nile. “That never stopped any of the other ones,” retorted Madonna.
And he recently blogged, “Daft Punk is hanging at my house” – and they might be doing a new album together [confirmed and apparently out this year]
By Emily Torem
Photos Jeff Yiu For JUKE Vol.04 - The Weird Issue