Nile Rodgers has an abundance of amazing stories to tell. Some of them are about his band Chic, who were the biggest group of the late 70s disco explosion, and his side-project Sister Sledge, who had several more dancefloor filling hits. Some of them involve world superstars like Diana Ross or David Bowie or Madonna, because be produced the biggest-selling albums any of them made. Some of them involve other stars like Debbie Harry, Duran Duran, INXS and Mick Jagger, whom he also produced. And some of them involve the birth of hip-hop, at which he was present, thanks to The Sugarhill Gang’s unauthorised borrowing of Chic’s Good Times to lie under Rapper’s Delight. He enjoys telling these stories, and The Skinny enjoyed letting him.
Like, there was the one about the time Debbie Harry took him around New York to visit some hip-hops – congregations of hip youths, hopping – where at every single one, Good Times was being spun, over and over. Some time later, he went to a nightclub and heard it again, only for the DJ to start rapping on top of it – "I said a hip-hop, a hippy to the hippy to hip hip hop..." – only, it wasn't the DJ. "I looked in the DJ booth and I thought it was him and a couple of friends rapping over a musical bedtrack which they had created." That was a reasonable assumption to make, because for a while fans had been jumping on stage at Chic gigs to grab the mic and rap. "We didn't mind seeing this in a live arena, like what we'd seen at a hip-hop, that was cool 'cos it was just a performance thing, and it was interesting to watch. To know that people had rehearsed rhymes and routines to perform over Good Times – that was cool!" But the DJ wasn't rapping in the booth, the vocals were coming off the vinyl. "The thing that was ironic was that Rapper's Delight generated more revenue than Good Times because it was only available on 12", so you'd pay $3 for a song that we would sell for 79cents, almost four times the amount! When it comes to artists sharing work there's a sort of unwritten rule that some things are cool. I always find it a little bit weird when we all know where an idea came from but the person changes it enough that, y'know, it's cool. I'm pretty sure you can think of dozens and dozens of records you know that come from another record. I mean I do it all the time myself, we all do! But there's a difference between inspiration and plagiarism. So, basically that happened with Sugarhill Gang, they crossed that line."
It’s interesting to think of that in light of Rodgers' unexpected explanation of Chic’s formation. “When you're coming up with a band and coming up with a concept, you work with artistic ideas the same way you would do a sculpture, you mould those ideas or reinterpret them. It's very clear in today's musical world there's more of a collage culture, because of hip-hop, it's a re-interpretive culture.” In the early 70s, Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards had become fans of Roxy Music, and especially liked the glamour portrayed by Bryan Ferry's beautiful model girlfriends on the covers. Meanwhile their friend (and later keyboard player) Rob Sabino was hanging around with a guitarist called Ace Frehley. “This was before Kiss really blew up and got signed to Casablanca. They were still an underground band, but they were already doing the makeup thing. So basically the concept of Chic was a fusion of those two ideas, the Roxy Music covers with the girls and the Kiss logo and Kiss's anonymity because of their makeup. Our version of Kiss's anonymity was putting on suits and pretending to be bankers from France or something!”
The bankers from France didn't stay anonymous for long. "We thought in our hearts artistically we were doing the right things and it would be successful. When Dance Dance Dance forced the black station to play our music because the white station had started playing it first, we realised that, OK, we got something pretty unique here!" In this country, that doesn't really make sense. What's a white station? "David Bowie told me something really fantastic," Nile Rodgers begins another anecdote. "He was explaining to me why people from the UK know so much more about music than your average American. It's because of the way that the radio was formatted, on BBC [Radio] 1 they were just playing whatever was happening, they didn't care whether it was blues or jazz or R&B or dance or whatever." Contrarily, in America, radio stations only play specific niches to specific demographics. This is important, because it's difficult to think of disco without also thinking of the backlash it provoked in America in the late 70s. If disco isn't your cup of tea, that's fine; but in Chicago in 1979, 75,000 people donated disco records to be exploded, with a bomb, in a Baseball stadium. Disco sucks, they said, and then BOOM, and big cheers all round. Isn't that a bit much? Isn't that a bit like a book burning?
That rabid hatred of disco was likely driven by homophobia and racism, but music always finds a way to challenge preconceptions. In these senses, the disco explosion in the States mirrored the UK's punk breakthrough. Both genres were propelled by a new generation rebelling against what rock had become in the mid-70s – no longer the vibrant and exciting challenge to the status quo it represented to the post-war baby boomers, but the status quo itself. Punk's anti-authoritarianism took on confrontational guises, while disco became a vehicle to challenge the homophobic attitudes of the mainstream, as embodied by the macho rock fan. Most disco artists preferred messages of positivity, community, and triumph through dancing – rather than the aggressiveness of punk – as exemplified on Chic hits like Everybody Dance and Good Times. And, of course, Chic became so popular that stations demarcated for white music and white listeners programmed them too. Popular art melts more hardened attitudes than moralising texts or lectures do.
The story of Chic's inspiration coming from Roxy Music and Kiss is telling too. How many of the 75,000 seeking to burn disco down in Chicago donated Chic records and were also fans of Kiss or Roxy Music? It's fair to assume that there were probably quite a lot. With American radio stations so precisely targetted towards narrow demographics of listener, it's no surprise that American listeners heaped a whole pile of identity issues onto everything they heard. Musicians don't care about demographics; musicians are inspired by music, and then they make their own music; it's only marketeers and listeners who make it tribal. Of course, British fans conflate music taste and identity politics too, but we're lucky enough to have a dominant set of non-commercial radio stations which expose us to a wider range. "In America we're very compartmentalised by race and genre and stuff like that," Rodgers continues. "I remember when I was a kid the first time I played in England. There was some song called The Ugly Duckling. We were like R&B guys, and the audience was grooving to us, and then when we finished performing some guy came on-stage and went [singing] 'there once was an ugly duckling', and we were like 'you gotta be fucking kidding me!'".
The transatlantic success of Dance Dance Dance was followed by more seductive grooves on Everybody Dance, Le Freak, I Want Your Love, Good Times and My Forbidden Lover. Then as Chic's successes scattered, Rodgers and Edwards took on the struggling Sister Sledge and gave them We Are Family, He's The Greatest Dancer, Lost In Music and Thinking Of You. Rodgers is especially enthused when I mention He's The Greatest Dancer as a personal favourite. "I really dig what you just said there, because it's funny, a song like He's The Greatest Dancer doesn't get mentioned as much as I believe it should do because it was overshadowed by We Are Family. But it's one of my favourite songs that I've ever written! How often do you hear a diminished chord in a pop song? I make a big deal of that diminished chord, it goes [singing] 'Mweu! He's the Greatest Dancer!' We don't get a chance to do that that much in a pop song and we pulled it off there!" By the turn of the decade, Rodgers was hot property. He was approached to resuscitate Diana Ross's struggling career with Diana (1980), and did just that. Familiar sounding hit singles Upside Down and I'm Coming Out even led to the criticism that Ross was just a new vocalist for Chic. In a previous interview, Rodgers recounted how Ross was suspicious that singing "I'm Coming Out" might lead listeners to think she was gay. Rodgers persuaded her otherwise, that "I'm Coming Out" had an innoccuous meaning, and it worked, though he hoped that the song might become a gay anthem. Ross embraced her new iconic status, encouraged to do so by a career now revived to the tune of ten million album sales.
Later, Rodgers produced Bowie's biggest ever album Let's Dance (1983). "When I worked with him his concept was to do a really really big record, and that's not David's normal life." Only in the 80s could massive commercial success be an 'artistic concept'. This album, of course, spawned the chart-topping title track, and was Bowie's last essential full-length before the inevitable artistic demise. "I spent a very long time working with Duran Duran after Bowie," and 1984 duly gave LeBon's boys their two biggest hits yet - The Reflex and The Wild Boys. Then up-and-coming coquette Madonna chose Rodgers to produce Like a Virgin, and it launched her to superstardom. "The fact that Madonna's the biggest star in the world now doesn't change the fact that when I met Madonna, she couldn't really pay her rent! When I met Madonna I think I had, em, nine gold albums and eight platinum records and she hadn't even sold 300,000 records!" Like a Virgin, including the very era-appropriate Material Girl, sold over 20 million copies and turned Madonna into an icon too. Then there was Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, The B-52s; sadly, there's only so many anecdotes Rodgers can recite in a half-hour phone call. He's got time for just one more."I think probably one of my favourite records that never really made it to the big time was Al Jarreau's L Is For Lover, and I know why - we sabotaged ourselves! Al Jarreau did a theme for the TV show Moonlighting and we thought our record was so artistically cool that we didn't want to put the theme for Moonlighting on our record, so we put it on another label's product, and that other record went platinum with our single as its lead record!"
At the end of July, Rodgers is coming to Scotland with some new bandmates for a Chic Organisation spectacular. Former core members Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson have both passed away, but Rodgers is sure that "all the musicians I know are the best people I've ever worked with. We do all the Chic stuff, but it's a bigger world than that, it's also Sister Sledge, it's Diana Ross. Now we've increased the set so we do a Bowie song, we do a Madonna song, we do this song called Spacer which we wrote for a French artist called Sheila B Devotion, and this will be the first time we've done that. Playing with Chic is one of my big loves. To think that I never have to stand on a stage and play a song that I didn't have anything to do with, that's incredible to me."
Nile Rodgers has an abundance of amazing songs to play.