- 25 Oct 17
As Chic get ready to funk the living daylights out of the 3Arena, we recall some classic encounters with Nile and the gang...
The Chic of Some People (2009)
He helped invent disco, funk, r 'n' b and hip-hop. And when he wasn’t changing the face of popular music, Chic leader NILE RODGERS found time to chin-wag with pop’s best, bravest and weirdest. Here he talks about hanging with David Bowie, Slash and Madonna and reveals his oft-overlooked hippy leanings. STUART CLARK reports.
It’s possible with much dedication and sacrifice that you’ll one day run a marathon, finish reading Ulysses and manage to explain the offside rule to your non-footie loving significant other, but you’ll never ever be able to out-name-drop Nile Rodgers.
“Billy Idol and I popped into this after-hours joint in New York called The Continental – it opened at three or four in the morning – and sitting all by himself at the back of the room was David Bowie,” the Chic mainman says, launching into his umpteenth celebrity anecdote of the afternoon. “I’d been a Bowie fan ever since I’d dropped acid with a girl in Miami Beach years before and she turned me on to The Spiders From Mars.”
To underline his devotion to the Jones boy, Rodgers switches into Dick Van Dyke ‘god bless you Mary Poppins’ mode and treats me to a rousing, “Ziggy played geeeetar/Jamming good with weeeeeeird and Gilly/And the Spidaaaaas from Maaaars!”
If they ever bring back Stars In Their Eyes, the title’s his!
“I knew David lived in the same building as myself, Carlos Alomar and Luther Vandross, so I went over and said, ‘Hello neighbour!’ We talked about the friends we had common – all the Young Americans musicians were people I’d played with in my Apollo Theater and Sesame Street house band days, so there was an instant connection. David called me a few days later and the next thing you know I was flying over to Switzerland to demo this new song he’d written called ‘Let’s Dance’. The first time I got to hear it was when he walked into my bedroom and, brandishing a 12-string folk guitar that only had six strings on it, said ‘Nile darling, listen to this!’ It was a cool little ditty but as of yet didn’t have that dancefloor thing going on, so I asked him to let me do an arrangement on it and the rest, as they say, is history!”
If it was somebody else clanging like that you’d say they were showing off, but since the mid-‘60s Rodgers has done nothing but hob-knob with musical royalty. How many friends he’s made along the way was evident 12 months ago when Slash gushed to Hot Press that, “He’s an absolute genius. The biggest privilege of my life is getting to play with Nile Rodgers and Chic.”
Quite a testimonial from a man who’s also traded licks with Michael Jackson, Ronnie Wood and Iggy Pop.
“Slash is like my brother from another mother,” says Rodgers, returning the love. “Actually, I was friends with his mom, Ola Hudson, who tragically passed away and had her service just last Friday. She was always bragging about her young son, who was this incredible guitar player in a band called Guns N’ Roses but they hadn’t gotten a record deal yet. How quickly did that change? One of the proudest moments of my life was having Slash guest with Chic in 1996 in Japan, and then again last year at the We Are Family Foundation gig in New York, which would’ve been just a couple of days before he spoke to you. We only had two rehearsals but, man, he nailed it! One of the things I absolutely love about Chic is that we’re a proper live band who’d rather make the odd mistake than resort to backing-tracks and all that other stuff, which is basically cheating.”
Although synonymous with the late ‘70s disco explosion – more of which later – Rodgers insists he’ll always be a hippie at heart.
“I ran away from home at a very early age, and did LSD with Timothy Leary when I just 13,” he confides. “Back then acid, psilocybin and MDMA were all legal, so the cops would give you a hard time but they couldn’t arrest you. My mom, who was a beatnik, never complained about me taking LSD. Well, apart from the one time when she had to come and pick me up from the hospital. But it wasn’t LSD. Somebody had spiked my drink with STP and raped my girlfriend, which was horrific.”
Add Vietnam, the Kent State shootings and a resurgence in racially-motivated hate crimes to that personal tragedy, and you can understand why the late ‘60s found Nile swapping lysergic love-ins for membership of the Black Panther Party.
“It’s amazing you mention that, because this Sunday the Lower Manhattan Section of the Harlem Black Panthers, of which Tupac’s mom Afeni Shakur was a prominent member, is having its first reunion since back in the day,” he enthuses. “I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to become a Blank Panther. There was an evolutionary process, which took me from LSD-taking hippy to peacenik opposing the war to somebody who wasn’t prepared to accept the extraordinary violence that our communities were being subjected to. That we were hitting a nerve was evident when J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers’ Breakfast For Children Program – which did exactly what the name implies – as the single most subversive act in United States history. Er, what about the Civil War? He was making us out to be Black Nationalist revolutionaries whereas in reality we were just service-oriented kids using peaceful methods to help people.”
Having been a bit-part player in other musicians’ careers – Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Nancy Wilson and Parliament are just a handful of the legends he backed during his Apollo Theater tenure – Rodgers became a star in his own right in 1977 when Chic’s eponymous debut album hit the pop charts.
The New York musical Gods had conspired so that while ‘Everybody Dance’ was soundtracking the hedonistic goings-on in Studio 54, you had Blondie, Talking Heads, The Ramones et al fomenting new wave revolution in CBGBs and the nascent hip-hop scene taking shape in the boroughs.
“It was Debbie Harry that took me to my first rap event, which is what they used to call ‘a hip-hop’,” Rodgers reminisces. “I asked, ‘What’s that?’ and she said, ‘You take something hip and you hop on it’. I went over to a high school in Queens and the only song they were playing was the Chic one ‘Good Times’. For three or four hours they had a series of MCs come up on stage and rhyme to it, which was how ‘Good Times’ morphed into ‘Rapper’s Delight’. It wasn’t just that song – Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ was so important to Latin hip-hop and freestyle. One minute it was a localised Queens/Bronx thing, the next it was a viable art form that has become a dominant force in modern music.”
It’s been somewhat airbrushed from history, but right in the thick of that NYC freestyle action was a young lady by the name of Madonna Ciccone.
“Nobody wants to admit it but, yeah, Madonna was the one genuine star to come out of that scene,” Nile asserts. “If you listen to ‘Holiday’, ‘Everybody’ and the rest of that first album, it was a freestyle record. I’ve never met anybody who was so insanely driven and focused as Madonna. I’m pretty intense myself but, man, she’s out the ballpark! There was definitely a – how shall I put this? – locking of horns when we were in the studio together, which thankfully didn’t get in the way of Like A Virgin being the landmark album it is. One of my greatest triumphs as a producer was getting her to put the sequencers aside and dig for something deeper.”
It’s a sign of Rodgers’ versatility that his other big 1984 hit was Robert Plant’s The Honeydrippers: Volume One.
“I don’t know if you know the story behind the record, but basically it was Robert and his friends including me doing a bunch of (former Atlantic Records boss) Ahmet Ertegün’s favourite 1950s songs,” he explains. “Volume Two had been talked about, but then in 2006 Ahmet tragically died. I was the de facto spokesperson trying to remind people what Led Zeppelin’s London O2 reunion was all about – a tribute to Ahmet Ertegün – but such was their genius that night, it kinda got overshadowed.”
Although he couldn’t invent a reason to be on stage with him – “Wouldn’t that have been sweet!” – Nile had a key role as Robert Plant’s motivational coach.
“When Robert asked me: ‘Do you think I’ll be able to hit those notes?’ I replied with something Luther Vandross told me when he was part of Chic, which was: ‘If you do a wrong note, make it long and strong so that people think you meant to do it!’ It’s a good mantra for just about everything in life.”