Nile Rodgers might just be the coolest man on the planet. As a young musician, he opened for the Jackson 5 and in 1976 he co-founded the disco/R&B band Chic with bass player Bernard Edwards, a musical partnership that turned out instant classics like “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” and “Everybody Dance” — the latter two featuring the vocals of a young Luther Vandross. Another of Chic’s greatest hits, “Good Times,” not only earned legendary status in its own right but served as the musical inspiration for other classic tunes, from Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” to The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” among others.
If that’s not enough, the 66-year-old’s producer credits include David Bowie’s biggest commercial album Let’s Dance, Madonna’s seminal Like A Virgin disc as well as music for everyone from Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton to Sheena Easton — a string of successes that, in the mid-1980s, earned him the title of the world’s top singles producer.
Since then he’s worked on everything from film and videogame soundtracks to his non-profit We Are Family Foundation, which he founded to promote education and understanding following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Recently, Rodgers recently touched down in Toronto to talk It’s About Time, the first Chic album in 26 years which includes 10 upbeat tunes featuring collaborations with artists from Elton John to Lady Gaga.
Decked out in a baby blue Kangol hat, chains around his neck, a Chic t-shirt, blue jeans and rainbow socks, Rodgers relaxed in a downtown hotel suite and discussed the evolution of Chic, overcoming addiction and two bouts of cancer and the wise words of David Bowie that he’s never forgotten.
MIKE CRISOLAGO: You’ve mentioned that It’s About Time was originally going to be a “thank you” album until the deaths of David Bowie and Prince in 2016, at which time the concept became more about new beginnings. Given this is also the first CHIC album in 26 years, what does “new beginnings” mean to you?
NILE RODGERS: It allows me to think with the brain that I have now, which, I believe, is more evolved than when we first started. When we first started, we were taking advantage of the openness of the disco movement. We were jazz guys. I was a jazz guy. Bernard was a super R&B funk guy … we were able to take the openness of the disco movement and put an R&B jazz band right in the thick of it. We could come up with these songs that people would sing and would love the groove and they’d just start dancing. What is more gratifying than that? So my concept now is to get back to the fun part of it. The intellectual part I can do all day long, but I want to get back to the fun part.
MC: And you mentioned that the song “State of Mind” is your favourite song on the album because you get to play a really cool jazzy guitar solo.
NR: But I was trying to not be a show off. That’s not what CHIC is about. We’re an ensemble. It’s about grooving and playing together. We started CHIC during the greatest financial recession since the great depression. And so we started using those kinds of lyrical themes. ‘Yowza, Yowza, Yowza. Happy days are here again,’ ‘The stars are going to twinkle and shine this evening, about a quarter to nine. Let’s get together, how about a quarter to ten.’ It was obvious as the nose on our faces to us, but to so many people no one really got the double entendre. Because it’s like when you go to the museum and you’re contemplating a painting and you’re sitting right next to another person and, you say, ‘What do you see?’ And, they see something totally different.
MC: Different perspectives.
NR: I’m telling you man. [He holds up a glass of water] You hang around David Bowie for an hour, you’re going to say, ‘Hey, David, what do you see?’ ‘Well now, I’ll tell you. I think about the carbonation and da, da, da.’ And, I’m like, ‘Okay, I was just kidding.’
MC: Speaking of Bowie, you’ve worked with everyone from him to Madonna to Diana Ross to Eric Clapton — the list goes on and on. Which collaborator had the greatest affect on you?
NR: I would have to say David Bowie. I went from having a partner that was a 24/7 partner, Bernard Edwards, to now I no longer have a partnership with Bernard Edwards. So, what happens? Now, I’m doing David Bowie [producing his Let’s Dance album]. We cling to each other. Like, he has nobody. I have nobody. We only have each other. David Bowie didn’t know anyone on his record except for me and Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom he only met once. That meant that he had to have complete faith in me to deliver this vision that we were creating. Same thing with Madonna [on her Like A Virgin album]. She didn’t know anyone on her record except me. And when you’re charged with those kinds of responsibilities, it’s only natural that the relationship becomes really intense, because it really is just a partnership that you’re now forming with one other person. So that means that they trust you to hire every single person to do that job, even though they don’t know them. And the thing that I now look back upon with a great deal of humility is that they felt it. I was able to project that vibe and they were able to go along with it.
MC: You’re a great artist and they’re great artists. What did you learn from them?
NR: David [Bowie] told me something that I don’t really repeat too much. I was a bit concerned that we were making [the Let’s Dance album] extremely commercial even though that’s what he asked me to do. Don’t get it twisted. That was his idea. I wanted to make Scary Monsters Two, because I was running from success. He wanted to run towards it. So, “China Girl” was the one song that was really kicking my butt because I was like, “How do I make this commercial?” with what I considered my CHIC formula, which is introducing something very interesting right [off] the top? And, so, I wrote that [opening musical riff].
Now, I felt that playing that sort of pentatonic Chinese thing was sort of semi-racist. It had a sort of racist feel. But I thought that when I listened to the lyrics, David was talking about speedballing. “Girl,” in drug addict days, was cocaine and, “China” was, China White, which was heroine. So, China Girl made perfect sense to me.
So, I came up with the [opening musical riff] and I told the band, “This shit is so disgustingly pop, we’re going to get fired. So, be prepared for this.” I played it for [Bowie] and he went, “That’s fantastic.” I was laughing my ass off. I said, “So David, you’re not afraid of being that commercial?” And he says, “Nile, if you come from art, you’ll always be associated with art.”
And, I went, “Wow.” So, I thought, “You’re right.” David Bowie making a disgustingly pop album actually can be seen as an incredible artistic statement. So, I was like, “Okay. Cool. I got it, David.”
MC: That’s amazing. And you mentioned drugs, so I wanted to ask you about your health. You’ve been sober for decades and beat cancer twice, including renal cancer this year. What tips can you offer for living a healthy and vibrant life into your 60s and beyond?
NR: I think that because I’ve been so close to death so many times, I have a strange kind of fearlessness and when I’m confronted by a situation, I really listen to the logic in the healing process. So when I have to deal with something that’s life threatening, which I’ve dealt with way more times than I care to mention, I just sort of suck it up and, go, “Okay. Doc, what am I supposed to do?” And I’ll do what the doctor tells me to do. And I just try and stay positive man. I used to be terrified of flying and I was white-knuckling it. And now, I fall asleep as soon as I get on the plane. And that’s because one day my psychiatrist said, “So, Nile, what’s your greatest fear? Why do you think you get high so much?” I said, “Well because after flying I really can’t deal with it. I’m afraid that the plane is going to crash.” He said, “Really? You’re the bravest person in the world.” I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “So, you think that the plane is going to crash but you get on it?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “My God. Let me shake your hand.” And I got it. He hit me with the logic. He says, “No, you don’t believe the plane is going to crash. What you’re doing is you’re thinking about the plane crashing. That’s not the same thing as believing. If you believe it, you wouldn’t get on it.”
So, instead of thinking about it, think about something else. That’s what I’ve learned, is behaviour modification. As my shrink said, “You don’t really have to scream until you know the plane is crashing. Until then, just sit there and be cool and have fun.” And that’s how I do it.
MC: You said once that disco is the closest humanity ever came to a utopia. With such an upbeat and fun album like It’s About Time, is there a hope that music can help raise humanity back up during this time of deep division?
NR: I’m sure hoping man. And of course this is so insanely idealistic, who could ever think that a record could do this? Well, a record did it to me. Donna Summer did it to me. Eddie Kendricks did it to me. The Village People did it to me. It was like, “Wow.” But I’ve never seen more disunity in the world in my entire life. I’m 66 years old. That means that I grew up during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, the beginning of the Women’s Movement, the beginning of the Gay Movement. I watched all that happen and I watched the union mentality support all those causes. I was in an organization called the Black Panther Party. We still support the White Panthers, the Young Lords, Women’s Lib. I remember the first night I met Gloria Steinem. I thought I would melt. To me, Gloria Steinem was the same kind of hero as Malcolm X.
… I want to be idealistic. I would have never thought that, in 2018, the world would look like it is. It’s crazy to me. I’m like one of those super hippy flower kids that I thought by the year 2000 … it would be fantastic. We’d be loving and all skipping around and wonderful.
MC: Right, but that’s not always the case. Particularly with social media…
NR: The other day I was doing a benefit to help protect the oceans and President Clinton was there. So it’s like people have lost their sense of humour now even. So President Clinton was talking to me and, he said, “Yo Nile, I got my horn. Straight, no-chaser, two flats, right?” Like, it’s a jazz joke. And then somebody wrote [on social media], “Yeah, he’s the man responsible for bombing Yugoslavia.” And I just couldn’t help it. I had to answer the dude. I said … “You know, the reason why I get along with everybody is because I respect their point of view and I listen to them.” I said, “So, yes. You may say that. But I could talk to another group of people and they say, ‘He’s the guy who stopped all of this. We were just killing each other and, nobody was intervening and he intervened.’”
And I’m going, “Why, why do we not want to have fun anymore?” Social media has given us a platform to voice our opinions about everything. I said, “But, you know, wouldn’t it be cooler and, wouldn’t you get better results, if you start talking more and more about the positive things? Because I think that positivity just feels better.”
It’s About Time is available in stores and online now.