It feels safe to say that the last half-century of pop history would sound a lot different without Nile Rodgers.
The 65-year-old songwriter, guitarist, and superproducer behind seminal albums from the likes of Diana Ross, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Madonna, Duran Duran, and Daft Punk made his name as a collaborator, but he’s also helmed his own band of dance-floor warriors, Chic, for more than four decades.
Now, 26 years after the release of the group’s last studio album, the Me-Decade collective has returned with a record fittingly called It’s About Time. Rodgers sat down with EW last month before a series of shows outside London to talk about fame, longevity, and why he’ll always play the hits.
The last Chic record came out in 1992. What was the process of getting to this one in 2018?
Albums to me are the same as films, they tell a complete story. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the basic backstory of every Chic album is that we’re a new band, opening for a big star. So we have to tell you who we are on every song — like, “Gimme a C! We are Chic, C-H-I-C!” or whatever. [laughs]
Listen, I don’t write music to make me a star. I write music so that collectively, we can make people happy. And that collective has been massive since the beginning of my career, so the album started off with a single called “I’ll Be There” that, believe it or not, has every single person that’s ever sung on a Chic song. Because in today’s world I can electronically manipulate things. If you looked at the credits you’d see Luther Vandross, just everybody, on there.
And then I was going to follow that up with the album. It was a tribute to Bowie and Prince, and when Bowie passed away I was just stunned. And I was like “Wow, I don’t want people to think I was trying to capitalize on his death.” But I couldn’t just pull the one song, because it would have been like pulling a scene from a film.
So I started to think, what’s really important to me? After I was diagnosed with cancer, I decided I was going to write more songs and do more collaborations than I’ve ever done in my life. And I did. I mean, Chic, we’ve never gigged as much as we’re gigging now, we’ve never been as popular in the way that we are now, I’ve never written this many songs with other people. And I’m proud of that fact, so that became the new direction. It’s the life that I lead now. And you can’t screw that up — either I’m alive or dead, I’m doing what I do, or not. [Laughs]
What surprised you the most about working with David Bowie?
When we met, he said, “I want you to make hits!” And I said, “Huh? You’re coming off of Scary Monsters and you want me to make hits? David, my career is plummeting now because I make hits. [Laughs] I want to make a flop with you so everybody goes ‘Wow he’s a cool producer, so esoteric and wonderful.’”
I didn’t care if it sold or not. I never had to make another record after I did Diana Ross’s [blockbuster 1980 album diana]. I was financially set. So I just wanted to become known as a producer — not a dance-record or a hit-record producer, because of the whole “disco sucks” thing. You know, no matter what record I had that was a hit, they called it disco. [Ross’s] “I’m Coming Out” doesn’t sound like a disco record — not even a little bit! It’s the most avant garde bebop fanfare record you ever want to hear.
But Bowie, he finally told me years later, “Man, Let’s Dance is a Nile Rodgers album with David Bowie singing.” And for me, that was the hugest compliment.
Tell me about getting Lady Gaga for “I Want Your Love” on your new album.
Gaga and I, we met at a party one night and we just fell in love, like bang, are you kidding me? And when Bowie passed away she called me up and we did the Grammy tribute. Now, she wanted to do about 40 songs, and I was like, “Wait a minute, we got eight minutes here!” [Laughs] But we just got along great. There’s a natural love there.
You also got Elton John and Janelle Monáe together on “Queen.” Are you a big Jangle fan?
She’s amazing. She talks about interesting subject matter, she performs her head off. She comes from that world that stars used to come from, and we haven’t really seen that in a long time. We see people that pretend to be, but when you peel back the layers of the onion, it’s just pretending. Janelle is the real deal.
There are a lot of lesser known artists on your resumé between all the superstars. Do you make it a point to still work with unknowns?
I have no problem saying that most of my records are flops. I just work so hard, and I do so many, that it seems like most of my records are hits. I’m always trying to carve out a new space. And when you do that, you just don’t know if people are going to be with you or not.
But when artists you’ve worked with do hit, they’ve been huge. Do you feel that you have some special Nostradamus sense for talent?
No! I’m good at liking them, but my taste is rather eclectic, so I’m trying to make artists that are just interesting and have a huge amount of style. Like Madonna — when I first met Madonna I was perplexed. The second time I met Madonna. I was in love. So it went from ‘Huh’ to ‘You’re the f—ing greatest s— I’ve ever seen.” [laughs]
There’s a famous picture of Madonna and I sitting in the middle of Madison Square Garden and not one person there bothered us or tried to take a picture with her. And within two to three months everyone was taking a picture of her and there was no way she could have sat in the middle of the Garden.
It happened that fast, because everybody was watching those first MTV Awards, going “Who’s that girl?” and I experienced that almost every time I was with her, walking into a pub or whatever and people going, “Who’s that girl? Who’s that girl?”
Then she went and made a movie called Who’s That Girl… Is there any project you’ve ever said no to that you regret now?
Oh, a lot of things. The biggest one was Miles Davis. We lived next door to each other at certain points in time, and we’d go out. He had a reputation for sometimes being quite cruel to people, but he was never cruel to me. He was fabulous.
We had so much fun, and that’s been my relationship with every single artist that you can think of that you know as being difficult, be it Prince, be it Miles, be it Madonna, anybody — when we’re together, they’re just as comfortable as you and I.
How do you feel about legacy acts being labeled “nostalgia”? Is that unfair?
Most of the people with me who were the essence of those old Chic albums died twentysomething years ago. And I’ve realized that [fans] don’t necessarily want new music — they actually just want to be young again. They wish that they were 19 or 20 years old and hearing U2 for the first time and seeing Bono climb up the truss, you know?
They don’t realize that when they first heard it, they didn’t have kids or jobs, they were in school and had no responsibilities. And somehow they think that the music is going to transport them back to another time and place.
That’s not what it can do physically, but it can sort of do that spiritually and emotionally, and that’s what I always try and do — I try and take you from wherever the hell you are to where I want you to be.
Some artists balk at playing their old hits, and some embrace it. Where do you fall?
I’m thrilled, are you kidding? As a composer, the most satisfying thing in the world is to have people know your music. It’s such a solitary, lonely job. So imagine you do something all alone by yourself, and you go out on stage and 100,000 people start singing and you go “Holy sh–, I guess it was a good idea.” [laughs]
I mean, I have a pretty good educated guess that a fair amount of my compositions will outlive me, particularly ones like [Sister Sledge’s] “We Are Family.”
Chic is literally the “Good Times” band. When times are hard, does it feel more imperative to make joyful music?
It does, much more. As a matter of fact I remember when I was making [Daft Punk’s] “Get Lucky” I used to say all the time, “What do great artists do in times of stress?” Some of them write about the bad stuff, but most of the really cool ones don’t write about the way that the world is, they write about the world the way they’d like it to be.
That’s why in a strange way I’m so disappointed in the state that the world is in now in 2018. Like wow, really? Did we go that far backwards? I thought we were on this upward trajectory where we’re all sort of happy and joyous and skipping off into the sunset. I never thought that we would be anti-refugee anti this, just anti anti anti.
One last question. With the two bouts of cancer behind you, how is your health?
It seems like it’s great! [Laughs] Yeah, I’m good.