Nile Rodgers: 'Your music is your soul'

Producer and Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers tells Paul Lester about jamming with Hendrix, flatlining after a cocaine binge with Mickey Rourke and walking on 'Planet C'

'It has been a very serious struggle," says Nile Rodgers of Chic, when asked how he is doing. It's not the usual reply to a politely formulaic question, but Rodgers has good reason for his answer. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer in October 2010 and has since endured radical surgery to remove it. He admits that he was "in denial" when his doctor broke the news. "I was being so nonchalant about it. Then finally it hit me how severe it was. I think because I'm generally upbeat I tried to pretend like I wasn't bothered."

That's instead of the usual product plug, and Rodgers has good reason to plug his product – a four-CD box set containing some of the most influential and beautiful music of the last 35 years, hits such as I Want Your Love, Le Freak, My Forbidden Lover and Good Times, Sister Sledge's Chic-penned Lost in Music, We Are Family and He's the Greatest Dancer, Sheila & B Devotion's Spacer and Diana Ross's Upside Down and I'm Coming Out.

It was during a show with Earth Wind & Fire that Rodgers, a self-confessed workaholic, began to display signs that his system was shutting down. "I had a sort of, not a nervous breakdown, but all of a sudden I couldn't play guitar any more – I had muscle weakness. I guess that was my reaction to [the cancer]. My body said: 'There's something wrong here, pal, and you need to recognise it.'"

Since the surgery, he has been diagnosed cancer-free – he announced a clean bill of health on Twitter recently. He's now in what he calls the "post-operative recuperation period". The pain has subsided and he's feeling optimistic – helped, he says, by the blog he's been writing, Walking on Planet C. "I have to be honest with you," he says, "there are a lot of emotions that you can't control. You really do feel sad, and afraid. That's what I now deem 'crazy cancer thoughts' in my blog." He says he feels more comfortable writing about it than talking about it. "When I talk about it, I get nervous, but when I write about it, I can stand outside myself and be like a person telling a story. I haven't had one bout of panic writing about it. But when I talk about it, even to friends, I get tongue-tied, my mouth goes dry, and I get scared."

In a way, Rodgers has managed to deal with his illness because it is just one of many difficulties he's had to overcome. It can't have been easy discovering, for example, that his mother was just 14 when she gave birth to him in a taxi careening across New York's East river, nor that she ended up in a reform school for her sins.

"It was the same prison they sent Billie Holiday when she got busted for either heroin or prostitution, right there on Welfare Island under 59th Street Bridge," he recalls. He only found this out recently, while interviewing his mother for his autobiography, which he's just completed. He also learned that he was briefly given up for adoption, before his mother had a change of heart and took him back to live with her and her parents. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back between her mother and her father and eventually they got divorced," he says, "because her father didn't want a teenage girl with a baby in his house."

His dad was "an everyday junkie" by the time he was born; he died when Rodgers was 18. "I feel like I saw him more than I actually did, but I could probably count the number of times on two hands." His stepfather, a Jewish New Yorker who his mother married in her 20s, was also hooked on heroin. "It's funny," says Rodgers, "but he always used to pride himself on being the world's oldest junkie! I absolutely loved him – he just passed away."

His mum and stepdad were beatniks – "not hippies, no, I'm not that young," he jokes – whose home in downtown New York was, as he told me in 2007, "very multicultural, open and cool", with "poetry, bebop and jazz" and a laissez-faire attitude when it came to discipline. This probably accounts for Rodgers's disappearance from the home, aged 13, to drop acid with counterculture guru Timothy Leary.

"I didn't even know what it was," he says. Did it freak him out? "No, it was fantastic! I stayed away for a day and a half, I was really dirty – I had the time of my life. My whole world changed after that."

Rodgers has good reason to declare: "My life was really interesting before Chic." He worked at an airport in Los Angeles cleaning private jets for the likes of Frank Sinatra. Years later, when he was the world's hottest producer, on the back of collaborations with David Bowie (Let's Dance) and Madonna (Like A Virgin), he lent Sinatra and Sinatra's then-producer Quincy Jones some equipment. "Man," Sinatra said to him, remembering the pop-obsessed kid from LA, "you really took this music thing seriously!" Back in New York, there was a strange night when, holed up in a loft in Greenwich Village, avoiding a snowstorm with some musician friends, he met Jimi Hendrix and, "high on acid", they jammed for hours. Rodgers was 16.

If this all sounds far-fetched, while still in his teens Rodgers became a subsection leader of the Lower Manhattan branch of the New York Black Panther party. "I thought I was going to be a serious revolutionary a la Che Guevara," he told Daryl Easlea in 2004 for the book Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco. One of Chic's most heartstopping moments came as a result of this involvement with the black power movement.

It says a lot about the group often dismissed as purveyors of good-times dance fare that the song At Last I Am Free should be a sepulchral ballad, not about the end of an affair but the night Rodgers and some acid-dazed associates tried to negotiate a Central Park peppered with Panther-bashing cops. Some of them "got beaten to a bloody pulp"; Rodgers eventually escaped, sighing on his departure from the park, "At last I am free!" (The track's edgier sociopolitical subtext was evidently divined by Robert Wyatt, who covered it in 1982).

Rodgers may not have become a serious revolutionary, but he did end up seriously revolutionising pop. Following a stint in the house band at Harlem's Apollo theatre playing for Aretha Franklin, Ben E King, Parliament-Funkadelic and more, Rodgers, the anarcho-bohemian rocker, met his strait-laced R&B-loving Chic mate, bassist Bernard Edwards, and one of the great music partnerships was born.

There were a few false-starts – a brush with Philly-style soul with the Big Apple Band who backed New York City on their 1973 hit I'm Doin' Fine Now, a detour into funk-metal with Allah and the Knife-Wielding Punks – before Chic formed in 1976. Their touchstones were Kiss (for the way they were able to be massive yet anonymous) and Roxy Music (for their glamour and sophistication). With Rodgers and Edwards as the core duo handling writing, production and arrangements, Tony Thompson on drums, backing singers both male (including Luther Vandross) and female, plus a string section, horn players and young engineer Bob Clearmountain, the Chic Organization became a world-class force.

Between 1977 and 1983, they were hugely prolific, churning out seven Chic albums as well as two for Sister Sledge, one for Diana Ross (the biggest of her career), another for Debbie Harry, and one for an obscure French outfit called Sheila & B Devotion that proved they could apply the Chic magic to anyone, even if, as Rodgers points out, the latter was achieved with music that had more in common with new wave than disco.

"That was us discovering Devo," he says. "We loved what Kraftwerk and Moroder were doing – we were mimicking those sequenced rhythms with real playing." Back in 1979, he and Edwards were warning Blues & Soul magazine not to classify Chic as bluesy or soulful. No change there. "Trust me, the only real way to understand Chic is in hifalutin terms. Our chord progressions were based on European modal melodies. I made those early Chic records to impress my jazz friends. I would always say: 'Phew, I hope this passes the test of the jazz police!' Listen to I Want Your Love – that's straight out of the McCoy Tyner handbook."

Today's hi-tech R&B can be traced back to Chic, while hip-hop owes them an enormous debt of gratitude: not only was the first rap hit, Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight, based on Good Times, but Chic are now the most sampled band in history. "We've officially overtaken James Brown," says Rodgers, who recently worked out that he has generated, via Chic's music, his productions for Bowie, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Duran, Bryan Ferry et al, and his more recent soundtracks for movies and computer games and TV adverts for Budweiser and Nike, $3bn.

True, being in Chic hasn't been all good. The "disco sucks" campaign that derailed their career and, as Rodgers puts it, "made Chic toxic", led to drug binges that, by 1994, brought him close to death – he was, in fact, pronounced dead by a doctor after a cocaine bacchanal with Mickey Rourke caused his heart to stop eight times. "I had flatlined," he says, "but they brought me back to life." Excess, too, arguably hastened the demise of Edwards, who died in 1996, aged 43. With Tony Thompson succumbing to cancer in 2003, there can never be a Chic reunion now, even if the music on that glorious four-CD box set will endure for ever.

Chic are now regarded as crucial members of that elite pantheon of 70s pop pioneers. But who should be in pole position? "Oh, man, come on," he replies. "That's like asking the president not to vote for themselves. I love those groups, but no one could love their own music more than me. It's impossible. It's your soul. It was more than we ever imagined it would be – and we had pretty good imaginations. It changed our lives. I am very rich because of Chic - artistically as well as spiritually. It's been an amazing life."

Nile Rodgers Presents The Chic Organization Box Set Vol 1/Savoir Faire is available now on Rhino.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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