Nile Rodgers is an acclaimed hit songwriter, a guitarist’s guitarist, and one of the most successful record producers of all time. His list of iconic hits (many written with his late partner from the group Chic, Bernard Edwards) includes "We Are Family," "Good Times," "Le Freak," and Diana Ross’s anthem "I’m Coming Out," plus a mind-blowing number of definitive rock, pop, and R&B albums. Rodgers added "author" to his packed resume with the publication of his thoroughly entertaining autobiography, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny (now in paperback) in which he laid bare the happenstance events of growing up in a mixed-race, bi-coastal family of "dope fiend bohemians" who he says taught him everything he needed to know "about love, loss, fashion, art, music and the subversive power of underground culture."
Over a career which stretches from the road show of Sesame Street to the late show at the Apollo, from jamming with Hendrix to jazzing with Bowie, what consistently emerges is a theme of research, survival, and adaptation—skills that continue to serve him in his ongoing battle with cancer since receiving that grim diagnosis in 2010. But by all accounts, including his Planet C blog, Rodgers appears, so far, to be kicking ass there too.
On the eve of Chic’s nomination for induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, we asked Rodgers how he makes the impossible look easy. Here’s what he told us.
For me, before we get in the room to work on the music, our non-musical conversation is almost everything. When we worked with Diana Ross, we studied her, and actually interviewed her. We got to know everything about her, then we wrote songs for her, and from her point of view, as opposed to the record company’s point of view. We documented her life in son so the whole Diana album is a kind of documentary, if you will.
When I first met David Bowie, we started talking about music right away. I don’t know how it came up, but we started talking about jazz rather quickly. Then that was all we talked about. David was into all sorts of jazz, avant-garde performers and composers that were way left of center, free-form jazz and bebop, polyrhythmic, polytonal and atonal stuff, which I also knew about because it was the kind of stuff I grew up with. So once I knew that his knowledge of music went that deep, I knew that we could push the boundaries.
When I first spoke with Duran Duran, we realized we were both fans of Sly And The Family Stone, so I knew what Nick Rhodes meant when he’d ask "What would Sly do?", and then we’d "Sly it up." So, every artist is different, and once I become clear to what your reality is, the better I can function. It is unbelievably important to me that everything I do has to be completely real, and completely honest, because if it is, and I understand that, then I can approach it as an expert.
When I’m doing what I know, I’m an expert. I’m one of the smartest people in the room because I’m doing what I know how to do, really well. And if I don’t know how to do it really, really well, I don’t do it! Take Madonna, for instance. Once I was able to evaluate what she was doing, it already was very familiar to me because she was doing stuff that I had already done as a kid at the Apollo Theater, I just didn’t know any white people that were doing it.
As a result, it was very easy for me to communicate with her because I could see what she was doing wrong, based on my filter. Because in that particular field of music, I had the expertise to help her pull it off, we were a perfect pairing. And it worked, too. I just went back and listened to "Like A Virgin" and, pound for pound, it’s still a solid record.
Being an expert isn’t an egotistical point of view; it’s a comfort factor. If you’re doing something that’s out of your comfort zone, then you’re not an expert at it. You look at a high wire walker and they make it look so easy. It’s not really, but they can make it look easy because they’re completely comfortable on a high wire. Every now and then, we fall off the beam, you know; we can’t get it right every time. But for the most part, when I do any project, I try to own my own expertise.
Before this book, I had never written anything like a book in my life, but I approached as if I was a real writer. Because I was a songwriter and I have rules that govern my songwriting, my writing coach told me that writing a book is like writing a song without a chorus, just one great verse after the next.
But I said, 'Wait, many people have told me that songs shouldn’t start with choruses, the chorus should be the pay off of a verse etc. Yet, almost every one of my songs starts with a chorus, and many of them were hits. But he said "Yeah, but unfortunately with a book you can’t do that." And as soon as he told me that, it was my aim for my book to have a chorus, the recurring theme of Thanksgiving Day.
I work from a keen awareness of who I am, and who the world is, and my role in this world is not gonna be the same as another person’s. And I never, ever, try to superimpose someone else’s success on my own life. You have to take the information and come up with your own way of doing things. There’s no way anyone else but Madonna could have sung "Like A Virgin", which is actually one of the more mediocre songs on that album, but she was the right tool for that particular job, at the right time.
Still, after I’ve done my homework and paid attention to the details, I also realize that a lot of people don’t listen to music under a microscope. Music just sort of happens to most people, they just sort of feel it, and they’re not examining it with a fine-tooth comb. So a lot of "mistakes," if you will, I let go by because those mistakes feel good, they feel natural and they’re part of a person’s performance. And sometimes they actually add an interesting element to the music that I would have never thought of. If it sounds cool, just leave it in there.