“Ahhh, Freak Out”
“I’m Coming Out”
“We’re up all night to get lucky”
Thank Nile Rodgers for the music you hear as you utter these phrases. It was Rodgers whose unerring hook-sense injected these beats directly into the funk center of your brain. Tunesmith and producer extraordinaire, Rodgers has been creating and shaping some of the most memorable, booty shaking music of the past four decades.
From his own band Chic to his productions for artists like David Bowie, Duran Duran, Diana Ross and Madonna, Rodgers has been instrumental in the sales of more than 200 million albums and 50 million singles worldwide. A recent example is Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which in 2013 topped the charts in thirty-five countries and earned Rodgers two Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, while the album took home Album of the Year accolades. (You can find out much more about Nile Rodgers’ incredible career on his own website and in his autobiography Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny.)
Last week Rodgers and Chic joined Bulova at an afternoon pre-Grammy bash in New York City where Bulova debuted its latest limited edition Grammy watch. The new timepiece is from the brand’s Precisionist collection. A special 60th anniversary Grammy edition features a steel case with a multilayer gold-tone alloy dubbed Grammium, developed by John Billings, the same craftsman who creates the gold gramophone statue that is presented to Grammy winners.
The day’s highlight was a performance by Chic, led by Nile on his trademark white 1960 Fender Stratocaster named Hitmaker. Rodgers and the band tore through the Chic canon, (“Le Freak,” “Good Times,” Dance, Dance, Dance,” “I Want Your Love), while also reminding the by-then-sweaty crowd of his role in so many hook-heavy dance floor motivators, including “Let’s Dance,” “We Are Family,” “Like a Virgin,” “I’m Coming Out,” and the aforementioned “Get Lucky,” all of which he and Chic rendered flawlessly.
iW sat down with Rodgers just prior to his performance. Here are excerpts of our discussion, in which Rodgers talks about his inspirations, his early musical training and his upcoming album. Appropriately for iW readers, that album will be titled “It’s About Time.”
How did you learn to play music?
I started out playing classical music, and I didn’t play my first jazz thing until I picked up the guitar. I was playing woodwinds in orchestras for kids my age at the time. I was no clarinet prodigy. I started out on flute and then piccolo. I never played double reeds, the oboe or the bassoon.
I had a series of music teachers because I didn’t live in a single neighborhood for very long when I was a kid. In fact, I had to look back in my scrapbook as I was writing my memoir several years ago to figure out how many different schools I attended.
I started out in Catholic school, but before that I was hospitalized (for asthma), and while I was there I learned to read at an eighth grade level. By the time I went to school outside of the hospital, the nuns told my mother that I had been ‘touched by the hands of God’ because I could read so well.
Who influenced you musically?
My inspiration is all over the map.
I was always into music because my biological father, my mom and my stepfather were all into music in a big way. Music was a constant in my life. Musicians were around my parents because we lived in Greenwich Village with all the beatnik-ism and the heroin. The music of my childhood was modern jazz, bebop. People like Thelonious Monk and Nina Simone would come to our apartment. People like that were my parents’ friends. I knew they were happening, but I didn’t know they were that happening.
All of these people were early influences, because of their style, their fashion, the way they spoke, their coolness. I didn’t think of their music as anything super special because at that time I was studying classical music.
When I finally picked up the guitar at around 15 or 16 years old, I didn’t really want to play classical music. I wanted to play jazz. But, because I was already good at classical, I studied classical guitar.
That’s why I say my early influences were all over the map.
The guitarists that I loved we’re Julien Green, John Williams, Andre Segovia. And when I picked up the guitar I wanted to play like Wes Montgomery or like Pat Martino. And then fusion music came into the world, and I wanted to play like John McLaughlin. And of course Hendrix was like God to me. When I first heard Buddy Guy play, I was like “are you kidding me?” When I heard Johnny Winter Place slide guitar for the first time I thought, “who the hell is this dude?”
Who inspires you today?
What’s really interesting today is that there seems to be more virtuosos. Guys like Robert Randolph. There seems to be more of them, but maybe that’s because you can now see them on the Internet. And because there seems to be more of them, maybe they aren’t as appreciated as they would have been when I was a kid. If we had someone who could play like Robert Randolph when I was a kid, he’d be the biggest guy in the world. He’d be up there with Hendrix and Jeff Beck.
When you think about the evolution of music, when virtuosos come up in the world, it has to be the right time for them to be appreciated. When I first met Stevie Ray Vaughan, when I was doing “Let’s Dance” I had never heard of him. David Bowie just said to me that he heard this guy play at the Montreux Jazz Festival and he is amazing and that he would like him to be on the album. Kind of casually.
He comes in and I thought he sounded like Albert King, at least on the first song. I said, why don’t we just get Albert King? On “Let’s Dance” he doesn’t rip, he just plays the right notes. When we played the song for him, he recognized how good it was and did not want to get in the way of the song. He may have known it was more important then Dave and I did at that time. And you can hear how sparingly he plays in that song. That one note: the note.
How aware of time are you when on stage?
It depends on the situation. Sometimes we have to be aware of the time. For instance sometimes we are the opening act for a big star and we’ve got to get offstage.
What people don’t really know about my life is that, although I have always played music, music was more of a hobby. Science was my love it’s what I thought my profession was going to be.
Time has always been the most important, most relevant unit of measure for me. So when I named my upcoming album (which comes out this year) “It’s About Time,” it’s because this album is a holistic musical compendium. It’s about how I got here. I’m putting out to record asking why a record label would give me a deal. A 65-year-old–year-old black man who doesn’t seem relevant to their business model.
The record asks these questions, almost scientifically, though it’s music. I knew this years ago, and everyone has been asking about when the record is coming out. So ‘it’s about time’ has a double meaning.
I am saying that everything that has happened to me, good or bad, was all about time. The right place at the right time. It just happens to be also funny that everyone was telling me it’s about time the record came out. That became the secondary meaning of the title.