If ever there was a renaissance man in pop culture, Nile Rodgers is it. With the exception of Prince, it’s hard to find a musician who’s been so perennially cool for so long. Like all truly talented artists, the fact that Rodgers has once again reframed his position within the pantheon of pop music with the 2013 success of Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” (“Get Lucky”, “Lose Yourself To Dance” and “Give Life Back To Music” are signature slices of Rodgers styled funk) and is set to release a new Chic album, “It’s About Time” on a major label, for the first time in a couple of decades, speaks volumes about the guitarist’s ability to survive and thrive. Reinvention somehow seems the wrong word because he’s always done what he’s done. Rather, different generations (by my count three) have gravitated towards his timeless sense of rhythm and melody to invigorate their own music.
I first interviewed him in the early 1990’s when Chic (including now deceased co-writer/producer and bassist Bernard Edwards) briefly reformed. Then, a decade or so later when Sean “Puffy” Combs and Will Smith were sampling his grooves (“Mo Money Mo’ Problems”, “Get Jiggy With It”) and riding the top of the charts I headed out to his beautiful Westport, Connecticut home overlooking the bay to spend the afternoon in his studio and talk about his work, not only with Chic, Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”) and Diana Ross (“Upside Down”) but Madonna (“Like A Virgin”) David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”) and Duran Duran (“Notorious”) back in the days when single producers made entire albums. We also spoke in depth about his battle with cocaine and alcohol, his subsequent rehab and determination not to squander all the good fortune life had thrown his way. At that time, he played me a video of a hip-hop group that he had signed and asked me my opinion. “I’m old school man,” he confessed. “I’m a musician. I don’t know what to tell these guys but I know they’re good.”
His reformation of Chic shortly after and their extensive live work seemed to indicate that Rodgers was embracing his legacy and that his future lay in celebrating his past. But he wasn’t built to be a legacy act. His footprint in pop culture was too indelible and far reaching to be consigned to treading the old school R&B boards. Success and tragedy/self-destruction, though, have have been dueling components in his life. Raised in a household of bohemian drug addicted parents, it was only when he defeated his demons, endured the loss of Chic bandmates Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson that he was able to stabilize his career. To achieve greater success, there was another health hurdle he had to overcome. Cancer. Diagnosed with “extremely aggressive” prostrate cancer in 2010, it was soon after he had been declared cancer free did Daft Punk come calling.
I meet Rodger’s at Neuehouse’s NY offices during a frantic day of interviews to talk about the Fold Festival, a two musical event which he is co-promoting featuring Chic, Duran Duran, Q-Tip, Beck, Keith Urban, Chaka Khan and others held on August 4th & 5th in Riverhead, LI and his seemingly endless staying power.
JEFF VASISHTA: What inspired you to take on promoting The Fold Festival?
NILE RODGERS: I did this show originally a few years ago in Switzerland as part of Montreau Jazz festival. What I was trying to show was the evolution of dance music. I play guitar but dance music is now 90% electronic. I tried to show the connection between what I do and what Avicii and Daft Punk do. Even before Daft Punk I did an event with Mark Ronson, Jonny Marr and Felix The Housecat, Grace Jones, Martha Wash, Taylor Dayne and lot of acts. The concept is that it’s not the genre. I like The Clash, just as much as I like Public Enemy, Donna Summer and Miles Davis. It’s all good music to me. I love it all I wanted to put together a festival that showed people that they do too. It was a sell out. Then, I brought it to New York to the same venue – Riverhead, two years ago I had Avicii, Adam Lambert, Chromeo, Chic, Prince Paul and some other DJ’s. People loved it.
JV: The one thing about your music, no matter who you’ve worked with, whether it’s been dance or pop acts is that the music has always grooved. There’s always been a funky undercurrent. What’s in your secret sauce?
NR: That’s how I hear music. I come from old school R&B that’s governed by certain rules. Of course those rules are meant to be broken every now and then and I can apply them to different genres. I’m naturally a complicated person and my music is so but then I can feather back and simplify things.
JV: I can instinctively tell when I’m hearing your guitar playing. Your style is so distinctive and other players don’t seem to be able to emulate it.
NR: My partner Bernard Edwards was a guitar player before he was a bass player so he taught me that chuggin’ style. He taught me that if I could take that style with my harmonic jazz knowledge and figure out a way to do melodically what he does on the bass, all of a sudden a regular song isn’t a regular song. “We Are Family” is a perfect example. I play the piano part in the song and the piano part doubles me. About two years ago I discovered to my own amazement how I’d describe my own style of playing. It’s the right hand of the piano. That’s what my style is.
JV: Many musicians have a hard time balancing the creative and business sides of their life. How have you fared in that department?
NR: The best part of my life is that I’m not overly concerned with material stuff. I’ve made and lost fortunes over and over again. When you produce “Like A Virgin” you can retire. I was young and stupid. I would meet some really cool girl and say, “Hey you wanna have lunch?” And I’d buy a ticket on Concorde and fly to Paris and have lunch and fly back and it’s still the same day!” You want to impress a date – now that’s impressive! I did whimsical stupid stuff like that. Expensive, cars, boats, holidays that are absurd. That’s all in the past. It’s so funny now to hear the new generation of guys making way more money than I made, saying I went here and there and I’m laughing. I went there 30 years ago.
JV: What are the best and worst investments that you’ve made?
NR: Best investment is in myself. I think I make more money than anything I’ve ever invested in. I earn more than my money earns. My accountant always tells me, “I’d like to have your money work for you.” I tell him “Let the money rest. I’ll do the work!” Worst investment I ever made dollar for dollar was when there were a number of tech start ups that seemed like good ideas at the time but they weren’t. Also I was involved in that huge Michael Milken scandal that everybody was taken for. I was on the front of the NY Times with a bunch of other folks. It was like Bernie Madoff.
JV: You beat addiction and cancer and now seem to be working more than never. Is it because you have your own mortality in mind?
NR: It’s because of cancer. Once they told me how extremely severe my cancer was it made me want to work harder and not reflect on what I’ve done. Think about it, if all you ever did was write “We Are Family”, that’s pretty damn cool. It’s like writing the Star Spangled Banner or something. I know “We Are Family”is going to outlive me and the reason I know that is not being egotistical it’s because little kids come up to be and their teacher taught them “We Are Family” and they think their teacher wrote it. Composers are fairly anonymous but melodies and songs live on forever.
JV: Health wise, how bad did it get?
NR: My heart stopped 8 times in one night. People have said every time you flat line a certain amount of years goes off your life. I think, I’m 62 and I flatlined 8 times. How old am I gonna be? Death is an absolute inevitability. I just want to have as much mobility, fun and artistic creativity as I can during the minuscule amount of time I have on this planet.
JV: The chemistry you had with the musicians in Chic – Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson – was incredible. Have you ever experienced anything as magical since? Surely it doesn’t get any better than coming up with “Everybody Dance” and “Good Times”?
NR: I just had that feeling with Duran Duran. We had a blast. It was great to play with all the guys at one time. Had that feeling with Hall & Oats. INXS, Joss Stone. As a studio musician that’s what I do. Think about how I felt playing “Lose Yourself To Dance” They’re playing a demo and it has chord changes and I’m like, “Well what about THIS?” And it blows their mind. It’s like magic. I’m so fortunate that most of my life has been like that.
Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal