Is there as universally loved a musician as Nile Rodgers?
My cabbie doesn’t think so, pulling Nile’s autobiography Le Freak from his glove compartment when I tell him he’s driving me to an interview with the man holding the Hitmaker.
“Total legend,” he says. “Absolute living legend. The best. ‘Le Freak’? I'll never forget dancing to that at my wedding, ha...Tell him Del says hi."
I recount the story with Nile in his hotel suite, and he seems genuinely enthused by it; his great undulating laugh suggesting this long press day hasn’t destroyed his will to smile quite yet
It's the first confirmation that he is exactly as he comes across onscreen and in Le Freak. He’s knowing of his place within the A List, gamechanger pantheon, but open, genuinely humble and thankful for his lot: even when he’s tossing Madonna and Daft Punk stories around like empty bugle wraps on the wind. Plus, man can talk...
There’s a passage in Le Freak where you talk about making music, and you say that laughter is the parent in the room.
Let me just tell you what music making is all about for me. I try and make making records the most fun as possible, because I believe in statistics. Most music doesn’t recoup, right? Doesn’t make the money back. and if it recoups that’s about all it does. It rarely goes number 1, so I try and make the music making process the most fun thing ever, so people keep wanting to make records with me because thats all we’re gonna get out of it.
For instance: look on the back of Madonna’s Like A Virgin. She became a Chic member! All of her comments sound like us talking. Y’know. making fun of us. On the sleeve notes, she writes, ‘Nile Rodgers: I knew him before the butter dropped of (sic) his noodle’. That’s us! That's such a Chic thing! So it’s a blast making Chic records. It was the same with Sam Smith and I. We just adore each other. He’s such a sweet guy, a talented guy
What did you make of Sam’s lawsuit with Tom Petty? [Petty recently brought a lawsuit against Smith due to similarities between Smith's 'Stay With Me', and Petty's 'Won't Back Down'.]
It’s funny, that when he won, even he came out and said he felt a little uncomfortable about winning it. Because Tom Petty must know that really was an accident. I mean, I work with Sam Smith and we write there on the spot. It must be difficult when you have attorneys sitting there going ‘hey let’s go for this guy.’
I’ve said this ever since I’ve been in music: jealousy is our single greatest motivator and it’s just the truth. You hear something, and you love that, and you think ‘fuck i wish I had written that’. Then you go back home and you listen, and you interpolate it, and you come up with something that is a derivative of that because you love it, because it touches you.
And then of course Verdi, the genius classical composer, said the difference between good and great composers is that, “good composers borrow and great composers steal.”
What do you think Chic’s music would have ended up sounding like if Disco Sucks never happened?
I think it would be extraordinary because our first record [Chic] was fantastic. second [C’est Chic] amazing- ‘Le Freak’, biggest single in Atlantic Records history. Third [Risque] ,‘Good Times’- the beginning of hip-hop [it was sampled on ‘Rapper’s Delight].
We were creative and getting better, and we were exploring new territory. I look at music as an exploratory journey, it’s almost like being in outer space. You say what does the edge of the universe look like ? Well we’re never gonna get there, but we’ll keep going in that direction
Do you think one day we’ll get there?
One day, maybe.
There’s lots of clubs shutting in London at the moment. What do you think could have happened to you if you didn't have those disco clubs in your youth?
I’d be a completely different person. Walking into a club completely changed my life. Lemme tell you a really interesting story. I was a jazzer, as Al Gerel called them, and mainly I liked going to jazz clubs, gigs; the girls at jazz clubs were always more refined to me, more gorgeous, just because they were hipper and smarter, in my mind…
My girlfriend was a waitress at this really cool jazz club, and there was this kinda carte blanche between waiters and staff at different clubs , especially if different owners knew them. So the owners at this one disco were friends with her bosses at this jazz club. So we walked in [to the disco] this one night and the song that was playing was Donna Summer, ‘Love To Love You Baby’ . I was like, ‘Woah, I’ve never heard anything like that.’
And then something really unique happened that most people don't even think about: the music didn’t stop! I’d never felt that experience in my life. I was accustomed to, y’know, one song, finish, ‘Thank you!’ Another song, 'Duh-duh-duh-duh, thank you!’ And so on.
So I walked into the disco and ‘Love To Love You’ plays, then the DJ played another song, which segways into another song, and segways into another song, and never stopped from the moment we walked into the club to the moment it closed! I was 22, or maybe 23.
I’d been playing music all my life but all I said to myself was: 'I want to be a part of that, I wanna be a part of the music that doesn’t stop.' Cecause in my head it doesn’t stop. It was in an instant, like I had pulled Excalibur!
How do you mean the music in your head doesn’t stop?
I have this very odd affliction where I hear music all the time, it’s in my head all the time. I could leave this room right now and go and work with London Philharmonic or Basement Jaxx, you know what i mean? It doesn't make a difference. It’s exactly the same to me. sometime it comes out in lyrical expression, sometimes melodically. It’s a consistent drone so I have to try and not concentrate on it, and think about the here and now rather than whats going through my head which is actually pretty cool right now
What’s going through your head now?
Well it’s stupid, because I brought up ‘Love To Love You Baby,’ and now I'm hearing that bridge part. It’s actually the first time for me with that song, which is actually pretty interesting, just went right to that bridge part.
You’ve talked about having a blast when you are making your albums. Who wasn’t a blast to work with?
Uhm, well, I make even the grumpiest person fun. I think that if you look at Daft Punk. Thomas the tall guy is really fun and happy. The other guy, Guy-Manuel is sort of serious. I wouldn't call him grumpy but he’s, you know, [slinks back into chair making grumpy face] . I wouldn’t call him grumpy but he was kinda like that. But then eventually I had his ass laughing.
Who pushed you the furthest?
We all push each other. I don’t work with people who don't make me better. I don’t play with bands who are just okay.
I remember when I did Like A Virgin with Madonna, everyone round her and round me was criticising her saying that she didn't have a great voice. I said, “So you're saying that art is based on the quality of your voice and not other great nuances?” What if you’re a great storyteller? Madonna at that time may have been one of the greatest storytellers I had ever met. When I first met her, the very first night I wasn't convinced she was happening at all.
We went out, nightclubbing, and after two days I was convinced that this girl was the shit. This girl was a phenomenal communicator.
I remember when she did that song ‘Music.’ [Sings chorus - ‘music makes the people come together. Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebels'.] I was like, ‘Are you kidding me, are you fucking kidding me?' At first I was laughing at it, then two days later I was in the car singing that in the car….’the bourgeoise and the rebels’ they do …do what, do what?
And then it was like, wait a minute, artistically that’s even more clever. It can motivate them to do whatever they do, or it actually can create them. That’s clever, that was fucking clever as hell to me! That’s communicating, that’s art.
Did you see her fall at the Brits?
Not at the time, I was traveling on a plane when it was being broadcast. When I got to where I was going , I heard the journalist saying ‘see Madonna’s fall, see Madonna’s fall.’ And I thought they meant from grace! I didn’t know the physical fall. She could have been choked to death. But she carried on - that’s the Madonna I know and love. I think she’s the bomb. She’s the real deal. i’ve never met anyone in my life as dedicated as she is.
Nile's Picks - Five Songs That Influenced Chic
Eddie Kendricks - Girl You Need A Change Of Mind
The Joneses - Sugar Pie Guy
Donna Summer - Love To Love You Baby
Crown Heights Affair - Dreaming A Dream
The Five Stairsteps - From Me To You
CHIC featuring Nile Rodgers' 'I'll Be There' UK tour kicks off at the London Roundhouse on March 20th, to celebrate the release of their first single in 23 years, going on to Leeds, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham. The band will also be performing at Barclaycard Presents British Summer Time Hyde Park on June 21st on the same bill as Kylie and Grace Jones (which sounds banging, tbf). Tix are available for that here