Chic - Nile Rodgers
Nile Rodgers defined an era with the classic disco soul of Chic and again as one of the most sampled act in hip hop history. David Pollock meets him.
On the eve of a live return to the UK with Chic’s current incarnation, you almost feel sorry for Nile Rodgers in the face of a somewhat bigger news story on which he inevitably finds himself pressed for comment during interviews. Yet the question has to be asked: how do you feel about the death of Michael Jackson? ‘I wasn’t close to him,’ he says, ‘but we were acquaintances. I worked on HIStory, we toured with the Jacksons in the 70s, I went to a couple of parties at Quincy Jones’ house and he was there.’
That’s closer than most. ‘Well, we always got on fantastically well,’ he adds. ‘He’s gonna be remembered for his music. When I was a kid, Judy Garland came into a movie theatre I was in, and she was drunk and got up to sing in front of the movie screen. But no-one thinks about that now, they think about The Wizard of Oz – the behaviour goes away when the person goes away, but the work stays forever. So yeah, I felt incredibly sad when I heard he had died. Almost as sad as the day Bernard passed.’
Bernard, of course, being Bernard Edwards, the other half of Chic. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that: having played in session bands like The Boys and The Big Apple Band through the early 70s alongside future Chic members such as drummer Tony Thompson, New Yorkers Rodgers (a guitarist) and Edwards (a bassist) would form the core of Chic, in so far as they were the only two members actually signed to a record contract. Following the band’s peak as the creative force behind such peerless disco-era classics as ‘Le Freak’, ‘Good Times’ and ‘I Want Your Love’, it was also Rodgers and Edwards who would go on to produce some of the 80s’ most memorable albums for artists like Madonna, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Duran Duran and Debbie Harry. Chic would also become one of the most sampled bands of the emerging hip hop and house eras, first and most famously by Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’. This record annoyed Rodgers at the time, but now around 40% of his income comes from sampling rights.
‘It was an exciting time,’ he reminisces with bittersweet fondness, ‘but it took its toll. A huge amount of my friends are no longer with me, but I don’t think any of them would have taken that time back. We fought political struggles against war and the draft, so when the Vietnam War ended and it looked like we (black Americans) were on our way to gaining our civil rights, we went into that whole hedonistic phase. The 80s were the most absurd, I’m honestly amazed that I made it through that decade, but of course a lot of us aren’t around any more now.’ Edwards died of pneumonia while touring Japan in 1996; Thompson passed away after a heart attack in 2003. ‘I feel bad that I’m the guy left standing to carry on the funky groove tradition of the music that I love,’ muses Rodgers, an artist whose work deserves the description ‘era-defining’, ‘but I’m also honoured to have grown up when I did, to have had a songwriting partner like Bernard and to get a shot at carrying this music on.’
HMV Picture House, Edinburgh, Sat 25 Jul.