Q&A: Nile Rodgers Of Chic
It's entirely likely that Nile Rodgers was burying worms in your brain before you even knew how to read. But they were good worms, benevolent worms, worms of the perfect pop hooks that not only never stop offering themselves but could also teach you a hell of a lot about music itself and all of the things that it can give you. You may even know the bio: As part of Chic, Rodgers helped instill the basic musical intelligence disco needed to breathe, even if very few others saw the need. From there, he went on to produce some of the most iconic records of the late 20th Century, and from there, well, he's still going. But nothing can really explain the impact of his CV; it is everywhere. It is in the air we breathe. Shit, some days, it's the only part of the air left worth breathing.
Rodgers recently released his autobiography, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny. And he was kind enough to take out a few moments to speak with us, in what was hands-down one of the most fun interviews we've ever done. Discussed here: Gamble & Huff, our esteemed mayor and 'Rapper's Delight,' the Synclavier, and the irrefutability of 'Crank That' by Soulja Boy.
Listening to some of your earlier stuff today -- especially the bigger records made by Chic -- I couldn't help but feel like, here was a guy who spent some time studying The Sound of Philly, Gamble & Huff, and so on. Is that right?
Oh yes. When I first started writing, Gamble and Huff had a massive influence on me -- they wrote and produced for New York City, a group that was my first big touring job, next to Sesame Street. [Ed: Rodgers cut his teeth as a touring musician, playing with the Sesame Street band in his teens; yes, that Sesame Street.] I think it was because of that Gamble & Huff harmonic approach to songwriting -- you can see the influence all over my stuff, especially in any ballads I've worked on, like 'Friend To Friend' off of Diana [by Diana Ross]. They had a more expanded sense of harmonic progression.
What exactly do you mean by that?
Well, like, they would do temporary key changes in the middle of a movement of a song -- just in a small piece of it, just for dramatic flavor. It was real trademark of their sound that did not mind borrowing from!
Sort of related to borrowing: Because it's based around a sample of Chic's 'Good Times,' most people wouldn't know that you have a writing credit on 'Rapper's Delight' by the Sugar Hill Gang.
That's true. It was the first record that was ever sampled; it took a while, but eventually, I got what's called a writer's settlement on that one.
I ask because, well, have you heard our former mayor's version of it? He's been known to perform it, in its entirety, at even the slightest provocation.
Oh you're kidding! I didn't know that. It's hysterical because people who do know that song know it all the way through. So let's talk music copyright -- here's the interesting thing about why that is -- when a song becomes popular, the version of a song that most people know is the single version. But that's not the case with 'Rapper's Delight,' because that was one of the first records that was bought by the boatload in a 12-inch single -- the full 8 minutes or whatever. So most people know the 12 inch version. But even so, that may be the most single successful single version of a recording -- maybe with the exception of 'Candle in the Wind,' which is a different story because Elton re-recorded his own song.
But that's funny about the mayor -- if they are rebroadcasting that, I'm getting royalties! So rap away! If it's on the news once, not so much, but man, if he does it at a baseball game, great!
Ha! I guess what I am getting at, though, is that, looking at all the music you have worked on over the years and the sheer volume of hits you've been a big part of, you're in a very unique position. More than any standalone artist I can think of, the music you've made permeates not just American music and pop culture, but really, all over the world. Do you have constant moments in one place after another when you'll just be standing there and suddenly realize something you worked on is playing?
It happened to me just last night. I was at a gala, and Kayne West was there with Kim Kardashian, and all night, the DJ kept playing songs that were my songs -- songs either I had written or were sampled on stuff later. You know, like ''Mo Money, 'Mo Problems.' But just one after the other. I found out later that the DJ had spotted me in the crowd, and just started dropping song after song -- he had such extensive knowledge of my stuff, he was playing songs that I had only played guitar on! People were stopping me in the room, saying, 'Every song they are playing is a song you are on!'
Listening to your records today, I'm struck by how unambitious most pop or even indie records sound these days. Why do you think that is? Who do you think is out there right now trying to raise the bar?
Well, that's two questions, really. There are a lot of producers raising the bar! But I think what you are talking about is -- some of the biggest records today are, I wouldn't call it less ambitious. It's just that in this world, it is easier to come up with the part that hooks people than it was before -- if you can make a loop that is a hook simultaneously, that's it. Like, take 'I'm Coming Out' [sings opening bars and phrases of 'I'm Coming Out' by Diana Ross]; just that one part, all of a sudden you can turn that into a hook. You don't have to think of it as a whole piece of music -- you can make a composition out of a single phrase.
I think that old way had to account for a linear piece of music, whereas now you can work with a singer and even if you get the most mediocre phrase, you can turn it into a hook: like today, 'Aw Freak Out' could just be like [imitates a loop of the classic hook from 'Le Freak']; but I had to write it that way instead of sampling it on the fly. That's the one thing that I notice when I work with younger producers: they find it somewhat intriguing that I have the score written out and can sort of hear it before it's played. A lot of guys go into the studio to make the composition; in other words, they need the gear to write the record.
I don't know if this will come across in the transcript, but I can tell from the way that you are talking that you don't seem to have any kind of value judgement about that. As in, oh, the old way is better than the new way, or vice versa. Is that right?
No, to me it's cool; they have a larger palette to work with. I just can't help thinking sometimes, like, wow: What would my songs be like if I had that to work with? A linear composer's brain with the gear that's out there and so easily accessible now. I mean, we had a Synclavier back in the day, but we used it in a much more linear, writing sense. We used it to do things like, 'No-no-no-notorious' or the 'flexflexflexflexflex' in 'The Reflex' by Duran Duran. They didn't write it like that. We did it in production. Or like what Trevor Horn did with Grace Jones on 'Slave to the Rhythm,' or 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' by Yes. But the difference is that a Synclavier cost couple hundred thousand dollars, and we did that to enhance the composition as opposed to make the composition.
'Owner of a Lonely Heart' is a great example -- that breakdown [mimics the middle eight with string stabs and alternating beat] -- today, that would just be the whole beat. I think that what I just described may be what you think is under-production.
So for Trevor, that's just a moment in a linear composition. Today, it would be the foundation for the whole thing. But on the other hand, I mean, you can't deny something like 'Laffy Taffy' -- just listen to that beat!
Haha. Or even something like 'Lip Gloss,' by Lil' Mama from a few years back. Has there ever been a more minimal record to just grab people right out of the box?
I will do you one better -- how about how massive 'Crank That' by Soulja Boy was? You can't get simpler than that -- gunk-gunk-gunk -- now what happens? No, that's it! But in defense of all that, you can't dis it because the record was huge: The melody was cool, the steel drum timbre was cool -- it may have overshadowed the rap, but it didn't. It worked. So sometimes, the medium really is the message: the right tool for the right job. Because when that record would come on, it doesn't matter what people would say, because the dance floor would be like, whooooooooooosh.
Right on. Thanks for taking the time to talk today, Nile, and on behalf of the whole office here today, thank you for 'Modern Love' in particular. It means a lot to us.
Oh yeah? Yeah, that's a good one.
This interview was originally published on Philebrity in October 2012.
[Photo: Roy Cox]