Nile Rodgers: Man, Myth Legend, Le Freak
If You Go …
Who: Chic, featuring Nile Rodgers
What: Le Freak Lounge, Jazz Aspen Snowmass 25th Anniversary Season Benefit
When: Friday, July 17, 6 p.m.
Where: Hurst Ranch
Cost: $500 and up
Tickets and more info: www.jazzaspensnowmass.org; 970-920-4996 x 15
Nile Rodgers has remained on the musical vanguard for four decades, setting trends from the height of ’70s disco with Chic and songs like “Good Times” to the birth of hip-hop to producing game-changing albums from Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” to Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.”
Rodgers has visited Aspen often to ski but never performed here. He will change that on July 17, when he and Chic play Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ 25th anniversary season benefit (dubbed, in his honor, the “Le Freak Lounge,” after one of Chic’s most popular songs).
I spoke with Rodgers recently from his home studio in Westport, Conn., where he was working on a long-in-the-works new Chic album – the band released a new single, “I’ll Be There,” in the spring – and several other projects.
Andrew Travers: What are you working on today?
Nile Rodgers: [laughs] Where to start? Oh my God. Kyloe Minogue, Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters, Nicky Romero, my band Chic, Michael McDonald – and unfortunately it’s all at the same time.
AT: What do you have planned for the Chic performance here?
NR: Even though we’ve played for millions and millions of people, often we play in front of an audience that have never seen us before. So we feel the need to musically edify them.
When I was a kid, my parents took me to see Miles Davis. He told the audience, ‘The music always sounds better when you know who’s playing it.’ I’ve taken that philosophy to another level. It may sound better if you know who is playing it, but for me it helps if you know why we’re playing it. Because people don’t realize I’ve written songs for so many other artists. They’ll say, ‘Why’s he playing that?’ And I’ll say, “Because it’s my song.”
AT: How old were you when you saw Miles Davis? Were you going to see a lot of jazz as a kid in Greenwich Village?
NR: I saw him a couple times. My parents were beatniks, so they were into bebop. My grandmother played jazz all the time from the swing era. They’d go out and dress up and dance to big band jazz. Whereas my parents were beatniks and they’d dress up and go out and sit down to listen to jazz.
AT: What made you want to make a new Chic record?
NR: Just the fact that Warner Bros. delivered me a box of tapes four years ago that included Chic demos that were unfinished. When I played the tapes, I was amazed at the sound quality and how well they held up.
I’m one of those people that wishes it could not be about technology. I didn’t have a negative opinion of digital. I was an early pioneer of digital. My first digital recording was with Peter Gabriel (“Walk Through Fire,” 1984), and my first complete digital album was my first solo album (“Adventures in the Land of the Good Grooves,” 1983) because I wanted to experiment on myself, and then “Like a Virgin.” So when I got all these tapes back I was amazed at the quality, transferring the quality of the analog to digital. I felt I had the responsibility and the desire to finish those songs. If I was only working on Chic, I’d be done.
AT: This new generation has rediscovered disco through EDM and albums like “Random Access Memories.” When did you start to feel like people were embracing disco again?
NR: For me it happened 20 years ago. I met Daft Punk 19 years ago when they released their first record. Dance music never left my life. So when did I become aware? I’ve never not been aware. It may not be the most popular music at the time, but things are cyclical.
AT: Yes, but there was a backlash against disco across popular culture.
NR: Still is, by the way. I know so. People always say to me, “If anybody should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it should be me.” But if you got to their page and see the way they describe Chic, I wouldn’t vote for me, either. They call us a subgenre of rock and roll, which I think is hilarious. When you see the bands that are called “rock and roll bands,” if you look at the history it was black music and most of those bands had the same kind of history I have. They learned from jazz and then learned to play this sophisticated, cool rock sound. It wasn’t dumbed down. So now “rock and roll” means “white guys playing loud guitars.” That’s not what it meant when I was younger.
Dance music and disco, it’s not typically white guys playing loud guitars, but we’re actually closer, if you look a the DNA strands, to the origins of rock than a bunch of white guys playing Marshalls really loud. But history is written by the powerful. And I’ve made more rock and roll records than disco records. Most of the people that I’ve produced are in the Hall of Fame.
AT: There are very few artists as forward-thinking as you are, who’ve continued to set trends and shape tastes for so long. What drives you at this point?
NR: I just like music and I like people and I like making music with musicians. In the last few weeks I’ve been in the studio with Keith Urban, and nobody would expect that. I’ve become his biggest champion. I don’t know why he’s not thought of as a rock guitar superstar. I’ve played with the best and this guy can smoke. I just love it. I love meeting people like that, I love learning from them and I love teaching.
Musicians are the most altruistic people in the world. They just are by nature. They learn from other musicians, they usually can’t wait to show you something. Because the things that they’ve learned have transformed their lives. And they know that knowledge that they’re laying on you is probably going to transform your life.
Like a couple years ago, when I started working with Avicii. I called him one of my favorite songwriting partners, and people said, “Whoa, how can a 23-year-old kid be your favorite writing partner?” But I was his age when I was doing “La Freak” and “Good Times.” The first star I worked with was Diana Ross and she was only 25 years old. And she was already a superstar. She was like royalty.
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