Nile Rodgers doesn’t really answer my questions when I find myself sat opposite him in a London studio. He’s not avoiding them, or being all all difficult. It’s just when he starts talking he lets his mind wonder to wherever it wants. I ask about whether it’s tough still living life on the road aged 65, and in no time we’re talking about his years in the Black Panthers. It doesn’t really matter though, because when Nile Rodgers is talking, you listen. If you know what’s good for you you’ll be captivated by his every word.
Born in New York City, in 1959, if Rodgers’ life was turned into a biopic you wouldn’t believe it; from a childhood defined by a teenage mother grappling with addiction, to – as he told The Guardian last week – the fact he “died eight times” in one night after parting a little too hard with Robert Downey Jr. He has been at the top of his game for decades, releasing music with his band, Chic, while also writing, composing and producing some of the most celebrated artists in the world.
And that’s what’s so interesting about Nile Rodgers: until fairly recently, many people of our generation outside of the industry wouldn’t really know who he was. But those who he has written, produced and composed for – Madonna, Lady Gaga, Diana Ross, Christina Aguilera, Sam Smith (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg) – are some of the most celebrated and/or recognisable artists of all time. It’s only really since Chic made a return to festival stages that we’ve come to recognise Rodgers, as well as the fact he co-wrote Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
And yet Rodgers has more international hits than anyone I’ve asked can put a figure to; he has survived cancer, lost his musical partner, and founded his own foundation while still finding time to tour the globe.
Now he’s working with American Express on a programme called ‘Backed By’ – a new initiative which will give the British public a chance to explore their passion for music while being mentored by the man himself. In addition to receiving one-on-one advice and practical support – be that words of encouragement, industry introductions or constructive criticism – the winner will be given the once in a lifetime experience of joining Nile in the studio and on the road.
What’s it like to continuously be touring, writing, producing, performing and travelling? It’s an intense schedule.
It’s just my life, it has been like this since I was 17 years old… I’ve always been a working musician. I did it at such a level that I ended up making a pretty decent life. I was only homeless for a very short period, and then this famous American heiress rescued me for a couple of months. After that, I didn’t have to live on the streets anymore. I was a hippy and I lived in a commune. We had our shit together, man. A friend of mine I used to be a subsection leader in the Black Panther Party. They used to say if you want to learn to live free in New York and have a real good time then be friends with that guy Nile Rodgers, he can do whatever he wants. I’ve seen every concert I ever wanted to see, I’ve seen every film. I would just work harder, taking odd-jobs and panhandling.
Your name in the last few years has become more known, but for a long while, you didn’t have a high level of public recognition. Why is that do you think?
Historically speaking, composers are probably some of the most anonymous people in the business. Let me give you an example, there are probably big hit records written by guys like Bruno Mars, but you probably didn’t even know that Bruno Mars wrote the song. That’s how it is, we give all the accolades to the person whose name is associated with the song, but you don’t realise that quite often they didn’t really write it.
In today’s world, you can tell they really didn’t write it. If you look at a big superstar’s schedule they’re at every event, doing all this stuff, going from record to record and touring. Err, when did they write this record? When I grew up, the concept of a composer was that of the self-contained man. There has never been anyone other than myself at the conductor’s podium on any record I’ve ever done. Not one. I’m always the guy standing there conducting. I can’t do enough music to satisfy me.
You mentioned the Black Panthers – why did you end up joining the organisation?
Progress. It’s the same way you end up in a really good band. I started out as a peacenik hippy, and from that, I got more and more politicised, more and more radical. Finally, one day the national guard beats you up and you say ‘wait a minute, I didn’t do anything.’ It was just part of the process.
Let’s take it away from politics. It’s just the way my family socialised me. They socialised me to care about other people. I started out as a cub scout, helping old ladies cross the street. I went from one type of political organisation to another, and finally ended up with the Black Panthers. It was like with religion, it’s a rite of passage! It’s what you did.
Well, it’s not what everyone did…
I’m 65 years old! It was a sign of the times. Your friends, the people you were with. The more intellectual, the more that you could take in, the more you could give back. When people think of the Black Panthers they think of the marketing, but being a Black Panther was making breakfast, fixing people’s houses, washing the streets. That’s what we really did. I’ve never been in a confrontation with a cop in my life! Even after the political life, if you will.
I was born in New York City, I knew everyone. If something bad happened to me people would help me, we grew up together. In the 80s when I was this out of control coke head, if a cop pulled me over they’d say ‘hey Nile, what are you doing?’ as they saw my coke-incrusted nostrils. I’ve never been arrested once for drunk driving and I’ve drunk driven a lot. It was just life, a kid growing up. There was no big hidden agenda.
Do you still have radical politics? Do you still feel like you’re a servant of the people in your musical career?
It’ll never go away. That’s why the person interviewing me right before was asking me about this programme I’m working on now for American Express – and I said this. Musicians are the most altruistic people that I know on earth. If I got on the phone now, with some kind of tragedy we wanted to address, musicians I call first. Almost every time they say I’ll be right there. In a weird way, people misconstrue that, they get the message wrong. They think concerts are easy to produce, but in fact, they’re difficult and expensive. Typically the mentality of a musician is to leave there job to come and help somebody.
I’ve found now I’m older I can do things in a much more effective manner than going and sweeping up the street or painting someone’s apartment, with my charity I can affect millions at one time. And, as I’ve got older, I can do more than just one body.
If you look at the political situation in the US today, does it feel like much has changed since your youth?
You have to remember I’m a child of the 60s, so we were insanely idealistic. We never believed that there would be the type of inequality that seems to be prevalent in our culture now. As a matter of fact, when I grew up it felt like the beginning of the women’s movement, the gay movement, the civil rights movement ramping up. Everything became much more powerful, which is exactly why I became a disco musician. I’ll never forget when I walked into a disco for the first time. I was this really snobby jazz musician and my girlfriend worked as a waitress at a jazz club. We walked into a disco and we saw gay people, Latin people, Asian people, black people and white people all dancing and having a blast.
I remember thinking to myself wow, this is more political than anything I’d ever been involved in, more than anything I’d ever seen. The whole concept on any movement I’d been in was to bring people over to your side. I walked into a disco and saw all these disparate people getting along, within about an hour I knew I wanted to be a part of that. Whatever it had been, super hippy or super jazz, I didn’t care. I wanted to be with those people dancing.
Now hip hop is seen as the genre at the forefront of black politics, black music and black culture. Was disco that frontier once?
Disco was more! It’s funny, someone sent me a little film the other day and they were talking about the history of hip-hop, about DJ Kool Herc going from Jamaica to the Bronx. I know all these guys! It felt like finally someone was telling the truth: that hip hop came from disco. There was no hip hop, they were dancing to beats in disco songs. That was the music all these guys were listening to.
Your life is a never-ending list of experiences, stories and anecdotes – it’s almost as if you’ve seen and done it all. Is there anything you’re still desperate to achieve?
This programme I’m working on with American Express is cool. Frankly, I would not be the guy that I am without people, let’s call them mentors, who guided me along the rocky road and a fairly dangerous path, especially if you wanted to make a living it. Playing music as a hobby was okay, but if you wanted to throw away your whole life and say ‘this is what I want to do as a living’ it was a hell of a decision to make. Because – it’s great that you bring up the political stuff – when you’re that idealistic you’re dedicated.
We knew we were going to be professional musicians. If you ever read anything about my early life with my musical partner Bernard Edwards and myself, you’ll see that even though he was a family man when we cut our first album we made a death pact. We said if we didn’t make it we were going to give up. We were putting everything we had into it: all the money we had, everything, this was it.
When you say a death pact, do you mean professionally?
No, we said we were going to hold hands and jump off the George Washington Bridge. I don’t know if we’d have done it but we said it. Thankfully we got a hit! But that’s not the norm, most people don’t get the hit. So now I try and mentor people, which is tricky because all the things I did I would never recommend anyone else do, but I would never change one minute of what I’ve done. I’m going to be backing someone, and I want to help them avoid the pitfalls. Most times we don’t learn from things going well, we learn from things going bad.
I’m not sure that everything I know is the ‘truth’, but if you look at it forensically, let’s just measure the amount of success, then some portion of it must be correct. You just can’t have that many hit records otherwise. Before my career of writing hits, I was just a working musician. I played on dozens of records purely as a sideman – never getting the credit of being the boss or producer.
The very first time I got a job as a producer I had a hit record. I had been a sideman for so long, under the tutelage of so many great people who proceeded me that instinctively I knew what to do. By being around Luther Vandross, Steve Ferrone – all these people who had been professional recorders I learned every little trick. Now I take ideas and make and shape them into my own. Hopefully, I’ll never stop doing that.