Nile Rodgers: Le Hitmaker

source: Red Bull

Interview Ben Liew
Image Red Bull Music Academy

Like Africa Hitech opined in our interview with the duo, the young’uns might have embraced disco now, but that’s only because it’s completely new to them. Beyond the genre’s renaissance in the world of electronic music – thanks largely to Random Access Memories – most have only heard of the name Nile Rodgers due to his involvement on said album. Little did the millennials know that not only has his band, Chic, been sampled prominently in the early days of hip hop, but on his own, Rodgers was a prominent producer who have shaped the sound of pop music (from Madonna to David Bowie). He was practically a pop architect at one point, setting up the blueprint that was made a template for years to come. JUICE played host to the man behind some of pop music’s greatest hits at the RBMA Session in KL Live last December ’13, ahead of his concert with the newly-reformed Chic, Nile Rodgers spoke to a small group of musicians and music-related opinion leaders on his life, playing style, and the science behind making hits.

You gave a talk at the International Music Summit (IMS), with all the top DJs in the world present, and you said something like, “The only difference between you and me is that we play different instruments but you’re a musician as well.” Could you elaborate?
If you look at the history of music, it is really interesting. Whenever an inventor creates a new music, in order for that music to be accepted by the public, it takes a little while. The saxophone is a modern instrument; it is a relatively modern instrument as is the synthesiser and turntable. It produced sounds that people were not accustomed to, but on some levels it started to assimilate into society and became something pleasant. The electric guitar, looking at history, is a brand spanking new instrument. When it comes to history, this is scratching the surface. But whenever there comes a certain closed group, a bunch of people who believe in a thing or methodology, they start to defend that like it’s a religion. But no, it’s just time passing and as time passes we get smarter and we invent things. The DJs that I work with, I work with them in the exact same way as a jazz or classical musician. If you took a picture of Avicii and I working together, it would look like me and John McLaughlin working together.

You were originally a jazz musician, how did you get into dance music?
My most powerful teachers were a jazz guitar player and a classical musician – who was phenomenal and an unmoving person who didn’t want to hear anything about pop music. My jazz teacher was a super accomplished musician, highly opinionated and the most lovable person you ever want to meet but, boy, was this guy smart. He just knew everything about music theory. So one day, I came to take a lesson, and he said to me, “Nile you seem in the dumps today” and I replied “Yeah, I don’t feel so well because this weekend I’m playing boogaloo [Latin r’n’b in today’s term],” and if you were a jazz musician and you said you were playing boogaloo, people wouldn’t think so highly of you. But my teacher said, “Wow, so what’s wrong? How much are they paying you?” I replied the pay is cool and he asked again, “What’s the problem then?” I said that they were boogaloo gigs and I’d like to play some straight jazz gigs. He said “So what?! You’re gigging,” and I said “Well, it’s bullsh!t,” and as soon as I said that, he looked at me and went “You’re playing bullshit? You’re telling me that people are paying you money to hear you play bullsh!t?” And I went, “Yeah, I gotta like, play the Top 40,” which he replied, “You mean the Top 40 where most of them sell more than a million copies?” At this point he was angry and asked me to stop for a moment and think. He said: “What makes you think you’re the ultimate consumer? Each one of those songs up there sold a million copies and you’re sitting over here saying that those million people are stupid but you, Nile Rodgers, are smart. I have never heard anything so egotistical in my life.” He went on to explain that any record that sells more than a million copies is a great song, that doesn’t mean that you have to like it, but it’s a great song because it has the power to connect to more than a million people without the musician standing in the room… Two months later I wrote ‘Everybody Dance’.

The intro to ‘China Girl’ off Let’s Dance, we know that Stevie Ray Vaughn didn’t play that, you played that. How did you come up with that riff?
Okay, it was really stupid. What happened was, ‘China Girl’ was a song that David did with Iggy Pop and he came into the studio one day and he says to me, “Nile, darling, I think this is a hit,” and he played me the original version. The first thing I thought was, “David, darling, that’s a B-side (laughs).” Now don’t think that I thought that ‘China Girl’ was a bad song, it’s a good song – but the problem with it was that I think about music holistically, just like how’d I think about a film, or a dance, or a painting. It has to speak to millions of people, not just that narrow group of Bowie-ites that goe, “Oh man, ‘China Girl’ man, I hear you,” and they don’t even know what he’s singing about, even I don’t know what the song is about. When David gave me the song, he told me that he had written it years before with Iggy. Now, I happen to know enough about David and Iggy at that time in their lives that they were doing a lot of drugs. And stay with me here, because this makes sense, in America, within the drug community, ‘China’ means heroin while ‘Girl’ means cocaine, that was what we called it. My parents were drug addicts, they always called heroine ‘boy’ and coke ‘girl’. Tada, ‘China Girl’! So I’m thinking that this song is about two drug addicts, writing a song about speed balling, it makes all the sense in the world to me. But David had recently become sober and how do I know this? It’s because we were sitting at a bar and he’s got a tattoo at his leg and it’s written in Chinese characters so I asked what does that mean and he says that’s the serenity prayer written in Japanese. So long story short, he tells me about him being sober and he’s quite serious about this, and that time I was out of control, 30 bottles of champagnes and all. But I’m very cognisant of other people’s feelings and the last thing I want to do is make him uncomfortable by having him talk to me about this drug song. So I made up my own reality and said okay, this is a song about speed balling. So then I went home and listened to the song and I thought there’s nothing hooky about it because it’s a drug song. That’s why they didn’t make it hooky. It sounds like he’s high. So how do I go from talking about a drug song and make it quirky. I focused on the word China, and worked with it. So I waited for David to come into the studio and played it for him and I was really nervous because this was so corny. Honestly I was shaking; I was waiting for him to fire me on the spot because it was so pop.  And he looked at me and went, “That’s f*cking brilliant!” And I was shocked!

Your childhood is, in a word, ‘intense’. You were forced to learn life’s hard lessons at an early age, traveling from coast to coast and having a less-than-conventional family. Could you give us a glimpse into that part of your life?
My parents were big time heroin addicts, my father and brother’s father were all heroin addicts and they were all friends, my mother was a heroin addict guy-magnet! It was an interesting existence in that because I had to be very self-sufficient at an incredibly early age. By the time I was 8 years old, I was 100% independent, I had jobs, I did whatever I wanted to do. I travelled from California to New York by myself three times before I was 8. It was a kind of childhood that taught me a lot. I guess the biggest message that I could impart is that it taught me, and maybe naively so, to believe in people and strangers. Unlike today’s world where they go, “Strangers, danger!” I’d go up to a stranger and ask for directions. This happened to me all my life.

You’ve said that club DJs in the past made your albums hits because you couldn’t rely on radio airplay. How do you view DJs of today and what should their role be now with the advent of technology and overmixing stuff?
I don’t know about the overmix stuff or whatever but my role is the same, I still look at it like when I finish a record, the first person I’m sending it to is Avicii because he’s playing in front of hundreds of thousands of people. The DJ, in their heart, wants to turn people onto new music. So for the albums that I’m working on now, that’s my philosophy. I don’t think about radio, I always had to deal with racism and chauvinism, I’m 61 years old and I’m writing pop music. Already there’s a prejudice against that but I don’t want to fight those battles. I just write a record, do a record, and send it to somebody. I just did one with Nicky Romero and David Guetta, and it’s killing it! It’s the most absurd record I’ve did in my life and it just doesn’t make any sense but it works. It’s not finished yet, but I can tell that when it’s finished people are going to go like, “Wow, how did they think of that?”

You’ve said that “All the leaders of the world should jam together before they go into meetings.” How does Red Bull Music Academy create leaders like that?
When you play with people, when you are in an ensemble, and have to play a piece together, what winds up happening, and I see this all the time, at the end of the day it’s the ensemble’s responsibility to sound good. We help each other out. I believe in my heart that musicians are the most altruistic, giving people in the world. I have never seen a musician, even if they are famous, that goes, “Hey, show me that lick,” and they go, “Nah man, I can’t do that kid.” If people sat down and learned how to play a piece together, it would all of a sudden change a person’s perspective about one another, I did a big job with a huge amount of Middle Eastern musicians and everybody basically had different believes but when we got into a room and started doing music, the next thing you know, we had an amazing sounding music project and we’re all friends for life and it all started from something as simple as playing music together.

Nile Rodgers spoke at RBMA Session, and later played with his band Chic, last year on Wednesday 4 December ’13 at KL Live.