Nile Rodgers on Rock Hall Award, Chic Snub: 'I'm Happy, but Perplexed'

"I feel like somebody put me in the lifeboat and told my family they can't get in," says Chic leader of his solo Musical Excellence award

Chic's Nile Rodgers discusses his mixed feelings about receiving the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Award for Musical Excellence. Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

Nile Rodgers is a little confused at the moment. Hours before he chatted with Rolling Stone on Monday evening, the Chic frontman learned he was finally getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after appearing on the ballot a stunning 11 times. But it turned out that he was receiving the Award for Musical Excellence (which is not selected by the voters) and that Chic will technically remain out of the Hall. Over the course of 25 minutes, he vented his complex feelings about the situation.

Congrats.
[Chuckles softly] Thanks.

How do you feel?
It's sort of bittersweet. I'm a little perplexed because even though I'm quite flattered that they believed that I was worthy, my band Chic didn't win. They plucked me out of the band and said, "You're better than Chic." That's wacky to me. The only reason why I met Bowie and Madonna and Duran Duran and INXS is because they all loved Chic.

I guess after you didn't get in after 11 ballots, they decided it was time to just take you in on your own.
But … I mean … I'm sort of … If people don't think, for whatever reason, which is fine with me, if people don't think my band is worthy, I'm fine. If you don't think Chic is … I'm trying to figure out the criteria to which one is judged. The thing that is interesting to me is, I'm not a super sports person or anything, but I watch certain sports and you'll hear the announcer say with a great deal of certainty, "There goes a future hall of famer there."

Why would they say something so audacious? How they could possibly know? It's because the criteria in a sports hall of fame is based on performance stats. I look at what my band did in just two short years, because when you think about it, Chic's life ended in 1979 with Disco Sucks. We got signed in 1977 and our last Number One record was in 1979.

But those were a big two years.
We never had a record that wasn't gold, platinum or multiple platinum. I'm talking singles. "Le Freak" was the largest-selling single in the history of Atlantic Records for 37 years. No other record sold that much for 37 years. If I was an announcer of rock & roll statistics I'd say, "There's a future hall of famer there." "Le Freak" went Number One three times, same song. Nobody in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has done that.

I guess there is no criteria. It's just up to the whims of 1,000 or so voters. It may just be the old anti-disco thing.
Anybody who is voting [who] listens to a Chic album will see that only one or two songs on our records are those danceable records. The rest of it is instrumentals where I'm playing jazzy solos or what have you. Then why would Madonna be different than us and she gets in on the first time? Now don't think I'm criticizing Madonna. I love Madonna. I made one of her biggest albums, but when Madonna started out, her records were clearly electro, Latin hip-hop and freestyle. All three of those definitions fit the style of music she was doing. They are interchangeable.

I think maybe the name "Nile Rodgers" has become more famous than Chic.
So, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is about fame? It's cult of personality instead of actual achievements? Don't get me wrong. Every award that I've ever won, I appreciate. I think it's amazing because I'm not usually the person that comes to a person's mind first. I get that. We personally designed Chic so we'd be anonymous. Chic is a conceptual band that was a cross between Roxy Music and Kiss. That's how we designed it. We said, "Let's do the black version of that." We laughed and said, "We aren't going to wear makeup obviously, but what can we do that would be the equivalent?" We wore designer suits, which nobody was doing at the time, and that was our costume, our armor if you will. It was the equivalent of Sia wearing the white wig or Daft Punk wearing their helmets.

"So, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is about fame? It's cult of personality instead of actual achievements?"

Do you think that worked against you in the Hall of Fame because Chic was an anonymous entity to some people?
Well, tonight when they told me we were just trying to figure it out. We wanted to see what sort of bands are similar to us and are in the Hall of Fame. In Chic, even though Bernard [Edwards] and I are the leaders, we weren't the frontpeople. We thought maybe that was the interesting thing. We looked at Steely Dan. They couldn't make a record without all those other studio musicians because the two guys couldn't do it alone. But you think about groups that are really duos. Even though they are duos at their core, they couldn't make those records without other people. Hall and Oates pretty much had a consistent band, Simon and Garfunkel, whatever. We realized they are the frontpeople too. I thought maybe that's the difference. People don't think of Bernard and myself as the frontpeople.

I think about the statistical achievement of a band that was only functional on a commercial level for two short years. In two short years we never put out a single that wasn't gold or platinum or in the case of "Le Freak," triple platinum. In the case of "I Want Your Love," double platinum. We basically invented Sister Sledge and re-tooled Diana Ross' career, giving her the biggest album of her life. I say to myself, "How do I get plucked out of that?"

I think the entity of Chic is so unique that not everybody could digest it.
I think that people who vote should probably at least be as aware as the people that they are voting on. I remember when the Disco Sucks controversy was going on. Who were the two bands they were pitting against each other? The Knack and Chic. The Knack never had another hit record after "My Sharona." The second single did OK. But a year after "Good Times," which was our last Number One record, there was a slew of records that sounded like "Good Times" and were obviously influenced. There's obviously "Another One Bites the Dust." John Deacon was in the studio with me when I wrote "Good Times." That shows you bands like Queen were our friends. Pink Floyd will tell you straight up when they wrote "Another Brick in the Wall," they were in the studio next to us. They listened to our patterns and went, "Wow." It's a famous rock & roll story when you hear them arguing over the drum beat and they listen to us playing "Good Times" and they go, "Let's copy that." There was no wall between the musicians and what we do.

Also, the real ironic thing that's unbelievably strange to me, Chic were a more pure rock & roll band when we started and we couldn't get signed because every time we had a meeting they couldn't believe we were black because our lead singer had just come from a long stint in Jesus Christ Superstar and he sang very much like a sort of more jazz-fusion-esque band, or what they wound up calling a prog-rock version of Journey because of the vocal range of our lead singer. You can see those things on YouTube. You can see those little black-and-white things on YouTube and you can see us as a rock & roll band. We only got signed when we wrote out first dance record. Every record company us that had meetings with us were shocked to meet us and see we were black.

So I'm happy that I seem worthy to the powers that be, but not the general voting base. It just makes me feel like they don't really know, which is OK. I'm fine with that, I really am, but it's odd. I want to be happy, but I'm perplexed at the same time. How do you pluck me out and say I'm worthy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but this band of mega players is not? The only reason why I know Bowie or Madonna or INXS or Duran Duran is because of Chic.

I guess Chic is still eligible even though you're getting the Lifetime Achievement Award. They can get in sometime in the future.
That would be amazing to me. If Chic gets nominated next year and we don't get in, I'll feel unbelievably proud since we'll have the record for most nominations.

I think you might have the record already. You beat the Stooges and Black Sabbath at least.
I heard Solomon Burke had more, but I could be wrong. Anyway, I'm happy but perplexed. How did I get plucked out of my band and told I'm cooler than Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson?

"How did I get plucked out of my band and told I'm cooler than Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson?"

You're definitely going to come and give a speech? You're proud of this, right?
I am proud of it. But I'd be more proud if it was the only band to go Number One on the Billboard charts three times with the same song. We're the only one. If I knew the criteria to which it was judged, I'd go, "Oh, that's cool. We did this." I still don't know what I did to get in this year and not the year before if I'm going to get pulled out of Chic. What did I do that was so great that pales Chic? To me, Chic's accomplishments are unreal.

I imagine their argument is this award encompasses Chic and everything you did afterwards.
I get that. Let's then just compare to Chic and what they did in two years with a lot of other people in the Hall of Fame. I mean, in a way we're responsible for the first big hip-hop record [with "Rapper's Delight"] and "Another One Bites the Dust" and "This Is Radio Clash" and all other other records that were derivative of "Good Times."

The class this year is Pearl Jam, Yes, ELO, Journey, Joan Baez and Tupac.
One of the things I was most proud of is when I played Live Aid and was backstage, Joan Baez recognized me. I was like, "Wow, how cool is that?" I'm an old-school guy. I'm 64 years old. I grew up loving almost everyone who's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the same time, I still have to say I look at statistics and think to myself, "If I could figure what made me special and what my band didn't do ..." I know everywhere I go in the world there's no place I can go on this planet and go, "One, two, awww!" and the other people don't go, "Freak out!" That's everywhere on the planet. No matter what language they speak. I could think of lots of other bands in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and you can go to a regular person on the street and they wouldn't know their music.

Then when you've done is more important than any one institution honoring your band or not.
I'm just trying to be clear with you to show you that I'm genuinely perplexed. I am very, very grateful and honestly shocked every time I win an award. When I won the first Grammy with Daft Punk [for "Get Lucky"], I said to the guys, "This is amazing. This is it." They looked at me and thought I had a whole closet full of Grammys. As we were sitting in the audience they kept saying, "You didn't get a Grammy for 'Let's Dance?' You didn't get a Grammy for 'Like a Virgin?' They started naming all these songs. "You had to get a Grammy for 'We Are Family!'" I'm actually very accustomed to not winning stuff. So it's fine with me when I don't win stuff. It's actually shocking when I do. I'm just trying to figure out why I got singled out of a band that did some pretty remarkable stuff in just two short years.

I wish I could explain it. But it's gonna be a fun night …
It will be fun, but nobody can tell me what I did.

Maybe 2018 will be the year of Chic.
You're going to go for that in print?

I can say I hope it happens. And when it does, you'll be a double Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
I would be super, duper proud. Don't get me wrong. I am flattered and I think it's cool. But you understand: I feel like somebody put me in the lifeboat and told my family they can't get in.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's class of 2017 will honor Pearl Jam, Tupac, Journey, Yes, Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra and Nile Rodgers.