Nile Rodgers on Working With Michael Jackson: 'We're Weird Guys!'

Resurgent guitarist-producer on Dylan, Madonna, Bee Gees

Nile Rodgers performs in London, England.
Burak Cingi/Redferns via Getty Images
Nile Rodgers performs in London.
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In the history of pop second winds, Nile Rodgers may be setting a record. From the mid Seventies through the late Eighties, Rodgers' footprint was all over the charts. First, he was the co-founder of the iconic disco band Chic, the man who co-wrote and played guitar on "Le Freak," "Good Times," and Sister Sledge's "We Are Family." Although Chic disbanded in 1983, Rodgers went on to become one of pop's most ubiquitous producers, helming records by David Bowie (Let's Dance), Madonna (Like a Virgin), and Duran Duran (Notorious) and hits by the Thompson Twins, the B-52s and many more. Drug addiction curtailed Rodgers' life and career in the Nineties, but he's blasted back as EDM's most beloved founding father: in the last year and a half alone, he's worked with Daft Punk ("Get Lucky," "Lose Yourself to Dance") and Avicii ("Lay Me Down") along with David Guetta, Disclosure and other dance producers. Talking with Rolling Stone in his Manhattan apartment, Rodgers clicked through some of the legends and newcomers he's worked with and some of his favorite tales about them.

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On talking rehab with Michael Jackson during the making of HIStory (1995):
My part on the Michael Jackson record really took minutes. Minutes. He okayed it, and he was like, "Great." As I was leaving the studio, he stopped me and said, "Nile, can I talk to you for a while?" We talked for about an hour. I told him about what I was doing to get sober and the day program, and he had never heard this phrase "day program." I'd never heard it either until I'd gotten to rehab. And I explained to him how a day program worked. I was shocked he was so interested in drug rehab and all this stuff. I didn't know Michael as anything but this sort of pixie-like character.

I looked at the world through his eyes. He was overly concerned about the way the media was representing him, or misrepresenting him. The world seemed like it was against him. And I offered him a remedy, which was, "Come to my house [in Connecticut], and nobody will even care." And I could see the look on his face, like, "I don't want people to not care, I only want them to say good stuff." I'm like, "Well, Michael, they can't always say good stuff! Because we're weird. We're weird guys, and we do weird stuff. And it's open for criticism, bro!" He'd been famous since he was a child. So he only knew superstardom, and he only knew when people loved him. When people were weird with him, he couldn't understand it.

On recording multiple guitar parts for the very exacting Paul Simon on Hearts and Bones (1983):
Paul drove me crazy, absolutely crazy. I said, "I just can't work like this, Paul. Dude, we had this brilliant 90 takes ago! The fact that you know the difference between those 90 is nuts! You're nuts!" But that's what you have to love about his level of genius. That's Paul Simon.

On producing Bob Dylan's cover of "Ring of Fire" for the Feeling Minnesota soundtrack (1996):
Imagine the absolute icon, Bob Dylan, sitting here in my apartment for a few days, just talking about the concept. And all we're doing is a cover of "Ring of Fire"! I said, "Bob, let me figure out the arrangement. We'll look at the movie, we'll figure it out, and it's cool." He was calling me every day, going, "You think that vocal was good?" I'm going, "Bob, it's cool! It's a movie, it's one song! It's no problem." He was so concerned. He wanted me to build a back door to the recording studio. And he was serious: "Nile, you think we can build a back door?' And I said, "Well, why, Bob?" And he said, "Because we're walking into the studio on 48th Street." I said, "But Bob, if we built the back door, we'd be walking into the studio on 47th Street. We don't have any alleys in New York, bro." He said, "Oh, yeah, I never thought about it like that."

On why he hasn't worked with Madonna since Like a Virgin in 1984:
There were two things going on at the time that she would probably deny, but it's absolutely the truth. She didn't want to go out [on tour] without me as her musical director. Which is impossible, because I make records. So maybe in some strange way, she felt a little bit slighted or betrayed. That was a little bit of it.

Also, she had just married Sean [Penn], and Sean had a huge problem with my girlfriend at the time, even though, when they got engaged, they did it at her apartment. They were living at her apartment, all that sort of stuff. But sometimes that can backfire on you, and that's what happened. So that had a little bit to do with it. She was incredibly loyal to Sean at the time. Of course, I'm going to be loyal to my girlfriend. So this is all stuff that nobody would think about, nobody would admit to. But it really is the absolute truth.

And then, probably, the biggest impediment was my deal, which was a massive deal, and it guaranteed that the next record would absolutely be the same. If you think about it from my point of view, I earned that. And I certainly had no reason to back down. "I just gave you a 20-something-million-selling record! Why should I take less?" But why should she pay more, now that she's got a 20-something-million-record? That doesn't make any sense.

So you put all of those things together. She and I have never talked about it, because I know I would stick to my guns. I've spoken to many people who were involved in the deal, and they said, "Oh, Nile, just be a bigger person." And I'm saying, "Guys, it's just technical. You have to put in context." At the time, no one believed in her but me and a couple other people. I would love to work with Madonna again, but I certainly would absolutely say, "Here's the contract, it's already done. Let's do this." And she would probably say no, and I would understand that. I guarantee you she's not paid anything like that ever since. But we never had a falling out, and we're totally great friends. I don't lament not working with Madonna at all. I don't even think about it, until other people mention it.

On making "Lay Me Down" with Avicii and Adam Lambert:
Avicii and I started working on that song one afternoon. And at around 10 o'clock at night, he ran out of gas. He and I had just finished the chorus, and he loved that: "Wow, this is great. We have a track, and we have a chorus, and I guess we'll do it at some other point in time." But he had just finished a gig in Vegas, and he was like, "Man, I gotta go home." I require very little sleep, so at that point I was like, "I can't stop at 10 o'clock – are you kidding me?" So I'm sitting there with a really great-sounding chorus and a record with no lead vocal.

So I call Adam Lambert, who was hung over from the night before. I guess a friend of his had a birthday party, and he was pretty lit. He was definitely two sheets to the wind. And I said, "Adam, I really need you now, because I have to have somebody sing this." And he was like, "'Oh, no, I can't make it." I was like, "Adam, come on, you're one of the few guys I know who can." He says, "All right, give me a couple hours. I'll just get on the treadmill and try to work this stuff out of me."

Adam shows up and sits next to me, and on cue he's relating the lyrics to his real life, the way he feels right now. I say, "Adam, run out on the mic – let's do this right now." And he goes out and sings it, and he nails it in a couple of takes. Then I sent it to Avicii. He woke up at eight o'clock the next morning and looked at his emails and opened it up. And I get a phone call around 8:05: "Nile, this is a hit!"

On the time when he and Chic bassist Bernard Edwards overheard the Bee Gees grouse about them at an awards show in the Seventies:
We're standing next to the Bee Gees in the bathroom. They didn't have any idea who we were. They were talking about us, going, "Who are these guys winning all these awards?" We're right next to them. I said, "Oh, hey, that's us. Nice to meet you." We just made a great joke out of it. Robin Gibb and I laughed about it in this interview we did with the BBC, after Michael Jackson had died: "Remember when we first met, in the bathroom?"