Last Word: Nile Rodgers on Meeting Mandela, Craziest Gig and ‘Moby-Dick’
At 66, Nile Rodgers has lost count of the number of lives he’s lived. The Chic co-founder and hitmaker-for-hire has battled cancer, drug addiction and multiple career nadirs to emerge as one of the most reliable craftsman and producers in the business. With the recent release of It’s About Time, Chic’s first album in 26 years, Rodgers looks back on the best advice he’s gotten and the worst part of success.
Who are your heroes?
I met Nelson Mandela, thinking he wouldn’t have any clue who I was. Somebody explained to him that I did the score to Coming to America and wrote the song “We Are Family.” He said, “It was two of the biggest things that ever hit Africa.” Somebody also said, “He wrote ‘Africa.’” They thought the song “Le Freak” was “L’Afrique” [French for “Africa”]. [Laughs] Just to have gone through what he had gone through and then to come out and be such a gentle soul. He treated everybody in the room as if they were the most important person ever.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
My jazz-guitar teacher Ted Dunbar at I.S. 201 in Harlem said, “I know you don’t have money. Why are you paying for lessons privately with me?” I said, “Oh, because I want to make records, do concerts, play in orchestras and big bands and have all sorts of musical adventures.” He said, “Well, what if none of those things ever happen?” I said, “Shit, I’ll keep trying.” He said, “That’s why you’re my best student. Even if none of those things ever happen, you’ll keep pursuing it for the rest of your life.”
What are the most important rules to live by?
One of my early attorneys told us that if we wanted to be in the music business all of our lives, we’d have to learn how to embrace failure. We were like, “What are you talking about? Every single record we put out was a gold single.” He said, “No, man, you got to know that this can’t happen forever.” After “Good Times,” we never really had another big hit.
What’s the craziest gig you’ve ever performed?
When I was younger, playing music in [this] super-hellhole, nefarious drug den [in New York]. We played a gig one night and there was a triple homicide in the club the night we auditioned. A guy died on our bass player’s amp. We set up our gear, and when we came back, it was a crime scene. They cleaned up the joint and opened for business the next day.
What musical project do you most regret not doing?
If I had to do a replay, there’s certain things that I’m a little bit sad about. I regret not writing the R&B dance record for Miles Davis that he asked me to do because I thought he was pulling my chain. Because to me, jazz guys were like gods and he was like the god.
You’re a lifelong New Yorker. What are the best and worst things about New York today?
The best and worst may almost feel like the same: the gentrification. I wouldn’t be who I am if poor people couldn’t live right next door to rich people. I wouldn’t be who I am if Greenwich Village didn’t have rental apartments where [my parents], a couple of beatnik heroin addicts, could live in the same building as a guy who won the Academy Award for playing President Kennedy.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Moby-Dick. It’s still one of my favorite books to this day. [I loved] the adventure, the diverse characters. The way Melville describes things was so cinematic. I became obsessed with the whole buccaneer thing. I wanted to pay for my lunch with doubloons. I didn’t have any other kids to play with, so everything was in my mind.
What is the single most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
For a number of years [in the late Seventies], I got into boating, and my boats kept getting bigger and bigger. The next thing you know, I bought a 100-foot yacht, which is a fabulous boat, for millions. But it’s just not my personality. I was quite unsophisticated when it came to financial stuff.
What are the best and worst parts of success?
The worst part of success is the way it’s changed the people in my life dealing with me. The relationships have deteriorated. I want to have the same kind of fun like we had when I was really poor, because that fun was organic and wonderful and based on us being friends. [Now], no one’s ever paid me back. I’ve given out millions [of dollars]. A few months ago, I said to one of my cousins, whom I adore, “I just don’t want this relationship anymore. That’s the only time I ever hear from you.” The best part is you’ve created something that people will remember. Well after I’m gone, “We Are Family” will be like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”