Nile Rodgers Can’t Stop
“I cannot believe the amount of times that I’ve cheated death and was aware of it. So many close calls, from cancer twice to boating accidents to my heart stopping eight times in one night. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve cheated death and didn’t even know it.”
Nile Rodgers, the disco pioneer and Chic mastermind turned hitmaker-for-hire, is sitting in the New York office of high-end watchmaker Bulova, stoically reminiscing about death and time. He is, as always, impeccably dressed and impossibly suave — a born charmer living the next chapter of his Behind the Music–ready life.
Technically speaking, Rodgers’ actual Behind the Music episode would’ve ended the second Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” the 2012 worldwide hit recorded by the group, Rodgers and Pharrell Williams, became a smash — the late-in-life swan song that caps off the career of one of music’s most successful producers. In reality, it kickstarted a career resurgence that has made Rodgers, again, a perpetually in-demand producer and musician, giving him the capital to release, for the first time in 26 years, a new Chic album called It’s About Time.
Death and time have surrounded Rodgers in recent years, two inextricable forces that both delayed and inspired him. In early 2015, Chic released “I’ll Be There,” a retro-disco track that sampled some of the band’s most famous songs like “Good Times” and “Everybody Dance” and digitally incorporated numerous voices, both living and dead, of past Chic vocalists. The song’s most fitting line — “I don’t want to live in the past, but it’s a nice place to visit” — showed Rodgers’ forte, a musical time traveler who, as a producer and songwriter for others, always imbued Chic’s up-with-life positivity and ardent disco traditionalism with whatever genre he was experimenting with that day. (Exhibit A on It’s About Time: Lady Gaga’s growly update of Chic’s 1978 mega-classic “I Want Your Love.”)
It’s About Time also started as a thank you to Rodgers’ friend and musical collaborator David Bowie, who at the time was still working on his final studio album, Blackstar, while battling liver cancer. In Rodgers’ perfect world, “I’ll Be There” would have been the album’s lead single, kicking off a series of songs that doubled as musical gratitude for Rodgers’ influences and friends.
But Bowie’s death in January 2016, followed by Rodgers’ other close friend Prince three months later, devastated him and changed the album’s entire arc. (Rodgers recorded, but has yet to release, the tribute song “Prince Said It.”) “Bowie was a real shock. It was twice as shocking to me because I knew all the people working on the record and they weren’t saying anything to me,” he says. “Then Prince passed away and it was just like, ‘This is crazy. I have to change the concept of this album, because it’s just not working. I had to have a new narrative.’
“It started out as a real love letter to the people that have helped me get to where I am now,” he adds. “But what it wound up being was a snapshot of my life. It turned from me saying thank you to the people who changed my life, to me saying thank you to the [collaborators] who are in my life. So I did an album that’s a reflection of my life.”
In light of compounding tragedies, Rodgers did what he’s always done for the past 40 years when faced with hardship: He went back to work, revisiting some musical ideas from before 2014 and enlisting a combination of superstars (Elton John, Lady Gaga), rappers (Vic Mensa, LunchMoney Lewis) and rising singers and producers (Mura Masa, Nao) to reconfigure the album. “I said, ‘What do I mainly do? I mainly make records with people I never made records with before,’” says Rodgers. “So, let me make them part of this wonderful thing, called the Chic Organization. Let me bring them into my world.”
The demand for Rodgers may have ebbed and flowed depending on the musical climate, but that world is anchored by a tireless work ethic and nearly pathological need to play music and perform. More than 40 years after co-founding Chic, Rodgers & Co. remain constant road warriors, with a typical Chic set blending the group’s classics (“Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak,” “Good Times”) with Rodgers’ biggest songs for other artists (Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” “Get Lucky”). It’s Rodgers as ringleader, leading ebullient crowds into “All killer, no filler” greatest-hits sets that double as multi-generational dance parties. Onstage, he walks the line between humble and arrogant — the guy who prefers to cede the spotlight to his more famous collaborators but recognizes his massive contribution to dance, pop and rock.
Like any Chic album, It’s About Time mainly aims for the dance floor but happily strays, the result of Rodgers’ restless mind and diverse musical upbringing. The New Jack Swing ode “Sober” meshes with the smooth jazz of “State of Mine,” while the poignant R&B ballad “Queen,” featuring Elton John and Emeli Sandé, eschews any party vibe for Rodgers’ tribute to friend and collaborator Diana Ross and Philadelphia soul producer Thom Bell.
Ross famously helped launch Rodgers’ solo production career with Diana, her 1980 album featuring future classics “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” Despite clashes over that album’s mix, the two remained close, with Rodgers recalling a 1984 Julio Iglesias show he attended with Ross in which the Spanish crooner called Ross onstage via the title “My Queen.”
“A lightbulb went off in my head,” Rodgers says. “The first thing [bassist and Chic co-founder] Bernard [Edwards] said when we first saw Diana Ross in Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was, ‘Is that Diana Ross? Holy shit, she’s like a queen to me.’ So I thought, what if this is a song where a queen really can be a hero.”
As work continued on the album and guest stars appeared, disappeared, reappeared and disappeared again — Miley Cyrus, Janelle Monáe and Chaka Khan were all reportedly set to pop up on the album — Donald Trump’s win also inspired Rodgers.
“Chic music is happy music and the world feels really negative to me right now,” Rodgers says. Beneath the debaucherous rock-star lifestyle he espoused for years before becoming sober in 1994, he remains a steadfast and genial hippie at heart. “So many of my friends are moving to other countries. I was socialized and taught to care about people. It wasn’t looked down upon to be nice to people, you know? It was like, you were cool if you helped people out. And now it just doesn’t feel like that; people are much more entertained by bad stuff. Our president is just wack. He was wack the first time I met him.” The current divisive climate inspired the album’s lead single “Til The World Falls,” a blend of apocalyptic imagery with an uptempo dance-pop hook.
Toward the end of 2016, tragedy continued to permeate Rodgers’ life. Rodgers had been working closely with George Michael and saw him two days before the singer succumbed to liver disease on Christmas Day, while Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who Rodgers calls a “personal friend,” took his own life four months later. A cousin would drop dead of a coronary “with no prior warning” around the same time, as Rodgers wrote on his blog, and Rodgers’ mother had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 Alzheimer’s.
Rodgers, who was diagnosed and treated for an aggressive form of prostate cancer in 2010, had been mourning his friends when his own maladies caught up to him. In August 2017, in the middle of a Chic tour with Earth, Wind & Fire, he was hospitalized with E. coli. “During my brief stay in the hospital … the doctors discovered a mysterious growth on my right kidney which looked like cancer,” he wrote on his blog last December. “Unlike my reaction to my first Big-C diagnosis seven years ago, I was more relaxed, analytic and calm.”
Rodgers is in remission now and feeling healthy, but the recovery would delay It’s About Time yet again. Ultimately, the diagnosis spurred him to work even harder, a reminder to Rodgers that he is — or at least feels like he is — living on borrowed time. “[The diagnosis] didn’t have a big effect on my mindset other than the fact that it kickstarted me to hurry up and get this done,” he says. I ask him if he’s talking about the album specifically or the cancer as potential wishful thinking.
“I can’t stop playing music. I don’t know how. Music is not just my job. It’s my entertainment.”
“A little of both, I guess,” he says. “Life is important, and also life is unimportant in that it continues in a strange way. I just had a very optimistic view when it came to a recovery from cancer. Because I believe that we’re just part of the universe, and it’s an ongoing, fast, wonderful thing that just exists. We’re just small, microscopic fragments. But it’s those small microscopic fragments that make it important.”
But as our conversation veers from present to past, I wonder which one of us will bring up the overlooked elephant in the room when discussing Nile Rodgers’ career with Chic. For as influential, ubiquitous, successful and world-famous as the group was in the late Seventies, they never scored a massive hit after their third album, 1979’s Risque. Rodgers, Edwards & Co. released five more albums, but the Disco Sucks backlash crippled the band’s chances for future success.
“When Chic in its earliest form existed, we really only had two years. We started in ’77 and basically in ’79 we were over, we were done,” Rodgers says, laughing. “’77, yay! ’78, yay! ’79 well, hold on. We had two good years, that was it. After ‘Good Times,’ we never really had another big hit.”
The group’s last album, 1992’s Chic-ism, was maligned by critics, though it didn’t seem to have any long-term effect on Rodgers’ confidence or decision to record another Chic album. “Are you telling me that those last five albums, every song was bad?” he asks. “That we wrote all bad songs? It’s impossible.”
At one point during our second interview, while talking about his most recent cancer diagnosis, I ask Rodgers the simplest question: “How are you feeling?” His answer is telling. “I feel great! I was in four countries in the past 24 hours.” For Rodgers, wellness and productivity are more than synonymous. The idea of not working not only doesn’t register for the 66-year-old who’s been forced to think a lot recently about death and time. It’s anathema to his own idea of well-being and happiness.
If Rodgers has his way, it will not be 26 more years for another Chic album. A follow-up to It’s About Time featuring Debbie Harry and Haim is almost done — “I could put it out next week if I wanted to,” Rodgers says — but the musician wants to wait until Valentine’s Day to release it when Chic wrap up the first leg of their upcoming tour with Cher.
Rodgers turned 65 last year; technically speaking, he is now of retirement age. I ask what the word “retirement” means to him and the answer is immediate and resolute.
“Honestly, I think of death. I can’t stop playing music. I don’t know how. Music is not just my job. It’s my entertainment. So, what, I wouldn’t be able to entertain myself?”
It doesn’t ever cross your mind even a little?
“You gotta be kidding me,” he says. I can practically see the side-eye through the phone. “Have you seen our show?”
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