Lost in Music

From disco to Daft Punk, Chic hitmaker Nile Rodgers gives us the story behind his songwriting success...

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 9 Jul 2014
  • min read
From disco to Daft Punk, Chic super producer Nile Rodgers has been sprinkling his songwriting stardust over the charts for more than 30 years. Jim Ottewill gets to the heart of the hitmaker…

‘We’re just a bar band who happen to be playing songs in the world’s biggest bar,’ chuckles Chic’s songwriter and producer Nile Rodgers. We’re talking about how it feels for his group to be back out on the road and playing their hits to thousands of fans after more than 30 years in the business.

‘Chic are like the Grateful Dead of dance music,’ he explains. ‘You’re never going to see me with a hundred dancers on the stage or playing suspended from the ceiling. What we’re all about is the songs - and playing them with a sense of expertise, humility and fun.’

The hitmaker

If songs are what you’re looking for, then you need go no further than bona fide musical legend Nile Rodgers. ‘The hitmaker’ may be the name of his favourite Fender Stratocaster, but it’s just as fitting a title for the man himself. From his work with Chic at the forefront of the disco movement to producing, writing and arranging with the likes of Madonna, David Bowie and Duran Duran, he’s a hugely influential figure in the pop landscape.

Without Nile there would have been no disco, no hip-hop (the Sugarhill Gang’s legendary Rapper’s Delight wouldn’t have happened without sampling the bass line to Chic’s Good Times), while many mega-selling pop careers wouldn’t have scaled the same dizzy heights without his midas touch.

Skyscraping success

His most recent output has continued this run of skyscraping success. Last year’s Get Lucky with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams, the other man of the moment, was the defining song of 2013. It’s an achievement made even more impressive considering Nile was battling prostate cancer during the recording (he’s since been given the all clear).

This activity has thrust the spotlight back on Nile and his music, and means 2014 is already shaping up to be another huge year. Not only does he have a new album in the works and a headline slot at Bestival to look forward to, but he’s the winner of the PRS for Music Special International Award at the Ivor Novello Awards. For a man whose songwriting career includes collaborations with some of pop’s greats, it’s richly deserved. But he still sounds humble despite the prize and stardust covering his songs and contact book.
Don’t ever assume that your taste defines what the world likes. Just try and hope that it does

‘Winning the Ivor Novello Award is pretty amazing. As a composer, all you think about is your songs as they’re the voice you use to communicate with people. The louder this voice, the more people can hear you and the happier you are,’ he explains.

‘The Ivors are so prestigious, particularly for a person like me. I’m a student of the game, a real music fan, so receiving this award has really blown me away.’

Shaping the future

Collaboration has always been at the heart of Nile’s music, ever since he struck up a partnership with the late, great Bernard Edwards and formed Chic. Alongside the bassist, Nile wrote many of the group’s biggest hits, but when the band fell apart, he transported this sense of teamwork into his production. Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, Hall & Oates, Diana Ross are not only some of pop’s biggest acts but also Nile’s most grateful ‘clients’. How does he approach each new partnership?

‘I look at it like a classroom discussion,’ he explains. ‘With Madonna, I asked myself how she got to the point where her life intersected with mine. I then figured out where the next step of her life should be.’

Nile continues: ‘That’s why almost all of my hits have been somewhat adversarial with the record companies. It’s this whole romantic process which goes into the way I think about my work. I have to imagine a future for the artist that doesn’t exist, based on what’s happened to get us to where we were.’

The one constant

But why does he think his music has so often hit the spot? According to Nile, trying to find the DNA of each song is essential if it is going to work. ‘The meaning of each song has to be clear to me,’ he says. ‘If I can’t explain it, then how can you understand it?’

The other unifying thread between his music is Nile himself. He’s in the unique position of not only being writer and producer, but having played on almost every hit he’s ever had too.

‘Even with bands like INXS and Duran Duran - bands that already have one or two guitar players - I’ll still play. It’s almost like being Burt Bacharach and playing piano on every song. I get to be the studio musician, as well as the composer, the producer - that’s an extraordinary situation to be in.’


Bernard and Bowie

Chic originally began with the songwriting partnership of Bernard and Nile. Despite the former’s passing, it’s clear that his old friend’s influence still inspires Nile and his music.

‘He was a true band leader - do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that – but he kept an open mind. In a strange way I’ve taken on a lot of his personality because, after he passed away, I was out there by myself.’

Nile is known for his glorious songwriting success and a production style as sharp as the white suits he wears when performing. But it hasn’t always been this way. The Disco Sucks movement cut short Chic’s career after a run of gold, platinum and multi-platinum selling records. So when he entered the studio with David Bowie in 1982 to record what would become Let’s Dance, it was one of the most important moments in his career.

‘The album came at a time when most people would have folded up their tent and gone home,’ he explains. ‘At that point, I had already earned plenty of money. I’d written so many hit records that I’d never have to work again. Bowie didn’t have a record deal. I didn’t have a record deal. We were two guys out in a life boat who rescued each other. “Hey man, you row while I rest. I’ll row while you sleep”. It was the perfect collaboration at the perfect time.’

The record buying public and critics alike agreed. Let’s Dance and its hybrid of rock and funk went on to be one of the most defining songs of the eighties. The single topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, sparking off another run of success.

Production credit

Nile’s role as producer goes beyond merely pressing play on the record button. He has always had an integral role in the songwriting process, meaning he’s listed as co-composer for many hits such as Get Lucky. Without him, the songs wouldn’t have realised their full potential.

‘What David Bowie brought to me that morning in my bedroom when he first played Let’s Dance - if we had put that out, it would not have been a hit. It was my job as the producer, orchestrator or whatever we would call it in those days – to re-write. What I do is actual composition.’

For onlookers, Nile’s relationship with Bowie may have been seen as disparate but the reality was a rich creative coupling for them both. For Nile it’s another line that joins the dots between his best work.

‘With both Bowie and Daft Punk, everything was just perfect. From the moment the latter walked into my apartment, to the moment that record came out. Even with all the drama back stage. I had to be like a big brother and say, “Guys - it’s okay - at the end of the day, the only thing that counts is the song.”’
Myself and Bowie were two guys out in a life boat who rescued each other

New heights

So what’s next for Nile following last year’s return to chart glory? 2013’s success is currently pointing towards a new album that to describe as hotly anticipated would be an understatement. Collaborations with Avicii, David Guetta, Tensnake and Disclosure show that he’s still keen to seek out new musical minds to spar with.

The live show, billed as Chic ft Nile Rodgers, has speared on this revival in his music - from Bestival to Ibiza and beyond, they’ve brought smiles to thousands of music lovers. Nile remembers that their now relentless gigging schedule of performing his hits started out as a joke.

Nile says: ‘We played Like a Virgin for the first time for our own fun but the audience loved it so much we thought we should do more of those songs. We started adding more tunes I played a very distinctive role in. It wound up being the perfect catalyst to where we are now.’

It’s grown to the group being headliners at this year’s Bestival on the Isle of Wight. But fun is still key for Nile.

‘That’s why we get everyone up on stage, so they can look at the world the way we see it. We get to see 70,000 people – it’s pretty fun! Just a few years ago I was writing, “We are family, I’ve got all my sisters with me”. Now the whole audience is singing it with me.

Careers advice

So has Nile any advice for aspiring hitmakers? Although he’s slightly wary of giving tips, he thinks learning to accept failure is almost as important as enjoying the success.

‘That’s why I always try and remain humble and remember a lesson that one of my music teachers taught me,’ he explains. ‘Don’t ever assume that your taste defines what the world likes. Just try and hope that it does.’

Whatever Nile says through the modesty, more often that not, it’s the rest of the world dancing to his tune. And with more new music on the way, it looks set to continue for some time.