Nile Rodgers: Still Chic After All These Years

By JACOB BERNSTEIN NYTimes.com 11/06/15
Nile Rodgers isn’t holding his breath about the prospect of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum this spring.

Why should he, after having already been nominated nine times with his group Chic, nine times that left him a bridesmaid, not the bride?

“My attitude is that there are plenty of buildings that want to have me. Why would I want to live in a building where they don’t?” said Mr. Rogers, drawing a metaphor from Manhattan real estate, where he learned over the years that he was sometimes too famous or too black to appeal to everyone’s tastes.

As it happened, Mr. Rodgers was milling about on a recent afternoon not in his Upper West Side co-op but in his six-bedroom compound in Westport, Conn.

The view of the Long Island Sound stretched for miles, the furniture included Louis XIV chairs and ancient Chinese beds, and the walls were covered in platinum records he earned producing hits for Madonna, David Bowie, Chic and Sister Sledge.

Mr. Rodgers began to say something about how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was not about sales or statistics or even quality, but then stopped himself.

He was in danger of sounding bitter. And bitter is not in Nile Rodgers’s lexicon. Nile Rodgers doesn’t do bitter.

He’s the sort of cat who describes recent collaborations with Kylie Minogue and Janelle Monae not as groundbreaking or cool but as “smoking” or “bananas.” When he is with friends like Jay Z, Beyoncé and Stephen Hawking — whom he met while giving a speech at Google Zeitgeist in London — they don’t have dinner or watch a movie. They “hang” or “cut loose.”

He is helping to score Hugh Jackman’s new one-man show, and it’s going to be “insane.” Coachella called him and booked Chic to perform at the festival for the first time next spring, right around the time he is due to hit 64. How “awesome” is that?

In 2013, Mr. Rodgers teamed up with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams for the ditty “Get Lucky,” which has sold 9.3 million copies and won him three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year. And since that time, he has been on a victory tour rare in the youth-driven music business.

Admittedly, some things have changed about Mr. Rodgers since his heyday.

The flattop is gone, replaced by the dreadlocks he wears underneath a backward Kangol hat or navy bandanna. So is the “Miami Vice”-inspired 28-foot cigarette speedboat.

The white powder that was once his main dietary staple has been swapped for stevia, packets of which were strewn all around the house — on top of his alligator-skin side table in his living room, on his desk in the upstairs recording studio and in his bedroom, where he packed for a gig Chic was due to play in Milan, opening for Duran Duran at the Piazza del Duomo.

On the bedside shelf was a picture of Mr. Rodgers’s mother, Beverly Goodman, and a copy of his memoir, “Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny,” which was published in 2011.

The CliffsNotes version goes something like this.
Ms. Goodman was 14 years old when she gave birth to Nile in New York City. He met his own father, a traveling musician named Nile Rodgers Sr., just a handful of times.

Sometime around his second birthday, Ms. Goodman met Bobby Glanzrock, who became his stepfather and introduced his mother to both heroin and to Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, who spent a lot of time at the family pad.

“It was the place to hang,” said Mr. Rodgers, who talks about his childhood with an air of perennial amusement, having come to the conclusion that it was better for his development as an artist to have been raised by people who were colorful than by people who were responsible.

In a house full of addicts, Mr. Rodgers likes to say that he was “the dog who could talk,” and this is a pretty good summation of how he processes things.

If he didn’t look like the stylistic love child of Bob Marley (that hair) and Dean Martin (those suits), he would fit right in as one of the Dalai Lama’s monks.

In high school, he began playing guitar and joined the “Sesame Street” touring band, after which he was hired as a house musician for the Apollo Theater.

He met a young bassist named Bernard Edwards, and together they formed Chic, which was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the 1970s, among them “Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” songs that would be sampled by the first rappers.

In the ’80s, Mr. Rodgers moved mainly to producing, becoming the Phil Spector of the post-disco era, a man who brought his Midas touch to Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”) and Madonna (“Like a Virgin”).

Lest there be any question of Mr. Rodgers’s position in the pop producer pantheon circa 1985, a plaque from Billboard proclaiming him to be No. 1 hangs high on the wall in his recording studio.

Vacations took place in St. Martin and Martha’s Vineyard with friends like Oprah Winfrey and Mick Jagger. Playboy bunny flight attendants came by the dozen, cocaine by the kilo.

Mr. Rodgers could barely fathom slowing down. He was a functioning addict, the sort whose heart could stop on Thursday night after a bender, but be in the studio Friday morning for a session with Peter Gabriel or Cyndi Lauper.

In 1994, Mr. Rodgers went into a state of cocaine psychosis while at a party in Madonna’s Miami home. Soon after, he was on a plane to rehab.

Unsure of his ability to stay sober in New York after he got out, he relocated to Westport.

For a while, things were quiet. Mr. Rodgers scored video games, hung out with his girlfriend Nancy Hunt (a former magazine editor) and produced albums for artists like Michael Bolton and Tina Arena.

But royalty checks kept rolling in, as the Notorious B.I. G, Pitbull and Will Smith recycled Mr. Rodgers’s productions over hip-hop beats and rode them once again to the top of the charts.

Then, in 2010, Mr. Rodgers was diagnosed with “extremely aggressive” prostate cancer. Rather than slowing down, he decided to kick his career back into high gear. “I really didn’t know what the future held, so my philosophy was I was going to go out like a lion,” he said.

Instead, he went into remission, just as the time was ripe for his revival.

Rock was going out of fashion, and a new crop of dance producers viewed Mr. Rodgers as an icon, the sort whose music made the feet move and had layers of grit and soul underneath.

At the 2012 Montreux Jazz Festival, where he performed with the remaining members of Chic, Mr. Rodgers was introduced to Dimitri From Paris, who happens to be one of the planet’s best known D. J.s and was eager to remix the best of the Chic and Sister Sledge catalogs.

Mr. Rodgers was thrilled by the prospect, seeing in it an obvious tie-in to the memoir he had just released.

Then he went to Ibiza to accept what he describes as “some lifetime achievement award” and met Disclosure, who wanted to collaborate with him and a singer named Sam Smith on a new track.

But it was the collaboration with Daft Punk that really changed Mr. Rodgers’s life.

Afterward, Mikael Jansson photographed him for Interview. Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin captured him for French Vogue, then introduced him to Lady Gaga, whose video “Applause” they had directed. She brought him into the studio in the spring to do some work with her on a forthcoming album.

In June, Louis Vuitton flew him first class to D.J. at its 2016 spring men’s show. Over the summer, Tom Ford hired Mr. Rodgers to rejigger Chic’s 1978 disco anthem “I Want Your Love” for his fall 2015 ad campaign, with none other than Lady Gaga singing lead.

And that is just a smattering of his latest projects.

Last month, Mr. Rodgers was on deadline to deliver tracks to Mr. Jackman, to Mr. Urban and to Stargate, the Norwegian producers behind many of Rihanna’s and Katy Perry’s hits.

He had parties here, there and everywhere.

One was back in the city, on the evening of a reporter’s visit, to be followed the next day by a conference where he gadded about with John Legend. After a short trip to Europe, Bette Midler was expecting him to perform at the annual Halloween benefit she gives for the New York Restoration Project.

In fact, it was time to go. A black Escalade was waiting outside. Mr. Rodgers’s electric guitar was by the door, along with his Tumi luggage. The world was calling.

Advertisements

Tags:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: