He was a prominent force in the Disco movement. He helped shape Madonna’s career and Daft Punk’s re-launch. He’s been penning and performing gold and platinum level hits for longer than most EDM DJs have been alive. VIBE caught up with Nile Rodgers at this year’s IMS Ibiza where he was presented with a prestigious award at The Legends Dinner to talk EDM hate, writing pop songs and nuclear science...
VIBE: You’ve been writing, performing, touring your own and other people’s music for decades. What’s changed the most?
Nile Rodgers: Wow! That’s an opener! The one thing that’s changed the most is that we don’t sell as many records as we used to and that’s killing me! I was looking at Soundscan last week and there were all these records - big, known records that were sitting at 300,000, 250,000, total sales. The two records vying for first week top spot were at 110, and 111,000. Back in the day, you wouldn’t have even been on the charts.
Even new breakthrough acts?
Yeah! When I was a brand new man my first record was gold almost right out of the box. Up there in the charts, everyone was gold, everyone sold a million, million and a half, 800,000. Looking at Billboard rankings everyone had little gold circles or platinum diamonds by their name from the off.
Does that make it hard for you to contextualise your music now?
It always amazes me that my last album on Warner Brothers that came out in 1993, was a failure by my standards. If I had sold that record to day, I’d be number one. People would be bowing down! I sold 400,000 units in its first week. And that was a complete failure for me. With Chic - we were accustomed to selling 2, 3, million, Le Freak sold 6 million, Madonna sold 21 million, Bowie sold 11 or 12 million, So it’s weird for me to not thinking of record sales as your base number for which you measure your hit. Anything that’s under a million still doesn’t feel like it’s a hit to me.
But then there’s a difference between chart-topping pop and underground hits, right?
You know, when I was a young kid my music teacher told me - “Any record that’s a hit is a great composition.” I was like “What, even that bullshit bubblegum pop?” He said “Absolutely, because it spoke to the hearts, minds and souls to a million strangers.” How can you argue with that?
You’ve stood everywhere in the stage - instrumentalist, vocalist, writer - does each position ‘feel’ very different when you’re up there?
It’s all the same. The only thing that’s different is the difficulty factor. It’s easiest to just perform, it’s easy to do concerts, to do live shows, but that’s only after we’ve dealt with all the logistics of getting to that stage! But once we’re on that stage, and all the other stuff is dealt with, the performance process is always easy, natural.
You’ve written alone, you’ve collaborated, do you approach the two situations differently?
For me, it’s easiest to write and collaborate with someone else. I find it hard to compose in the solitary mode, because my mind is so active, and things that are seemingly mundane, absurd or ridiculous to other people are fascinating to me. A lemon peel, someone’s hair, mascara, eyeliner, I could write a song about eyeliner, or the things you’re trying to cover, and I could be so obsessive about it. That doesn’t make it commercial but it makes it as an artistic enterprise viable. I would start to research, then I’d start to rhyme.
Do you feel to the crowd’s relationship to artists is now different to what it was years ago?
It feels like it’s more exciting now. I don’t know why that is, maybe because I have a larger body of work, maybe because I’m not so afraid of failure- perhaps because I’ve learned to accept failure at a very high level, so I can honestly say I’m not afraid of screwing up.
But you’re an old hand at this - do you ever screw up now?
When I do screw up, I can roll with it: last summer we were playing with Jennifer Lopez, Lionel Richie, Eliza Doolittle, so there was this huge show and it was great - apart from our segment - where the sound system blew. 65,000 people facing us. The promoter was like “Come in, come in!” because the crowd were getting hostile but I was like “No way, if they’re booing, then I’m gonna stand here and let them boo me. I’m gonna give ‘em their money’s worth.” Then I realised the amps had overheated, but the monitors were working, so I hooked a mic to the monitor, strapped it to my guitar, turned it up and started singing our classics. It ended up being an amazing concert!
You had a series of successful disco EPs at the precise same time that there was an active and vocal ‘Disco Sucks’ movement in music. What do you make of the whole ‘EDM-hate’ movement?
I’m always amazed at people’s ability, or need - and it is a need I think - to say that it’s ‘them against us.’ I was never raised like that - probably because I was raised a hippy and my parents were beatniks, so we were much more like “We’re all in it together." People like the Beatles were all about “I and you and me and we” and I grew up believing that shit! I grew up feeling like I was part of this global community of people that were all in it together, it was never normal to say “oh so and so sucked tonight” - even if that’s what I privately thought.
Why do you think that people are happy to slam others now then?
It’s this inherent quality in people now to say “I like this, not that.” Alright already! Tell me the truth, if “Soulja Boy” dropped right now, would you not dance to it if your friends weren’t watching? The guilty pleasures like that that happen in this industry, I think if they were celebrated rather than dissed, it would be a cooler business, because we’re always so quick to say no. Secretly I think it’s a form of jealousy. I know I’d love to be clever enough to make a record like Soulja Boy, - I’m not that clever.
But you’ve wrote a lot of catchy songs though...is there a pop formula?
Well. People think I sat down and wrote “Freak Out”, but that’s not true. I wrote “Ah Fuck Off! Fuck Studio 24”, because I was pissed off that I wasn’t let in that night. Then when I realised the groove was happening, and we rewrote it and turned it into Freak Out. That’s how so many of these tracks happen for me - I’m a good rewriter, when I sense a groove. I’ve never been a good writer!
You wrote the official anthem to 2014’s IMS. How did that come together?
I was called by IMS co-organizer Ben Turner, this was in 2013. I was doing 125 concerts in 200 days. But I figured it’s easy - we’re gonna do the song, we’re gonna perform it once live. I’m not gonna be judged on it, or even if I am judged on it, it happens once, so I’m only judged once. Suddenly I’m working with Eats Everything, and there’s talk of auctioning off the track to charity, and now it’s 2014 and it’s huge and I’m nervous, like ‘Guys! What are we doing? We were just writing this for fun, right?!’
Where would you be now had you never been in music?
I’d have gone into science. In our days, we called it thermonuclear hydro-dynamics. That was my thing, in our clique at school we were trying to figure out how take nuclear energy, make it safe, and power the planet.
Nile Rodgers would’ve been a nuclear scientist?
You would not believe how many famous musicians were into this. My friend Reggie Lucas was in the same school, he was on Madonna’s album. He and Todd Rundgren developed the very first screensaver. My other partner, Tom Murray, he went on to invent all sorts of digital applications, way before laptops. I love science. As part of my charity, we brought in Gza from the Wu Tang to give a talk on magnetism and gravity.
What went wrong Nile?!
Back then, we all knew from a very young age the government weren’t going to use our research for good stuff!
word: Ally Byers