A Conversation With The Legendary Nile Rodgers
Written by SongHero on September 3, 2021
DIMITRI EHRLICH: I know you watched a lot of late-night TV as a kid. How do you think that affected your musical career later in life?
NILE RODGERS: I wanted to be a composer as far back as I can remember. For my sixth birthday, I got Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” the 45, and the blue suede shoes that go along with it, and they told me to get up and dance in front of everybody, it was like, okay, I‘m putting on a show. Now I was the shyest kid in the world, so for them to ask me to do that and I responded because of the music. If they had asked me to get up and recite something, or anything like that, I would have hidden in the closet. But because they asked me to mimic Elvis Presley, I was like, sure, let’s do it. So I think that by consuming all of that pop culture information on television, I stored it away, and I still am able to call upon that stuff, because I always have a good reference, a cinematic reference.
EHRLICH: Your biological father, Nile, Nile Rodgers Sr., was a great percussionist and also an alcoholic and drug addict, who died a pauper, and was buried in an unnamed grave, but gave you a great gift of musicality and openness. When you look back on your life and think about your relationship with him, what do you think the greatest gift has been that gave you?
RODGERS: The greatest gift is I believe I inherited his gift for music. Because he was a percussionist, so it was all about improvising, and playing great beats and he was the kindest, nicest person you ever met. Even my mom says, and she says it to this day, she never met a man nicer than Nile, meaning my dad. And I think that I’m like him. I think I’m kind to people. My father was really, really nice. He almost died for my mom, trying to protect her image. Some guy called her a hoe and stabbed him in the chest and he almost bled to death right on the street. He was just a nice guy. And you felt that vibe about him instantly.
EHRLICH: As a child, your mom once sold one of her fur coats to Thelonious Monk. Did you know who he was at the time? Do you remember meeting him or knowing who he was at the time?
RODGERS: Oh, yeah, totally. Oh, man, when I was a kid I knew all those people. I knew Monk— no one ever called him Thelonious, or at least no one in our house— I knew Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Gloria Lynne
EHRLICH: They were friends with your parents?
RODGERS: Yeah, oh, sure. The thing that was interesting about my mom’s inner circle was all of the men that fathered kids with my mom, except for the youngest, were all these hip guys. They were all beatnik artist guys, so they were in the mix. They were hanging out with other really hip, cool people. So at any given moment, you know, you find yourself sitting around the crib and Sarah Vaughan’s in town doing a show. And I remember, Della Reese, Della Reese, I believe she’s still alive, she had a huge crush on my brother who’s closest to me in age, Graham, she had a huge crush on Graham. My brother, I call Bunchy, but he’s Graham Jr., his father Graham, Della Reese adored him. So she would stop by the crib. So all of the men around me were all cool. And what’s interesting was they all got along. So I never had any sense of one guy being jealous of another guy, even though Bobby was the only one she married. These other guys, they fathered kids, so all of the guys that fathered my brothers, were in my life from my earliest memory until they passed away, or even the ones who are still alive are still in my life.
EHRLICH: You coined the term “hippy happen-stance” to refer to the web of interdependence that impacts your life. Explain.
RODGERS: I always wonder about that because it really is interesting how almost everything in my life, you can totally draw a straight line. It’s not like going across the street, you go right there, and it goes right back to my hippy, self-awareness days. That’s why I call it “hippy happen-stance” because everything that I think that I wound up being, it was definable and you could see it when I was 14 when I switched from only listening to Martha and the Vandellas, and only R&B music and I opened up to listening to surf music, and the Ventures, and even the most underground, wacky stuff. Just a couple of nights ago, I was with somebody and we were talking about Frank Sinatra, and I said, “Man, I used to clean up his airplane.”
EHRLICH: Did you find anything interesting in his plane?
RODGERS: [laughs] The plaque at the door, the entrance to the plan said “Come fly with me,” but that’s because he had the hit record Come Fly With Me.
EHRLICH: But you didn’t find any interesting things?
RODGERS: No, but when I saw him, Quincy Jones was producing a record for him, and Quincy was deciding he wanted to take a leap in the digital age, and he wanted to record on a Sony digital tape recorder. And at that time, the only two people in America who owned them were Frank Zappa and myself. So they asked Frank Zappa, who was closer to them in L.A., and Frank Zappa said absolutely not, so they asked the only other guy which was me, and I said absolutely. So they came and they recorded on my tape recorder. So they’re recording, and I’m standing in the room, and I’m sure that Mr. Sinatra thought I was an assistant engineer or something like that. And I said, “Mr. Sinatra, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Pud. And he looked at me and went, “Wow, Pud. What are you doing here?” And I said, “Well, the tape recording you’re using, that’s my tape recorder.” And he says, “What do you mean that’s your tape recorder?” I say, “I’m the biggest record producer in the world.” And he said, “I thought Quincy was!” And I went, “No, that was last year.” [laughs] .
EHRLICH: Tell me a little bit about DHM or the theory of deep, hidden meaning, which you and Bernard developed.
RODGERS: I’ve never written a song that’s not non-fiction. I don’t know how to do that, I wish I did, I’d probably have more hit records. But every song that I’ve ever written comes from a real place, it’s a real story, and then I throw in fictional elements. But a great example of DHM is, let’s stick with Diana Ross— “I’m Coming Out,” so in the old days, to hear new music, it wasn’t like now, you can just go on the Internet. You had to be in the environment where the music was. And the coolest underground clubs, which had the best music, would be the most extreme clubs, so the transvestite clubs, the leather bars, all that kind of stuff. So one night when I was club hopping, I stopped into The Gilded Grape, it was on 8th Avenue, in the Theatre District, and I just popped in for a minute. And I went to the bathroom, and on either side of me were these Diana Ross impersonators. that gave me the idea for “I’m Coming Out,” and we didn’t have cellphones, so I had to run outside and call Bernard and say, man, you are not going to believe this, I was just in the bathroom peeing, and on either side of me at the urinal, are all these dudes dressed up like Diana Ross. We have to write a song called “I’m Coming Out.” Now, most of the time, I don’t think of the titles first, the titles develop as the story develops because we want something catchy, or something that makes sense. But in this particular situation, I thought of the title and then we backed into the song. And very rarely do I get the title first, and it so perfectly matches what I do. And that was the case where the deep hidden meaning in that song was, we knew that Diana Ross was planning a big change in her life because we sat down and interviewed her so we knew what subjects were taboo. And I’m sure the subject of transvestites would have been pretty taboo, but it was just too good of a coincidence and too great of a title. So the double entendre was, we knew that Diana Ross was planning a big move, maybe she wasn’t going to leave Motown, but she certainly was going to ask for a portion of the company. We were fascinated by the fact she didn’t own anything, we were fascinated by the fact that she had to work for a living. We were like, you’re Diana Ross, you were famous when I was a child. So how come we don’t have to work and you have to work and you’re Diana Ross? We knew she had a master plan. So we wrote about it. That was what it was from her point of view. From my point of view, it was about the gay community. I mean, come on, the audience was built in, they were going to flip out. I mean, I’m a New Yorker, so we know the whole gay community loves Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Cher. So writing a song for Diana Ross called “I’m Coming Out,” was just brilliant.
EHRLICH: I found it really interesting that rather than set up Chic like a normal band, you set it up as a corporation where you and Bernard were co-owners and I guess you paid the other guys as employees or whatever, which is very shrewd, obviously because you keep the bulk of the profit rather than splitting it five or six ways, now how did you get that idea?
RODGERS: That was purely because no one believed in us. No one thought it was going to work.
EHRLICH: Out of the original five members, four are dead. You’re the last man standing.
RODGERS: Which is ridiculous, because I was absolutely the most reckless of the bunch. Everybody else, certainly on the surface, seemed a hell of a lot more mature than me. Because I was the hippy. Remember, I took acid, so I wasn’t afraid of anything. I can’t tell you how many times I walked into a club where a girl would tell me to open my mouth and close my eyes and they’d stick something on my tongue… it could have been anything.
EHRLICH: Even though you had a string of hits with Chic, and you became insanely wealthy very quickly, the sense of society rejecting your sound and your work with the Disco Sucks movement must have hurt emotionally. How were you able to take it personally or not personally?
RODGERS: Well, it was a tri-phasic reaction, because at first, we didn’t think it applied to us, we didn’t think of ourselves as a disco band, we did music that was played in discos, but if you listen to a Chic album…It’s a more jazzy, R&B band. And we also, look, I have a good sense of humor. I love professional wrestling and things like that, it cracks me up. I love the theatre. I even like the phrase Disco Sucks, it’s funny to me. It’s cool. But if a person took it seriously, then it was like whoa, wait a minute. And I remember the day I became proud to call myself a disco musician, just because of the fact that people were saying it sucked, and we were lumped into a category and class of music and musicians that weren’t seen on the same level as rock or jazz or classical. And I thought, Jesus Christ, I’ve been fighting this battle my whole life, even when I was a jazz guy, even when I was a classical guy, I was fighting to be the best at that, and now I’ve chosen this other form of music, which I did choose, but it almost felt like it chose me. And I’ve learned how to express myself. And now I’ve got to fight this battle again? With the pop world, the same world that only a few months ago was making tons of money from us and praising us? You know, you just want your voice to be heard.
EHRLICH: A quick word on Mick Jagger, what did you learn from working with him?
RODGERS: That Jagger can hear minute information in the music, even if you try to trick him, and even when you’re not trying to trick him, he thinks you’re trying to trick him, and you’re going, “Mick, what are you talking about?” He’s got big ears. It’s amazing. And he’ll catch you every time. Paul Simon is like that. These are guys that you realize that they just have a unique gift to absorb a lot of information, and because they’ve been doing it so long, they’ve heard everything that can possibly be heard, so how do you excite them? I remember, once again, the minutest shifts, and I’m trying to balance the vocals and he’s like, “Nile, is David’s voice louder than mine?” And I’m going, “Mick, no, it’s not louder!” And he would leave the room and I would shift it back, and he would go, wait a minute, you made his voice louder than mine. Alright, I did, but I wasn’t making it louder, I was making it balanced.
EHRLICH: You once went to White Castle with Diana Ross, how many burgers did she eat?
RODGERS: I don’t know, but I always order the same amount, I always get a dozen.