From his pioneering work with disco icons Chic, to his production of era- defining records by the likes of David Bowie, Madonna and Daft Punk, Nile Rodgers is an artist like no other. Daniel Gumble speaks to the man himself about what it means to be a producer in today’s industry and the records that have shaped a life in music…
On November 14, Nile Rodgers will be presented with the Artist’s Artist Award at the 2019 Artist & Manager Awards. In a career that’s been liberally laced with gongs, honours and accolades, including multiple Grammys and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, this latest recognition perhaps most accurately describes the regard with which he is held by his peers.
As co-founder and guitarist with legendary disco outfit Chic and producer of some of the most successful records of all time, his towering influence on music and pop culture over the past four decades is incalculable – although the 500 million albums and 75 million singles that bear his name as writer, producer or performer that have been sold to date go some way towards putting a number on it. Indeed, records by musical outliers such as David Bowie, Madonna, INXS, Duran Duran, Lady Gaga, Daft Punk and countless others have been shaped and enriched by the warm, disco ball glow that flows through his productions. Put simply, he is one of the most gifted artists and producers in the business.
Given the vastness of his catalogue, it’s unsurprising that the man himself is unable to pinpoint a single artist’s artist of his own. He can, however, identify a key moment in his youth that set him on his musical path.
“The list of incredible artists would be so long I wouldn’t even know where to start,” he chuckles down the phone as PSNEurope reaches him in his Connecticut home. “The great by-product of my childhood and my ultra bohemian parents was that I was surrounded by music and art from day one. My first memories revolve around that. I became self-aware when I was around five years old and my first solid memory was getting a copy of Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ from my grandmother for my fifth birthday, and I got the blue suede shoes to go along with them. That was a cool birthday present! I’ve been inundated and surrounded with art and music all my life, so I can’t possibly single out one artist or one artistic moment that is more precious than the hundreds that come to mind. I don’t mean to be ambiguous, I’m just being honest.”
Like most artists with decade-spanning careers, Rodgers’s ability to evolve and adapt has been central to his longevity. It’s a skill that has maintained his status as one of the most in-demand producers on the planet at a time when the term ‘producer’ is arguably more fluid than ever.
“To me a producer has to be fairly malleable – I have to bend to the needs of the artist or the project I’m working on,” he explains. “So I can’t say, you have to do it my way, because that feels like the wrong way. The right way is to adapt to the situation and try to understand what they are trying to achieve and see if you’re the person who can help them achieve that goal.
Sometimes my job is as simple as being a cheerleader and helping an artist deliver a great performance, but most of the time I’m involved in the writing and the creative process on a level where I’m performing with them too. Very few records have I produced – and I’ve produced hundreds, if not thousands – that I didn’t play on as well. Even if the band has one or two guitar players, like in the case of INXS, I still played on the record. I look at my job as basically joining the band or artist I’m working with. With Madonna, she just allowed me to join her band, and I was also able to bring my band along with me. It was the same with David Bowie’s Let’s Dance – my band became his band.”
This knack for integrating his own sonic and compositional sensibilities alongside the likes of Bowie and Madonna is almost like a sixth sense, allowing him to see things the artist may not, bringing a surgical understanding of what any given session requires.
“Every record is different,” he elaborates. “In the case of Madonna, I worked with her very early in her career, and even though she had a fixed vision as to what her end result should be, I was able to help her not only actualise that vision but also enhance it by bringing along my band and saying to her that, if we just did a programmed record, anybody could do that. Of course, that would still be great, but… only my band sounds like Chic.”
While Rodgers’s production work on Bowie’s Let’s Dance was no less shaped by the Chic sound, the band he assembled in the studio was born out of somewhat challenging interpersonal circumstances.
“With Bowie, I had to construct a band around the situation,” he remembers. “That was very political for me because I wanted to use my band but we were, at that time, drinking and drugging far too much to be as reliable as I would have liked. The great thing about working on that record was that it made me at least attempt to be sober, and thank God it did because David was sober. It was a big deal to him and I didn’t want to impinge upon his space. And he was paying for the record himself because he didn’t have a record deal, so I didn’t want to show up at the studio late and things like that. We’d been falling into a very bad pattern.”
He continues: “That’s when Chic actually broke up, at least for a while. I had to get people to replace the people I’d worked with nearly every day, but it worked out great because I knew a lot of terrific musicians. And the core of Chic, which was Bernard Edwards, Tony Thompson and myself, still wound up playing on the record. I played on everything, but at a certain point I felt comfortable enough to call Tony and at the last minute I called Bernard to do one song.
“What was great about working like that was that David had total faith, he never questioned who I was calling or why.”
While ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ provided the catalyst for Rodgers’s passion for writing and performing, the “sonic event” that would propel him into the world of production came over a decade later, when he discovered Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love.
“That was when I got wrapped up in sound and started thinking, how did he do this?” he says. “The thing is, I didn’t know that it was called production. I didn’t understand what a producer was. To be honest, when I produced my very first record I didn’t know I was the producer. That first Chic record was done with a great engineer, Bob Clearmountain. He was teaching us how to produce at the same time. I was also learning from Luther Vandross – I was the guitarist in his band and he became the singer in my band for four or five albums. But that very first Chic recording session, we cut three songs and because I was the guy who did the arrangements, everybody was looking to me for advice as to how you approach playing it. Then I was like, I’m that guy by default. It wasn’t some masterplan, I was just doing my job and people defined my job for me. They started telling me I was the producer, so I was like, Oh, that’s what a producer does!”
He also name checks some other records that opened his ears to new sonic possibilities: “I always go to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. That was a big gamechanger. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was massive in my life and still is to this day. A record by Eric Dolphy called Out To Lunch! It’s unbelievable what that record did to me – the level of virtuosity, the sonic quality, it was just incredible. Typically they have to get these records done in a very short period of time, and I inherited that gene, I think, because some of my biggest records I did in no time at all. I found out from David Bowie’s family that I demoed the whole Let’s Dance album in two days. I thought I only did one song, they said, well, we have the dates and the recordings here! So when I got back to New York we did everything, all the overdubs and that stuff, in 17 days.”
In 2018, Rodgers was appointed chief creative advisor at Abbey Road Studios, a role that would see him work with both world-beating stars and up-and- coming talent. One of the key things he’s noticed in the job is that, despite the DIY approach adopted by so many in possession of a laptop and a bundle of plugins, the commitment to great sound and sonic quality is stronger than ever.
“I think that on some level [music production] has gotten more exciting and people pay more attention to the detail,” he observes. “I know I do. I’m in one of the greatest studios in the world, so the sonic quality of a record is imperative and is so important to me. I can only look at it from my point of view, and the people I work with seem to appreciate that too. Most of the producers I know, even the very young ones, are very aware of the gear and how gear responds and affects what you are doing, so I don’t feel like my universe has really changed that much. Also, almost all the new technical innovations are trying to imitate or masquerade as the old analogue things we’ve always loved. Some of the best new gear sounds like the best old gear.”
As voices ring out in the background for Rodgers to wind up our conversation, we have just enough time to discuss the 49th anniversary of the legendary Beatles album of the same name. As a devout Beatles fan, does he remember the first time he heard it? And where does it rank for him amongst their immense catalogue?
“I can’t remember when I first heard it,” he recalls. “But I don’t remember the album like that because I was already such a crazy fan – the very first song I learned to play on the guitar was ‘A Day In The Life’. It’s just a great piece of work. That said, I’m always amazed when people are talking about The Beatles and their albums that they don’t consider Magical Mystery Tour, because to me it’s unbelievable. People never mention it, but come on! When I heard ‘I Am The Walrus’ I thought, how can you write a composition like that? How can you make something so cool?”
If anyone should know, it’s Nile Rodgers.