Mawazine Festival 2017: Nile Rodgers is still lost in the music
After nearly five decades, the creative fires are still burning for Nile Rodgers – not to mention a healthy competitive spirit as well.
Talking in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, a few hours before taking to the stage for a hits-laden Chic performance in front of 20,000 people at the Mawazine Festival, the group’s leader, guitarist and legendary pop producer shares fond memories of the band’s sunset performance at Dubai’s Sandance festival on Nasimi Beach in 2013.
“Man, that was just awesome because, if I remember correctly, that same night Alicia Keys and Jason Derulo were performing on the other side of Dubai,” he says.
“The promoters were clever in that they put us on before the evening prayer and they told us we had the largest crowd they ever had for one show. I remember being on stage and being shocked. We were looking out and thought, how could there be so many people out here?
“The next day, I met Jason Derulo on the plane and he said, ‘Yo, how did you get so many people?’ That made me happy.”
This is surprising, given the 64-year-old seems to have done it all during his illustrious pop career, enjoying mind-boggling success and massive industry respect along the way.
With more than 100 million albums sold; the midas touch as a performer, songwriter and producer; a Grammy Award; and a host of pop disciples including Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk; it seems strange that Rodgers would still be tickled by the idea of outselling young upstarts such as Derulo.
But therein lies one of the keys to his durability. Rodgers – never a leading man but an ensemble player – looks at all pop stars, even the newest generation, as his peers.
Hence some of the discomfort he felt last month during his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The ceremony, in New York, included a suitably gushing speech by the artist who is arguably the closest modern-day equivalent to Rodgers, Pharrell Williams, 20 years his junior.
“I love Pharrell – him and I are like big brother and little brother,” says Rodgers. “Whenever we work and perform together it is fantastic. I almost feel uncomfortable because he loves me so much and I need to tell him, ‘Yo man, it’s cool and you are your own great musician’.
“When I was younger, I idolised many great composers – people like Quincy Jones, of course, and Miles Davis. When I met them I was always shocked at how kind they were to me. That’s how I feel with Pharrell – I tell him that he is not my student but my equal. We are the same.”
Born in New York City to parents who were part of the cultural Beatnik movement, it didn’t take long for Rodgers to catch the music bug.
He played various instruments with his high-school band before studying classical guitar. This rigorous music education is often overlooked when his career is discussed, he says.
The discipline it instilled in him acted as the foundation for his entire career, both with Chic and as an eclectic, in-demand producer.
“Classical music was my foundation,” he explains. “It taught me theory and how to orchestrate for whatever the size. It gave me the foundation to speak to musicians who read and do not read music – basically, everyone could understand me, even if we didn’t speak the same language.
“Also I orchestrate all my records. The Beatles had [producer and famed ‘Fifth Beatle’] Sir George Martin, while I do everything without outside help. So when you hire me, you actually get me cheap because I do everything.”
Rodgers’s work with Chic is well documented: he co-produced all eight of the band’s albums (along with the late Chic bassist Bernard Edwards), including era-defining hits Dance, Dance, Dance (1977), Everybody Dance (1978) and Le Freak (1978).
But it was outside of Chic that Rodgers was able to truly build and define his legacy as a producer. That proved fortunate, as the backlash against disco in the early 1980s left the music industry viewing Rodgers as persona non grata. The gigs and offers of production work rapidly dried up.
“Thank God I had already signed my contract with Diana Ross,” he says, with genuine relief.
He and Edwards produced Ross’s classic 1980 album, Diana, which sold more than 10 million copies and remains the soul diva’s signature work.
Rodgers has mixed feelings about the album, however, as there was a lot of interference by record label Motown.
“They hated it,” he says. “They remixed it and although they didn’t change it very much, for us, artistically, it made a lot of difference because we were working with our first superstar.
“We wanted her to be the biggest star in the world and Motown wanted to keep her under control. The record still sounded fantastic because the songs were great.”
Not even that album’s success was enough to absolve Rodgers on what the industry still viewed as his disco sins.
He was without a record label when he was approached by fellow pop outsider David Bowie in December 1982 to produce the British singer’s new album. Let’s Dance was released the following April. It sold more than 10 million copies and remains Bowie’s biggest-selling album.
Rodgers puts its success down to the desperation coursing through the euphoric sounds. Rodgers wanted back into an industry that had forsaken him, while Bowie wanted to escape his artsy, avant-garde persona and prove he could also produce a mainstream pop album.
“We both had no record deal and we had to make the album and then convince the industry it was good enough,” he says.
“We made the record in about 17 days – it was the fastest and biggest record of my life.”
So began a run of production credits that cemented Rodgers’s reputation as a hitmaker: he worked on a host of seminal pop albums such as Madonna’s Like A Virgin (1984) and Duran Duran’s Notorious (1986), to regional hits such as Algerian rai singer Cheb Mami’s Dellali (2001) and the single Get Lucky from Daft Punk’s modern pop opus, Random Access Memories in 2013.
As artists emerge and fade, and genres and technology develop over time, Rodgers says his ethos remains the same.
“There is one important truth,” he says. “I have to make every artist believe that I have only their best interests at heart. It is never about me. If I don’t look after them as father to a child then it won’t mean anything.”
Mawazine is an annual music festival in Rabat, Morocco. For more from this year’s festival go to www.thenational.ae/arts-life
Updated: May 17, 2017 04:00 AM