The truth is, even if you never bought a record like “Le Freak,” Chic’s wall-to-wall late 1970s hit, Nile Rodgers was all over your radio dial anyway. So we decided to pick his brain about some of the more notable contributions he and Chic made on other people’s records — from R&B to pop to blues to hip hop.
Find out how Nile Rodgers funked up the classically trained string section on a Diana Ross smash, why he doesn’t hold anything against sample-happy groups like the Sugarhill Gang anymore, how Chic helped create a seminal moment for Madonna, and what brought him to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s final sessions …
“GOOD TEXAN,” with JIMMIE AND STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN (FAMILY STYLE, 1990): When the Vaughan brothers finally set about recording what would be their lone collaborative project, Nile Rodgers was at the helm. Released just a month after Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter crashed into the side of a ski hill on the way back from a concert, Family Style would become the fiery guitarist’s best-selling studio effort away from his regular band Double Trouble. It went on to win a 1991 Grammy for best contemporary blues album, as well. Rodgers served as an additional guitarist for the sessions, and co-wrote the song “Good Texan” with Jimmie Vaughan, as the long-time member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds took the microphone for one of his first-ever lead vocals. Contrary to easy assumptions, however, the project didn’t come Rodgers’ way as a result of his stint producing David Bowie’s smash 1983 album Let’s Dance, on which Stevie Ray made his first big commercial splash as a featured soloist.
NILE RODGERS: It’s funny. That would be a great assumption, but it’s actually not true. The Vaughan brothers record happened as a result of Jimmie Vaughan. I had always remained friends with Stevie from the moment we met until the unfortunate time of his passing, which was during the making of that record. What was really interesting is that Jimmie Vaughan had pursued me years earlier, when he was still with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. We had tried to work together for a while. Jimmie had approached me even before I did Bowie; that’s how cool Jimmie was. He was a Chic fan, and a Nile Rodgers fan. So for years, he had pursued this. When he finally go out on his own, he thought maybe this was the right time for he and his brother to do a project together. Stevie and I had already worked together; we had remained friends. One thing that I found out was that Stevie had always told Jimmie that the best guitar sound he ever had was working with me on Let’s Dance. The time that I took, just the attention to the finer details of his sound, that was so important to him. I paid such close attention to his sound, and it made him feel like one of the family. He said it was something that he would never forget, and he was dying for that opportunity to present itself again. Jimmie Vaughan was the catalyst, but it certainly didn’t hurt that I had already worked with Stevie — and that the record had introduced him to the bigger world of a pop audience. Of course, prior to that, when we made Let’s Dance, he was still working as a delivery guy or something. He wasn’t even a full-time musician yet.
“UPSIDE DOWN,” with DIANA ROSS (DIANA, 1980): Rodgers and Chic co-hort Bernard Edwards took a personal approach in the recording of their first project with this Motown legend, meeting with her for days to map out themes for the album. The results speak for themselves, as Ross’ 11th album became the best-selling studio project of her lengthy career. Diana reached No. 2 on the Billboard album charts on the strength of a pair of Top 10 singles, including this charttopper. Billboard would rank “Upside Down” No. 62 in its list of greatest songs of all time. Chic served as Ross’ backing band, with Rodgers — in a move that echoed the band’s 1979 hit “Good Times” — somehow drawing this deeply funky sound out of a string section.
NILE RODGERS: We came from the old school analog recording business, where you had to use every trick at your disposal. Strings were not traditionally funky, and they were all classically trained musicians. If you look at all of the Chic records, most of our players came from the New York Philharmonic. They were some of the best players in the city. But, you’re right, they weren’t necessarily the funkiest players in the city — although we tried to get that out of them. So what we would do to help aid in their interpretation of the groove is, sometimes we would actually use what we called gates to trigger their sound. Basically, they would play what I had written on the page, but you would only hear that music start and stop when another instrument is playing a trigger, or a gate, to open up the sound. So, for instance, when you hear hear those strings parts on “Upside Down,” well, string players can’t play that — at least not tight. And they certainly can’t play it for six or seven minutes! Basically what I have them playing is half notes, and I’m having them key off (long-time Chic drummer) Tony Thompson’s drum high hat. We used all of those kind of tricks to get those strings sounding funky and tight and grooving with us, so that it sounds like a band and a unit — as opposed to sweetening. The strings never felt like a sound that we just put on top of the records. They are a part of the groove, as well.
“LIKE A VIRGIN,” with MADONNA (LIKE A VIRGIN, 1984): With the addition of Rodgers as producer (and Chic as the core backing group) Madonna’s sophomore effort became a career-defining moment — beginning with this lead single, which became her first No. 1 Billboard hit. The one thing it didn’t sound like was Madonna, her 1983 debut — which, rather than a live band, relied on the newest club-beat technology of the day, including drum machines, synthesizers and the Moog bass. The addition of Chic gave the music a snappy new attitude to match the lyrics. Provocative, catchy and instantly danceable, “Like a Virgin” — along with its follow up single “Material Girl” — represent the big bang of Madonna’s lengthy career.
NILE RODGERS: It’s interesting, because when I first met Madonna, I knew right away what she was all about. That first album sort of put a very fine point on it. At the time, the music in New York City was either called electro, or Latin hip hop or freestyle. They were all interchangeable. Probably the group that was the most popular from that style was Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam. So, that’s what Madonna was into, and that first album really showed that off. I said to her, quite frankly, these demos are interesting and good songs, but if we do another electro album, people won’t be able to distinguish you from anybody else. We can do these songs, but let me do them with my band — let me play these songs with Chic. We’ll give you the personality that the demos don’t have. That’s not to disrespect the demos. But if you had music that was programmed and could be done by anyone in the world who understood that kind of music, what would make Madonna different? It’s something I believed then, and I still do. This is also no disrespect to people who do programmed records. It’s just that I wanted to give her something that was uniquely hers, and the only way you could do that was with live players. There’s no one else in the world who played like Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson, and me. It seems to have worked. That’s the biggest album of her life, and the biggest album of my life.
“RAPPER’S DELIGHT,” SUGARHILL GANG (single, 1979): Recorded in a single take by Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee, this song is widely regarded as the track that introduced hip hop to a broader commercial audience — with a groove courtesy of Chic’s “Good Times,” from Bernard Edwards’ soul-shuddering bass line to the smartly inflected piano to the whooshing violins. Members of Chic initially sued, and eventually received co-writing credit for the song. But even as the track itself has gained stature as an early popularizer of raps and samples, rising to No. 251 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, Rodgers himself has gained a new appreciation for “Rapper’s Delight.” Not long after the song became a No. 36 pop hit, Chic started performing their own version in concert. Over the years, the number of songs built off Chic samples has literally become countless.
NILE RODGERS: Financially, it’s been very rewarding, because of some of those records wind up being being bigger than the things we originally wrote — and we’re talking about some of the biggest hits in my catalog. The one thing that I’ve come to learn and respect over the years, though, especially after talking to so many hip hop producers, is that they really go after samples that are almost artistically the apex of the groove. They’ve taught me something really interesting: They can find a part of a groove that may fundamentally be the same another part of the record, but they can hear the small nuances and say: That’s the part that we need to get. It’s because they really are thrilled with musicianship. When you go back and listen to some of the biggest, most influential records that were made from beats, you start to realize that the beats are really spectacular. They take the best part. The fact that they have used to many of my records is probably the greatest compliment that I have ever been paid. I’ve spoken to many of these producers, and they always talk about the musicianship, the caliber of our playing on the records, the part that they choose to sample. I had no idea that it was that much of an artistic decision. You always just think: They took that part because it’s groovy. I’ve become a lot of wiser.
“ROAM,” with THE B-52s (COSMIC THING, 1989): The fifth studio recording by the B-52s found the band at a crossroads, following the AIDS-related death of co-founding guitarist Ricky Wilson. But, over the course of Rodgers’ career as a producer, he’s had a knack for reclamation projects. From David Bowie to Jeff Beck to Mick Jagger to Duran Duran, Rodgers consistently finds way to give a new energy and musical direction to fading stars — and the B-52s were no different. He’d initially worked on the title track for Cosmic Thing (which was used in the film “Earth Girls Are Easy”), then later on a number of other songs, including “Roam” — which shot to No. 3 for these former cult favorites. The album would also include the B-52s’ first million-seller “Love Shack,” along with the minor hit “Deadbeat Club.” Rodgers said his initial focus on projects like this one is to create an entirely new template for established acts, to hear them in a new way.
NILE RODGERS: My technique is, I immerse myself in the artist’s history and their past — especially their last record and their first record. I want to hear how they got to where they are right then, in the moment that we’re going into the studio to make a new record. The reason why I do that is, I never want to remake that artist’s last record. I want to make the artist’s next record. If I’m not familiar, and completely immersed in their life and artistic arc, how would I know what the next step is? I have to do that future record. You also don’t know when the record is coming out. You do a deal with the record company, you sign the contracts, but anything can happen. If you don’t do a record that’s relevant when it comes out, it could all be for naught. The perfect example is Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Usually when I signed a contract, I could turn in an album in two months — at the latest. Madonna’s took all of a whopping six weeks, but we winded up waiting six months to put the record out. It was scheduled to come out in the summer, but we wound up waiting until the following year. Had we made record that was only relevant in the time we were making it, it wouldn’t have held up for six months. The trends change in pop so fast. But because I was making future music with Madonna, the culture still hadn’t caught up to her. We were still way ahead of the curve.
Nile Rodgers and Chic will be featured as part of “The Legends of Disco ‘Live’ at the Hammerstein Ballroom,” at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 31, 2012. Also appearing: The Trammps featuring Earl Young, Tavares, France Joli, and Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes, with MCs Deney Terrio from Dance Fever and Joe Causi from CBS-FM. Tickets are on sale at http://tickets.discopartynyc.com. For group sales of 10 or more tickets, contact Leonard Shostak at email@example.com or 212-937-7911.