Books, Culture, Music

In Praise of Nile Rodgers

Nile Rodgers, profile photo by Roy Cox (2011)You might not know his name, but you’ll certainly have heard his music. In the wake of his contribution to Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, his profile has aptly been raised, but this musician, songwriter and producer has been unleashing trendsetting-hits for decades. A fact too few people appreciate to this day.

He is, of course, Nile Rodgers. One half of rhythm kings Chic, along with his late partner Bernard Edwards, Rodgers has masterminded hit, after hit, after hit, and then some.

‘He’s the Greatest Dancer’ and ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge. ‘Let’s Dance’ by David Bowie. ‘Upside Down’ and ‘I’m Coming Out’ by Diana Ross. ‘The Reflex’ by Duran Duran. ‘Like a Virgin’ by Madonna. ‘Good Times’ the basis for ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and as rock-solid a hip hop sample as you can get. Rodgers’s talents helped make all of these songs into hits. Hits that are still bumping on iPods and Spotify playlists even now.

I can’t recall when I first felt the unstoppable groove of ‘Le Freak’, but it was well before I knew what a studio album or even a B-side was. There was a lushness to Chic and Sister Sledge’s music that went beyond anything I was hearing at the time. From jazz and pop radio, to weddings, parties and family get-togethers, to the songs I selected to be on my first MP3 player, Rodgers-Edwards’ songs have proved utterly timeless.

Sister Sledge, Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, circa 1978-9Rodgers is, and always will be, a legend in my eyes. But while I’ve know for a long time that he can pluck chords that take command of your feet, I didn’t know the life he’s led was as colourful as his music. And neither did I know he could describe it in such captivating detail. That is until I read Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny.

In this modest-sized autobiography, Rodgers is incredibly frank about his experiences growing up, from his abnormal childhood with his “beatnik parents” to his eventual emergence as a production don. Rodgers’s songs have always been rich examples of rhythm, melody and voice combining to evoke subtle feelings from the moment the song starts to its conclusion – a “Deep Hidden Meaning”, as he puts it. That makes them greater than the sum of their parts. And his book is similarly appealing. Written in his charming, slightly vulnerable tone, Rodgers manages to entertain, shock and inspire as he tells the events of his remarkable life.

He takes you on a tour of more hip, high-end clubs in one night than most of us will ever visit in a year. Makes you feel down with the New York cats of the 1970s – their lingo, their style. Shows off his intense work ethic and ability to elevate whomever he works with. Reminds you of the racism that black and mixed race musicians fought then and continue to fight now. Gives you a naughty buzz from his pop star excesses – tales of drinks, drugs and sex that are as thrilling as they are cautionary. And still dishes out tantalising anecdotes about Madonna, Duran Duran and more. All this in a single, unputdownable chapter.

Chic, circa 1970sThere’s no fat here. Only a concise history of one of music’s greatest production godfathers that’s more enjoyable than any linear notes or wiki could hope to be.

Full of life, revelations and inspiration, this autobiography has given me immeasurable respect for a man who opened my ears to music when my concept of taste didn’t extend much beyond Michael Jackson singles, Motown, Jazz FM and the pop charts. (Even my mum was a fan, as I discovered when I found a ‘Le Freak’ 7-inch single with her name on it at my grandmother’s house earlier this year. So it’s fitting that Chic are set to return in 2015 with previously unreleased material.)

Through his music, Rodgers showed me, when it comes to expression, you’re only limited by your imagination. And, this year, through his autobiography, he’s made me recognise my own identity as a black man that bit more. A legend now and forever.

Images: Belong to respective parties; Nile Rodgers (main; by Roy Cox); Sister Sledge with Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers (body; via; Chic (body)