The Nile Rodgers Primer
by Mosi Reeves | January 31, 2012
Nile Rodgers' music career can be sorted into two exhilarating peaks. First came his collaborations with the late bass player Bernard Edwards as the Chic Organisation, the production team behind Chic, perhaps the greatest disco group of all time. The second arrived in the early 1980s when he became an accomplished pop-hit-making machine for Madonna (Like a Virgin, coproduced with Stephen Bray of the Breakfast Club); the B-52's (Cosmic Thing, coproduced with Don Was of Was Not Was); Duran Duran; David Bowie (Let's Dance); and Mick Jagger (She's the Boss).
Chic's Jazz Age decadence; subtle glam and art-rock references; clever and ironic lyrics; and pop funk grooves are well chronicled and oft-sampled. Rodgers' guitar line and Edwards' bass lick on "Good Times" not only powered the first hip-hop hit single, The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," but also inspired Queen's inspired (albeit unlicensed) rip-off "Another One Bites the Dust." How could the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induct ABBA and their awful disco pop dreck while omitting Chic, the genre's crown prince? Then again, you could create an alternate universe Hall of Fame out of disco-era producers and performers that the Rock Hall has unjustly ignored, from Gamble & Huff, Giorgio Moroder and Arthur Baker to Chaka Khan, the O'Jays and Joy Division/New Order.
However, Rodgers' solo pop productions in the 1980s receive less critical attention. He was a major player during the big '80s, a period of hair-spray-inflated hair, massive charity benefits like USA for Africa and Farm Aid, and overwrought-sounding synthesizers ladled on everything from Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" to Steve Winwood's "Higher Love." It was a period when rock's so-called Greatest Generation stumbled to update their sound by integrating new synthesizer and computer technologies into their work. Rodgers produced Jagger's hilariously dated "Just Another Night" and "Dancing in the Street," the latter shown during the U.S. broadcast of Live Aid. (Rodgers performed with Madonna and the Thompson Twins during the New York Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium.)
But some of Rodgers' work remains relevant. For example, compare Duran Duran's "The Reflex" from Seven and the Ragged Tiger with Rodgers' remix, the one that got played on the radio and eventually hit No. 1 around the world. Rodgers added chopped edits reminiscent of Shep Pettibone, layered "la-la-la" chants underneath the chorus, and created a sense of fun and kinetic energy. His Duran Duran tracks, which also included the classic single "Notorious," earned black-radio airplay because they retained a sense of funk whimsy from his Chic days. The same applies to Bowie's "Let's Dance," a crossover smash that tapped into the early '80s fascination with New Wave guitar echoes and Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western atmospheres.
Oddly, Rodgers worked with few major black performers during this period. One notable exception is Al Jarreau, for whom he produced the adult contemporary gem "Moonlighting Theme."
Last fall, Rodgers released his biography, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny. He revealed last year that he has cancer, and he blogs insightfully about the disease as well as his many adventures. It would be a shame if the Rock Hall waited too long to induct Chic -- it's already too late for Rodgers' old bandmate Bernard Edwards, an enormously talented producer in his own right who passed away in 1996. They should honor a legend while he's still among us.