In the My Spilt Milk podcast, the Chic guitarist talks about Prince, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bernard Edwards and modern record deals. Also, a video preview of Friday night at Essence.
[Updated] In his book Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, Nile Rodgers tells the story of his ascent from guitarist in the house band at the Apollo to Chic--the biggest self-contained band of the disco era--to a successful career as a producer in the '80s, when he recorded David Bowie's Let's Dance, Madonna's Like a Virgin, and The B-52's' Cosmic Thing among others.
He has enjoyed a career renaissance in recent years as EDM artists recognize his influence and include Rodgers' signature guitar style on their tracks. He co-wrote "Get Lucky" with Daft Punk, and has also recorded with Avicii and Sam Smith and Disclosure. Still, disco remains the stigma he can't get away from. Rodgers doesn't back away from the term, but he feels that the hostility to the genre that spiked in 1979 has caused Chic to be denied induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after a record nine years of nominations.
Rodgers will be in New Orleans Friday to play the opening night of the Essence Festival, where he will share the main stage with Prince and Janelle Monae. Last week, I talked with Rodgers about plans for Friday night, his Chic bandmate Nile Rodgers, and the band's continued exclusion from The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In Le Freak, Rodgers talks about the influence of Roxy Music on Chic--something that seems obvious once you know it. The importance of style and conceptual coherence is clear in retrospect, and Chic songs heard outside the context of disco reveal a very cool, subtly smart dynamic as the vocals and music are cool and slightly detached, no matter the tempo and sweaty context in which the songs were often heard. For me, the most emblematic Chic lyric comes from the ballad "At Last I Am Free," when the title phrase is followed by the line "I can hardly see in front of me." When Luci Martin and Alfa Anderson sing, "Ahhh, freak out" in "Le Freak," it's a reserved, sweat-free, freak out. A "go nuts by putting an ice cube in your chardonnay" kind of freak out. Even the title "Le Freak" undercuts the pretensions to style and class suggested by Chic's look.
Its easy to hear how Chic songs were lumped in with other disco releases, but today it's equally easy to hear how different they are. Rodgers' guitar doesn't simply scratch out a rhythm. He's using it to trace the melody in a dotted line, and Edwards' bass runs send energizing ripples through the songs on regular intervals so that no song seems long, even as it heads for the six or seven-minute mark. Instead of creating the sort of timeless trance that accompanies Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" and "I Feel Love," Chic routinely broke the trance despite being minimal as well.
Rodgers will play a Chic set Friday night and join Prince at some point in the night. Rodgers talks about collaborating with Prince and Janelle Monae in this clip. For more of his music, check our Spotify playlist.
Thanks to Lauren Keenan for video and podcast production.
Updated July 4, 8:55 a.m.
The link to the USA Today and New Orleans Advocate stories were added. Also, the festival's name was amended to Essence Festival.