An Afternoon With Nile Rodgers
It’s before midday on the second day of the IMS Ibiza conference, the annual industry gathering held on the White Isle that takes full advantage of all the DJs, artists, promoters, record label heads and otherwise gathered at the end of May for the assorted opening parties of the season.
Disco icon Nile Rodgers is being interviewed by conference cofounder Pete Tong, in his usual brash and confident style. Rodgers was the keynote interviewee for the conference in 2012, in recognition of his status as one of the true enduring legends of dance culture. However, that was before his work on Daft Punk’s new opus Random Access Memories had even been revealed to the public. It’s definitely early in the morning for a bunch of Ibiza dwellers to be gathered in a conference room, but those who did drag themselves out of bed are treated to Rodgers performing the riff from Get Lucky live on his guitar. Or at least, attempting to perform it.
“I played it a year ago, how am I going to remember it now?” Rodgers tells Tong as he laughs, and twangs it out of key with the backing track that’s playing over the speakers. It’s perhaps reflective of the fact that the appeal of Get Lucky is deceptively simple; though good enough of course to get it into the #1 for weeks in both the US and UK, making it the unofficial anthem of the summer. Wonderfully though, Rodgers instead descends into an impromptu jam; which the producer insists is more in tune with how he makes magic in the studio.
“Here’s the secret of my recording life,” he tells the audience. “When I’m making music with someone, the magic of that moment is so important. Because I never know if this stuff is going to sell. So I try and have as much fun making the records as possible, because that might end up being the greatest moment that ever happens.
“We learned this as kids. We didn’t realise that we’d have hit records, we just wanted to have fun, and hopefully DJs would play our stuff. And even though I’ve had a gazillion hit records, I still approach it in the same way. You could see I was just having a blast there… I don’t wanna know a song before I hit the studio, don’t send me the demo. Let me learn it on the spot, and let me have fun. Let me be stupid, so I can then get smart and have fun on the journey”.
This belies the fact that Rodgers has often scored his successes via taking the unconventional route. His musical history goes back to his days as a New Work session player in his teens during the 60s, eventually joining with bassist to front seminal disco act Chic in the 70s; success that also saw him stepping up to serve as producer for a huge assortment of hit records. Everything from Chic landmarks like Le Freak and Good Times, 80s stadium-fillers like Madonna’s Like a Virgin album, to David Bowie’s biggest-selling album Let’s Dance. He’s far from a streamlined corporate hit-maker though.
“I have had a lot of #1 records, let me tell you something… Almost every one of them was a struggle. I’d say, thank god for the DJs who would actually listen to my shit! Because most of the time I would make it, and I would give it to the record company, and they would be like ‘what the hell is this’.” And the funny thing now is that if you listen to these records now, they often just sound like pop records. But at the time, it was like ‘whoooooo’. My career is littered with records like that, which they [the majors] just didn’t get.”
It’s an observation that suggests that the context of what makes a #1 hit record, whether it’s pop or dance, isn’t as clear as you might think. Rodgers goes against the tide, in that he’s got a lot of enthusiasm for the pop music of today. “I think pop is pretty incredible in today’s world. Sometimes I think pop records today sound like what underground records used to sound like in the old days. There’s a lot of the experimentation going on.”