Why Nile Rodgers Can't Stop Making Hits

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 23:  Nile Rodgers performs onstage at the After Party for Jony And Marc's (RED) Auction at Sotheby's
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 23: Nile Rodgers performs onstage at the After Party for Jony And Marc's (RED) Auction at Sotheby's on November 23, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for (RED))

Having buttressed the careers of Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, the B-52s, Duran Duran, his own band Chic and countless other legendary acts, Nile Rodgers is the archetype of a living legend in the music industry. That the 61-year-old is still creating massive records (with the likes of Avicii and Daft Punk) is more than icing on the cake -- Rodgers was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010, and the situation was incredibly dire for some time. To cope, the hitmaker did what he knows best: He picked up his guitar.

"Music is just more urgent to me now," Rodgers said at a launch event for Nokia Mix Radio's PlayMe. "I didn't fear death, I feared not having my voice heard through my guitar."

Having survived his battle with cancer ("I don't like to use the word 'cured,' but I'm in remission"), Rodgers has spent the last few years gigging and recording at a vigorous clip. Fueled by his famous three-hours-a-night sleep cycle, the producer chalked up projects with not just Avicii and Daft Punk, but also British it-duo Disclosure, Chase & Status, and Tensnake, among others.

Hosted by Billboard's editorial director Bill Werde, the event celebrated the free music streaming service, which creates a personalized radio station that "learns" the listening habits of each user. Werde and Rodgers participated in a discussion and jam session (Rodgers popped a string, but still funked out to "Let's Dance," the song he wrote for David Bowie). Nokia scored a bit of a coup, revealing that Rodgers had been "inspired" by music he heard while using PlayMe to write new songs.

Backstage at New York's Milk Studios, Rodgers spent half an hour chatting with The Huffington Post about why he agreed to partner with Nokia, the changing role of radio in pop culture, how he links up with newer acts, what it's like to have new, young fans and whether or not Daft Punk is headed out on tour.

At this point, brand offers must be flowing in for you. Do you say no to a lot of things?
Yeah, I say no to almost everything. This one made sense because I was such a naysayer, and the product convinced me. Everything that I was doing to shoot holes in it, Nokia would say, "Oh, no no no, it does do that!" So half the time I was embarrassed, which was funny. I like people being able to explain their product simply to me, so when Nokia was explaining this to me, I was like, "OK, so what you're saying is it's a time saving device. How is it helping me?" And they told me that it was still radio, it's still serving up new stuff, which is what radio traditionally does. I don't like products that assume I'm a stupid consumer, I don't like being spoken down to. But at the same time, I realize that there's a larger market that doesn't have time to keep searching for music and likes the gatekeepers at radio. And so do I.

Do you think radio still occupies a central role in most people's lives?
I think it does but it's changing rapidly. For one, radio back when I was a kid -- and now I sound like my parents -- radio was personality driven. So the DJs had their own personality -- they were tastemakers. And even if they weren't, the programmers felt like they were. So they were entertainers, and once you identified with that particular person, that DJ had his or her own affinity group. So when you went to a fair or if they promoted a product and you went, you would be in league with people who have tastes similar to yourself. Nokia made something that operates similarly, but without the peer pressure -- you don't have to worry about what your friends like.

But I do miss the fact that DJs were entertainers, I love being a follower of a person's particular philosophy. But times change and consumers change. I don't know if the personality aspect is important to other people, and at this point in my life I don't really care about it, because either I listen to people talking because I want to listen to people talk, or I listen to music because I want to listen to music.

nile rodgers diana ross
Patti Labelle, Diana Ross, Nile Rodgers and Montell Williams.

Do you think it's harder now to be a top musician than it has been before? For example, was it harder to be Madonna in the mid-80s, or Kanye West now?
The good thing for me is that I've never been in that world. I make records with people in that world, but I've never been a star, I've never been in scandals. I used to find it interesting when Madonna and I were really close and paparazzi flooded her. Or even worse, one night I was with Diana Ross and I told her to do something and she said, "I can't, Nile -- paparazzi will take pictures of me and they'll be all over me." I said, "Oh, Diana, please, nobody's going to bother you." And I felt terrible because that's exactly what happened.

I realized that I just don't think like a star -- I think with them and I help them to be stars, but my relationships with them are just normal. I always hear people talk about Prince in a certain way, and it's funny to me because when I'm with Prince, it's almost like how I'm hanging out with you. It feels completely normal -- when I'm with Madonna, same thing. I'm not in awe of them, even though I may be in awe of their talent. But there's no one who makes me feel intimidated, artistically.

Do your relationships with newer artists feel the same as your relationships with Madonna and Diana?
It feels exactly the same. For example, I just did some records with Avicii, Disclosure, Daft Punk, Tensanke, Chase & Status -- and I don't want to leave anyone out, because I've done a lot more, but I've just done a huge string of records. I'm going to say something now, and if someone else tells you that it's not true, call me back and tell me: Every relationship has been unbelievable. With Disclosure, we put out a record less than a week ago, and already, everyone is talking about. As proud of it as I am, I'm thinking, "Wait until they see what we got coming." Working with Avicii and Disclosure feels the same as when I'm working with Bowie, Diana Ross or my [late] partner Bernard Edwards. Every relationship that I have in the music business is a slight variation of my relationship with my ex-partner, Bernard Edwards. I become your partner, and it's us against the world.

The reason that David Bowie's "Let's Dance" was so successful is exactly the same reason that Daft Punk was so successful. We had no record deal -- we were answering to no one. We were just making music.

That's a great part of the story, because people probably assume that it's all just labels setting things up nowadays. How did you and Disclosure link up?
I was giving a speech in Ibiza two years ago, and I had already finished "Get Lucky." All the Daft Punk stuff was in the can. But I couldn't really talk about it, because it's Daft Punk and they do things their way. While I was there, I was just meeting DJs and managers and we'd go back to my hotel room and I'd listen. Someone played a Disclosure cut for me, and I was like, "Wow, that's cool. Who are these guys?" I reached out to their management and they were excited about it and asked if I'd be in town at a certain time. It didn't work out, but that doesn't mean anything to me, because it took Daft Punk and I 16 years to make a record.

Literally just a few weeks ago, we linked up in London. The fact that the record is out that fast after we wrote it made me feel like it was the old days. Back in the day, we'd make a song and record it, and we'd go down to a hot club and the DJ was a friend of ours and we'd just slip it to Frankie Knuckles or whoever. They'd play it, and people would either dance or not. I've had an incredibly great career in that I would never take a DJ the wrong song. I'm not bragging, but if I felt a song was worthy of being played anonymously, then I knew that song was a hit in my heart. That's why I have a good relationship with DJs until this day.

I know this is a long-winded answer, but I want to be accurate. A lot of people think of people like Disclosure are just DJs, but I think of them as composers. The mainstay of their sets is when they play their own cuts -- like Avicii. People don't realize that Avicii is one of my absolute favorite songwriting partners of all time. Not right now -- of all time.

nile rodgers daft punk
Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers.

Were you surprised by Avicii, or did you have the sense that he would be like that?
Here's the truth: I went to a show at Radio City where he was playing. I was backstage before he got there, I was hanging out because I'm a New Yorker, I know all the stagehands and everyone. So I was talking to his audience, and I go, "Wow, I dig this guy's audience." So when he finally got there, he didn't know who I was by my face, but someone said, "That's Nile Rodgers." He was like 23 years old, but he flipped out! He knew all of my songs, He'll still play songs and be like, "Nile, check this out," and I'll be like, "Dude, I wrote that."

After that first meeting, we agreed to go in the studio. I happened to be going to Los Angeles to work with David Guetta, so I said, "OK, I'll work with David in the daytime and you at night." Before we did anything, I said, "Let me hear what you're doing right now." He played "Wake Me up," and it hadn't come out yet -- this was before Ultra and all that. I said, "Dude, this is one of the coolest things I've ever heard in my life. If you get a hit with this, what you've done to the American music market is something spectacular." He's taken country music and put it into the electronic dance music world. Now he can go do a gig in Nashville and be the man, which normally wouldn't work. I mean, I've gigged in Nashville with Chic, but we didn't really scorch the earth there. So I said to Tim [Bergling, Avicii's real name], that I knew he was a next-level thinker.

We started recording that day, and the first song we recorded, we loved. He said, "Nile, this is my favorite song I've ever done." We did six songs in six sessions -- I will go out on a limb. I'm not going to say they're all hits, but they are six that I love and can be hits. As he says, "You already wrote half my record."

nile rodgers david bowie
David Bowie and Nile Rodgers.

That record is interesting because he played most of it at Ultra that year and it really didn't work. It was pretty horrible received by the crowd, and a year later, the hits are pouring off of it. Has that happened to you in the past?
I don't like to take credit for stuff like that, even though people have told me [that they were using a similar sound as mine] after the fact. It just doesn't feel right to me.

Right, but what I'm asking is more about whether or not you've had songs that, from the perspective of someone younger, might seem like massive records but didn't catch fire right away.
That's my whole life right now! If you look at the median age of a Chic fan, and I'm talking worldwide because the world is definitely super flat. A few hours ago I was in Paris getting an award from GQ and a few hours before that I was in Dubai. The mean age of a Chic fan, now, is probably around 25, 26 years old. We just have so many teenage fans -- and they couldn't even have been alive when "Like a Virgin" came out, or "Notorious" or even The B-52s came out. I don't know how they've gotten turned onto the music, though I have a few clues. They say to me, "What are you talking about? Every movie we love has your songs in it." When I was a kid, I would go see movies, and it would have hot songs in it. Elvis would be singing, "Viva, Las Vegas" and I'd go home, like "sun-drenched city going to save my soul."

Now, I'll say, "How do you know 'Freak Out' or 'We Are Family'?" And they'll be like, "What are you talking about? One my favorite scenes in 'Mission Impossible' is when Tom Cruise such-and-such." I just forget that in this world of electronic media, my songs are everywhere. And they're not just listening to the singles, they're doing what I did -- they're going back and getting the albums and listening to the deep cuts. Because I wasn't just buying the 12-inch.

Before I let you go, there's one more question I have to ask. Is it looking good for a tour with you and the Robots
[Laughs] I'm not at liberty to answer that. But very good try.

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