Nile Rodgers: “I’m going through the toughest period of my life right now”

Nile Rodgers talks about the personal issues he is currently facing, learning from 'the bad stuff' – and why he's proud of Chic's global impact

I’ve learned a lot from doing the bad stuff. I don’t think that my life has been perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But because of that imperfection – surviving a lot of that stuff that one would normally tell a person ‘God, don’t do that!’– it’s meant I’ve gone on to be a stronger and better person, a more grounded person.

My younger self was just hoping to write one hit record. That alone would have been fantastic to me. That I’ve had a life that has been surrounded by hit records and music that makes people feel good, anthemic records, is just unbelievable. There’s almost no place I can go on this Earth and sing this loud enough – “one, two, three, aaaaah” – and somebody won’t respond by going “freak out!” It’s just like the natural reaction to that. That’s the craziest, funniest thing. I’ve been in some of the most remote places in the world and done it and at least somebody in the crowd has screamed “freak out!”

I’ve been in some of the most remote places in the world and at least somebody has screamed “freak out!”

I’m not gonna apologise for trying to make people feel good. We do escapist music and I’m quite proud of that. Ever since I’ve become a professional composer, ever since the ’70s, it’s just been a tragic episode after another that has befallen humanity. We rarely go through periods of what scientists would call ‘relaxed joyfulness’. We don’t have real peace on Earth, there’s always some kind of turmoil. Typically, being that we live in western countries, we think it doesn’t really affect us that much, but the truth of the matter is most of the people I know are quite altruistic and are very involved in other people’s plights and like trying to help people out in general. So the best way Chic seems to be able to help people out is to make them feel good and make them feel happy and forget their problems.

Studio 54 [below] was so meaningful to me because it showed me that all people from all different backgrounds could congregate in the same space, and there was a feeling of belonging. As a matter of fact there was a saying at the time which was once you pass that velvet rope, if you were inside you belonged no matter who you were, and that was really how it felt. New York had a reputation at that time for being a pretty inhospitable city. But nothing could be further from the truth. Especially at a place like Studio 54, it was probably the most hospitable place that you could imagine. And at that period of time being a young musician, having people who were superstars recognise your music and validate your compositions and your ideas was almost mind-boggling to me. It was something that I almost couldn’t comprehend. And if I was a different person it almost could have led to my downfall. Because it was so over the top.

Every time we play in Monaco, people cannot believe how friendly I am with Prince Albert. I say hi to him and people are like ‘where did that come from?’ It comes from Studio 54. We were both young guys at Studio 54 hanging out having the time of our lives. When I’m in Monaco I break protocol – they always say you can’t stand up and you can’t dance before the prince. I’m like ‘I can’, because I’ve known him all my life. He’s like a buddy. All of a sudden he’s not the monarch, he’s my buddy. I use that as an example to show that Studio 54 had that levelling power, because it could create those kinds of relationships in our life the same way that I would meet somebody like Grace Jones or Hugh Hefner or Michael Jackson or Truman Capote. It was people from all walks of life, you just wouldn’t believe it. And how open people were to someone like me that was just a complete stranger.

Revellers at Studio 54, November 1979
Revellers at Studio 54, November 1979

I’d tell my younger self to believe in the power of music because without it, I don’t know that I’d still be alive today. I think that music has pulled me out of some really, really bad situations. This year for the very first time in my entire life, I cancelled one show, and I couldn’t believe it. I was completely devastated. We were on tour with Earth, Wind and Fire and the doctors wouldn’t let me leave the hospital, because I’d picked up an E.coli infection. The doctors said I could have died in front of a bunch of people if I’d gone out and done that show because I was so sick and so weak. The very next day I came out and performed maybe the best show of my life. It was like the old days, whenever we did a show that didn’t go quite the way we wanted, Bernard [Edwards, Chic bassist and co-founder] would always say ‘shame on that crowd tomorrow, because we’re gonna slaughter them’. And that’s true – if we have a bad show, we really make up for it the next day.

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I absolutely knew that Le Freak was going to be a monster record. I absolutely knew that. But the record company hated the song so much that by the time the song ended, after about seven-and-a-half minutes, we’d cleared the conference room. We were just sitting there by ourselves – myself, Bernard Edwards and our attorney. Everybody else was outside trying to figure out how to tell us how much the song sucked, and wondering did we have anything else on the album that was better. Le Freak [above] wound up being the biggest-selling record in Atlantic Records history.

Chic live on stage in 1980
Chic live on stage in 1980

Later in my career I became less confident. Even though I wound up having big hits for a long time. A great example of a record that shocked me was [Madonna’s] Like A Virgin. I thought that Material Girl was so much better than Like A Virgin. As a matter of fact I thought that every song on the Like A Virgin album was better than the single. I was shocked at how well it did. That’s the biggest-selling album of my life, more than 25 million copies. All of them were basically because Like A Virgin was such a strong lead single. I would never have thought that in a million years. I thought Like A Virgin would get us out there and Material Girl would take us over the top.

If I survive all of these things then I’ll be a stronger person

Right now I’m going through maybe the toughest period of my life. My mom is really, really sick and my younger cousin, who was my partner Bernard’s wife, she just dropped dead completely out of the blue. All of this stuff is going on and it’s devastating, it’s really, really devastating. But the way that I’m looking at it is to say this to myself every day: if I survive all of these things then I’ll be a stronger person. Maybe I’ll be a better musician and a better composer and have a bigger heart. And just be a better person.