Nile Rodgers has led an action-packed life. As a teenager, he played with the Sesame Street band, and then with the Apollo Theater house band, where he backed such luminaries as Aretha Franklin and P-Funk. He was an active Black Panther. His Allmusic bio lists various NYC bands he played in before forming Chic, including a new wave rock outfit called Allah & The Knife Wielding Punks. He later went on to write most of the disco songs and eighties pop hits that I like, and helped lay the cornerstone of hip-hop. He deserves a blog post and then some.
My favorite Chic song is “Le Freak.”
Nile Rodgers treats electric guitar as a tuned percussion instrument, an approach descending from James Brown. The breakdown section with the long string build presages “Thriller.” The lyrics are kind of goofy and dated, but what a groove.
Chic is best known to hip-hop heads for “Good Times,” which the Sugarhill Gang interpolated for “Rapper’s Delight.” The groove was also the inspiration for Blondie’s “Rapture” and Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” The Chic sound is highly infectious. Here’s a sample map showing tracks that have either sampled or interpolated Chic.
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards’ stupendous production career began with Sister Sledge. “We Are Family” has the signature Chic sound: jazz harmony arranged in funky, percussive, sampling-friendly sixteen-bar blocks.
From here, Rodgers and Edwards went on, together and separately, to basically define the sound of the eighties. Their resume includes a staggering run of hits. From Allmusic:
Rodgers produced blockbuster albums like David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss. Edwards wasn’t as prolific as a producer, but did join the one-off supergroup the Power Station along with Tony Thompson as well as Robert Palmer and members of avowed Chic fans Duran Duran; he later produced Palmer’s commercial breakthrough, Riptide. Edwards also worked with Rod Stewart (Out of Order), Jody Watley, and Tina Turner, while Rodgers’ other credits include the Thompson Twins, the Vaughan Brothers, INXS, and the B-52’s’ comeback Cosmic Thing.
Rodgers also produced, played guitar or programmed for Peter Gabriel, Debbie Harry, Laurie Anderson, Steve Winwood, Paul Simon, Mariah Carey, Cyndi Lauper, Carly Simon, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Robert Plant and the Gremlins soundtrack.
This is a mammoth collective impact on my ears, from guys whose names I didn’t even learn until the past year or two. It would have been really hard to track all this information down without the internet. Kids today, they can’t begin to appreciate how information-starved we were not so very long ago.
When I got my music education, I was discouraged from liking dance-oriented pop music, especially the stuff from the seventies and eighties. All these decades later, “good taste” dictates that I be suspicious of synths, drum machines, repetition and fun. My music teachers and mentors would be willing to give Nile Rodgers props for his guitar chops but collectively take a dim view of his work with Madonna et al. Duke Ellington had it right when he said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” Here’s to taking pleasure seriously. Awww, freak out!
Update: My friend Adam suggested that I mash up David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” Enjoy.
Let’s Just Dance