We’re somewhere in the depths of Abbey Road studios, and Nile Rodgers is busy telling me about the apocalypse. Well, it’s not quite the world’s final chapter – but what will happen next; how the world is re-built, and who will rebuild it.
“I got to share the story,” the guitarist gasps, his smile brighter than a thousand gold discs. “It’s this whole romantic, crazy story...”
“What would happen if we walked into a club and we were partying and having this great time and these four walls protected us?” he asks, in the manner of someone who already knows the answer. “When I was a little kid they had bomb shelters, so you’d run to the basement and practise these drills.”
“The scenario is we come out of this shelter – the club – and the world has gone mad, we might be safer on the dancefloor, so let the destruction pass, wake up and come back for more. We go outside of the club and there’s nothing there… who are the best people on Earth left to re-build the world? All of these cool people from the club!”
“So we have people who are into hip-hop, we have people who are into New Jack Swing, we have people who are into R&B, we have people who are into rock ‘n’ roll. It all starts to come together. And you go: holy cow, the world that gets re-built by musicians who are cool and loving and altruistic, and awesome.”
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It’s the scenario that underpins ‘It’s About Time’, the first full length project to wear the Chic name in 25 years. It’s disco, for sure, but it’s pointed at the future, with Nile Rodgers calling on a glittering roll call of old and new, famous and underground, to build his post-apocalyptic glitterball dream world. It’s fantastical, sure, but it’s also highly personal, tying into a lifetime spent using music to spread - what else? - good vibes.
“This is a true story, this is what happened to me,” he reflects at one point in our conversation. “I was a jazz snob, I didn’t care about pop music or dance music, I just did it for a living. But my girlfriend at the time, she and I walked into a club and they were playing Donna Summer’s ‘Love To Love You’.”
“Even though we loved the record what we loved more was seeing this incredible diverse crowd all jamming together because we’d never seen that before,” he explains. “You’d go to a jazz club with all these jazz geeks, or hippy stuff with the freaks, watching Country Joe & The Fish. We’d try to say: oh man, we’re so individual man, we’re freaks! Like, get the fuck out of here, man! You can see a hippy coming a mile away!”
“Disco was the only time I ever walked into a room,” he says, enunciating each word, “and everybody was different and having a good time. And really having a good time. And no one was weird! It was just, like… love.”
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Love permeates Nile Rodgers’ new album. His return has been well documented, but it’s worth summarising once more: battling cancer – twice – he then forms a new touring line up of Chic, and vows to play more shows, record more collaborations, and release more music than ever before. Part of the million dollar team behind ‘Get Lucky’ he’s worked with everyone from Disclosure to Sam Smith to Skrillex to Aviici. And, naturally enough, Chic.
“Chic has never had a record deal,” he muses. “Ever. When Bernard and I got signed we were signed to a singles deal. In order for us to get an album deal the single had to be a hit. So it was me and Bernard, and it wasn’t Chic – we were calling ourselves The Big Apple Band. Then this guy I went to school with named Walter Murphy put out a song called ‘A Fifth Of Beethoven’, and it was called Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band. So people thought that it was us! And it wasn’t us, it wasn’t our record.”
“So we changed our name to Chic,” he continues. “But Bernard and I had already signed the deal for the single, so now they picked up the single, but what could they call the group? We named it Chic, and the contract clearly says: we will provide the services of an entity called Chic. It has no name because they don’t know who it’s going to be.”
40 years of musical exploration is all owed to an administrative wrangle. The Chic Organisation – the ever-evolving outfit the current iteration is linked to – is one of history’s foremost hit-making factories, and this free-flowing approach energies his new album.
It’s an open-minded attitude, for sure, but it’s also closely linked to British music – from Mura Masa to Elton John, from Craig David to Stefflon Don, UK talent dominates the features list on ‘It’s About Time’. It’s a relationship that goes back to the origins of Chic – indeed, Nile formulated his vision for the group after catching Roxy Music play the Roundhouse in the mid 70s.
“That’s right!” he exclaims, recalling the show. “I think it’s because of the open-mindedness of UK musicians, man. Obviously at this age I’m tight with pretty much everybody but no one would have ever believed - at the time - that Johnny Marr was so into me that he would name his son after me. Morrissey’s guitar player is going to name his son after a disco guy?”
“I mean, people didn’t understand… but the British artists did,” he continues. “That’s why Bowie took a look at me. After we started talking, he was looking at me like: wow, this guy knows all that! He can orchestrate, he can do full symphonies, he’s into jazz… I mean, I can’t even count how many artists from the UK I’ve worked with! Honestly, when I stop and try and think about it, I lose track. I feel like I don’t want to mention anyone, in case I start to forget!”
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It’s not solely a UK affair, though. Nile Rodgers chooses to re-visit a Chic classic with the help of Lady Gaga, reconfiguring ‘I Want Your Love’ from a different viewpoint. If the collaboration sounds like a dream, then it was – literally.
“It starts as a Tom Ford show,” he recalls. “He shot the runway show, and the music was ‘I Want Your Love’. So that happened, and it was cool, it was fine – I didn’t think anything of it. Then Gaga gives me a call after she and I do the Bowie tribute at the Grammies. She gives me a call, and she says: Nile… I heard that you dreamt ‘I Want Your Love’ - that song must mean a lot to you. I said, yeah, it does. She said: well, I want to do it the way you dreamt it!”
“Anyway, she insisted – I couldn’t say no! And she came to the studio, to put in the parts that weren’t there. Then I re-did the strings, so I put in the parts that weren’t there. I dreamt the whole arrangement – I dreamt the strings, the vocals… everything. And she was right, it was great – it really works that way.”
‘It’s About Time’ is a hurricane of creativity, boasting an incredible roll call of musicians. At times, it feels impossible to find someone he hasn’t linked with over the past 18 months. Spotting a copy of Clash in my bag with Anderson .Paak on the cover, he immediately starts to beam: “He’s amazing! We put him on another record and he was just scary as a drummer.”
It’s not purely music, though; as ever, there’s a social dimension to Nile Rodgers’ work. A former member of the Harlem chapter of the Black Panthers, he can’t ignore what’s happening in the world, the real life political apocalypse happening all around us. From Trump to Brexit right here in his beloved UK, right wing politics are on the march – so is positivity the best form of protest?
“I think so,” he smiles, “because whenever you think about something being out of balance, what’s the best way to get it back into balance? You get to make the scales very heavy the other way, or else it’ll take forever. It needs something pretty drastic.”
With it’s impeccable style and unrelenting creativity, ‘It’s About Time’ might just be enough to get the balance right in this mixed up world. Until that happens, though, Nile Ridgers and Chic will have a good time trying.
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'It's About Time' is out now.
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