Nile Rodgers: Memories Of A Mastermind

On Madonna, Bowie, Daft Punk and more…

Perhaps you noticed: Nile Rodgers is a big deal right now. As the key wingman on Daft Punk’s latest flight of futuristic disco fancy, ‘Random Access Memories’ (Clash review), the Chic founder’s beaming smile has found itself a home on the trendiest blogs and most mainstream magazines alike.

But Rodgers’ production credits go much deeper than a hype record of right now. They cross decades as they do genres, the man having played a pivotal part in the success of too many amazing albums to list here (and that is why the internet has Wikipedia, readers). Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, INXS, Diana Ross, Peter Gabriel… Rodgers has collaborated with some true megastars.

Clash called Rodgers at his studio stateside to mine for memories on five albums he’s worked on, one from each decade of his career, starting in the 1970s and concluding with this year’s ‘Random Access Memories’. Not every one is a certifiable classic, but they’re all part of a continuing journey, and each provides Rodgers with a story or two to tell…

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Sister Sledge – ‘We Are Family’ (1979)

Rodgers worked closely with fellow Chic member Bernard Edwards on Sister Sledge’s third studio album – the one that’d send the vocal foursome into the pop stratosphere. It marked Rodgers’ first big hit operating outside of Chic.

“Bernard and I were pretty confident that we could get this right. We had a formula with Chic, a way of working, and when I say that, I know that doesn’t sound artistic, it sounds technocratic.

“But the truth is that we had a very tough road to finally getting our first record deal [with Chic], so when we got it, and we had a hit, we thought: let’s replicate the drama of that situation.

“We thought, with Chic, we might get lucky enough to get one play. But with that one play to this person, what could we do to turn that into two plays? So we took that same concept into ‘We Are Family’, and turned down The Rolling Stones or Bette Midler, or other big artists we were offered [after Chic’s success].

“We wrote ‘We Are Family’ thinking that we wanted these songs to be important in a year from that point – because we were never sure when the record would come out. So we tried to write future music, and by that I mean music for six months’ time – not eight years, or 18, or in this case maybe more like 38 years!

“We hoped that maybe, in a year, when this record comes out, it’d be relevant. So we were foreshadowing the future. We had to create a future – and that’s what we did, and that’s what I always do.

“I mean, take Daft Punk – I was working with them, on the ‘Random Access Memories’ songs, a year ago. So we had to make future music. We had to predict what would be relevant a year from then.

“The way I go about producing never really changed in my life until really, really recently, as I’ve always had the luxury of making records how I want to make records. Basically, that’s why we stopped producing R&B records, and started mainly making rock records, because rock records were still made the same way R&B records used to be made.

“After hip-hop began to use more samples and drum machines, that wasn’t what I do best. I don’t like just crafting a record – I like playing on a record, performing on it. So because I was financially comfortable after the mid-‘80s, I could pick my projects.”

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Madonna – ‘Like A Virgin’ (1984)

That thing about being financially comfortable since the mid-‘80s, then…

“I was the one who knew that she was a megastar – not the label. But the first day I met her, I didn’t think that. I thought she was interesting as hell, but remember that when we met, her first record had been out a year and hadn’t really sold – it’d done about 750,000 units, and she’d had a couple of big records, ‘Holiday’ and ‘Everybody’.

“I can talk about this now, as it’s been documented, but I don’t think anybody has ever made a bigger production deal than I did for ‘Like A Virgin’. It was an absurd deal. I was very confident that I could sell… I don’t remember exactly what the figure was, but let’s say it was five million. The attorney and the record company thought that was impossible, as she’d already had some big hits but hadn’t sold one million yet.

“So they thought: if he can sell five million, we’ll give him that amount of money, and we’ll give him those points… And I said, well, it also has to be retroactive from record one. So they said sure, and were laughing. And then the album sold 21 million. (Laughs)

“So that five million? How about 21 million! Now, whenever I see those guys, their first words are always about that deal. Holy cow, they would never have done that deal if they knew how massive that album would be. I wound up making a huge amount of money as the producer on that.

“Let’s put my position in perspective: I was coming off of producing David Bowie’s (1983 album) ‘Let’s Dance’, and that was the easiest record to make in my life. So, if you think about the hardest record I’ve ever made, which was 1980’s ‘Diana’ by Diana Ross, with ‘Upside Down’ and ‘I’m Coming Out’, and that wound up being the biggest record of her career, Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ we did in 17 days, start to finish and mix. We didn’t touch that record after the 17 days.

“So I was coming off that, and that was a big hit record and we did it in no time, in the blink of an eye. So I’m thinking: music is changing, but I have this approach to making records that is still valid, so long as I can swim in the pool with these artists.

“The R&B records were being made a different way, but the pop records weren’t. So, I thought, if I can do that with David Bowie, and he can sell as many records as he did, then what is this girl – cute and fabulous and full of life – capable of? It’s going to be amazing.

“And after I got to know Madonna, I’ve never met anyone else in my life, to this day, who’s more driven. Who’s more of a hard worker. She would beat me to the studio every day. She was always there 10 minutes before me.

“It was amazing, and when I saw that in her… I mean, you can see who she is now, and it didn’t take me long to spot that quality. I just kept thinking: this is going to be huge! I didn’t think it’d be that huge, but I thought I could easily give her that five million, or whatever I said, that the label obviously thought was impossible.”

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David Bowie – ‘Black Tie White Noise’ (1993)

Having worked together so brilliantly on ‘Let’s Dance’, Rodgers was naturally excited to be reconnecting with Bowie. But Mr Jones didn’t share the same vision for his 1993 album – his last number one until 2013’s ‘The Next Day’ (Clash review) – as the Chic man, and certain hits-in-waiting were left by the wayside…

“It’s interesting, because I love this album, but I was semi-frustrated because I really wanted to compete with ‘Let’s Dance’. And David was adamant that he didn’t – he was very clear. He was as clear to me with ‘Black Tie White Noise’ not competing with ‘Let’s Dance’ as he was when we were doing ‘Let’s Dance’, when he said that he wanted to make a hit. Back then I was like, wow, Bowie wants a hit? That’s cool.

“So ‘Black Tie…’ was a frustrating record, but a really rewarding one, because I got to do the great arty record that I always wanted to do with Bowie. But believe me, ‘Let’s Dance’ is a pretty arty record, too. Side A is the commercial side, but side B is really a Bowie record, y’know. The one song I thought was an absolute smash on ‘Black Tie…’, ‘Lucy Can’t Dance’, it didn’t even make the album! He buried it, and it came out as a bonus cut.

“I’ve always known that Bowie could do anything, any genre. When we were doing ‘Let’s Dance’, we got to know each other very well. We spent nearly every day together. We didn’t really do any pre-production on ‘Let’s Dance’ – we just spent our time listening to other music, reading books, looking over pop iconography, and never limited it to just rock’n’roll."

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Duran Duran – ‘Astronaut’ (2004)

Duran Duran and Rodgers clicked perfectly in the 1980s – Le Bon’s bunch had him work on their ‘Notorious’ album of ’86, and previously on their ’84 single ‘The Wild Boys’ and as a remixer on ‘The Reflex’. But come 2004, Duran Duran were the same band, with its original line-up back in place, yet different…

“They didn’t have a label attached when we began working on the album, but I like that. I’ve worked on many records that didn’t have a record label attached to them at first, so I was very comfortable with that. I was much more comfortable than they were, not having a label, because I believe that if you make a great record, you let that record speak for itself. And then if a label signs onto that, you’re in the best position.

“Bowie did that – he got dropped, and used a record to get a deal. The same with Chic, we used ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ to get a deal. And the song never changed – that’s what we put out.

“So that situation makes me feel comfortable. So imagine starting with the attraction of the name Duran Duran attached, with all five original guys back together. I was never more excited, but they were never more nervous.

“Honestly, I love those guys, so I can speak very frankly. But they broke my heart. If there’s anyone in the world who knows how to make a Duran record, it’s me. I know how to make a Duran record, please believe me, and I’d also know how to sell it. (By the time of ‘Astronaut’’s release, several other producers had been employed on it – Clash)

“It’s special to have that spiritual and artistic meeting with somebody. But I understand that once you have done things another way, it can be hard to leave that way of thinking. I get it. I’ve always done it the other way – so for me it was hard to have someone else do the talking. I was like, no: I can explain this record better than anyone.

“My version of that record would have been different, of course I believe that. I think it would have been amazing. I really love those guys. I’ve always thought that Duran Duran don’t get the recognition that they deserve, in pop music history. Not for me, for them! Before I worked with them, I was a fan – I loved their early stuff. I thought their music was great – ‘Rio’ and ‘Girls On Film’, those are amazing records.”

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Daft Punk – ‘Random Access Memories’ (2013)

You might’ve heard of this one…

“I don’t really get that into the hype, because I know it can be so fleeting. We’re talking about it now, but pretty soon there will be some other record, so I get it. It’s cool [to be in the spotlight], but I try to keep it balanced.

“I’m actually more shocked that I’ve been involved in a record, ‘Get Lucky’, that got leaked, because I’ve never had that experience. I’ve never had a record come out before it’s supposed to.

“I guess the closest thing to that is when Madonna was at the MTV Awards in 1984 and she was supposed to do ‘Holiday’, but she did ‘Like A Virgin’ when nobody in the world knew it. That was her protest: she wanted the label to put it out, so she put it out there for the world to hear.

“With Daft Punk, they had a really great marketing strategy all planned, and suddenly the record comes out, and I could feel everyone being nervous. I tried to be the voice of reason. At the end of the day it’s not about marketing or any of that stuff – it’s about the music. And nobody has ever bought a record because of a clever marketing plan – they buy the record because they like it.

“That’s what’s weird about music. Think about this, and it’s a bit of a bold statement, but music is the only form of entertainment hat you can’t trick a person into buying. Right? People only buy records after they’ve already heard them, after they already like them.

“You go to the movies and see a bad one… you don’t get your money back! You don’t get to like a movie first and then go and pay for it. But with music that’s what you do – you like it first and then you pay for it.”

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Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’, featuring contributions from Nile Rodgers, is released on May 20th.

Rodgers plays a headline show, with Chic, at Bristol’s Castle Park on May 26th – full details here.

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