I don’t think there are many people in whose presence I would be star-struck – but Nile Rodgers is definitely one of them. He’s one of my musical heroes, not to mention one of the coolest men on the planet, and being sat just a couple of metres away from him tonight was a surreal experience.
As his interviewer and long-time collaborator, the music entrepreneur Merck Mercuriadis, stated, it’s a challenge summarising Rodgers’ achievements: he’s a song writer, composer, record producer, multiple Grammy winner, Songwriters’ Hall of Fame chair and a leading figure in music management. Rodgers has worked with the likes of Madonna, Duran Duran, Lady Gaga, Sister Sledge and Daft Punk – and is the curator of the Southbank Centre’s 2019 Meltdown Festival.
The duo met many years and bonded over the video game ‘Halo’, for which Rodgers wrote the score. “Our relationship starts and ends with songs”, elaborated Mercuriadis, “and an incredible enthusiasm for music. Every once in a while we can be little bitches, though!”
Laughing, Nile Rodgers agreed that the pair complement each other because of their musicianship and love of songs: “Merck and I talk music all day long. This is one of the most natural relationships I could have imagined. There’s no record I could mention to Merck that he hasn’t heard of”.
“I can’t play the guitar or sing a song”, confessed Mercuriadis, “but I’m obsessed with the musical process. Every day is incredible. Yesterday, we were with Andrew Lloyd Webber, figuring out how to make some of the classic songs of all time accessible to 14 year olds. One week ago, we had no idea we’d be doing that”.
It’s hard to believe that Chic were founded in 1976 or that Nile Rodgers’ partner in crime, Bernard Edwards, has been dead for over 20 years. They were influenced, Rodgers told us, by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Jeff Beck and thought of themselves as “…just another rock and roll band. We knew we needed to write hits – with hooks – though; ones that would get played on the radio.” And yet: “Bernard and I never realised how well we’d do”.
Their success may not have been planned, but the style of music certainly was: “We found a formula, with cool jazz chords, that made us hold our heads up high: it was well-thought-out”. Perhaps more surprisingly: “Bernard and I were incredibly romantic about the jazz era. If you listen to our lyrics, you can hear we’re imitating those songs.”
So dazzling was Chic’s success that you forget it lasted for a relatively short time. During the summer of 1979, the band had two number one hits – but after the ‘Disco Sucks’ campaign they never scored another top ten record under the Chic name again. Society’s mood changed drastically and quickly, bringing with it a whole new era.
For a time, Rodgers produced soundtracks and video games – but it’s surely his high-profile musical collaborations for which he’ll be best remembered and no more so than his work with Sister Sledge. This came about after his record label suggested that he work with the Rolling Stones: “…but I knew they’d never agree; in those days, artists wrote their own songs”. Introduced, in the meantime, to Sister Sledge, Nile was told that they “…were like family and stuck together like birds of a feather”. Sound familiar?
The album that Rodgers produced with Sister Sledge became a “blueprint” to follow. Modelling themselves on Roxy Music (“We wanted their poise and sophistication”), they then found Rob Sabino: “The unsung hero of Chic”. At the time, Sabino was in an unsigned band called Kiss, who Rodgers and Edwards bumped into one day just after the band had removed all their make-up. “We thought: this is the coolest shit we’ve ever seen. And Chic is a mash-up of Roxy Music and Kiss”.
The first established star for whom Chic wrote a song was Diana Ross. “We didn’t know how to work with a star, so we sat down with Diana and interviewed her, got her story and custom-made her film”. It worked: Chic achieved a number one record with Diana Ross on vocals.
Rodgers spoke affectionately, also, of his friend David Bowie, a fellow music obsessive. The two met one night at an after-hours club, during which Bowie spoke of his desire to make incredible punk records: “He dug every type of music”. At the time, Rodgers was at the lowest point of his career, but was “…so delighted to find that David liked jazz and the same types of music as me”.
Back at Bowie’s apartment, the duo listened to Rodgers’ first solo album: “David told me that if I’d make a record half as good that for him, he would be ecstatic. He wanted an album full of hits – and coming off the back of David’s 1980 ‘Scary Monsters’ album, which had been a huge success, that was a terrifying proposition”. Nile needn’t have worried; the album that he co-produced for Bowie, ‘Let’s Dance’, produced three of David Bowie’s most successful-ever singles.
Musically, times have changed so much since Rodgers founded Chic – but he has evolved with them, that’s for sure, as Mercuriadis acknowledged, when he spoke of their LSE-listed ‘Hipgnosis Songs Fund’ and why it’s been so successful: “When times are challenging, people escape with great songs. Niles’s career is testament to proven hit songs – which are investible. We’ve created a new asset class, which is better than gold and oil. Music has extraordinary value”.
Warming to his theme, Mercuriadis continued “We like to make money like everyone, but our fund has an ulterior motive. We want to change where the songwriter sits in the economic equation. 35 years ago, the songwriter and the artist were one and the same. Today, artists have no end game: it’s all about “How do I get famous?””
Niles concurred, adding “If there are no great songs there is no music business. You used to have to go on stage to prove yourself – now, people expect to hear their favourite songs. When I first started, you could do well with marginal hits.”
It’s music streaming, of course which has transformed the industry: a business which has expanded x4 in the past four years. Which begs the question: when someone’s paying $10 per month for streaming, how do you get them to buy your music?
It’s Rodgers’s and Mercuriadis’s ambition to eradicate the word “publishing” from the vernacular of the music business. Instead: “We do ‘song management’, as opposed to publishing”. Both men are such forces of nature that I’m sure they will be successful in this, just as they’ve been successful in everything else they’ve turned their hands to – including this fascinating interview, which I did not want to end.