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Music

How Nile Rodgers became one of the most sought after producers on the planet

Nile Rodgers began his career fronting a 1970s disco band, and by 1983, he was being headhunted by David Bowie himself to write an album packed with “hits”. Younger readers will know him from Daft Punk’s jaunty ‘Get Lucky’, older readers will recognise him for pushing Duran Duran to harder territories with ‘The Reflex’, and there’s the small matter of ‘I’m Coming Out’, a punchy track Diana Ross moulded into one of the seminal LGBTQ+ anthems of the late 20th century. 

Rodgers is a polymath, although that is a label he would personally favour for Bowie, a man he penned the ‘Picasso of Rock’. “On some level, we were kindred spirits and that allowed him to say, in our next meeting, that he wanted a hit album,” Rodgers recalled. “It was one of the greatest moments of my entire career”.

Much of his success is thanks to a partnership he enjoyed with bassist Bernard Edwards, the rock that freed Rodgers guitar the freedom to leap around the stage. Together, they fronted Chic, an expressive disco outfit that enjoyed tremendous success with ‘Good Times’, a bouncy track that typified a new movement of music. Even John Deacon got in on it, and the decidedly un-Queen like ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ wound up becoming the band’s biggest American hit. 

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Chic were deserving of their name, delivering a setlist that was urbane, understanding, and stylish, every note pressed gently against the listener’s ear, and every vocal seducing the audience into a sound spectacle that was equal parts lust and lyric. Together, Edwards and Rodgers served as a backing band for a number of rising artists, piecing together a soundscape that was instantly identifiable from the chirpy guitars, thumping bass and a general sense of good humour. Their influence made its way to European artists, as Sheila B used the Chic Organization Ltd to produce ‘Starchaser’, her most impactful tune for an English speaking market. 

Eager to move out of pop and R&B, Rodgers relished the opportunity to work with INXS, an Australian rock outfit fronted by the magnetic Michael Hutchence. Rodgers invited Daryl Hall to sing on ‘Original Sin’, an angular track that detailed the trials experienced by a mixed-race couple. Filmed in Japan, the music video exhibited the band in another landscape that was alien to viewers sitting at home watching MTV from their home sets. 

Rodgers was deeply internationalistic in his world philosophies, and his antenna started to grow as more artists started lining up. He envied Bowie’s malleability and strove to be similarly as diverse. It was his passion for avant-garde jazz that drew Rodgers to Bowie, and the pair of them spent much of their time discussing idiosyncratic artists who had yet to be seen in the public eye. Rodgers battled pigeon-holing, feeling that his work should be based on merit, and not on the colour of the producer’s skin. 

His demeanour never wavered from its original intent, precisely because the songwriter recognised how fortunate he was to get his break. “It was only a singles deal, so in those days two songs, which meant our first release had to be a hit or we wouldn’t get an album,” he once told GQ. “It was a colosseum moment, but ‘Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)’ was a huge hit. It was eight minutes, which is really long for a single – we’d been inspired by the dance marathons of the Great Depression after watching They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with Jane Fonda – and so we put it on a twelve-inch record as they had just been invented. It spoke to the souls of a million strangers”.

And from that springboard, he went on to produce an impressive number of hit records, from the gentle playfulness of ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’ to the startling guitar design heard on Mick Jagger‘s excellent She’s the Boss. Michael Jackson introduced him to a new audience with HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I in 1995, but any positive memories were soon overshadowed by the death of bass player and co-writer, Bernard Edwards. Following a period of seclusion, the guitarist turned producer decided that he could pay no greater tribute to Edwards than to carry on with his work. 

Rodgers still fronts Chic, and happily performs the songs they gave to other artists. More recently, Rodgers showed a wittier side to himself when he appeared on The Life of Rock with Brian Pern, a scathingly written series that set up many of the rock stars of the 1970s. But Rodgers can laugh at his earlier work, precisely because he’s managed to stay so vital. And with a future tour that includes nights in Milan and Liverpool, that light isn’t dimming anytime soon. 

Stream an interview of the man discussing his most enduring and indelible hits below.