If you like music and you’ve been on the Internet in the past few weeks, you can’t go far without seeing Daft Punk’s name in print. The French dance duo came back in a big way this month with the release of Random Access Memories, a stirringly retro dance album and their first proper studio album in eight years (a live album and the soundtrack to TRON: Legacy have all appeared in the interim). Deftly zigging where an EDM-fueled crowd expected them to zag alongside the likes of Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta, Daft Punk dove deep for RAM, recording pristine dance-rock numbers on analog tape with a host of seasoned veterans of the disco era.
No doubt the most prominent of those veterans is Nile Rodgers, the guitarist/songwriter/producer extraordinaire who helped build disco as a member of CHIC before a string of successful productions throughout the 1980s. Rodgers’ immediately distinctive funk guitar chords grace three tracks off Random Access Memories, including international smash “Get Lucky.” The decidedly retro commercial for the album’s release also features Rodgers, all dreadlocks, gap-toothed grin and plexiglass Stratocaster.
There’s a reason Nile Rodgers’ presence on this album is the source of so much excitement: for more than 35 years, he’s been one of the most interesting figures in the music industry. He continues to tour internationally under the CHIC name (despite the too-young passings of co-writer/co-producer/bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson) and is one of the most enjoyably active veteran musician on various social media channels. When you can pull yourself away from Random Access Memories for a bit, have a seat with this mini-bLISTerd celebrating nine classic appearances of Nile Rodgers in pop, rock, soul and hip-hop music. Everybody dance!
CHIC, “Le Freak”
The story has long passed into legend*: Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were invited to Studio 54 by Grace Jones to discuss a collaboration, but were denied entrance – despite their early singles fueling the party inside. So they trudged back to their apartment, cracked open a bottle of wine and jammed. Anchored by a maddeningly insistent groove from Rodgers, they began to rail against the club; “Fuck off!” became “Freak off!” became “Freak out!” – and the single that built around the rehearsal was an airtight classic that became the biggest-selling single for their label, Atlantic Records, as well as the artistic pinnacle of the disco genre.
* In 2011, after years of hearing Nile tell this story on TV and in print, I saw him tell it in person at a signing for his autobiography. It’s still as captivating.
Sister Sledge, “We Are Family”
With “Le Freak” and the C’est CHIC album burning up the Billboard charts, Atlantic was keen to get CHIC on the charts by any means necessary. Rodgers and Edwards were eager were thus linked to struggling girl group Sister Sledge as writers and producers. The resultant single paired their vocals to another unbelievable groove (augmented by swirling strings and a piano hook by longtime collaborator Rob Sabino); “We Are Family” was another No. 1 hit for the CHIC Organization in 1979.
Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight” / Grandmaster Flash, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”
Lightning struck a third time for CHIC in 1979 with the release of chart-topper “Good Times,” a marathon dance groove built around Bernard Edwards’ insanely catchy bass line. It would be lovingly imitated by a host of dance rock classics in the early ’80s (Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Blondie’s “Rapture”), but it was the out-and-out framework for two of the biggest rap songs of all time: The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” released that same year, was spit to 15 minutes of house band Positive Force jamming on the CHIC groove, and the original breakdown formed much of the backbone for Grandmaster Flash’s 1981 turntable extravaganza “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” Though disco’s days were numbered, Rodgers and Edwards needed not worry about their place in the pop culture firmament, effortlessly crossing over into the DNA of another music genre.
Diana Ross, diana
CHIC’s next, unlikely home run came not from an artist on the Atlantic roster, but Diana Ross, whose days as Motown’s dancing queen had seemingly halted somewhere around the 1970s. Though she didn’t always see eye to eye with the duo – she ordered the record remixed so her voice sounded more youthful – it gave her career exactly the shot in the arm she was looking for, with a pair of killer chart-toppers in the funky “Upside Down” and the enthusiastic “I’m Coming Out.” (CHIC would attempt to make lightning strike with another legacy artist, writing and producing an album with crooner Johnny Mathis; it remains officially unreleased.)
David Bowie, Let’s Dance
Disco’s popularity took a huge hit when a “Disco Demolition Night” at a White Sox game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park turned into a full-blown riot. CHIC never again had a Top 40 hit and split in 1983, after which Rodgers and Edwards put their production partnership on hold (the members of CHIC were rarely far apart, however). Shortly thereafter, Nile soon found musical solace in Switzerland with admirer David Bowie. The duo crafted a vivacious album of urgent dance tracks with a dose of CHIC mystique – as well as out-of-left-field guitar licks courtesy of a then-unknown bluesman named Stevie Ray Vaughan. The album buoyed both artist and producer back into pop/rock’s good graces.
Madonna, Like a Virgin
Nile’s status as producer du jour for the ’80s heightened again when a young, ambitious New York-based singer named Madonna Ciccone sought the guitarist out to helm her sophomore album. Though Rodgers was considerably more of a hired hand than on Let’s Dance, he ably enhanced the dance-pop tunes Madonna was writing, temporarily reuniting CHIC on “Material Girl” and the title track. When MTV used these tunes to make her a superstar, it was little surprise to realize Rodgers’ production style wasn’t going anywhere.
Duran Duran, Notorious
The idea of a Duran Duran-Nile Rodgers partnership was no surprise: the Birmingham quintet’s strict-time dance rhythms and hip fashion easthetic was a deliberate homage to CHIC. Rodgers would remix “The Reflex” into a No. 1 single in 1984, and Edwards produced guitarist Andy Taylor and bassist John Taylor’s supergroup The Power Station (with Robert Palmer and CHIC drummer Tony Thompson) as well as chart-topper “A View to a Kill.” But Nile’s greatest partnership with Duran was their most daring: pared down to a trio after the departure of Andy and drummer Roger Taylor, the group worked with Rodgers on a disc of taut white-boy funk sprinkled with Rodgers’ skittering guitar and infectious horn blasts. The No. 2 placement of Notorious‘ title track in America proved that Duranmania had yet to wear off, as long as Rodgers had any say in the matter.
The B-52′s, “Roam”
Nile Rodgers would dial back his production credits as the decade wore on, dabbling in other endeavors like session work and film scoring (Coming to America). But one of his last productions in the ’80s was one of his best: he produced several tracks on 1989′s Cosmic Thing, The B-52′s sensational commercial breakthrough. Don Was helmed the LP’s biggest hit, “Love Shack,” but Rodgers oversaw the band’s best pure pop single, “Roam,” an airy travelogue sung dreamily by Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson.
Sean “Puffy” Combs’ mainstream production career
Even before the robots in Daft Punk decided to utilize Nile Rodgers’ gifts to the fullest, producer Sean “Puffy/Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Diddy” Combs used the producer’s greatest hits to propel his own status as producer/frontman. In 1997, The Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous “Mo Money Mo Problems” and Puff’s own “Been Around the World” heavily sampled two CHIC/Rodgers works (“I’m Coming Out” on the former and “Let’s Dance” for the latter). Each single peaked at No. 1 and No 2., respectively – though in retrospect, that hopefully says less about Puffy’s monstrous ubiquity and more about Nile Rodgers’ timeless funky stuff.