black history month: nile rodgers, behind the mixing desk

February 17, 2012

We talk a lot about the artists behind the microphone. But for every word written about the artists working on one side of the recording studio, tragically few words are written about the artists on the other side of the sound-proof glass. In his 40 year career, Nile Rodgers has worked with everyone from Bowie to Madonna, from Sister Sledge to Master Chief. His music unwittingly formed the backbone of hip-hop with the Sugar Hill Gang basing their breakthrough Rapper’s Delight on Rodgers’ Good Times, and Public Enemy making frequent use of Chic samples in their music. Beginning with his band Chic, through his reign of producing terror in the 80’s, Nile Rodger’s sound is one of the most identifiable and coveted in all of pop music.

Words by Nathan Leigh

After spending the first half of the 70’s playing in the house band for the Apollo Theatre and for Sesame Street, guitarist Nile Rodgers connected with bass player Bernard Edwards. The duo formed the core of the rock band The Boys, then later The Big Apple Band. Bernard introduced funk techniques to the band, and though they achieved some local popularity, were consistently turned down by record labels who felt American audiences weren’t interested in an all black rock band.

After seeing a Roxy Music show in 1977, Rodgers was inspired to create what he described as a black version of Roxy Music. He wanted a band whose shows were outrageous parties. So he and Bernard Edwards enlisted drummer Tony Thompson to form Chic. The newly minted disco group performed with a revolving door of female lead singers, most notably Norma Jean Wright. The band spawned hits like Good Times and Le Freak (whose Ahhh Freak Out! chorus was originally written as Ahhhh Fuck Off! about being denied entrance to Studio 54).

The trio of Rodgers / Edwards / Thompson became a coveted backing band, and while working as their own band, hired themselves out as The Chic Corporation backing Luther Vandross, Sister Sledge (producing their hit “We Are Family”) and Diana Ross. But as disco died a violent inglorious death after the infamous Disco Demolition Night in 1979, Chic as a band became an increasingly lost cause and disbanded after poor reception to their 1983 album Believer.

Though their style of music had gone out of style, the legendary tightness of their sound was still in demand. Rodgers made an overnight transition from guitarist to producer. By 1983, Rodgers was behind the console for Bowie’s defining work of the 80’s Let’s Dance. The album combined Rodgers tight drum sound, slinky bass, and percussive guitar with some of Bowie’s best post-Ziggy Stardust songwriting (the less said about Tin Machine, the better). The album featured a young not-yet-world-famous Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar and even employed the full Chic Corporation rhythm section on the single Without You.

Rodgers proved beyond a doubt that his ability to produce danceable soulful music was not limited to disco. His trademark sound of tight danceable rhythms, jittery guitar, slithery bass, low mixed, but high energy backing vocals, and simple but memorable guitar mimicking horn lines, transcended the 70’s glut of disco also-rans. As Let’s Dance became an increasing critical and commercial success, his talents and sound were sought after by Madonna for her Like A Virgin album, INXS, Duran Duran, and the B-52s. Basically if it was recorded in the 80’s but felt like it owed a debt both to 70’s dance music and 60’s soul, it was probably produced by Nile Rodgers.

As the pop landscape changed in the 90’s with increased usage of synthesized instruments, Rodgers shifted his focus to film scoring, and later video game scores. (remember the awesome score to Halo 2? That’s Rodgers…) I have always found it ironic that Rodgers’ skills as a producer were rendered obsolete by the rise of hip-hop and sequencing in pop music when his riffs continue to be sampled by hip-hop artists ad nauseum, and he was one of the pioneers of digital recording (Like A Virgin was one of the first albums to ever be recorded digitally instead of to analogue tape). “Good Times” earns a distinguished place as one of the most sampled and copied songs this side of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” and The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.” It has formed the basis for Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” “The Adventures of Grand Master Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” and even “Wot” by punk pioneer Captain Sensible.

Though Nile Rodgers regrouped with Chic in 1993, and continues to tour semi-regularly with new members (both Edwards and Thompson died in 1996 and 2003 respectively) he has largely taken more of an elder statesman role in regards to dance music for the last 2 decades. His output as a producer has slowed considerably, working on only a handful of projects over the last 10 years. Rodgers is currently in the studio with electronic music superheroes Daft Punk working on their upcoming record. It is somehow fitting that a group whose breakout song “Around the World” was yet another song based on “Good Times” should return to the source for their next project. He may have slowed down in recent years, but Rodgers’ pioneering and distinctive sound as a producer remains an indelible and unavoidable part of the American pop landscape.