Nile Rodgers is the most-nominated act for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without getting an induction, but he’s got numerous accolades to his name and has channeled his magnetic energy into his curated “Freak Out! Let’s Dance” festival, which launched in the U.S. on Long Island in Riverhead, N.Y. summer 2015 with Beck, Chaka Khan, Janelle Monae, Duran Duran, Pharrell, Keith Urban and more. This year, Rodgers and Chic take the one-night-only party to Queens venue Forest Hills Stadium on October 8 for what is being dubbed as “the evolution of dance music live” with Bette Midler, Earth, Wind & Fire, Village People, Rodgers with Chic and others. Rodgers has a global appeal due to embracing nightlife culture and dance music from the past and present and he is an icon whose instinctive abilities have created some of the most timeless hooks and melodies, making his catalog one of the most-sampled ever.
“Disco didn’t die, it just grew up and changed its name and address.” This is just one of the many witty and clever one-liners from the Studio 54 fixture and producer-to-the-stars Nile Rodgers’ 2011 biography Le Freak. A superstar in his own right, Rodgers was talking about the Disco Sucks movement in July 1979, just a couple short years following his band Chic’s major break-out successes with “Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” to name a few. The backlash from the rock world didn’t have much significance, because according to Rodgers’ aforementioned quote, dance music evolved into new wave in the 80s, and later house in the 90s and in 2016 dance music is one of the most prominent forms of music around the world.
The New York City-bred musician, producer and arranger grew up living all over including The Village, The Bronx and the Lower East Side (as well as Los Angeles) with a black mother, Jewish step-father and Puerto Rican relatives, and his blended family and early interests in movies and music led him on a path as a musician who embraced all types of people, neighborhoods and cultures.Rodgers started off as a studio musician and toured with Sesame Street Live before forming The Big Apple Band with longtime bandmate Bernard Edwards, who together opened for The Jackson 5 on their first U.S. tour in 1973. Fast-forward to the 80s, Nile Rodgers struck gold on massive hits producing for global icons Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out,” “Upside Down”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), Duran Duran (“The Reflex,” “Wild Boys”) and Madonna (“Like A Virgin”), and most recently won five Grammys in 2014 (for Daft Punk’s album “Random Access Memories”) including Record of the Year for the universal hit “Get Lucky,” by Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams. The song most conveniently alludes to a romantic tryst or gambling, however toRodgers it is a celebration of life and being grateful, having recovered from cancer in 2013.
Rodgers spoke with New York City Monthly about memories over the years with David Bowie and Prince, he shared the unexpected highlight of his previous event (Keith Urban) and spoke candidly about how there really is nothing in the world like live music at his festival…
With your eclectic musical interests growing up and your cross-cultural appeal, it’s not entirely surprising, however, when did you come up with the idea of having your own festival and what will make this NYC one different?
Every festival that I curate, I curate for the location. So this originated in Switzerland and the venue we played at we had sold out numerous times already so people already knew they’d get a great Chic show. Two-and-a-half hours and then eight-and-a-half hours of the best dance music in the world – Mark Ronson, Tavares, Grace Jones, what I was really trying to show is something we have lost in today’s world. All music is connected. When we start to play together you say, “I didn’t know he did that song!” “When I was 15 I used to cry to that song!” We have become further distant from the composer and artist of the song – these songs are like the wallpaper of our lives, and you hear them all the time, and you don’t think about the history of them, and so when I package it – it’s hopefully emotionally meaningful with a narrative without actually saying it’s a narrative.
The concept of Freak Out Let’s Dance is I want people to freak out, I want them to have a good time. I always make it so that it’s got a story. What happens is at the end of the night is you feel great and you don’t know why. I take a survey and ask people why it feels so great.
What was the highlight for you at last year’s Freak Out! Let’s Dance?
Last year when I had Keith Urban, the buzz was “Keith Urban was gonna stink. Chaka [Khan] and Pharrell are gonna smoke him.” The connection Keith and I have as guitar players is – we turned it into Woodstock, a freestyle jam, even Pharrell Williams was staring at us saying that it was amazing. Keith Urban, Nile Rodgers, add water, it works. Everyone was so negative before he took the stage, and no disrespect to the other artists who brought their a-game, but Keith Urban and I had a connection. We’re guitar players, brotherly love. We challenged each other to a duel.
In your 2011 book “Le Freak,” you talk about not being able to sleep much since you were a child, partially due to your parents’ lifestyle and your environment. Do you think a lack of sleep and a heightened creative mind watching lots of television, observing adult behavior at a young age and learning about a variety of music combined with exhaustion put you in a different state of mind creatively when you were humming tunes and writing songs?
This is completely theory but I believe that my mind was in a certain state, that my mind was malleable and quite prepared for absorption. Therefore, when you look at the early part of my career as a young studio musician, I could memorize everything. Daft Punk, I did all my songs with them in three hours or so.
David Bowie and Prince made countless contributions to popular culture. Having worked with and known both for a while, how did their presence affect you and has their passing changed you at all as a person, as an entertainer?
I don’t think their passing has changed me, but while we were on the planet together, David Bowie changed the entire course of my career. Prince as a friend and as a musician was one of the most interesting, one of my dearest friends in a very sincere way. There are artists that you just know in your life that you don’t need to ask them for anything but you know if you did they would be there in a second. He felt like he was a peer, he felt like he was respected. I walked into the nightclub and said “Ladies and gentleman, now this man here has the song!” and we got on the guitar and jammed in London in a place called Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club.
Freak Out! Let’s Dance is going to be a memorable night, no doubt with all the talent on the stage. What are your plans beyond this New York event and your previous incarnations?
I’m in talks to do at least 40 a year.
You could completely switch it up every date if you wanted to.
I’d be exhausted, I’d be dead. But that’s the whole point, to plan something like that way in advance, with military precision.