It got to the point where I really believed that the music business was dangerous for me—that I couldn’t walk into a recording studio and not be tempted by the power that I had in that environment. Nile Rodgers
When Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards formed Chic in 1977, they enjoyed a string of hits that snuck a deceptively sophisticated harmonic language into a brutally simple groove and spawned disco-era classics such as “Good Times” (later borrowed by Sugarhill Gang for “Rapper’s Delight”), “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” and “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah).” Rodgers and Edwards also wrote and produced smashes like “We Are Family” for Sister Sledge and “I’m Coming Out” for Diana Ross, and in the aftermath of disco’s wane, Rodgers himself would go on to helm hit albums for David Bowie (Let’s Dance, 1983), Madonna (Like a Virgin, 1984), and Duran Duran (Notorious, 1986). Throughout the ’80s, Rodgers also worked with Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, Thompson Twins, Grace Jones, and the B-52s, amongst others, helping to create a tapestry of songs and sounds that would color the flavor of pop music for an era.
While Rodgers was becoming one of the world’s most successful producers, behind the scenes, he was spiraling further and further into an endless pit of drug addiction and alcoholism. His struggles with drugs and drinking eerily echoed the cloud of addiction that hung over his childhood in New York, where his mother, biological father, stepfather, and various other figures in his life also battled substance abuse. By the end of his teens, though, he had become a virtuous multi-instrumentalist, with a heavy background in jazz and rock. But it was his partnership with bass player Edwards that helped Rodgers focus his massive musical vocabulary down to one word: dance.
By the mid-1990s, Rodgers had gotten sober. He continued to work, but as the new century dawned, he enjoyed fewer high-profile successes—that is, until this year, when he once again found himself all over the dance- and pop-music charts. His work with Daft Punk on the duo’s latest album, Random Access Memories (Columbia), has spawned two big singles, “Get Lucky”—arguably the song of the year—and “Lose Yourself to Dance,” both of which Rodgers co-wrote and played guitar on. Rodgers also collaborated with baby-faced Swedish EDM wunderkind Avicii and Adam Lambert on the song “Lay Me Down.” But all of this resurgent success comes on the heels of yet another difficult period: In 2010, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As of this year, he had beaten the disease, and if his renewed relevance and influence in a music industry that’s vastly different from the one he once ruled is any indication, he has come out of his self-imposed exile and brush with mortality swinging.
I first met Rodgers more than a decade ago at his sprawling apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which happens to be a block from where I live. That meeting followed an unexpected call that I received from Rodgers, who had heard some of my songs and wanted to meet to discuss the possibility of making some music together. While that project never came to fruition, when we met for this interview—at a rooftop overlooking the Hudson River—we found out that he had also been in my apartment: The previous owner, actor Anthony Michael Hall, had hosted parties at my place (before it was my place), which Rodgers had attended with the members of Duran Duran. Just another coincidence? Or maybe it’s another example of the strange web of interconnections that Rodgers, now 61, refers to as “hippie happenstance,” which has governed the remarkable trajectory of his life.
DIMITRI EHRLICH: After almost 20 years of out of the spotlight, you’re back having huge hits with people like Daft Punk and Avicii. How does it feel?
NILE RODGERS: Phenomenal. I consciously left the music business for a while. In my book [Rodgers’s 2011 memoir, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny], I talk about how Michael Jackson pulled me back in. But, man, I was reluctant to get involved again. I put Michael through hell for that one little song [from Jackson’s 1995 album HIStory] that I played on. But it got to the point where I really believed that the music business was dangerous for me—that I couldn’t walk into a recording studio and not be tempted by the power that I had in that environment because of the success that I’d had earlier in my career. When I walk into a recording studio—especially one that I’m known in—it’s like, “General Patton is here!” So I was terrified to walk into a studio. But I really do love pop. I understand songwriting, I understand the business, and I’m not stuck in any one particular time period. I’ve been able to be a part of every movement in music over the last several decades. The only one that I haven’t been involved in so much is hip-hop, which I chose not to be involved in because it felt like I would be what they called “perpetrating.” It felt like hip-hop was so much of its own culture and that I was not part of that culture. It was like when Aretha Franklin wanted me to do a disco record for her. I went, “Huh? Are you kidding me? I know how to write a hit record for you without it being a disco record. You’re Aretha Franklin—you don’t have to worry about disco.” But, yeah, it’s been great.
EHRLICH: In Le Freak, you write a lot about your childhood. There’s a section where you talk about your stepfather, Bobby, who was a Jewish junkie from the Bronx and a very influential figure in your early life. Tell me a bit about him.
RODGERS: Bobby was awesome. He came from a long line of haberdashers, and he was central-casting handsome—really the coolest guy you ever wanted to meet. Now he says that the Army made him a junkie—I’m not so sure we believe that story, because the truth is that, in the neighborhood where he grew up in the Bronx, he hung out with all the artists and the jazz musicians, and heroin was the big thing with them. It was very, very in vogue to do heroin and hang out with all the black people—and that was all happening in his ‘hood. But when he did finally get drafted into the army, he tried to evade the draft and they caught him and took him to wherever the ships left, from either one of the piers or from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They literally handcuffed him and put him on board the ship, because he said he had visions of himself dying the first day on the battlefield in the Korean War. And then, believe it or not, the ship left from America and docked in Japan, in Okinawa, and on the very first day on the battlefield, he stepped on a landmine and was blinded. But while he was recuperating, they were giving him morphine. So that was his rap—that the Army turned him into a junkie. But I don’t know if we believe that story.
EHRLICH: Why was he once barred from entering the state of Nevada?
RODGERS: There were many things that were great about my stepfather. Not only was he loving and fantastic and wonderful and impeccably dressed and knew everything about everything, but he also had an incredible talent for memorizing long sequences of numbers.
EHRLICH: Gambling houses don’t generally like that.
RODGERS: No. He was the best card counter. He would also go into various banks around New York City dressed like an executive and go into the manager’s office and sit behind his desk and memorize the numbers of the checks on the table. Then he would forge bad checks. He and my mom actually drove across the country once on a sort of crime spree, except that there wasn’t gunplay. It wasn’t like Bonnie and Clyde—they were just cashing bad checks. By the time they got to Los Angeles, my stepfather had a serious wad of cash. The other problem with this trip was that they stopped in Las Vegas; he went to the casinos and, because he was a card counter, he took them for a lot of money. The Mob was involved, so they asked Bobby to lose the money back—which he couldn’t do. [laughs] He really did try. But the next thing you know, he finds himself on trial in Los Angeles. The FBI wanted him to turn state’s evidence against the Mob guys, but he didn’t want to turn anyone in because he was just not that kind of guy. So, anyway, they were going through this trial and because his memory was amazing, right near the end, he said to his attorney something like, “Tell the judge to have the clerk read page 24 and go to paragraph seven.” And they read the passage that he was referring to, and basically, he got them to declare a mistrial because in the process of investigating or trying the case, something was done wrong and Bobby noticed it. So he let the whole trial go through and then did that. By the way, I believe that the attorney was Johnnie Cochran.
Every night, when I would get high, they’d call it confidence in a bottle . . . But had I not had that confidence in a bottle, I would have never met David Bowie. I would have never met Madonna. I would have never met Grace Jones. Nile Rodgers
EHRLICH: How did Bobby die?
RODGERS: I don’t know what the official death certificate says, but Bobby, when he finally died, was living in a VA hospital, so at that point, he had some condition. I don’t know what it was. He could have died as a direct result of whatever it was he was hospitalized from, or just the fact that he was in such bad shape. He was still an alcoholic, and if you had heroin, then he’d shoot it in a split second. He just loved getting high—up until the day he died. As a matter of fact, I remember him bragging. I was trying to not convince him that he was an alcoholic, but say, “Hey, Bobby, maybe you want to chill out on the drinking.” And he just looked and me and said, “Fuck that, Pud. I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a fucking junkie, baby.” He was proud.
EHRLICH: As a kid you were around drugs and people who were using drugs a lot. Did you perceive the environment to be at all dangerous?
RODGERS: The only thing that, in retrospect, could have been dangerous to me was when my mom knew a guy named Bang-Bang, but at the time, I didn’t know it was dangerous. I still am ambivalent about that … I don’t know if he could have really hurt me.
EHRLICH: At one point, he kidnapped you, but you didn’t know that you were being kidnapped, right?
RODGERS: Exactly. But I don’t think my parents ever put me in danger in a way that I could ostensibly see—even in retrospect. I don’t remember anything.
EHRLICH: So second-hand smoke was the worst of it?
RODGERS: That would definitely be something—the fact that they were chain-smokers. But I didn’t feel that there was any sense of danger around me. As a matter of fact, I felt so comfortable that I ventured off into the world at a very young age. They made me feel like the world was an inviting place, the exact antithesis of the way parents are now. It’s insane to me. It’s like, what are you guys afraid of? Kids are adventurous. They want to go find stuff out. If you look at statistics, there’s no more child abuse or rape or any of that stuff than there was back then. I was also a martial artist. But I was never afraid—at least not physically. My fears were all based on psychological weird shit.
EHRLICH: Your mom got pregnant with you when she was 13, and you called her by her name, Beverly, instead of Mom. Seems like you wound up being more like her peer than her child.
RODGERS: We still have almost the same relationship. In a strange way, that may have been one of the luckiest plusses of my childhood—the fact that I was so independent because I grew up really having to take care of myself. I got my first good paying job at 20 years old, playing with the touring band for Sesame Street, and ever since then, I’ve pretty much taken care of everybody. Also, despite everything, my mom is cool. She was consistent—even in our dysfunctionality.
EHRLICH: It was functionally dysfunctional.
RODGERS: That’s how it worked. But I felt great in my family circle. The adults loved having me around and they never talked down to me. Imagine having a dog that could talk—it was like that. I was like everybody’s pet, but they could discuss intellectual subjects with me. I was in the chess club. I used to go to the Village Gate. I knew all the jazz musicians. I was like the talking puppet in a science-fiction movie.
EHRLICH: Your nickname was “Pud,” which was short for “Pudding”?
RODGERS: Like chocolate pudding because I was also the only dark-skinned one in my family. That’s also a long story, but in America, the light-skinned blacks have historically had a more privileged life—especially right after slavery. So my great-grandmother, who was actually quite smart, told her children, “Look, if you want to enjoy the same privileges that I enjoy, make sure you marry light.” She married a Native American guy. So when you see my family, they all look a certain way, except me. I am, as the say, the only spot in the lot.
EHRLICH: In your book, you wrote that as a child in the ’50s, the fact that you were darker skinned than the rest of your family made you feel ugly.
RODGERS: Well, that changed for me really in the ’60s once I became self-aware on a higher level and understood that it was more about the content of my character—that I was able to fit in with people because I always brought something to the party. It’s the same thing with my life now. When I’m making records with people, I always say that it’s not egotistical, it’s statistical. The truth is that, if I’m not bringing something to the party, then there is no reason to have me here, because if you could do it without me, then why am I here? Why are you paying me? So I always feel that I can bring something to the party, whether I’m working with Plácido Domingo or the Costa Rican National Symphony [Orchestra] or Basement Jaxx—it makes no difference to me. I feel that I always have something to contribute because I’m so interested in everything. So I wouldn’t say that I eventually became more confident, but I definitely began to feel more balanced as I got older because of my friends. The Black Panthers did a lot for my personality because it was an organization that was also incredibly dysfunctional, but our little lower Manhattan section of Panthers were this wacky group of intellectuals. We were like an organization within the organization, if you will, because of this interesting blend that we had of biracial kids and families that were not the norm for the typical Black Panther section.
That also really helped me. The antiwar movement, the women’s liberation movement, the various political and social or religious movements, like the Hare Krishnas—they were really all happening at that time, and there was a convergence between those things and music. All of those seemingly disparate concepts came together in my life in a wonderful way. So I became a hippie. I became “psychedelicized,” as the Chambers Brothers once said. I didn’t even know it was going to happen to me, but I went out to the roller-skating rink, totally Temptationed—out in my silk suit and the whole bit, and I met these kids who were older than me, and they asked me if I wanted to take a trip. This was when I was living in Los Angeles—I thought they just meant to go joyriding. But we went up in the Hollywood Hills, and I met Timothy Leary. I had no idea who he was—I hadn’t heard his name before. I didn’t even know what LSD was. But I took LSD with Dr. Timothy Leary, and that was it—my whole life changed in a matter of hours. I became a totally different guy. I mean, they talk about LSD being a mind-expanding drug, but I was the textbook guy who was ready to have my mind expanded. When I returned home almost two days later to a freaked-out grandmother, I had a whole new vocabulary. I left looking like a pimp, and I came home looking like a dirty pimp.
EHRLICH: But you were internally freaked out.
RODGERS: Oh, man—internally, I was a rainbow child. I was that dude. And it’s interesting because, as a musician, I think that uniquely aligned me to the flow of all the trends that happened subsequently. My parents were beatniks, and that was their thing. Then when the hippie movement came around, that was mine. From that, I was able to get into R&B when it changed and became more “psychedelicized.” When the Isley Brothers shifted, when Parliament-Funkadelic came on the scene—I was around for all that and could absorb it in a way that made it feel like it was my own. As a matter of fact, when I got my job at the Apollo Theater, I was more spiritually aligned with Country Joe & the Fish than Joe Tex.
EHRLICH: It’s interesting how all of these various influences eventually found their way into your music. One of the hardest things to do as a songwriter is to do less. When I listen to the early Chic stuff, there’s so much discipline and space and sparseness to it—which is even more interesting given your jazz background and what you probably could have done musically.
I took LSD with Dr. Timothy Leary and that was it—my whole life changed in a matter of hours. I became a totally different guy. . . I had a whole new vocabulary. I left looking like a pimp, and I came home looking like a dirty pimp. Nile Rodgers
RODGERS: Well, even when I would come in with what I considered was the simplest basic thumbnail of a song, Bernard [Edwards] would always say to me, “You’ve got four or five songs in that bad boy.” And I would be like, “What are you talking about? That’s just the first verse.” You could hear it later on in some of the Chic songs—they’re overly complicated. But Bernard was my savior in that sense. He also taught me the most important lesson ever, which was to make your first record first. Just hearing those few little things like that—or like when David Bowie said, “No, darling, it’s got to be the same but different”—all of those little things, those little pearls of wisdom, I’ve carried with me and used them. I’ve pulled them out of my quiver. Every time I find myself going off the rails, I think, “Wait a minute. Am I making my first record first? Or am I making my 15th record?”
EHRLICH: How do you think watching late-night television as a 7-year-old impacted your musical career later in life?
RODGERS: I’ve wanted to be a composer almost as far back as I can remember. I think it was on my sixth birthday that I got Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” as a gift—the record, the 45, and then also the blue suede shoes that go along with it. My family told me to get up and dance in front of everybody, so it was like, Okay, I’m putting on a show. Now, I was the shiest kid in the word, so for them to ask me to do that … But I responded because of the music. I think I consumed all of that pop-culture information on television and stored it away, and I still am able to call upon that stuff because I’ve always had a good cinematic reference. I think my book is very cinematic—you can read it and you can see what I’m talking about. That’s a quality that I like to believe exists in my songs, too. Now, sometimes people don’t get what I’m talking about because they don’t get the references. But that’s okay. As long as I get it, then that’s the fuel that turbo-charges my compositional engine.
EHRLICH: I read that when you were a child, your mom once sold a fur coat to Thelonious Monk. Did you know who he was at the time?
RODGERS: Oh, yeah—totally. I knew all those people. I knew Monk. No one ever called him Thelonious—or at least no one in our house. But I knew Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Gloria Lynne …
EHRLICH: They were friends with your parents?
RODGERS: Yeah. The thing that was interesting about my mom’s inner circle was that all of the men who fathered kids with my mom—except for the youngest—were these hip guys. They were all beatnik artistic guys, so they were in the mix. The ones who are still alive are still in my life.
EHRLICH: You had severe asthma as a kid and were sent to live for a while in a convalescent home. And as a result of witnessing sexual abuse there as a child, you developed insomnia and fear of the dark.
RODGERS: Yeah, a fear of being asleep, of the dark.
EHRLICH: Did you ever outgrow it?
RODGERS: No, I still have it to this very day. I still sleep with the all lights on and the television blaring. I do my best compositions—
EHRLICH: How does Nancy [Hunt, Rodgers’s girlfriend of 17 years] like that?
RODGERS: She hates it. That’s why—
EHRLICH: She sleeps in the other room?
RODGERS: Yeah, and all my girlfriends since … I’ve been on my own for a long time, so even when I had typical New York studio apartments or one-bedroom apartments, my girlfriends were smart enough to sleep on the couch. Or I’d voluntarily sleep on the couch because I’d be wide awake, and that would be where my music was. So we’d do the frolicking, and then, when it was time to go to sleep … To most women, sleep is real business. But I don’t sleep much.
EHRLICH: Your biological father, Nile Rodgers Sr., was a musician, too—a percussionist. He was also an alcoholic and drug addict who died in poverty and was buried in an unnamed grave. When you look back on your life and think about your relationship with him, what do you feel is the greatest gift that he ever gave you?
RODGERS: I believe that I inherited his gift for music. He was a percussionist, so it was all about improvising and playing great beats. He was the kindest, nicest person you’d ever meet. Even my mom says that, to this day, she’s never met a man nicer than my dad, Nile. And I think that I’m like him. I think that I’m kind to people. My father almost died for my mom, trying to protect her image. Some guy once called her a ho and stabbed my dad in the chest, and he almost bled to death right there on the street. I remember one time coming home from school, and I’m playing chess in Washington Square Park. I would play chess in the park, and then I would come home down Bleecker Street, because I knew all the jazz musicians and all the clubs and I was always hoping to run into somebody. So I happened to be walking down Bleecker Street, and I look up and see that my biological father is out on the fire escape. Everybody thought he was trying to commit suicide, but in fact he was suffering from the DTs—delirium tremens—and he was hallucinating. So the cops let me go up and I talked to him and calmed him down. He went and showered, and next thing I knew, we were out on the streets having a great time. We walked to Eighth Street, around all the pizza shops and music stores, went to Orange Julius. He was just that jovial, great guy. My father could also make music anywhere, anytime, with anybody—he was that good—and that’s how I feel. It’s a sense of confidence that you have because you know you have a knowledge bank with all of this stuff deposited in it. The problem with my father was that I could probably count all of our encounters on two hands because I remember every single one. So I like to be romantic and believe that I got my musical ability from my dad, Nile, because to believe that I got nothing from him would be awful.
The first reaction was that ‘Disco Sucks’ didn’t apply to us. But soon it became really clear that something else was going on. I mean, all of the sudden, we were irrelevant-and we never had another hit record again. Nile Rodgers
EHRLICH: You’ve used the term hippie happenstance to describe the web of interdependent events that have impacted your life. What is hippie happenstance?
RODGERS: Well, I call it hippie happenstance because I think that everything that I am and wound up being seems to be interconnected, from what I’ve listened to, to the people I’ve met. You could see when I was a kid and I switched from only listening to Martha and the Vandellas and R&B music, to listening to surf music and the Ventures and even some underground stuff … It was interesting because just a couple of nights ago, I was with somebody and we were talking about Frank Sinatra, and I said, “Man, I used to clean up his airplane.”
EHRLICH: What was Sinatra’s plane like?
RODGERS: He had a plaque at the door near the entrance to the plane that said, “Come fly with me.” He’d had a hit record with Come Fly With Me . The two big memories about Sinatra’s plane, the Christina II, is the fact that Lear Jets were small, and I was this small, skinny kid myself, but I kept thinking, “God, it’s Frank Sinatra. How come he doesn’t have a JetStar or a Lockheed? You know, the plane seemed so small to me. But he had the run of the airport.
EHRLICH: He was Frank Sinatra.
RODGERS: He was Frank Sinatra. That was his plane, but he would charter others, and the Lear guys and the Lockheed guys would let him. I’d see all sorts of planes coming in and out of there.
EHRLICH: You crossed paths with Sinatra again later, right?
RODGERS: Quincy Jones was producing a record for him, and Quincy had decided that he wanted to take a leap into the digital age and record on a Sony digital tape recorder. At that time, the only two people in America who owned them were Frank Zappa and myself. They asked Frank Zappa, who was closer to them in L.A., and I guess Zappa said no, so they asked me. I said, “Absolutely.” So they came and recorded on my tape recorder, and I’m standing in the room—I’m sure that Mr. Sinatra thought I was an assistant engineer or something. So I said, “Mr. Sinatra, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Pud.” And he looked at me and went, “Wow, Pud. What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, the tape recorder you’re using—that’s my tape recorder.” And he says, “What do you mean that’s your tape recorder?” I said, “I’m the biggest record producer in the world.” And Mr. Sinatra said, “I thought Quincy was the biggest record producer in the world.” And I went, “No. That was last year.” [laughs]
EHRLICH: So this was all after Chic?
RODGERS: Oh, yeah. It was around the time of Like a Virgin, and I had already done Let’s Dance, because I remember that Bowie and I were up for a Grammy the same year.
EHRLICH: There was also that story about you and Andy Warhol. You ran into Andy in the emergency room of a hospital when you were a teenager after you had a drug freak-out and were tripping, which happened to be the same evening that he was shot.
RODGERS: Yeah. If you look at The Andy Warhol Diaries, Andy talks about meeting me. I remember when the diaries came out, everybody ran to the store to see if they were in there. I did, too. I looked and it said something like, “Tonight, I met Nile Rodgers. Not only was he a nice guy, he’s a really good dresser.” So of course, I couldn’t help but say, “Dude, we already met!” I mean, who else would be in the emergency room? We were in the emergency room, partying and having a good time, and then we got kicked you out when Andy arrived.
EHRLICH: When did you see him again?
RODGERS: Oh, we met each other a gazillion times. But the first time we met was at a party at Ann Jones’s house. She’s Mark Ronson’s mom, so the twins were there too, Samantha and Charlotte—this was when Ann was married to Mick Jones of Foreigner. They were having a dinner party. But I had seen Andy at other times. This was the only time we had the chance to formally sit at the same table, but afterwards we wound up seeing each other a lot. Normally, I would see him in clubs—at the Palladium or whatever.
EHRLICH: I read that, as a teenager, you once jammed with Jimi Hendrix, but everyone was too high to record what you were doing. Does that nag at you?
RODGERS: Not really because we were just jamming. It was the kind of weird thing that was really common in those days when it came to Greenwich Village life or New York City life. You could easily see why John Lennon moved here. It was totally cool. One night, I remember being at the place that’s now Electric Lady, but in those days it was called the Generation. It was a nightclub, but you could see Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, Bowie—they were there mingling with everybody. You’d see Rod Stewart. All these guys—the Chambers Brothers, Dr. John. I can’t tell you how many times I met Dr. John before I became Nile Rodgers. When I was just a kid, I’d see him in the pawnshop or walking down the street or going to a club.
EHRLICH: Tell me a little bit about DHM—or the theory of Deep Hidden Meaning, which you and Bernard Edwards developed.
RODGERS: I’ve never written a song that’s not nonfiction. I don’t know how to do that—I wish I did because I’d probably have more hit records. But every song that I’ve ever written comes from a real place, it’s a real story, and then I throw in fictional elements. A great example of DHM is Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out.” In the old days, to hear new music, it wasn’t like it is now where you can just go on the Internet and hear it. Back then, you had to be in the environment where the music was being played, and the coolest underground clubs, which had the best music, would be the most extreme ones—the transvestite clubs, the leather bars, all that kind of stuff. So one night when I was out club-hopping, I stopped into the Gilded Grape on Eighth Avenue in the Theater District. I just popped in for a minute, and while I was there, I went to the bathroom and on either side of me were these Diana Ross impersonators, which is what gave me the idea for “I’m Coming Out.” You’ve got to remember, if you want to put it in perspective, this was early in my career. The very first superstar that I ever worked with was Diana Ross, so I couldn’t actually say anything to anyone, even though I was well-known, I wasn’t well-known to everybody. And Chic—we were sort of an anonymous kind of group. This was, like, the middle or end of 1979, so Chic’s career of hits only lasted two years: from summer of 1977 to summer of 1979. That was it—we were done. We had done Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and all that, but most people wouldn’t know who we were. So as excited as I was about seeing all these transvestites dressed up like Diana Ross, I couldn’t go, “Guys, guess what? I’m working with Diana Ross! You just gave me a great idea!” We didn’t have cellphones either, so I had to run outside and call Bernard and say, “Man, you are not going to believe this. I was just in the bathroom peeing, and on either side of me at the urinal, were all these dudes dressed up like Diana Ross. We have to write a song called ‘I’m Coming Out.’â??” Now, most of the time, I don’t think of the titles first—the titles develop as the story develops because we want something catchy or something that makes sense. In this particular situation, I thought of the title, and then we backed into the song. But that was the case where the Deep Hidden Meaning in that song was that we knew that Diana Ross was planning a big change in her life because we sat down and interviewed her so we knew what subjects were taboo. I’m sure the subject of transvestites would have been pretty taboo, but it was just too good a coincidence and too great a title. So the double entendre was that we knew that Diana Ross was planning a big move—maybe she wasn’t going to leave Motown, but she certainly was going to ask for a portion of the company. We were also fascinated by the fact she didn’t own anything and that she had to work for a living. She had to go to Vegas and earn that hundred grand or whatever, but we could sit there and make records the rest of our lives because we wrote “We Are Family?” We were like, “You’re Diana Ross. You were famous when I was a child. So how come we don’t have to work and you have to work?” But we knew she had a master plan. So we wrote the song about it—from her point of view. But from my point of view, it was about the gay community. The audience was built-in—they were going to flip out. I mean, I’m a New Yorker, so we know all of the gay icons—the Judy Garlands, the Diana Rosses, the Chers. So writing a song for Diana Ross called “I’m Coming Out” was just brilliant.
EHRLICH: I love the famous story about you getting turned away by the door guy at Studio 54, which led you and Bernard to write the lyric “Awww, fuck off, fuck Studio 54, fuck off …” which became “Le Freak.” Did you tell me the guy who rejected you found you on Facebook?
RODGERS: Yeah, a few years ago. It was great. He apologized and he said, “Hey, I’m that guy.” I knew he was telling the truth because of everybody he identified that he worked for. He was basically the security person working for the head security guy.
EHRLICH: Wasn’t the ladies room at Studio 54 known as your office for a while? I heard that women used to pee inside the stall while you held court.
RODGERS: Girls were doing coke, all kinds of things.
EHRLICH: And there were people giving blowjobs and having sex left and right?
RODGERS: It was completely common. And I hate to sound so nonchalant, but that’s what it was like back then. In my book, I talk about the first time I went to the balcony and saw a woman who would wind up becoming a good friend of me. She’s a star, and she was having straight-up sex right out in the open. I was like, “You’re famous! Everybody can see you!”
EHRLICH: I found it really interesting that rather than set up Chic like a normal band, you set it up as a corporation where you and Bernard were co-owners and you paid the other guys as salaried employees, which was very shrewd, obviously. Where did you get that idea?
RODGERS: That was purely because no one believed in us. No one thought that Chic was going to work. I’ll never forget Tony Thompson, who we love. Tony, who was like our son, thought whole concept of Chic was ridiculous. I mean, think about this: Rob Sabino, who was our keyboard player—he was the unsung hero of Chic. He’s on every single record, but he never went out and did a live show with us—ever—because he believed in his rock-‘n’-roll band, the Simms Brothers Band. They were signed to Elektra. No one knows the Simms Brothers, but they were great. I used them on a Bowie record, and they became more famous from that. Same thing with Luther [Vandross]. He became more famous imitating Chic, even though Luther was the greatest genius around us. So Chic was the launchpad for so many of my friends.
EHRLICH: So many people who were a part of Chic are now dead. It’s like you’re the last man standing.
RODGERS: Which is ridiculous because I was absolutely the most reckless of the bunch. Everybody else, certainly on the surface, seemed a lot more mature than me. I was the hippie. I took acid. I wasn’t afraid of anything. I can’t tell you how many times I walked into a club where a girl would tell me to open my mouth and close my eyes, and they’d stick … It could have been anything. But Bernard died of pneumonia. He was sick for a while. I remember watching all of my friends that I’d known for a long time—because of drugs and because of all the different stuff that happened to us … Look at Luther. Having a stroke and lying there by himself there for hour and hours. Same thing happened to our keyboard player, Raymond Jones. Raymond has a problem, and then he actually recovers, but he gets in the car a day later, drives himself to the hospital, and winds up dying when he gets there. And then the drugs and the alcohol … You just can’t do that for that long, man. People are dying way too early because of that type of abuse for that amount of time.
EHRLICH: The first bit of substance abuse that you got into was sniffing glue, right?
RODGERS: I did glue when I was 11.
EHRLICH: When you’ve written or spoken about your own addictions to drugs and alcohol, you’ve said that you’ve been high for most of your adult life, but that you probably couldn’t have done what you’d done any other way. Do you still feel that way?
RODGERS: I was too shy. Even though I said earlier on that I had a certain amount of balance and a certain amount of comfort intellectually, and when it came to skin color and all that kind of thing, it didn’t show onstage and it certainly didn’t show in my personality. It did when I became friends with people and spent time with them one-on-one—then you’d probably have thought that I was the most jovial guy in the world. But I remember when I finally got sober, so many people would actually beg me to start getting high again. They’d say, “Jesus Christ, the party would start when you’d arrive. Now it’s all boring.” Just like the lyric says in “I’m Coming Out”: “The time has come for me to break out of the shell.” Every night when I would get high, they’d call it confidence in a bottle. I’d get a little drunk, and all of a sudden, I felt maybe even attractive—maybe even like I was good-looking—and I grew up not thinking that at all. I mean, I’ve always had confidence in my musical ability—that’s the one thing no one has ever been able to take from me. But I was not confident in my ability to do my job as a member of Chic in front of people. Standing on that stage—that’s a different gig. In the studio, I’m fine. But had I not had the confidence in the bottle, I would have never met David Bowie. I would have never met Madonna. I would have never met Grace Jones.
EHRLICH: Because the first time you met Bowie, you just walked up and started talking to him. No one even introduced you.
RODGERS: I walked up to everybody. Every single person in my career—except for Peter Gabriel and, of course, Sister Sledge, who were people that I met where we formed a bond and decided to do records together. But, I mean, everybody else, across the board—Duran Duran, every single person … Madonna, when she was first starting out and went to have her meeting at Warner Bros., they were sitting down to talk about producers and she already had made up her mind because she’d already met me. They were saying, “Well, it’s between two guys now: Narada Michael Walden and Nile Rodgers.” And she said, “No, it’s not actually.” And Narada told me—I’m not sure I got a chance to put this in the book because I kept trying to get him to get his words, and I only found out after the fact—that when Madonna told him she was doing the record with me, it was the sweetest, nicest, most wonderful phone call and encounter he ever had. I said, “Yeah, that’s the other side of Madonna.” That’s the side of Madonna that’s the absolutely most charming. When she is charming and kind and lovable and sweet, you’re like putty in her hands and you just adore her. You can’t help it. She’s a rarefied thing.
EHRLICH: What was it like working with Mick Jagger?
RODGERS: That Jagger can hear the most minute information in the music. He’s got big ears. Even if you try to trick him, he’ll catch you every time. Paul Simon is like that. I mean, these are guys who you realize that they just have a unique gift to absorb a lot of information, and because they’ve been doing it so long, they’ve heard everything that can possibly be heard, so how do you excite them? But Mick could detect the smallest things. I remember when I got Jagger and Bowie to do “Dancing in the Street” together. We were still working on Mick’s record She’s the Boss . At one point, I was trying to balance the vocals on “Dancing in the Street,” and Mick was like, “Nile, is David’s voice louder than mine?” And I was going, “No, Mick, it’s not louder. I’m just trying to balance it.” And then Mick would leave the room and I would shift it back a bit so their voices were balanced, and he would return and go, “Wait a minute—you made David’s voice louder than mine!”
EHRLICH: Even though you had a string of hits with Chic and you became very wealthy as a result, the idea that people began to reject your sound and your work with the “disco sucks” movement must have hurt emotionally. Did you take it personally?
RODGERS: Well, it was a triphasic reaction, because at first we didn’t think it applied to us. We didn’t think of ourselves as a disco band. We made music that was played in discos, but if you listen to a Chic album, we were a more jazzy, R&B band. Look, I also have a good sense of humor. I love professional wrestling and things like that. I love the theater. I even like the phrase “disco sucks.” I became sort of proud to call myself a disco musician just because of the fact that people were saying it sucked. It was interesting, though, to have to fight that fight with the pop world—the same world that only a few months before was making tons of money from us and praising us. As an artist, you just want your voice to be heard, which I guess is immature or childlike, but the first reaction was that “disco sucks” didn’t apply to us—that it was funny, cool, and entertaining, and that it got out of hand, but so what? Lots of stuff happens like that. But then the second reaction was like, You’re kidding. You really think I’m a bad musician or that I suck? But soon it became really clear that something else was going on—I mean, all of a sudden, we were irrelevant—and we never had another hit record again. We were erased from the map. The other problem was that because Bernard and I were taking a lot of drugs, the people hanging around us also changed. Bernard and I always depended on each other, but his life had become very different from mine—he was married and had kids. On the other hand, I was the bachelor-for-life guy. I was committed to that concept at 11 years old. So our friends and the way we hung out together were both reflections of our personalities. I’m the open guy—I’ll go anywhere, any club with anybody, do anything. But Bernard was much more secretive, so he started listening to his people, who were saying, “Maybe Nile is more disco and you’re not …” Or maybe I started listening to my people when they went, “People are calling you disco because they’re thinking of Bernard, but you’re the jazz classical genius. You need to go off on your own and show the world what you can do.” I don’t know. The funny thing about the relationship between me and Bernard was that we were always super-tight. There was a bond there that nobody could break. There’s definitely a guilt that I feel that he was always off with me. I don’t think he was there for the birth of any of his kids—maybe he was there for one—but every other time, he was off on the road with me. And then, when he passed away, he was off on the road with me again. I knew his wife for almost as long as I knew Bernard because when I met him, I met her, she was there at the club—she was a singer. And then all of a sudden, she changed and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Bernard used to say, “They got her when I was on the road,” because we were out on the road all the time. He came home and he was like, “What happened to my wife?”
EHRLICH: Do you still dream about Bernard?
RODGERS: Rarely, but I think about him a lot. Actually, right after he died, I used to have nightmares because I found his body—that was incredibly traumatic. I had never touched a dead body, and to feel a body that’s room temperature is almost surreal. So there was finding his body, and then also the confidence I’d had in where we were going in the future. But to have that snuffed out in one night … One day you’re cool and on top of the world, and in just a matter of hours, your whole life is different. Everything about what you planned to do—some body or something has interrupted the flow. You felt like you were on this kind of arc, that you were on a trajectory of nothing but goodness. And then all of a sudden, it’s completely derailed and you run right into a brick wall. There was no forward movement I could make at that point. I felt deserted. It’s interesting, that one of the feelings I had was anger. I’m not an angry guy. With the few fights that I’ve had in my life, you have no idea how tough it was to get into a situation where I actually had to fight. I am so not an angry guy. And a lot of this comes from Bernard. We would watch people get all pissed off and scream—because record execs would always scream at us. We were always the adversaries. But Bernard would always wait until they were done and go, “Are you finished?” So when I was alone in my room after he died, at first I was grieving. Then I was actually walking around the room going, “Fuck it! I can’t believe you did this to me!” And that was real, natural anger. It was like a wave washing over my psyche. The next day, I was sort of shocked. I was laughing, going, “Whoa, I was pissed off. I was stomping around the room like a child.”
EHRLICH: In 2010, you were diagnosed with prostate cancer. How did receiving that diagnosis and the experience of going through treatment change your perspective on things?
RODGERS: Well, I’d already died, so it wasn’t about the fear of death. It was just the realization that I really do have limited time on this earth. When I was first diagnosed with cancer—because that diagnosis is so severe and so frightening—in order to be able to deal with it, I said, “Okay, I’m going to let the doctors do what they do.” And then my therapeutic part—the part that I could throw in—was going to be like, if they write the top line, then I’ll write the bass line. My part of the composition was going to be to make myself feel better about the time that I had left on this planet, because when I was diagnosed, they told me that I had an extremely aggressive cancer. I went to the doctor, and I said to the dude, “Those are three words you don’t want to have in one sentence.”
EHRLICH: In that order.
EHRLICH: Were you sober at that point?
RODGERS: Oh, yeah. I’ve been sober now for 19 years.
EHRLICH: So you’d been living pretty clean and healthy at that point.
RODGERS: Yeah, so I had tools to address it—my sobriety tools. It’s the same toolkit. I just break it out for everything—whether I’m just pissed off in traffic or whatever. It actually worked on the first day.
EHLRICH: What did you do when you were first diagnosed?
RODGERS: When the doctor told me, he actually told me over the phone. He told me to come see him right away because we had to discuss it and I had to get my things in order. “Get my things in order? What are you talking about?” I said, “Doc, hold that thought until next Tuesday because I have a gig in Rome, so I’m going to pretend I didn’t even hear what you said. I’m actually going to pretend that we didn’t even have this phone call.” He said, “No, you can’t do that.” I said “Doc, let’s be reasonable …” Because that’s the way that I dealt with my drug addiction, to find the power to reason through the situation so that even though the drugs are calling you, you reason, “If I take that, I know pretty soon I’m going to be right back where I was.” So I said to the Doc, “What if you didn’t get me? What if I was out shopping or downstairs getting a hot dog, and I missed this phone call? This is the weekend. You wouldn’t have spent your weekend trying to get me. You would have waited until next week. So here’s what I’m saying, Doc, wait until next week. I’m going to Rome because I’m ready to leave.” I was actually running out of my apartment to get into my car to go to the airport—and I always cut it close, so I couldn’t even have the conversation. Even though I heard what he said, I just dismissed the content of it. And if you see a recording of my performance in Rome right after, it’s on tape, we were having a great time. But afterwards, I started to say to people that I had what I called “crazy cancer thoughts.” You’re going to have all of these crazy thoughts about what’s going to happen or not happen, and you’re going to think that they apply to you—and they may or they may not. But you can’t be afraid until you have no other option but to be afraid. So my concept is, until you absolutely know the plane is crashing, there’s no reason to be afraid. All the turbulence in the world does not mean the plane is crashing. Once it’s confirmed, then you can be afraid.
EHRLICH: Where is your mom now?
RODGERS: My mom is in Las Vegas, which is hysterical to me.
EHRLICH: I presume she cleaned up long ago.
RODGERS: Oh, yeah. My mom is amazing. Her only addiction now is that she really does love to gamble. We always make the joke that, in Las Vegas, you can gamble at the Laundromat.
EHRLICH: You can’t not gamble there.
RODGERS: So that’s her only problem. She’s pretty reasonable now. Of course, I make enough money where it’s fine. I’m actually happy to do it. My family … It is what it is. They’re thoroughly entertaining, though. They’re fun.
EHRLICH: You were talking earlier about dropping acid with Timothy Leary. I know that you ran into Leary again many years later and he actually remembered the entire thing. Did you remember it? Or did he remind you?
RODGERS: We both remembered it. I started to explain it to him, and he was like, bang! and finished the story. I was sitting there, going, “Wow, we must have really made an impression on him.” I’m sure we did, a couple of black kids on roller skates, 13, 14 years old, dressed like pimps or the Temptations, with the wraparound cuff links … We were done up to go roller skating. That was how you went skating in those days. So I could easily see how Timothy Leary was like, “This is the funniest shit I’ve ever seen.”
DIMITRI EHRLICH IS A CONTRIBUTING MUSIC EDITOR FOR INTERVIEW. HE IS BASED IN NEW YORK CITY.