Nile Rodgers Q&A: On 'Freak' Origins, Diana Ross & His 'Iffy' Health
Nile Rodgers has worked with just about everyone in the industry from Michael Jackson to Madonna to INXS to Mick Jagger. With Chic he wrote and produced songs like "Good Times," and "We Are Family," that are eternally enshrined in the wedding/bar-mitzvah DJ song list. In the memoir "Le Freak," Rodgers tells his incredible life story of growing up in New York City the son of heroin addicts, to working with all the greats and then overcoming his own cocaine addiction. It's an exhilarating and funny memoir about the record industry in its heyday.
You grew up in New York in a great time, the 60's. Did it inform your work?
Yeah I think it had a massive effect on the way I saw the world. Everything about my life was culturally rich and all the people I met sort of reinforced the wackiness that was normally inside of me. No one said, 'You can't do that,' until I got to real record companies that is.
Describe your childhood.
My mother was 13 when I was born. She had one period and got pregnant. We were very poor so we lived in very seedy neighborhoods. Everywhere felt like liberated territory. You lay claim to a place and it was yours. I was a child squatter. I would play hooky from school and spend all day in the movie theaters. Consequently, I learned satire in all its subtle forms.
You write of working with Bernard Edwards, your Chic band mate, and having the mantra DHM.
Deep hidden meaning. All that meant was we needed to understand a song's DNA, a song's essential truth and once we understood that then we could do what we did which was arrange and rearrange it. Once you understand a song's basic truth and an artist says, 'But I think we should do it a little slower,' we still could keep true to that song's basic DNA.
How did 'Le Freak' come about?
We were invited to Studio 54 New Year's Eve '77 by Grace Jones herself. We were so thrilled. We went to the back door as instructed. We told the guy there we were personal guests of Grace Jones and he literally slammed the door in our faces and told us to fuck off. We were completely shocked. So we went back to my apartment and we started entertaining ourselves. We bought a couple of bottles of champagne and started grooving and singing (to the tune of 'Le Freak'), 'Oh fuck off, fuck Studio 54' and it sounded great to us. Bernard said, 'Wow this shit is happening,' but I was like, 'Man we can't get fuck off on the radio,' so we changed it to freak off and that sounded terrible and then all of a sudden I went back to my old hippie roots and thought about when you have a bad trip and you freak out. Bernard had no idea what I was talking about so I was like, 'Oh sorry bro, like when you get down on the dance floor with the hot chicks.' It was our homage to a Chubby Checker song called the 'Peppermint Twist.'
How about 'I'm Coming Out.'
We went to this transvestite club but everyone went there. I went to the bathroom and I happened to notice on either side there were a bunch of Diana Ross impersonators. I ran outside and called Bernard and told him about it and said, 'What if we recognize Diana Ross's really cool alignment with her fan base in the gay community?' So we sat down and wrote, 'I'm Coming Out.' Meanwhile Diana took a rough mix to the top DJ in the country who hated it and she came back really down in the dumps and she asked us, 'Why are you trying to ruin my career?' She asked us point blank if this was a gay record and if people were going to think she was gay. It's the only time in my life I've ever lied to an artist. I looked her straight in the eye and said, 'Are you kidding?'
Didn't she get she was a gay icon?
You have to put this stuff in context. Now it just sounds like a pop song. This was the summer of disco sucks. When that happened it was because they hated gay people, they hated black people and women. Look at the pictures of who was there at that disco sucks thing. There ain't a gay person in that baseball stadium, there ain't a black person there and it was a sellout, 70,000 people. And Diana Ross lived in a bubble; she lived in the world of Motown which totally protected her.
What's your take on the music industry today?
The industry, I don't even understand. I'm completely perplexed. I don't know how it works. All I know is they come up with a lot of hit records that I loved. How they do it, I don't know. There are a ton of great records out there right now. The problem is I don't feel like there are a ton of great albums. I grew up in the era of the concept album. What I do now is pick up on singles and they are their own complete stories, you don't necessarily have to hear the rest of the album because I don't think albums are created like that anymore. They get songs from all over the place. There's five, six, seven different producers so it feels like it's not made as an album but a bunch of hit songs.
You were a coke addict and ended up in a closet with a samurai sword.
I had done coke for years but I had never suffered from cocaine psychosis. That particular night I had been up for four days straight doing coke and drinking and then finally it all came crashing down on me. I thought there was a mafia contract out on me because I had a night of insanely wild sex with a bunch of girls and one of them was the girlfriend of a well known hit man. I hid in a closet with guns and I literally could hear voices in my head saying, 'Nile here he comes.' I've never had another drink or drug since. That was 17 years ago.
Was that your moment of clarity?
Actually what really got me sober was the fact I was in Miami Beach to work with an artist and he and I had gone out and I performed with him. I remember in the nightclub thinking I was great. Then when I went to his house the next day he played a tape of the night before and I was so embarrassed. I couldn't believe how bad I sounded and I thought of all the great teachers I had, I'd let them down. That's why I really stopped because I was embarrassed.
You have prostate cancer. How's your health?
It's iffy. In the middle somewhere. I feel great today. I generally feel good. I think the fact the book has come out has given me a renewed sense of excitement because there's a job to do now.