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The Hitmaker: An Interview With Legendary Producer Nile Rodgers

Live for Live Music co-founder Chris Meyer recently had the opportunity to interview “The Hitmaker” Nile Rodgers. The guitarist and founder of Chic is also one of the most legendary producers, arrangers, and composers of the last forty years, having both produced and recorded with legendary artists such as David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Daft Punk, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duran Duran, Jeff Beck, and Mick Jagger just to name a few. He is responsible for hits like Chic’s “Le Freak”, “Good Times”, I Want Your Love”, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out”, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and “Material Girl”, David Bowie’s entire Let’s Dance album, The B-52’s “Love Shack” and “Roam”… you should get the point by now.

At the moment, Rodgers has reunited with Duran Duran to produce their latest album, Paper Gods, is working in the studio with Keith Urban on an EDM-Country album, finishing up the first Chic album in 20 years (which features a duet between Elton John and Janelle Monae), has plans to record with Beck this summer, and has been both producing and curating the upcoming FOLD Festival (Freak Out!, Let’s Dance!) on August 4th and 5th at Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead, NY which will feature performances from Beck, Duran Duran, Chic, Pharrell Williams, Keith Urban, Q-Tip, Thomas Gold, GTA, and many more. We sat down to chat with Rodgers about the FOLD Festival and his endless amount of energy to keep working on music.

L4LM: What is the concept behind FOLD Festival?

NR: Basically, this is an idea that I had a few years back at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I don’t know if it would be called clinical synesthesia, I have never been diagnosed or anything, but basically I have music playing in my head at all times continuously, which is why I think I am able to constantly be working on music with so many artists and do records endlessly. I always have ideas, they’re not always good ideas (laughs), they could totally suck, but they are ideas nonetheless.

When I was younger I was a jazz snob, as a matter of fact disco, or boogaloo, or any subset of R&B was really considered a derogatory term coming out of the mouth of jazz musicians. So one night, my girlfriend, who worked at a jazz club, and I went out one night to a disco and they were playing the song “Love To Love You, Baby” by Donna Summer, and when the song normally would stop the DJ mixed another record into it, and it was the first time I heard what was going on in the outside world being a reflection of what was going on inside my head, which was continuous music. I was like, “Whoa! What the hell just happened?” From the moment we walked into the club to the moment we left, there was just continuous music and I said to my girlfriend, ‘I want to be a part of that,’ because that is what living in my head is like, continuous music all the time. The disco movement has continuous music in their environment.

I never thought of it like this before until speaking with you, but maybe it was a form of validation. It made me think, ‘Hey, I’m not crazy! Maybe the world is changing to what is going on in my mind everyday.” Up until that moment, a song started, a symphony started – be it a movement or a suite – a jukebox started, but they all ended, until the next song began. Maybe what my head was doing was filling in the spaces where the music stopped.

Soooo….fast-forward to Montreux Jazz Festival. I spoke to the CEO and I said that I wanted to try something, and see if I could simulate what discos do with live music; there would never be a plausible break in sound. As soon as one band finished, the next band knew the last note of the last song and would start back in. Mind you, we had rehearsal time for this. But as the curator, I could tell the bands what song to end with, or start with, and go from there.

L4LM: Everything has a beginning somewhere, right?

NR: Completely. It was just a concept at that point. This is just the context of where the idea for FOLD came from. It was a challenge that needs to have the production, video, timing, all sort of technical issues that need to be addressed for a concert with continuous music with live bands. So, logistically it is extremely difficult to pull this off, but artistically, I touched a note with Montreaux’s founder Claude Nobs. He was intrigued, it was a new concept, so we went with it. And while we had some minor issues, we mainly pulled it off and were planning to do it again the following year. Unfortunately, the following year Claude went skiing, had an accident and died. Completely tragic.

But now the next year brought new people, they didn’t have a relationship with me, and weren’t into the idea. So, I had the opportunity to do something like this out at Martha Clara Vineyards two years ago with Avicii, Chromeo, Adam Lambert, Prince Paul, and my friend Russell Peters. The vineyard is what we call a primitive venue, as you need to basically build a festival site. So, that was certainly a task, but we pulled it off, then took some time to put this together.

L4LM: I had the pleasure of attending the All For The East End (AFTEE) Benefit festival that you threw two years ago, with Avicii, Chromeo, Adam Lambert, and others. It was a great time, a complete dance party, and Martha Clara Vineyards provided the perfect backdrop.

NR: Yeah, we were happy with it overall. I want to make this happen every year. There are so many reasons why I want to be able to speak for the Tri-State area. There is going to be such a great vibe at FOLD this year.

So, when I had this idea at Montreux, people told me that you can’t have DJ’s, you can’t have this, you can’t have that. So, I tried to relate to them and let them know that I was very much of that same frame of mind earlier in life, at a certain age I was a jazz snob, and I didn’t realize that this music spoke to me until I gave it a chance. So, we pushed forward with the concept, and I started out by playing Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man” and I talked about the evolution of music, which was followed by Felix da Housecat then playing the same song. But one of the other DJ’s, who was also a concert pianist, started playing “Sinner Man”, and is killing it, but then switches it up and goes into a cantata and people are just blown away, and that was that moment that needed to happen. It changed people’s perception of ‘electronic dance music’.

A band like Yazoo, for instance, IS synth-pop and was in the 80’s. For me, it’s about paying homage to this music. I want you to hear Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart” the way she recorded it, not MY band playing it. So, we moved forward, and I had DJ Tavarez come out and play and it just went off. It was an amazing show. We had Mark Ronson play; it was just overall an unbelievable experience to have so much crossing of genres in one place.

Like, how many times have I played here with Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy….all of these well-respected guys. But on this one night, I wanted to turn everything upside down and present things differently. So, at the end of the night, Felix da Housecat is spinning until 5am, and ends the show with Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and brought the house down. One of the smartest moves I have ever witnessed, it was just killer. Eleven continuous hours, it was such a great time.

L4LM: And the FOLD lineup is certainly one that covers all genres. With Beck, Duran Duran, Keith Urban, Pharrell, Q-Tip, Chaka Khan, Thomas Gold, GTA….

NR: One of the biggest criticisms I have received is, ‘Where does Keith Urban fit in to this?’ And I’m thinking to myself – I have been working with this guy for the last several weeks, and I am having withdrawals from not creating with him right now. He can sing like you can’t believe. It’s just ridiculous.

And wait until you see who is showing up that I can’t name because of radius clauses. This is going to be off the charts fun. Each day is going to be jam-packed with music, it’s going to be non-stop for 6+ hours.

This isn’t going to be like the traditional concert/festival setting. Why do most people go to festivals? Because you are going with your friends. I’m trying to make it so you will be afraid to go to the bathroom and miss something; just a straight onslaught of music, completely bombard people’s senses.

L4LM: And for yourself as an artist/producer/arranger, you work with Daft Punk, Duran Duran, and so many others. Is there a transition that needs to be made when working with an artist from one genre to an artist in a completely different musical realm?

NR: Trust me when I say that it is seamless. I always explain to people that there is no difference between me working with Placido Domingo or working with Basement Jaxx. I feel just as comfortable working with the New York Philharmonic as I do with The New York Dolls.

L4LM: Your nickname “The Hitmaker” seems to be entirely apropos.

NR: The BBC did a documentary about me called The Hitmaker a year or two ago, and my engineer, when we were doing the first Chic record he saw that I hired the New York Philharmonic and was like, “How the hell is this black kid from the streets going to make this work and handle these guys? These are the most snobbish musicians in the world, they don’t take shit from anybody.” In all fairness, he didn’t know my background, and was just going off what he saw physically. But, these were people that I had gone to school with. I was into classical music and made the transition over to jazz, then to disco and R&B. I just evolved. Even though I was a composer, I evolved into an artist and producer. One day I was playing behind people, the next I was actually conducting. Look at the first Chic albums and see the heavyweights that are on that record.

The other day I saw Jon Faddis on my way to Los Angeles. I hadn’t seen him in years and was like, “Jon! So good to see you. We are making a new Chic album, I would love to have you on it.” And Jon said to me, “I’m a teacher, I don’t really play anymore.” I forgot that when I was starting out, he was already a star for many years at that point. 

L4LM: You had mentioned the difficulty of putting an event like FOLD Festival together.

NR: The amount of planning that has gone into FOLD, and really most festivals in general, is insane. It’s a logistical nightmare, but luckily we have had most people on our side. This is good for the community overall as well; you can’t get things approved if it doesn’t benefit the surrounding community, and that is the way it should be. When planning a major event, helping the local communities is important in so many ways. And if we pull this off, think about 4-5 years down the road and all of the possibilities.

People have no clue, they just don’t get it. It’s always funny to me when people come up with the idea of “Hey, let’s raise money for charity and throw a concert.” It’s like, guys it costs sometimes millions of dollars, and if you are lucky a few hundred thousand dollars just to get it going. You might be better off just asking for the money. 

L4LM: I noticed that Ticketmaster and Live Nation have nothing to do with this. That makes it even harder to accomplish, doesn’t it?

NR: That is correct. I have put everything on my back with FOLD, and when you do something like this you need commitment from everyone involved. And all of these incredible artists made that commitment to me and to the festival, and they have moved their schedules around and their lives around to do this, which means a lot.

I don’t live a flamboyant lifestyle. This isn’t about me making money, I am not in the concert business, I am in the art business. I want to make art with these people. I want to hang with Beck for a few days, and can’t wait to record with him during that time period. I can’t wait to hang with Paloma Faith. She is amazing.

I am so happy that she is doing well. There are a couple of people in my life, like Paloma and Kanye West, and I was so happy that they did so well at Glastonbury this year. Some people will tell you “Kanye isn’t really an artist.” And, I don’t care what you say, but the one thing can’t say is that he isn’t an artist. He may be a lot of things that you may not agree with, but he is definitely an artist. And his set at Glastonbury was so dope.

L4LM: It certainly looked memorable.

NR: And I heard the same thing about Paloma. She was getting ragged on a few days prior to that, and I was surprised because we have kicked it before and I thought she was wonderful.  And her set crushed, it was so nice to see.

L4LM: Glastonbury is certainly one of those festivals that seems to bring out the best in an artist.

NR: It truly is amazing. Chic played there a couple of years ago, and it was one of the wildest experiences of our career. When you get a chance check out Chic’s performance from Glastonbury during “Good Times.” The response we received from the crowd brought me to tears. A few years prior to that I had been diagnosed with cancer and was fortunate enough to beat that. So, when I got back into making music one of the first songs I wrote was “Get Lucky” with Daft Punk and it broke a few weeks before Glastonbury. We hadn’t even put it in our set, because I wasn’t sure if it had even dropped yet. Afterwards, I found out we played to 55,000 people, as 20,000 people has barged in and the place came to a complete standstill and was packed out, and the entire crowd was singing the song to us on stage. One of the most surreal moments of my life.

L4LM: I saw Chic at the AFTEE Benefit at Martha Clara two summers ago, and your set was so much fun. It was a complete dance party from beginning to end.

NR: And we had so much fun playing to that crowd. That was another great night. Music truly is a beautiful thing.

L4LM: Chic is getting ready to release your first album in over 20 years, and just released the first single video for it with “I’ll Be There” which features some clips of the band playing on Soul Train back in the day, and supermodel Karlie Kloss looking extremely sexy while playing vinyls in her apartment and dancing to the track.

NR: Thank you so much, I appreciate it. The album is amazing. The duets that we had on that album blew my mind. That wasn’t even planned out, but then we played a party at Elton John’s and we got him to sing on the album, along with Janelle Monae. This album was a lot of fun to make.

L4LM: Live for Live Music recently ran a story about you “busking” in the streets of London. How was that experience and what was the impetus for that happening?

NR: That was awesome. I had played to 80,000 people the night before, then to 80 the next day in the park. I did it to help launch Sky Arts, which was coming back online, and the producers told me that Sky Arts was going to be something for everybody, which reminded me of my old arts teacher who worked very hard at making me not be a snob. He used to say to me, “Nile, art is all around you, all you have to do is stop, look, and listen.” So, I said ok cool, I’m into it. They dressed me up in disguise, I went out there and started playing bossa nova, which didn’t really get people’s interests. When I played “Freak Out” all of a sudden people stopped and started singing and dancing. People still didn’t realize that it was me, they were just into the music at that point. Then we took the disguise off, and then it clicked and became a party.

Chic’s Nile Rodgers Went Busking For Money On The Streets And Only Made… How Much?

L4LM: You even did a cover of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”….

NR: Ha! Yeah, me singing “Like a Virgin” in F-sharp in the early morning with barely any voice. She struggles with it and she is a girl!

L4LM: Thanks so much Nile, we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us and look forward to attending the FOLD Festival in August.

                                 **** Tickets for the FOLD Festival are currently on-sale. Purchase tickets here ****