Masterclass: Nile Rodgers & Chic
When Chic formed back in 1976, they set a new precedent for one of dance music’s most iconic genres… disco! 40 years later and the band remain a force to be reckoned with, bringing infectious grooves and the spirit of Studio 54 – New York’s legendary nightclub – to audiences worldwide.
Chic’s founder and multi-Grammy winning guitarist, Nile Rodgers, is credited with taking disco to a whole new level, having penned some of the genre’s best-loved hits including: ‘Good Times’, ‘Everybody Dance’, ‘I Want Your Love’ and ‘Le Freak’, which spent 37 years as Atlantic Records’ biggest-selling single until recently.
The hitmaker and influential musician has enjoyed an illustrious career working alongside some of the world’s most famous artists including David Bowie, Diana Ross, Debbie Harry, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry and Sister Sledge.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Chic are celebrating their 40th Anniversary – a landmark achievement that reflects their timeless appeal and immeasurable contribution to music. To mark the occasion, we invited Nile Rodgers and Chic to London’s beautiful Bush Hall for an exclusive BIMM London masterclass. To our delight, they obliged!
Flanked by Ralph Rolle (drums/vocals) and Jerry Barnes (bass/vocals), Nile spoke openly about his spectacular career in music with Guardian journalist and BIMM Tutor, Paul Lester. Paul described Nile and his late creative partner, Bernard Edwards, as the ‘Lennon and McCartney of the dance floor’.
Nile, who has sold 200 million albums and 50 million singles worldwide, spoke with enthusiasm and charm as he recalled the songs that made both he and Bernard famous.
“What we accomplished in just two short years, between 1977 and 1979 – before working with the likes of Diana Ross and Bowie – with just one little band is incredible to think,” he beamed. “Artists these days take years to produce just one album.”
So, where did it begin? Nile captivated our packed audience of students and lecturers while recalling the story of Chic’s inception. To our surprise, the group had actually been inspired by a certain English glam rock band, as Nile explained:
“It all happened rather quickly. We were a rock n roll band trying to figure out cool stuff to do. I came to the UK with a group called New York City. We had one hit record ‘I’m Doing Fine Now’, and our last gig was here in London, and somehow my bag was stolen with my ID. I had no money or passport so I couldn’t go home. My girlfriend at the time loved this band called Roxy Music and asked if we could go check them out. We went to some club called The Roxy or something to see Roxy Music, and the audience looked beautiful.”
Inspired by the glitz and glamour of Roxy Music, Nile Returned to New York to set about forming Chic. The disco superstar spoke with a glint in his eye as he recalled the band’s early beginnings before playing a snippet of the Chic’s first song, ‘Everybody Dance’.
The conversation later turned to Chic’s initial struggles trying to find a record deal. Paul Lester pointed out how they had been rejected by several labels, simply because they were ahead of their time.
“Record companies never know what to do; they’re always perplexed. When you are doing something new, it takes a while to set in,” quipped Nile. “When it comes to marketing music, labels would always say the most important thing is repetition. Because the more people hear it, the more they start to understand it. That’s why everyone wants heavy rotation on the radio.” To back this up, Jerry sings Rhianna’s ‘Work’ to the audiences amusement.
The masterclass was filled with highlights and a host of brilliant stories, which gave some insight into one of the biggest bands on the planet. We heard more about the time a nightclub played ‘Everybody Dance’ 20 times in a row, and how both he and Bernard had cut the track in secret while recording with their school friend, Luther Vandross for $10.
Nile also set the record straight on the inspiration for Chic’s most famous single, ‘Le Freak’. It was New Year’s Eve 1977, Grace Jones was hosting a private party at Studio 54 and had called them personally to invite them, She gave specific instructions on which door and what to say. Nile’s gave us a hilarious impersonation of Grace Jones, causing the room to erupt with laughter again.
Unfortunately, they were turned way because they used French accents to her security. They were told to f*ck off! and after another attempt, they responded by heading back to Nile’s apartment around the corner.
“That story has morphed and gotten a little but twisted. We had been in Studio 54 many times in the past, but through the front door, they knew us” he revealed. “On the way home, we bought two bottles of Dom Perignon, which we used to call ‘rock n roll mouthwash’ and we downed it really fast. Then we started to jam” explained Nile.
Nile took to his guitar to demonstrate how they eventually arrived at the song’s end product – and from the lyrics, ‘f*ck off’ to ‘freak out’! Le Freak became one of the biggest disco tracks of the 1970s and was actually the number 1 selling single at Atlantic Records for 37 years until two years ago.
Nile covered the whole scope of his career, from the themes that inspired some of Chic’s greatest ever records to the bizarre ‘Disco Sucks’ movement of 1979, which he explained was racist, sexist and anti-everything. Chic suffered heavily as a result, but nonetheless, Nile and Bernard became increasingly in-demand as producers, leading to collaborations with like likes of, Madonna and the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie.
Let’s not forget his rhythm section. Jerry and Ralph’s careers are very impressive too – having worked with artists from many different genres. Ralph has drummed all over the world – touring and recording with many big names including Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan and Pharrell. Jerry has produced, performed and written for many artists, including Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston and Diana Ross. And, of course, they’ve both worked with Prince!
When Paul asked what’s it like to be in a band with Nile, Jerry replied:
“I don’t want to get emotional, but Nile changed my life. There are not that many musicians that you look forward to playing with. His rhythm guitar style, his soul are unique. To sum it up, it’s like a weird dream fantasy come true. I never thought I’d play with him. It’s like playing with Stevie Wonder or Prince; there’s no difference. There’s nobody that plays like him. “
Ralph added, “We are like brothers. These guys are two of my greatest friends. When we find the zone, this place, it’s like a love affair.
Few musicians have managed to transcend and inspire quite like Nile Rodgers – it’s easy to see why he’s been in the business for so long.
Nile was brought to the limelight again in 2013 with Daft Punk, all while successfully beating cancer and touring with Chic. ‘Get Lucky’ shot straight to the top of the charts and Nile received three Grammy Awards (his first) for his work on the French duo’s sensational disco album, Random Access Memories.
Our session with Nile Rodgers and Chic could have gone on for hours, but before it ended, we were treated to a very special performance of ‘Let’s Dance’ where the masterclass turned into an impromptu gig with Ralph taking lead vocals and sounding fantastic!
After the masterclass, we caught up with Paul Lester and several BIMM students to get their reactions on Nile and Chic’s awe-inspiring masterclass.
“Nile Rodgers is a gift for a journalist, you just have to prod him with a couple of words, and he’s off with a 10-minute flight of fancy. He’s so engaging, candid and funny, you can’t do a bad interview with Nile,” revealed our seasoned host.
“It was incredible to see a legend like Nile Rodgers explaining how he made his hit songs and giving his views on the music industry. I feel so lucky,” added Will Tannergard, a BA1 Songwriting student at BIMM.
“I’m gobsmacked. I’m sure the words will come later, once I’ve had time to process and think about just what happened. It’s not something that many students get to witness at university,” revealed BA1 Music Production student Caspar Courlander.
Hazel Noisette, who is studying for a Diploma in vocals was as equally complimentary, describing the session as ‘mind-blowing’.
“I came along because I’m a massive David Bowie fan and meeting Nile Rodgers is a dream come true. His story telling is insane; he’s hilarious and engaging. The man has had massive hits, sold millions of records, and he’s still so modest and humble.”
Few performers can get a crowd going much like Nile Rodgers and Chic, they are masters of their craft and still sound as tight as they ever did. With a new album on its way and a brilliant new single, ‘I’ll Be There’ already doing the rounds, the group look unstoppable. It was an honour to have Nile and Chic involved with our latest masterclass; they truly are an inspiration to all of our aspirational BIMM students. We’d like to extend a massive thank you to Nile, Jerry and Ralph for joining us – we’re still pinching ourselves.
LONG LIVE DISCO! LONG LIVE CHIC!