From chic to the big C - how disco legend Nile Rodgers got lucky
Ahead of his Londonderry gig this weekend, the disco icon tells Chris Jones why the fear of dying spurred him on to write yet more classic pop, including Daft Punk's summer hit
It would be difficult to blame Nile Rodgers if he was content to kick back, put his feet up and watch the royalty cheques roll in.
After all, the disco legend recently turned 60, and it's only two years since he battled prostate cancer. After leading the disco revolution with his band Chic and going on to produce hit records for David Bowie, Madonna, Diana Ross and many others, he's probably entitled to a little bit of R&R. But that's not his style.
Our conversation takes place not long after Chic's debut performance at Glastonbury, where they led an ecstatic crowd through a potted history of Rodgers' career – not just Chic classics like Le Freak, Everybody Dance and Good Times but also many of the songs Rodgers has written with other people, including bona fide classics like Sister Sledge's We Are Family, Bowie's Let's Dance and Diana Ross's Upside Down. A Chic show is 90 minutes of pure musical delirium and on Sunday night Londonderry will get its first-ever taste when he rolls into town with Chic.
"I imagine that this gig in Derry is going to be amazing," he says, "and then coming back to Belfast [in October] will be even better. I just know that I walk out on stage and do the best job I can, every night."
It's not just the constant touring that keeps Rodgers busy, however. He recently collaborated with enigmatic French stars Daft Punk, co-writing and playing on three tracks on their current album Random Access Memories, including the massively successful single Get Lucky. Rodgers met the duo for the first time in 1997, but it took 16 years of talking for them to get around to working together. Eventually, he got the call and they made it happen, coincidentally (or perhaps not – he doesn't know) recording in the same New York studio, Electric Lady, that spawned many of Rodgers' greatest hits.
"I went down to the studio to play one song, and it happened to be the studio where Chic cut our first single – Dance Dance Dance (Yowsa Yowsa Yowsa)," he says. "Think of how cool that is, just on a spiritual level. They're big Chic fans so there's something to the magic of that."
One song became two, two became three and Rodgers jokes that "had I not had to leave town, we'd probably still be recording!" Although Daft Punk are better known as producers than performers, Rodgers saw no difference between this collaboration and others like Madonna and Bowie. He says: "We did it in exactly the same way. I take into account who they are, and I play the appropriate role in that situation, which in this case was to help write a song and play some really cool guitar grooves," he laughs. "There's no record that I've produced that I don't play on. Every time I work with an artist, I basically join their band."
That being said, don't expect to see Rodgers on stage with Daft Punk any time soon – despite his starring role in a teaser video for the album, which showed the three men miming to Get Lucky.
"It would have to be planned," he says of any prospective link-up. "That's the whole thing. I have no problem if they decide they want to play it in six or eight months and rehearse it and do a real great show. That's cool with me, but we haven't discussed it."
Rodgers knows only too well that he's fortunate to be able to think that far ahead. In October 2010, he was given the news that he had "very aggressive cancer", a short time after he had turned in his finished autobiography to his publisher. The illness is therefore addressed only in a last-minute epilogue, but Rodgers chronicled the entire experience on his blog, Walking On Planet C. Now "cancer-free", he is disarmingly frank about it.
"I don't think I felt the fear at first, I felt dishonesty," he says. "I was like, 'Wait a minute, I have a book going to press and this guy is telling me I have very aggressive cancer. I could very well die before this book comes out. I feel dishonest if I don't bring it up'. So I called my publisher and said, 'Look, I have to write an epilogue – this has gotta be in there'. I called my mom, told her about the diagnosis, she freaked out so I lied to her and said, 'Oops, they misdiagnosed me'. And we wound up having a really happy Thanksgiving."
How bad was the situation?
"It was really bad. Really, really, really bad. And I don't know how it is now, I just know what they say. Remember, on October 29, 2010, I was cancer-free, because they hadn't found it.
"That's the definition of cancer-free – either you really don't have cancer, or they just haven't found it. I'm smart enough to know that now. So when I say 'cancer-free', that's with a grain of salt."
Rodgers admits that his current frenzied level of activity is partly due to his brush with death. "I think that it's been positive in the long run," he says.
"Since they made it known to me that death could be imminent, I decided to do what makes me feel best, which is work on music.
"So I've embarked upon writing, performing and producing more music than I ever have in my life, which is already a ludicrous amount."
Indeed, the Daft Punk collaboration (right) has capped a whirlwind couple of years for Rodgers, during which his personal stock has arguably risen higher than at any point since disco fever was at its height.
The autobiography was released to great acclaim almost a year after his initial diagnosis, by which time he was well enough to embark on a gruelling, but very successful promotional tour. Those interviews benefited from his enormous well of anecdotes and winning charm, while at the same time focusing on all the incredible music that he is responsible for.
Since then, there have been adoring radio and TV documentaries and collaborations with a new generation of musicians including Adam Lambert, Avicii and Chase & Status. And while he acknowledges the increased attention, he insists that very little has changed.
"I'm definitely not a celebrity in the traditional sense," he says. "Celebrities are stars – Brad Pitt's a star, Tom Cruise, Kanye West, Jay-Z. I'm not that person and never will be.
"Yeah, I get a little more recognition and I think it's because of my work.
"The book was a connection, to draw a straight line from the thing that you hear to the people who created it. So from that book, other things started to happen.
"If you understand that the music has always been the star, it's just that I have more stars in my life.
"I have Daft Punk, which is new, I have my compilation [Up All Night]. I'm starring more because my music is starring more.
"But when I check into the hotel I'm still the guy with three gigantic bags and my guitar slung over my shoulder, the same as I've always been."
From Diana Ross to David Bowie, what a sound guy...
Five of the best from Nile's star-studded career
Chic – Le Freak
The monster hit that put Chic on the map, Le Freak was famously inspired by Rodgers and Chic bandmate Bernard Edwards being refused entry to hip New York nightclub Studio 54. Altogether now 'Aaahhhh, freak out!'.
Chic – Good Times
An insanely funky disco classic, Edwards' indelible bassline was sampled that same year by the Sugarhill Gang to form the backbone of Rapper's Delight – hip-hop's first hit single.
Diana Ross – I'm Coming Out
Ross and her label, Motown, were so unhappy with Chic-produced album Diana that the whole thing was remixed without their knowledge. Nevertheless, it became her most successful record and I'm Coming Out was a strident, defiant first single.
David Bowie – Let's Dance
In 1983, Rodgers and Bowie (left) were both in the doldrums, but they drove each other to greater heights when they collaborated on the album Let's Dance. The title track is a perfect synthesis of Bowie's urbane pop and Rodgers' disco stardust.
Daft Punk – Lose Yourself To Dance
Get Lucky maybe be the song of the summer, but this little number is arguably even better. Rodgers is on dynamite form with a maddeningly catchy riff, while Pharrell Williams exhorts us to do exactly what it says in the title.
With pleasure, sir!