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NILE RODGERS: THE GROOVE, THE HARMONY AND THE NOTES BETWEEN THE NOTES

Interview by Simon Glickman

Nile Rodgers’ contributions to modern music extend in all directions. As co-founder/guitarist of Chic, he helped craft some of the most foundational grooves of the disco era—and inspired the first giant hip-hop record. He co-penned such monster hits as “Upside Down” for Diana Ross and “We Are Family” for Sister Sledge. He helmed huge, career-elevating recordings by David Bowie, Madonna, INXS, Duran Duran and the B-52’s, among others. He collaborated with Daft Punk on the epochal Random Access Memories (and shared in the Grammy hardware). A multiple-Grammy winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, he’s also Chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and a Chief Creative Advisor at Abbey Road Studios. He continues to tour with Chic (which released an album of new material in 2018). And the sound of his “chucking” rhythm style—notably on his Fender Stratocaster, aptly dubbed “the hitmaker”—is an indelible component of groove music in our time. Another thing Nile would probably like to chuck? Us.

I wanted to start with your own definition of funk. What are its primary characteristics?
To me, the term “funk” is a little broad. Even bands that are considered to be funk bands don’t always play hardcore funk, and people who aren’t considered funk bands can play funky. I think of myself as a funky guitar player, but most people don’t necessarily consider me a funk guitar player, because my band, Chic, was not considered a funk band.

Funk for me feels much more like a state of mind. I think of many bands that I thought had great funk songs—and maybe even funk albums—but I wouldn’t necessarily consider them exclusively funk. Bands that are considered exclusively funk bands are pretty rare. But for R&B bands that came from a certain period, funk was part of the language that we spoke with. For me, funk is the interpretive language that I like to speak with. So when I’m playing guitar, I typically want my parts to be funky. That’s not to say that I don’t fingerpick or that I don’t play country music and classical guitar. I do that too. But typically I want to be the funky person on any record I’m on, even if other people aren’t—because I’ve chosen that rhythmic style and that rhythmic approach to my musical language.

So just put it in layperson’s terms: If I were to play with Bob Dylan, which I’ve done, I specifically make my parts to be more funky. That doesn’t mean that I wanna turn a Dylan song into a funk song, but my voice speaks in a funky manner. Just like if you had a gospel singer and you want them to really blow, you have a certain vibe that you want them to do. If you have a great country singer and you want them to do their thing, you want them to speak with the voice that represents them the best.

We’re talking about syncopation, about a certain kind of rhythmic inflection in the playing, adding rhythmic depth.
You are so spot-on, and the thing that makes syncopation really important to me, Miles Davis explained perfectly. It’s something I believe in almost as a religion. It’s the notes between the notes. It’s the silence that makes you funky. The reason I feel like my style is particularly funky is because I make the notes between the notes very silent—I dampen them with my right hand as well. I don’t just let go with my left hand; I let go of my left hand and I dampen with my right hand.

When I hear your guitar in my head, which I often do, I know what you mean in terms of those spaces. The spaces are part of what make your body move in response to that music.
Exactly right. That’s why, when my partnership with Bernard Edwards formed, we were such a great team—because he, like myself, stopped the notes with his right hand. It was unbelievable, because we had not met each other. And we played on this first gig together and we noticed our techniques were very similar. At that time, I was playing more of a jazz technique, but even then I was quite aware of the sympathetic notes that would continue to ring on a big, hollow-body jazz box. Bernard taught me how to “chuck,” and he said, “Man, with your style and your harmonic knowledge, you could do something really special.” And because of my theoretical training and what Bernard taught me about the right hand, all of a sudden my style became distinctively mine. People can tell when I’m playing guitar. That’s been the big deal to me, to work on something that sounds unique and original, even though I’m sort of an amalgamation of people who preceded me.

Which players and records made you want to play funky?
Wow. I would say one of the biggest single influences when I was younger was “Pusherman” on [Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 film soundtrack] Superfly. And, of course, almost every James Brown record. I really copied that style, I cannot lie. I listened to those records, and I noticed that those guys playing with James Brown—and I know he changed personnel sometimes—they all have that concept of the silence between the notes. They were always really tight.

When Isaac Hayes did Shaft, the wah-wah was playing all the way through the groove, but still it had that thing, because it was changing tone so drastically, which created the sense of silence between the notes. It was incredibly funky, but in a different style.

And that’s why I say it’s such a broad term, because all this stuff was funky, but very, very different. I mean, when I first heard The Ohio Players, I thought that was the funkiest thing I’d ever heard in my life. Then all of a sudden, I started listening to Graham Central Station and the individual players, and I thought, Oh, Jesus, I’ve never heard anything so funky. But what’s wonderful about the world is that it’s all ever-changing. So the concept of funk, and a funk band, starts to broaden ever more.

Over the past few decades, what are the records that have kept that vibe going? Most playlists of great funk records are pretty heavily weighted toward the late ’60s through the mid-’70s. I think of “Get Lucky,” which you did with Daft Punk and Pharrell, as an example of bringing that feel into the present.
And a song on that album that’s even more funky than “Get Lucky” is “Lose Yourself to Dance.” It’s completely in the style of James Brown, just guitar, bass and drums—no keyboard at all. I always kept the same interval on every chord that I jumped to. But the reason why it sounds so ultra-funky is because you just hit [sings] that-top-note-dah-dah-dah. The harmony beneath it was always changing. It’s very hard to do. I mean, for me it’s easy, but for most people it’s very hard.

Nile lays it down with Chic and poses with (top to bottom) Grace Jones, Diana Ross, Jimmy Jam and Kathy Sledge.

Well, you’ve got that in your DNA at this point, I would imagine.
Yeah, but it’s an intense discipline. It’s very different from what a lot of people associate with guitar playing, because it’s really about holding it down, keeping the motor running. And because I come from a jazz and classical background, if it was only about keeping the groove tight, it wouldn’t be interesting to me. It’s the fact that I know so much about harmony that I could play the same song a hundred different ways and it still sounds like the same song. So that keeps it really interesting for me.

This isn’t really a question about musicianship, but I wonder if you can say a little about your sense of funk as something that has a social or political dimension.
The whole thing about funk is to make people dance. No funk musician wants to play and just see people static, right? That is the worst feeling in the world. George Clinton used to always say, I want to move your booty. I want loose booty. Get off your ass and jam. You always want people dancing; that’s really the essence of our thing.

In a strange way, in America, because we always strive to grow and become different artists, sometimes we get a wee bit more esoteric and concentrate on the lyrical content more than the rhythmic content. That doesn’t mean that both can’t work simultaneously, but sometimes we want to have people understand us more—we want our voices to be heard. But I’ve come to accept that sometimes, the loudest voice I could speak with is my instrument. If I try and explain the double entendre or the deep hidden meaning of a song, I may not be very good at it. But once I pick up the guitar, I feel like people get it.

In the old days, the vacuum-cleaner salesman just needed to get his foot in the door; then he would talk you into buying the thing. That groove was my way to get my foot in the door, and then it was up to me to sell you on the rest of the concept. But if you’re not interested in the first place, it doesn’t mean anything. That’s why I would say 99% of the songs that I’ve ever composed start with the hook: “Le Freak,” “Good Times,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Upside Down,” “We Are Family.” I started with the chorus because we figured out early on that if the chorus was the payoff, why not pay them off right away and then let them get into the meal? It’s like serving the dessert first.

What do you have on the horizon?
I have so much. I was just working with Thundercat, and I’m going to write with him. Just in the last couple of days I did Adam Lambert and Rebecca Ferguson—we just did a monster with her last night. Friends of mine came by, and they were in the studio crying. And as Chief Creative Advisor at Abbey Road, I work with a lot of U.K. artists; I’ll have a bunch of stuff coming out.

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a better place. I feel so grounded. [Chic’s] concerts are amazing. I just posted on my Instagram account that the concert of the year for Chic was Rock in Rio, and the clip that I posted was the opening to “Le Freak,” where I play it by myself. It’s different every night. And that particular night, we were feeling like a million bucks, and I just went bananas. We’ve been on tour with Cher—and according to Cher, we will be for the rest of her life. But we’ve just done a full year with her, and we’re doing next year as well. We’re just like a big family. We love her.

Thanks for all the incredible music, and for taking the time to chat.
My pleasure. I hope it all made sense!

 

 

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