WHEN NILE Rodgers and Chic take to the stage of the Galway Arts Festival Big Top on Thursday July 19 there are two songs that audiences will be most looking forward to - 1978 mega hit ‘Le Freak’ and the following year’s ‘Good Times’, one of the most influential pieces of music ever recorded.
To understand Chic’s place in popular music history, consider this assessment from allmusic.com: “There can be little argument that Chic was disco’s greatest band...Chic’s distinctive approach not only resulted in some of the finest dance singles of their time, but also helped create a template for urban funk, dance-pop, and even hip-hop.”
‘Le Freak’ began life not as ‘F*** off!’, an angry reaction to not being allowed into New York’s ultra hip nightclub Studio 54 on New Year’s Eve 1977.
“We had been invited by Grace Jones,” Nile tells me during our Thursday morning interview. “She was considering me and my partner Bernard Edwards [Chic bassist and co-songwriter] as producers and writers for what would have been her upcoming album. We turned up at the club and told the doorman we were her personal guests. The guy just smiled and told us to ‘F*** off’.
“We waited around for a while but we were not going to get in. In those days, things like that did bother us. We went around the corner to my apartment and started jamming on a groove and I went back to my hippy, radical, roots and started singing ‘F*** off!’. We changed it to ‘Freak off!’ as it’s a good euphemism.”
Nile and Bernard were still not satisfied by the vocal hook though. Then they remembered a locally popular dance style.
“There was a new dance in New York City called Le Freak and so we wrote about that,” he says. “The funny thing is that the dance never became super popular but our song was the only single to go triple platinum in Atlantic Records’ history! We played the song on American Bandstand, which was the number one music show back then, and the presenter Dick Clarke introduced it as ‘The biggest song by an unknown band about a dance nobody knows how to do!’”
Nile describes the song and the circumstances that led to it as “a beautiful, happy accident”. It was Chic’s fourth single, went to number one in several countries, and propelled the quartet into the big league. However the song led to some fascinating mondegreens among Francophones.
“When we played the song in France they thought ‘Le Freak’ meant ‘the money is hip or cool’ or ‘the police are freaks’, which is funny either way. In French speaking countries in Africa they though we were saying ‘L’Afrique c’est chic’. So everybody knows the song but not everyone knows it’s just our version of ‘Do The Twist’.”
The following year Chic delivered another classic in the shape of ‘Good Times’, propelled by a memorable bass riff from Bernard Edwards.
“‘Good Times’ was a song I had written the day before,” recalls Nile. “What you have to remember is that back then black artists were not given the same budgets and studio time as white artists. We didn’t go in and stay all day and write and record like rock artists. We were in the budget studios. We would go in for eight hour shifts and go off after that.
“The band didn’t know what the song was like except me and I only knew it in my head. I started playing it on guitar and Bernard copied my parts on the bass. For years we had wanted a song with a ‘walking bassline’ and as we were going along I shouted out to him ‘Walk! Walk!’ and that magical bassline started happening. It was all recorded and finished by 5pm!”
Queen’s John Deacon, a friend of the band, was in studio watching them record the song and it would inspire his own composition ‘Another One Bites The Dust’. Meanwhile the emerging hip-hop movement leapt on ‘Good Times’ and it formed the basis for rap’s first single - The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’.
“I feel very proud,” says Nile of the influence Chic have had upon rap, “but I don’t like to take the credit for something that was not intentional. The only intent was to make a good record. Hip hop people have told me that ‘Good Times’ is where the movement started. The term ‘hip hop’ came from MCs and DJs saying ‘We would take something hip and hop on it’ - cutting it up, scratching, playing songs together, making something new out of it, it’s very postmodern.
“What is a source of pride for me is when I go onstage with any MC and ‘Good Times’ starts they have a rhyme to rap over it, every time. Every MC back in the day got their bearings from that song as ‘Good Times’ was the music they used in the MC battles.”
Despite their enormous popularity, not even Chic could withstand the Disco Sucks backlash of 1979. Like The Bee Gees, Nile took time out to concentrate on writing and production, leading to numerous successful collaborations with Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, Jeff Beck, and The B-52s. How did the collaboration with David Bowie, which led to The Dame’s 1983 album, Let’s Dance, come about?
“There was a nightclub called The Continental, it was a very cool place, so cool it did not open until four or five o’clock in the morning! I saw David Bowie was at the bar, sitting all by himself drinking orange juice, in one of the coolest clubs in New York!
“I got up my courage and went over to him and introduced myself. He was living in an apartment complex where many of my friends - Carlos Alomar, Luther Vandorss, members of Bowie’s band - also lived. We started talking about jazz, which is my main love, and Bowie’s a big jazz fan too. We explored each other before we decided to make music.
“What people forget is that David didn’t have a record deal at that time. Neither did I. Atlantic had rejected our latest offering, so it was him and me against the world, and he paid for the recording of that album himself. David came from a rock background and was used to being in the studio all day and all night, but I was used to doing albums quickly in eight hour shifts. He was shocked that we recorded, mixed, and delivered it in 17 days like black artists did.”
The result was Bowie’s biggest selling album and one of this best ever singles in the title track. Not bad for slightly more than two weeks work.
My feet keep dancing
Disco may be history but over the past 35 years Nile has never stopped working. He remains an in-demand producer, solo artist and composer, and tours with the latest incarnation of Chic, playing major festivals across the globe. He also found the time to write his autobiography last year.
However 2011 also saw Nile diagnosed with cancer. Despite the disease (he has written openly, and often movingly, about his experiences on his Planet C blog on nilerodgers.com ) he refuses to let it get the better of him.
“Cancer is not a death sentence,” he says, “but if it is, you don’t have to worry until the day you die. The day you are not dead you are still alive and can do stuff. A few days ago I had an emergency. On the Sunday I was on all-night medication, by Monday I was playing in Ibiza.
“The day I was diagnosed I had a concert to do in Rome the following day. My doctor said I could not travel in my condition. It was a Thursday when I got the news, and I told him, ‘It won’t kill me over the weekend, so I’ll talk to you next week’ and I did the concert.”
Support on the night is from Nouvelle Vague.