The last thing on Nile Rodgers’ mind is retirement or taking a quick break. He has 25 records coming out next year. In fact, the veteran songwriter, guitarist, producer, arranger, best-selling author and bandleader has actually spent the last couple of years reworking and putting the finishing touches on It’s About Time, the first album of new material by his dancefloor outfit, Chic, in 26 years.
It’s About Time’s lead single “Till the World Falls,” features electronic act Mura Masa, multi-talented performer Vic Mensa and electro-pop artist Cosha over a percussive groove under Rodgers’ signature, slick guitar riffs. Collaborating with various artists past and present from all over the globe, Rodgers says, is what inspires the easygoing, gap-toothed Grammy Award winner to remain passionate about music.
“I’m working at a pace right now that I don’t think I’ve ever worked at in my life,” Rodgers says minutes before the National Museum of African-American Music’s (NMAAM) fifth annual Legends Gala. “I’ve traveled all over the world, and people have told me if it wasn’t for black American music, pop music wouldn’t exist.”
The 65-year-old visionary, who used his penmanship matched by his interpersonal savvy to lay gold (and platinum) classics for Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, INXS, Daft Punk, Pharrell, Michael Jackson, Sam Smith, Laura Mvula, Lady Gaga, Avicii, Keith Urban and Disclosure was just unanimously named Chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) for the next three years. Originally inducted in 2016, Rodgers’ tenure fills the shoes of Philadelphia soul architects Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the previous chairs.
Rodgers doesn’t simply produce hits. He creates anthems that change the pop music landscape. Via his imprint, The CHIC Organization, “Le Freak” continues its reign as the biggest selling single in Atlantic Records’ history. The memorable bass line of “Good Times” set the stage for the Sugarhill Gang’s classic “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop record to peak in the pop Top 40 in 1979. He’s even more proud to have scored the music for the classic 1988 comedy Coming to America, joking about crafting the memorable-but-silly “Soul-Glo” jingle. To Rodgers, who often wears a backwards bamboo Kangol beret over his chest-length dreadlocks and sunrise smile, along with a transparent Fender Stratocaster strapped to him, timeless music starts by making small talk with the artists.
“We operate from the heart,” reflects a finely-tailored Rodgers wearing a dark suit ornamented in zippers. “All of our records are nonfiction, which is probably why we can write so much stuff. We’re always writing about truth with fictional elements within it to make it a story. I always think about what I see around me that people are reacting to. I write about those things, try to make them make sense, and give them an actual narrative as opposed to an explosive line.”
Sister Sledge lead vocalist Kathy Sledge walks over to hug Rodgers in mid-speech. The petite singer flashes back to being a timid 16-year-old when “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” “Lost in Music” and the epic “We Are Family” were just brainstorms. Fearing the sibling vocal quartet’s records wouldn’t get played on radio, Sledge says Rodgers and his creative partner, the late Bernard Edwards, easily convinced the ladies to trust their intuition.
“[Nile] would laugh,” Sledge says. “He would go ‘It’s gonna be fine,’ and of course he knew exactly what he was talking about. Not only did Nile and Bernard instill confidence but originality and innovation. Those songs are gonna be here when we’re long gone. It’s special because he wrote ‘We Are Family’ about us with lyrics like a portrait. It’s very special and close to the heart.”
Cranking out disco hits has long come and gone, but Rodgers continues to remain influential to a generation of innovators, thinkers and performers. Earlier this year, Berklee College of Music presented the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honoree with an honorary degree. The former subsection leader of the Black Panther Party and member of both the Sesame Street band and Apollo Theater house band was appointed the first and only Chief Creative Advisor and Global Ambassador for Abbey Road Studios in London.
Acknowledging his new role as “incredible,” Rodgers has jammed quite a bit with Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak and a few symphony orchestras. The title of Chief Creative Advisor, he adds, gives him full autonomy behind the console and in the booth.
“Basically, I have carte blanche,” Rodgers confirms. “I can do anything my heart desires. I thought to myself ‘Damn, it’s nice to be the boss. This is cool.’ I have what feels like a new homebase. It’s a great feeling.”
Those collaborations with younger, genre-spanning talent came with some backlash. Rodgers, whose five decades-long career has netted combined sales of more than 300 million albums and 50 million singles worldwide, says some critics actually question his collaboration choices. Sharing his talent and insights with other artists takes Rodgers back to a time when he was a novice musician.
Rodgers believes he’s paying his success forward. “I’m actually learning from them that it’s a reciprocal process,” he said. “What I love about music when I was younger I was learning from the old school guys who were turning me on to stuff. Because of where I was coming from, they loved what I was doing. It was a give and take. I learn just as much as I contribute or give away.”
Changes in the musical climate aren’t the only things Rodgers has overcome. He survived his second bout with prostate cancer this year. Originally diagnosed in 2010, Rodgers also survived decades of cocaine and alcohol addiction. Taking a few minutes to pay respects to his deceased pals Prince, George Michael, David Bowie and his songwriting and production partner Bernard Edwards, who died in 1996, those cumulative moments, Rodgers says, encouraged him to take his life more seriously.
“It’s given me an extra focus on what I’m doing now,” Rodgers affirms. “It’s made me realize that we only have a certain amount of time on this planet, and I want to do as much as I can while I’m here. The only thing that we can do is leave stuff behind—either it’s compositions or recordings—and thank God in the modern world the music that we leave behind becomes very accessible to people even when we’re not around.”
In retrospect, Rodgers didn’t think he would live past 40, but he embraces all corners of his success. As he takes the podium to accept his honor from NMAAM, the self-proclaimed “debonair man about town” and “old school hippie” publicly announces that he and fellow inductee Charlie Wilson are collaborating on some material. Shortly after, he pledges to make a sizeable donation to assist with NMAAM’s continued development.
Every effort and project Rodgers takes, he says, shows how he greatly appreciates music. Receiving awards and inductions still shocks him but indicates to him how important his voice and vision are to pop music.
“I’m honored, but I get afraid of those awards,” Rodgers says. “You guys are supposed to give me those awards at the end of my career. I’ve gotten a ton of awards in my life, but I never ever believed that my life would turn out this way. People can take that any way they want, but that’s where I’m coming from.”