Groove is in his heart: Chic's Nile Rodgers on the unlikely inspiration for 'Le Freak'

Nile Rodgers, the funkmaster general, talks candidly to Nick Coleman about the death of his musical partner Bernard Edwards, why he started touring again – and how Chic's biggest hit began as an ode to doormen
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The Independent Culture

The story goes something like this: New Year's Eve 1977. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the core members of the New York funk aggregation Chic, have been invited by Grace Jones to help celebrate the hour of the year at Studio 54, the club of clubs. Jones is interested in the duo playing on her new album, maybe producing it. Rodgers and Edwards have donned their best bibs and shown up in the snow expecting to party like it's 1978. Except that the doorman doesn't recognise them. "But we're Chic!" they splutter. "That's us you hear playing on the turntables inside. 'Everybody Dance'. That's our record!"

"Chic? Shit! Your names ain't on the door so you ain't coming in!"

And they don't get in.

Instead, they stump back to their funky loft in the Bronx, or wherever it is they call home, and they jam all night, savagely. They find themselves settling on a propulsive, choppy groove, one which drives and bucks and draws the guitar-bass-drums thread-wiring of the Chic rhythm thing to a fine point. So possessed are they that they don't trouble themselves with verse or rhyme. But they do have a chorus. It's a furious, wounded one.

"A-a-a-a-a-a-ah, FUCK OFF!" it goes. Duck-dickety goes the guitar, as if in answer.

Everyone thinks it's great. What a groove! But such profanity does not sit well in the Chic canon. They are, after all, the most sophisticated funk band in the world: they are the soi-disant inventors of the slick New York funk sound. And so trial follows error ' and by the time the trio and their soignée lady singers are in position to record the savage groove in a studio it has a new chorus.

"A-a-a-a-a-a-ah, FREAK OUT!" it goes. Duck-dickety.

That's how the story goes, anyway.

There are other stories, too, some of them cast-iron myths (such as the one Rodgers once conjured, that he was born in the back of a cab halfway across the Triborough Bridge), but none of them are so becoming, so right, as the one which accounts for the birth of the greatest dance record of the 1970s, "Le Freak".

Sad to say, there's only one of them left now: Nile Rodgers, the wiry, amiable, extremely articulate guitarist. Chic's drummer, Tony Thompson, died in 2003, having been estranged from the other two for many years. And Rodgers' beloved creative partner and brother-in-rhythm, the nonpareil bassist and family man Bernard Edwards, died very suddenly of pneumonia while the revivified Chic were on tour in Japan in 1996. Almost his last words to Rodgers were, "Remember, this music is bigger than we are."

So big, in fact, that Nile decided he couldn't carry on his successful post-Chic career as a producer (David Bowie and Michael Jackson, among others) without playing his own music from time to time. Hence Chic's spotty live appearances in the UK this summer. But the process of reclamation was never as straightforward as you might imagine. For a start, how would he manage it without 'Nard? For second, why would he want to do it anyway? He certainly doesn't need the dough.

"Well, a year after Bernard passed away, the Japanese promoters we'd been working with said, 'Would you come back and play to celebrate Bernard's life?' I was caught off guard." Rodgers speaks in rhythms almost as choppily precise as the ones he plays. "I said, 'What do you want me to play?' And they said, 'Your music!'"

He pauses.

"Right. This is my music, is it? Yes it is. It's my music. You see, I'd stopped thinking of it as something that belongs to me – which is interesting, because that's the basis on which Bernard and I put Chic together. Chic is a weird conceptual thing; a thing we put together so that we'd have an outlet for our ideas – a bit like Steely Dan. We're the black Steely Dan..."

Which is only one way of looking at the most artistically refined funk unit of the disco era – a group which did not exist as a group at all, which had no recognisable performers, no lead singer and expressed no formal identity beyond those cipherous ideas embodied by good tailoring allied to perfectly geometrical rhythm. As Dick Clark once bellowed, while introducing the group on American Bandstand: "The biggest band that nobody knows, doing the biggest song about a dance nobody knows how to do – ladies and gentlemen, CHIC!"

Rodgers, now 57, grew up in "dirt-poor" circumstances in New York, the first-born of a 14-year-old girl, who brought him up to be guilelessly nice to people. As a radically minded adolescent he became involved with the Black Panthers and a fixture on the Greenwich Village hippie scene, hanging out and occasionally jamming with crosstown muso traffic, Hendrix included, before finding his way into the Sesame Street house band with the young Luther Vandross – what you might call a serious grounding in all things bright and occasionally beautiful.

The next stage in a fruitful career arc found him settling nervously into the Harlem Apollo house band, which was where he got his serious grounding in the heavy disciplines of The Groove. The art of staying "in the pocket" became a lifelong obsession. He regards pocket-habitation as a gift, much as being able to do quadratic equations in your head is a gift. Rodgers then met Edwards on the circuit and they fell for each other's time-keeping. "It was love at first listen, man." They decided that together they would invent an idiom that did not as yet exist, not technically: New York funk.

"We were very calculated. The disco movement was amazingly propitious for Chic. We were a regular R&B band and we were looking for something to differentiate ourselves from the rest. Hardcore funk bands then were either from the South, the Midwest or the West Coast. We were New Yorkers. We asked ourselves, if New Yorkers play funk, what does it sound like?

"It was a heady experiment. And instead of basing our R&B on the blues and gospel, we made a conscious decision to base grooves on..." He pauses, funkily. "Sophistication! What do we in America call sophistication? America calls things that are not American sophisticated. So we thought, where do black people go typically?" Another pause. "France! Josephine Baker. Paul Robeson. Let's be French. There's no French blues, so let's base the sound on modal music..."

Rodgers spends the next 10 minutes demonstrating on his unamplified Strat the minutiae of Chic harmony, augmented 13ths and all. His interviewer feels like crying with joy.

"So that's what New York funk sounds like, as invented by us, arbitrarily. Southern gutbucket funk is hard. New York funk is slick, it's sophisticated, it's chic, it's... French! Gutbucket funkers put on big hats and look like pimps; we put on suits and look like bankers."

But then, 20 years later, after many adventures, Bernard died and Nile's life was torn down the middle. Rodgers found the body. He is as articulate about that as he is about everything.

"That was unbelievable and beautiful. It was unbelievable from the moment I walked in the room. I opened the door and he was lying on the couch. I walked in and saw his feet and I could see where the blood had pooled [downwards into] his heels. I knew in a nanosecond what had happened. My brain knew. But I wouldn't accept it. So I started screaming at him. 'Man, come on, wake up, we gotta go play' – louder and louder, maybe thinking that the volume would make him go, 'All right, motherfucker! All right, I hear you! Gimme a break!'

"But that didn't happen. And it's strange what you will do to avoid reality for a while. I did everything I could to avoid touching his skin, so I shook his sleeve, and when I did, his whole body moved. Normally if you shake someone's arm, only the arm moves, but his whole body moved. Rigor mortis. That freaked me out. So finally I put two fingers on the skin of his face and it felt the same as the table. And I lost it completely. But I had to get it together because all my life he'd protected me, looked after me, and now I had to take care of him. Not only did I feel as if I'd lost my best friend, I felt as if my music was taken away from me – he's half of my music. Without him..." He tails off momentarily, before coming at it again from a new angle.

"The Japanese made it easy. Once I got there, I turned from Nile Rodgers, partner of Bernard Edwards, into a guy doing a gig for people who care about the music. Bernard said the last night of his life, 'The music is bigger than we are.' So I'm not there to be me; I'm there to do the music. I'm the guy who knows how the music goes. I'm the guy who knows how it goes exactly."

Chic & Nile Rodgers play the HMV Picture House, Edinburgh, on Saturday and London's HMV Forum on 4 September (08700 603 777, www.seetickets.com)

Feel the funk: Six classics for the thinking disco queen

'Which Way is Up?'

Stargard (1977)

Motown super-arranger Norman Whitfield applies his wits to disco. Result? A work of loudly squelching genius

'Do What You Wanna Do'

T-Connection (1977)

Straight outta funky Nassau, which is in the Bahamas – flumping four on the floor with weird key-changes and timbales. Weirdly danceable

'Let's Clean Up the Ghetto'

Philadelphia International All-Stars (1977)

Philadelphia disco cheese. It stars Billy Paul, Archie Bell, the O'Jays and Teddy P. Spread it all over

'Hangin'

Chic (1982)

A late, overlooked classic from the French house of funk. "You ain't hangin' out with me/Callin' me no Theodore!"

'In It to Win It'

Chic (1992)

Another late classic. Even more overlooked

'Best of My Love'

The Emotions (1978)

Actually, the best of Earth, Wind & Fire, horns, rhythm section and all, but voiced by three ladies in Spandex trousers. NC

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