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Nile Rodgers Nearly Died in a Boating Accident But Laughs About It Now

He invented a signature disco sound, made albums with just about everyone big – and now, he's taking our Noisey Personality Test.
Photo by Jill Furmanovsky via PR

Nile Rodgers laughs a lot, but not at you. The 66-year-old can be talking about a near-death experience (more on that later), or about convincing wonky-funk artist NAO to sing disco on his new album – chances are, he’ll find a way to chuckle at himself. He's the sort of person who starts off with a story in one place, then ends up halfway across the world by the end of it. It goes without saying that Rodgers is a living legend. Essentially, he’s the human embodiment of the guitar sound that’s bled from Chic in the 70s through to his solo work, and left a stamp on every facsimile of disco-funk in the decades since. Without him, there would be no Kaytranada, no ‘Daft Punk made the song of the summer in 2013’, no kids googling “Chic guitar sound” looking for the right Fender Stratocaster model with which to duplicate it.


The bad news for the imitators is that Rodgers, and Chic, haven’t stopped making music of their own. Their new album, It’s About Time, is their first in 26 years and sees them enlist a bunch of young Brits – past Noisey interviewees like Mura Masa, Cosha and Stefflon Don – plus Vic Mensa, Lady Gaga and loads of others. I mean, hell, Craig David’s on it. And that's all well and good. But in his decades of producing, writing, collaborating and performing, Rodgers has been through some shit, too. As the latest artist to take part in our Noisey Personality Test, he spoke to us about writing flops, being a hippy kid at heart – “when I was younger, I had green hair, and for a black person in those days to have green hair…” – and why he’s so obsessed with Flume right now. And, obviously, he giggled a lot.

Noisey: What’s the kindest thing you’ve ever done?
Nile Rodgers: Oh come on – don’t ask me to think about one thing, haha! I’ve done a gazillion kind things.

Okay, what about picking one of many?
Oh, this was rewarding. A kid named Alex appeared to be dying from, I believe, brain cancer a few weeks ago. And I shouted him out at a concert – it was huge, and his mates were there and filmed it for him – and went to visit him in hospital in Dublin. And he was really on his last legs.

Well, you know that Alex showed up to my concert last week, with his mum, girlfriend and family, looking fit as a fiddle? It blew me away. I was like “Dude, if music isn’t the healing power, then I don’t know what is.” I’ve had two bouts of cancer; cancer is horrible and rapacious. It’s very serious stuff. I don’t wanna say it was just the concert – sure, there were 50,000 people screaming “Aleeeex” – but something happened. He got that energy from somewhere.


How do you chill yourself out in stressful situations?
Massage. That’s the only thing that sorta chills me out. Last night, I was feeling hideous. And I have a regular masseuse – she’s Brazilian and works on capoeira fighters – but her daughter had just had a baby, so she was in Manchester. She sent me this amazing guy as a replacement who works on Muay Thai fighters. When I was a kid I use to be a martial artist, and I can tell the difference between people who really know the body and how to heal the body after it’s been beaten up. I called on him tonight again haha. I want to feel as good as I did today, tomorrow.

Do you get bored easily? What do you do to keep yourself entertained?
I don’t have to do anything. I always have music in my head. I always have a job to do; I never have any time to rest. Since I was a child, I’ve had insomnia, which typically means I always something on my mind. About six months ago I started going to a sleep clinic, so I started to learn how to relax and fall asleep. And just the art of doing that is interesting, so that’s not boring.

Do you have quite a short temper or are you quite a patient person?
Short-tempered? Haha! People around me have unanimously said they’ve never seen me angry, and that if they have it, was once or twice in my entire life. I don’t get angry. I can turn in a record and someone is screaming at me, like “that’s the worst thing, that’s garbage, rahrahrah” and they’re fuming and freaking out. And I’m just gonna go, “okay, you finished now?” [he chuckles] “Let’s put it out and see what the people think.” I know that most records don’t become hits. I even tell people that. Yesterday, I told everybody in Germany at my record label: “Guess what, you know what I do for a living? I make flops, and every now and then one of those flops is a hit, hahaha.” I have way more flops than I have hits; it’s just that my work ethic is such that I do so many records. I got a certificate last week that said I’m on 1,558 recordings.


You talk about flops – how often do you make mistakes?
Every day, all the time.

What are they?
I don’t know, because I fix them [he laughs for ages]. That’s what my job is. Someone said, “Jesus, Nile, you’re such a great song writer” because I’m the new chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and he said I really deserve that position. And I said: “no no, I’m a horrible songwriter but I’m a terrific song re-writer”. Haha! The first songs I write suck but it’s about being able to mould them into something that becomes a coherent song. But usually it’s just some off-the-wall, avant-garde jazz thing that makes me go, “wow this is cool!” Then I stand back and go, “nobody will like this”. Hahaha.

How do you persuade people to do what you want?
Persuade? The only person I had to do massive persuasion on was NAO, to sing disco on my new album. I was like a stalker, haha; I almost felt sorry for her because I wouldn’t take no for an answer. But she has such a unique voice. I was all over her like a cheap suit, man, I wouldn’t let her breathe. I was like “you got to do this, aahhh” and it wasn’t even about money or anything like that. It was about love and respect. I was actually already working with Mura Masa and I knew they worked a lot together, so I was like “yo Alex, call her up. Alright man, have her come over”.

What genre of music do you listen to the most? Which artists?
At this very moment, probably jazz and EDM. I’m really obsessed with Flume and he was over here at Abbey Road the other day, and he played a bunch of cuts for me. And I said to his manager, “dude, I want that second cut; I don’t give a damn what he says.” I’m gonna be all over him like I was with NAO. Like: “bro you are giving me that second cut! We are going to work on it together, cause it is killing.”


Do you find hard to find it hard to follow any social conventions, and if so, which ones?
I’m a hippy at heart, so we’re made to rebel. So we like to believe that we’re [he puts on a ‘woozy hippy guy’ voice] “oh yeah man, I’m an individual man, I think for myself, man.” I like to think that I’m that dude, you know? But at the same time, if that were the truth, how could we have such a large collective consciousness? How could we all like a lot of the same kind of fashion and the same music. Like, I’m 65 years old and the clothing I buy now is the same type of clothing I bought when I was 16, hehe.

What’s the most thrill-seeking thing you’ve ever done?
I’m an amateur boat racer and once I flipped a boat over and over and over and over. And that was pretty weird, hehehe. I walked away, luckily, but I was in pain. I was just checking out what they call the outdrives, seeing how quickly I could get the boat to go from really slow to full speed – what they call “plane”. I was practicing in really dirty water, and a pier piling was floating around in the water, and I couldn’t see it. It got caught and pulled the boat straight underneath the water. It was unbelievable – just straight down, it was going really fast, and I was like “woah”. [he chuckles] So now that the front went under, the back had to follow. Then the front went down, the back, the front, the back, and then you lose forward inertia and come to a stop. Hopefully the boat and engines don’t hit you in the head. And luckily neither happened: the boat had actually left me behind.


Where do you read the news?
I’m a real internet kind of guy, so I read the news on my computer or on my phone. As much I as I like having a newspaper – like, really old-school – I have to say, I know far too many wealthy people, and I think people like to cut corners when it comes to manufacturing so I’m not sure stuff gets recycled as well as it should. So it’s fine for e to just read the news online that’s it – it’s the same news.

What matters more to you: personality or looks?
Definitely personality, by far. Because if you have a cool personality, and I’m gonna say something really weird, you also look cool. I met an Asian lady yesterday, and she had to be close to 80 years old and she was the the coolest damn person I had ever seen. She had multi-coloured hair, multi-coloured eye make-up and all those little bags that you could tell were super high-end, couture. She looked so cool. And I was going “damn, what does she do? Who is she? She’s gotta be the bomb!” and we just had so much fun talking to each other. By the end I was like “I’m sorry I got to say but I just gotta tell you that you look so cool,” and she replied: “Oh, thank you. I was just thinking the same thing about you!”

What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?
Hmm. I’m not a really good liar so… I can remember telling the truth, and that was worse – I probably should’ve just told a lie. Because I tried to tell the truth and I wasn't believed, and that really hurt. Now, I’ve always been relatively thin and I was born I quite sickly, so people used to bully me as a kid. I happened to be in California with these guys, some real bullies. But they liked me because I used to make fake marijuana and they thought they were really getting high. I used to put oregano and bird seed together and sell it to these guys, and they thought they were getting high so they kept me around.

So one day they stole another kid’s bike from his house, and I felt horrible. When they were at school the next day, I took the bike back the his house and as I did it, his parents held me and called the cops. And I was like, ‘wait a minute, why are you blaming me? I’m bringing it back!’ I was bright as a child, quite verbose, so I tried to explain the situation in detail. They didn’t care one bit. And I thought to myself, “is telling the truth better or is telling the lie better?” because I’d got in trouble trying to be the nice person.

What’s the meanest thing you’ve ever done?
Certainly – and I mean this with all sincerity – I’ve never done anything to anyone in my life with the purpose of harming them. Ever, ever, ever. If I’ve harmed someone it’s because they misunderstood or it was a complete accident. Typically that would be something emotional – they think you mean one thing, but you meant something else kind of stuff. But I’ve never hit anyone (besides when I used to be a martial arts fighter). Then, you weren’t trying to hurt the person as much as you were trying to win.

It's About Time is out today, Friday 28 September.

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