The Guide to Getting into Chic

The Guide to Getting into Chic

You know "Le Freak" and you've seen 'Shrek 2,' so you’ve heard the big hits, but where do you start next with the Nile Rodgers-fronted group that defined the sound of a generation?
April 13, 2018, 2:59pm

Chic is the rock band that disco direly needed, even if neither the genre’s fans or detractors didn’t fully understand their significance at the time. Let’s be real, things were a bit blurry back then. The group was formed in the late 1970s by guitarist Nile Rodgers, a long-haired, self-proclaimed hippie with a penchant for Fender stratocasters, and the late Bernard Edwards, a Brooklyn-bred bassist responsible for some of the instrument’s most fawned-over riffs. The duo and their lengthy—like _CVS-_receipt-length—list of collaborators provided the humanistic feeling and lyricism that fueled disco’s status as a legitimate genre primed for mainstream success, and not just a concern for clubgoers.

Rodgers and Edwards met while session artists around 1970; the former had been briefly touring with Sesame Street—yes the Sesame Street—and after becoming pals they’d go on to form The Big Apple Band, while also providing backing in the short-lived and confusingly named group: New York City. NYC scored a UK hit in 1973 with the hopeful breakup anthem “I’m Doin Fine Now,” helping the pair cut their teeth as touring artists off of the success of the single. While New York City disbanded in 1976, Rodgers and Edwards, who at the time were exploring a take on jazz fusion’s smooth contortions, decided to switch their vibe a bit toward ecstatically grooving dance music. Chic was born.

Because their days as studio artists forced them to be chameleons, Rodgers and Edwards knew what it took to bringing talent together both in the studio and on stage. They recruited Tony Thompson—from the groups Labelle and Ecstasy, Passion & Pain—as Chic’s drummer. From there they brought on a young promising vocalist named Norma Jean Wright, sweetening the deal by also working together on her solo music, which would later score the pair an early hit as producers on the 1978 dancefloor smash “Saturday.” They even recruited a background vocalist and budding songwriter by the name of Luther Vandross to sing on their debut album. Another wise move.

Soon Chic stormed the scene with infectious tracks with calls-to-action built into their terse titles—like “Everybody Dance” and the ingeniously straight forward anthem “Dance, Dance, Dance.” But around the same time, disco writ large—which was predominantly producer-driven and dependent on DJs for breaking hits—was becoming overwhelmed by overproduced sounds and cheesy whitewashed glam that would fuel its eventual demise, the story of every genre once the money gets involved.

Chic, however, had a different vision: Rodgers and Edwards reimagined the disco’s inherent excess by whittling down the style to funky, minimalist grooves that managed to be both organic and deeply danceable. Rodgers’ snakey riffs squirmed up your bell-bottoms, burying themselves in your soft parts, and Edwards’ basslines provided a warm and addictive tempo that created a framework that would be recycled throughout the ensuing decades of popular music. The band’s rhythmic string sections and simple yet sneakily meaningful lyrics resulted in an approachable yet powerful sound that managed to feel like a raucous rock show and shiny disco dance party at the same damn time. They also had a penchant for classy—suits for the guys; tasteful dresses and rompers for the ladies—on-stage outfits that established their glittery sound and charming personalities as a symbiotic entity.

Like many from the chapters of disco’s history, changes in taste and a souring of public opinion (thanks Chicago) would eventually leads to Chic’s disappearance from the music charts following the release of their third album in 1979. There were also years of drug addiction to make matters worse. But while swarms from the scene would spiral down into a wormhole of overplayed hits, cocaine, and recycled ideas, Chic’s Rodgers and Edwards managed to keep the fire burning (disco pun, sorry!) through groundbreaking work as producer and songwriters. Through multiple lineups they continued to release albums until the early 90s; and Rodgers and Edwards were responsible for many of modern’s music most profound moments as producers and songwriters—working with everyone from Diana Ross, to in Rodgers’ case, Daft Punk.

Even before Rodgers was lending his guitar chops to the work of producers in the dance music space—and more specifically the EDM era—he an Edwards were both a key instigators to the birth of house music and club culture through their bass-heavy, rhythmic songs that were created with the dancefloor in mind. From their many hit Chic singles, to Rodgers’ work with Madonna and David Bowie, they helped usher in a time where 12” extended dance remixes set the scene for a rising popularity in DJs and popularized nightlife spaces that would incubate house and techno music over the years. The dance-inducing mania of their work opened the doors for sleek and funky instrumentation of disco-sampling dance genres like Chicago house, and later, French touch. There’s also the countless remixes of their work by seminal dance music luminaries, like Masters at Work, that kept their dancefloor relevance in check for years.

While Edwards passed away in 1996 at the age of 43 to pneumonia, his longtime confidant Nile Rodgers is still doing his thing in 2018 and remains one of music’s most celebrated minds. He’s even playing at Coachella this weekend as Chic feat. Nile Rodgers.

You’ve seen Shrek 2, so you’ve heard the big hits, but where do you start next with a band that defined the sound of a generation? Let’s break it down.

So You want to get into: Saturday Night Fever Chic?

This is the Chic you know, the Chic your parents definitely know, the Chic you’ve heard in Walgreens, while buying toothpaste. The story goes that Nile Rodgers was inspired by the winking glam of groups like Roxy Music and Kiss, while deciding what Chic would not only sound like, but look and feel like. A 1979 profile by Rolling Stone went as far as to refer to them as the “Boston of the Disco world.” Thankfully, they were, and remain, far cooler than Boston.

Chic’s debut album, which was actually a demo tape, was signed to Atlantic in 1977 and would score the band some of their first and most historic hits in “Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” and the equally groove-inducing “Everybody Dance.” Both of the tracks would break the Billboard Top 10 chart at the time—they also featured a young Vandross on backing vocals, a catalyst to his future career as a superstar. Led by their tight, yet effortless grooves, skyrocketing string sections, and psychedelic chirps and lyrics (including nerdy American jazz references), their early hits offered an organic respite to the mainstream madness over the success of the film Saturday Night Fever and whitewashing of disco.

The band’s sophomore album, 1978’s C'est Chic, managed to up the ante with two more hits: the woozy sex jam “I Want Your Love” and “Le Freak,” the group’s most successful track ever. The latter was written, as Rodgers told The Connecticut Forum in a panel from 2016, as an anthem for those who get turned away at the club doors, after their failure to get into Studio 54, on a night they were invited by, uh, Grace Jones, who apparently forgot to notify the door guy, The original lyrics were thus “Fuck off!”, which is what the door guys instructed them to do, but later were changed to “Freak out!” in an attempt to not piss off all the parents and label execs of America. Rooted by Rodgers’ absurdly funky rhythm guitar, Edward’s rubbery bassline, Tony Thompson's lazer-focused drum 120BPM beat, and Luci Martin and Alfa Anderson’s joyful hollering , “Le Freak” was Atlantic’s highest grossing track to date at the time, selling over 7 million copies worldwide, and is currently sitting pretty—and freaky—in the the Library of Congress. Music simply wouldn’t be the same without it.

Following their second album, Chic’s third LP, Risque, the group would gift fans what was probably their last iconic hit: “Good Times,” though they’d go on to release five more disappointing albums. In August of 1979, the tune became Chic’s second number one single on the pop and soul charts. What it’s known and remembered most for, however, is Edwards’ smooth and syrupy bassline, which would become one of the most sampled—and stolen—sounds in popular music. It helped usher in hip-hop via Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang; it was the inspiration of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”; and Daft Punk famously sampled it for their global craze of a track “Around the World,” a track rooted by its elastic bassline. There’s probably someone sampling it now, as I write this.

Playlist: “Le Freak” / “Everybody Dance” / “Dance, Dance, Dance” / “Good Times” / “I Want Your Love” / “C'est Chic”

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So you want to get into: Chic the Star-Spotting, Hit-Making Dream Team?

Even as Chic was pumping out some of disco and pop’s enduring moments on their first three albums, before, after, and during that time, they were sharpening their chops as all-seeing, and deeply sought-after studio wizards with an ear for nurturing young talent. One of their first wins was in Norma Jean Wright, who they roped into the Chic circle by offering her the chance to have a solo career that they, of course, would help produce. That resulted in not only Wright’s diva breakout and all-time weekend anthem “Saturday,” but the trio’s work on the Chic-produced Sister Sledge album and single “We Are Family,” another enduring hit of not only disco but pop overall. Edward and Rogers would also gift the track “He’s the Greatest Dancer” to Sledge in trade for their use of “I Want Your Love” for Chic, a clever strategy that would birth them yet another win.

Follow their productive late 70s period, Rodgers and Edwards, who knew disco’s glam era was dissolving, started working with vocalists who had their sights set on the world of mainstream pop, both separately and as a team. You might want to sit down now. They worked on Diana Ross 1980 album Diana, which included the top-ten hit “I’m Coming Out” as well as the number one “Upside Down.” Listen to the first moments of “Upside Down,” with Rodger’s classic chucking guitar licks, the lush strings, even the lyrics, a simple homage to heartbreak built inside something of an instructional dance routine, and you’ll hear its pure and utter Chic-ness. The album would go on to be Ross’ most commercially successful album and would sell nine million copies worldwide.

The duo helped usher in a new sound for Carly Simon on 1982’s “Why; they produced Debby Harry’s debut solo album Kookoo; and between 1983 and 1984, Rodgers produced both David Bowie’s Grammy-winning Let’s Dance and Madonna’s second album Like a Virgin. On Madonna's LP, Rodgers brought in Edwards on bass, and Chic’s Tony Thompson on drums,
in many ways helping fuel her success via Chic’s veteran skills from their time as a backing band. The hysteria-including single “Like a Virgin,” produced by Rodgers, is a dance track to its very core, revolving around a steady drum beat and pulsating bassline—another style made famous by Chic. On “Let’s Dance,” another biblical call to the dancefloor, Rodgers and his regular collaborator Bob Clearmountain took what was originally said to be a folk song and stripped it down to a gloriously simple, shiny, punchy joyride full of descending basslines and that made you move.

Rodgers also produced Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss, while Edwards found some brief solo producer-success with the short lived group the Power Station alongside Chic’s Tony Thompson and Robert Palmer. Later on he’d produce Palmer’s own successful solo album Riptide.

Playlist: “We Are Family”/ “Saturday”/ I’m Coming Out”/ “Upside Down” / “Upside Down”/ Let’s Dance”/ “Like a Virgin”/ “Why”/ “He’s The Greatest Dance” / “When Luther Sings”/ Never Too Much”/ “Riptide”/ “Some Like It Hot"

Spotify | Apple Music

So You Want to Get Into: Genre-Blurring Chic?

With the golden era of disco in their rear view, Chic’s marquee era as a band started to fade following their third album Risque and the success of “Good Times.” Being as astute businessmen as they were producers, Rodgers and Edwards chose to focus mainly on their outside work, and gaining the respect of artists and fans in the pop and rock genre. Still, they pumped out four more albums on Atlantic: 1980’s Real People, 1981’s Take it Off, 1982’s cheekily-titled Tongue in Chic, and last, and probably least, 1983’s Believer. Like their past albums, the various discs include a variety of Rodger’s springy guitar licks, Edward’s creative and effective basslines, and a variety of talented vocalists—from the disco diva Jocelyn Brown to Chic’s original Alfa Anderson.

You’ll also hear some of the duo’s curious forays into other sounds that slightly latched onto the DNA of their original success while experimenting with genres like quiet storm and straight up R&B. Throughout this period of albums the group found it difficult to craft simple lyrical mantras and the kind of musical bliss that simply forced people to move—surely not helped by the fact that the mainstream excitement for disco was dead. They experimented with simplifying the Chic-recipe, toying with instrumental solos that often fell flat. The usual organicness of the sound moved dangerously towards overproduction on their comeback album Chic-ism. Their penchant for slipping in lyrics about love and dancing also over the years started to feel more like repetition versus innovation.

After the disappointing performance of 1983’s Believer, Rodgers and Edwards would disband Chic to solely focus on their solo and collaborative production process. Fast forward to 1992, and the duo would bring reunite Chic with a new lineup and album entitled Chic-ism. While the album included some decent grooves and amusing play-on-words track titles, it didn’t do much besides allow the group to embark on a new exciting and well-received world tour. Edwards would sadly pass away a few years later to pneumonia.

Playlist: “Rebels We Are”/ “Stage Fright”/ “Hangin”/ “I Feel Your Love Comin’ On”/ “Believer”/ “Party Everybody”/ Give Me The Lovin’/ “Chic Mystique"

Spotify | Apple Music

So You Want to Get Into: Nile Rodgers: the man, the myth, the legend.

Following Chic’s reunion tour and the death of Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers went on to continue his legacy as one of music’s most celebrated minds and is still doing his thing today. While he recorded three solo albums between the late 80s and early 90s, most will turn to his legendary work as a solo producer when discussing his last couple of decades. From INXS, to Duran Duran, to loveable orchestral soundtracks like Coming to America, work for Eric Clapton, Avicii, and of course in 2013, his Grammy-Winning work on Daft Punk’s mania-inducing Random Access Memories, he’s lent his mind and chucking guitar rhythms to modern music as one of the most talented produces of all time. He even co-wrote “Love Me Sexy” from the classic film Semi-Pro with famous actor Will Ferrell.

Across his influential work as a solo producer, Rodgers would constantly use his penchant for simple yet effective rhythms to create joyful hits. There’s a grooving tempo and uplifting atmosphere to his work over these years, like on the whirling instrumentation and effects of Duran Duran’s 1984 hit “The Reflex” and the springy levitation of INXS’ “Original Sin,” as well as of course, “Get Lucky.” You don’t only hear Rodgers’ focus and seasoned musicianship on these hits, but also his open-ear that allowed him to trickle his talent into a variety of musical minds and scenes that like most of us, just wanna have fun.

Somehow, through dozens of compilation discs, reunion shows, award show performances, and series of cool hats and even cooler sunglasses, Nile Rodgers has continued to influence artists and find ways to remain relevant. He’s managed to sneak into the EDM world with guitar work alongside producers like Tensnake and the formally relevant Avicii; he played as part of the best Grammy performance ever with Daft Punk and Stevie Wonder; he’s been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; started multiple foundations and benefit concerts; and even relaunched Chic as a live band as Chic feat. Nile Rodgers and is currently touring. He’s done it all while battling everything from crippling drug addiction to prostate and kidney cancer, and usually with a wide smile on his face. He’s currently gearing up to launch a new solo album, his first since 1992. The world is better with Nile Rodgers in it plain and simple Here is some more good times to chew on in the playlist below.

Playlist: “Notorious”/ “Get Lucky”/ “Love Sublime” “I’ll Be There”/ “Surrender”/ “I Got It”/ “Anticipating”/ “Back in the Old School”/ “Higher Love”/ “Spacer”/ “Fantasy”/ “Lose Yourself to Dance”/ “The Reflex”/ “Original Sin"

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David Garber is a writer in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.