Nile Rodgers on Stormzy, Beating Cancer and Grenfell
- TextTom Connick
Speaking to Another Man, the music icon lifts the lid on Chic’s long-awaited new album and his upcoming collaborations
Nile Rodgers should be exhausted. Yesterday, fresh off the plane from from London where he’d packed in a BRIT Awards appearance and countless hours in the booth, the music icon immediately threw himself into all-night session with a group of friends. As he picks up the phone to Another Man, the sexagenarian Chic legend has got barely three hours’ sleep inside him, and yet it sounds like he’s bouncing off the walls.
“It was hysterical!” Rodgers says of the session, which apprently went on until long past 5am. “We were playing a jazz standard, Autumn in New York, and it was ridiculous,” he laughs. “We didn’t get any sleep – even at 5am, we were finding all these cool new ways to play it. It was crazy; something that only insane musicians would do. Anyone else would have stopped the session and looked back on the file. We went on an hour-long tirade trying to play Autumn in New York!”
“Every song I’m working on, and every artist I’m working with, is just blowing me away and making me so happy” – Nile Rodgers
Rodgers’ non-stop, 40-plus-year schedule has made him a pop omnipresence. Both as part of Chic and as a solo artist working with the likes of Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, he helped define disco, with his songs – such as Good Times, Le Freak, Everybody Dance, Upside Down and We Are Family – now tightly woven into modern musical history. His career got a shot in the arm five years ago with the guitarist’s chirruping contribution to Daft Punk’s perennial ‘sound of the summer’ hit, Get Lucky. Since then, he’s appeared on records from Sam Smith to Disclosure, Avicii to Lady Gaga, Pitbull to Kylie Minogue and countless more besides.
Not content with settling into legendary status (bizarrely, he was only inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year), Rodgers is more visible now than ever. He opens our conversation with a list of artists he’s already crammed into a studio with in 2018 – Anderson Paak, Disclosure (again), Mura Masa, Nao, Stefflon Don, Craig David… and those are the just ones he thinks he’s allowed to reveal. “Every song I’m working on, and every artist I’m working with, is just blowing me away and making me so happy,” he beams.
Away from that iconic white guitar though, Rodgers’ life isn’t all sunshine and Good Times. Diagnosed with cancer for the second time last year, he spent much of 2017 battling the disease – a fight he only won as the year came to a close. Concurrently, however, his mother is suffering from stage six Alzheimer’s, which pulls Nile home at every possible moment. Jetlag, he admits, has become a perpetual state. “I’m just calling it the ying-yang of life,” he says, audibly conflicted by the contrast between his professional bloom and personal battles. That recent trip to London came burdened by responsibility, too. “With the eight-hour time difference, when I should be going to bed in London, she’s having lunch,” Rodgers says, his mother’s day-to-day care clearly a top priority. “My first few days there, I didn’t sleep for two days.” His publicist brought his spirits back up with a Nando’s delivery – a favourite, he admits, “big time.”
“I went [to Grenfell Tower] to lend a hand, and I was so proud of the way that the volunteers were organised” – Nile Rodgers
Nile’s second cancer diagnosis came in the middle of a tour alongside Earth, Wind & Fire. After succumbing to E. coli, a check-up by a regional doctor revealed he was suffering from kidney cancer. “They told me that my particular form, 99 per cent of the time they find it by accident. It doesn’t make you feel great,” he says, understatedly. Still, in typical Nile Rodgers fashion, it’s onwards and upwards: “I had a show to play, I couldn’t stop!” he says, as if the idea of pausing for breath would have been absurd. He’s super keen, he assures me, to make up for cancelling just one date in Toronto, following the diagnosis. “I don’t feel super horrible because the year before that we had played Toronto with Duran Duran and it was amazing. It was going to be at the same venue too. It was a great show and I know we’ll go back.”
Nile Rodgers, I quickly learn, doesn’t dwell on things for too long. He’s bubbling over at all times, in spite of that lack of sleep, near-constantly dropping anecdotes which would feel like a humblebrag in anyone else’s hands. Nile Rodgers doesn’t have time to brag though. Too much to do.
Upon touching down for yet another transatlantic trip last June, Nile’s schedule was hastily rewritten. “My plane had just landed and I was on my way to the hotel, and my friend was telling me ‘no man, we gotta go over here,’” he explains. ‘Here’, as it turned out, was Grenfell Tower, which had caught on fire while Nile was airborne. He didn’t hesitate. “I went to lend a hand, and I was so proud of the way that the volunteers were organised. People didn’t treat me like a musician, they treated me like a guy who came over to help. All day long I was sorting out clothing – I was so proud. The woman who was my captain, if you will, was so on point, man – so focused and together.”
The events, he says, mirrored another catastrophe Rodgers was nearly caught up in – the 9/11 attacks. Narrowly avoiding a plane diversion due to inclement weather, Rodgers’ flight was almost redirected to Boston, the site of the first plane hijacking. “The captain came over and said, ‘Oh my god, we just made it.’,” Nile explains. “He wasn’t being all doomsday, he was just saying, ‘Thank God we didn’t have to be referred to another airport.’” Arriving safely in New York in the midst of a hurricane, Rodgers moved on. “I then got to my room and switched on the television, and we saw the first plane crash,” he says. “Me and my friends were nearly on that first plane.”
“Me and Stormzy have a vibe” – Nile Rodgers
Following the 2001 terror attack, Rodgers rallied a band of over 200 musicians and celebrities for a re-recording of We Are Family, to raise spirits and funds in the wake of the disaster. It’s a move that draws parallels with the Stormzy-fronted Bridge Over Troubled Water re-recording, released last summer in aid of victims of Grenfell – Rodgers willingly admits to their similarities and his “pride” in Stormzy’s own altruism. “We have a vibe,” he says of his relationship to the grime star, who he recently presented with the BRITs’ album of the year award.
Despite all the collaborations, though, the one thing that remains core to Nile Rodgers’ character is Chic. A new album – reportedly (and somewhat cheekily) titled It’s About Time – has been promised every year since 2015, and yet still hasn’t materialised. “It’s great – so many things have derailed me!” he laughs.
“I got inspiration from Daft Punk because they were like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve been working on this album for eight years,’” he says. “Okay, so I can chill out and not be so crazy and just have some me-time.” That me-time was upended by the death of David Bowie – a collaborator who brought Rodgers onto Let’s Dance, giving him the career boost that stopped him being typecast as the disco guy. In death, though, Bowie put the brakes on Rodgers’ latter-day career – a song which referenced the late singer by name became a real sticking point. “People would think I was being opportunistic,” he sighs, “and that really bothered me, ‘cause the last thing I wanted to do was take advantage of someone who changed my life.”
“Me, Prince and Jon Bon Jovi had such a blast together, so I wrote a song called Prince Said It. It was about Prince telling us how to live and what’s important: staying funky and being funky!” – Nile Rodgers
It’s About Time got put on hold again, only for Prince – another namechecked friend of Rodgers’ – to also pass away. “We had just done a show together, the summer before” he explains. “He and Jon Bon Jovi had been to see Chic perform on NYE – we had such a blast together, so I wrote a song called Prince Said It. It was about Prince telling us how to live and what’s important: staying funky and being funky! It was a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing, but it was meant from the heart with a lot of love.” He sighs again. “All of a sudden, you can’t do that.” The record was shelved once more. “I just said, ‘I have to rethink everything,’ and then bam – the cancer hits,” he says, clearly exhausted. “I’m like, ‘This is insane! Just absolutely crazy!’”
In spite of the setbacks, Nile remains upbeat and charging onwards, and is once again adamant that the record will come “this year”. He’s got plans for days, months and years racking up – earlier this week, he played five tracks to some of his inner circle, and through cancer, calamity and confusion, Nile Rodgers’ party-starting spirit remains. “The place went bananas,” he laughs, “they all freaked out!”