The iconic funk bassist-and-producer, Nile Rodgers, held a wide-ranging Q&A session that revealed his past, present and future at this year’s SXSW Festival.
With over 300 millions albums sold and a career spanning over 40 years, Nile Rodgers is a guy that knows a thing or two about making it in the music business. He returned to the SXSW stage this year to share his sage like wisdom, amazing stories, and hopefully a little bit of his magic. Despite a tumultuous childhood filled with new schools every few months, Niles credits a standardized curriculum of music appreciation with grounding him in something solid and fostering his spirit of constant collaboration. “They’d make me play whatever instrument they were lacking,” Rodgers told Jo Whiley of BBC Radio 2 in the wide ranging and fascinating Q&A with the living legend. Niles started at seven, playing everything from the flute, piano and brass instruments before settling on the guitar. This taught him to appreciate working with others as of the creative process informing his views on revolution and resistance.
This spirit of collaboration became the hallmark of his career, though Rodgers is slow to call it a key to his success. Niles says that he doesn’t have a specific magic formula, as most of his collaborations occur by happenstance. From meeting Sam Smith while working with Disclosure: “He was sitting in the corner like he was just some dude.” to bumping into HAIM at the Brit Awards and starting a battle of the bands, Rodgers has just gone with the flow, and let the music be his guide. When asked why he still works as hard as he does, Rodgers replied, “I just love it man. I’ve never worked with anybody that just sucked.” With collaborators ranging from Sister Sledge to Sweden’s own DJ Avicii, Rodgers says that a classical or technical musical background is required for hitmaking and that inspiration can come from anywhere.
He recalled the inspiration for the Diana Ross song and eventual LGBT anthem, “I’m Coming Out” coming from watching drag queens performing as The Boss. He reminded the crowd that “Freak Out” began as a protest record under a must less FCC-friendly title. Nile always saw music as a unifying force for celebration, resistance and overcoming of struggle. Disco was the music of celebrating the end of the Vietnam War. It brought together every race, creed, color and sexual orientation to celebrate life and touched souls. That celebration was revolutionary to Rodgers, even more than speeches or marches. To see people from every walk of life unified in celebration of life was affirming for Nile. To him, these songs were as much about protest and important as “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” as they were embraced by all for a time, even if they were seen by frivolous by some. Even a “frivolous” song can move the soul and spirit.
When Nile was a pretentious jazz snob, his first music teacher reprimanded him for calling a song silly. He was in his first cover band and the set list called for “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies, which the young Rodgers regarded as beneath a musician of his caliber. To Nile, this top 40 hit single wasn’t real music. It was simple and easy and not worthy of his time. His music teacher, like any good educator, used this as teachable moment. He reprimanded young Nile and said that “Any song in the top 40 is a good composition because it touches the souls of millions of strangers.” Nile wrote “Everybody Dance” with this in mind.
The ability to touch the souls of millions of strangers is something Nile Rodgers doesn’t take lightly or for granted and perhaps that is his ultimate secret. To take the job of soul stirrer as seriously as one can, while keeping the groove moving.
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