He’s the awesome guitarist, Chic frontman and producer who has worked with everyone from Madonna to Daft Punk via Diana Ross and David Bowie – and Nile Rodgers is still going strong at age 63. He’s curating the FOLD Festival this June, with a line-up that includes Alison Moyet, Beck and, of course, Chic themselves. And, he teases Attitude, he may or may not be working on the new Gaga album…
So Nile, how does it feel to be hailed as a legend?
[Laughs] Very awkward and strange. But it’s better than being called a jerk, although I’ve been called that quite a bit too and it doesn’t bother me that much. When you’re in showbusiness you get that a lot, people going ‘Look at that jerk playing those disco chords’.
What can festival-goers expect from this year’s FOLD three-dayer?
I choose bands and musicians that I love and I see it as a sort of edification process. You get people saying ‘I’m just coming to see Alison Moyet or Chic or John Newman or whoever’, then they discover that so and so is really cool too and they’re going ‘I had no idea’. It opens your mind to all kinds of music.
Why do you feel Chic’s music is so big in the gay community?
Cos it’s fun, it feels good, it’s great to sing our choruses. It’s easy to go [sings] ‘We are family’ or ‘Aaah, freak out’ or ‘Everybody dance’. It’s not like you need the Rosetta Stone to translate it.
What’s the campest thing you’ve ever done, musically speaking?
By far that would be our first hit record where we went ‘Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah’. But it was intellectual and artistic in context because we were commenting on the times. In America it was the worst economic period since the Great Depression but disco was so hedonistic you’d think everyone was a multimillionaire. People were celebrating as if they had money.
Personally, I’d say working with Sheila B. Devotion was even camper…
But we didn’t think of it as campy. It was more like a math problem. Sheila was a big star in France but she was under the thumb of her record company and we were all about liberation. I mean, I’m an ex-Black Panther. It’s a whacky job being a musician because you love what you do but you really are a slave in a way. I understand why Prince wrote ‘Slave’ on his forehead. We knew we had a big mission with Sheila; she had a French accent, singing in English, so it was no easy task, man.
And what about Like A Virgin?
[Laughs] Your definition of camp is a wee bit different to mine. England is known for a plethora of campy songs that come out every year and I never try and make something that’s intentionally camp. My intention is to mix some sort of intellectualism with a certain degree of accessibility, what I call hooks, to make people listen to the secondary message.
It’s been yonks since you worked with Madonna on that album. Would you work with her again?
If she wanted to do it, sure. I love Madonna. I adore Madonna. She’s actually one of my favourite people.
Nile Rodgers performs on stage with Madonna at Live Aid, July 1985
How did you feel about the passing of David Bowie, who you worked with on the Let’s Dance album?
That really broke my heart and blew me away. The great thing about working with him and getting to know him is that he’s a real artist in that you can take away whatever you want to take away. He does his art and craft in such a way that my interpretation is just as valid as yours.
It’s interesting that you talk about him in the present tense…
When I finish working with an artist I always think of waiting for them to call me to do the next record. Music feels to me like it’s the living representation of the person.
What’s been your favourite ever collaboration?
I’d have to say Let’s Dance and for a number of reasons. I was thrilled to do the Diana Ross album; it’s the first record I made with a superstar. Then of course there’s Chic, my baby. Duran Duran. Madonna selling an insane amount of records. But those were all records where I was thought of as being in the mix. Only Bowie’s record was made with people saying ‘We hate this guy, he comes from disco and disco sucks’ so it was David and I against the world. We did it in just 17 days start to finish.
So if you did that in 17 days, what’s your excuse for not making a new Chic album?
Where do I start? My mother is incredibly ill and this past year has been the most taxing time of my life. Even when I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago I had a plan of how I was going to deal with it. I was preparing for death and I started doing a lot of concerts and writing a bunch of songs. Now I’m in remission and I had a whole plan laid out for the new album, but you can’t do that when you have to rely on other people. There are certain artists I want to appear on the record but I can only do it when they’re available.
Nile says Lady Gaga is an “extraordinary” talent.
Do you yearn for the old days of sex, drugs and Studio 54?
Yeah, of course, man. But I’m still having a great time. When I walk out on stage with Disclosure and the crowd goes nuts it’s amazing because when I was younger and I walked into the DJ booth at Studio 54 there wasn’t the same rousing applause. At that time DJs didn’t have the same status.
Who are you a fan of at the moment?
There’s so many people for so many different reasons. I absolutely adore The Weeknd. I flip out over Kendrick Lamar. I think Bruno Mars is naturally gifted. And of course, because I’m working with her, I think Lady Gaga is extraordinary. Every time I’m in her presence I say to myself ‘Wow, how does the world not know that you know how to do this?’ She’s incredible.
So is this you confirming you’re working on the new Gaga album?
Erm, I will never admit nor deny that!
Nile Rodgers is curating the FOLD Festival 2016 from June 24th-26th and appearing with Chic alongside Labrinth, Beck, Alison Moyet and many more. Tickets are on sale now. For full details visit foldfestival.com