On March 2, during an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” the French synth-rock duo Daft Punk ran a commercial for its upcoming album, “Random Access Memories” featuring 15 seconds of organic, funky and instantly exciting disco music. No song title was provided, but the guitar sound, a kinetic rhythm line, was instantly identifiable as the work of Nile Rodgers, the founding member of disco band Chic and one of the most important pop producers of the modern era.
Rodgers, who created such lasting hits as “Good Times,” “Le Freak,” and “I Want Your Love” and went on to produce David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran and the B-52s in the 1980s, will conduct a master class at 5 p.m. Friday at the ACM@UCO Performance Lab, 329 E Sheridan and will lead Chic during a headlining performance at the ACM@UCO Rocks Bricktown festival at 9 p.m. Saturday. Rodgers said that guitar sound on the Daft Punk track boils down the essence of what he does: injecting human grooves into dance music.
“That is a perfect example of what I do,” Rodgers said during a recent phone interview. “It’s letter perfect — it’s like, ‘There’s Nile just jamming away.’ Did they give me direction? No, we just talked. They said, ‘We’re thinking about this,’ and when I heard ‘We’re thinking about this,’ I start playing this other thing. I started playing it and they said, ‘That’s it!’”
Rodgers and his chief collaborators in Chic, the late drummer Tony Thompson and bassist Bernard Edwards, came out of the downtown New York City avant-garde scene in the 1970s — one of Rodgers’ first bands was a punk band called The Boyz. But Rodgers and his colleagues broke through when their fusion-jazz group, then called the Big Apple Band, renamed themselves Chic and became the chief architects of Studio 54-era disco.
“We were not categorizing it as disco as such,” Rodgers said. “But we were smart enough to know that disco was so open that it would allow guys like us in if we had music that would make the disco audience respond. A lot of my friends in the jazz world were getting hit records with disco records, and there were a lot of them: Herbie Hancock, Herbie Mann, Joe Beck, Norman Connors, Roy Ayers. Next thing you know, they’re on the charts — the same charts as the Bee Gees and Donna Summer.”
Rodgers saw a way into mass popularity, but he took his conceptual cues from musicians who he saw as creating “totally immersive artistic experiences,” bands as wide-ranging as KISS and Roxy Music. The goal was not to merely be a disco band, but to be the disco band. Beginning in 1977, the concept paid off with huge dance-floor hits such as “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowzah, Yowzah, Yowzah),” “Le Freak,” “Everybody Dance” and “I Want Your Love.”
This run of chart success made Rodgers and Edwards some of the most in-demand record producers of the late 1970s, but while they were being steered toward producing superstars at the time, Rodgers and Edwards’ first outside production work was for the Philadelphia vocal group Sister Sledge, resulting in the huge 1979 disco hits “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer.” That same year, Chic released its biggest hit, “Good Times,” a song powered by a bass and rhythm guitar line that influenced Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
“(Queen bassist) John Deacon was in the studio with us when we did that,” Rodgers said. “People don’t realize that all our best friends were in the rock bands. One night I was with John Deacon and we hung out all night, we went club-hopping and then he came to the recording studio and sort of watched the magic happen.”
While there was a direct and friendly connection between “Good Times” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” Rodgers said he was taken aback by the wholesale sampling of “Good Times” on the first hip-hop radio hit, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. He said he first heard the song at a disco and thought the club DJ was rapping over the 12-inch single of “Good Times.” He soon realized it was a single, and his work had been stolen out from under him without credit or compensation. He later sued Sylvia Robinson of Sugarhill Records and now receives regular checks for “Rapper’s Delight.”
Disco flamed out in the early 1980s, but Rodgers’ career as a producer only accelerated when he produced Diana Ross’ 1980 solo album “Diana,” featuring “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” Rodgers became a go-to producer for pop and rock acts with obvious affections for dance music. In 1983, he produced David Bowie’s multi-platinum album “Let’s Dance,” which led to production credits for Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” the Thompson Twins’ “Into the Gap” and “Here’s to Future Days,” INXS’ “The Swing,” Jeff Beck’s “Flash,” Duran Duran’s “Notorious” and the B-52s’ “Cosmic Thing.”
And now, Rodgers’ sound is once again the foundation for forward-thinking dance music. In addition to his work on the Daft Punk album, due May 20, he has recently collaborated with European DJs such as Tensnake and Avicii. After his Oklahoma City appearances, Rodgers will begin work on a new collaboration with David Guetta. In addition to writing new music with Guetta, Rodgers will be bringing archival, never-released Chic recordings to the session so that Guetta can “stomp on it.”
Rodgers said his recent collaborations with DJs and electronic acts have been revelatory, opening his mind to the possibilities for his style, as well as his place in dance music’s future.
“Dance music feels really interesting to me now,” Rodgers said. “I can bring an organic element to a cut-and-paste world.”
Nile Rodgers and Chic
When: 5 p.m. Friday.
Where: ACM@UCO Performance Lab, 329 E Sheridan.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday.
Where: ACM@UCO Rocks Bricktown Main Stage, in the parking lot east of Zio’s on the Bricktown Canal.
Information: For a full list of bands and events for ACM@UCO Rocks Bricktown, go to acm.uco.edu.
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