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‘I Look Back, But I Don’t Stare’: Nile Rodgers on Turning 70, Facing Mortality, and Being Music’s Hardest-Working ‘Worker Bee’

It’s both awe-inspiring and humbling to peek at Nile Rodgers’ day-to-day schedule. Earlier this month, to borrow one slightly extreme example, the producer-guitarist left Monaco the morning after a gig so he could get to London in time for a Taylor Hawkins tribute show. Immediately after that, he’d fly back to Monaco to perform a second show, before hopping on a 3 a.m. plane to make it to San Francisco, where his band Chic has been opening for Duran Duran on tour. That’s four full sets in two days in three countries, if you’re keeping track.

This is not new for Rodgers, who for the past decade has been one of the most prodigious musicians in any genre. But get him to stay put in one place and you find one of the most gregarious and loquacious people in music. We’re in a room at New York’s Peninsula hotel to discuss many things, but all centered around his 70th birthday the next day. (He’s keeping his actual birthday low-key “out of respect for the Queen’s funeral.”)

“I’m a runaway train,” Rodgers says more than once, knowing interview questions for him are entryways into insanely entertaining, joyfully meandering stories that sorta, kinda, mostly answer the question. He’s looking cool, of course, in a black T-shirt, camo pants, two earrings, a necklace, dark sunglasses, and a black bandana; sitting with him in a plush suite, you half-wonder if he’s ready to go to an event or that’s just his loungewear when no one’s around. 

The two-time cancer survivor, who nearly died multiple times from drug and alcohol abuse — he’s been sober for 28 years — has long been a walking example of the “Live every day like it’s your last” cliché. There’s the dream studio and “living oasis” he’s building at a Turks and Caicos retreat. There’s DiscOasis, the roller-skating party Rodgers curates in Central Park’s Wollman Rink, where his longtime friend Madonna recently made a grand entrance. There’s the absurdly packed touring and recording schedule; when Beyonce needed guitar for Renaissance track “Cuff It,” she called on Rodgers.

And, most important to Rodgers, there’s the philanthropy, which takes up almost as much time as the music. His 70th birthday “present” is a personal $1 million endowment to the We Are Family Foundation, of which Rodgers is co-founder and chairman, to celebrate the charity’s 20th anniversary. Originally founded in the wake of 9/11, the charity has funded schools around the world, raised money to fight systemic racism and inequality, and started a “Global Teen Leaders” program called Three Dot Dash. Most recently, Rodgers has been focused on the Youth to the Front Fund, in which the charity financially supports young activists.

Death has been a constant in Rodgers’ life for a long time. In his 2011 memoir, Le Freak, he writes about a day — September 13, 1982 nearly 40 years ago exactly — when “almost all my friends and pop culture associates started to die.” “Death has visited me on countless occasions,” he wrote. “But never long enough to exercise the option.” But over 90 minutes, Rodgers looks back and forward, talking candidly and thoughtfully about mortality and how it helps fuel his need to both help others and constantly create.

You turn 70 tomorrow. How are you feeling?
I’ve never felt better in my life. I remember [going] to an AA meeting and my whole life was changed by listening to this woman who was dying of cancer. She said that she came to that meeting that particular day because the one thing that she’s learned by being sober is that even with the worst news, there’s always a gift. You just have to look for it.

You seem more high-energy onstage in recent years than in most of the 1970s Chic clips I’ve seen.
I put way more energy into a Chic show at 70 than I did when I was 30 — I’m all over the place [onstage]. When I was hit with my first bout of cancer, I was terrified. It was worse than anything that’s happened to me because you just feel so out of control. At least when you’re dealing with drugs, you feel like you have some degree of control. The coke has never jumped up my nose; I had to put it up there. With cancer, that shit jumped into my body. So now, I feel like I put 10 times more energy out there than I’ve ever done in my life.

As you get older, do you find yourself looking back more at your life than before?
There’s a great little saying: I look back, but I don’t stare. I never give advice. You don’t ever want to blame somebody else for something that could actually go wrong. I always tried to do the right thing, and so many of these things that I’ve done, it’s because somebody said something to me and it sounded logical. When I look back upon [certain things], I go, “Holy shit. That was the most ridiculous thing I could have ever done.” But somehow it worked. And maybe it worked because I really believed that it would work.

With Stevie Wonder at New York’s China Club, 1986

Courtesy of Nile Rodgers

If 20-year-old Nile Rodgers walked into the room right now, what’s the first thing you’d tell him?
All of the ridiculous shit that you’re about to do, it’s cool. Because you’re gonna wind up a multimillionaire and you’re gonna do all of these things that in your heart feel good. And you’re gonna help a lot of people in this world. Hopefully, after you’re gone, those kids that hear the same kind of ridiculous stuff that you heard and believe it will carry on.

Does that help explain the million-dollar birthday donation to the foundation?
My mom always said to me that it was better to give than to receive. I just sold all my cars, and I have so much stuff in my life, but I’ve always been a giver. I was socialized to care about people when I was a kid. I grew up really poor, and as a Black person, if I had an idea that I thought would help change the world at 16, 17 years old, I wouldn’t be able to get funding. Now, I thought to myself, well, I don’t need any presents; I need to give. That’s the greatest present I can give. These young people are amazing and changemakers. I needed to start an endowment fund. I need to do something to have this work continue after I’m gone.

When we think about George Floyd, we wouldn’t know anything about his murder if it wasn’t for a teenage girl [Darnella Frazier] who just wasn’t afraid. She felt it was her responsibility. No one said to her, “You’re an activist.” She just for some reason in her heart felt like she had to capture this. And it told not just America, but the rest of the world, this kind of stuff can happen, even in a country like America which is the land of the free, home of the brave. I watch these young people in my organization and my charity go through stuff like that every day. In some countries, they’ll just nonchalantly say, “We’re on our way to school today and the bus had to avoid five dead bodies.” But they keep going and get it done.

What do you consider the happiest day of your life?
Probably when [Chic co-founder] Bernard [Edwards] and I got signed, because “Dance Dance Dance” was just a B-side. That was the beginning of what would wind up being a series of very, very, very happy moments. But I mean, come on, surviving that first bout of cancer. When that doctor said, “Nile, you’re cancer-free.” I was sitting at home crying and dying, and next thing you know, I’m cancer-free. The second bout of cancer, I was so brave. I say this with complete sincerity: I was not scared one minute.

It’s striking to me that your first instinctual answer to that question is a musical memory and not beating cancer.
It was not even a thought. Had we not gotten signed, everything else that followed wouldn’t have happened. I grew up around incredible musicians; people that were far more talented than myself. But they couldn’t write a hit record to save their lives. But hitting me with that was like, “Jesus, Nile, as an artist, you have a responsibility.”

Everyone’s asked what song they want played at their funeral, but given your body of work, I’d love to know your top pick.
If people knew the story behind it, it would be [Chic’s 1977 hit] “Everybody Dance,” the first pop song I ever wrote — because I used to be this jazz and classical snob. Even though I had to play pop music for a living, I just did it because people paid me to do it and that was my job.

I went to my tutor — this serious jazz guy — with a sourpuss look on my face and said I had to play this bullshit gig with the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” on the setlist. He said, “’Sugar, Sugar’ has been Number One for more than three weeks now. So all of those people who made that song Number One are wrong, but you, Nile Rodgers, are right? It’s a great composition.” I said, “Why would you say something so absurd?” He says, “Because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers.”

[Note: Rodgers, a natural and gifted storyteller, has told this story many times to journalists. He’s even told this story to me before. Like any great raconteur, he’s mastered the beats, rhythms, cadences and pauses that go into any good story. Yet watching him share it today, his eyes still nearly tear up thinking of his tutor Ted Dunbar and the “million strangers” line that remains a guidepost in his career and life. His voice quivers as he repeats the line, slower this time — “speaks to the souls of a million strangers” — before continuing the story.]

I thought as artists, what do you want to do? I want to touch people [pauses to compose himself] that I don’t know. I want people that I will never, ever meet to know that in my soul, I care about them. And in my soul, I want you to understand that I’m doing music to try and make you feel good. Two weeks later, I wrote “Everybody Dance.”

With Bernard Edwards (right) in 1978

Courtesy of Nile Rodgers

Even in seemingly nonsensical phrases like “Yowza, Yowza, Yowza,” one of your underappreciated throughlines is a sincerity bordering on almost childlike naivete.
Diana Ross had faith in two guys who were basically kids to come in and make the biggest album of her life [with 1980’s Diana]. And why were we able to do that? Because we were just being honest. We were reporters. Diana is a documentary. If I were a journalist, all that was was Diana Ross telling us her whole story, because we didn’t want to make the same mistake we made with Sister Sledge, which was, we told their story. We wrote that whole record without even meeting them. They walked into the studio and it was done. “Just sing this.” We only knew that way of working because that’s the way we had been treated as studio musicians. I don’t know what the song is before I get there. When Daft Punk came to my apartment and said, “Hey, Nile do you wanna hear some demos?” I said, “Dude, I don’t wanna hear a demo. I’ll get to the studio, and that’s when it’s my job to make you happy.”

When does prolificacy start to get in the way of the creative process rather than supplement or inspire it?
When you think about it, when I do a record, it’s usually a failure. I’m aware that most of my records are flops. But when I get a hit, it’s usually the biggest record of a person’s career. They’re way more strikeouts than home runs. But because I’m at bat so often… I’m a worker bee, and just want to work and work and work.

Last week, I was with all these cool young producers, and we’re having a blast, and wrote eight songs in two days. And I say to myself, “OK, guys, I don’t know if these are cool or not, or if they’re going to be hits, but let’s go.” And that’s how I work: I write tons and tons of music all the time. And you probably will never hear it because they’re all flops. But every now and then….[Flashes wide grin.]

How would you describe your current mindset on a day-to-day basis?
Right now, I feel happier than I’ve ever felt just as a human being; as a person who can really give back. A person who really understands the concept of always trying to speak to a million strangers. A person who’s a worker bee and really proud. In my head, I still feel like I’m just a backup musician even though people look at me as the boss. I love being an opening act. I love going out there and saying, “We’re getting ready to scorch the earth.” I wouldn’t be able to do what I do If I didn’t believe that I was going out there to work for you.

You’ve been sober for nearly 30 years. What keeps you grounded?
What’s been great about my life and sobriety is that I’ve always believed in logic. Whenever I hear something that feels logical to me, I march in that parade all day long, which is how I continue to do what I do, because certain things make sense to me. So whenever I think about drinking or drugging … Somebody said to me, a thought is just a thought. It’s the action that really counts. Holy shit. Every time I go into a bank or casino, I think about robbing it. But I don’t do it. Thinking about drinking is not a crime. And that’s where people get so hung up; they think that a mere thought is powerful. The mere thought is just a thought. That’s how we write music. That’s how you’re gonna write your article. “How do I cull this down into a story where Nile Rodgers is talking about the most ridiculous shit in the world and I gotta make it all make sense? [Laughs.]

You’ve had multiple brushes with death. How do you internalize all of these incidents and does it make you reassess your life after they occur?
I look at them, honestly, as a part of life because I know one day [laughs] it’s gonna happen. I remember going to psychiatrists early on in my attempts to get sober and my psychiatrist said to me, “So, is it hard to stop?” I said, “Hell no, it’s not hard to stop. It’s just hard to stay stopped! I stop every night!” [Laughs] But then the next day comes. I’ve had many, many brushes with death. I just didn’t stay dead. It’s not hard to die. It’s just been hard for me to stay dead.

At the risk of getting overly morbid, some musicians have looked at dying onstage as almost a romantic ending. I haven’t even finished my question and you’re laughing.
I hate that you said that, ’cause yes! [Puts head in hands and laughs] When my partner Bernard passed out on onstage, I didn’t know that was the beginning of his cycle towards death. [Edwards passed out during a show with Rodgers at Japan’s Budokan in 1996 and died later that night.] After I got over the shock and the crying and the screaming — because it’s really amazing how you find someone dead and you think that you can scream them or shake them back to life. But after all is said and done and a month or two has gone by, I started to reflect on it and I thought, “Goddamn, how romantic is that?” As a storyteller, as a songwriter, as an artist, what better ending to a show than, “Man, this shit is so hot. I’ve given everything I can give and that’s it, guys. I’m outta here.”

[Rodgers’ voice gets quieter as he leans in, as if he’s about to tell me a secret.] How beautiful is it to do what you do, and you do what you do the best you can one last time. And for people — hopefully — it doesn’t hurt them but they understand that you gave everything because you’re working for them. That’s what Bernard did. He was giving everything.

You said you felt that romantic notion a few months after Bernard’s death. Do you still feel it?
I hate to say it, but I think I still feel that way. I do have this very odd way of accepting death. It’s funny that you bring this up; we just interred my mom’s ashes with my stepdad just last week. So I accept it. I understand that it’s part of life. Of course, I’m somewhat afraid of it because what we know is life, right? We want to prolong our lives as long as possible. And I think that’s why I give so much. Because after I’m gone, I can’t give any more. So I just want to give as much as I can while I’m on this side of the dirt.

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