The Most Influential Man in Music That You’ve Probably Never Heard of
Music Legend Weighs in on Janelle Monae and Madonna’s Homeless Brother
If you had to name the most influential person in the history of modern music, who would it be? Michael Jackson, whose “Thriller” album broke sales records and revolutionized music videos or Elvis Presley who took rock n’ roll mainstream? You’d be wrong. The most influential man in music, at least in the last century, is a man few have heard of, but whose music everyone has heard: Nile Rodgers.
Rodgers has written or produced some of the most memorable, most sampled and karaoke-ied songs ever: “We Are Family,” by Sister Sledge, “Like a Virgin” by Madonna, “Modern Love,” by David Bowie and “Le Freak” (or as most of us probably call it “The “Freak Out” song.) He’s also credited with giving legends like Diana Ross and David Bowie the biggest albums of their careers and giving soundtracks to some of Hollywood’s biggest movies too, among them “Coming to America” and “Thelma & Louise.” Rodgers is considered by many a musical genius, whose ear for composition is akin to Michael Jordan’s gifts on the court. As impressive as his success is, it’s even more impressive considering his childhood, which included not one, not two, but three drug addicted parents and a mother who had barely reached her teen years when she gave birth to him. Rodgers writes candidly of his own battle with addiction, and the role a Madonna encounter played in his choice to get sober. Loop21 caught up with Rodgers for a discussion of “Le Freak,” in stores now.
Loop 21: You grew up in a multiracial household before that was more common with a white stepdad. Do you think that influenced your appreciation of so many types of music and your ability to work with so many artists of different races?
Nile Rodgers: In a word—yes. But I should add that I can theorize that the reason I have this diverse palate for music is because of my environment and the people around me, yet I also believe that I developed my own taste after I was exposed to certain things. It’s like a taste for food. I don’t think anyone is born liking caviar. But once you develop a taste for it you start to look for other things that are more sophisticated and challenge your taste buds.
Loop 21: What’s your all time favorite song you’ve written for someone else?
Nile Rodgers: Probably the best song I’ve ever written—not compositionally but commercially is “We are Family” by Sister Sledge because the world proves it to me over and over again. I walk in any place and sing that song and everybody knows it.
Loop 21: What’s the most fun project you’ve ever worked on?
Nile Rodgers: The most fun project would be David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” because I had a lot to prove and David let me prove it. We didn’t have a record company to answer to and an artist who completely believed in what I was doing.
Loop 21: What are the key ingredients to a great song?
Nile Rodgers: I don’t think about it in terms of “great” because my honest answer would be I don’t know. But I do know the key ingredients to a popular song, and that’s a musical bed that even without the lyrics, moves you emotionally.
Loop 21: What’s your favorite cd that you own that you did not personally work on?
Nile Rodgers: Miles Davis, Bitches Brew
Loop 21: Who do you consider the most talented new artist working today?
Nile Rodgers: That’s really tricky for me. I don’t know everything this person can do, but basing just on the live shows I’ve seen, Janelle Monae and Bruno Mars is really exceptional.
Loop 21: You didn't have what you'd call a typical childhood. Your family was once on the run from a hit man who was obsessed with your mother and your parents battled addiction. Do you think your music would be as good if you had a quote “normal” childhood?
Nile Rodgers: I don’t really know why I choose to compose the way I compose…It’s hard..answering this. I think of someone like Kathy Sledge who still has this amazing little girl raspy voice at 50 that she had at 16 and it’s just a gift from god. Some of it is training but some of it…
Loop 21: Is a gift?
Nile Rodgers: This is hard to answer. It’s like asking me to undo me because I don’t know which one of these things makes me, me.
Loop 21: I guess another way of asking this would be the following: Why do you think it is that some people who are abused end up abusing others, while someone else who is abused becomes Oprah Winfrey? Or someone who is raised in addiction ends up in prison, but someone else ends up becoming Nile Rodgers. What’s the key difference? Have you ever thought about that?
Nile Rodgers: I’ve thought about that a lot. Looking at me and my brothers, I don’t know a better way of explaining what I’m about to say but my brothers and I… well we’re just nice guys. None of my family could physically hurt anyone. Maybe I would have been smart enough to be a criminal, but I couldn’t be mean enough. I wouldn’t know how to do that. My mom always said growing up, “It takes just enough effort to be nice as to be mean, so why not be nice?”
Loop 21: Madonna was in the news recently regarding her brother who is homeless and it’s reignited the debate over how much responsibility wealthy and famous people have for friends and family who haven’t made it. How do you feel about that?
Nile Rodgers: The thing is you have to figure out what you’re going to do that makes you feel comfortable. I’ve been supporting my family since I was a teenager. But I’m not so sure I did the right thing because unfortunately my family has basically grown up like on welfare. They live in a fabulous mansion and they’re not terribly motivated to do anything else. In a way I feel guilty for helping my family as much as I have because it hasn’t allowed them to change significantly. But of course I have to examine my own motivations, like wanting to be closer to my mom and feeling less-than and unattractive. (Ed. Note: Rodgers writes and speaks at length of how being the dark-skinned member of a multi-racial family impacted his sense of identity.)
It’s really about me wanting more for them as people but I try not to be judgmental because I’ve had a hand in it and I also know that my family are really good people.
Loop 21: Do you ever wish you had a different childhood?
Nile Rodgers: No. I wouldn’t have changed one single second. My relationship with my mom is incredible and I don’t think I would have what I have with my mom and my life without having what I had back then.