Interview by Imogen O'Rorke in The Guardian newspaper on Dec. 13th 1999
'Disco was the only time we were equal. No one cared if you were black or white'

After 25 years at the heart of Chic, Nile Rodgers tells Imogen O'Rorke how his band helped change the world

Even if you haven't heard of Nile Rodgers, guitarist, record producer and co-founder of Chic (at one time the coolest disco band in the world), you have probably shaken a leg to one of his tunes. The irresistibly danceable Le Freak, Good Times, and Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) have been sampled by everybody from the Sugarhill Gang to Queen and Will Smith.
On the eve of his last tour of the 20th century, The Best Disco in Town, where Rodgers and many of the original band members will be reclaiming the vibe along with the Village People and the Weather Girls, he is contemplating 25 insane, drug-addled but unparalleled years in the business.
He has even survived the loss of Bernard Edwards, his closest friend and the other half of Chic, who died of pneumonia three years ago, just hours after a reunion concert in Tokyo. "Bernard was looking at the audience and he turns to me and says, 'You know, this thing is bigger than us,' and I had no idea what he was talking about," Rodgers recalls. "But I see it now."
In the last days of 1999, the cult they helped to create is bigger than ever . "Last week I went to a gig at the Rock Theatre, where I met Madonna, and there were 5,000 people spelling out C-H-I-C, doing that YMCA thing with their arms, and I thought, this is like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I had no clue," he says.
For two struggling jazz musicians growing up in the depressed Brooklyn of 1970, Chic was "and always has been our fantasy". The white satin and cashmere, the gorgeous girls and stylish interiors that adorn the front of their 1978 album C'est Chic, which went platinum, was their way of saying, "This is our time and we're cashing in."
The best illustration of their close relationship is the tale of how they came to write Le Freak. Then relatively obscure, the group had been turned away from the chicer-than-chic Studio 54, despite an invitation from Grace Jones. They left, but not without a struggle, went back to Richards's house and started jamming to the refrain, "Ahhhhhhh, Fuck off!" "We were just having a laugh, but Bernard turned to me and said, 'Hey, brother, you know this shit is happening!'" Fuck off became "Freak off", then "Freak Out" and the rest is dancefloor history.
In the beginning, Chic built their reputation one DJ at a time. "We would go to a club and give our record to the DJ and he would listen to it and go, 'Oh, yeah man... I'll try this out' and - whumph! - the people would swarm to the dancefloor."
It was, to use a horrible 90s word, empowering. "Disco was the only time we were equal. No one cared whether you were black or white - no one even knew. We were using the culture and the clubs to elevate our thinking. It was revolution in a primal way." Edwards forbade Rodgers, a former Black Panther, from talking politics. Edwards's line was: "No moral issues, no heavy message - you just come and see us, have a good time, and split."
And so they enjoyed a string of hits, including Diana Ross's I'm Coming Out and Upside Down, and Sister Sledge's He's the Greatest Dancer and We are Family, which they wrote and produced, although it was called "arranging" then.
Rodgers gets "passionately upset" by books that paint the disco era as a time of camp entertainment and miss the political message. "If you think about it, the whole movement was run by women, gays and ethnics: Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Grace Jones... I mean, The Village People were revolutionary! People who would never even stand in a room with a gay person were dancing to San Francisco, and that's what was so subversive about disco. It rewrote the book."
Not everyone approved. When they produced Koo Koo in 1982 for Debbie Harry, they received hate mail saying, "We don't buy nigger music," and threats to boycott the album. "The culture allowed you to exist just fine as blacks and whites, but when they became the same, the powers-that-be found that very scary," says Rodgers.
In the 80s the duo reinvented themselves as producers ("It was totally normal to hear a song that stank and fix it up"), rebooting the careers of David Bowie (Let's Dance), the B52s (Cosmic Thing), Mick Jagger (She's the Boss) and Bryan Ferry (Boys and Girls) among others, and giving a hand to up-and-coming artists like Madonnna (Like a Virgin).
This period of intense productivity coincided with "very, very serious drug and alcohol problems" for Rodgers. Duran Duran's Notorious was produced from the floor of the studio ("I was so smashed out of my mind"). But there are no regrets. "I come from the 60s. It was OK to be high all the time because of our extreme pressure and our extreme success. We believed we deserved extreme rewards." When the comedown hit, music was his therapy. "As soon as I got into the studio, I would just perk up." Only in recent years has Rodgers been able to bring it under control. And he has never got married. ("It's insane - I'm a slave to the rhythm," he murmurs to himself.)
From the huge fortune he has amassed from publishing rights, Rodgers launched a record label, Sumthing Else, in 1996 (the latest hot signing is hip hop band FOD, or Faces of Death) and Sumthing Else distribution, the only distribution network owned by an African-American. But his latest venture, PCDJ, a spin-off from digital MP3 technology, looks like being the biggest yet. It goes public next year.
"In the last six months, MP3 has taken over from sex as the number one word on the net," says Rodgers. He believes PCDJ software will replace turntables and the mixing desk. New York DJs are already turning up at clubs with a hard drive in hand rather than a case of records.
Rodgers clearly has no intention of living in the past. The audience at The Best Disco in Town will not be getting a retro band, he insists. There will be no wigs and fly collars. But the message is still the same: "Chic is about good music, good vibes and good clothes. That's what we do."
The Best Disco in Town is at Newcastle Telewest Arena (0191-401 8000) on Wednesday, Manchester Evening News Arena (0161-930 8000) on Thursday, then tours till Sunday.