NILE RODGERS & MADONNA
The night that I saw Madonna perform at the Paradise Garage, was the second time I’d seen her do her thing. I’d caught her earlier that year at a three-quarters empty Roxy on 18 Street- downtown Hip Hop central in mid ’80s Manhattan, and the scene of a weekly bohemian party that Afrikka Bambata presided over. Her performance of “Like A Virgin” at the Garage didn’t quite connect with me, and at that time, it was unclear that this would be the record that would break her out of the clubs for good and turn her into a worldwide arena attraction- after all, you had to see the video to fully understand her appeal. It was also unclear at the time (to me) that the co-founder of CHIC had produced the record. She performed the song to track while wearing lingerie and writhing on a four-poster bed. The audience seemed to like it.
I heard the first CHIC single in what must have been late ’77. The smash “Dance, Dance, Dance” was wrecking havoc at every house party or jam that I attended in Soul City. Disco had a grip on the game, and I was not that into the genre. I’d been steeped in the soul, funk and jazz that had been the roots of the somewhat sanitized sound that was all the rage. Bands like Earth Wind & Fire; Kool & The Gang, War and Mandrill who’d been able to coexist peaceably on Black FM outlets along with the productions of Philadelphia’s Gamble and Huff were altering their grooves to fit in. A marketplace filled with leaders was littered with the bodies of followers. Shit was corny.
But there was some different flavor about this CHIC record. The first and most noticeable thing was the torrid bass playing of the late Bernard Edwards, and the almost militaristic approach of the female vocalists exhorting you to “Dance, Dance Dance” on the chorus. The other thing was the way the strings and horns locked up. They were bigger, and more cinematic than anything else going on at the time. It was as though you were dancing to a funky orchestra and the singers were shouting at you. At the time, I liked it but I didn’t take it very seriously I thought that it was a novelty record. Unbeknownst to me, Nile Rodgers, the guitar player and Edwards, who had written and produced the record together were at the beginning of establishing themselves as the two guys who would best define and most transcend the disco era
Eventually, Nile Rodgers and I became friends. Like me, he was a regular on the New York club scene in the ’80s and ’90s. We became friends while hanging out at the old show biz cafeteria, Nell’s around ’86 or ’87 on Manhattan’s 14th Street- it was the place to be for anyone who was anyone in music, film, fashion, sports, media or any other hustle at the time. I was an up and coming record man and he was simply the man. Because of his work with CHIC, he became responsible for the dominant sound of the New York of my youth, a white-hot town where funkiness spilled out of radios, rebellious DJs stole power from Con Ed, threw parties in any spaces they could find, and clubs and club goers held a special place in the life of “The City”.
His productions were numerous, and massive. His groove brought David Bowie & Diana Ross back to prominence, provided a viable launching pad for Luther Vandross, gave Sister Sledge their most memorable tracks, made Duran Duran serious and as I previously detailed, broke Madonna worldwide. Along with Edwards, he created the most valuable thing that a producer can have-a signature sound.
Combined with the imaging and fashion forward styling of the band, the music perfectly represented the inner desire of a people who had been excluded from economic equality, and began to assert their need for greater access and top shelf consumer goods. It was the sound of champagne nights, hot designer gear, entrance beyond the velvet rope, flashing lights and the promise of glamour. Listeners to CHIC records acknowledged that there was a possibility of an attainable high life.
In the late ’90s, both Diddy and Will Smith smashed using CHIC produced samples: Diddy over Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” with “Mo Money Mo Problems” and Smith over Sister Sledge’s “The Greatest Dancer” on “Get Jiggy With It” giving Nile a publishing windfall that resulted in still more lucrative years to come. I asked him if he felt any particular resentment of the Harlem born Diddy’s copping a page from his playbook with the fashion and music. He replied slyly, “Why? I got it from Cab Calloway.”
In tribute to his genre bending, and era defining sound, Nile has compiled a 46 track box set that documents the output of the band and some of the key outside projects that they worked on: Nile Rodgers Presents: The CHIC Organization BoxSet Vol 1: Savoir Faire. Nile’s solo production work on Mick Jagger, Madonna, Duran Duran, Grace Jones, Gil Scott-Heron and David Bowie isn’t represented. Nor is Edwards work with the Power Station or Robert Palmer, but there are many examples of the lean muscular sound that defined the best of CHIC’S work.
CHIC stalwart, Fonzi Thornton steps out of the background, and takes a lead on the infectious remix of “I Work For A Living” from the soundtrack of the forgettable “Soup For One”. Included from the same soundtrack, are “Why” by Carly Simon, and the funky title track by the band itself. Former lead singer, Norma Jean can be heard on the rare club classic “High Society”. Three previously unreleased tracks by Johnny Mathis are here as well as “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” from Diana Ross. The anthemic “We Are Family”; “Lost In Music” and the silky smooth “Thinking Of You” by Sister Sledge can be found here too.
All the big CHIC singles are featured including, “My Forbidden Lover”; “CHIC Cheer”; “My Feet Keep Dancing”; “Rebels Are We” and “Le Freak”. Many of the important album tracks can be heard too. My personal favorite “Open Up” from “The Real People” album isn’t included but it doesn’t detract from the project’s overall greatness. The box isn’t available domestically but can be ordered online through Amazon.com. My old friend was gracious enough to send me a copy. Through following his Facebook page, I was able to learn that through a round the clock effort, last year, he had compiled this special project for his fans. He has also completed a memoir that should be published this year.
I also learned one more thing through following his online social presence: my old friend has what he describes as “aggressive Cancer”. He uses his blog, his Twitter account and Facebook page to inform us daily of his fight for a return to optimum health. The reports inspire and give insight into the heroic character of the most important record producer to ever come from New York. I am happy to be able to listen to this collection and to remember all the nights in the VIP section. Get well soon my friend. There are more good times ahead.