The Deep Hidden Meaning of Nile Rodgers

“After I got sick, I decided that I’m a musician, and I’m going to go on a tear doing what I do best.” Photo: Christopher Anderson/ Magnum Photos

Nile Rodgers had been up past midnight, producing for a lovely unsigned jazz singer named Nicole Henry. He wants to walk her into the offices of Blue Note Records, he says, with a song so catchy that the execs who normally listen to new music with their heads down will have to look up. So he kept working until 3:30 a.m., here at his home studio in Westport, Connecticut. Henry sang into the mike in his dining room, a keyboardist comped along beside her, and Rodgers played guitar. If his productions have a trademark, it’s his jazzy, skittering guitar. Well, that and the fact that so many of them have been hits: 200 million albums sold. Fifty million singles. With his band Chic, there was “Le Freak,” “Good Times,” and a half-dozen other disco classics. Madonna’s Like a Virgin and David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and Duran Duran’s “Notorious.” Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” — that last song proved that he still had juice, and when he sees crowds dancing to it, it reminds him, old hippie that he is, of “I Am the Walrus”: “I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together.”

But he can’t say “Get Lucky” gave him any great takeaways. Hits don’t have lessons. They just are; so he just keeps working. And he kept working last night, until the mid-July sun sparkled on the water that comes right up to the edge of this rambling, wooded property, and on through to 6:30 a.m., when he took a double dose of Ambien, tucked his dreads into a bandanna, pulled a sleep mask over his eyes, and called it a session.

At 9:26 a.m., the doorbell rings and he wakes up. There’s so much to do. He has to work on It’s About Time, the first Chic album since its last comeback album 24 years ago. (Rodgers is the only band member to play live on all the band’s albums.) He’s got to fly to Denver for a Chic gig. On August 4 and 5, he’s hosting the FOLD Festival in Riverhead, Long Island — his friends Beck and Pharrell, among others, are playing — and he thinks ticket sales are a little soft. Then there are more Chic shows, mostly in Europe. He has 44,000 unread emails, and the music in his head never stops.

At 9:30 a.m., Nile Rodgers opens his front door. He’s in a white bathrobe, his sleep mask pushed up on his forehead, his feet, with their blue-painted toenails, bare. “I forgot you were coming,” he says in his low, smooth voice. “I’m going to have a hard time thinking straight this morning.” He walks to his kitchen table, blue jays and squirrels visible in the big backyard through the window, an impressive array of herbal teas lined up on the kitchen shelves, and he takes a seat. He puts a skinny leg up on the table. “See this?” he says, pointing to a scab on his calf. “I thought it was a melanoma. Once you’ve had cancer, you become susceptible, so after six months I went and got it checked. It was benign.”

Chic in 1977. From left, Bernard Edwards, Norma Jean Wright, Nile Rodgers, and Tony Thompson. Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

He was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in 2010, around the same time he handed in the first draft of his memoir, Le Freak. In broad, funky strokes: Born in New York City in 1952 and raised in Greenwich Village, child of addict parents, finds music, jams with Hendrix, helps invent disco with Chic, becomes an addict himself, sees Chic come to an end after disco goes bust, works with a staggering portion of the pop aristocracy, flatlines in an ER after a too-wild, but not uncommon, night, periodically reforms Chic as a live entity, gets clean, then ends his rollicking tale with the revelation that he’s fallen ill. That last curveball, he says, wound up a bizarro boon. “My father died without leaving anything behind” — Nile Rodgers Sr. is buried in New York’s potter’s field — “so after I got sick I decided that I’m a musician and I’m going to go on a tear doing what I do best.” (He’s been cancer-free since 2013.) “It’s been an endless stream of music, grooves, and gigs. I just can’t stop.” He gets up to retrieve his computer from his bedroom. Nicole Henry, in spandex, appears among the blue jays and squirrels on the back deck and starts doing tricep dips.

When Rodgers returns, he’s wearing a black T-shirt, black jeans, white running shoes, and sunglasses. “I’ve got to call Warner Bros. and tell them, ‘Look, unfortunately you hired an artist and not just a guy who makes hits. There are things I have to prove with the new Chic music, to capture this beautiful gift of life. So I’m sorry I didn’t do this on time and that on time.’ I have to make an album that reflects where I’m at.” Every Chic record — including the new one, the release date of which has been something of a moving target and which is the first made without Rodgers’s old musical partner, bassist Bernard Edwards, who died in 1996 — has a DHM, a deep hidden meaning. “The DHM of ‘freak out’ from ‘Le Freak’ was ‘Fuck off’ — we wrote it after a bouncer didn’t let us into Studio 54. The Deep Hidden Meaning of It’s About Time is a double entendre: It’s about time for another Chic album and it’s about time.” He spins a water-bottle cap. “Originally, I was just going to use old Chic backing tracks that I found,” he says. Instead, the album blends previously unused vintage material, featuring founding members like Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson, who died in 2003, and material recorded with new musicians. “The stuff I did with Disclosure, with Daft Punk, with Avicii was damn good,” he says. “The music I’m making means something out there. So why would I live in the past?”

We leave the kitchen and walk by an indoor gym that’s been outfitted with a turbulence pool and jukebox. Gold and platinum records line the stairwell. A small bedroom is full of recording gear — Rodgers has never married and has no kids. “When I was signed to Atlantic Records” in the ’70s, he says, “you didn’t have to have a hit to make a good living as a musician. Now there’s Taylor Swift, and there’s everybody else.” Standing on the third-floor balcony, he points to a small speedboat tied to his dock. “I’ve had, like, 12 different boats over the years,” he says. “I can just zip over to the Hamptons.” He’s owned this place since 1978, bought after Chic broke big.

Back downstairs for a three-bag cup of tea. “I’ve never learned from success,” he says. “ ‘Get Lucky’ allowed me to get a record deal for the new Chic album, but I couldn’t tell you how to make that song again. Things just line up right.” He frowns. “As a producer, I help an artist make a record that I’d want to hear as a fan. But I had no idea ‘Get Lucky’ would be so huge. It’s always up and down. The way you know you’re good is if there are more ups than downs … Let me play you something.” He finds a YouTube video for a creamy Al Jarreau ballad from 1986 called “Across the Midnight Sky.” “L Is for Lover is the album,” he says. “It’s the best thing I ever made that didn’t sell.” He plays air guitar along with himself. “The theme from Moonlighting was on it, but Al and I thought it wasn’t cool enough. So we took it off the album. That becomes a hit, and the album sank. Shows what I know.”

His phone beeps. He has to work on the musical he’s writing based on his memoir. He has to wrap up with Henry. He has to prep Chic for the FOLD Festival. He has to finish the album, and in a half-hour, musicians are arriving for a session. “Can I get you an Uber?” he asks politely. “I have to make some music.”

*This article appears in the July 27, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

The Deep Hidden Meaning of Nile Rodgers