The Chic Mystique

Nile Rodgers keeps the 'good times' going 20 years later

When an elite group of Atlanta's hip-hop community gathered to listen to performances by local and national up-and-comers at the Grammy Urban Music Symposium Aug. 2, they expected special guest LL Cool J to deliver a humorous, rousing keynote speech to kick off the first event of the 2001 Atlantis Music Conference. But Cool J ended up in a New York hospital hours before his scheduled arrival at Hartsfield, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) was forced to call in a replacement at the last minute.

Enter Nile Rodgers.

Although Rodgers is the co-founder of '70s disco-funk band Chic ("Le Freak"), his isn't exactly a household name. And so the veteran producer and rhythm guitarist — who's just finished up projects with Cheb Mami and Britney Spears — was a bit nervous about hopping a flight to Atlanta and replacing Cool J on such short notice, especially since he wasn't sure the crowd would be clued-in to him. Luckily for Rodgers, the folks gathered at EarthLink Live that night felt the love for his music, even if they didn't recognize his face.

"It was amazing," Rodgers explains, a few days later on the phone from a studio in New York. "I arrived at 6 p.m., left at 6 a.m. ... I'm so into Atlanta now, because it seems to me that there's an appreciation for real musicianship there. The vibe was fantastic. As far as the speech goes, I was just winging it, talking about my history and where I think music is headed. But people got into it, asking me questions and complimenting me on my contribution to hip-hop."

More well-known for his production work and his mantle full of Grammy awards than his songwriting chops, Rodgers has made many contributions to hip-hop, the most notable of which was "Good Times," a slick dance number he penned with Chic bassist Bernard Edwards back in 1979. "Good Times" was a favorite in disco clubs, but the song took on new meaning when its triple-threat rhythm section (featuring Rodgers, Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson) became the backdrop for the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" — a song many consider to be the first hip-hop single.

Rodgers (with and without partner Edwards) spent the next two decades writing and/or producing an astounding number of pop albums — from Diana Ross' Diana to Paul Simon's Hearts and Bones, David Bowie's Let's Dance, Madonna's Like a Virgin, the B-52's Cosmic Thing, Steve Winwood's Back in the High Life and Duran Duran's Notorious, to name a few. Meanwhile, hip-hop artists were busy reinventing the Chic sound. By the time Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy's "Mo Money Mo Problems" and Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" arrived in the late '90s, Rodgers says he was "approving more than a dozen new requests for samples each week."

Beyond being one of the most sampled songwriters, Rodgers is also one of the world's most non-famous famous musicians.

"It doesn't frustrate me at all that people don't know who I am," Rodgers explains. "I never believed that I was a star. We were shy," he says of himself and Edwards. "Over the years, [Chic] marketed our anonymity and our facelessness. We just considered it the 'Chic Mystique.'"

Chic began earning its anonymity in the mid-'70s, after Queens native Rodgers finished stints as a session guitarist in the Apollo Theatre house band and on "Sesame Street," and hooked up with Edwards, a young bass player from North Carolina. Originally, the pair wanted to be a "black version of Kiss," but as their music developed and caught on at a fledgling Studio 54, the Chic sound became more than just a feel-good party funk; the Rodgers/Edwards partnership — and songs such as "Dance, Dance, Dance" and "I Want Your Love" — became the definitive sound of the disco era.

In late-'70s New York, Chic was as much a part of the burgeoning downtown music scene as Blondie, the Talking Heads or the Ramones (and in fact frequented the same venues), though the band gets little credit because of its "disco" label. Relegated to the cut-out bins by the mid-'80s, Chic's albums were nonetheless full of sultry female vocals and Rodgers' and Edwards' notoriously funky rhythmfests — the sort of raw musicianship rarely found in a genre otherwise deemed synthetic and superficial.

Beyond Chic's hokey and self-promotional lyrics ("Le Freak/C'est Chic," and "Luci, Alfa, Tony, Bernard and Nile/these are the five that are doing it in style/C-H-I-C" are two classic examples) flourished airtight and sophisticated grooves, and the band's music not only became de rigueur in the world of hip-hop sampling, but enjoyed a renaissance in the mid-'90s, when Rodgers, Edwards and drummer Omar Hakim toured the world as Chic. They performed three sold-out nights with Slash from Guns N' Roses, Sister Sledge (whose "We are Family" was penned by Chic) and Steve Winwood at the Budokan in Tokyo in April 1996.

It was on the third night of the stint that Bernard Edwards developed a dangerously high fever before the show, and refused doctors' orders to cancel the gig.

"I said to 'Nard, 'Hey, man, we can cancel.' But the show must go on, and he said, 'Absolutely not.' What's so sad is it was all documented on Japanese television. I can see the tape and just watch him deteriorate." By the time Chic took an intermission mid-set, Edwards had already passed out onstage once, but insisted on finishing the show.

"I knew something was wrong when we got to 'Chic Cheer' and his solo wasn't slammin'," Rodgers says. "And when it was time for him to introduce himself, he just talked about me and how much he loved [playing with] me."

Rodgers recalls being knocked out of bed at 1:33 a.m. by what he thought was an earthquake. "It wasn't an earthquake, but I didn't know that. All of a sudden, I was on the floor and I felt really lonely. I was awakened by a dream that I was alone on the earth and all my friends and family were flying through me to heaven.

"The next morning, I went to 'Nard's room to wake him up, and he wouldn't answer the door," Rodgers continues. "So I got housekeeping to open his door and I saw him lying on the couch. I could tell he was dead by the way his feet looked. I touched his cheek and it was the same temperature as the coffee table, and I just broke down. When the medical examiner came, he estimated the time of death at around 1 a.m. I said, '1:33,' and without asking, he wrote down '1:33.' I'm not a religious guy, but when all of this happened, it was real clarity for me."

The most shocking part of Bernard Edwards' death — both to Rodgers and the music world — was that it happened without warning. Edwards wasn't terminally ill, stricken with AIDS or a victim of drug use. He simply contracted a deadly strain of pneumonia and died almost instantly.

"The whole experience really woke me up," says Rodgers. "I never thought I could put out another record or tour as Chic. We were Chic. But I just remember Bernard looking out at the crowd the night he died and saying to me, 'We did it. The music is bigger than us.'"

Chic, featuring guitarist Nile Rodgers and drummer Omar Hakim, performs at EarthLink Live Sat., Aug. 25. 8 p.m. $33. 404-885-1365??