Adaptable, up for a challenge and ALWAYS funky, Nile Rodgers has sprinkled more production magic in more ways and places than perhaps any other producer you can name.
As the originator of the disco groove, his work alongside bass master Bernard Edwards is legendary, and the duo’s writing and production work with Chic earned them not only critical plaudits, but also more than a few global smash hits. However, it’s the pair’s later work - both together and solo behind the boards for a host of diverse artists - that really iced their diamond reputations.
Below we achieve the impossible, picking just five must-listen producer-centric tracks that you’ve just got to hear (plus our usual close-call rundown of further listening). So get your groove on and get ready for a few surprises…
1. Chic - Good Times
Of course, we just had to kick off our list with Good Times. Perhaps THE seminal disco record.
While it’s definitely all about the music, Good Times is equally about the gaps in between it. Listen to how the laidback bass alternately plods then flows, comfortable with the silences in the musical conversation. Check out the glimmers of strings sliding in to fill the mix, but equally happy to vanish without a trace; and the way that piano and electric piano trade lines rather than compete with each other.
Meanwhile Rodgers’ own too-funky rhythm guitar chops propel the track, and the whole deliciously slick confection is underpinned by the tightest drum sound around. And are these the most lip-smacking, party-vibe disco handclaps ever recorded? Yup.
While clearly a major influence on the bassline for Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust (number 4 in our best basslines of all time poll while Good Times lags behind at number 10 - go figure) Good Times did of course go on to provide more than just inspiration to The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight… The track may be written into history as the first rap record, and arguably the dawn of hip-hop, but back then it caused an uproar in the Chic camp, essentially ripping off Rodgers and co’s hard work.
Incredibly, Atlantic records refused to sue Sugarhill Records mogul Morris Levy, and so the band took him legally to task themselves. leading to an altercation at the Power Station studio involving three unnamed men of unknown origin, who suggested that Rodgers and Edwards drop their suit while clearly packing heat. The pair refused to back down and the situation was resolved with Rodgers and Edwards sharing equal billing with the rap’s many writers.
Fact: the bass played by Bernard Edwards on this track - a Musicman Stingray - was gifted by Edwards to Duran Duran’s John Taylor after Edwards’ production work on Duran side-project The Power Station. Taylor now uses it as his go-to recording bass and - never a fan of the recording process - to cut through any debate while ‘getting the bass sound’. “‘This is the bass on Good Times’ kind of finishes the discussion,” he explains.
2. Let’s Dance – David Bowie
In his 2011 autobiography Le Freak, Rodgers writes that the infamous ‘disco sucks’ movement in America (whereby former disco fans were encouraged to publicly burn their dodgy disco records by way of apology) had left him so shocked that he’d sworn never to write another song with the word ‘dance’ in the title. But when the opportunity to work with David Bowie arose, and Bowie strummed him his WIP track on a 12-string (with six strings), Rodgers wisely decided to restart the dance, totally altering the arrangement, including radically flipping the song’s intended verse and chorus (the song now effectively begins with a ‘chorus’ with “and if you say run...” being the verse).
With six flop singles on the bounce behind him (and a reputation for partying a little too hard) Rodgers circa ‘82 was hardly the hot ticket, so this was a bold move for Bowie. After being given the order to “make hits,” Rodgers put together the same team that made his Chic smashes (including his favourite engineer Bob Clearmountain at his favourite studio - The Power Station in New York) though it’s worth noting that, despite the amazing drum sound and that bassline, Chic’s Tony Thompson and Bernard Edwards don’t play on Let’s Dance, as it was the first track of the Bowie sessions and Rodgers felt the pair too unreliable (and risky) on such an important gig.
Worth noting that Rodgers himself describes this period as being “at the peak of my addiction,” which might have gone some way to fuelling the recording process, with Rodgers and team completing the whole (smash) Let’s Dance album in just 17 days. The album - powered up by Rodgers’ equally excellent work on singles China Girl and Modern Love (both narrowly missing our list) - went on to be Bowie’s biggest hit.
Little known fact: the track’s closing blues guitar solo at 4:34 is provided by none other than (the at the time unknown) Stevie Ray Vaughan, having been invited along to the sessions after Bowie saw him play at the Montreux Jazz Festival a few months earlier.
And let’s not forget the fact that Let’s Dance also provides a home for perhaps the most sampled kick and snare in rock and pop (alongside Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean). This perfect, state-of-the-art ‘80s pairing is said to be across countless equally famous hits. The snare is freely available throughout the stop/start intro, but you can bag the kick from between the congas on the extended album version of the track at 5:32…
3. Duran Duran - The Reflex
Picking just one Duran/Rodgers collision for this list has been a nightmare (Notorious… Wild Boys… Skin Trade… Pressure Off) but in the end we just had to go for this monumental career-defining smash hit, made all the more remarkable by its tortuous birth into the world.
Rodgers claims that Simon Le Bon came calling after hearing his work on INXS hit Original Sin at a party in Australia. However, the story is a little more complex than that.
Duran Duran circa 1983 were at the peak of their powers. Having had Colin Thurston produce their first two hit albums, they’d drafted in Ian Little, who’d worked with their idols Roxy Music, to give them a harder, “weirder” sound. However, after it required producer Alex Sadkin to step in to rescue the mix on album gap, filler single (and future number one) Is There Something I Should Know, the scene was set for the band’s third album - Seven and the Ragged Tiger - to be a rather mismatched affair. The situation was not helped by the fact that the band were now living as tax exiles and recording between the south of France and the island of Montserrat (it’s a tough life...)
Heavily influenced by Chic (the band cite Tony Thompson’s drum break at the start of Diana Ross’s I’m Coming Out and Upside Down as particular influences on the writing of The Reflex) the band channeled Rodgers work and keyboard player Nick Rhodes devised counter-acting ‘real’ string lines on his brand-new Emulator sampler that made a perfect quirky chorus.
However, despite producer Sadkin turning in a perfectly acceptable track for side one, track one of the new album, the band felt that their arresting tune was missing a little magic for use as lead single…
At this point Duran Duran had begun a world tour in Australia - where Rhodes picked up a no-expense-spared Fairlight sampler from the factory in Melbourne - and Simon Le Bon did attend that party, thrown for the band by chat show host Molly Meldrum, where they did indeed hear INXS’s Original Sin and instantly loved its sound.
The band reached out to its producer (and - boom - coincidence - original inspiration for the track) Rodgers who - of course - had just picked up his Fairlight too, and both band and producer began figuring out just what they could do with it on The Reflex…
Compare and contrast the original album version here and the single version and it’s clear what a little Rodgers magic (and a couple of brand new Fairlights) can do. However, the story isn’t quite over yet as - guess what? - Capitol Records HATED the remix and refused to release it.
In a conversation relayed in Rodgers’ autobiography it fell to Nick Rhodes to deliver the bad news that Capitol found the mix “too black sounding” [splutter] and would only release the remix if the band handed back royalty points to cover the extra cost of the promotion that the new version would require. Passionate about the mix, the band reluctantly agreed; the track went on to be the biggest selling single of their career, placing Rodgers firmly in the frame to take care of business for their next album, Notorious.
4. Madonna - Like A Virgin
Madonna and Rodgers knew each other through the New York club scene, but it was his success at ‘funking up’ white stars - hot from Let’s Dance - that placed him front and centre with Sire records, eager for him to work the same magic for their fair-to-middling solo-singing sensation in waiting.
Despite almost coming to blows with the notoriously headstrong Madonna and working harder than ever to secure in-tune takes for Like A Virgin and Material Girl, Rodgers’ sterling work on Madonna’s second album was worth the pain. It was also worth the amazing points deal he’d managed to seal for himself, earning “more than an artist gets on an album today,” such was Sire’s desire for the Bowie magic.
We’re talking Rodgers at the top of his production game here, and dictats such as to ban the use of programming and to play everything live (at a time when programming and drum machines were becoming de-rigeur) were respectfully indulged in the pursuit of a pop track with a funky edge.
The song is interesting in being one of the first that was digitally recorded on the brand-new Sony 3325 digital 24-track installed at The Power Station, delivering a fabulous ‘80s crunch. The track was then mastered to the Sony F1 PCM Adapter - an incredible device for the time that recorded audio digitally onto Betamax video cassettes via an attached video recorder…
That famous bassline is Sequential Circuits’ Prophet-5, and the song features an early outing of the (pre-sampling) New England Digital Synclavier digital synth for the plucks and strums - listen to the hard left and right. Despite the song’s obvious hit status, Rodgers actually favoured Material Girl as the lead single, finding Like A Virgin ‘too bubblegum’, but bowed to pressure from Madonna and label to lead with Like A Virgin.
Amazingly, with the album complete, it sat on the shelves untouched for six months as Madonna’s singles Borderline and then Lucky Star from the album previous were re-released, finally achieving the hit status they deserved and tee-ing up Like A Virgin as a smash hit follow-up. Both single and album went to number one in the US.
5. Diana Ross - I’m Coming Out
Oh man… How do you choose between the tracks on the stunning return-to-form, textbook comeback Diana album from 1980? I’m Coming Out… My Old Piano… Upside Down… Too many classics!
We’re going for I’m Coming Out, the result of a night out where Rodgers met transvestite Diana Ross impersonators and realised her broad universal appeal. The song was written as an affirmation for her gay and trans fans “in slightly coded language,” explains Rodgers.
“There’s a new me coming out,” sings Ross, reflecting her tenth album’s radical change in look and style for the lady who - up until this point - was still synonymous with the Motown sound. However, despite being what is now recognised to be some of Rodgers and Edwards most sparkling work the album had a tortuous birth as - upon its completion - Ross got cold feet about her new ‘disco’ sound and, in the wake of that ‘disco sucks’ movement (where disco as a genre went from on-trend to outlawed overnight, taking the careers of every disco artist with it), decided to rework the album without the writers’ and producers’ input.
The new mix of Diana (and the one actually released) features the songs speeded up, fewer Chic-style instrumental passages and Ross’s vocals high and dry up front rather than swathed in the dreamy Chic sleek. It sounded great, but Rodgers and Edwards were so appalled by Motown’s shady moves they debated having their names removed from the album and never quite got over the betrayal. However, the Motown mix garnered broad critical acclaim and went on to be Ross’s biggest ever hit, shifting over 10million copies worldwide.
Second single I’m Coming Out reached number one in the States and number 13 in the UK and, of course, went on to form the core of classic ‘90s jam Mo Money Mo Problems by The Notorious B.I.G featuring Puff Daddy and Mase thanks to that incredibly funky Rodgers guitar and Tony Thompson drum intro.
Extended Remix! You just got lucky… Here’s our essential further listening
OK. Not produced by Rodgers, but co-written and so shot through with his influence, sound and great guitar playing it just has to be on our extended playlist.
The Sister’s hit album was the first outing for Rodgers and Bernard Edwards writing and production talent outside of the Chic bubble. Get over the fact that lyrically the song hardly pushes the envelope (with a grand total chorus of three lines repeated ad nauseum) and feel that bassline groove. And no, the lead vocalist Kathy does NOT sing “We’re giving love in a femidom”, the late ‘80s failed female condom. (It’s “We’re giving love in a family dose.”) Just wanted to clear that up.
DON’T DARE pass this hidden gem. Easily one of Rodgers/Edwards best writing, arranging and production masterclasses and a global smash that the Chic team always found too cheesy to own up to. Sheila was a French disco star, cashing in on the late ‘70s post Star Wars sci-fi trend. It’s an ode to her intergalactic lover who is “always queek with a keeess on ze ‘and…”
Do check out the excellent, criminally underachieving Rodgers-produced Skin Trade from Notorious (UK number 22, US number 39?!) popularly recognised as Duran’s best work. Check that snare drum sound…
Particularly tasty in spacious 12-inch form here. Rodgers and Edwards actually wrote and produced this global smash and modern classic as part of their lesser known work on the lesser known soundtrack to the even lesser known movie Soup For One. BTW, the title track (performed by Chic) went on to form the heart of Modjo’s noughties club classic Lady (Here Me Tonight).
Lightning strikes twice as, once again, producer Alex Sadkin gets the Rodgers elbow a la Reflex as Rodgers’ remix (adding guitar and gospel choir) usurped the ‘84 UK single version for its ‘85 release in the US and subsequent inclusion album Here’s To Future Days.
By now you’re in awe. So - at the risk of ruining the vibe - do take the time to check out Lady Gaga’s Rodgers-produced and needless remake of Chic’s I Want Your Love if only to hear how she sings “I want your love” in exactly the same way that the Sesame Street’s Count ‘Vants to bite your finger’…