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Nile Rodgers on Leaving Warner Music for Universal After 40 Years, New Chic Album ‘It’s About Time’

"Everything had changed after Bowie and Prince died," says the composer-producer-guitarist. "We wanted to start fresh."

“It’s more honest that way,” says Nile Rodgers of his about-to-drop album “It’s About Time,” under the banner Nile Rodgers & Chic. It’s his first record in 26 years and, while driving through London in a cab on his 66th birthday, the recently-anointed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame producer, songwriter and collaborator to David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), Daft Punk (“Random Access Memories”), Madonna (“Like a Virgin”), Avicii (“Lay Me Down”), The B-52’s (“Cosmic Thing”), Diana Ross (“Diana”) and many more, is reminiscing. “Bernard and I were together before we had the Chic name, and it will always be he and me,” says Rodgers of his writing-production partner, the late Bernard Edwards, with whom he formed The Big Apple Band in 1970, only to switch to Chic in 1977. “But, I’m truly steering this ship at this time, you know?”

Time is also part of Rodgers’ other big news, for this multi-hyphenate has, after 41 years with the Warners family in the U.S. (Atlantic, then Warner Bros.) and the U.K. (Parlophone) changed labels, in March of this year to Universal and its EMI/Virgin imprint. Along with signing his Chic to Universal for “It’s About Time” and its follow-up – May 2019’s “Executive Realness” – Rodgers has an additional title courtesy of another Universal owned property: he’s been appointed to the specially created role of Chief Creative Advisor at London’s Abbey Road Studios. “London is my second home now – or my first, I don’t know, as we’ve been in three or four cities in a day at a steady clip – so being here, signing here, all made sense.”

If Rodgers’ signature Chic music (sleek, hypnotic disco) was being refreshed with collaborators in the worlds of electronic music, hip hop and nu-soul, newer ears to better market those sounds were necessary. “The one thing Nile Rodgers doesn’t need is A&R – up the bass, edit that song,” Chic’s manager Merck Mercuriadis tells Variety. “We needed someone to best sell what we do in the current marketplace, and we found that in London and Universal.”

Signing with Universal in 2018 came down to several factors, one of which was time, or timing, in that Rodgers and his manager Mercuriadis felt that the music, beats and collaborators for “It’s About Time” – nu-house god Mura Masa, high willowy vocalist Neo, rugged rappers Vic Mensa and Anderson.Paak, superstars Elton John and Lady Gaga – were au courant and ready to be heard. “We just really didn’t want to wait another day,” says Rodgers.

The other factor in switching labels from Warners to Universal came down to regime changes in both the U.S. and the U.K., at exactly the time when Chic’s newly built damn was ready to burst. “You make relationships at a label — several across the globe — and when those relationships go away, things might get weird or take a while to get where they once were,” he adds.

Rodgers had no plan or desire at first to switch labels or leave his longtime Warners home when he started making a new Chic album — his ninth with the Chic moniker since the band’s eponymous debut of 1977 (tenth, if you include their 1982 multi-artist soundtrack to “Soup for One”). He originally wanted “It’s About Time,” to be a ‘thank you’ record to everyone who had ever been part of his artistic life. “I wanted a next Chic album, after all these years, to show how grateful I was to the people who helped me get to where I have gotten,” says Rodgers, the day after spending his birthday night writing a symphonic arrangement of Bowie music, filming a video for Chic’s new “Do You Wanna Party” with LunchMoney Lewis, then briefly dining at Cipriani. “I’m not really a birthday guy,” he laughs. “My mother had me at such a young age that birthdays were more just like hanging out.”

The first single from that intended ‘thank you’ album, 2015’s “I’ll Be There,” featured tapes of presumed lost Chic sessions that Rodgers found in his archives. “Bernard and I had produced these tracks, some of which we used, say on ‘Got To Love Somebody’ by Sister Sledge, or ‘Everybody Dance.’ Some were never used before. On top of that I was able to pull all of these voices that Chic used by manipulating sounds. It was seamless too, as it seemed as if Luther Vandross, Fonzi Thornton and the girls (e.g. Alfa Anderson) were with us in the studio.”

“I’ll Be There,” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club song chart and became Chic’s first number-one dance single in over 22 years since “Chic Mystique” in 1992. “Mainly, this was a ‘thank you’ to Bernard for helping me start my career,” says Rodgers. From that point forward, along with additional unused Chic tracks, Rodgers has created a song with the voice of David Bowie (“it was pretty great”) and a tribute to Prince entitled “Prince Said It.”

Regarding Bowie and the pair’s 1983 platinum-plated opus, “Let’s Dance,” Rodgers is amazed at how – when they recorded the album in Switzerland –  “we did it all in two days.” Says Rodgers: “I didn’t know that, or realize that. Yet, as the family and I have been working on the masters, and we dug up all of the original notes and tapes [for Rhino/Parlophone’s upcoming “Loving the Alien” box set in October], you could hear he and I laughing and joking in the studio. Holy cow. How could you not be nostalgic enough to not want to make a song about that?”

As for Prince and Rodgers, the producer claims that they had a long and unique relationship. “I don’t talk about this much. We were in adjoining studios in Los Angeles. at the same time, he was doing his album, I was working on bits of three soundtracks at once.  There would be these mini earthquakes, and everyone would break for tremors, Prince and I, included, where we’d come outside and talk. There got to be so many of them, we just always found each other outside – talking, laughing.” Rodgers and Prince jammed on funk and jazz tracks, be-bop in particular, as Nile practices Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Roland Prince licks before he goes on any stage. “My guitar style is based on McCoy Tyner, my right hand emulates his piano lines, which is why you hear a lot of inversions and fourths in my playing” With all that jazz as inspiration, “Prince Said It,” was born, and ready to roar, as part of Rodger’s Chic-based ‘thank you’ album. That is until David Bowie and Prince died, within months of each other, in 2016. Like the rest of the world, Rodgers was floored by the loss of these two exotic musical giants. As a longtime friend and collaborator, he was devastated.

“Suddenly after Bowie and Prince died, everything felt wrong. It just felt wrong. I can’t tell you how empty I felt, and how it seemed as if the universe was speaking to me, saying “NILE, YOU CAN’T DO THIS ‘THANK YOU’ ALBUM.”

With that, “It’s About Time,” became all about a fresh start and new beginnings with different faces and voice such as Neo (“the only two reluctant artists I ever chased after to record was Peter Gabriel and her”) and Anderson.Paak, as collaborators, and Rodgers recording a glut of their voices in London’s Abbey Road Studio.

“We chose the U.K. as our base to re-evaluate Nile two years ago,” says manager Mercuriadis, who has – in his past – represented Iron Maiden and Elton John. First, Chic was the toast of 2017’s summer Glastonbury Festival where Rodgers & Co, played before 200,000 people. During summer 2018, Chic headlined 30 shows to half a million people in the UK. “We were on every television show,” Mercuriadis stated. “We’re able to connect the dots between new music and a smaller, but denser and more pro-active dance music population. When you consider that we just dropped new music at BBC 1 – and Nile is the oldest artist to have new music on that station – as a national government run radio station, we’re hitting 50 million people with every play. To do that in the U.S., we would have to be on 200 radio stations, it’s so broken up by networks and genre there.”

Mercuriadis continues: “We had the coolest artists on the planet making records with the hottest producer-composer ever…. all at Abbey Road. We were bringing back the focus of who Nile was and is to songwriting and producing while making the new record.” As it went along, “It’s About Time” was set to emulate, then update for modern ears, the relationship that Rodgers and Edwards had with legendary charges such as Diana Ross and Sister Sledge back in the mad, bad days of disco.

“The stars were aligned in my mind,” says Rodgers, who thought of Abbey Road and its studio bowels as an imaginary “machine” where he could “manipulate voices” for his purposes. “I could put them on the moon. I could put them on the beach. I could get them to participate in my new music whether they want to or not…. That was my statement on being sampled throughout my career without having much say.”

When Rodgers was ready for the “It’s About Time” album to come out, and to move on its marketing and releases preparations last autumn was right around the same time that Warner Music Group was going through its own changes. Cameron Strang, chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Records, exited the company in October 2017, with the new Warner Music Group CEO of Recorded Music, Max Lousada, coming in to oversee WMG’s global recorded operations, including Atlantic, Warner Bros., Parlophone, Warner Music Nashville, and its catalog arms Rhino and Warner Classics.

“Our relationship changed as the album was changing,” says Rodgers, who calls the transformations at Parlophone, Warners’ U.K. operation and its sister label in the U.S., “traumas, really.” It slowed down the progress for Chic and the currency of its music and collaborators. “Max [Lousada] is a dear friend – we believe in him and that he will create a great universe with some major moves that he’s already made,” says Mercuriadis. “But he was at the beginning of that race, when we needed to be already up and running,”

Adds Rodgers: “We just had to start fresh, we wanted to start fresh, as everything had changed after Bowie and Prince died, and the ‘thank you’ record with it. And Universal was there.”

Rodgers and Mercuriadis respectfully had a discussion with Warners and decided to take their new album down the street to Universal’s Virgin-EMI arm in March 2018. They had real faith in Ted Cockle, the president of Virgin-EMI, as he was “the man behind Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” the new Florence + the Machine album and a person who has a genuine interest in dance music going back to the Studio 54 disco era,” adds Mercuriadis.

“Look, I’m with Warners for the rest of my life,” says Rodgers with a warm laugh. “We’re family. They have the Chic catalog, as reflected in the upcoming Rhino box set, ‘The Chic Organization,’ where you’re going to be able to hear everything on heavy vinyl and sounding just like we played it, live, in the first place.  We went back and used the same VSO settings. I was there. I should know right?”

Rodgers adds that with Bowie’s catalog material released through Parlophone/Rhino, and productions for Duran Duran and Madonna through Warners, the connection to his old label is happily unavoidable. “But the future is definitely Universal,” he says, especially when one considers the extra added bonus of Abbey Road thrown into the mix.

“After we signed, and as we were talking about all the marketing for ‘It’s About Time,’ we found out about the wealth of opportunities that the label offered, “ says Rodgers. “They knew that we were recording all these artists at Abbey Road (including Debbie Harry with HAIM, and Jorja Smith for “Executive Realness”), and offered me the opportunity to perhaps pick my role. I chose the advisory role that I have. I’m not trying to take over Abbey Road. I’m just looking for a new home.”

Nile Rodgers is hoping to find a new foundation on several fronts, not just a studio where he can record and a label he can call home. As Rodgers explains: “I remember years ago walking into a record store when there was still record stores, and hip hop and electronic music was all you could find. There was no R&B on the sales floor. And I wondered, ‘where would Chic go?’ We would have no section. Then again, we didn’t sound like traditional R&B in the first place, so maybe that was just. Well, after having made records for years that didn’t have the Chic name on it — which is why I used Nile Rodgers & Chic for ‘It’s About Time,’ because it is more accurate —  I am bring other sounds like hip hop and electronic music into the organization just as what happens when other artists sample me. They bring me into their world. I bring them into my world. I’m just doing what my heart tells me.”

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