As pop musicians from Keith Richards to Prodigy have published their life stories in the last few years, the timing couldn’t be better for Le Freak, the recently released autobiography of bajillion-selling guitarist/producer Nile Rodgers. Considering that his career encompasses both a stint in the Apollo Theater’s house band and compositions that have inspired countless hip-hop samples, Rodgers may well be considered the bridge between the Rolling Stones and Mobb Deep.
Celebrity memoirs, like pop music, have certain formulae, and Rodgers dutifully details his poor and unstable 1950s childhood with a teen mother and junkie stepdad, his initial brush with musical expression and his own rock-bottom cocaine addiction, psychosis followed by rehab and recovery. But he’s as adroit and engaging within literary conventions as he is within musical ones. The greatest compliment I can pay Le Freak is to say that Rodgers writes like he plays: unpretentiously, engagingly and with the utmost concern for his audience.
In the late 1970s, Rodgers was, along with bassist Bernard Edwards, the visionary and songwriter behind Chic, and would have achieved pop immortality even had he disappeared in 1982, when that band dissolved. But after shepherding a dozen decade- and genre-defining productions like “Good Times,” “I’m Coming Out,” “We Are Family” and “Le Freak,” Rodgers, whose career was seemingly doomed after rock fans starting burning disco records, emerged as one of the 1980s’ most sought-after producers and songwriters. Like the decade before, Rodgers’ résumé from the ’80s is a veritable tour of the Top 40: “Let’s Dance,” “Like a Virgin,” “Notorious,” “Love Shack,” “King for a Day” and countless others.
It’s doubtful whether the music industry is still capable of producing an impresario like this, someone so adept at writing, playing and producing but whose true talent lies in collaboration. Rodgers has released two solo records, but his greatest successes have come when he’s bringing out the best in someone else, whether it’s his soulmate Edwards, an untested group like Sister Sledge or legends like Diana Ross and David Bowie.
“In my haste to tell you about us, I’ve skipped over what was simultaneously happening to me,” Rodgers writes in one characteristic moment, after summarizing Chic’s meteoric early rise. He describes Chic’s music as “tribal, communal, ecstatic, visceral, transcendent, joyous,” and his book feels equally democratic, encompassing settings from L.A.’s Skid Row to the women’s room at Studio 54 and dozens of memorable personalities both famous and obscure.
Rodgers insists that his hit-making formula was to imbue each song with a “deep hidden meaning,” an explanation that elides his more superficial and powerful talents for texture and immediacy. If James Brown invented funk by, in his words, telling all of his musicians to play like drummers, Rodgers’ innovation was to turn everything into a horn section; every instrument in his songs rushes out to greet you, gleaming and bright.
It’s hard to imagine what the last 30 years of pop music would have sounded like without this innovation. Now Rodgers has written a book that examines the roots of his gift to the culture while recreating the invigorating effect of his best-loved songs.