POP MUSIC : They’re Still Family : After an 8-year layoff, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards relaunch their group Chic but worry that their soulful sound may be dated
Can the architects of one of the most striking pop-R&B; sounds of the disco era connect with today’s audience?
Anyone who heard the classic hits crafted in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards certainly wouldn’t bet against the production-writing-arranging team.
At the time, Rodgers and Edwards were as dominant a creative force as today’s hotshots like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (who work with Janet Jackson and Sounds of Blackness) and new jack swingmeister Teddy Riley (Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson, Guy).
They not only made hits--including “Le Freak” and “Good Times"--with their own group Chic but also created anthems while working in the studio with others. Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” became the Pittsburgh Pirates’ theme song during the drive to the 1979 world championship.
But Rodgers and Edwards--whose partnership broke up in 1984 over the pressures brought on by heavy recording, touring and production commitments--are not taking anything for granted in their relaunching of Chic.
Even though “Chic-ism,” the group’s new album on Warner Bros., recalls the sound of Chic’s glory years to a surprising degree, the craftsmen--whose individual production credits since the split include records with David Bowie, Madonna, Robert Palmer and Rod Stewart--worry that the sound may be dated.
There’s next to nothing in the way of hip-hop influences or the fuller, keyboard-and-percussion-dominated productions that drive the most vibrant elements of the R&B; mainstream today. (See review on Page 60.)
“I’ve never been more worried in my life,” Rodgers, 39, said on the eve of the album’s release. “I’m no idiot--I make records every day of my life. All I gotta do is play our record and it doesn’t sound like anything in the Top 10. It sounds quite old-fashioned.
“If we had been making records all along, our record would have sounded very different. We had just gotten together after being separated for a long time, so we just picked up our Chic chops.”
But Edwards, also 39, was encouraged by the early industry reaction to the album. "(The response) we’re getting from people, especially in Europe, is it’s been so long that it sounds fresh and new. There’s also a mature dance audience who like songs , and we’re trying to hit that market too.”
It’s not that Rodgers and Edwards tried to ignore current sounds while they were recording the new album. In fact, they set out to make a contemporary-sounding record.
“With all the hip-hop stuff, Chic was gonna be the baddest black rap sophisticated band there was,” Edwards said of the original studio game plan. “We tried to become what everyone else was, like C+C Music Factory or the latest techno or acid stuff because we wanted to be in the dance clubs.”
After spending months recording material in a ‘90s vein, however, the pair saw a Prince performance at a Warner Bros. Records convention in Chicago and realized they were spending too much time programming machines instead of playing their instruments. “If you heard some of the tapes from the first half of the year, it wasn’t even the same band. We were very confused,” Edwards said.
The solution: a return to their old method of building songs on studio jams with new drummer Sterling Campbell and then bringing in vocalists Sylver Logan Sharp and Jenn Thomas.
“We’re not 19 years old anymore, and it doesn’t make sense for us not to be honest with ourselves and try to play something that’s not ours,” Edwards continued. "(The techno sound) is not our culture--it’s not what we lived and listened to every day. The best thing for us was to make a good live dance band sound like we used to have in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.”
The Chic sound--spare and elegant, with strings soaring over a funky rhythm section--went far beyond Rodgers-Edwards’ own hits the first time around. “Another One Bites the Dust,” Queen’s huge 1980 hit, was admittedly patterned on Chic’s 1979 blockbuster “Good Times.”
The “Good Times” instrumental track also provided the backing music for a huge number of early rap records, including the first national hit--the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” in 1979. Soul II Soul’s 1989 chart-topper “Keep on Moving” clearly updated the patented Chic slow groove ‘n’ strings style.
“In ‘70s black music, only George Clinton and the whole Parliament/Funkadelic conglomerate can be compared to Chic in terms of ultimate influence,” says Ken Barnes, editor of the trade magazine Radio & Records.
“Chic’s musicianship was really a cut above, and the songs were just impossible to shake. It was so catchy, and there was a definite sound there--all their outside productions were immediately identifiable as a Chic production.”
The music was so polished and assured that it seemed as if it simply arrived magically on the pop scene one day.
Actually, Rodgers and Edwards had put in a long apprenticeship.
They began playing together around New York City in the early 1970s. Rodgers played in the house band at the Apollo Theatre and both gathered invaluable experience playing R&B; and rock hits at small East Coast clubs. Among the influences--the usual Motown/Stax/Atlantic soul suspects, some jazz and even hard rockers Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys.
Rodgers and Edwards tried to get a deal as part of a five-piece rock-fusion band in the mid-'70s but were steered toward R&B;, they say, by label executives worried about marketing a black rock band. With drummer Tony Thompson, they recruited vocalists Luci Martin and Norma Jean Wright (soon replaced by Alfa Anderson) and launched their careers with the hit “Dance, Dance, Dance” in 1977.
But being stamped with the disco stigma meant critical respect eluded them, even though such Top 5 pop albums as “C’est Chic” and “Risque” offered a far more varied, individual sound than the glut of regulation-issue disco records. Even the group’s classy, high-fashion image--although largely inspired by the theatrical flair of critical favorites David Bowie and Roxy Music--worked against them.
“I think ‘Good Times’ is the song we’re remembered for,” Edwards said. “We were a commercial band, and unfortunately a lot of people never took the time to get into the band or to listen to the rest of the albums.
“We never did get that song in America that (people) felt like, ‘This is a great band.’ We were part of the ‘Disco Sucks’ era and it was very hard to deal with that. A lot of the admiration we got was after the fact, and it was from British or rock bands who came looking for us as musicians.”
That recognition in Europe--where Chic was highly regarded as a creative unit--enabled Rodgers and Edwards to build their individual production careers. Rodgers released two solo albums and a 1987 album with the group Outloud and became a veejay on VH-1. Edwards released a solo outing in 1983 and one with the rock-oriented group the Distance featuring ex-Chic drummer Tony Thompson in 1989.
Those solo projects gave Rodgers and Edwards the chance to develop some of the rock and pop directions they had originally intended to explore in Chic before being steered toward the R&B-dance; sphere. But some of those attitudes and barriers about black musicians playing rock ‘n’ roll still linger, as Edwards found out after producing Robert Palmer’s hit “Addicted to Love” in 1985.
Said Rodgers: “A really big rock band called Bernard because they had seen his Robert Palmer credit. They said, ‘That’s one of the most slammin’ rock ‘n’ roll records I’ve ever heard. That’s a definitive great power-rock record.’
“They called him up to produce (them), and he walks in the studio and they go, ‘Damn! You’re black.’
“Bernard said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been black all my life.’
“ ‘Well, what do you know about rock ‘n’ roll?’
“ ‘When you called me, you said that was the most powerful rock record you ever heard. Every single musician on the track is black.’ ”
After all the years apart, Rodgers and Edwards got back together almost by accident. A Chic alumni jam at Rodgers’ birthday party two years ago was the catalyst. It was the first time they had played together since the split, and it reminded them of all the good old times.
“Chic Mystique,” the first single from the new album, is also reminding pop audiences of the good times with Rodgers and Edwards. It is already a big dance club hit.
“They were one of the groups that helped change the sound of dance music,” said deejay-turned-artist Frankie Knuckles. “Chic is like an old friend, and it’s good to know they’re back.”
But will that old, trademark Chic sound ultimately stamp the group as “retro” with an R&B-dance; audience that quickly embraces and discards new styles?
“When people say ‘retro,’ it offends me because my music is only retro because of the style we play,” Rodgers said. “The plight of the R&B; musician is you always have to prove yourself.
“When a band like Guns N’ Roses says they’re a hard-rock band, they’re proud of that and it means a lot. If I say we’re an R&B-dance; band, that doesn’t have the same weight or integrity, and to the people who would traditionally be our fans, we’re old-fashioned and outdated.”
Even if “Chic-ism” fails to light up the charts, Edwards indicated that both he and Rodgers plan to carve out a niche for Chic while maintaining their individual careers. He said the pair is open to all options--more recording, a Chic tour and perhaps joint production ventures.
Concluded Edwards: “Because of the accomplishments of Nile and myself, I think people will pay attention to what we’re doing now and maybe they’ll hear it. Maybe they won’t--maybe we’ll never get that kind of respect. But Nile and I are happy playing together, and we know what we’re doing is valid.”