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Nile Rodgers: "I Lived on the New York Subway"

May 15, 2013 — by Andrew Burns

Nile Rodgers - currently enjoying success with Daft Punk - on his tough life on the streets before becoming a global star

Following his reserved collaboration with French megatrons Daft Punk, Nile Rodgers is suddenly a bit of a big deal again.

Disco-funk pioneer Rodgers, 60, is the riff-writing wonder behind Daft Punk’s all-conquering hit single Get Lucky and has stamped his mark all over the duo’s new album, ‘Random Access Memories’.

He found fame in bringing disco to the masses with Chic in the late-1970s and before going on to pen global hits for Madonna and Duran Duran – but it all didn’t start so well for the guitarist after he spent time sleeping rough on the streets of New York.

“I lived on the street and in the New York subway system,” he told The Big Issue. “We were called ‘tunnel rats’.

“Then I lived in a commune, I was a panhandler or what they call ‘spangers’, as in ‘spare changers’. But I always had a guitar. Being a wandering minstrel was how I earned money but also spiritual capital.

“We live in the moment. So while I was playing music I knew, while there could easily be a better tomorrow, right now there is a pretty good today because I’m playing music, trying to become smarter and trying to become better. That hasn’t changed for me.”

New York-born Rodgers and Chic defined the disco era with household hits including Le Freak, which became Atlantic Records’ biggest-selling single and enjoyed a similar buzz to Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.

Rodgers has performed across the world with Chic and claimed the greatest live moment of his performing career came around the same time as the release of multi-million selling album ‘C'est Chic’ – although he still feels guilty about how it disrupted soul king Marvin Gaye.

Rodgers explained: “My best live moment? Anaheim baseball stadium with the Kool Jazz Festival, 1979 or 1980, whenever we opened for Marvin Gaye. But I’m telling this story second-hand because it was Rick James who was in Marvin’s dressing room when it happened.

“When we finished our last song, called Chic Cheer, the crowd started stomping their feet in sync going, ‘Chic, Chic!’. The entire stadium was rocking and shaking and Marvin Gaye jumped under and a desk and told Rick James: ‘Man, it’s an earthquake! Jump under the desk, are you crazy?!’ And Rick James says: ‘No, man, I’m not crazy, you’re crazy, that’s no earthquake, that’s Chic!’

“The cops had to come out to get us to quell the crowd three times because they thought there was gonna be a riot, so we drove around in a baseball cart that looked like the Popemobile, waving like we were the Queen or something.

“It was crazy because we wanted to give respect to Marvin Gaye but the people wouldn’t let him play. I did have mad love for Marvin but we didn’t even speak to him because we felt so uncomfortable.

“I was convinced that he hated us, until I spoke to a journalist last year who played me Marvin’s last interview before he died, talking about Chic!

“So he went from not knowing who we were and me going a full 30 years thinking that he hated us, to that. But that gig… that was a huge, huge moment.”

For the full Nile Rodgers interview, buy this week’s Big Issue, featuring a bumper music festival guide, on sale now


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Category: PRESS