LONDON – ‘Music gives people hope.” Nile Rodgers understands this statement better than most.
The 63-year-old grew up the son of drug-addicted parents, dragged from pillar to post across the East Coast of the United States, but it was his love of jazz and rhythm and blues music that helped him escape poverty, leading him to become a defining figure of the late-1970s disco era with his stylish funk troupe Chic.
Spat out by the music industry as the subsequent “Disco Sucks” backlash took hold, belief in music’s power restored his confidence: He was soon writing and producing hits for David Bowie, Madonna and Diana Ross. When he fought off the prostate cancer he was diagnosed with in 2010, he did so in the knowledge his life-affirming music was in the middle of a reappraisal it richly deserved.
And so it was the case when he endured “the single most difficult day of my whole life” — the passing of Chic co-founder, soul mate and “musical genius” Bernard Edwards, found dead by Rodgers in a Tokyo hotel room in April 1996.
“We were so dedicated to each other,” Rodgers says. “I don’t want to start crying doing an interview, but that kind of love is what soldiers feel in a platoon. These are marriages for life.”
Rodgers returned to Tokyo every April for 16 years “to pay tribute to Bernard” and play “incredible, beautiful” club shows: not even the Great East Japan Earthquake stopped him.
“I couldn’t be more honored to be there during that time,” he says. “We got there as many of my friends left — that was when you should be coming! In its own way, music can help people.”
Speaking from New York, Rodgers is equal parts self-effacement (“If I knew what I’d done to become popular again I’d have done it a long time ago!”), grandiose one liners (“Chic is the Grateful Dead of dance music”) and long, stream-of-consciousness outbursts about his standing and how many records he has sold — ¥554 billion worth by his latest count. It’s an eye-popping amount, but then his discography dazzles the senses: At the height of Chic’s fame, Rodgers wrote Sister Sledge’s classic disco catalog.
“It was the greatest time ever in music for me,” he says. “A group that looked like us competing with anybody — the Stones, the Beatles — it made no difference. It was about whose song is the funkiest and the grooviest and can get people dancing in the club. And we had it.”
He eventually wrote and produced hits for the biggest stars of the ’80s, but only after “Disco Sucks” nearly ended his career.
“It was OK being thrown under the bus for a while,” he says. “Ten years after that I could say I’m not only worthy, but look what I went on to do — Diana Ross, INXS, Bowie, Duran Duran, Madonna! I felt castigated by it, but it forced me to ride above the tide, not drown and feel sorry for myself.”
Not even brushes with death (as well as cancer, he has beaten a drug addiction and stayed sober for 20 years) have made Rodgers pity himself. His work on Daft Punk’s ubiquitous “Get Lucky” in 2013 introduced him to a new generation of artists (Lady Gaga, Avicii, Sam Smith) and the “few million people a year” who watch Chic’s jubilant gigs, which plunder Rodgers’ entire four decade career.
“That’s why we do it. It’s the joy of the crowd. But there’s joy on stage, too — it’s my whole life in music.”
Chic featuring Nile Rodgers plays Zepp Namba in Osaka on Dec. 1 (0570-200-888) and Zepp DiverCity in Tokyo on Dec. 3 and 4 (03-3499-6669). Shows start at 7 p.m., tickets cost ¥8,500-¥10,000 in advance. For more information, visit www.nilerodgers.com or www.creativeman.co.jp/artist/2015/12chic/