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Book Review: Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny by Nile Rodgers

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If you own virtually any major album from the late 1970s until into the 1990s, chances are good that Nile Rodgers had something to do with it. The singer/guitarist/songwriter moved from forging a successful career in Chic to becoming an in-demand producer. Along the way, Rodgers overcame a troubled childhood as well as drug and alcohol addiction. Today he is fighting perhaps his greatest battle: cancer. These unexpected twists and turns are what makes his memoir Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny an often fascinating read.

From his earliest days living in New York, it was clear that Rodgers would not Nile Rodgerslead a normal, humdrum life. His mother, stepfather, and biological father were all drug addicts, essentially leaving Rodgers to raise himself. Consequently Rodgers began sniffing glue in his early teens, then started hanging out with hippies. After a brief stint with the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, he began focusing more on music. Partnering with bassist/songwriter Bernard Edwards, the duo began writing dance music. Did this contradict Rodgers’ earlier beliefs in social change? No, he claims: disco was a “movement, in every sense of the word, [and] was as open and communal as the forces driving the hippies of my youth.” Instead of holding protests, Rodgers maintains, clubbers “were even more expressive, political, and communal than the hippies before them, because they bonded through their bodies, through dance; they were propelled by a new kind of funky groove music.” In this age, dance music “had become primal and ubiquitous, a powerful communication tool, every bit as motivational as an Angela Davis speech. . . or. . . that three-day Woodstock Festival ticket.”

A particular interesting section of the memoir involves Rodgers and Edwards’ conception of their group Chic, which scored hits such as “Good Times,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Le Freak,” and “Everybody Dance.” Combining jazz and R&B, the duo tried to “mesh KISS’s anonymity with Roxy Music’s musical diversity and sexy cover-girl imagery.” Rodgers deconstructs Chic’s sound, stating that they incorporated “breakdowns,” or beginning with the basic elements of the song—usually drum and bass—then gradually introducing the rest of the instruments, ending in the full-band sound. This creates suspense, leading to a musical catharsis. The songwriting duo’s secret to creating hits? They found the Deep Hidden Meaning, or DHM, of a song; as Rodgers explains it, it means “understanding the song’s DNA and seeing it from many angles.”

Inevitably, Chic’s short but successful streak ended with the “Disco Sucks” movement, which banished any so-called “disco acts” from the charts. Rodgers makes it clear that he feels Chic was unfairly lumped in with other pure dance acts; he believes Chic’s brand of sophisticated jazz-influenced soul distinguished them from other disco groups. He also asserts that Chic did not receive proper credit for their role in the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (the group rapped over an instrumental version of “Good Times”) and hip hop in general. Despite Chic’s dwindling popularity, Edwards and Rodgers continued as a producing team, creating hit albums for Diana Ross and Sister Sledge.

Once Edwards and Rodgers drifted apart, Rodgers reestablished himself as an in-demand producer. His stories about working with David Bowie (Let’s Dance) and Madonna (Like A Virgin), among other acts, make for entertaining storytelling. Other clients included Duran Duran, the B-52s, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Mick Jagger, just to name a few artists. Despite his impressive resume, Rogers’ drug and alcohol abuse soon overshadowed his work. After a few near-death experiences, Rodgers overcame these issues in the 1990s, then restarted his career and played with a reformed version of Chic. Le Freak demonstrates that Rodgers still harbors some hard feelings; evidently he believes that his work with Chic has been unfairly dismissed as lightweight, and that artists he produced did not credit him enough for his production work (he particularly cites past issues with Bowie, who often did not discuss Let’s Dance in interviews, feeling the album was too commercial. The two later reconciled).

Whether one agrees with his gripes, Rodgers still tells a compelling and inspiring story. He overcame an extremely unstable upbringing to succeed in the music business, and he is among a very few who seems equally comfortable in rock as he does in soul. His open-mindedness about all musical genres is refreshing, and his tales of 1970s and 1980s decadence sobering. As he fights his latest battle—cancer—he further demonstrates how he appears in Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny: a fighter and, ultimately, a survivor.

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