Why Nile Rodgers Won’t Release His Tribute Song to Prince
Nile Rodgers is planning to release a new album by Chic, It's About Time, at an as-yet unknown date in 2018. It's expected to have cameos from stars like Lady Gaga, Elton John and Janelle Monáe, As he told Billboard, the record, Chic's first since 1992's Chic-ism, "is not just a reflection of my life, it celebrates it. It celebrates my great relationships and the wonderful turning points I’ve had."
The songwriter, guitarist and producer, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, issued the first record's single, "I'll Be There," in 2015, but the album has yet to arrive. Part of the reason for its delay is that several of the musicians whom Rodgers befriended and/or worked with, including Prince, David Bowie, George Michael and Chris Cornell, have died in recent years.
"The last two years have been particularly... I don’t know how to say it... I want to say disturbing, but that’s not enough," he told us in 2017. "They have thrown me off-balance. A lot of people have passed away and I certainly had no clue that it was coming."
Prince's death in particular hit him hard, saying that “it was like I'd been struck by lighting twice. In 2016, I couldn't release an album about the joy of life in A Year of So Many Deaths.” In May 2016, Rodgers eulogized his friend at a memorial service in Los Angeles.
"[W]e both liked each other as musicians, but we talked more about life in general," Rodgers told us. "These are friendships you really, really cherish when you are in a public business, friendships where you can leave that business behind for a while." Their chats found their way into one of Rodgers' new songs, but after Prince's death, he had a change of heart.
"The last two times I saw Prince was playing on stage with him and then him coming to my show," he told Pitchfork. "So the album was talking about that. As a matter of fact, there is a song on the album that the working title is 'Prince Said It,' and it was about my conversations with Prince. But after he passed away, it felt wrong. It felt uncomfortable."
Their friendship began at Prince's first-ever concert in New York City. Rodgers wasn't quite prepared for what he saw. He arrived a little late, just as the band had taken the stage, and he was struck by the sight of a "gorgeous girl" with her back to the stage in an outfit that exposed a set of tight buns. "I'm going, 'Whoa! Look at the girls they have in this band!'" he said in the video above. But then the person turned around to begin the first song, and Rodgers realized that the wonderful ass belonged to Prince.
Prior to their slots at the 2014 Essence Festival in New Orleans, Prince interviewed Rodgers for the magazine, beginning by saying, "What I admire most is that you and Chic could do no wrong. Hit after hit until the infamous 'Death of Disco' happened. But instead of rolling over and dying, you produced Diana Ross, Duran Duran, Madonna and others."
At the festival, Prince, who was headlining, walked onstage during Rodgers' set to play lead guitar on "Let's Dance," the David Bowie hit from the Rodgers-produced album of the same name. Rodgers has often credited Bowie for changing the public perception of Rodgers in the years after the backlash against disco.
"David Bowie took me to a whole new level," he told Prince in that Essence interview. "The industry would view me as a music producer as opposed to a disco music producer, which at the time had negative and narrow-minded connotations."
Watch Prince Play "Let's Dance" With Nile Rodgers
The deaths of the two musicians, three months apart, inextricably linked Bowie and Prince. It was recognized in promotional material created for the 2017 Justice League movie, where a mock issue of The Daily Planet featured a split image of Bowie, Prince and Superman (who was presumed dead in the DC movie series storyline) beneath the headline, "Did they return to their planet?"
Beyond that, there were other parallels between them. Bowie and Prince both caused controversy early in their careers by adopting androgynous images. They also both saw the commercial potential of the internet before most musicians. In 1996, Bowie became the first musician to issue a downloadable single, "Telling Lies" and launched his own internet service provider, BowieNet, two years later. Prince, in 2001, created the NPG Music Club, to distribute his music directly to subscribers.
Prince also admired how Bowie was able to get control of his music, a main issue Prince had in his deal with Warner Bros. In 1997, Bowie issued bonds to raise the money to buy his masters, which he then leased to his record company for $90 million over a 25-year period. “That’s pretty nice ain’t it?" Prince told The London Times. "He was the creator, he still owns the music and his son can have it. I did 14 or 15 albums for Warner. That’s more than David Bowie – and he’s older than me.”
Yet their paths had only crossed once. Prince's last tour, a solo effort featuring him at the piano, began with a show at Paisley Park less than two weeks after Bowie's death. "I only met him once," he said after playing "Free." "He was nice to me. He seemed like he was nice to everybody." On two other occasions during the tour, he performed Bowie's "Heroes."
And they were both very close with Rodgers, who continues to prolifically write, produce and tour even though he's had two cancer scares in recent years. Perhaps it's that devotion to his craft that Rodgers had most in common with Prince. As he told Prince in that Essence chat, "But playing and creating music—that's something I can't live without. Though I've always believed in artistic expansion, on the simplest level I just love doing it."