Nile Rodgers episode of UnSung, much like the Gil Scott Heron episode that aired the week before it, was one of the special ones for me personally. Rodgers music has always been so important to hip hop and pop. from the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” to the bling era of Diddy & B.I.G talking about “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” There is something about Rodgers and his partner, the great bassist Bernard Edwards jazzy chords, deep tight bass, unison singing, pretty female vocalists and sharp, conservatively fashionable attire that seem to capture a part of the aesthetic of post-Soul Black America. Of course, this has translated itself to major pop success as well, as Rodgers productions for Madonna, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Debbie Harry and his recent fortuituous collabo with Daft Punk attest to. The sheer star power and history making nature of Rodgers life’s work make for one of the biggest episodes of UnSung to date, right next to those of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Issac Hayes, Bobby Womacks, and Billie Preston.
Rodgers stellar autiobiography, “Le Freak” already served to familiarize me with many of the details of his life, and it is an excellent read. What I appreciate so much about the UnSung program is that like always, it provided visuals of a life story I was aware of bits and pieces of, which gave me a much fuller picture. It was dope in particular to see his mother, Bev. One of the most interesting features of his life were his childhood years and the way he was raised. Rodgers mother was married to a white bohemian jazz fan, and his mother and step dad were heroin addicts. Rodgers mentions his parents were beautiful people, but as addicts they were also unable to function as disciplinary figures. This gave Rodgers a unique perspective that probably contributed to his unique musical outlook. Rodgers upbringing included hustlers, artists, revolutionaries, and took place in NYC and L.A. In many ways, this type of upbringing was ahead of its time, featuring lax parental control, multiculturalism and an openness to ideas that would typify the years ahead, which seemed to serve Rodgers well in creating his tight, hip, fashionably subversive music and world view.
The film also gets into the great Bernard Edwards, interviewing his son, Bernard Edwards Jr, who illustrates briefly his fathers “chugging” bass guitar style. It goes from Rogers and Edwards beginnings in NYC playing rock to their huge success and the disco fallout. One aspect I also appreciated was the interviews with Norma Jean and Alfa Anderson, two of the female singers during Chic’s glory years. Norma Jean sang on the first singles with Anderson being more prominent in the overall catalog of the group.
The drug struggles of Rodgers, Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson are all covered as well. But one of the most unique facets of the UnSung episode is, while most episodes show artists still working on new music and vowing to continue playing as long as they are around, Rodgers episode ends with the triumph of winning the Grammy Award. Rodgers victory with Daft Punk for “Get Lucky” and his contributions to their “Random Access Memories” album, give him a measure of recognition and respect that escaped him for the majority of his years in the record industry. Chic went throuh an incredible time period in the 1980s in which nobody would pay their records any mind what so ever beccause it was saddled with the “disco” label. At the same time, they were writing and producing some of the defining records of the 1980s, from “Upside Down”, to “Lets Dance”, from “Like a Virgin” to “Notorious”, and from “Addicted to Love” to “I’m Coming Out”, the Chic Organization’s aesthetic became even more pervasive in the 1980s but for the most part, Nile and Bernard stood in the shadwows. In a certain respect, this was as it should have been. They always attempted to cultivate a certain kind of hip anonymity, with their suits serving as armour akin to Kiss’s face paint. But this backfired to a degree when recognition was what they needed to feel some sense of appreciation for their contributions.
The Rodgers episode of UnSung ended in an unusual way for the program. There was a post credit postscript featuring Rogers playing the guitar and talking about how important music is in his life. In many ways, the Rodgers and Chic story is a bittersweet one, with Edwards and Thompson both prematurely dead, and the lack of recognition and critical respect the group has suffered from at various times. But Rodgers recent defeat of Cancer, his work with Daft Punk and Pharrell, and the inner peace he’s seemed to attain all speak to an artist who is ready to step into a valued and exaulted place as a musical elder, and the world will be much more chic for it.