Prince: The Story of 1999 bonus feature: Nile Rodgers, 'Prince made such an impression on the world'

NIle Rodgers
Nile Rodgers performs onstage at Pitchfork And October Present OctFest 2018 at Governors Island on September 9, 2018 in New York City. (Taylor Hill/Getty Images)
Play/Pause
Listen:
Nile Rodgers: 'Prince made such an impression on the world'
Download MP3
| 00:20:36

While making "Prince: The Story of 1999," I got a chance to speak to a music icon: Nile Rodgers, the songwriter, the producer, the founding member of the funk R&B pop group Chic. Rodgers has won Grammys for his collaborations with artists like Daft Punk, Madonna and David Bowie; in fact, Rodgers produced Bowie's single, "Let's Dance," which is mentioned in this interview.

Although we included a little bit of Rodgers' memories in the podcast "Prince: The Story of 1999," I really wanted to share our full conversation, because we talk not just about the album 1999 but also about Rodgers' really special relationship with Prince.

You can listen to our complete conversation using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

ANDREA SWENSSON: So, as I'm sure you've been apprised, we're doing a podcast about Prince's 1999, and I am so excited to talk to you about it, because I know that you had a musical connection with him, a friendship with him, and I would love to take you back to that era and get some of your thoughts about this album coming out and what it meant to you. So, I guess, to start, can you remember the moment that you heard 1999 for the first time, either the album or any of the singles?

NILE RODGERS: I can't remember the moment. There was actually just far too much going on in my life. But of course I remember 1999, and God knows, my friendship with Prince, of course — I mean, it was just — it was pretty legendary and wonderful. And I remember when I first heard "Little Red Corvette," which I thought was something incredibly clever from a production standpoint from Prince, even though he had already done a lot of stuff that was clever. But that just sort of had taken a different turn, and it was cool.

What do you mean by that? Describe what you're hearing in that song.

So, if I remember correctly, and I hope I'm remembering correctly, I'm thinking that "Little Red Corvette" didn't have a bass line. Am I wrong or right about that?

You might be thinking about When Doves Cry, which does not have a bass line.

Right. That's right. Oh yeah. Boom. Sorry. I knew it was one of those.

That's OK. Well, one thing that's so interesting to me about that song is that the recording quality is actually not great. There's distortion in it. It sounds like he recorded it in his home, which he did, and I think it's so fascinating. It had such a lasting imprint on culture, but he was recording things so fast that it wasn't always technically perfect.

Well, that was what was cool about him, is because he was the perfect example of proving that if it's in the groove, it's fine. I remember our very first single was Jet — was down a generation because our master was at another label that wouldn't release it to us, and it still went on to become a really huge record and start off our careers with a bang. So, sometimes sonic quality doesn't have to be perfect, especially in those days. We were on the edge of things moving from one era and multiple formats coming out — CDs, and we were going into the digital era. All sorts of stuff was happening. So people's ears were open to different stuff, and Prince made such an impression on the world that it was one of those magical forces that was undeniable. I can think of so many of my great friends who were like big superstars, that just the mention of Prince would like sort of like drive them into a frenzy because he was so damned good.

I get the sense he's definitely a musician's musician — very well respected among other really talented musicians.

Absolutely, and the thing that was really great is that he and I had never had any of those wacky problems that you hear about other people. Our level of respect for each other was so enormously high, because if I'm not mistaken, I believe I'm the only person he's ever interviewed, which he did for Essence Magazine.

That's right.

Yeah. So, um, that means that he was just as curious about me as I was of him.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, tell me a little bit about meeting Prince and getting to know him as a person.

So, our relationship was incredibly unique, maybe different than most people's relationships with Prince, because I've actually hired him as a promoter, and actually I gave him a million bucks too. So I hired him as a promoter when I was doing a series of concerts out in Long Island and we just had so many interesting nights together, because when he found out I was building a resort in Turks and Caicos, he immediately bought a house in Turks and Caicos, and for some reason, for some strange, unexplainable reason, decided he had to have a house in Turks and Caicos too, just because he heard I was building a place there. And I can't understand why he didn't just move into our place, because it was a resort. But he wound up building his own house there.

Oh, wow. So, what year would it have been when you first crossed paths?

Oh, Jesus, come on — you're asking me that? My career is such that to actually know the years of stuff is really difficult, but I would say he and I probably first met around 1982 or '82 — probably around the time when I did Let's Dance. So, he was a fan, I'm sure, of Chic and all that, because we wound up being with the same company, and Prince's concerts at the company were legendary, as ours were. We've played for the Warner's parties quite a few times, and, you know, so we had that in common. But when he and I became real friends, like close buddy kind of friends, it would've probably been after I did Bowie's "Let's Dance."

Nile Rodgers speaking at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony
Nile Rodgers speaks onstage during the Songwriters Hall Of Fame 50th Annual Induction And Awards Dinner on June 13, 2019 in New York City. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

OK. Well, that's actually kind of perfect, because we're looking back that this kind of '82 era in this podcast, and something that I am just so fascinated by is that Prince was able, as you said before, to tear down all these walls in the music industry, and blend sounds in a way that maybe wasn't as accepted before, and particularly, broke through racial barriers in the industry, and was able to insist on not being marketed only as a black artist, but that he wanted to be a mainstream pop artist, and so I'm curious. Looking back on that album coming and him becoming kind of a mainstream star for the first time, what do you think his impact on the music industry was?

It was massive. Probably around that time, maybe only second to Michael Jackson, and if you remember, at that time the four big male rivalries were Michael Jackson, Prince, Rick James, and, um — God, there was another guy — a fourth one that I used to be friends with all the time and it was like ah, Prince — driving him crazy. Who was that? Jesus. I guess it was, yeah, Michael Jackson, Prince, and maybe just Rick James, it was MC Hammer, because MC Hammer wasn't actually so much jealous of Prince. He was sort of more jealous of Michael Jackson in a strange way. It was weird because, like I said, I was friends with all of them, and it was weird to be a sort of mediator in these wacky conversations where a person is talking to me about someone that I have total respect for, and they're sort of venting — 'why does everybody like him so much?'. He's Prince and he's unique and amazing, just like you are, you know, like you're unique and amazing, but I've never had real rivalries with other artists. I've never felt like I was competing. I certainly never felt like I was competing with Prince or Michael Jackson or anybody like that, because one, I'm more of a behind the scenes type of person. So I didn't have to fight with the concept of stardom or anything like that. And it was never the way that I viewed myself, so maybe that's why I got along with everybody so well, because I wasn't threatening to them.

That makes sense.

Yeah. I mean, I'm just trying to figure that I really got along with everybody really well, I mean, and my conversations and my closeness with Prince was completely unique. I remember being in rooms with Prince where I'm in the same room, he and I are sitting at a table, and a person who was close to him like Morris Day, at that time, wouldn't even sit down with us because it was sort of not the thing to do. But I would sit down and we would just have a normal conversation, like just two guys who had been friends all their lives.

Yeah. Would Prince ask you for advice?

No. You know what he would do, though? He would always tell me about his plans, and I know these kind of things sound funny, and I don't mean to say things that are, um, disparaging or any weird stuff, but these — every time I tell a story about someone it's 100% honest. I remember one day he and I were sat at a table at a club called The Palladium, and this was probably just a little bit after 1999, frankly, just around the time I was doing Bowie's with that, and he was really interested in the fact that I was able to do Bowie and Duran, Duran, and I was — and right from, uh — I went right from, you know, my R&B career, if you will, to a rock career that was really fascinating to him. Anyway, we were talking one day, and he told me that he was gonna move his entire operation to Sweden. And I thought this is the strangest conversation I've ever heard. Just like he blurted it out to me. And I said, "Well, OK. Why?" And he says, "Well, all the girls are beautiful, they drive Porsches and Mercedes and they can dance." And that was like his answer, and he sounded totally like he wasn't trying to pull my leg or anything like that. He was being straight ahead. And I was like well, you know, that, I guess, is as good a reason as any to move your entire operation to Sweden. Go ahead. Knock yourself out.

And instead he chose Chanhassen, Minnesota.

Right. Well, he was already there. But yeah, he certainly didn't move to Sweden. But he did move to Turks and Caicos where I was.

Right. Now, did you get a chance to visit him at Paisley Park?

No, I never did. I've never been to Paisley Park, but we had seen each other a lot in Turks and Caicos, so even though I had never been to his place, he had been to my place quite a few times, and one concert that we played on New Year's Eve, um, he, uh, had said that he was gonna come out and play Let's Dance with us, and it was really like fantastic. It was exciting for my band, exciting for all of the residents at the hotel at the time, the resort at the time, and I'll never forget this. So we set up his gear. He's all excited. We do sound check. Everything is great. And so in the middle of our set it was gonna be a surprise for everybody. So no one saw Prince sound check with us or anything. And, matter of fact, Jon Bon Jovi was there. So no one saw Prince sound check with us. It was gonna be a complete surprise. So we're doing our show. We get to the middle of the set, and now we're gonna do David Bowie's Let's Dance. And I said to the audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a real surprise for you." I didn't call him The Artist Known As Prince. I just said, "My dear friend, Prince." And instead of him coming onstage with us, he ran away. And I stood there for 20 minutes saying, "My dear friend, Prince, my dear friend, Prince," and he wouldn't come onstage. And then another year later, we were in New Orleans, and he invites me to do the Essence Festival with him. And he says, "OK, man, when you guys play Let's Dance, I wanna come out and play with you." So of course, now, I'm not gonna make the same stupid mistake in front of 70,000 people. So we get to Let's Dance, and you can actually see this on the Internet. It's still up on YouTube. And I don't even say anything. And we're playing Let's Dance, which is funny how you asked me when did he and I meet, and I said around that time when I did Let's Dance. And it was probably just after he had released 1999, or certainly while it was getting big and becoming part of his zeitgeist. So now I'm playing Let's Dance — Don't Say A Word — and the people are going crazy anyway, but then all of a sudden the decibel level of the crowd goes up a thousand percent, and I look to my left, and there's Prince standing there next to me, jumping up and down in the air, playing Let's Dance with us. And it is just the most incredible thing ever. And my band didn't know what to do at that point because we were almost finished with the song. And I said to them let's just keep going. And, like I said, it's on YouTube. You can see it. It's great. And in those days if you — since you're doing this podcast, you know that Prince pulled everything off the Internet.

Oh yes.

He would never — he wouldn't even let Jumbotrons shoot him at concerts. You'd have to pay attention to this little small dot if he had 100,000 people there. But instead of him pulling this off after we put it up, he actually re-Tweeted it and put his hands up in the air and went 'no words'.

Wow.

It was an amazing night in my life — the fact that not only did he not pull it down, he actually re-Tweeted it.

Yeah. That must've meant so much to him.

It meant a lot to me too. It was — so it shows you the nature of our unique type of friendship. It was probably based on the fact that we would discuss music and philosophy on a sort of very high plain, if you will, um, because he was a very spiritual person and I was a very scientific person. So we were sort of somewhat — I would say at odds, but everything was always interesting to us, like our — my point of view was interesting to him, and his point of view was super interesting to himself, and he couldn't wait to tell it to me, so — and we had amazing conversations. We would talk for hours and hours and hours, because, obviously, you can see I like to ramble on too.

Nile Rodgers performing onstage
Nile Rodgers performs onstage on October 3, 2019, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

I love it. Well, that doesn't surprise me. I got a chance to meet Prince once, and we talked for a long time, and I was just — I was really impressed by how willing he was to go down any path I wanted to go down, and talk about history and talk about culture, and he was just so smart and so plugged in.

You got it right on the money. He was great like that. I mean, you could really — you could talk about anything, and if it were something — if it was a subject that he wasn't well versed in, or if it was just something that he didn't know about, he was fascinated to learn something new.

Right. Absolutely, yeah. I remember talking to him about Spotify before he really understood quite what that was, and he was so curious about it — 'so, how do you use it, and then do you buy the music?', and it was so cool that he was curious about everything.

He was naturally curious and amazingly talented. I know you said we were talking about 1999 specifically as an album, but I actually love the fact that we're talking much more about him as a person to me, because as much as I loved his music, you can — I mean — just think of the special moments that he's given me in my life. Not only did he come out onstage with us at the Essence Festival; not only am I the only person that I believe he's ever interviewed for a magazine; but when we released our last Chic album on Warner Bros. that was a total flop, the only promotion we got was Prince doing the song [sings], and if you look at that video, check that video out. He's holding our Chic CD, and they're dancing with it in the garage in front of a yellow Lotus, and our CD cover was yellow.

I'm gonna go watch that right after this.

Check it out.

That's amazing.

You'll see them dancing right there next to the yellow Lotus, and the color of our CD package matches the color of the Lotus, and I've always said the biggest promotion we ever got was Prince dancing with our CD.

Oh, that's so special. That's so cool. Well, before I let you go, can I just kick you one more question about 1999 as we're looking back. It's a big general question, but however you wanna answer it — what is the legacy of that album? What did it do for music history?

It was — I mean, it's one of those records that's sort of like — you know, the Beatles White Album, um, Michael Jackson Thriller. It's one of those kinds of records where there's the world before 1999, and then there's the world after 1999. At least that's the way I see it because he — I mean, he became such a superstar after that. It was almost something you couldn't believe. It was almost meteoric, his rise.

External Links

Nile Rodgers - official site

Prince - official site

Related Stories

1 Photos

  • Prince's Caribbean escape to be auctioned on July 12
    Prince's five-acre estate in Turks and Caicos featured a winding purple driveway. (Photos via Premiere Estates)