Hitmaker Nile Rodgers Goes D.I.Y. With the FreakOut! Let’s Dance Festival


If there’s an apex of achievement in the music business, Nile Rodgers is sitting atop it.

The legendary record producer and native New Yorker has gone from unstable beginnings (he grew up in the Fifties in Greenwich Village with heroin-addicted parents) to take his place among the most successful hitmakers of any generation. And, thanks to his Grammy-winning “Get Lucky” collaboration with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams in 2013, Rodgers is now popping up on the radar of a whole new generation of fans.

Despite his status, Rodgers has adopted a hands-on approach in curating the FreakOut! Let’s Dance Festival (or FOLD), set for August 4 and 5 at Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead, Long Island. “I can’t believe I’ve got all these things that I wind up doing myself,” Rodgers, at home in Westport, Connecticut, says. He’s spent the previous night producing a radio spot to promote the festival, and reveals he does most of the graphic-design work himself, too. “That doesn’t necessarily mean another person couldn’t get it better,” he explains. “It’s just that I know what I’m trying to say, so I just say it.”

The list of headliners for the two-day event reads like a who’s-who of chart-toppers: Beck, Pharrell, Keith Urban, Duran Duran, Chaka Khan, and Janelle Monáe are all on the bill, along with Rodgers, his band, Chic, and many, many others. Most of the main acts are artists Rodgers has worked with or plans to work with in the near future. His goal for the shows is to offer continuous music, with no breaks between sets. “I just want people to have a really, really good time,” he says, “and see what artists do when we love each other and are having fun and there’s not that crazy competition factor going on.”

‘I know what I’m trying to say, so I just say it.’

British brothers EC Twins are among the numerous electronic artists and DJs Rodgers personally reached out to in order to help keep the party going at FOLD. “We didn’t know quite how to handle the situation,” admits one of the twins, Marc Blackham, remembering how he and his brother felt when the star contacted them directly. “We’re just two kids from the project housing estate in Manchester, but we grew up with our father listening to all these records, and we were always interested in who made the music as much as we were who was singing the music.” Blackham says he and his 30-year-old brother Allister have always admired music producers, including Rodgers. “Then Nile Rodgers starts directly messaging us and talking to us,” he continues. “He didn’t leave it to some underlings to put it all together. He’s doing that himself. We didn’t want to look pathetic about it, but we sort of fanboyed out a little bit.”

Louis Kha, of Chicago electronic outfit Autograf, feels a kinship with Rodgers’s methods. “It’s a very D.I.Y. spirit, and that’s one of the centerpieces of Autograf and why we started this project,” Kha explains. “We just wanted to do everything ourselves, from music to the art [to] building our own instruments. To see Nile put his hands into the festival, I appreciate that. It’s cool.”

In 2012, Rodgers had to convince the Montreux Jazz Festival that hours upon hours of uninterrupted live dance music would actually work — at a jazz concert, no less. It was the first time he’d undertaken anything like FOLD, and the festival organizers were skeptical. “They were saying that by doing [what] I was attempting to do, I was sort of changing the nature of the Montreux Jazz Festival,” he recalls. “I said to them, ‘No, it’s not really true. What I’m doing is changing your mind about what you believe something to be.’ ” Like everything Rodgers creates with his Midas touch, the event in Switzerland was a smash. The music didn’t stop for eleven hours.

In Rodgers’s own head, the music never stops. “I have this weird condition…I always hear music in my head,” he says. Sometimes the tunes are existing songs, and sometimes they’re original melodies he can draw upon when he composes. He describes the music as “all over the map. It runs the entire gamut.”

“It’s funny,” he adds. “Just as I was talking to you, Phil Ochs popped into my head. Who the hell knows why that was? It probably has something to do with the Village Voice. I grew up with folk music for a minute, you know.”

The concept for FOLD is connected both to this constant stream of music he hears and to disco. “The first time that I walked into a disco, it was the very first time in my life that what was happening in the external environment matched what was going on in my internal environment. In other words, music didn’t stop in a disco.”

By the end of the Seventies, Rodgers and his late creative partner Bernard Edwards had generated some of the disco era’s biggest hits (“Le Freak” with Chic and “We Are Family,” by Sister Sledge, to name a couple). The word “disco” became uncool as the craze ended, but Marc Blackham thinks the music stuck around under different guises.

“I would actually say as much as disco never died,” he offers. “It just was sort of rebranded as house music, because house music is really just disco music. I think that disco got this bad reputation for a brief period in the Seventies and Eighties, and then I think this modern generation, [the] new generation of electronic music producers — [EC Twins] included — try to look back at people like Nile, who made music even before we were born, and we’re starting to realize how good they were as producers in comparison to us…I think there’s this newfound respect among new producers who are looking back at those guys and going, ‘Wow.’ ”

The death of disco — whether it truly died or simply assumed a different name — did not stand in the way of Rodgers’s ascending career trajectory. As a producer, he’s worked with icons like David Bowie, Madonna, Diana Ross, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, and Grace Jones, as well as contemporary acts like Avicii, Adam Lambert, and Kylie Minogue. Somehow his work remains evergreen; one might hear Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” all on the same Sirius channel today.

Kha observes that even with a heap of gold records, Rodgers seems more invested in the creative process than in profits. “Speaking to the guy, he seems like he never seems to think about the business aspect of all this,” Kha says, referring to FOLD. “He is just really in it for the art.” That may be a luxury of wealth and fame, but Kha identifies with the ideal of making something oneself, thus circumventing concert-promotion and -booking monopolies. He also appreciates the producer’s willingness to include up-and-coming groups like Autograf. “When you have people like Pharrell in there, it’s kind of not needed to have these smaller acts,” Kha points out, “but I think the smaller acts get people that come to these festivals excited, to make them feel that they’re discovering something with Nile.”

There may be a few last-minute discoveries in store for the FOLD audience, Rodgers hints. Already, the schedule of performers is impressive, but “You don’t even know how insane it is,” he says. “You just probably know the principals…Other big friends of mine, like big, big stars, are coming, but [we] can’t announce it.” If his m.o. holds true (and it always does), you can bet that he’s coordinating those surprises himself — and that they’re going to be a hit.

FreakOut! Let’s Dance takes place August 4–5 at Riverhead, New York’s Martha Clara Vineyards. For ticket information and more, click here.