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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The song credited with being the first hip-hop recording to get wide radio play and cross over to a white audience was the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," which came out in 1979. One reason why it was so catchy was the bass and guitar groove, which was borrowed from the disco hit "Good Times" by the group Chic. Chic's guitarist who came up with the rhythm line was Nile Rodgers. We're about to hear Nile Rodgers tell the story of how that happened. Chic's other disco hits included "Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Le Freak." Nile Rodgers also produced Madonna's album "Like A Virgin," David Bowie's "Let's Dance," Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" and Diana Ross' album "Diana." Here's an excerpt of my 1996 interview with Nile Rodgers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to play a hit that Chic had that had the bassline that everybody wanted. I'm thinking, of course, of "Good Times." This has one of the most borrowed basslines in recent music.

NILE RODGERS: Yeah.

GROSS: Let's hear it, and then you could tell us how you came up with this rhythm.

RODGERS: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIMES")

CHIC: (Singing) Good times. These are the good times. Leave your cares behind. These are the good times, good times. These are the good times.

GROSS: That's "Good Times," the band Chic. My guest, Nile Rodgers, co-founded the band and was the guitarist.

So how did you come up with this rhythm?

RODGERS: Well, the interesting thing about this song is that the day that I wrote "Good Times," I was actually in the studio with our drummer, Tony Thompson, at the time and the bass player from Queen, John Deacon. And we were sitting in there, and we were hanging out. And John was in the studio. And Tony and I were in the - actually, John was in the control room, and Tony and I were in the studio just vamping on the groove. And Bernard Edwards, the bass player, was late. So you know, Tony and I are playing. And Bernard walks in and he says to the engineer - he says, damn, what's that they're playing? And the engineer says, I don't know. That's just something Nile came up with this morning. And Bernard ran into the studio, and he started fooling around with the bass. And I was screaming to him over the volume to walk through it. And he came up with that classic bass line.

And the reason why I mentioned John being there, because Queen did the song called "Another One Bites The Dust." And everybody says, man, did they - you know, did they steal that bass line? Were you offended? I said, hey, he was in the studio when we wrote it, you know? I mean, you know, I was flattered. The thing is, musicians have always borrowed from other musicians since the beginning of time. So I didn't - I wasn't pissed off or anything. I thought to myself, well, how could he not be affected? We thought it was real cool.

GROSS: That's interesting. I had no idea he was actually there while it was being done. Now, of course, that line was also used - sampled, I believe, in "Rapper's Delight," which was, I think, the first rap hit...

RODGERS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Featuring the Sugarhill Gang. Well, let me play it first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

THE SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) Hip-hop, the hippie - the hippie to the hip, hip-hop. And you don't stop rocking out, baby, bubba, to the boogety (ph) bang-bang, the boogie to the boogety beat. Now, what you hear is not a test, I'm rapping to the beat. And me, the groove and my friends are gonna try to move your feet. You see, I am Wonder Mike. And I'd like to say hello to the Black, to the white, the red and the brown, the purple and yellow. But first, I gotta bang-bang the boogie to the boogie, say, up jump the boogie to the bang-bang boogie. Let's rock. You don't stop. Rock the rhythm that'll make your body rock.

GROSS: That's the Sugarhill Gang using the bass and guitar line that you and Bernard Edwards came up with for your record "Good Times." What was - how did you first hear this? And what was your reaction when you did?

RODGERS: Now, this is funny. When I first heard "Rapper's Delight," I was at a club in New York - a disco, if you will - called Leviticus. And the DJ was a good friend of mine, and he played this song. The thing is that in those days, DJs, at least the good ones, would rap over their favorite records, so I thought that he was doing that. I had no idea that he was actually playing a record. I thought he was in the booth with a couple of his buddies and they were kicking this rhyme over the record. And then, you know, I noticed that it was not Bernard and myself playing. In fact, it was our riff, but it was not us playing. I could tell - you know, I could tell right away that it wasn't us.

But the thing is that it's not - this is something that's not known to a lot of people. Back in the old days, what we used to do is we would go into a little recording studio, and we would record the groove of our favorite record, make tape loops and sell them to DJs. And they'd go around playing it at clubs. That's how we got our start as producers. We'd take our favorite songs, go into a recording studio, record the vamp and put other stuff over it so we could have extended records of the things that we liked. In the dance days - in the disco days, as most people call it now - the longer a song went on, the happier the people were.

So when we first heard "Rapper's Delight," we thought that it was just a rhythm section that recorded our groove and that the DJ who was there on the spot was rapping over the record. Then when he told us that he bought it in Harlem, I went, wow, let me get a copy. He gave me a copy and I noticed an interesting thing when I got it home. I played the record and I realized that they had sampled our string line, that they didn't sample the guitar and the bass line. They just played that.

But what they did was they took our record - this is before sampling. They took our record and put it on a turntable. And whenever the strings go, (mimicking instrument), they took our record and spun it in sync and went, (mimicking instrument). And I said, whoa, that's copyright infringement. You can't do that. What the hell. I'm going to pay $40,000 for a string session and you can just take my record and get away with it and go, (mimicking instrument)? So that was the big controversy with that.

GROSS: Did you sue?

RODGERS: Sure, we sued.

GROSS: Did you win?

RODGERS: Of course we won.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RODGERS: Of course. You couldn't take a product and just - I mean, this was before sampling, you know? No one - there were no devices to do this. They just had a DJ with turntables live in the studio. And they just figured, well - what the hell - we're not going to spend any money and get a whole big orchestra and simulate that. We'll just do it. We'll just take their record.

GROSS: Well, did you like the record?

RODGERS: I loved the record. It was one of my favorite records. It's still one of my favorite records of all time. I thought it was very clever and inventive. And, I mean, you know, early rap records, to me, were unbelievable. Like, you know, groups like Sequence and stuff like that, Sugarhill Gang, you know, they were really - they were the same as any other R&B records. They were bands that played a groove, and the rappers would rap over the grooves. It only became later on that it was based on samples and loops. And I think these records are great.

GROSS: Nile Rodgers is a guitarist, record producer and co-founder of the group Chic. Our interview was recorded in 1996. Our hip-hop history series continues tomorrow, featuring interviews from our archive with Ice-T, one of the early gangster rappers. He went on to star as a detective in "Law & Order: SVU." And we'll hear from Queen Latifah, the first female rap solo artist to earn a gold album. She now stars in the TV series "The Equalizer." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SUGARHILL GANG SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

THE SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) Hip-hop, the hippie - the hippie to the hip, hip-hop. And you don't stop rocking out, baby, bubba, to the boogety bang-bang, the boogie to the boogety beat. I say, I can't wait 'til the end of the week, when I'm rapping to the rhythm of a groovy beat, an attempt to raise your body heat, just blow your mind...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "ADRENALINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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