Music legend Nile Rodgers seems to have played a part in everything: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran and in recent years Daft Punk, Christina Aguilera and Disclosure, to name a few.
The Grammy Award winner had some advice for a packed room at South by Southwest: Don’t be a snob.
Years ago, Rodgers complained to his beloved teacher and jazz musician Ted Dunbar about top 40 songs.
“What makes you think you’re the ultimate consumer?” Dunbar asked a younger Rodgers.
Rodgers continued, ranting about one song in particular that was at the top of the charts at the time: “Sugar, sugar.”
“That’s a great song!” Dunbar said. He continued what Rodgers described as a “tongue lashing,” saying that any song that gets in the top 40 automatically has a great composition.
“It speaks to the souls of a million strangers,” Dunbar said of top 40 songs.
Two weeks after that sobering conversation, Rodgers went on to write one of the many songs that propelled his career: “Everybody Dance.”
“My teacher was trying to teach me not to be a snob,” Rodgers said, turning that advice onto the SXSW music keynote audience. “Be open. Take in everything around you. Have big ears.”
Listening through his “big ears” is what led to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”
He was in the bathroom of a trans club when he noticed drag queens all around him dressed like Diana Ross. The song came to him.
He said he immediately called up his friend to have him write down the lyrics that suddenly popped into his head, saying, “I know if we get this right it’s going to be huge like James Brown’s ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’”
Although his work is expansive, he said some fans of his might be surprised to discover the amount of commercial work he’s done.
“I’ve done more Nike commercials than any other composer,” Rodgers said.
Which brings him back to his – or his teacher’s – original point.
“Do everything,” Rodgers said to the crowd of aspiring musicians. “Do everything you can. Cause you just want to be heard.”