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Nile Rodgers: ‘I’d always talk about strange jazz with David Bowie’

The musician, 66, on being united in the disco era, his friendship with Stephen Hawking, and inventing hip-hop

I love New York, it’s given me everything. I grew up on the Lower East Side and it was such a diverse, multicultural neighbourhood. Irish, Poles, Italians, Jews, Latinos African Americans. I’ve probably missed someone!

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My first memory as a conscious person is being outside my house. There’s a load of kids across the road and they’re all dressed as the Lone Ranger, which was a huge show at the time. My neighbourhood was a lively place! Anywhere I’ve ever gone in my life I’ve been able to assimilate and get along with people. I attribute that all to the environment I grew up in. I might have grown up in poverty, but New York gave me many riches. New York is who I am.

Disco was such an exciting time to live within. We were all united. There was no division. The women’s liberation movement paired with the gay liberation movement. Whites and blacks. We were all united, by music. God knows how it looked in the Midwest.

The Disco Sucks movement, where they held big events and burned our records, was racism. It wasn’t about them not liking the music; they were scared of the societal change that disco was bringing about. It got really weird when they tried to pit Chic against the Knack in a race for a number one single. They framed it as “disco vs rock”. Even though we used the same studio, saw each other every day, and were good friends – and their song My Sharona was about one of our friends, Sharona!

David Bowie was an inspiration to me. I’ve worked with everyone: Madonna, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan. But David Bowie really was fantastic. In truth, people hardly ever approach me to work with them. Pretty much everything comes from hanging out and chance meetings. Whenever me and Bowie would meet, we’d always end up talking about jazz. Really strange avant-garde jazz. He loved that stuff and he was such an ally for black rights. He was a fantastic human.

Music and science were my twin loves growing up. I guess music just spoke to me that little bit more, and so it became my life. But I’m still absolutely fascinated by science. Space is something I’m consumed by. What are we? How did we get here? I’m lucky that I know people at Nasa and the like, so I get invited to all sorts of conferences and big scientific gatherings.

I became friends with Stephen Hawking. His brain was enormous, and he was a total genius, but not enough people talk about how funny he was. He was one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. Was he a fan of Chic? I don’t know. I presume so. I never asked. It’s not like he ever asked me if I was a fan of his theorems, you know?

I accidentally invented hip-hop. I remember the first time I heard Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang. I was in a nightclub in New York called Leviticus and the DJ was playing a record that opened with the bassline from the Chic song Good Times. At first I thought they were playing it live in the DJ booth and I was really impressed. Then the DJ told me he’d bought the record that day in Harlem. I asked to see the sleeve, and when our name wasn’t on there, things got legal. It’s an amazing song though, and I’m really proud of our part in it.

Nile Rodgers curates the 26th Meltdown, 3-11 August, southbankcentre.co.uk

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