"Acufunkture" Revisited: An Interview with Nile Rodgers

Christian John Wikane

Record Mirror called Debbie Harry's KooKoo "riveting". Smash Hits called it "dull". PopMatters speaks with the man behind a notoriously misunderstood album and why listeners didn't even remove the shrink-wrap.

+ Get Ready for Her Sexy Battle: An Interview with Deborah Harry

It got so that people were telling me what I should look like. Gimme a break! I wanna become like the chameleon, you know, in 'Chrome'. I don't want to do one thing.

-- Deborah Harry (Record Mirror, 1981)

It was some time during the heady late '70s music scene in New York that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards first met Deborah Harry and Chris Stein. Neither Rodgers nor Harry seems to remember the actual place. Maybe it was at an uptown club called Bond's. Or maybe at the Mudd Club. Maybe it was at one of their concerts. Wherever and whenever the introduction took place, it eventually brought two of the most successful collectives in popular music together for a funky fusion of sounds that couldn't be so easily categorized.

By 1981, Chic and Blondie were no strangers to the summit of the pop charts. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had just produced diana (1980), which became the most commercially successful album of Diana Ross's career, with hits like "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" joining "Le Freak", "Good Times", and "We Are Family" in the Chic Organization's catalog of million-selling singles. Deborah Harry and Chris Stein's creative synergy had just earned Blondie two number one singles off the Autoamerican album, following Harry's acclaimed collaboration with Giorgio Moroder on the American Gigolo (1980) soundtrack. When Harry decided to take a break from Blondie and pursue a solo project, she tapped Rodgers and Edwards for production duty, much to the consternation of Chrysalis Records (Blondie's label home). Both contingencies sought to break away from the commercial and image-centric pressures foisted upon them after becoming massively successful. The end result was KooKoo -- an album that surprised, shocked, and confused listeners who expected a retread of Chic and Blondie's greatest hits.

Remembered now more for the controversial cover art by H.R. Giger than the actual music, KooKoo deserves a proper re-evaluation. With the arrival of Harry's fifth solo album (Necessary Evil), Nile Rodgers takes us back to the land of "acufunkture"...

How did you and Bernard first meet Deborah Harry and Chris Stein?

I'm not exactly sure how we met. All I know is that when we met, we were really, really great friends right away. We got along instantly. It was like a big mutual admiration society: we liked their music and they liked ours.

Why did you decide to work with them?

Musically and artistically, and on other levels, we had overlapping similarities. Debbie and Chris turned me on to a lot of cool stuff. They turned me on to H.R. Giger first [and] all the artwork they collected. Debbie and Chris turned me onto hip-hop. Before those guys, I never really knew about hip-hop, I didn't know about it as a cultural movement. I knew DJs used to rap over records but I always thought that everybody who rapped were MCs at clubs or on the radio. I never realized that people from the streets were doing it, too. Debbie and Chris were big fans of "Good Times". They took me to a high school in Queens where we walked into this gymnasium and the only song that they were playing was "Good Times". People were just kicking rhyme after rhyme. It was really exciting to see the energy; everybody breakdancing and rapping over my stuff, which was incredible!

Was there any outside resistance about you working with Debbie?

Yeah, there was a lot. I hadn't done Let's Dance (David Bowie, 1983). I hadn't done Like a Virgin (Madonna, 1984) so I really hadn't worked with any of the big acts that I wound up doing those huge records with, so Debbie and Chris were the first artists in the rock genre to sort of take a chance with myself and Bernard. They were obviously pioneers and we were actually trying to find our footing when it came to working with them. As much as I love KooKoo, in my own heart I have to say, artistically, that had that same record happened a couple years later, it would have probably net a different result. We would have probably had a much more finely honed perspective on what to do with Debbie and how to really just make that a great record. A lot of people were saying that it was a really, really terrific record and it's a good experimental record. The main thing that didn't connect with people was the cover. The cover was so off-putting that a lot of stores wouldn't stock it. It's weird, to me, to be in rock 'n' roll and to hear stupid stuff like that. It's weird when people start to read all the nutty shit into visual art.

The other thing is that people seemed to want her to be blonde. They didn't want her to project this other sort of artistry that transcended a look. It wasn't about the look, it was about the artistry behind everything.

I forgot all about that! That was the first the time anybody had seen Debbie Harry not blonde. They didn't see "Blondie" and Blondie was so loved by the rock and roll establishment that that was a huge statement. There were three big things to digest: one, the unorthodox production style of Bernard and myself and the fact that she went with us over the big popular rock 'n' roll producers at the time. Two, that she came out as a brunette and that she had needles in her face. [Laughs.] When an artist is making a new statement and it's so sweeping and complete, the backlash can be sweeping and complete too. It really was with that record. I felt like we had killed Debbie. This is a person who's a good friend of ours. You would think that we were responsible, like we did it. It was really tough. That was a bitter pill to swallow.

What about on radio? Was there resistance to playing songs from the album?

I don't ever remember hearing that record on the radio or anything like that. There was a problem with radio. There was a problem with retail. It was different and it wasn't really as commercial as Blondie. Bernard and I were looking for a way to escape our commercial box. We were pretty successful and, typically, every artist shoots themselves in the foot when you're that successful and you want to show off your artistic side.

I remember reading an article where Debbie said that you and Bernard brought out the bottom in her voice. It wasn't EQ'd like it had been on the Blondie records. When you were recording with her, what did you find unique about her voice?

The thing that I loved about Debbie is that she always convinced me of her songs. When she was singing and I listened to Blondie, I believed the role that she was playing. I loved when I heard a song like "The Tide Is High"; I really believed her storytelling. When we were recording and working with her, the one thing that I wanted to tout in her was not only the bottom in her voice but that sort of warmer characteristic, instead of just the cute pop iconic girl.

How would you characterize the sound of KooKoo?

I can't really categorize it because it was so experimental. We weren't clear as to what we were really going to do, going in with her. We just thought it would sort of happen. Every record we had done up until that point [had] some amount of pre-production and preparatory work but most of our records came alive in the studio. If you ever see an interview with Sister Sledge or Diana Ross, any of those people, they all say, "We got to the studio and they didn't even have the lyrics written."

It was to get a raw performance out of the vocalist.

That's exactly it ... also to get something exciting out of ourselves. When you have that many hit records in such a short amount of time, you can easily take yourself for granted or become somewhat complacent. We knew that we worked better under pressure. We also knew that the element of surprise for ourselves -- improvising -- was an exciting part of music. We loved writing in the studio. Our best attributes were telling people what to do and directing people on the spot. We were so accustomed to doing live shows and having things go wrong and having to fix them on the spot. That's the environment we excelled in. In our own way, spiritually and artistically, we were using Debbie and Chris and others that we worked with to show the different sides of our own talents.

Probably because of their success and our success, everybody figured you put the two things together and it would be unbelievable. There was that automatic pressure of having to deliver Blondie and the Chic organization. Put those things together and what do you get? Rocket fuel! [Laughs.]

Yes! It didn't have to fit into a box. It didn't have to be pop. It could be something as irreverent as a song like "Under Arrest", which I love.

"Under Arrest" is really an interesting, artistic piece of work. I love that. When I think about it, I guess half of my frustration is knowing how much I care for somebody and wanting it to succeed. When that doesn't happen, you feel let down and that you let the person down. A few weeks after that record came out, I was in London with Duran Duran. I was hanging out a club with Culture Club and the record came on and all of the artists loved it. The DJ was playing it and trying to pump up the people and everybody kept saying, "Ugh, that's that album with that ugly cover." I could hear the chatter in the room. Because of this whole concept that Bernard and I had called the "Chic Mystique", nobody really knew who we were. They knew our music but they didn't know what we looked like so we could always hear people talking about us. We didn't care about us because we were pretty thick-skinned but when they were talking about an artist that we worked with that we loved, we were like, "Man they don't get it. They don't understand."

What would you differently if you were to go back into the studio and record KooKoo today?

I would probably talk a lot more [with Harry] and do more pre-production, knowing exactly what the songs were, having more of a framework before we went in, instead of depending upon our improvisational skills.

What songs still resonate with you?

I like "The Jam Was Moving" and I like "Under Arrest" a lot. [For] lyrics I must say that I do like "Backfired"! [Laughs.] I probably really like the whole album, I just feel like it's not probably finished. With Debbie, I was feeling, "Damn, I wish we could go back and finish it." Bernard would say sometimes, I would write songs, and he would say, "You know, bro, you got an unresolved cadence there." I think that if we could do that same record right now and have those same songs, we'd make them amazing.

Would you consider recording again with Debbie?

It's tricky because in today's world I don't have the incentive to make the regular pop records that I had because I have a peculiar relationship, spiritually, with the record industry overall, starting with the way they sort of demonized Napster. I was like, "Wait a minute, guys. This is an intelligent thing if we can get everything in place." Right from that moment I just sort of watched it spiral downward into what we have now, which I don't even know what it is. The motivation to make a record is different than the motivation to just go into a studio or play a live show. I'd love to play a live show with Debbie and just play. In today's world, I get a huge amount of satisfaction just performing and playing in front of people as opposed to thinking that it has to be recorded to make a profit on it. Maybe a lot of people say that I could have that highfalutin attitude because I make so much money in royalties, that of course I can have that profession. Maybe that is true but I also think that when you become a little bit more mature, you have a different perspective. When we were younger, we wanted to be at the top of the charts. Now being at the top of the charts is a very peculiar thing. I don't know what that would feel like in today's world because it's so fleeting.

It would be such a thrill if you and Debbie performed together again.

I saw Debbie and Chris performing a year ago at a private party and we had a blast together. I really love them. It's one of those things, like I said, it's hard one to resolve in my head artistically because we expected it to be so huge. Debbie can go back and dye her hair blonde and we can put out the same record under a different cover! [Laughs.]

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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