“The music business has changed but the funky party people are still here,” guitarist and super producer Nile Rodgers said at the end of a whirlwind career montage video at the top of his keynote address Wednesday morning.
The 64-year-old artist who has worked with everyone from David Bowie to Avicii was enthusiastically received in a capacity packed upstairs room at the convention center. His talk was a mixture of entertaining anecdotes and insights gained from of life in the music business loosely structured around the idea of discovery.
Rodgers’ own experience of musical mind opening, he recalled, began when he met Timothy Leary at age 15. He took a 48-hour acid trip while listening to the Doors that transformed him from a straight-laced classical music student into a hippie rocker.
In his early days as a musician, Rodgers said he was an anti-establishment dude, dubbed “brother organic” by other black musicians who were amused by his patchwork jeans and platform shoes. His instinct was to reject pop music until one day he confessed his feelings to a teacher and mentor who dressed him down.
“What makes you believe that you’re the ultimate consumer?” Rodgers recalled his teacher saying. His teacher told him not to be a snob, and instilled an idea that guides his career to this day. Top 40 songs are inherently meaningful because they “speak to the souls of a million strangers.”
“It woke me up to the power of pop music,” he said. He went on to write his first hit “Everybody Dance” by Chic a few weeks later.
He said an openness to different kinds of music has defined his career and he encouraged the audience to stay open too. “The great thing about music…it’s probably just like the universe,” he said, “planetoids and asteroids bump into stuff and their trajectory changes.”
At the top of his talk, Rodgers said the last time he came to SXSW was right after Stevie Ray Vaughan died and he was so broken up it was hard to be present. This time round he was warm and engaging, if a bit scattered. And yes, at the end of his talk he picked up his ax and demo the guitar line on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”