Happy days are here again / The time is right for makin’ friends.
Let’s get together / how ’bout a quarter to ten? / Come tomorrow, let’s all do it again!
– “Good Times” (Chic)
With its alluring bass line, chucking guitars and feel good chorus, Chic’s “Good Times” is one of the most recognizable R&B anthems of all time, an all encompassing, bouncy bath of groove and fervid funk that captures joy from start to finish. Right from release, it was clear that the track (off the band’s 1979’s Risque album) was more than another disco hit. Its blissful beat connected with people on another level, especially the skating crowd who’d been congregating at local rinks, rolling around to dance music throughout the ‘70s and – like the hip-hop community, led by the famous sample in Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” – found a signature jam and mode of celebration in the tune.
Tapping into roller disco, hip hop and club culture was no accident for Chic’s guitarist and lead songwriter Nile Rodgers. The New York born and bred musician, who also spent a lot of his childhood years in Los Angeles, grew up around musicians (his dad was a percussionist and his stepdad was a “beanik PHD” – as he described in his 2011 autobiography, Le Freak – who hung out with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Richard Pryor). Nile was always around creativity and movement, and his music has always reflected that.
In an exclusive interview with the legendary musician and producer on the site of his latest project, DiscOasis (an outdoor roller disco gathering at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes), Rodgers shares with L.A. Weekly about his approach to music and deejaying and the influence skating had on his life and work.
“I had to go back to my childhood and think about that one new record that the DJ would play or how a song I never heard would make me feel,” Rodgers, whose official position with DiscOasis is music curator and “groovemaster,” says of his take on the event’s soundtrack. “I wanted to make sure I had one thing like that in each crate. The example I like to use is an old jazz record called “Bumpin on Sunset.” The skating rink we used to go to was on Sunset Blvd. in L.A. and none of us knew that song, but once we learned what it was called, it spiritually became more important to us.”
A little googling takes us to the percussive ditty by Wes Montgomery, and leaves us excited to dig into the jazz man’s catalog (thanks Nile!). He doesn’t recall the moniker of the local rink, but we’ve ruled out Flipper roller disco on Sunset as that opened in 1979, the same year “Good Times” came out. Rodgers is talking about formative memories of childhood, which apparently saw him on wheels often.
“I moved to L.A. when I was 7 years old. I got kicked out of the L.A. school system for cutting school 75 days straight and I used to go Downtown a lot and I would go see a bunch of different movies because there were no movie ratings back then,” he shares. “Once I remember the police caught me and I outsmarted them. I would say Jewish things because I was raised in that New York Jew community and I would just say all these words they didn’t get. Then I would show them my school asthma note from months ago and get them to show me where the theater was. They’d even take me there. I also went skating a lot, to all the different rinks out here.”
Though Rodgers is still a busy producer (he recently had two hits on the charts in Britain), he says his curating gig felt meant to be, so he made time for it. “When I first got the call it was almost like, ‘thinking about it,’ but of course all they had to do was mention roller skating then I was like, ‘but of course.’ Then we started to vibe together and that’s what tells you when you’re with the right team, because it’s always a give and take and people have great ideas and you work them out together.”
Indeed, Discoasis’ producers – called Constellation Immersive – have realized a unique vision, from the little known location (a beautiful botanical garden about 45 from central L.A. via the 10 freeway) to the eye-poppingly glam decor to choreographed roller spectacles, which clear patrons from the rink and provide full-on shows to ooh and ogle throughout the night. Still, Rodgers’ participation is in and of itself, the most significant thematic element of the event. Before you even get to the shimmering oasis, there is a walk-thru the grounds, and it’s full of fabulous photo ops and referential Rodgers moments, including go-go dancers moving to Nile-produced or written music for Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross and more.
“Every day we talk about what can we do to make it better because it’s based on the user experience,” Rodgers insists, adding that he remains connected to the skate community and is involving it as much as possible. “I called my various skate crews and real skaters and they’ve been coming here and they love it. I was actually trying to organize a whole New York crew to come out [many did so on the opening VIP night which took place right after our interview and also saw a ton of celebrities in attendance including fellow music legend Jimmy Iovine and Adam Lambert]. I know people who skate from everywhere, serious skating cities like Detroit, Atlanta, New York, and L.A. of course.
“I do want to make it clear that the team has been so incredibly involved in making sure that everyone loves this experience – the artistic experience and just that everything works as well as it can. If you think about it, we are up against nature and you can’t control nature.”
We had to interject: Does he mean the outdoor elements or COVID-19 (which is clearly not behind us)? “Well yeah, throw COVID into the mix, too,” he answers. “Because at the time we conceived this, the numbers were taking a real downturn, like it was going down down down. But now because of the variant and people being too lax in my opinion, it’s back up.”
The fact that DiscOasis is outdoors made it a relatively safe bet either way. Our recent visit there had a great crowd, many dressed in sequins, satins and glittery get-ups. It was easy to socially distance from people, and if you get tired of skating there’s a spacious dance floor right between the DJ and disco ball-adorned skate area. There’s also a food truck, bar, a store with branded merchandise, a VIP area, and plenty of seating surrounding the rink, which is pretty fun to look at all on its own.
Gen-Xers and above, in particular, will have retro flashbacks that conjure pop culture’s prominent skater imagery, from movies such as Xanadu and Roller Boogie to TV shows like Chips and Charlie Angels, which both nodded to the roller trend in classic episodes older folk like this writer can’t forget. And of course, Rodgers will be forever associated with the most iconic disco of all time – Studio 54 – which famously inspired his song “Le Freak,” after he was refused entrance (the chorus lyrics “freak out” were originally “fuck off!”). Yes, DiscOasis is a must-do for fans of ‘70s nostalgia, but Rodgers stresses the music is intended to encompass every era.
“I have created a virtual crate so the DJs who spin here can go ‘crate digging,’” he explains of his curation approach. “I have them labeled like, crate number 1 with around 300 records and it’s all like classic disco because the last time I was at a roller disco was the ‘80s. I met Madonna in ‘84 ‘cause The Roxy [in New York] used to have skating. At those rinks, I would hear everything from disco to Duran Duran and that was super pleasing to me, to hear a mix of the old stuff and the new. By the time I went to the Roxy I had already worked with Bowie and we’d been skating to “China Girl” [another hit Rodgers produced].
“So for my crates I wanted them to evolve,” he continues. “It seems like a lot of people keep wanting to come back again and again, so the last thing I want is for someone to come back hearing the same stuff. I want to keep having fresh reactions, and so in crate 2, I kept the mix in mind. It’s methodical… We have kids of all ages and I think it’s wrong to superimpose your idea of a great pop song onto them. I live on the water and I have a driveway that’s paved all the way to the water. I put on my skates at home and play the music and skate in my driveway. One day it hit me while I was skating; a Carly Rae Jepsen song came on and it was very catchy and I went, ‘wow shit, this is great, we gotta put this in.’ It went well with the other songs I picked. So songs I would not usually put on, wound up giving us a great mix.”
Rodgers mentions Taylor Swift and Rihanna as two newer artists that can also be heard in his virtual crates, but even if he were to limit the scope to his own work and/or artists he’s worked with, it’d be more than enough to provide DiscOasis’ wheelin’ wonderland with diversity across the decades.
As we saw when we attended Rodgers’ 4h of July concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2019, this man has worked on more hits than anyone. Let’s rundown the music maker’s mind-blowing resume, shall we? Hit singles “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Everybody Dance,” “I Want Your Love,” “Le Freak”, and “Good Times” (one of the most-sampled songs of all time) with Chic; “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down” for Diana Ross; producer of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Like a Virgin and The B-52’s Cosmic Thing, all of which yielded multiple hits; singles including “Original Sin” by INXS; Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” and “Notorious”; soundtrack work for films such as Alphabet City, Gremlins, Thelma and Louise, The Fly and Coming to America; and more tracks for Eric Clapton, David Lee Roth, Ric Ocasek, The Stray Cats, Sheena Easton, Thompson Twins, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Christina Aguilera, and more recently Lady Gaga, Pharrell and Daft Punk (he not only co-wrote but played on “Give Life Back to Music,” “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky”). And that’s just some of his accomplishments.
At 68 years old, the three-time Grammy Award winner looks more like he’s 38, even after overcoming drug use in his youth and two cancer scares in later years. He’s sure a sight with his trademark dreads and electric smile when we first meet him twirling about on skates before our interview at the event site, donning a t-shirt that reads “Halson, Gucci, Fiorucci” – a ref to Sister Sledge’s hit “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” off the best selling album We Are Family, which he co-wrote with former Chic partner Bernard Edwards in ‘79 (a big year for him). It’s also a nod to his “We Are Family” foundation, the charity group he created to support youth all around the world, fighting against systemic problems including racism, sexism and discrimination of all kinds. A portion of DiscOasis’ proceeds will go to the organization, so the gathering offers good vibes in more ways than one.
And “Good Times,” of course. You may not be able to totally “leave your cares behind” as the song touts, in terms of the pandemic right now, but DiscOasis is one of the few happenings that you can dress up for, shake your bootie at, and roll and revel with less risk. Rodgers hopes you’ll find a new state of mind too. “I want people to feel good and relaxed,” he says as the interview ends. “What I’ve learned is joyful experiences last and stay with you… just like concerts. I want people to feel that way here.”
DiscOasis runs through Aug. 29 and is located at 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Rancho Palos Verdes. $49 and up. For DJ line-up, info and tickets go to https://thediscoasis.com