2022-05-14 23:57:14 By : Ms. Amy Chen

Nile Rodgers at The DiscOasis in L.A. in 2021

Since the start of the pandemic, roller-skating has been having an extended moment. Across the country, people have been donning their quads and meeting up for group glides in city parks or hanging out at one of the trendy new pop-up rinks. But to quote Bane, these people merely adopted the skates. Nile Rodgers was born in them, molded by them.

Rodgers is best known as the legendary songwriter and producer who co-founded pioneering disco band Chic; produced the likes of David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, The B-52s and Daft Punk; and co-wrote a heap of world-conquering songs ("Le Freak," "Good Times," "I Want Your Love," "We Are Family," "I'm Coming Out," "Get Lucky"), some of which have since been sampled in equally iconic rap songs. But in his heart, he's still just a sk8r boi from Greenwich Village

Rodgers is set to serve as the "Groovemaster" for The DiscOasis, a roller-skating revival experience which popped up in L.A. last year and is set to takeover Wollman Rink in Central Park this summer.

But this is no cutesy celebrity endorsement deal. Rodgers is a passionate lifelong roller-skater. He's someone who relishes taking other celebrities skating for the first time. He's someone who still goes out for solo rides all around Miami (taking selfies with fans along the way). He's even someone who had a popup roller-skating themed party to celebrate his 69th birthday last year while on tour.

In conjunction with the launch of The DiscOasis, Gothamist spoke to Rodgers about his love of skating, the NYC skating scene of the '80s, his input into the theatricality of the forthcoming outdoor attraction and his plans for a big Central Park show to celebrate his 70th birthday later this summer. If you're the kind of person who has ever wondered if Cher roller-skates, read on.

[This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]

Last year on a rainy day #skating inside my house #excited about @discoasis opening in #California. I can’t wait to tell you where we’re gonna #popup next#vibe #funk #disco #dance #love #jam #quads #rollerskate #rollerskating #rollerskates #skateathome #trending #dance #dope

I was talking to someone this morning and they mentioned that you grew up roller-skating, and that's how you got around everywhere. Is that true? Absolutely! There were two different vibe scenarios when it comes to roller-skating. I am bicoastal: born in New York, mainly raised in New York, but there was a time during my formative years when I was living in Los Angeles. And in L.A., things are far away. In New York, you can take the subway or walk anywhere. Manhattan is only 14 miles long, from the bottom to the top. Fourteen miles is nothing, I do five or six miles every morning.

So when I lived in L.A., going to the skating rink was a big deal. And I was very, very poor when I was younger. So instead of riding the bus and spending money to get to the skating rink, we used to either skate to the skating rink or hitchhike to the skating rink.

But either way, we were skating a lot. And this was just about the time that some kid invented the skateboard. [Editor's Note: technically, skateboards were first invented in California in the 1950's by surfers who wanted to go "sidewalk surfing," but they did not gain popularity around the country until the mid-'60s.] So they weren't super popular yet. But we would make our own skateboards in woodshop. I don't know if you had woodshop when you were younger...

I did. [Laughter] Cool. So roller-skating and skateboarding was just our thing. That was a real West Coast thing, because it rarely rained out there. In New York, though, skating was a different vibe. Because I was a good skater, the skating rinks that you had in New York, [they] were very hip. They were like The Roxy, which normally was a really hip club. Then we had another joint in the Village called Busby's, which was also really hip, it was right on Lafayette and 13th Street. It was really a hip crowd. Oh, matter of fact, the guy who owned Busby's was the manager of an early hip-hop group called The Fat Boys. There's some context, to show you how hip the whole scene was.

[In a 1981 piece on the rise of roller discos, the NY Times wrote "most skaters agree that the Roxy is to roller skating what Studio 54 was to disco. Its cavernous interior even looks a bit like Studio 54: the complex light system in hot reds and cool blues, the silver skyline along the back wall and the red velvet ropes outside bespeaking exclusivity." They also said that Busby's was "an elegant little rink only a few blocks south of Village Skates but a considerable distance away in ambience. Busby's looks more like a nightclub than a roller disco, all pearly gray and black and sleek elegant, with banquettes and rental skates color-coordinated to the decor."]

Singer Nile Rodgers, singer Cher and singer Alfa Anderson attend the Billboard Magazine's 1979 Disco Convention on February 28, 1979 at the New York Hilton Hotel

Around what era are we talking now? This is the early '80s, because now hip-hop was happening. But at The Roxy skating was popular. I met Madonna at The Roxy in 1982, and we had already been skating there. Roxy was a really big disco, really big dance floor. We also had a place called High Rollers on 57th Street, I used to go there with Cher and Diana Ross, people like that. Oh, matter of fact, I took Tom Cruise to High Rollers one night, which was cool. So we had a bunch of roller discos in New York, and everything was a cross between Studio 54 and everything else. So no matter what kind of club it was, they still wanted to have the Studio 54 vibe, even though you were roller-skating. I don't know why, but that was the gold standard of nightclub.

That's what everyone was aiming for. So you're saying you grew up skating when you were younger, it's how you got around town, it was your thing at the time. But then even when you became wildly successful — even at the height of Chic and everything you were working on and producing in the early '80s — you were still going out and skating with your friends? This was still your favorite recreational activity? Yeah, if we're talking the early '80s, and we're talking about skating at The Roxy and High Rollers and Busby's and places like that, that was really my scene. There was another really hot roller-skating thing going on in Brooklyn, it was really hot. But because I was such a Manhattanite [Laughter] I never made the Brooklyn roller-skating scene, which I heard was awesome. But I didn't have to. I mean, The Roxy was perfectly fine. And the girl that I was going out with actually wound up managing Busby's, so it was like having my own private roller-skating rink.

Of course you'd be going there all the time. But at some point, roller-skating culture died out a bit — I guess by the '90s. Does that seem about right? Yeah, from my point of view, this is how I saw it. What happened was inline skating became a thing. And then instead of skating being about styling, routines and dance moves, it now became this super athletic speed sport. It was like an Olympic sport. It was weird, because when I would go roller-skating with some of my friends, we'd go to a place like The Roxy since it had a really big floor, and my buddies would go straight past me like at a million miles an hour. They didn't care about looking cool. And I was going, 'Dude, what is that? What are you doing?' But they loved it. They love being able to go a million miles an hour on inline skates.

I don't know when inline skaters started to become dancing skaters. Because at that point, my whole consciousness changed. It's like when the zeitgeist changes from this thing to that thing. I've never put on a pair of ice skates in my life, so the concept of inline skating was weird to me. I didn't want to go a million miles an hour, that was not roller-skating to me. Roller-skating to me was looking cool and always skating right on the edge. [Laughter] It was not about turning a bunch of flips in some way. So that became the dominant form of skate. Quad skating just started to melt away.

It seemed like the younger people were into these outdoor skate parks, and that's where skateboarding and inline skating became the thing. So when you hear a song like, "He was a sk8r boi, she said see you later boy," she's talking about a person on the skateboard, and that's what they call the skater at that point. To me, a skateboarder wasn't a skater in my mind, just because I had been doing it for such a long time. Like I said, I made my first skateboard. It was a bastardization of skating in a weird way to me.

Nile Rodgers with Will.I.Am at The DiscOasis in 2021

It seems now that during the pandemic, we've come back around to where people are reviving these classic roller-skating places. Flipper's was brought back at Rockefeller Center earlier this year. It seems like there's more skating meet-ups, because it was something people could do relatively safely but still have the social interaction. And now we have The DiscOasis, which is adding back in the idea that "this is a scene, this is somewhere to be a part of." We did this last year in Los Angeles, and it was not nearly as convenient as being in Central Park. You had to drive two hours. We're in Palos Verdes, and if you had a traffic jam on the 405, man, it would you take you forever to get to where we were. But it was super successful. People loved it. We had a super A-list crowd, and that's really where we're coming from. What do I mean by an A-list crowd? An A-list crowd, to me, are people who want to be there. It was not just famous people, but it was people who wanted to be part of the vibe. And that was so important to us, because we wanted to have a people's environment. We wanted to be able to teach young kids how to skate. So many people who'd never roller-skated before, who were famous, would come in there and skate around the rink with skate mates and things like that. We were having a blast, and we realized this vibe was super, super important.

And we only had one reported case of COVID the entire time we had that installation up. That was incredible to me. It's because it was outdoors, and our rink is huge. It's like a football field. [Laughter] So people could socially distance, or they could vibe with their friends that they thought were cool.

It was just magical. It was an immersive, artistic experience. If you watch roller-skaters, there's always a group of vibers that have routines, and they love breaking out into their routines. So we hire a lot of those skaters, they're what we call "pro-skaters." We have them do their routines; they also teach people how to skate the basics. We always think that's the coolest thing. If you've ever skied, you have the ski patrol, and those are really great professional skiers who can take you down the mountain. You could go down a double diamond black run, they can take you down backwards while you're going forwards, and they can control your speed and you feel really safe. That's the vibe we wanted to have. We want people to feel safe. We want people to feel entertained. We want the best skaters to be able to put on productions. It's a whole vibe that we created in California, and we learned from it, and we want to just make it even better every time we go to a new city.

So how did you get involved with DiscOasis to begin with? I've been involved right from the beginning. My agency is CAA, and I guess somebody had said, 'Nile is a roller-skater.' And the producers called me up right away. I said, 'Oh, man, I'd love to program the music.' And we thought of it in a theatrical sense. I said, 'Man, I wrote this song when I first met David Bowie, I wrote this song called "Groove Master." I'd love that to be our theme song when we play stuff — "Groove Master" comes on, and it's the voice of God, and blah, blah, blah.' I did a whole mix of "Groove Master," updated it. And we just got smarter as time went on, and when pro skaters started coming to the rink in California, we learned other things that we should do to entertain people and get them skating together. When the movie stars came, we wanted them to feel comfortable, and everything worked out better than we could have ever imagined.

How does the music work? Is it a set playlist every night? Do DJs have leeway to play what they want? How much input do you have on everything? So typically, just like with any great dancing environment, the DJ has to be able to read the crowd. And so the DJ has a playlist that the DJ believes works for that crowd. And we're hiring nothing but the best DJs, so they know how to do this. However, we have production numbers that I curate, and I do the music for those production numbers.

So this is a mixture of old school and new school. Old school skating, the DJ would say, 'OK, this is backward skate only, this is couples skate, this is ladies skate, this is so and so.' We don't want to be that formalized, because in today's world, once skaters come, they just want to keep skating. I don't know if you've seen the DiscOasis set, but it's pretty amazing. So we've now thought it through and are saying, maybe in New York the production numbers can [happen] up on the DiscOasis set [and not in the main rink].

And we are also gonna start doing proper concerts. Because the one thing that we didn't have the benefit of doing in Los Angeles was we didn't have the license to do concerts. I think of it in terms of Central Park, some of the most incredible concerts I've ever seen. I saw Sly and the Family Stone there, I saw the moon landing. I mean, come on! The first time I ever saw a Jumbotron was at Central Park.

So in my mind, we have the artistic license to do something as fabulous as Diana Ross when she performed there, or Simon and Garfunkel. I always say to my team, to me, this is like, Summer of Soul 2.0. We can do whatever we want musically, theatrically; let's just make it the vibeiest, coolest place to be. Even if you can't skate or you don't skate or you don't want to skate, you will still have an awesome time, because there's going to be more than enough production. More than enough cool people. I mean, come on, this is like right across the street from Madonna's apartment. [Laughter] How is she not going to show up? Or her kids are gonna go like, 'Yo mom, check out what's happening over there!'

Do you think you could perform there at some point this summer? Maybe, but our tour unfortunately, or fortunately, was already booked [this summer]. But I have a big birthday coming up this year [in September]. And everybody's saying, 'Nile, do the big birthday at DiscOasis, and invite all your friends and have a skate party.' Because my last birthday a year ago in London, they surprised me and gave me a popup roller disco at one of the biggest clubs in London. And it was out of control, it was so amazing. Matter of fact, you just gave me an idea: I'll post that in a couple of days on TikTok. It was ridiculous. And we had all the the pro skaters there.

My friend that I had an early band with, her name is Lynna Davis, and she's sort of the queen of the Central Park pro-skaters, they're called the Central Park Dance Skaters Association. So when I contacted her and told her what we were doing, she wanted to come out to DiscOasis in L.A. And I said, let us get our feet wet, let us get it right first, because we don't know what's gonna work until we start to do it. We've learned a lot in Los Angeles, and we believe this new version of DiscOasis is going to be unbelievable. We just do whatever our little arty heads think of.

As I said, we're going to try and move the production numbers to a part of the rink where the people can look at them while skating, or just look at the production numbers and hang out and drink and eat and chill. And we're gonna see how that works. That's where my job as the "Groovemaster" comes in. Because I want those skaters choreographed to the music that I would like to skate to. I know that's a little bit selfish, but I can't help it. There's certain songs that to me, I hit the floor as soon as I hear them.

Like what songs? Now I'm going to start naming all my own songs. [Laughter] Hey, I mean, I wrote that lyric [in "Good Times"], 'clams on the half shell and roller-skates, roller-skates,' to chronicle the whole vibe of what was going on in the summer of '79. Skating really was such a part of disco. I mean, there was Xanadu...

Right, Olivia Newton-John roller-skating with ELO on the soundtrack... [Laughter] I wasn't a part of that thing, but it was a thing. It was something that was so much a part of the culture that they made shows talking about this culture. Because this skate culture is a very loving culture. It's an extension of disco, hippie culture, hip-hop culture, and you never really see drama in skate culture.

It's an inclusive scene? Very much. I try and explain it to people, like even when I skate now — and most of the time now I skate alone — but you feel so free. It's almost like people who parachute jump or something, you feel like you're flying. I've moved down to Miami, and what's great is that there's a lot of skating going on in Miami. And when I skate through different neighborhoods, I feel like...I don't know how to explain it, I just feel like I can visit but I can leave right away. [Laughter] I can go to some hardcore neighborhoods, and it's interesting, because people give you respect, especially if you look cool and if your footwork is cool.

I've skated through many, many different neighborhoods, and where I live in Miami, of course it's pretty fancy. But then I get to skate in the hood and people really give you respect, and it's an amazing feeling. It's almost like when I was a kid, and I'd walk through the hood carrying a guitar, and all the gang members would like protect me because they said, 'This dude's a guitar player, man, he's cool.'

It seems like a really fun way to get a feel for a city, especially a large city. You can get a feel for the rhythm of a city. And if you're a good solid skater, people really respect the fact that you interact with it. And I don't know how to explain this, but when I'm skating, and I interact with people, whether it's cops on the street or whoever, everybody just gets a kick out of it. Maybe some people recognize me, but typically, I skate in places where they don't recognize me. Sometimes people want me to stop and take selfies. With COVID, that was like a weird thing, because I never want to take a selfie with a mask on — it's like, you won't know who that dude is. So typically I skate in very barren kinds of areas.

I don't know, man, maybe I'm just too overly romantic about it. But there's something special about skate culture. All of my friends from back in the day who still skate, even if they haven't skated for 20 or 30 years, they can't wait to come to DiscOasis. Everyone is writing me saying, 'Nile, man, I can't wait for us to skate together again,' because they remember how much fun we used to have. When I would show up to High Rollers with Cher, this was like the coolest thing in the world. Like, 'Our little Nile Rodgers, our little Greenwich Village New York guy is in here skating with Cher.' Those roller-skating people became my lifelong friends for a whole different reason. And now I'm touring with Cher, whenever she tours, probably for the rest of my life. That's really what she told me.

Are you guys gonna go skating together? Do you ever get to do that now? People already know we've been on tour since before the pandemic; we have been out with Cher for two tours. Typically the way her schedule runs, we have a day on and a day off. So maybe on that day off, she may want to skate, or maybe she puts so much into her show that it's a rest day for her. But I know, [Laughter] I know when we come to New York, she's definitely gonna want to come to DiscOasis. Cher is just too cool. I'm just gonna hit her and say, 'Cher, want to do what we used to do back in the day?'

That's amazing. Well, if you end up doing that birthday party thing, you'll have to let me come skate with Cher. [Laughter] Okay, I promise you, we are going to do it. That's a promise, I know we're going to do it. When my production partners came up with the idea, I was going, 'Oh, I hate birthdays.' But because I've gotten down with the NFT community, the number 69 is really important, so I was like, 'Okay, so I don't have to turn 70, I can be 69 plus one or something,' and trying to curate a clever skating concept for my birthday. So it's definitely gonna happen, I just have to figure out how we're going to do it. But it'll be a lot of fun, and I'll have every skater in New York there.

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