The 2017 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was inducted at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 7, 2017. Finally included, after 11 nominations, was Nile Rodgers. You can watch him and the rest of the 2017 inductees — Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra, Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Yes — accept their honors on HBO on Saturday, April 29 at 8 pm.
PEOPLE spoke to Rodgers shortly before the ceremony. It was a free-flowing, wide-ranging interview, during which only three questions were asked, but the music legend managed to touch on a variety of topics; from his career, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, showing compassion for others, and even allegations of Russian hacking. Here are the most interesting things Rodgers (who, in case you were wondering, is voluminous, funny and smart as hell in conversation) said, mostly unprompted, about… well, everything.
On growing up a serious jazz and classical student:
When we’re at soundcheck, and we’re just playing something, I always pick something really hard. And I’m always thinking, “Man, I woulda ripped through this s— when I was 22!” And now I’m mostly going, “What are the [chord] changes? What are the changes!?” When I was a kid, I could call any tune, now I always gotta ask the keyboard player.
On how his priorities have changed as he’s aged:
When I was younger, I was almost myopically focused on music. Now, my family’s older — my mom has Alzheimer’s — I support my whole family, I gotta fly to California every few days to deal with doctors… and then I gotta also go and perform concerts and write hits. At 64.
On empathy and caring for other people:
I was conditioned to care for people at an early age. I was helping little old ladies across the street when I was 5 years old. I wouldn’t be who I am without the various remedial programs that existed in my neighborhood to help immigrants assimilate into American society. So after Eastern Europeans and Russian Jews were able to assimilate into America, who are the next beneficiaries of those programs? Well, black people and Puerto Rican people and other poor people. These programs socialized me to care for people.
On what constitutes activism:
The other day, I happened to tweet out something that was sort of semi-directed at the current president. And it wasn’t really super-negative; it was just something that, like — look, I know the dude; he used to hang around the New York party scene — and this musician who I really respect, but who’s a lot younger than me, he was like, “Oh yeah, Niles! Way to join the movement! Resist!” And was like, “You consider a tweet activism?” I’m a child of the ’60s, man, for me, activism is going out and working and doing stuff.
On his success:
I grew up believing that I was going to be — at best, like this was my dream — a working part of either a symphony orchestra or a pit crew or something like that, so I could just work in music all my life. I didn’t necessarily want to compose, I wanted to play. So I just wanted to be a valuable part of a musical organization. That was just a job. Like being a waiter or whatever. I never believed that music was the path to riches.
On the history of musicians being poor:
I started out as a classical musician, and I knew that most of the great masters were poor. So I grew up knowing I was gonna have to work my butt off, just to make a living making music. The whole idea of people getting rich from music can be traced to two things: Recorded music and publishing. So those two things — being able to collect money from your people for your art without actually being present to perform it — are pretty much what changed the professional musician’s prospects. I just got lucky.
On the relative age of music to the history of recorded music and music publishing rights … and Charles Darwin:
Recorded music is only, what, 120 years old? Modern song publishing less than that? And music’s well older than that. Darwin theorized there was a musical protolanguage well before there was actually spoken language.
On his dream job:
At the end of the day my happiest moments are just sitting at home practicing the guitar. If I could earn a living practicing, I would!
On being “out of touch”:
So I woke up this morning, and I gotta play my new single for the record company today — and it’s weird because I was listening to the radio and thought, “Huh, this doesn’t sound like anything.” And then I thought about my career, and all of my biggest hit records didn’t sound like anything on the charts.
On the first time he heard “Let’s Dance” in public:
The first time I heard “Let’s Dance” outside the recording studio, I was in a punk club. And between sets of this [sing-scats punk guitar], the DJ put the song on and everybody just stopped and looked up at the ceiling like, “What’s this? This is cool.”
On Chic being nominated 11 times prior at the Hall of Fame without being honored:
I’m kinda proud of that! I come from the hippie days, the anti-authoritative thing. I’m a rebel. To be the biggest loser is kind of amazing. I look in the mirror and go “Top that s—!” If you can get nominated 12 times and not get honored, then I bow to you. Because that means that on some level, you’re doing something right, but the essence of what you do is rubbing society the wrong way.
On the essence of rock and roll… and Gil Scott-Heron:
And that’s truly what rock and roll is to me — you give voice to the voiceless. “I know things are supposed to be like this, but I have a different way of looking at it.” I think it was Gil Scott-Heron who said … I hate to misquote people … “Revolution is the day that you wake up and you look at something in a different way.” [Editor’s Note — Rodgers was very close, the full quote is: “The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things, and see there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown.”]
On playing “Le Freak” for the first time for his record company:
When I played “Le Freak” for my record company — who supposedly loved me and had my best interest at heart — and there had to be like 20 people in the conference room. And by the time the song ended, the whole conference room was empty. The only people in the room were Bernard Edwards, myself and our attorney. And they walked back in and said “Hey, do you have anything on your record that’s better than this?” And we kept playing songs, and eventually we had to argue against all the songs they wanted from the record in favor of releasing “Le Freak.”
On the possibility of a Nile Rodgers song inspired by the allegations of Russian hacking:
If I’m lucky, all these wacky thoughts come out as pop songs. I don’t sit down and say to myself, “You know, today I think I’ll write a song about Russian trolls hacking the election.” But if somehow something happened to me and that event made me think of something, then I might get a song out of it. Every single one of my songs is non-fiction, with a lot of fictional elements to it.