There’s probably never been a 10-dollar investment that yielded multi-million-dollar, multi-platinum, multigenerational returns quite like Chic. After slipping Alexander Hamilton’s portrait to the elevator operator so he wouldn’t say anything to the studio bosses, “Sesame Street” touring guitarist (and Black Panther) Nile Rodgers and journeyman R&B bassist Bernard Edwards snuck into Sound Ideas studio after hours to cut their first song, “Everybody Dance.” With a fascinating heritage in jazz, soul, psychedelia, and funk—while also taking direct inspiration from Roxy Music and KISS—Chic were simply tagged “disco,” and their swift rise and Icarus-like fall mirrored the genre’s own course. The dismissal by rock critics continues: Eleven times they’ve been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and 11 times they’ve been snubbed.
In the span of 22 months, between 1977 and 1979 Chic went from haute couture to passé, and by the start of a new decade, they were deemed all but dead. (Though they released four more albums in the 1980s, just try naming a single from them.) That isn’t to say they were no longer relevant. In reality, Rodgers and Edwards were just starting to exert their enduring influence on all kinds of popular music. Tireless as sherpas, they ushered seemingly everyone up the charts in the new decade: Diana Ross, David Bowie, the B-52’s, Duran Duran, INXS, Madonna. They powered hip-hop from its its Bronx birth through its Hamptons coming out and continue to exert sway over dancefloors, from the dustiest to the shiniest. When Rodgers appeared alongside Pharrell and Daft Punk, it guaranteed at least another decade of inescapability.
Like almost everything in the wake of Rodgers “getting lucky” in the new century, these already comprehensively repackaged hits get another go. We already had a box of their biggest singles and a two-disc set of dance numbers whose title quoted Daft Punk outright. Now comes the latest repackaging of Chic’s catalog, using five CDs (or six pieces of vinyl) to frustratingly under-document their truly prodigious productivity. A handsome, hefty, and redundant set, The Chic Organization 1977-1979 does little more than bundle up their ubiquitous hits and multi-million-selling albums from that heady time in an exhaustive format that’s still woefully incomplete. There are three iterations of “Everybody Dance,” “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” and “My Forbidden Lover,” but no room to shine a light on their sorcery for the likes of Norma Jean and Sheila & B. Devotion. During this period, Rodgers and Edwards did function like a business, diversifying their portfolios and working with an array of artists. Were it not for some useless remixes, the import-only Savoir Faire set, from 2010, remains the closest to capturing the essence of Chic.
Still, no matter the box set’s shortcomings, the genius of Rodgers and Edwards can never be contained nor re-stated enough, and in addition to the brilliant songs that have been heard ad nauseam, The Chic Organization still makes the case for more. Building on the formidable legacies of Hamilton Bohannon and Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” Chic’s innovation was to re-cast the breakdown part of old R&B songs as the meat of the song. But every Chic song also had to contain another element: the Deep Hidden Meaning, or DHM. “All our songs had to have this ingredient… understanding the song’s DNA and seeing it from many angles,” as Rodgers put it in his autobiography, Le Freak.
So call Rodgers and Edwards the Watson and Crick of groove; they stripped it down to its most basic building blocks, twisting it in such a way to reveal something both primeval and elegant. Chic exhibited complex simplicity at its finest. According to that same theory, style could be substance, the backing band could be the rock stars, and the background was the foreground. Why else craft a silky vibe laced with cocktail-party chatter on “(Funny) Bone” and then, right at the end, winkingly add, “The whole world is a circus, don’t you be the clown”? Is it that the in-store music overheard at Uniqlo recently sounded like Chic? Or that Chic can always cagily slide in as background music?
Is it even possible, four decades later, to hear “Le Freak,” “Good Times,” “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” and “We Are Family” free from the filters of over-familiarity and over-sampling that automatically kick them from the conscious mind to the subliminal? It’s unlikely, but the set’s most curious aspect is the slotting of Sister Sledge’s third album alongside Chic’s classic long-players—no doubt the result of Rodgers’ estimation that the album is the finest he and Edwards ever wrote, “the best example of DHM perfection.” Go to enough weddings and “We Are Family” might seem too clichéd, possibly even tarnished by visions of your aunties flashing an overbite as they get funky on the dancefloor. But those are the pitfalls of achieving pop perfection: The song (and then-19-year-old Kathy Sledge’s awesome lead vocal) are today as ingrained in family ritual as Thanksgiving dinner.
That theory of DHM allowed all manner of paradoxes to delectably tussle right on the silken surface of Chic’s music, making it still feel alluring so many generations on. “Everybody Dance” was nothing but “do-do-dos” and musical calculus, “a mixture of harmonically extended chords” and “two strict chromatic movements in the bass,” as Rodgers put it. They could turn “fuck off” into a catchy earworm and list fashionable designers in a way that bequeathed either status or hollowness, depending on how you read the lyrics. “Good Times” remains ecstatic and despairing, its string stabs as thrilling as they are nerve-jangling and anxious, an aural metaphor encompassing the full spectrum of cocaine’s effects. “At Last I Am Free” is a gaseous, glorious, zero-gravity ballad, as liberating as it is exhausted. “My Feet Keep Dancing” is a dancefloor anthem in the vein of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Referencing fads like the Savoy, Studio 54, Depression-era lingo, the Latin Hustle, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Chic flashed a deep knowledge of history, including the foresight to know that their time—or even time itself—was not for long. “Our overhead was low, and the return on investment was very high,” Rodgers says of their artistic endeavors. “Our early investors and business colleagues all did very well indeed.” And Chic continue to pay dividends.