Why does rock and roll hate disco?
David Bowie, Madonna, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck are all members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The man who helped create some of their biggest hits is not.
This year when Bill Withers, Green Day, and the late Lou Reed, among others, are inducted into rock's hallowed hall, musician-producer Nile Rodgers will again be left waiting at the door. For the ninth time, Chic, the 1970s group he cofounded with the late Bernard Edwards, has been deemed unworthy of a place among pop music's elite.
Rodgers helmed Madonna's "Like A Virgin," Bowie's "Let's Dance," and Mick Jagger's 1985 solo debut, "She's the Boss." With his longtime musical partner Edwards, he co-wrote and co-produced "We Are Family," for Sister Sledge, and "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" for Diana Ross. Respected music magazine NME ranked Rodgers as its fourth most influential producer ever — higher than Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and Berry Gordy Jr., all of whom are longtime rock hall residents. And after four decades in the industry, he remains much in demand. Last year, he won three Grammys, including record and album of the year, for his work on Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories," and he's co-written a song for Lady Gaga's upcoming album.
So why has Rodgers been denied his place in the rock hall for so long? One word: disco.
Chic was one of the biggest bands of that unfairly maligned era. A four-member group anchored by guitarist Rodgers and bassist Edwards, they crafted elegant dance songs with huge sing-along choruses and keen hooks, and enjoyed a string of hits including "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)," "Le Freak," and "Good Times." The Sugarhill Gang memorably sampled that song's chunky bass line for its landmark hit "Rapper's Delight," which in 1980 became the first hip-hop record to crack Billboard's Top 40.
Disco ruled the 1970s. Yet it is to the rock hall what steroids are to the Baseball Hall of Fame — an unforgivable scourge, the mirror-ball barbarians at the gate.
At its zenith, disco was music for downtown clubs and uptown block parties, beloved by African-Americans and Latinos, as well as gay men and lesbians who turned songs like Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" into personal anthems of perseverance and grit.
Not surprisingly, it chafed the tender sensibilities of hardcore rock fans, many of whom were straight, white, and male — the antithesis of disco's core audience. Branding the music as a threat to rock's supremacy, they adapted "Disco sucks" with its thinly veiled homophobia as a sour war cry; never mind that the Rolling Stones ("Miss You"), Rod Stewart ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy"), and Paul McCartney ("Goodnight Tonight," with Wings) all made disco records.
Since the hall's 1986 inception, those who vote for new members have always had a rather stingy definition of rock and roll. Though hip-hop predated the hall itself, it wasn't until 2007 that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first rap group inducted. And many other worthy artists, from The Smiths to N.W.A, are still awaiting the call. That they will someday be admitted seems a foregone conclusion.
Not so with disco, although two artists prominent in that era managed to slip in. The Bee Gees, who had a long career before their "Saturday Night Fever" heyday, were inducted in 1997, though they were eligible as early as 1992. Donna Summer, the "Queen of Disco," was finally voted in after her fifth nomination in 2013 — a year after she died.
Perhaps Rodgers, who still tours with a revamped Chic, would stand a better chance if he were nominated on his own. Still, he shouldn't have to cleave his career for recognition. On the rock hall's official website, its eligibility statement says, "We shall consider factors such as an artist's musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction."
Rodgers, 62, clearly meets and surpasses every consideration. Yet those judging who belongs in the Cleveland-based shrine likely have more in common with those who despised disco than those who revered it, and have steadfastly refused him entry. If Rodgers' still-vital talent and influence as a musician, songwriter, and producer has been good enough for at least a half-dozen members — a few of whom owe at least part of their induction to him — it should be more than good enough for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Watch: Some of Nile Rodgers’s work
Renee Graham is a writer in Boston.