The Definitive Groove Collection
tlantic Records made up for any sins they may have committed in 2006 (e.g. not giving Missy Elliott’s best-of Respect M.E. a domestic release) with their The Definitive _____ Collection series of double-disc comps. “Soul” encompasses the likes of ‘Re, Ray, and Otis, and “Pop” and “Rock” are largely must-to-avoid (America? Dear sweet Jesus, Black Oak Arkansas?!), but the “Groove” batch is by and large a true wonder. The Sugar Hill Records volume is the birth of hip-hop concisely compiled, Slave prove themselves mostly worthy of the time, Average White Band don’t, Sister Sledge leave a hung jury, and the Grandmaster Flash/Melle Mel/ Furious Five volume is a bit much, especially when their finest moments are already on the Sugar Hill set. And then there’s Chic.
You should know the Nile Rodgers dossier already; as a producer he helmed the likes of Let’s Dance, Like a Virgin, Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss, and Duran Duran’s Arena and Notorious—and those are just selected highlights. He’s also an astoundingly good guitarist. His partner in crime in the Chic Organization, super-bassist Bernard Edwards, was later a member of the Power Station and produced Robert Palmer’s Riptide and ABC’s “When Smokey Sings,” amongst others. Together they produced such R&B landmarks as Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and Diana Ross’s 1980 album diana., as well as the entire output of their own band, Chic.
Chic were never—never—a disco group; pigeonholing them thus is just ignorant. They were an R&B band first and foremost, with plenty of funk and jazz thrown into the mix. And with not only Nile and ‘Nard but Tony Thompson on the drums and Alfa Anderson and Norma Jean Wright (the latter replaced after their debut album by Luci Martin)’s heaven-kissed vocals, you’d think they couldn’t miss. You’d be right.
There was so much pure music, and musicianship, to Chic that it’s frankly rather amazing. Listen to “Savoir Faire,” an instrumental track from their second album, C’est Chic: it’s a sumptuous string section, Tony doing the timekeeping, and Nile playing some of the most fluid, nimble licks this side of George Benson. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Listen, then, to Chic’s “Everybody Dance,” and marvel at the bassline with which ‘Nard launches the song, Tony right beside him. The strings begin to swirl, Alfa and Norma Jean get their groove on, and what you’ve got is soul perfection. Sure, this doubles as disco, but it’s not of disco; it became it, but wasn’t born there.
Much of The Definitive Groove Collection’s first disc you likely know, as this is where the hits reside: “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Le Freak,” “Good Times,” “I Want Your Love,” all still as fresh-sounding as ever—more so, in fact, thanks to the remastering job. Even better are the lesser-known singles and tracks here, such as “At Last I Am Free,” a ballad so beautiful it nearly brings tears to my eyes each and every time (later covered completely straight by would-you-believe-it English folkie Robert Wyatt); and “My Forbidden Lover,” a minor hit from Risqué which deserved better, as it’s the equal of “Good Times” though not anywhere close to as anthemic (which answers my own question, natch). “My Feet Keep Dancing,” released as a single at the close of 1979, points Chic’s way to the future, working its groove until it bores it into the ground. That’s a compliment.
Disc two will be unfamiliar to all but devotees but might actually better than the one which precedes it. As their fame and fortune steadily decreased—and by the end of the ‘70s, it was nowhere but down for Chic, too disco-identified were they—they stretched out further and further artistically. Real People’s “Rebels Are We” (their final top 10 R&B single) is definitely the sound of a new decade, punk-funk all the way, especially in Nile’s guitar work and its attitude (from the title on, duh). “Your Love Is Cancelled” is so odd, lyrically, I’m not sure how to approach it—I mean, it compares a relationship to a TV show. 1982’s “Soup for One,” their last top 40 R&B single, was sampled by Modjo for their monster 2001 house smash “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” and continues using the template Chic had seemingly settled on by that point: repetitive, locked-in grooves (which occasionally reach almost drone-like highs), mantra-like lyrics, Nile’s by-then famous chicken-scratch guitar, and an endless sense of propulsion.
They were still capable of stunning, though, as evidenced by Tongue In Chic’s lush ballad “When You Love Someone” (which also features some lovely keyboard work). Mariah Carey should force Jermaine Dupri to produce a cover of this for her immediately; it’d force her to stretch a bit vocally, and they could especially have fun with the song’s late, abrupt (up)tempo change. The same album’s “Hangin’” has a soupçon of George Clinton in it, while Believer’s “Give Me the Lovin’” draws a straight line between late-period Chic and the world Nile did on Let’s Dance and Like A Virgin. That late-’83 album, their last before reforming in the ‘90s (with new vocalists), also gives up its title track and “You Are Beautiful,” both of which show a profound catching-up-with-new-wave downtown NYC influence. They’re angular dance-funk and should be cherished for just that reason. Chic’s 1992 reunion, Chic-ism provides a pair of tracks in closing, pleasant-enough house-R&B but nothing much more.
Chic’s influence on pop, R&B, and dance music can still be heard over 20 years past their time. (“You Are Beautiful.” Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater.” Connect the dots your damn self.) That’s indisputable. Hopefully, The Definitive Groove Collection will open new generations to their ridiculous brilliance. Every aspect of their music was top-of-the-line, from its engineering and production to vocals, instrumentation and of course, those songs, reminding the rest of us of just how powerful Chic were as a creative force. The missing link between P-Funk and Jam & Lewis, and as “You Are Beautiful” says, “Unlike Clark Gable, I give a damn.” You should too.