NILE-ISM FOR THE '90S; ACCLAIMED RECORD PRODUCER NILE ROGERS OPENED A COMMERCIALS MUSIC HOUSE AND MAD AVE'S NILEPHILES ARE DANCING WITH JOY

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LATE LAST YEAR TOP POP PRODUCER NILE ROGERS, THE man behind Madonna's "Like a Virgin" and David Bowie's "Let's Dance," realized how often his phone rang with friends asking him to pitch in on a commercial. "People who do this for a living were tapping into our talent and would call me all the time for recommendations," says Rogers' longtime manager Budd Tunick. "We thought, Why not channel this into our own place?"

So Rogers and Tunick hired Tag Gross, a seasoned agency music producer/composer who has also worked in the recording industry, and formed New York-based RTG Music Ltd. Since then they haven't had a chance to come up with a catchier name or even order official stationery. "We're sending out cassettes with hand-scrawled notes," Gross laughs, "and the work keeps pouring in."

So far RTG has turned a nursery full of babies into a rousing chorus of "Good Lovin'*" (done in collaboration with the a cappella group Rockapella) for Doritos and BBDO/New York. A Leo Burnett commercial for women's Reeboks simmers with an acid jazz track starring trumpeter Lester Bowie of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame. RTG is also interested in interactive media, TV and film projects; currently they're working with Liz Phair and Henry Rollins on the soundtrack for a new Merchant/Ivory film.

Commercials are actually where Rogers cut some of his first deals. As a 19-year-old classical guitar student and member of a band called New York City, he was hard up for cash when a friend got him a job playing Spanish guitar on a Savarin coffee commercial (the campaign that starred Carlos Montalban as that picky plantation owner). "I thought the only money I was going to get was for my session," Rogers recalls. On the day he was about to be evicted from his New York penthouse, he discovered a batch of royalty checks in the mail. "Wow," he says, "I couldn't believe it. It was the coolest thing ever."

For the next year the coffee beans paid the rent; he also graduated to playing chords for Frito's Frito Bandito. But Rogers shelved his mariachi act for a groovier musical landscape: leading the funk band Chic, writing "We Are Family" for Sister Sledge and producing countless hits for the likes of Mick Jagger, the B-52s, Peter Gabriel and Al Jarreau.

He didn't touch another commercial until seven years ago when a producer at Wieden & Kennedy asked him to score a Nike spot. He admits he accepted the job because David Fincher was the director, and Fincher was his first choice to direct a TV program he was trying to pull together. But he soon discovered how commercials had changed. "I found that artistically we could interpret the film whatever way we wanted," Rogers says. The relationship with Wieden grew into a string of heavily sound-designed spots for Nike, including some with Spike Lee, Scottie Pippin and David Robinson in "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood."

"When I was a kid it was sort of rock 'n' roll poison to touch a commercial," he reflects. "But if you did it cool, people would say, 'See, that's what would happen if real good musicians did commercials.' That's sort of a bad thing because I actually think most jingle people are amazing," Rogers continues. "Here you're trying to take a product and turn it into a star and make it really important."

Predictably, RTG often recruits recording artists to pitch in on tracks; on a Reebok spot about rugged rock climbers, vocalists from the West African group Sarafina sing a percussive Zulu lullaby. Another, which focuses on more serene scenes of women power walking and stretching in the great outdoors, is set to a classical string quartet blended with Eric ("Deliverance") Weissberg's mandolin. "It's all footwork like a ballet," explains Leo Burnett copywriter Basil Mina. "It lends itself to classical music."

"The whole idea was to try to put some emotion behind the spots and elevate them, and still have them be human," says Gross, explaining that they were avoiding the "typical slammin' rock" athletic anthem. Working with established performers must be planned carefully, Rogers cautions, explaining that musicians must be matched with the right spot. "You can't tell Lester Bowie: 'Uh, Lester, I want you to play like the coolest stuff you can,'" Rogers exclaims. "You let him do his thing." Tunick runs to a shelf and retrieves a press packet touting David Lee Roth's aspiring voiceover career. "People are coming to us for work," he says.

But not everyone is playing in the :30 spotlight, and even within this studio there's dissension about what's musically sacrosanct. Gross, whose career spans radio, records and a stint at Bates as producer and song writer, says he's bothered when creatives co-opt famous scores, change the lyrics and then apply the tune to something completely unrelated. Consider the James Bond theme "For Your Eyes Only" behind a financial services campaign, he says. "It's one thing if the song has something to do with the spot," he complains. But if they just buy it for the melody, he scoffs, "I think that's kind of lame."

"I would agree with that," Rogers says, "but I think the most money I ever made was selling rights to 'We Are Family' to BBDO for Pepsi Free." As if on cue, he belts out a few bars of the lesser-known classic, "Diet Pepsi Free," including the rousing verse that goes, "Taste how good a cola can be."

Normally I would have hated that," he says, "but because it was mine, I thought, This is genius! That's amazing! There are so many songs they could do that with."

Rogers clearly is not standing on ceremony when it comes to adapting, to put it politely, classic rock. Purists are sure to cringe at the news that he's simply nuts about the recent Mercedes-Benz spot from Lowe & Partners/SMS that re-aims Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" to hawk a luxury car. "I love that!" Rogers exclaims. "That's my favorite thing. That's the only time I ever liked a Mercedes commercial."

Every time Rogers approaches a spot, he says, he remembers the story about a producer who showed "Saturday Night Fever" in a preview without its opening Bee Gees tune-the one that John Travolta struts to as he walks down the street. The film almost didn't get released, according to Rogers. "Without the music, it's just some dude walking down the street with a paint can," he explains. "He might be cool-but the music made him real cool."

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