10 Years After Rick James’ Death: Hanging With The Super Freak
I got played by Rick James! That’s what I exclaimed to a close friend immediately after a late Spring 2004 interview with the decadent funk music legend. Now usually such an admission would carry some form of anger or even a tinge of bitterness when dealing with a man with a brazen reputation for disrespect; the kind of who-the-hell-does-this-guy-think-he-is behavior that is par-for-the-course when dealing with a man who during his high-flying, quadruple platinum, coke-fueled early ’80s prime was known to have members of his entourage block the view of his table at a very public eatery so that he could engage in some very freaky “activity.”
“I would go to a restaurant, lay cocaine out on the table in front of everybody and snort it,” James told me during our King Magazine interview. “Or take a chick, put some tables together and have my security stand in front of us while I did my business.”
Really it should have come as no surprise that James was capable of being a narcissistic asshole even at the AARP stage of his life. But as it was with most of his exploits, the man could win you over with sheer charm and disarming humor. And that’s the heart of this story, which I now find myself reliving today on this 10th anniversary of Rick James’ August 6, 2004 death. Following our five hour plus conversation in which he detailed everything from his days as the biggest (and most infamous) straight-no-chaser R&B superstar on the planet–a counter culture change agent who literally kept the lights on at Motown Records–to his epic downward spiral after years of drug abuse and his unlikely cultural comeback via arguably Dave Chappelle’s greatest skit, James transformed into his classic I’M-RICK-JAMES-BITCH! catch phrase that re-introduced him to a new generation of fans.
“Is it alright if I take a couple of things to go?” he asked me in a courteous tone. We had just finished eating dinner at a very posh new age Asian restaurant in West Hollywood; the kind of high-end eatery that can set you back an easy $250 bucks for two. “Sure…no problem,” I said. But the original Slick Rick was running game. After buying yet another round of drinks for his 5-person crew (the Hennessy seemingly started running on tap), he issued the take-out order of all take-out orders. “Can I get two whole ducks; two chickens; four beef fried rice; a pint of garlic chicken and rice; four orders of egg rolls; 3 wonton soups…wait, hold up, make that 5 soups; and…” The order continued on like a running punchline from some vintage black and white variety show from the ’50s. I almost expected some smirking asshole to suddenly jump out seconds later and smash a cream pie in my face. “Yes sir, Mr. James!” said our all too eager waiter who knew that a gaudy tip was all but a formality. Somewhere Charlie Murphy was laughing.
Indeed, the damage was done. The bill–of which I had to come out of pocket alone–totaled nearly $650. This is no small penance for a working journalist even when you knew you would be reimbursed months later by the publishing suits. And yet I totally understood the sucker punch that had just been thrown. Rick James was simply being Rick James.
After all, this is the same James Ambrose Johnson who in 1964 defiantly told the military draft board to kiss his ashy black ass and promptly fled to Toronto, Canada. From there his life resembled some rock & roll Bizarro World version of Forrest Gump. He took on the stage name Big Jimmy and crashed on the couch of Woodstock God Stephen Stills; stood alongside the Band’s late drummer Levon Helm in a street fight; and started a band called the the Mynah Birds, whose most notable bandmate was future rock icon Neil Young. Oh yeah…James also dropped acid with the Doors’ Jim Morrison; got into the pimping racket to help finance his musical ambitions; narrowly avoided getting murdered with Sharon Tate by Charles Manson’s demented cult; and got a songwriting/production gig at Motown working alongside the great Smokey Robinson.
If Rick’s career ended there he would have had some ridiculous stories to tell his grand kids. But the bassist and future headliner pulled off his greatest trick yet: he became a funk and roll icon on his own terms. “The whole set up early on was Rick James & The Stone City Band,” he told me of the rowdy outfit that enjoyed a double platinum debut on Motown–Come Get It!–fueled by the coy weed anthem “Mary Jane.” “And who was the Stone City Band? They were just about the baddest motherfucking funkers on the planet who could play jazz, rock, Latin… anything. George Clinton and Parliament would always try to put their foot up our ass, but it never worked. [We] funked a hole in their chests.”
If you happened to be hanging around LA ‘s Sunset Strip during the late 70’s and early ’80s James and his Stone City crew cut an intimidating image. Their leader wore his head in long braids down to his back, talked shit and had the best drugs. James and his band looked like conquering, pillaging Vikings; all naturally over 6 feet tall and with prerequisite platform boots that only added to their towering frame.
More platinum plus albums followed: Bustin’ Out of L Seven (1979)…Fire It Up (1979). After discovering and producing white soul sister and R&B darling Teena Marie and forming the gold-selling Mary Jane Girls, Rick James enjoyed his highest charting and most commercially successful hit to date. 1981’s Street Songs ranked amongst the year’s biggest sellers moving over 4 million copies, a rare feat for a black act who rarely courted white pop radio. James’ mammoth crossover single “Super Freak” underlined his severely underrated industry power–a subversive tale of groupie sex, orgies, and numbing excess. MTV refused to play his videos claiming that James didn’t fit their rock oriented playlist. James called the new music cable network racist and happily counted the $500,000 he was getting per gig selling out stadiums (!!!) on his Street Songs tour. He even found time to fuel the Temptations’ comeback, writing and producing their funk-heavy hit “Standing on the Top.” James christened his groove “punk-funk,” a heavy nod to the new wave R&B synthesizer sound that was first unleashed by the Buffalo, New York native’s would be rival from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“Prince use to open up for us and wear his little ass high heels and shit,” James joked of his comical back-and-forth with the future superstar. The Purple One reportedly stole James’ girl Denise Matthews who he later re-made into “nasty girl” Vanity. James recounted that during his own birthday party while on tour he “walked up to [Prince], grabbed him by the back of the hair and poured cognac down his throat. He spit it out like a little BYTCH and I laughed and walked away. I loved fucking with him like that.” Fun times.
In fact James loved fucking with everybody. When he wasn’t doing copious amounts of cocaine on studio mixing boards and snorting blow off a knife with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as he arrogantly flaunted what he years later described to me as a $30 million net worth, he was slapping The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s Alfonso Ribeiro (AKA Carlton Banks) in the face outside a hotel on Sunset Boulevard as Mike Tyson looked on in utter astonishment. “What up nigga?” he tossed off to the feared champ. Only Rick James.
From there the story gets much darker. James’ face turned morose during our sit down as he detailed the drug abyss that soon lured him to crack cocaine. “The world knows I’m a addict, a junkie,” he said without an ounce of embarrassment. “The band kept three or four bottles of Jack, a bag full of Quaaludes. We didn’t know about the Betty Ford Clinic or any of that shit. We thought that’s how the rock & roll boys did it, so that’s how we should do it. My life was becoming insane and I suffered.”
Word around town was James’ mansion was becoming a full fledged crack house. And that his demons had demons. When he and a girlfriend were arrested in 1991 for two instances of “violently abusing women who refused to take part in group sex” (an out-of-control James allegedly burned a woman with a crack pipe), he was sentenced to five years and four months in prison. But even with such a dramatic fall from rock star glory, James never pulled the victim card. The man who survived a stroke that left his body in somewhat fragile health reveled in his survivor status. He joked of his 80/20 split he still earned from MC Hammer’s prodigious sampling of “Super Freak,” which fueled the dancing rapper’s ’90s mega hit “U Can’t Touch This.” James marveled at his return to the mainstream and talked excitedly of recording a new album.
Two months later, Rick James died of heart failure. There were reports that he had nine drugs in his system–one of them, ironically enough, cocaine. However, James’ death was still a shocking blow. Most fans viewed him through the same indestructible lens as the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. How could the hell raiser of his time pass on so uncharacteristically in his sleep?
But as Rick James said to me before his physical departure, shit happens. He’s not a man you will remember for how he left this earth. He’s a cat who you will always recall how he lived his life, warts and all. You will get turned up from his party-starting soundtracks and ponder what James’ legacy would have been like if he stayed as disciplined as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and his old touring partner Prince. And you will laugh at how Rick James racked up an obscene bill at a high-end Chinese spot and passed it on to you like it was an everyday compliment. “Let me know when you niggas want to do this again,” James said to me with a wink. He smiled. Ain’t that a bitch.--Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)