Rick James

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)

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Christopher Polk

Mac Miller's 'Circles' Mirrors What Many Millennials Are Facing

Hip-hop savant Mac Miller’s death in Sept. 2018 shook the music world to pieces, because it was such a startling example of potential cut short after showing so much growth. Artistically, Mac ascended from early perceptions as a vapid frat rapper into a serious, well-rounded musician who offered soulful production, tender vocals, and was ambitious enough to bar up with hip-hop’s best lyricists and serve as a hub for some of Los Angeles’ most talented artists. But a big reason why his music was loved so much was because of his vulnerability: Mac created art that attempted to battle depression and substance abuse, which appear to have eventually taken his life. Swimming, the album he released less than two months before his death, saw him take on those demons face to face – and the new posthumous LP Circles, which  Miller’s family reveals was well into production at the time of his death, was meant to be a “companion” album to its predecessor, with a concept of “Swimming in Circles.” Such a sudden death will always haunt those who loved him, but Circles could give fans closure and healing that Mac seemed to never receive.

Circles embarks where Swimming ends with more exploration of self-discovery, seeking understanding, and working towards becoming a better person. Both records mirror what many millennials are currently facing when it comes to their mental health. Mac Miller was gripping with his desolation, battling his vices and dark thoughts, but pursuing peace and refusing to apologize for his mistakes. Despite knowing how his personal story ends, his honesty and vulnerability prompt you to root for him to make it to the other side. His confusion and frustration, like many millennials, are reflective of feeling defeated by waves of emotions with the understanding of the world as well as ourselves. According to a report released in 2019 by Blue Cross Blue Shield, millennials are seeing their physical and mental health decline faster than Generation X as they age. The report showed that depression found in American millennials increased by 30% between 2014 and 2017. However, unlike previous generations, adults between the ages of 23 to 38 have become open about their struggles with mental health. Mac Miller died at age 26, and Circles showcases his willingness to share his battles.

In a Buzzfeed article, written by Anne Helen Peterson explained how millennials are becoming the “Burnout Generation” from the intense pressure of emulating a life similar to our parents had. This isn’t surprising as many millennials have experienced the 2008 recession. After graduating, many found entry-level positions do not pay a livable wage. The constant news cycle being available to us through our phones, social media, the desperate need for a work/life balance, and the opioid epidemic have all been linked to the deterioration of this generation’s mental health. From the outside, Mac Miller seemed to have everything right – a successful career, the access to do what he’s passionate about, and money –  but his lyrics show that he was also dealing with being burned out like many of us. The most relatable song on the record is the synthy “Complicated,” where Mac laments the constant traffic running through his mind. “I’m way too young to be gettin’ old,” he tragically observes, questioning why he’s dealing with so much daily stress. In the following Disclosure-produced track “Blue World,” Mac honestly raps about the the ups and downs of depression: “think I lost my mind, reality’s so hard to find/when the devil tryna call your line.” Mac Miller was battling his opiate addiction and his breakup with pop star Ariana Grande during the creation of his final two albums, and Circles depicts a man exhausted from his constant hurdles.

The somber tone of Circles blends the jazz-hop of Divine Feminine (“Hand Me Down,” “Good News”), the lo-fi of Swimming (“Woods,” “Once a Day”) and indie rock vibes (“Everybody,” “That’s On Me”), similar to his Tiny Desk performance. “Blue World” and “Surf” are the only songs where you’ll hear Mac rapping, whereas the rest of the album shows his vocal range that sets the mood of his emotions. While the musicality certainly deserves some attribution to producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), who also worked on Swimming, it’s also a testament to Mac’s own artistic progression over the last ten years. He learned to use a variety of tools by the time of his death, and that was on display here.

The breezing tranquil rhythm of “That’s On Me” is one of the more positive vibes on the album, feeling content with what’s happening. Listening to the lyrics after knowing how this chapter ends is hard. “I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but I’ve been all right/I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight,” Mac says. With the beautiful production and his willful vocals, it makes us know that there was a time where he felt okay through it all.

Millennials are breaking the cycle of other generations that didn’t tend to their emotional and mental needs. Whether it’s through humorous memes on the internet or healing crystals and meditation, they’re finding new ways to develop self-care and improve their health. Circles and Swimming were therapeutic for Mac, a window into his psyche and his therapy sessions to see the multiple layers of who Malcolm could have been. Hopefully, they can help his fans process their pain as well.

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Kevin Mazur

Eminem Reignites His Rage With 'Music to Be Murdered By'

It became easy to hate on Eminem going into the 2010s. Starting with 2009’s Relapse, his first album in five years after taking time off to recover from drug addiction, the Detroit legend’s peerless mic wizardry became increasingly overshadowed by plodding production and below-the-belt potshots at pop stars. Never mind that that album contained some of Em’s most pristine, conceptually-driven bars; to a maturing fan base, the retreads of previous themes and a liberally-employed new accent missed the mark. And though Recovery seemed to be just that for him, culminating in some noteworthy hits like the Rihanna-assisted “Love the Way You Lie,” Marshall Mathers spent the rest of the last decade releasing a series of uninspiring missteps leading up to 2017’s forgettable Revival. Fortunately, Music to Be Murdered By is an ably produced late-career triumph, with some of Eminem’s most poignant and exquisitely crafted lyrics in in recent memory.

What better backdrop for Eminem’s refocused angst than that which is invoked by the shoveled-dirt sounds and an eerie drop—announcing the album’s macabre title—by a Hitchcockian narrator on the intro? From jump, it’s a way of keeping things fresh and thematically consistent for a potentially daunting 20-song stretch. Suddenly those lazy strays by far too many on Rap Twitter at his supposedly lame “skippity be bop de boo” rhyme patterns seem moot when the 8 Mile representative comes off newly enlivened in his grown-man vent, with one of the best openers since Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” Over woofer-caving bass and a dramatic organ, he spits, “They said that they hated the awake me/I lose the rage, I’m too tame/I get it back, they say I’m too angry.” It’s thrilling to hear him sounding this focused—no funny voices or childish slurs—while defending the humorous and reflective aspects of his legacy and persona.

The former aspect is on display on “Unaccommodating,” his link-up with Young M.A, the first of several well-placed features here. Em’s lighthearted lines—in all their hacked-algorithm complexity—about “getting head like a Pillow Pet” blend unusually well with the Brooklynite’s loose, languid flow. And far from the workmanlike thud of past Slim Shady beats, the song’s hypnotic, bells-driven melody adds some much-needed verve and bounce, helping modernize and stabilize a beloved MC whose verbiage tends toward rigid and caffeinated.

“Cause, see, they call me a menace and if the shoe fits, I'll wear it. But if it don't, then y'all will swallow the truth, grin and bear it” #Renegade #MusicToBeMurderedBy pic.twitter.com/2aIFk2kz8a

— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) January 23, 2020

But those revitalized hijinks of Em’s soon give way to some of the headier material that one one would expect on such a darkly-themed project. “You Gon’ Learn,” with a guest spot from Royce da 5’9”, is a moving meditation on the inevitability of struggle. Whereas his longtime friend recalls his past with alcoholism, Marshall ruminates on the existential dilemma of being white and poor in a Chocolate City: “Didn't have knots, I was so broke/On my last rock, for my slingshot/Better haul ass, don't be no slow poke/Through the tall grass, run your ass off/Oh no, got your pants caught on the fence post/Getting chased, by them Jackboys.” These sepia-toned snapshots, emboldened by world-weary synths and hard snares, bristle with a fuming blue-collar furor, reminding us once again of Em’s remarkable triumphs over adversity.

But what about those well-crafted bars? Not only does Music to Be Murdered By possess them in spades, it also astoundingly manages to bring the ever-illusive third verse back to the forefront. Its inclusion on “Yah Yah” is obvious, if not expected alongside such heavyweight spitters as Black Thought and, again, Royce da 5’9,” though Em makes it indelible: “And I'm like a spider crawlin' up your spinal column/I'm climbin' all up the sides of the asylum wall/And dive in a pile of Tylenol, you're like a vagina problem/To a diabolical gynecologist tryna ball a fist.” More surprising, however, is “Lock It Up,” a hit waiting to happen, which features Anderson .Paak and a third verse whose heading-spinning quatrain (“Get a whiff of the doctor's medicine/Like sedatives you'll get popped, Excedrin/'Cause you can get it like over the counter/Like I just left the damn concession stand”) seems all the more outstanding amid Dr. Dre’s lucid and infectious guitar stabs.

Less a radio-ready earworm than a morbid monologue, “Darkness” is a tragic narrative in the tradition of “Stan.” In under six minutes, Eminem embodies a deranged shooter, self-medicating backstage with Valium and alcohol before opening fire on his audience then killing himself. The song ends, significantly, with Eminem highlighting gun debate loopholes and playing news clips from the 2017 Mandalay Bay Hotel shooting in Las Vegas as well as the 2019 shooting in Daytona, Ohio among others. This is social commentary with the subtle implication that white male privilege in this country far too often hides an unchecked anxiety, along with the observation that these mass shooters aren't as far from us as we may think. It may fall flat with some listeners since just several songs earlier he makes a punchline out of the deadly bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, but for an artist who has previously likened himself to the Columbine shooters, the song is growth.

A more suitable conduit is the punk-rock-like Stepdad,” where Marshall blows up on his guardian for abusing him and and his mom to the point where “I’m startin’ to think I’m psychotic.” What would otherwise serve as a welcome reprieve, “Those Kinda Nights,” a saccharine ode to hitting up the strip club, with Ed Sheeran on the hook, falls flat. It’s not that we don’t want to hear Shady at his ease; it’s just that with such a formulaic setup (not to mention a clunky line about D12 member Bizarre and a lap dance—something no one really ever needs to visualize, no disrespect), it dissipates some of the album’s bullet-point intensity.

That eye-of-the-tiger ferocity is, thankfully, flexed on “Little Engine,” which revisits the zany worldview introduced on his debut some 20 years ago with bars like, “I'm still the one that your parents hate/I’m in your house eatin' carrot-cake/While I sit there and wait and I marinate/I'm irritated, you 'bout to meet a scary fate/And come home to find yourself starin' straight into a fuckin' barrel like Sharon Tate.” Elsewhere, “Marsh” mines a similarly combative mode while showcasing more breathtaking internal rhymes: “A pad and pen'll be great, but a napkin'll do/Return of the whack sicko/Head spinnin' like Invisibl Skratch Piklz/Yeah, Shady's back, see the bat signal.”

But it’s “I Will,” which boasts the remaining Slaughterhouse members, that marks his newfound penchant for score settling. Here, instead of coming for R&B songstresses who are for the most part defenseless against him, Eminem trains his sights, finally, on someone who’s fit for the smoke. In a blistering swipe at former Brand Nubian and frequent VladTV affiliate Lord Jamar, he observes: “Yeah, your group was off the chain, but you were the weakest link.” If it seems like presumption to go at one of the culture’s pioneers like that, it’s thanks to a buildup of bad vibes that have long been brewing between the two. It’s a sentiment he echoes in the aforementioned “Lock It Up,” where he addresses the proverbial elephant in the room, regarding Joe Budden’s exit from Slaughterhouse, degradingly referring to the podcast host as “Trader Joe.” Eminem doesn’t merely get mad here; with Music to Be Murdered By, he also gets even.

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Premiere: 12-Year-Old Rap Princess That Girl Lay Lay Introduces Tha Slay Gang With Fun "Long Hair" Video

It all started with some freestyle raps in her Dad's car that went viral on social media, now Houston's 12-year-old superstar rapper, Alaya High aka That Girl Lay Lay, is poised to take over the teen market and y'all grown-ups need to watch ya back too!

With an infectious hook game and bars that topple stars, Lay Lay burst onto the scene in 2018 with a crowd pleasing appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. That's the same year she dropped her Tha Cheat Code music project to adoring fans that were clamoring for a full body of work from the energetic artist. Having laid claim to signing a record deal as the youngest female rapper ever to her own label, Fresh Rebel Muzik/EMPIRE, Lay Lay is wasting no time in bringing her girls on this ride with her.

Pushing their first single, "Long Hair," Lay Lay and her two bouncy "Tha Slay Gang" group members, Sweets (hailing from South Carolina) and Sugar (repping North Carolina), are sure to dominate every pre-teen birthday, graduation and youth celebration party from here on out. The uptempo track is fun, super engaging and chorus friendly for the hyper masses. Lay Lay explains, "This is one of my favorite songs because its fun and something everyone can dance to. It’s about my friends 'Tha Slay Gang' and I sticking together, working hard and not getting into any drama! We try to demote bullies, and show the world that working hard pays off.”

The video takes place at a neon'd out roller skating rink, with the ladies leading a group of kids in a lit chant of the vocals and letting off one liners galore like: "I don't want no drama/If you go dumb then I'mma go dumber/hot girl winters and hot girl summers/If you knew me Daddy I'm Balenciaga Momma!" Just got to love the kids.

Check for Lay Lay in national tv commercial campaigns with Old Navy

and Mitsubishi.

So much more is on the way for this uber talented MC.

 

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