Wednesday, August 13, 2008
HONORING PUNK-FUNK LEGEND RICK JAMES: THE INDUSRTY'S ORIGINAL SUPER FREAK
At the 2004 BET Awards, Funk and Motown legends Rick James and Teena Marie had the crowd on its feet while they performed their 1981 radio hit “Fire and Desire.” which had been dubbed as one of Motown’s sweetest love songs. After they presented original Destiny’s Child lead vocalist Beyonce Knowles with her award for Best R&B Female, James went to a spare microphone, and spoke about how a female staff member disrespected him by refusing him entry into the arena. Known for being outspoken, and outrageous, James decided to let her know he wasn’t the one to be fucked with.
“I’m Rick James bitch!” he said, before he left the stage, and left the audience in stitches including Actress/Comediene Mon’ique who couldn’t hold her composure. Ever since actor/comedian Dave Chappelle’s did a parody of the legend during his drug haze that landed him in prison for two years, that punch line became one of the most used and popular punch lines in popular culture, and when the Punk Funk used it on BET, not only was it funny, it let many in the audience know that one must respect a legend, but sadly it was the last time that anybody would see Rick doing his thing. Five weeks later, James, the music pioneer who was one of the most sampled musicians in music history was had died as he slept in his California home. His death was a tremendous loss to the industry, and while some remember him for the Chappelle parody, we must not forget the man’s talent, and contributions to music history.
James was born as James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. on February 1, 1948 in Buffalo, New York to the late Mabel Betty Gladden as one of eight children, who raised James and his siblings by working as a maid and numbers runner for the Mafia. His mother, who many in the industry would affection ally call Ma also had a love for music, which was the strong bond that held them together. He was also related to former congressman Louis Stokes. By the time he was into his early teens, Rick had began to sing on street corners to get attentions from the project girls, and some of the songs he would sing were by The Temptations, whose original bass singer Melvin Franklin was his uncle. His was the cousin of former Congressman He would also get into trouble for stealing cars, and skipping school, which landed him into juvenile hall and detention.
By the mid 1960’s the Vietnam war had began to become serious, and to avoid the draft, Rick decided to join the Marine corps, but his passion for music, and intolerance for not taking to orders, lead him to leave, and go AWOL and head to Canada, where he formed many singing groups including The Mynah Birds, which featured future members of the group Stepping Wolf, and Neil Young, who would later find success as a part of Crosby, Still, Young & Nash. “ “It‘s funny, but whenever somebody hears that me and Neil Young was in the same band together, everybody sort of laughs and snickers“ James said on “Behind The Music” “People gotta understand that music is color-blind.” The group migrated to Detroit and signed with Motown Records, and recorded many songs including “The Mynah Birds Hop” and “It’s My Time” which began to create a buzz, but came to an unexpected halt. Rick & Neil had dropped their manager after they had an argument over money, and as form of retaliation, their manager informed the label about Rick’s military obligation, so the label told Rick to finish his time.
After he completed his time, he returned to Motown and began to write songs for The Miracles, The Marveletes, and Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, as well as developed his talents as a producer. It was there where Rick learned the importance of copyrights and publishing, the knowledge would benefit him throughout his career, and though he had talent, fellow producer-songwriter Norman Whitfield encouraged Rick not to sign with the label because of the label’s favoritism and shadiness.
He then went to California, India and Europe, and searched for the direction he wanted to head into musically. After he returned to the States, he rounded up a bunch of musicians, and recorded some demos, and went to California to shop a deal, and the label that showed the most interest was Motown, a label he wasn’t pleased with signing with. “Motown had so many people doing so many things. There was people who would watch what they say. They would watch what they wear.” He said on Motown 40 about the label‘s grooming system. Rick decided that he was going to be original, and wasn‘t going to succumb to the label‘s clean-cut image. “I was going there to funk. (And) I‘m coming in there to Rock and Roll. I don‘t need that shit. I‘m gonna say what I wanna to say.” Influenced by Rock, Funk and Soul, he combined all the genres into one, and called his music Punk Funk and Funk & Roll. “It was incredible, but it wasn’t your typical Motown sound” legendary Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, said on “Behind The Music.” It was different and it was hot." de Passe decided to sign him, after former staff producer Jeffrey Bowen, persistently played her Rick’s demo, and in 1978, Rick released his debut album “Come Get It” which quickly went platinum, while his debut single “You & I” topped the R&B Charts, followed by “Mary Jane” a song that was about his love for marijuana. He followed with “Bustin’ Out” and singles “High on Your Love” and “Love Gun” and embarked on his first tour, which made him one of the most talked about entertainers of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Rick and his band the Stone City Band had long braided hair with beads, and in addition to playing keyboards, and guitar, Rick also flaunted his sexual antics and drug use on stage and in certain states, he would smoke weed on stage, which made him a hit with in the urban community. “Between his long braided locks and lyrics that celebrated sex and drugs, he was everything you couldn’t have been at Motown a decade before” Otis Williams the only surviving founder member of the Temptations wrote in his memoirs “Temptations.” “He was hot and erotic, and that was what I loved about him” BBOP, the host of the Beautiful Boys of Pride network and pod cast. said about Rick’s ability to be open and honest in his music. “His music basically paved the way for the artist today to be able to sing about whatever they want to sing about. Rick James was the pioneer that fought to get the doors open for free expression.” “I think it was a part of him being himself.” DJ Baker, host of Da Doo Dirty Show said. ”He was a sexual type person and that’s what he gave off. If you like Rick James, you liked the fact he was sexual.”
In addition to writing for himself, he wrote for his band, and for Teena Marie, a white female singer who he discovered one day while hanging at Motown’s studios. After they met, James received a call from her manager who asked to produce her album, and after he received her demos, he jumped at the change. “Never in my life had I heard such range with so much passion in a white voice” James wrote in his post death published memoirs “Memoirs of a Super Freak.” “Rick knew there were feelings in my heart and songs upon my lips” Marie said in the Billboard Books of Number One Rhythm & Blues Singles. “He didn’t say, ‘This is a white girl, I can’t produce her because he doesn’t think in those terms."
The label released Marie’s album “Wild and Peaceful” without her photograph on the cover so the public could wonder whether Marie was Black or White. The album did well with their hit duet “I’m A Sucker for Love” a song intended for former Supremes lead singer Diana Ross and “déjà vu.” James also encouraged Marie to write and producer her next album and like her mentor, she did her music her way.
In 1980, Rick decided to record an album of ballads, which barely went gold, and it was when his family, band and friends told him he had to get back to his funk roots, so he returned to the studio to record “Street Songs” which went double platinum and was named the second-selling Black album of all time. “I had to get back to the smell” he said on VH-1. “Funk. Streets. Pimps. Hos. Gangsters. Black. Soul food. Collard greens. Black-eye peas. Candied Yams. I had to get back to the roots. I had sold all these albums and to do the “Garden of Love” and have an album barely new for me. It was a humbling experience for me.” “He relied on not only me, but on the band as a foundation for everything he did musically” Oscar Alston bassist for The Stone City Band told Jet Magazine. “He accepted our input and that was an honor when you work with someone you consider a musical genius. “
“He was a walking encyclopedia of music” Danny LeMelle the leader of James‘ horn section The Punk Funk Horns and music director who Rick told blow Danny on his classic single “Super Freak” added in Jet. “The album scored many hits including “Give It to Me Baby,” “Super Freak” and “Fire And Desire” a duet with Marie which became one of music most popular duets that still gets played on R&B radio. “I think that song expressed a lot” New York City Socialite Eric J. Parker, 22said about the ballad. “If you really listen to the lyrics, it’s very deep and very emotional.” The duet was the highlight on the tour which was also dubbed one of the biggest Black grossing tours in history. Inspired by his success, Motown asked him to produce a song for The Temptations, who had sung background on his album and the single “Standing On The Top” peaked at number 6, and made him the only artist to have all the surviving Temptations (including original lead singers Eddie Kendricks, and David Ruffin, who had re-joined the group) on a record. “I couldn’t help but to think back to when I was a kid in Buffalo singing their songs on a street corner” Rick wrote in his autobiography. “Now here I was showing David, Eddie, Dennis, Melvin and Otis what I wanted them to sing and how. It was amazing.”
In 1983, Rick had opened his recording studio, and released his album “Cold Blooded” which featured him using more synsersizers and bass, went multi-platinum and produced many hits including the title track, Ebony Eyes with former label mate Smokey Robinson, “Tell Me (What U Want)” With Billy Dee Williams. It also featured the song “P.I.M.P. The S.I.M.P.” with Grandmaster Flash, the first song to feature a singer and rap act together on record. He also formed and produced The Mary Jane Girls and Do-Rags and Process, with the former group scoring with “All Night Long” which is still played on radio and in clubs.
While he gave the girls a chance, he was also responsible for Blacks having their videos played on MTV. James spoke out about MTV’s racism and refusal to air videos by Black artists who having major success of both the Pop and R&B charts.
“MTV was supposed to play Top Forty groups.” he wrote in his memoirs. "Their policy was to play Urban Contemporary, Top Forty stuff. Linda Rondstant could sing “Ooh Baby, Baby” but when it came to Smokey Robinson, MTV said “No Go.” I had had enough, and was going to bring MTV into the light, no matter what the cost-and believe me, it cost me plenty.” James did intensive research, surveys and interviews with one the network’s Black VJ’s and learned that a major company formed the network as a tax-write off, and recruited Bob Pittman to be program director to hire and fire Blacks and not to air any Black videos. Once the press wind of the situation, MTV began to add Blacks to their play lists, though they didn't play any of his videos.
1985 was another huge year for James professionally. The Mary Jane Girls single “In My House” became a top ten Pop hit, while Rick’s first drug-free album “Glow” went multi-platinum. He also wrote and produced comedian Eddie Murphy’s debut single “Party All the Time” which peak at # 2, and made Murphy the first Black Comedian to score a top five Pop hit, but the feeling didn’t last. He resorted to free-basing crack cocaine,, and alienating and verbally abusing his band, who decided to leave. He also had major conflicts with Motown over money, and creative control; Motown wanted Rick to release more Pop-orientated material instead of political and sexual lyrically songs. After he released his last album for the label, he decided to leave, which resulted in the label suing James for breach of contract, and James countersuing for stealing his royalties and The Mary Jane Girls from him. James won his countersuit for a large undisclosed amount, and signed with Reprise Records and stuck gold with his album “Wonderful” and single “Loosey’s Rap” with Rap legend Roxanne Shante.
Two years later, MC Hammer scored a # 1 hit with his single “U Can’t Touch This” which sampled James’s classic “Super Freak” and became the biggest selling rap songs of all time. It also won both acts Grammy Awards. Other artists had begun to sample his music including Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, but Rick was too busy spending most of his time partying, abusing crack-cocaine and having sex with various women in his California Mansion. On August 2, Rick and his girlfriend Tanya Hijazi were arrested after a female claimed that the couple had attacked her with a crack pipe, handgun, and forced her to have oral sex. Though James admitted that he had sex with her, he denied that he or Tanya assaulted her; she had gotten the bruises from her pimp after he learned she was hanging with the legend.
The couple was released on a million dollars bail, and faced life in prison. A month later, his beloved mother died from cancer, which pushed him further into drugs along with Hijazi giving birth to their son Tazman in May 1992. A few months later, the couple were charged with attacking record executive Mary Saughter in a Hollywood hotel, during a business meeting, and according to James’ memoirs, the meeting got heated when both Saughter and Hijazi got into an argument, with Hijazi getting kicked in her stomach and later miscarrying their second child. Rick said that was the reason why he attacked her. The District Attorney decided to combine both cases together, and in 1993, Rick was sentenced to five years in Folsom Prison for assault and drug possession.
“I couldn’t go to a bathroom or use body hand lotion to wash up with or order Kentucky Fried Chicken, if I wanted it. All your pleasures and gifts are gone.” he said of his time in prison.
“The price is high when you don’t see your family and when you don’t have no freedom.”
As he did his time, he composed over 300 songs and began to write his memoirs, while singers and rappers continued to sample his music including Mary J. Blige, Redman, Mack 10 and Salt-N-Pepa who each sampled “All Night Long,“ “Mary Jane” and “Give It To Me Baby” for their singles “Mary Jane,“ “Can’t Wait,” “Chocolate Thai,” and “Gitty Up” while singers Johnny Gill & Coco remade “Fire and Desire” for the “Booty Call” soundtrack.” “I don’t think Hip-Hop appreciates Rick James and his contributions to Hip-Hop” radio host DJ Baker said when asked if rappers who sample his music respect his contributions to music.
In 1996, Rick was released, from prison, and began to work on his, CD “Urban Rhapsody” which gained positive reviews. He also reunited with The Stone City Band, and embarked on his first tour since 1985, and let the new jacks know that the Funk pioneer was back to reclaim his throne,. “I’m one of those kinds of people, once you give up on me, that’s when I come back at you.” he said about his comeback. James also starred in the hit film “Life” with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence and also recorded songs for the “Money Talk” Soundtrack and re-released his classic album “Street Songs” with an unreleased live album recorded during his 1981 tour.
In 2004, Rick was presented the heritage award at the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Awards for his contributions to music by Motown founder Berry Gordy, who acknowledged him for taking the label into a new direction. Rick had also completed his memoirs, and in addition to working on new music, had plans to tour with Marie, and The Stone City Band, but on August 6, 2004, James was found dead by his longtime assistant Linda Hunt. He had died from heart failure due to many health issues including diabetes, stroke and having a pacemaker. There were also small traces of cocaine and prescription drugs found in system. Close to ten thousand family, members, friends, and colloquies attended his memorial services that were held in Los Angeles and his hometown of Buffalo, where he was cremated and buried.
In 2007, both his autobiography Memoirs of a Super Freak” and album “Deeper Still” were released, and next month a documental film co-executive produced by his daughter Ty is scheduled to hit theatres with appearances from actors Charles Murphy and Dave Chappelle.
Rick James was a talented and innovative man who made timeless music for fans to dance and to have sex too. He was also a generous man, who accepted people of all races, background and sexual orientations, and had low tolerance for disrespect from anybody and he made no apologies for speaking his mind against people who was so quick to be judgmental.