By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Rick James' career never stopped — how could it, what with all
the rappers sampling his songs? — it was just put on hold for a
couple of years.
“I wasn't dead. I was just in prison,'' James said in an
interview from his Los Angeles home this week. “I was still in the
minds of the people — I just wasn't functioning. Now I'm back, and
I did an album and I'm on tour. That's all I've ever done.''
Since the 1960s that's indeed all he's ever done. James' career
spans the whole of modern R&B, from his beginnings in a Toronto
band called the Mynah Birds (which included rocker Neil Young, of
all people) through his steady stream of hits in the late '70s and
early '80s — most notably, “Super Freak'' — to his most recent
reincarnation as a slightly more humble but no less powerful Mack
It's a life to reckon with, for sure, but James had more to
reckon with in the '90s, making more headlines than music. After
some problems with drug addiction, he wound up jailed on assault
charges and served nearly three years in a California prison.
Fortunately, James emerged from his sentence a sober man --
literally and figuratively.
“Jail was rough. It was like being in the middle of a Ku Klux
Klan meeting,'' James said. “I've never been one for people to be
telling me when to eat and when to shower and how to walk, and that
(stuff) went on for three years. It was a very degrading state, but
it was a curse that turned out to be a blessing.
“The experience brought racism into my life all over again. I
grew up in a working-class town (Buffalo, N.Y.), in the ghetto, and
I knew about racism then, but I became successful and never
encountered that anymore. I was totally removed from that. Prison
slapped that back in my face real quick. There are some racist,
sadistic, ignorant (people) in the world.''
James was bitter about the experience at first, but that soon
gave way to hope. During his incarceration, he wrote nearly 400
songs — “some political, some spiritual, some sexual, some
Fifteen of those new songs are on James' newest release, “Urban
Rapsody'' from the Mercury and Private I record labels. (Private I
was launched by Joe Isgro, a former indie record promoter whose
1986 arrest on payola charges shook the music business. The charges
were dropped last year, and both men are eager to put their legal
entanglements behind them.) The first single, “Player's Way,''
features Snoop Doggy Dogg. Throughout the record and its liner
notes, James emphasizes his desire to return to his “urban roots.''
Roots, though, are just what many in the current crop of R&B
kingpins are lacking, James said. Despite a slight debt to many for
keeping the idea of Rick James alive through samples of his riffs
and phrases, James is not at all impressed with the state of R&B
“I think it's pretty ... weak,'' he said. “I'm not thrilled
with what the young kids are doing. How can I be? I miss the
melodies in the songs, the lyrics — all these kids are doing is
sampling other people's (stuff) and trying to sound like Stevie
Wonder or Charlie Wilson. I can't appreciate that ... Most people I
grew up with had a vast knowledge of music, lyrical structure and
melody, and they played instruments. These kids have licks but no
melodic sense. But they're making money, so where do you draw the
Case in point: M.C. Hammer's “U Can't Touch This,'' a 1990 hit
built on the sampled riff from James' “Super Freak.'' The sample
was legit, and James made a nice chunk of change when the single
hit No. 1, but he's not thrilled about it.
“(Heck) no I wasn't impressed with that (garbage). I was
impressed with the money I made, and I was baffled that that song
could come back and make so much money, but I was shocked more than
anything. Hammer didn't come to me, he went through my company. If
he'd come to me, I would have refused him. After that, I told my
people that I didn't want anymore rappers using my stuff. The
(rappers) should come up with their own material.''
James launched his own career by trying to come up with his own
material — something new and innovative. He recognized from the
beginning that infusing R&B with other genres would not only create
that new sound but open him to a much wider audience. Working with
a base of Parliament-Funkadelic groove, James began adding rock,
soul, jazz and even classical elements to his songs.
The result was a long and varied — if not always as innovative
as he'd hoped — career featuring numerous hits in addition to the
“Super Freak'' smash, songs like “You and I,'' “Give It to Me
Baby'' and “Fire and Desire,'' a duet with Teena Marie many
consider one of the finest love ballads in R&B.
Other songs showed James deftly applying his hybrid techniques.
“Fool on the Street,'' for instance, is a smooth R&B number with a
decided Latin influence. “Dance With Me'' uses vibes to create a
clear jazz mood. “Mary Jane'' — a song about marijuana which
James said he still sings (“I Still sing it, I just won't smoke
it'') — mixes R&B with rock 'n' roll, a formula that brought James
most of his success.
“George Clinton was always an inspiration to me, and we're very
close,'' James said. “He was always experimenting with new sounds,
new textures, and it always enthralled me the way he could mix,
like, sci-fi with funk.
“I always wanted to take that groove to a new level. Like the
Beatles took rock to a new level, I wanted to do the same to R&B
... I didn't want to be stereotyped into the R&B genre. I'm not a
funk artist, and I don't like being labeled a funk artist. That's
too small a world. I want to do more than that.''
It must have worked. Most R&B stars today speak reverently of
James as the original bad boy. Even the late Marvin Gaye once said
of him, “I studied Rick's writing and stole some of his licks. We
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.