Bringing the Funk ‘N’ Roll: New Rick James Documentary Explores the Deep Complexity of the Music Legend
by Michael A. Gonzales
During my late ‘70s high school years when I was a student at Baltimore’s diverse Northwestern High School, I listened to a lot of rock and roll. I was more into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd than whatever was happening on Jet magazine’s Soul Brothers Top 20 chart. My brother teased me about being into “white boy music,” as he called it, unaware that brothers had pioneered the rock sound in the first place. However, sophomore year, in the fall of 1978, self-proclaimed “punk-funk” recording artist Rick James blew into my ears like a black tornado.
My first taste of James’ sound was from hearing his debut Motown single “You and I” blaring through baby bro’s bedroom door, but it wasn’t until the hard funk/soft soul swirl of “Mary Jane” that I was truly converted. “I thought he was singing about a pretty girl,” says rapper Ice Cube in Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and will soon air on Showtime.
Cube was only nine when “Mary Jane” was released, but, as a fan of Cheech & Chong and underground comix characters the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, I knew exactly what Brother James was singing about. Unlike today with artists freely singing/rapping about taking drugs, back in 1978, these things just weren’t done. Or, if it was done it was hippie freak rockers like Eric Clapton (“Cocaine”) or Ringo Starr (“The No No Song”), not a Motown man.
Although Rick James was already thirty-years old when his debut Come Get It! was released, what made him such a force was his Black Rebel Music that was catchy, funky and deviant. A fan of the Beatles, George Clinton and the Sex Pistols, the musical magic happened when he mixed those influences and sprinkled his own secret ingredients on top. While Motown had been a label of tuxes, charm school and choreographed dance moves, James wasn’t down with none of that. Of course, his post-hippie freakdom didn’t stop him from soon becoming the biggest artist on the label.
However, like Billie Holiday and Sly Stone before him, James’ history often focuses more on his vices and bad behavior than his studio prowess and bad-ass music. The genius of Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, directed by veteran journalist/filmmaker Sacha Jenkins, was the director’s crate digger prerogative of putting the music first. With that aesthetic as his guide Bitchin’ reminds me of a dope Wax Poetics or Mojo story as Jenkins goes deep into the musical tales from Stone City Band members, the Mary Jane Girls, music archivist Harry Weinger, friend/fellow musician Nile Rogers and academic Jason King, who compares James’s sound to a “funk grenade.”
James Ambrose Johnson Jr., Rick’s real name, was born on February 1, 1948. A native of the rough streets of Buffalo, New York, where his mama ran numbers and he was exposed to the wild side of life from an early age, he knew from childhood that he wanted to be both a professional musician and a star. James’ first sexual encounter happened when he was eight years old with a teenage babysitter; the encounter ended with mom walking in and beating-up the girl. Drugs, petty crimes and dropping out of school soon followed.
After being drafted into the Navy, he soon went AWOL and fled to Canada. It was in Toronto where he befriended then nobodies Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson and Neil Young, with whom he formed the folk-rock group the Mynah Birds. James sang lead sounding much like Mick Jagger and changed his name to Ricky to avoid being caught by military police. In a voiceover taken from an old interview, James recalled writing “R&B lyrics over Neil’s pretty chords.” The Mynah Birds was eventually signed to Motown Records. Though they recorded a few tracks for the label, in 1966, after their former manager snitched on James and he was arrested by the MPs, the Mynah Birds were dropped.
Eleven years later the brother was back inside the House of Gordy. Bigger and blacker than his Mynah Birds persona, he returned to Buffalo and, with the help of childhood friend Levi Ruffin Jr., put together the Stone City Band. James later said that Motown was the last company he approached, but with the 1978 release of Come Get It! on the subsidiary Gordy Records, he was finally headed for the level of stardom that he’d strived for since he was a boy. As one-time collaborator Big Daddy Kane says in Bitchin’, “Rick had a hard style…he was wildin’ on them songs.”
Simultaneously, Rick and the Stone City crew were also covered in glitter and sporting funk band costumes that today look like urban superhero gear. Although James released a few more albums and singles, it wasn’t until he returned to Buffalo with his band that he wrote and recorded demos for his masterwork Street Songs. Released on April 7, 1981, the autobiographical “Ghetto Life” (the title for the sharp as broken glass third single) disc was raw and funky, propelling James, at least temporally, into pop star territory. While Black America grooved to “Give It to Me Baby” and made love to “Fire and Desire,” featuring white chocolate protégé Teena Marie, who’d soon become a major star, white frat kids, according to Professor Todd Boyd, were blaring “Superfreak” across college campuses. “I hate that song,” Boyd says. As much as I dig the professor, I’m afraid he’s in the minority with that opinion.
In bursts of creativity, James produced exciting side projects for the Stone City Band, the Mary Jane Girls, Val Young, Teena Marie, The Temptations and Eddie Murphy. When asked about composing songs for women, Rick replied, “I could write for girls, because I’d been such as asshole to them, I could see the other side.”
He was also becoming more consumed by the rock star lifestyle of freaks, tweaks and a whole lot of cocaine. More than once in Bitchin’ it’s mentioned that the character “Rick James” had devoured the real man James Ambrose Johnson. Too much Bolivian marching powder led to creativity followed by craziness, paranoia, violent behavior, bad (or no) parenting and eventual decline. After James jumped on Motown’s label president Jay Lasker’s desk and waved his dick in the man’s face (for real ya’ll), it was over.
Former manager Kerry Gordy, son of Berry, says after that incident, Motown decided to concentrate on clean-cut Lionel Richie while kicking James to the curb. “Cocaine is a hell of a drug,” James said on Chappelle’s Show decades later during the 2004 sketch “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories: Rick James.” Two years later, after years of bad health, Rick James died on August 6, 2004 at the age of 56. Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James spends time on his beef with Prince, who he viewed as a protégé, and eventual incarceration for abusing women, but stellar director Sacha Jenkins never loses sight of the sound, that funk ‘n’ roll that Buffalo bro brought to the studio and stage. Rick James was maniac, but he was also a muthafunking musical genius, and Bitchin’ reinstates that fact perfectly.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music and culture since the 1980s. He has written for Vibe, Essence, The Source and Spin. Currently he writes true-crime features for CrimeReads, a book column (The Blacklist) for Catapult, essays for LongReads and music features for Wax Poetics. Forthcoming essay subjects include Octavia E. Butler, The Wire and Isaac Hayes. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.