Black Music Month: Rick James !@#$%

How fitting was it that I was celebrating my 26th birthday in a strip club when I found out that Rick James passed away? After the initial shock, my birthday gave way to the “Rick James Superfreak Memorial Celebration”, and stretched out over the next six days. It just seemed right, seemed like it was the proper way to remember a man whose music meant so much to me. I don’t think anyone’s been able to grasp my appreciation of Rick James’ music; I don’t refer or listen to it as much as Stevie Wonder or Teddy Pendergrass or Marvin Gaye, but it’s right there in my heart amongst those giants and others.
Among my first musical memories is my mom listening to her Street Songs album and just like everyone else I was drawn in, even at age 2 or 3, I knew it was good. Maybe it was the fact that he didn’t look like anyone else on the album covers I routinely looked through beneath the family stereo. He was standing there in a neighborhood that looked familiar, looking so unfamiliar, with long braids, a leather suit and red knee-high boots. Looking back, it wasn’t the most masculine of looks, but it was the 80’s and the music is all that mattered.

As forgettable as the fashion was, the music on Street Songs has left an indelible mark on Black music, Black America and this Black man. “Give it to Me Baby” and “Superfreak” are classics that have been looped, sampled, interpolated and everything that producers can do in the studio, but “Fire and Desire” is timeless. I don’t know any music lovers that don’t rank the song among their favorites. Street Songs is a direct representation of Rick James, gritty, troublesome, passionate, freaky and wild ­--- the recipe of the tragedy that became his life.
Rick’s extreme personality and experimentation with drugs led to an addiction that robbed us of great music and him of the better part of his life. After Street Songs, there were good songs here and there, but never a collection as cohesive. I suppose it’s no coincidence that the “Mary Jane” he sang of back in the 70’s had given way to a dependency on freebase cocaine and then crack. The reckless abandon he’d shown in the studio spilled over into his life and run-ins with the law were soon to follow. In the subsequent years he spent more time in the news or in court, then prison, than he spent on the radio, at least new music, good new music.

The bizarre ride that had become Rick James’ life came to a screeching halt when he was convicted of holding a woman against her will and forcing her to perform sex acts, burning her with a crack pipe and assaulting her. He was already out on a bail for a similar charge and spent the next few years in Folsom State Penitentiary reflecting on what his life had become. After being released in 1996 he worked on Urban Rapsody in an attempt to recapture his greatness in the studio, but the drugs, the years away had taken the best of him.
Though there was a gem of a song here and there, the album didn’t bring him back to the forefront of Black culture, that came years later courtesy of “Chappelle’s Show” and the sketches of Charlie Murphy retelling stories from the wild days with Chappelle acting as James. That sketch has become classic, partly because of Chappelle’s comedic brilliance, but mostly because of Rick’s commentary. “Cocaine is a helluva drug” became a wildly popular catchphrase, along with “I’m Rick James bitch!” and once again, Rick was everywhere. He began a tour with Teena Marie, they sang portions of “Fire and Desire” before giving out an award at the 2004 BET Awards and he punctuated that appearance with, “I’m Rick James bitch!” He was dead less than two months later.

His health had deteriorated over the years, undoubtedly due to the years of drug abuse, but a stroke in 1997 mixed with diabetes, a heart attack and the fact that he was still using drugs along with various medications led to the heart failure that took his life. I sat in a booth in the club for a few moments remembering the music, the letter I wrote to him after the release of Urban Rapsody and then kept the party going, like Rick James would do…

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