On the Good Foot

Funkster Rick James learns how hard it is to remain hip.

When Rick James was at the height of his fame, he was a super freak. When he was addicted to cocaine and crack, he was a super freak, too--so freaky, in fact, that he wound up in Folsom Prison for an extended stretch. But is James still a super freak after undergoing hip-replacement surgery?

James answers this question in the affirmative as far as his music is concerned. He's just completed a new recording that he describes as "a concept funk album--hardcore Rick," and he insists that the latest version of the Stone City Band, his longtime backup group, brings out the sweat in "Super Freak (Part 1)," his signature smash, and the rest of his highly sexed extravaganzas. Moreover, he contends that the operation on his hip--a procedure that's associated more with brittle octogenarians than with fifty-year-olds apparently in the full bloom of health--hasn't slowed him down one whit: "I had the surgery this winter, and right now, finally, I'm out of pain and moving around great." On the personal front, though, he swears that his freakiest days are behind him. He was once among the music industry's most notorious serial philanderers, but these days he says he's a happily married monogamist hopelessly devoted to his son Tazman, age six.

"He's really my heart," James declares. "In the old days, I'd be out all the time in clubs, in party situations, getting high. But now I spend as much time as I can relaxing with Tazman and my wife or working. Now it's more about the business."

The comeback hill can be a tough one to climb, as James understands full well: Urban Rapsody, a post-prison disc issued in 1997 on Private I/Mercury, was a sales stiff. But James isn't about to let that disappointment prevent him from regaining his rightful place in the entertainment firmament. He's allowed his story to be told in a VH1 biography, and he's done so himself in Confessions of a Super Freak, a coyly titled autobiography he expects to be on bookstore shelves in 1999 (a publisher is still pending). In addition, he's looking forward to releasing his as-yet-untitled successor to Rapsody on a label he's in the process of starting.

"It's something that I've wanted to do all my life," James says, "but because of doing so many drugs and getting so high, I was never able to concentrate on it, even when I was working with all these bands and I should have. But I've been watching Puff Daddy and some of these young guys doing what I should have done in the Seventies and Eighties--fulfilling my dreams--and I was like, 'What the fuck?' I mean, I know how to do it, and at this point, I don't have too much to lose."

This attitude has served James well throughout a career that's had more peaks and valleys than the Himalayas. The Buffalo, New York, household where he grew up under his given moniker, James Johnson, was musically eclectic: His mother loved classic jazz, while his older sister spun the rock-and-roll and R&B blockbusters of the day. But music hardly anchored him: By the early Sixties, he had already been expelled from several schools. He later joined the U.S. Naval Reserves, but when he began to chafe under its restrictions, he went AWOL. After fleeing to Toronto to escape punishment, he rechristened himself Ricky Matthews and fell in with local musicians such as Neil Young, with whom he played in a band dubbed the Mynah Birds. The group was signed by Motown and cut a handful of tunes, but the tracks were never released; according to James, the company withdrew its support after learning that he was a wanted man. James says he eventually turned himself in to American authorities and spent some time in the brig for his sins. He later returned to music, narrowly missing another opportunity at a commercial breakthrough with a band of his own, White Cane. (MGM inked the outfit but never issued any material by it.) But his persistence paid off in 1977, when a collection of demos he'd made with the assistance of the Brecker Brothers was purchased by, of all companies, Motown. The platter, 1978's Come Get It, sold over a million units on the strength of James's first Top 40 entry, "You and I," and "Mary Jane," a love letter to marijuana.

Harder stuff followed. In 1979 James turned heads with another big-selling single, "Bustin' Out"--a title that vibrated with irony when it was attached to a best-of collection put out in 1994, while he was in the hoosegow. But his biggest year was 1981, when he followed up the R&B chart-topper "Give It to Me Baby" with "Super Freak (Part 1)," a blast of cartoony hedonism that was closer to reality than anyone outside of James's circle realized. For a while, the dizzying rate at which he consumed both drugs and women didn't affect his work--he kept his string of radio favorites going with "Cold Blooded" and "17," and he produced a slew of others with artists such as Teena Marie, the Temptations, the Mary Jane Girls and comedian Eddie Murphy, whose dopey ditty "Party All the Time" shocked most people with fully functioning ears by going platinum in 1985. (Murphy recently returned the favor by giving James a featured part in Life, a buddy movie with Martin Lawrence due in theaters next year.)

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