On the Good Foot

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

But by the Eighties' end, James had fallen out of favor--and when he returned to the limelight in 1990, he did so only because rapper MC Hammer had used "Super Freak" as the basis for the wildly successful "U Can't Touch This." Although James was initially incensed by what he regarded as Hammer's piracy of his creation, he calmed down after he was rewarded a co-songwriting credit in an out-of-court settlement. But he remains torn over hip-hop's tendency to move into the future by borrowing from the past.

"It's very flattering when I hear young artists redo songs and sample," he says. "Financially, it's fantastic, and, of course, ego-wise and vanity-wise, it's really nice to hear someone do your stuff--so that's all good. But in another way, I wish that young rappers and samplers would take rap and hip-hop to another level, as opposed to them redoing 'Mary Jane' and 'Give It to Me Baby' and all that shit. It's fun what they do with it, but I just think if a lot of them would learn instruments and learn how that flow really goes, they could make hip-hop more than it is now.

"I think hip-hop is kind of drowning itself out," he continues. "It's getting very repetitive, because when you turn on a hip-hop station anymore, really what you're hearing are the greatest hits of funk artists--and I think that's insane. It's fucking bewildering to me."

On the other hand, James concedes, his drug-fueled descent makes perfect sense. "You've got to remember, I was doing cocaine and shit in the early Seventies all the way up to the Nineties, and most of that time is a blur. I remember all the adulation and the accolades and things like the Grammy awards [he was nominated for 1981's Street Songs but didn't win]. And I remember doing things like selling out three nights at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and then coming back and doing a stadium with 80,000 people in it. I remember those times, but I don't like to think about them, because even though they were great times, they were also times when I was really abusing drugs. And when I think about those times, I also think about how good it felt to be on cocaine and how I might like to go back and enjoy that again. And that's not something I want to do--because I know where it can lead."

A pair of incidents led to James's downfall. In July 1991, a woman named Francis Alley claimed that James burned her in the genital region with a hot knife and tried to force her to engage in oral sex with his then-lover/now-wife, Tanya Ann Hijazi, during a crack-smoking session. Mary Sauget, a fledgling performer, weighed in with equally explosive accusations in November 1992; she said that James and Hijazi prevented her from leaving a meeting gone wrong by slapping her until she lost consciousness. The charges ultimately directed against James were a nasty lot: false imprisonment, aggravated mayhem, torture, sale or transportation of a controlled substance and more, more, more. In the end, James accepted a deal from prosecutors and pleaded guilty to assault--and to this day, he swears that this crime is the only one he committed.

"The whole press coverage, the whole TV coverage, it was so exaggerated," he says. "I got in one fight with someone who had kicked my old lady in the stomach while she was pregnant, and I went ballistic on this person. And that was all there is--no more, no less. And I think anyone in the same situation would stand by their family. If someone kicks your wife in the stomach, then whoever it was would have an ass-kicking coming. That's the way I feel, and that's what it was. There was this one girl alleging kidnapping, but that was all lies, and I was never convicted of any of that. I was convicted of assault, and that did happen, and I did my time and that's behind me--and I like to leave it behind me. It's a dead issue. When I walked out of prison, that stayed in prison."

In James's opinion, the average person should be glad that many of the inmates he met during his three years in Folsom are still there as well. "There is a desperate need out there for prisons. I didn't always feel that way, but I do now. There are a lot of sons of bitches who should never get out." However, he adds, "there are a lot of them who should get out. I got into a couple of confrontations while I was there, but nothing I couldn't handle--and mostly what I felt was a blanket of love. The guys there treated me like a celebrity who was one of them, if you know what I mean. If I'd walked in there with a bad attitude, an uppity attitude, thinking I was better than everyone else, I probably would've gotten killed. But instead I walked in there as Rick, and they related to me through my music, because a lot of them had grown up on it and gone through changes, good and bad, on it. They related--and I related to them. In the end, it was a curse turned into a blessing. Prison is really what gave me life, and prison gave me enough time to think. It was more of a sabbatical, more of a time of spiritual revelation. Yes, it was bad, and yes, it's a terrible place, but I came out of it a better person."

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