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.)

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."

He also emerged with a passel of 300 new songs and an uncertainty about what to do with his newfound freedom. "It's easy to sit with one guitar and write all this introspective, esoteric music when you've got nowhere to go and nothing to do," he says. "But when I came out, there was this fear when I walked out of those bars, because it'd been years since I'd done an album, and it'd been years since I'd been in front of an audience. I didn't know if I had the timing, or if they were going to like me, or if they were going to believe the hype. So I was very hesitant." But after huddling with Hijazi (who served fifteen months in the pokey for the part she played in James's transgressions), James decided that he wanted to make a new long-player--his first since Wonderful flopped in 1988. As James puts it, "I had some things I needed to get out, and this was a way to do it."

The result of his efforts, Urban Rapsody, was better than many observers anticipated, but it remains an awkward attempt to update the James sound for the hip-hop era. Virtually every tune has a persuasive groove (always a James specialty), and although the production, by James and cohort Daniel Le'Melle, is a little slicker than necessary, the arrangements are, for the most part, catchy and clever. But in an effort to seem in touch with the trends, James embraces loads o' rap stereotypes, to his detriment: The spoken segment that concludes "Somebody's Watching You" ("All right, 'Super Freak,' grab your shit. You made parole. We'll be watching you, boy") is flat-out embarrassing, and lines like "Ain't nothin' but a West Coast thang" (from "West Coast Thang") aren't much better. Likewise, cameos by Rappin' 4-Tay (on "Urban Rapsody"), Snoop Doggy Dogg ("Player's Way") and Neb Love ("It's Time") seem pasted in for commercial appeal--they don't rise organically from the numbers.

James, meanwhile, seems a tad wary of diving too deeply into his old persona. The CD booklet includes shots of scantily clad gals looking hungrily at middle-aged Rick, and "So Soft So Wet" (which James says he wrote about Tanya in lieu of masturbating) sports couplets such as, "Girl, I'd die and come alive/When I'm between your soft and creamy thighs." But strangely enough, James doesn't go all the way. His latest hump songs are surprisingly tasteful--pleasant, but not nearly as lascivious as you'd expect coming from a sex junkie just out of jail.

Upon the CD's release, James received writeups in prominent publications such as USA Today and People, but this publicity didn't translate into all that many purchases--and for that, James blames the men behind the Private I imprint. "I had program directors and DJs tell me that the reason they weren't playing it wasn't because of me, but because of the people I was involved with," he says. James also feels that he went too far in trying to work hip-hop into his repertoire. He emphasizes that there will be "no rap at all" on his next disc--a move he feels he can make given the resurgence of interest in Seventies funk.

"There's a renaissance happening right now," he says, "and it's really beautiful, because it's given the opportunity to young kids who never got the chance to see George Clinton or Prince or the Ohio Players or Rick James or whoever to check them out in clubs and concert appearances. People are respecting this thing, and they're supporting it. It's been a mighty, mighty surge, where you've got old-school radio stations in certain cities that are becoming bigger than the hip-hop stations. In L.A., we've got two of them, and they're two of the biggest stations in town. To me, the message that's sending is, hey--people in their thirties and forties and even their fifties are tired of hearing this bullshit. If they're going to have to hear music that's using the music they grew up on, then fuck it, they want the real shit--and I'm with that. I'm like, don't water down my funk."

In the midst of a five-month tour in support of Urban Rapsody, James began to wonder if he'd be in good enough condition to capitalize on the funk revival. Performing caused him "excruciating pain. I'm talking about pain that I can't even describe. Sometimes on stage, I'd be ready to black out because the pain was so intense. So I had it checked out, and they told me I had 'rock-and-roll hip.' At least that's what the doctors are calling it. The Van Halen brothers got it, and a lot of other people in the entertainment industry are getting it, too. It's just because over the years I used my right leg a lot, kicking and doing stuff on stage, and after a while, it was just bone on bone."

Originally, James had planned to take his 1997 tour straight through to the end of 1998, but his physicians insisted that he receive hip surgery no later than February--and he admits that it was a struggle simply making it that long. He wasn't worried that he'd wind up hooked on the painkillers he was given to gobble: "Downers were never my thing," he says. "Cocaine was always my drug of choice." But he was unsettled by the medications' side effects. "Sometimes the pills would do something to my vision, where it felt like I was going blind. I hated taking them, but there were times when I had to do it. It was either that or not walk."

Today James believes that such troubles are behind him: "I feel great, and I'm very clear and focused. Now when I'm playing somewhere, I actually know what city I'm in." And how does a once-and-future super freak feel about being a spokesman for sobriety? He laughs before saying, "God has a hell of a sense of humor."

Rick James, with Tony! Toni! Tone! 7 p.m. Friday, November 6, Mammoth Events Center, 1510 Clarkson Street, $27.50-$40, 303-830-8497.

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