For once, he listened to someone else. That wasn't customary for the musical rebel whose mantra, "I'm RickM*****f****** James!" had become run-of-the-mill to anyone who really knew the man and not the myth.
His fifth album, the 1981 Street Songs, centered around elements that he knew all too well: ghettoes, pimps,hoes, drugs, police, passion and love. Freaks weren't initially in the lineup.
But one day in the recording studio, James started making up' lyrics on the spot, singing them in an affected cartoonish voice. A member of his Stone City Band (SCB) Suggested James record the melody. He did, but only because he wanted to hive something on the album "White folks could dance to." After scaling back the offensive lyrics with Alonzo Miller, a Los Angeles disc jockey who would guarantee it airplay; "Super Freak" was made.
"None of us thought it would be a big hit," explains keyboardist Levi Ruffin, former leader of the SCB whose relationship with James dated back to third grade. "It was basically a throwaway song. We weren't afraid to experiment with a new sound, a new vibe.That's what made 'Super Freak' work. We all went in the studio, with the chemical labs all around us, and came up with this product. It was alive!"
Thirty years later, people still universally embrace that song with its thumping bass line. Street Songs crossed over musically and catapulted James to stardom. The album also featured the sultry ballad, "Fire and Desire," a duet with his protege, Teena Marie, who dated James for a year and was engaged to him for two weeks.
"He was very, very protective when it came to me. There were crazy times between us. We broke up the first night of the tour," laughs the singer. "The 1981 Street tour outgrossed the Rolling Stones and broke Elvis Presley's record in three states.We would do a show, get offstage and get on a jet. We were making so much money. We were doing two shows in one day in different states. [Back then,]that was amazing for a Black artist to outgross the Rolling Stones. We were doing the damn thing."
But James was doing more than outgrossing top-selling white acts---'he was also doing drugs. He never half-stepped with anything, so his appetite for destruction was enormous.
"Rick had two sides to his personality," says Daniel LeMelle, whose tenor sax solo James calls outwith "Blow, Danny!" on "Super Freak." "One minute he was the nicest person on the planet ... an angel. Then the next minute, he was Lucifer! A lot of that had to do with the prevailing drug of the moment."
Art seemed to be imitating life for James, and mixes of drugs, orgies and kinky sex would ultimately be his downfall. By 1994, he had an alternate identity-prisoner J29237-in California's Folsom State Prison, where he served time for assaulting two women while under the influence of cocaine. His solid reputation as one of the industry's most gifted songwriters and producers was somewhat marred by the sordid tales until2004.
That's also when a new generation was introduced to one of music's original bad boys in Dave Chappelle's groundbreaking sketch comedy TV show on which James would say, "Cocaine is a hell of a drug." "He called me after the Chappelle thing. He loved it," recalls Ruffin. "I told him that was the funniest crap I'd ever seen'. We laughed our asses off."
Although people close to James say they never personally heard him say, "I'm Rick James, bitch!" Chappelle's popular catchphrase and spot-on impersonation of the braid-wearing,eccentric performer won him and Charlie "Murphaaay" praise and revived an interest in James' music.
"You can't discount the performance. Dave Chappelle was great. [The sketches] were 99-percent accurate. If you're doing a piece on Rick, everyone will tell you, yes, he was that kind of character," says Charlie Murphy, who first met James in 1988 while working as a bodyguard for his brother, Eddie, who befriended the musician back in the day when he was a regular on Saturday Night Live.
The two were so close, James named his poodle Rick Eddie. And when James was released from prison, Eddie got him his first movie role in the prison comedy Life. James adored the Murphy brothers, both of whom he jokingly called "Brother Darkness" because of their complexions. But sometimes James played a bit too much. He had to learn the hard way never to "bitch slap" a man fresh from military service with a black belt in martial arts.
"He was drunk and hit me. I hit him back," says Charlie calmly, as if he were doing one of his Chappelle’s Show "True Hollywood Stories" skits. "But it only happened one time. It didn't happen every time he saw me."
LeRoi Johnson, James' younger brother,says his sibling's aberrant behavior was exhibited during their childhood in Buffalo, N.Y. James (born James Ambrose Jr.) ran away from home for the first time at the age of 5.
"He dragged me along with him because our grandmother was going to give us a whupping," says Johnson, a Buffalo-based attorney who worked as his brother's manager for 12 years."We didn't get far. We ended up at the police station because we were dressed like cowboys. [Our family) used to call us Texas Jim and Roy Rogers."
Years later, James was apparently still a fan of the motif, adapting the Wild West getup for the stage. Image was important to him. When the 5'11" rocker formed the SCB, members had to beat least his height and were required to wear their hair braided like the Maasai tribe in Africa. His outlandish costumes were just as much a part of the performance as his hard-driving sound.
James' raw sexuality onstage carried over offstage with the usual assortment of groupies and hangers-on available around the clock. He did not disappoint. Loving and leaving lots of women is something James might have picked up from his dad, whom he described as an abusive womanizer with a drinking problem.
"[Rick] used sex to [gain power over] a woman," says ex-SCB member Oscar Alston. "If she was not married, she was fair game. He didn't have a high regard for sex. We saw him naked and in the act. He was well-endowed, so, hard or not ... a woman could still have a good time with him."
James tried marriage, tying the knot with his first wife, Kelly, while in Canada. In his memoir, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak, he says the song "You and I" refers to their union. The two never had children, but James would later father a daughter, Tyenza "Ty" James-Matthews, and a son,Ricardo "Ricky" Matthews, by another woman, Seville. His second wife,Tanya Hijazi, was named as an accomplice during James' 1993 assault case. They produced James' youngest child, son Tazman Johnson.
Though probably not the best role model, James was, nonetheless, later present for his kids. "He was protective of his children," says Ty, 40. "I was Daddy's girl. I would roll joints for him-like 20 a day. He said he didn't want me sneaking to do stuff. It was cool hanging out with him. That's [what)'I miss most ... We would party together.
"[But) before he died, he had his business in order," she recounts. "He left everything to me and my brothers. He might have partied, but he would handle his business."
James considered his musical ability a gift from God. And although he knew he was talented, he still held a great deal of awe and respect for artists whose work he admired.
Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand were his favorite singers. He also idolized Smokey Robinson, with whom he'd later sing the duet "Ebony Eyes," and Eddie Levert, whose powerfully soulful, operatic style he tried to imitate.
In addition to Teena Marie, his musical discoveries included the Mary Jane Girls, Val Young and Process and the Doo Rags. When Eddie Murphy decided to try his hand at singing, he called up his close buddy who wrote and produced the hit, "Party All the Time."
It wasn't easy to fathom that"Super Freak" would earn James millions of dollars, both when he was alive and posthumously. He dropped out of high school at 15, but he educated himself about the music business, becoming astute enough to be one of the few performers to own his work.
A highly publicized copyright-infringement suit was filed by James against rapper MC Hammer for his song "U Can't Touch This," which 'famously sampled "Super Freak." The lawsuit was settled out of court, and James received co-writing credit and earned his only Grammy Award in 1991 when Hammer's hit won for Best R&B Song.
The "Super Freak" video would become the catalyst for James' landmark battle against MTV. Then only a few months old, the cable television network's rock-dominated format excluded African-American videos,which, James charged, was "blatant racism." Michael Jackson has been credited as the man whose "Billie Jean" video-which also didn't fit the rock formula-helped to tear down the color barrier at MTV in 1983, but from 1981 until 1983, Rick James single-handedly raised hell and fought the network by himself.
"Rick could go head to head with anybody," says Johnson.
"You just really didn't want to think that you had a fool on your hands when you went against him. He could handle himself against anybody, I don't care who you thought you were."
James voiced his disappointment that other Black performers didn't support his efforts. "I'm a crusader without an army," he once said. "All these Black artists claim they're behind me, but when it's time to make a public statement, you can't find them… They're going to let me do all the rapping and get into trouble and then they'll reap the benefits."
During an appearance on ABC's Nightline, James called MTV co-founder Bob Pittman, on the carpet. His words were, harsh, but James was willing to handle the consequences of his actions if it meant more exposure and sales, not just for himself, but for all Black artists.
In 2006, another MTV co-founder,Les Garland, said that "Super Freak" was not aired because "Its content was a little over the top for us, and our standards and practices wouldn't go for it because of the visuals. It had nothing to do with the song. It had nothing to do with him."
"We kicked that door open," Johnson insists. "There was nobody saying a word. All the Black [artists] are on there [now], but nobody realizes that the whole [reason] is because of what Rick did. MTV never played Rick's videos as a result."
Ironically, the first video played on MTV to feature James was Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time."
The "racial crap" going on in rock music was nothing new. It was all too familiar to James. His roots rested there.
As a teenager, using the name Ricky James Matthews, James fronted a Canadian R&B group called the Mynah Birds.They were Canada's answer to the Beatles and featured then-obscure musicians such as Neil Young (of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young),Goldy McJohn (of Steppenwolf) and Bruce Palmer (of Buffalo Springfield).
"Intense," is how Young once described James to biographer Jimmy McDonough. "Ricky was great. He was a little bit touchy, dominating-but a good guy. He had a lot of talent … really wanted to make it bad."
The group's Motown success was short-lived because James was AWOL from the Navy. He initially ended up in Canada due to his unfinished business with Uncle Sam. He had joined the Naval Reserve (lying about his age) to escape the draft. But his plan backfired and he was called up for active duty. He fled north and ended up living with Canadian singer Shirley Matthews, who changed his name to Ricky, after her deceased cousin. He adopted her last name.
After serving his time in the brig for desertion, James headed to California, where he started hanging out with the likes of rock musician Jim Morrison of the Doors. Drugs came with the territory. Though no stranger to drinking or marijuana, James was given his first taste of acid by way of a "mint" offered by Morrison.
His taste for drugs increased while his intolerance toward the reception of Black rockers decreased. He decided toget over by birthing a new genre of music, punk funk, which was a blend of rock'n' roll, soul and funk.
Decades of decadence continued to catch up with James physically. After years of whipping his neck back and forth, in 1998 James suffered a stroke when a blood vessel in his neck ruptured during a concert in Denver. He would later undergo hip-replacement surgery and have a pacemaker inserted. Excessive weight gain contributed to diabetes and sleep apnea.
James' made his final television appearance in 2004 at the BET Awards where he sang "Fire and Desire" with Teena Marie. They brought the house down, running through the aisles singing passionately.
"We were fighting the day before and not speaking," she says. "But both of us, when it came to the music, were dramatic people and loved each other very much. That was obvious. We made up that day. When we were coming offstage, a guy said, 'Rick, you're looking pretty good.' He looked at me and said, 'Yeah, Teena keeps me together.' I looked over at him and said, 'Yeah, but it's a hard damn job.' We busted out laughing and hugged. He was gone a month later. I think he was on a [downward]spiral then. I couldn't watch it anymore."
On August 6, 2004, at age 56, the man who liked to party all the time died in his sleep at home. Though nine drugs were found in his system, the coroner's statement reported, "None of the drugs or drug combinations were found to be at levels that were life threatening in and of themselves." His death was ruled acute cardiac dysfunction due to idiopathic cardio myopathy, or an enlarged heart. James had two funerals, one in Buffalo and the other in Los Angeles. Charlie Murphy was a pallbearer. "He was a good friend of the family. My mother knew his mother. We were tight. We were like brothers. He was one of a kind," he says.
Ty says her father asked to be cremated. His marble headstone at Buffalo's Forest Lawn Cemetery and Crematory shows the same image of him that is on the cover of his Street Songs album, the one that helped him reach music lovers of all kinds.
The one that featured "Super Freak."