Wednesday, August 6, 2008

R.I.P. Rick James

Four years ago today, R&B and funk lost Rick James, who died at age 56 in his sleep of natural causes. It makes me feel so old to say this but yes, it really was four years ago. It seems like just yesterday Rick was waddling down the aisle at the BET Awards singing 'Fire and Desire' with former main squeeze Teena Marie, or as I like to call her, R&B's Great White Hope [even if she is currently signed to Cash Money. Oy vey].

Rick James was born James Johnson, Jr. in 1948 in Buffalo, NY. He made a name for himself in the 70s and 80s churning out raunchy lyrics and some of the funkiest basslines this side of Parliament. He also brought some other artists along for the ride: he boosted Teena Marie's career with 'Fire and Desire', created the girl group The Mary Jane Girls, and let MC Hammer sample 'Super Freak' for 'Can't Touch This'. The two snagged a Grammy in 1990. A nasty cocaine habit and a sexual encounter that was straight out of a snuff film landed James in jail, rehab, and the hospital.

Unfortunately, Rick James is remembered mostly as a coked-out womanhater. He's also distilled to a series of soundbites: the chorus to 'Super Freak', 'Cocaine is a helluva drug', and, most famously, 'I'm Rick James, bitch!' These last two can be attributed to skits on Chappelle's show, where Dave Chappelle puts on a wig and acts a fool [Rick is also in the skits]. I think most deceased artists' careers become a series of soundbites because it fits really nicely into a 90-second [at most] clip on the news. When James Brown died, his entire career was 'I Feel Good' and for contrast, 'It's a Man's World'. The Beatles are the only group that I can think of that have escaped that but that's because they were beyond huge.

My friend told me that she was watching the skit when it first came out in the common room of her boarding school dorm, and everyone laughed when Chappelle went, 'I'm Rick James, bitch!' but then turned to her and went, 'Who's Rick James?' For shame. And then at the BET Awards,
a lot of people of my generation didn't know who that fat old man was in the aisle, but as soon as he got on stage, the first words out of his mouth were, 'I'm Rick James, bitch!' and it all clicked because of Chappelle. I doubt he would've even been asked to perform at the awards if it weren't for the skits. I rock an "I'm Rick James, bitch!" t-shirt on a regular basis, but it kinda stinks that that's really all he's remembered for. The man had an incredible voice [see my Mixwit tape below for 'Fire and Desire', a slow jam duet for the ages].


Adding fuel to the fire:

I couldn't find part one. If you see it on YouTube, let me know.

Video for 'Give it to Me, Baby' on YouTube


  1. Man, it's been 4 years?
    Similar thing happened when I went to an Isaac Hayes concert this summer.

    I was thinking, "Man there are a lot of young-folks around my age here (large groups of twenty-somethings)." Then it dawned on me. These kids don't know smooth voice, "the Black Moses",soul singer Isaac Hayes ... They know "Chef" from South Park.

    ::sigh:: He is so much more

    (I've been behind on my blog reading. I'm catching up now)

  2. i still get mad when people tell me that they didn't know who rick james was until they saw chappelle show.

    reminds me of that boondocks strip where riley says to huey that the guy from chappelle show died.


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