Rick James is one of the most notorious performers ever to don a pair of skintight leather pants; his life story reads like a fevered mixture of Horatio Alger, the Marquis De Sade, and James Brown. The nephew of Temptation Melvin Franklin and the son of a numbers runner for the mob, James ran away from home at 15 to join the Naval Reserve, but went AWOL two years later. While fleeing the military police in Toronto during the late '60s, James played in The Mynah Birds with future Buffalo Springfield members Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, but was forced to flee the country before the group could release an album. James lived in Europe throughout much of the '70s, but in 1977, he returned to America and established a reputation as a flamboyant performer and a gifted songwriter, musician, and producer. Throughout the late '70s and early '80s, James racked up a string of hits for Motown, both as a solo artist and as a songwriter, producer, and mentor for the likes of Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls. But by the late '80s, James' professional career began to take a back seat to his legendarily hedonistic lifestyle and Olympian appetite for self-destruction. That lifestyle caught up with him with a vengeance in the '90s, as he suffered through the death of his mother, a stroke, and an extended stint at Folsom State Prison for drugs and assault. James has released only one new album in the past 13 years (1997's Urban Rapsody), but has remained in the public eye through prodigious sampling of his work, the enduring popularity of his signature hit "Super Freak," and a memorable appearance on VH-1's Behind The Music. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with James about his aversion to explicit and sexist language, his notoriety, his friendship with Neil Young, and his appearance on The A-Team.
The Onion: What led you to join the military at such a young age?
Rick James: I'd quit school, and I was kind of running around doing nothing, smoking a lot of Mary Jane, and hanging out with my friends. I was going to get drafted, but I didn't really want to go into the Army. I was playing conga drums for an African culture group at a place called the African Center in Buffalo. There was a guy there who was teaching us Swahili, and teaching us about our heritage. In one of the classes, they told me that it'd be a good thing to join the Navy Reserve. Then I could stay in Buffalo, and I could play for the African dance troupe, and I wouldn't have to go into the Army. So I joined the Navy Reserve, and much to my dismay, it turned out to be a big farce, because I missed a lot of meetings. That's something that you go to meetings for once every two weeks, or something like that. I can't remember. But they send you a sailor's suit, and the whole shit, right? You actually go to a reserve and have meetings, but you never end up going to the Vietnam War. So that's what I did, but what they didn't tell you was that if you missed meetings, you'd end up going to Vietnam. That's what happened. I missed meetings, and they ended up sending me to Vietnam. They were sending me to Brooklyn to wait on a ship, and I went AWOL in Rochester.
O: I guess the next step after that was when you joined The Mynah Birds.
RJ: It was the first group I had in Toronto after going AWOL. It wasn't the first group I had, matter of fact. The first group I had was the Sailor Boys. I went into this club and started singing, and I ended up joining this band. The group ended up turning into The Mynah Birds, with Neil Young and a couple of guys who started Steppenwolf, Goldy McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas.
O: What kind of music did you play?
RJ: We did blues, we did folk, we did a folk-blues type thing, and we did folk-rock type shit and R&B and country blues and shit. We did a little bit of everything.
O: Was that a generally happy period in your life?
RJ: Yeah, because it was really innocent. It's like the old song says, "When you don't got nothing, you don't got nothing to lose." I didn't really have anything. I had a little room that I lived in with a bed and a record player. And I had this group, and we were all very happy. We were all happy to be living a very free life. It was in the village in Toronto, so it was a lot like Greenwich Village. Everybody who lived there knew each other, and it was like family.
O: Did you feel immersed in the counterculture of the time?
RJ: Yes, totally. We had great people living there. Great musicians lived in Toronto. Joni Mitchell, she was coming up with us. We were all family. Joni and David Clayton-Thomas, lead singer of Blood, Sweat & Tears. People like that, and Neil, and Jessie Colin Young of The Youngbloods. It was like we were all coming up and learning together.
O: What was your relationship with Neil Young like?
RJ: We had a great relationship. I found him in a coffeehouse playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, doing these songs that he had written, kind of like a Bob Dylan thing. When I came up from New York after seeing a lot of this old folk, I kind of flipped out and said, "Yeah, I want to get a folk artist in the band, someone that plays folk to add on to what we got." This old folk kind of inspired this idea. So I saw Neil in a coffeehouse playing one night, and I asked, "Would you like to join the band?" We got an apartment together, and he joined the band, and we were together for a couple years. Then I had to give myself up. We signed with Motown, and I had to give myself up to the Navy, because Motown found out I was AWOL, because the manager we got rid of had told them. They found out I was AWOL, and Neil and Bruce [Palmer] sold the equipment and rented a hearse and drove out to California and started Buffalo Springfield, and Goldy and Nick started Steppenwolf. I was in Portsmouth Prison, listening to them on my radio.
O: Do you think the tracks you recorded with The Mynah Birds will ever be released?
RJ: No, because Motown's archives are so fucking fucked up that I don't even know if they could find the tapes to do that, if they wanted to. I think they have tried to. We actually think that somebody has tried. They found out me and Neil Young were together. They actually tried, but to no avail.
O: What kind of effect did living in Europe for most of the '70s have on your music?
RJ: It gave me a sense of independence. It gave me a sense of the whole traveling-minstrel thing. I was over there singing and playing for a living. It was just playing a lot of Europe, and traveling all around Europe, learning that culture. I think all of that, all those culture-shock ordeals in my life, have something to do with who I am now and what I write about, and how I translate it. I have a very
fine love for classical music, I have a love for Indian music, sitar. I went to India, lived, and studied. I studied sitar in the early '70s. I lived in Sweden and London. So I'm very familiar with Europe and its ways, very familiar with the European culture in Paris, and the French, and the English, and the Danes and whatnot, and Indian culture.
O: Your music has been sampled a lot, and you've collaborated with a lot of rappers. What was your first impression of rap music?
RJ: Rap? Actually, Grandmaster Flash used to open for us a lot. I love rap. I love what they were doing, because there was a message to it. "The Message" is one of my favorite rap songs of all time. Sugarhill Gang, and all that kind of stuff. I was really into it in the '80s. Then, after it became so ridiculous, where they were talking about black women being bitches and hoes and all this bullshit, I kind of got out of it, out of a thing of enjoying it, and got into an animosity thing against it. But then it switched up again, and rappers became more intelligent about what they were saying and how they were saying it, and I got back into it. Even when they were talking so much smack, degrading black people and stuff, with all this "nigger" this and "nigger" that and "nigger" this… I'm so down on that word that I had trouble relating to it. I didn't want any more rappers fucking with my shit. Me and James Brown came to a thing together, where we didn't want anybody fucking with our shit who is gonna demean black people and shit. We were really pissed off at the time, the way they were translating our shit. Then, I was hearing this record on the radio called "U Can't Touch This," this big rap record. I called my accountants in a rage, telling them, "I thought I told you I don't want any more rappers using my shit." And then they explained to me how much money it was gonna make, and that there was no cuss words or anything in it, and I was happy to hear that. "U Can't Touch This" was the largest-selling rap record of all time, or is the largest-selling rap record of all time. I'm very proud about that, because it's like bringing back "Super Freak." It was financially lucrative, and it was a good thing, because they didn't degrade black people in it, and didn't get off anything that would be demeaning.
O: Was your primary objection to rap music that it's kind of derogatory?
RJ: I don't like the derogativeness of what a lot of it says, and the demeaning fact of how it puts the race. A lot of it, man, seems to be all about how women are hoes and bitches. Number one, my mother's not a ho, and not no bitch, and she never was. And I'm sure a lot of them don't want to hear their mamas and sisters called hoes and bitches. I got tired of hearing shit like that. I just got tired of hearing all the ridiculousness. It's like you motherfucking can't do a record without using profanity and motherfucking demeaning your own race, you know. It really just started pissing me off after a while. But I mean, there are a lot of rappers out there that I like, and that I listen to. I think rap definitely has its place in the art world. I think it is an art form. But, just like any art form, you can misuse it.
O: Your album Street Songs just reached its 20th anniversary, and was re-released in a deluxe edition. Why do you think that was your most popular album?
RJ: I think it was released at a big turn-around time for America and American black people. It was a renaissance. The '80s were a renaissance time for us. As you see, in the late '80s and the early '90s, black music totally changed. It was like a renaissance for us, a come-alive period for us after disco. After disco, funk bands became really, really popular, as opposed to disco artists, because disco was another mechanical form of music, and people were really tired of that shit. Although it was cool in the castles where it was played, it wasn't so cool in the minds of a lot of people in the street. So Street Songs came out and kind of took over, in a way, that whole thing that was lasting from disco. It kind of pushed shit back in the streets where it belonged, out of the castles and out of the discos, and back into the street. I think people were excited about that, and people were dancing a lot in those days, and people were really happy. A lot of people were in college in those days, because I meet a lot of people now who all tell me, "Yeah, man, I grew up with 'Super Freak.' I was in college, high school, and "Give It To Me Baby" opened up a lot of doors." I hear that a lot.
O: In a recent interview, Chuck D told The Onion A.V. Club that gangsta rap is so popular because people like funk, and that's where most of the popular funk comes from these days. Do you think that's true?
RJ: Absolutely. People love funk, people love to dance. I don't think, a lot of times, the rap on top of stuff really means or meant anything. To a lot of kids, as long as the beat was low-down and filthy, they loved it. A lot of times, you could get up and say anything on top of it: "My asshole hurts," or "I got a hemorrhoid," or anything. It really didn't matter. And it would sell, because the beat was so funky. A lot of stuff looked like that. That's why I hate to have
people call me a funk artist. I always get upset when I hear that. I'm so much more than a funk artist. I love lyrics. I like to consider myself a good lyricist. I love classical music, and I love Indian music, and I love all these musics that I've studied. I love jazz and R&B, Latin, salsa music, all that kind of stuff. Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, and all that. My love for music ranges, and it's so deep. To call me a funk artist really undermines me, and everything that I've done.
O: Do you think your notoriety and the controversy over your lifestyle has led people to overlook your music? Do you think that it's distracted people from appreciating the music you've created?
RJ: Yeah, because though there's so much… I've done 15, 16, 17 albums, I've done a lot of albums including me and the Mary Jane Girls and Stone City Band, Teena Marie things, and if you really listen to those things, you hear a lot of great music going on. If you listen to some of Teena's albums, or the Stone City Band albums, or Mary Jane Girls albums, or Rick James albums, you hear a lot of great things. You hear jazz, you hear classical, you hear rock, you hear blues. You hear Indian music, you hear all these different kinds of music. If you really lend an ear and open your mind up and come out of your constrictions, you can really hear a lot of different things. That's what I pride myself on.
O: Was it at all difficult reliving your past for Behind The Music?
RJ: Not at all, because I look at my life now very therapeutically. I look at it as honestly as I can right now. I always have been, but I didn't really expound on it vocally. As honest as I could be, that's as better as I can be as a human being. So, for me to talk about my life in past tense, the bad times versus the good times, I don't have a problem with that, because honesty is the name of the game for me right now. As honest as I can be, it's therapeutic for me. It just makes me a better human being.
O: Do you feel like the show gave you the opportunity to set the record straight?
RJ: Yeah, set the record straight. And it's kind of a soul-cleansing thing. It's like going to see a psychiatrist. It's no different than that. If you're telling it the way it is, and you're being really honest, you're going to get help. If you bullshit and lie, then you're not going to get any help. I'm trying to get my mind and my soul together. The only way I can do that is to be as honest as I can be, to try to be the best person I can be.
O: Do you think people have a lot of misconceptions about you?
RJ: Of course, but people need to learn through me that, number one, people are always judging people, and all gossip is a lie. Number two, I hear people talking about me, they don't even know it's me, and it's ridiculous. They don't even know me. So, yeah, but those are… I mean, when I created the Rick James
character, when James Johnson created Rick James, he created a person that could stand the wave of all that bullshit. Because Rick James' attitude is, "Fuck you, I don't give a fuck what you all say about me, 'cause all of you are full of shit any fucking way. And all of you need to get a life. Because anybody that's gonna sit back talking about anybody's life needs to get a life. That's why we have soap operas. We have soap operas so all these fucking people out here who ain't got nothing to do from 10 'til 4, or whatever it is, can sit back and watch soap operas and look in the TV at everybody else's life.
O: Do you think that was kind of a defensive thing, creating the Rick James persona to be so…
RJ: Yeah, it was a defense mechanism, absolutely. It's a defense and an offense. It's a way that I could say, "Kiss my ass, fuck you," but the James Johnson part of me, if I let that seep in and that's who I am for real, yeah, it means something. I get hurt, yeah, and it bothers me. The Rick James thing is like, "Fuck you." It sounds really insane, I know, but it works. Probably because Rick can say, "Fuck all that, don't get upset over that shit." People talking shit, they don't even know you, man.
O: It seems like you haven't really had an opportunity to express a more reflective, introspective side of yourself. Is that something you're working on?
RJ: This album that I'm doing now kind of does that. Like I said, when I was in prison it was a curse, but it was a blessing, because it gave me a chance to write close to 300 songs. And it gave me a chance to do a lot of soul-searching. The album I'm doing now is very introspective, on me and my life, and what I've been through. Drugs and the whole nine yards.
O: How is performing now different from performing in the '70s and '80s? Do you think your audience has changed?
RJ: I don't find it much different. I was out there two years ago, before I had my stroke, and before that. It's weird, but the people that come out to see us now, I look at the audience, and I see older people out there having fun and grooving, and reflecting back to a time when it was really simple and really cool. But I also see young kids out there, too, checking us out. They come to the party to see if it's really real. Of course, they leave smiling, and they had a good time, because it was real, and it is real, and it goes on and on. It don't stop.
O: Your web site says you were working on a movie in the '80s. What happened with that?
RJ: Well, I was doing so many drugs in those times that there were a lot of things that I was working on that I just kind of displaced and said, "Fuck it." A lot of things were happening in my life, and a lot of shit, and I was just going, "Fuck it." I was that way. If it didn't have much to do with music, I would get involved with it
and then kind of drop it. Music was the only thing I was really interested in. And movies were fine, and I'd written a lot of those, and I hadn't written a book yet. I did that when I was in prison. So the book came about when I was in prison, but now times are much different, and my head is in a much different place. I'm concentrating on a lot of different things, movies and musicals… I'm writing a musical. A whole lot of things.
O: What do you remember about your appearance on The A-Team?
RJ: Not much, because I was so fucked up. I don't remember a whole lot. I do remember George Peppard walking out on his scene with me, because I didn't read the script, because I was up all night with a couple girls, getting high and having ferocious sex. By the time the limousine picked me up to take me to the set, I hadn't slept and I hadn't learned my script. They had to write big cue cards out for me. So George Peppard walked out, and Mr. T says to me, [adopts frighteningly accurate Mr. T voice] "Don't worry about it, Rick, fuck him. He's just mad because he ain't on the cover of a cornflakes box." Mr. T was cool. He just said, "This is your show, Rick, you do it the way you want." And he was right, but that was kind of a fucked-up situation. Not only was I loaded, but I forgot the shit. I hate it when I don't do a great job on something. I think I did One Life To Live after that, and I did read the script, and I did go to sleep on time, and I kind of redeemed myself.
O: So you think a big part of acting is remembering your lines?
RJ: Well, remembering the lines. Acting is very hard, but I used to take it very lightly. A lot of my friends are actors, and one of my best friends, Eddie Murphy, he's one of the best. When I did his movie, Life, playing a gangster, he had to pull me through it. He took me through it, and I found that acting is a lot harder than people give it credit for. Now my head is, "Yo, these guys make all this money acting, and they fucking deserve it. Pay the piper." Acting's a fucking hard thing. Trust me. I don't ever look forward to doing a whole lot of it, personally. It's very fucking difficult, and it's a long and tiresome ordeal.
O: Do you have any collaborative projects coming up?
RJ: Yeah, me and Mary J. Blige are collaborating, doing the Mary Jane Girls 2000. We're working on that together. That's gonna be a great thing. There's a girl I'm working on who is 20 or so, named Rain, who's a white rapper, dancer, singer, hip-hopper type. Her and the Mary J. Blige thing are very exciting for me. Also, when my book comes out, Confessions Of A Super Freak, in the new year, Suzanne de Passe wants to make it into a movie. She's done a lot of great things.
O: Who should play Rick James?
RJ: I don't know who they're talking about. They're talking about a couple people. I don't even want to talk too much about that, because it's going to be a surprise to a lot of people. I'm just excited that the book is almost finished.
O: Do you have a publisher for it yet?
RJ: We're negotiating all that as we speak.
O: How would you like to be remembered?
RJ: I don't know, man. Somebody who just stood up for what he believed in, and somebody who was down for his race and who wrote some funky songs and made people dance, and who was a pretty good fucking producer. That's all. I think living on, my legacy, is all in the music. When the planet gets totally destroyed and everything, and the music is gone, then all the legacies will be gone. Until then, the music will speak for itself.