The Rise and Fall of a Super Freak

It must have been very late, around the time that night begins to turn on an imperceptible pivot and 2 o’clock becomes 6 in the morning. The place, if hazy memories serve, was the Red Parrot in New York City. The year was 1981. Or maybe it was ’82. Definitely one of those, ’81 or ’82, toward the end of the Disco Era, a jangled, fuzzy, grandiose time when sex partners were changed more often than bed sheets and brain cells were slaughtered by the hundreds of millions. At clubs like Studio 54 and Xenon—the Studio for the Warhol Crowd, Xenon for the Eurotrash—beautiful people with pin-hole pupils were doing the Hustle and even the wild thing on strobe-lit dance floors, snorting crystalline cocaine out of little plastic bullets, gulping Quaaludes and champagne to dull the edge. What month? What year? Who the fuck can remember? The pace hadn’t slowed since 1974. If you can remember exactly, you weren’t there.

Mike Sager / Rolling Stone

Rick James was there. His first rock and roll band had included Nick St. Nicholas, later of Steppenwolf. His second included Neil Young. He was a staff writer/producer for Motown when the Jackson parents brought their five sons through the door. Prince was once his opening act. James’s trademark song, “Super Freak,” sold more than 40 million copies in 1981. Later, a rapper named MC Hammer would cop the bass line of Super Freak for “U Can’t Touch This.” It sold millions more internationally.

By the time this night had come, Rick James was known around the world as the King of Funk, one of the biggest names in the music business. He had written and produced songs or albums for Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Teena Marie, Chaka Kahn, the Stone City Band, Eddie Murphy, many more. His live shows were legendary. His long braids dusted with glitter, he strode the stage in thigh-high boots and spandex, crouching to accept joints and kisses from his adoring fans.

“Between Parliament and Prince, Rick James carried the banner of black pop over that fertile territory known as funk,” wrote critic David Ritz. “As the seventies melted into the eighties, Rick was bad, superbad, the baddest of the bad. His orchestrations were brilliant, his shows spectacular. He worked in the celebrated R&B instrumental tradition—percussive guitar riffs, busy bass lines, syncopated horn punches—extending from Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Ike Turner, James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton . . . His funk was high and mighty while his attitude stayed down and dirty. His eroticism was raw. He was an early gangsta of love, outrageous, unmanageable, both benefactor and victim of his own inexhaustible energy.”

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