Rick James: Sex, Street Smarts And Success

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"What about drugs?" I ask.

He laughs. "What about them?"

There was a time, after his first wave of success, when Rick James had gone clean over the edge, ending up in a hospital nearly dying of hepatitis. "How do you keep it in control now?" I ask.

"There's something I want greater than drugs," says James. "Usually, when people lose control to drugs, it's because that is the greater thing to them. And they can't deal with it. Entertainers are sensitive people, overly sensitive. And when you become sensitive and susceptible to a lot of the shit around you, it becomes easy to want to take yourself out of it.

"You find that all the abundance of material wealth you've acquired really doesn't mean much. In your heart you really know that so much is superficial and so much is bullshit, and it's a heavy reality to deal with. There are only two things you can do: rise above it and treat the business you're in like a business, or fall below it and take your life with drugs or a gun to your head, which is a very easy, simple way to do it. But drugs are very easy for me to deal with. I went through my little drug flip-out trip and decided that my life and this career the creator has given me are more important. I enjoy a snort or two with friends. A nice joint. But I don't overindulge in anything anymore."

Some people think Rick James is only in it for the money. It's an idea that he generally doesn't do much to contradict. On several occasions he's told me that Rick James is "strictly business."

But Rick James isn't strictly business at all, which is something that he'll rarely admit, but that his friends and business associates will tell you.

"Well, I think he might think that's true, but I don't think it is. No one can do what he does as well as he does it strictly for money," says Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown Records. "If he were strictly in it for the money, he would not be as good as he is. Sure, he wants to make a lot of money, like all of us do. Money is a measure of success in our society. But underneath it all, Rick is a real pussycat. He's one of the most wonderful, soulful people you would ever want to meet."

James' last album, Street Songs, was the most powerful record by a black artist since Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. It's a soul opera of sorts about life in the ghetto. The LP begins late one night when a drunken Romeo rolls into bed and tries to get his woman to put out ("Give It to Me Baby"), then moves to a flashback of this Romeo's youth on the street ("Ghetto Life"), cuts to a tender ballad that conveys the intimacy and intensity of making love ("Make Love to Me") and finally hits the street again just as a cop has killed an innocent man ("Mr. Policeman"). That's just side one, but you get the idea.

Rick James' great contribution to our culture is to have painted this big, dramatic, vivid picture of a world that few whites know anything about. And for blacks, James' songs must surely be powerful and cathartic.

"What makes him so popular is that he's from the street," says Gordy. "It's about the street, it's about life, it's about what people are feeling. There is only one Rick James. He's an original."

His mother agrees: "His songs are him. I mean 'Ghetto Life' is his life. That's the soul life, 'cause we lived in the ghetto. And he did hang out around the corner with the boys. That's his life."

At about five a.m., after a day and a night in the studio without sleep, followed by hours and hours of conversation, Rick James finally admits just how personal his music is: "I am the music I make."

For James Johnson, it all started in Buffalo, New York, on February 1st, 1952. Right from the start, he wanted to get out of the ghetto – "probably from the time I came out of the womb," he says, his eyes flashing. "My mother said I was the hardest birth she had. I did not want to come out. It was like I didn't want to come here. But now that I'm here, look out!"

Betty Gladden worked several jobs, the most profitable of which was running numbers. She was able to provide a lower-middle-class childhood for James and his brothers and sisters. "We were never really poor, but we grew up in poor surroundings," recalls James. "The ghetto is a poor state of mind, no matter how much money you have or what you're doing. You're still not living in a house with grass, the way you want to live, where your mind is going to be relaxed. The crazy thing about the ghetto is that there's something that really seems to hold you there. Makes you kind of lazy and dumb and lackadaisical. Your motivation plug is kind of out."

But James Johnson was always motivated. He says it was the image of his dad – who was separated from his mother when the boy was only three – that pushed him toward a career in entertainment. "I was too lazy to work," James says. "Music was always going on around me. I've always been kind of a ham, kind of an entertainer. It was easier than working. I used to watch my father come home real tired from the Chevy plant with these big boots on, and he was real dirty. Every day he did this, and it looked really boring and like a real drag. So I said, 'What else is happening?' And I decided music was what was happening."

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