The last time I saw Rick James he was sitting poolside at a friend’s house in Northern California, holding his four-year-old son in his arms. He had spent the previous night — and the previous two years — in a Folsom Prison cell, for assault and drug charges.
James was supposed to get married on that August day, and a crowd of family and friends — including members of the Mary Jane Girls (the singing group he assembled in the late Seventies) — had gathered for the occasion. But when his bride to be, Tanya Anne Hijazi, was busted on a shoplifting charge, the immediate wedding plans were off.
James remained in good spirits, however, emphasizing that he was happy to be back in society, free from crack cocaine, reunited with his son and ready to begin married life. He was also eager to get back to recording music and playing live for his fans. He has since done both, releasing the album Urban Rapsody — featuring guest spots from Snoop Dogg and Bobby Womack — in 1997 and launching its subsequent tour.
Unfortunately, James’ life — which started out tough on the streets of Buffalo — got tough yet again, when he ruptured an artery in his neck during a 1998 show in Denver. The condition would lead to a stroke, which, until this day, hinders his speech and his mobility.
Making matters worse, James and Tanya — whose wedding plans did finally come together — are now in the midst of a divorce, and their son Tazman is now living with Tanya in Atlanta, 2000 miles from James’ Los Angeles home. “I don’t see him as much as I would like,” James says. “That’s the really hard part.”
As for his music, James is still upbeat. The fifty-four-year old funk legend — who has written and produced Top Forty hits for himself, Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls and even comedian Eddie Murphy — is celebrating the release of the new, double-CD, deluxe edition of his 1981 blockbuster album, Street Songs, complete with a recording of a 1981 live show. He also looks forward to many more recordings, but only a few live shows, partially due to the fact that his and his Stone City Band’s ferocious stage energy is what caused his ailment. So, when they make their return to the stage tonight (and tomorrow) at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York City, it will likely be among their final shows. “I’d like to retire after this tour,” James says. “I don’t want to be singing ‘Super Freak’ when I’m sixty.”
How are you doing now, health-wise?
Ah, so-so. Some days better than others. I’m not 100 percent recuperated, but I’m able to function.
How ’bout performing — are you able to move around?
The show part of it has been pretty good — there’s some things I still can’t do that I used to do physically. I move around, but I have to be careful. My equilibrium isn’t so good.
Your various ailments were caused by your onstage antics, so in a sense you’re like a veteran football player . . .
That’s a good way to put it. Had I known not to move my head so much — which is not something I plan or practice, it’s just a natural reaction to the music when I play it — I probably wouldn’t have broken those vessels and had a stroke. Or if I hadn’t have kicked my right leg so much I probably wouldn’t have had hip surgery. But it’s so hypothetical. One can never tell.
The new edition of Street Songs contains a recording of 1981 show. What was a Rick James show like in those days?
A Rick James and the Stone City Band show was like a party on the Fourth of July. It was a celebration. I don’t ever want to look at a concert as work. I try to make the audience forget all their problems — for an hour and a half or so get them out of themselves, and space, and time, and consciousness. You dance, you smile, you feel sexuality. It sometimes would take the audience a little while to let go. Some people show a tendency to act at a concert [as they would at] a fashion show or in church, or somewhere where it’s necessary to be cool. I don’t think there’s ever been a place where we didn’t take all that cool shit out of people.
You’ve never released a live album. Was it important for you do get one out there?
Yeah, I always wanted to, but I had nothing to do with the release of this album, but I’m glad Universal did it. The Stone City Band is one of the best bands to have ever played funk, or rock music. People who buy this CD will get a chance to hear the Stone City Band for a change. They were at the top of their game that night, and the album hasn’t been refurbished: the vocals are the way they were, the guitars are the way they were. It’s really raw.
How does Street Songs hold up for you today?
It still holds up. I listen to people talking about ghetto life and the police and marijuana, and all the things that are involved in street living, and Street Songs typifies all of that. And I really didn’t know that until I heard these rappers — Snoop and everybody — talking about Endo and all this. Well, we called it “Mary Jane.” And I hear people talking about the police or pimps and ho’s and ghetto and all that shit, and I don’t think there’s been an album out there that really exemplifies that life better than Street Songs does. We talk about it all, and I don’t think we missed a beat.
Talk about a particular favorite track.
“Below the Funk” is really one of my favorites. It’s an afro-rhythm thing, but it’s really just me telling people in my hometown, “Fuck you. Kiss my ass, with all that bullshit talking about me being a faggot. Y’all motherfuckers wish y’all had the money I had. Fuck hangin’ out on the corner with all the playa haters talking all that shit in my hometown. I’m not hangin’ out on the corner trying to be pimps. I got a ranch with dogs and horses and an indoor swimming pool and a family, and y’all can kiss all of our asses at the same time.” So that was one of my favorite tracks.
Is listening to that album like having a conversation with yourself at that age? Does it reveal who you were?
Well, it’s still who I am. The only thing about now is I don’t have to prove anything. Then I really felt I had to prove something. I had to say a lot of things lyrically to almost solidify my own hipness. I had to say things to let motherfuckers know that I’m black, I’m rich, I’m strong, I got out of the ghetto — now what about you? I don’t have to say any of those things anymore. My point was proven. I have a great band. I’ve lived through overdoses, I’ve lived through prison, and I’m still here. I’m in a more spiritual place now. Those things are secondary. My existence now is just to try to do the right thing, so when I die I don’t have to come back to this motherfucker. I mean, I’m getting older. I don’t concentrate on that, but it is a part of my thought pattern. Time is running out, you know?
Did you credit that perspective to your time in jail?
Absolutely. I don’t ever want to go back, and I don’t ever want my freedom taken away. I don’t ever want to get drugged out to the point where I could go through all that shit that I went through — all that defamation and degradation crap. I don’t want to lay my hands on anybody.
Talk about your new music.
I have about four albums I’m recording. I’ve got that much material. I finally got a chance to do an acoustic album. I say acoustic because the foundation is acoustic guitar, but there’s instrumentation. It’s an album that I could sit on a chair and play it in front of people live, and I wouldn’t need a band. The thing about Neil Young and Stephen Stills and a lot of those cats is that they don’t need a band to go out and play. They just strap on the acoustic, sit down and sing their songs. With the Stone City Band songs, I can’t do that, because a lot of the stuff is built around live instrumentation and arrangements. This acoustic album is built around just songs without all the hoopla. I’ve also got a double funk album, and that’s got a lot of different stuff on it. All these rappers can go crazy with the samples.
They’re running out of material — they need Rick James to make a new record.
Yeah [laughs], I have to give them something else they can have. There’s a girl I’m working with named Rain, twenty-years-old: a white girl, singer, hip-hop, dancer, fast rapper, and she’s exciting. I’m also working on a musical called Alice in Ghettoland and finishing up my book. It’s an autobiographical thing I wrote while I was in prison. Yeah, I’m busy.
Speaking of Neil Young, you guys were in a band called the Minah Birds together in the mid-Sixties, and I read recently that somebody has stumbled upon those recordings.
I don’t know, but whoever has the motherfuckers better get ’em out. Actually, I cringe when I hear some of those songs. I mean, we did a song called “The Minah Bird Hop” [laughs]. We had a manager who owned a minah bird shop, and his brother wrote these minah bird songs. I used to sing to this blind minah bird that would shit on me onstage. It was a kind of sick situation. But when we went to Motown we recorded some really good stuff, and it was lost in the archives. So if that’s the stuff that might come out, great.
You mentioned time running out being on your mind. How would you like music fans to remember Rick James?
As someone who beat the odds, and as a musician who gave up the truth. My music ain’t no contrived bullshit. It ain’t no sci-fi shit. It’s the real fuckin’ deal.