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Rick James’ documentary shows his rise to stardom and missteps, too


In the early 80s, he advocated for more Black representation on MTV, even though his “Super Freak” had sold more than 3 million copies. At the time, James said: “We were being forced to sit on the back of the bus television style. This isn’t the Wizard of Oz, there are Black people here.”

And he reportedly did more cocaine.

In 1990, he challenged rapper M.C. Hammer when he felt that his “Super Freak” was being used as part of the opening riff on Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.”

And he reportedly did more cocaine.

He paid homage to the Masai people of Tanzania and Kenya by styling his hair in braids adorned with beads.

And he reportedly did more cocaine.

And in the 1990s, Rick James, born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., reportedly was spending about $8K a week on cocaine for himself and his “friends.”

And even so, he reportedly did more cocaine, even proclaiming in an interview that “cocaine is a hell of a drug.”

These and more facts are shared with the public in the upcoming Showtime documentary that is often salacious in content titled “Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James.” The film recently premiered at the 20th Tribeca Film Festival and will become available to stream on Showtime later this summer on September 3.

Featuring rare footage of James’ incredible live shows, never-before-seen home video, original interviews with legendary artists, collaborators and friends, and a treasure trove of recorded interviews with James, the documentary presents a full picture of his dramatic rise and fall, focusing in on the “Punk-Funk” music he left behind.

Rick James in BITCHIN’: THE SOUND AND FURY OF RICK JAMES. Photo credit: Mark Weiss

As a young boy, and one of eight children, James’ mom—who was a Katherine Dunham dancer and who later worked as a numbers runner to earn a living—would take James to bars with her when she collected her money. During these trips, James met iconic entertainers. The documentary shows James’ time in Toronto, Canada, after he deserted from the military in the mid-60s, when he played with Neil Young in a band called the Mynah Birds.  

Eventually James struck out on his own, mimicking Mick Jagger’s swagger, because he wanted so much to be a rock star. The documentary reveals that he also heard the band Parliament and liked the mix of funk and rock. “All is fair in funk and war,” said former P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins.”

In the late 70s, James formed the Stone City Band as his musicians, and he became more popular. His first big hit on Motown’s Gordy Records was his 1978 “You and I,” featured on the “Come Get It” album. Kerry Gordy says, “When he [James] said ‘they can all just go to hell,’ he meant that, because he felt that he was a superstar in his head already.” This sentiment was further evidenced when James became unhappy with his album sales and made a spectacle of himself—along with a reported display of cocaine—in 1982 at Motown offices.

Rick James
Rick James

He was the “Pied Piper of Funk,” and in 1981, his “Street Songs” album went platinum. And while James may have seemed arrogant or selfish, he looked out for others, as evidenced by his crusade against MTV. His other altruistic acts—aside from the Stone City Band—were: He helped launch Tina Marie’s career and also helped the Temptations “Standing on the Top” become a hit for Motown, as well as wrote songs for Smokey Robinson and Eddie Murphy. He also created the Mary Jane Girls, who became his background singers.

James’ allure and stage antics gained him many female fans, some of whom he allegedly videotaped while having sex with others. His daughter Ty says that she was 13 when she first met her father. “When I first stayed overnight with him, walking over naked girls at 7 a.m. was usual.” 

However, other women would prove troublesome for James, as he was faced with court cases. In 1991, he and his future wife Tanya Hijazi were charged with assault for forcibly torturing a woman with a crack pipe. He also caught another assault and kidnapping case involving a female music executive. After the smoke cleared, he said: “I was headed to the grave. I was glad to get a jail sentence.”

James died of a heart attack at the age of 56 in 2004.

Take a look at the trailer and watch the documentary when it is released, so you can hear for yourself the superstar saying, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” Search: [].

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information, search [] or email: [email protected].

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