Among the many downsides to the death of funk legend Rick James was its uncanny penchant to bring out the worst in human decorum. Namely, the inability not to go for the obviously stupid one-liner. To wit: I was hanging out in a record store (they still have those, you know) when the cashier mentioned that James had died.
Before I could comment, a voice chimed in from behind me. "Rick James is daid, beeyitch."
Which was tasteless and a little corny. But it caused me to bemoan the fact that James' status as Joe Cocker to Dave Chappelle's Belushi is what the average person will remember him for.
Part of it, of course, is James' doing: No one disputes his appetite for chemical and sexual excesses, least of all the juries that sent him to jail for two separate sexual assaults in 1991 and 1992. James performed a mea culpa on "Good Old Days," from his 1997 album Urban Rhapsody, part of a planned comeback that was derailed by a stroke that same year. And James' recent appearances demonstrated just how unkind time is to flashy, spotlight-stealing artists—double-chinned super freaks in too-tight jumpsuits tend to invite ridicule.
But thanks to a news media that can't keep its mind on anything long enough to provide any semblance of context or perspective, it's tough to come up with a take on Rick James compelling enough to compete with the admittedly hilarious Dave Chappelle version (which James himself thought was pretty funny; Chappelle is now reportedly gearing up for a role in a James biopic). Even during James' peak, mainstream pop culture didn't quite get the full picture.
A skilled instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, bandleader, and performer, James was an heir to the do-it-all mantle that Prince fooled everybody into believing was his alone. The classic "Rick James sound"—new-wavey synths spread over a barely discernible rock foundation (he shared bandspace with Neil Young early in his career and played a Rickenbacker bass more often adopted by rockers like Paul McCartney than funksters)—was just one color in his sonic palette. As a producer, he knew when to get out of Teena Marie's way, how to make the Mary Jane Girls sound even better, and how to distract listeners from Eddie Murphy's voice (on the Murphy vanity project "Party all the Time"). He could funk with the best of them ("Loosey's Rap") and craft the kind of slow-grind ballads ("Fire and Desire," "Ebony Eyes") that cause birthrate spikes. He fit in with both MC Hammer (whose "U Can't Touch This" spun off James' "Super Freak") and old school stalwarts like Smokey Robinson and the Temptations, both of whom he penned tunes for. Not for nothing did the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers honor him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in June.
Unfortunately, James' salad years coincided with the creation and consolidation of what Black Rock Coalition founders Greg Tate and Vernon Reid called "Apartheid Oriented Radio." It may seem hard to believe, what with urban culture leading the pop world around by its nose nowadays, but MTV didn't consider urban music part of the "rock 'n' roll" universe (read: everything that mattered) until Sony allegedly threatened them with a companywide boycott if they didn't allow Michael Jackson in their rotation. That opened things up for some other megastars—Prince, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson—leaving the rest to fend for their own on urban-only outlets like BET. The iron curtain separating "urban" (black acts) from "pop" (white acts, and black crossover acts) spawned a whole subgenre of artists—many of them gold- and platinum-selling—who are household names to African-Americans and trivia questions to nearly everyone else: Kashif, Roger Troutman and Zapp, Levert. James crossed over, to be sure, but the core of his listenership still consisted of the ordinary working-class African-Americans who flirted with the jheri curl for a bit, chilled out with Canei wine, and looked at you funny if you didn't know who Donnie Simpson was.
The fact that 1980s funk and soul is still searching for its place in the retrospective pop timeline makes it even tougher to contextualize James. It was sandwiched between the '70s creative whirlwind (Sly, James Brown, P-Funk, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder) and the mainstream rise of hip-hop and New Jack swing, which is kind of like being president between Reagan and Clinton. One reason for this is that the '80s spawned what writer Rickey Vincent dubbed "Naked Funk." It was still funk, but without the extra-musical calling card that helped it break out of the "urban" ghetto.
The great lie about music of the post-rock era is that it was something other than dance music at its core. Which is garbage, of course—the Rolling Stones aren't still touring because their fans are debating the meaning of "make some girl."
But the appearance that dance music is something other than "just dance music" has always been essential to success in a pop-music universe full of fans who haven't yet disowned critical oxymorons like "intelligent drum and bass." When you heard P-Funk or Prince, you felt were getting, at the very least, something more than just a call to shake your ass. On albums like Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome George Clinton recontextualized extended dance jams as Star Wars-esque space epics with allegorical references to the corporate entertainment complex. Prince's mysterious (and sometimes creepy) take on sex and spirituality allowed you to think that your taste for armchair psychology was impelling you out of your seat. And more than one hip-hop scribe has ridden the "pain and roar of a disaffected generation" angle to mainstream status.
James, as good as he was, never really had that kind of cachet—his hedonistic funk-punkster played well, but it didn't obscure the fact that he was just an extremely accomplished, seriously prolific, outlandishly funky individual who had more of an effect on pop music than people give him credit for. That should be enough for people to try to scratch the surface of the Chappelle caricature, and "Super Freak" and all the other totems that we associate with his legacy. But in the real world, it isn't. And that's a bitch.