It's a sticky Monday night at the Proletariat three days after Rick James died, and a cavalcade of DJs -- the Killers for Hire, the Cheezy Cracker Collective, the Dum Dum Boys and Eban Doss -- has turned their ordinary Dynamite Lounge gig into a tribute to the last of the real-deal funksters.
In the DJ booth now -- no, make that DJ tables -- are the Dum Dum Boys, who consist of Ralf Armin, formerly of Culturcide and Truth Decay and currently of whatever Tex Kerschen is calling his band, and in a subsidiary role, Larry Pirkle of Farrago Records. Though they play a screwed-down version of "Super Freak," there's no more than a heavy sprinkling of James's music in the Dum Dum Boys's set -- the two decknicians are aiming for something more than being a Rick James jukebox. Instead, they attempt to capture the essence of Rick James with music that is of a piece with the man. Two Rolling Stones -- the druggy nightmare of "Sister Morphine" and the S&M rave-up "When the Whip Comes Down" -- fit this bill to a tee. Kinky sex and dangerous drugs...that was Rick James.
"There was a short period of time there where the Stones captured a lifestyle," Greg Wood once told me, speaking of the Stones's woozily magnificent late-'60s, early-'70s era. "You heard those records and you thought, 'Wow. I am part of the Stones world. I may not be a junkie or banging black models, but the point is, I sure feel that through their records.'"
Rick James did live that life. He was a junkie who banged black (and white) models, as did the Stones. What's more, he was utterly unrepentant about it all from glorious beginning to sorry downfall to pitiful end. There was no shame to Rick James's game.
"It was the best time of my life," James told Reuters last year, speaking of his glory years in the late '70s and early '80s. "We were doing groundbreaking tours, and a lot of drugs and drank a lot. We didn't know anything about Betty Ford or addiction in those days. It's hard to reflect and remember those times. They are very vague to me -- a lot of it is a haze."
It's easy to rearrange some of those words into "a lot of tours" and "groundbreaking drugs" without losing much, if any, of James's original meaning. After all, two of this man's early bands were called Mainline and White Cane. Press contributor Greg Ellis recalls seeing him in Jackson, Mississippi, around 1980 at a show where James and band fired up huge joints on stage and then switched fans on, not to conceal anything, but to blow the smoke out over the audience. "He lived the life he wanted to live," says Eban Doss's buddy Nathan Chapman. "By his rules."
And of course it ended badly. There was the descent into crack addiction, the red-hot crack-pipe branding incident, the kidnapping of the female record executive, all those deplorable "I'm Rick James, bitch!" misadventures that tarnished the man's legacy almost as badly as the musical abortion MC Hammer performed on "Super Freak." As of this writing, the cause of James's death is still inconclusive and so is a dissection of the man's memory.
On strictly musical grounds, it's pretty clear: If the man was not a genius, he was damn close. His self-described "punk-funk" retained P-Funk's bottomless groove while trimming out that sprawling orchestra's sloppier, acid-drenched side. James's sound was lean and mean, driven by his delectably funky bass and the vocalized orgasms he packed into roughly every three words, and augmented by new-wave-friendly synths -- all of which came to fruition most famously on "Super Freak," which he later described as a throwaway song he regarded as little more than a joke, a "record so white people could have something to dance to." Which they have done for over two decades now.
And come to think of it, punk-funk's a bit of a misnomer. As Dum Dum Boy Armin points out, the stuff sounded closer to new wave, and "coke-funk" is probably closer to the truth by any measure. That's what his music was about -- packing your nostrils full of Colombia's finest and dancing until you dropped.
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Beginning with funk's founder, James Brown, and pretty much ending with Rick James, who ushered in the hip-hop age, black American musical genius gravitated toward funk the same way it once did to jazz and today does to hip-hop. A roll call of the genre's greats -- Brown, Sly Stone, James, George Clinton -- is Exhibit A in favor of there being links between genius and madness and addiction.
And if there was danger in their lives, there also was danger in their music, which was the edgier side of the soundtrack to the Civil Rights era. This was Malcolm X music as opposed to soul, which you could see as Martin Luther King music. To this day, I can't listen to Stone without wanting to stick up an armored car with a multi-ethnic crew of male and female revolutionaries, and there are certain James Brown songs that I -- as a white man -- will never quite "get." And though James was the least political of these guys, that was just because he was a product of the relatively apolitical Carter and Reagan eras. And he did make a statement or two, such as his advocacy of cop murder on "Mr. Policeman," a full ten years before Ice-T and N.W.A. made similar statements.
But on record at least, James comes across as less of an anarchist or revolutionary than a pure and simple hedonist. "He was the black Bo Derek," says DJ Eban. "He walked around with ringlets in his hair, and nobody fucked with him."
"He brought the fuck to the funk," says Killer for Hire DJ Ceeplus. "And you can quote me on that."