"I really like my own music — honest! If I really take myself out of myself I find that though Rick James may not be the most original artist or writer in the world, he's good"
"TO ME, a punk is someone who says what's on his mind and who doesn't take no shit!" So says Rick James, one of our music's most outspoken members. Yet, there is another side to Rick James — you might call it the James Johnson side.
Confused? Read on as John Abbey braves the freezing cold and driving sleet of Buffalo, New York state to track down the two Rick James characters at "their" home near the Canada border.
JA: The logical place to start is with the new album, "Fire it Up". How do you feel about it in comparison with the previous two albums?
RJ: I love it! The first album, "Come Get It", was an experiment in simplicity for me. I hadn't made it then and everything was simple. You know, funky little changes and cute lyrical content. "Bustin' Out" was a step further in concept.
JA: Was it experimental, too?
RJ: In some ways, yes. It was a better album than "Come Get It" but it didn't come over sound frequency-wise as much as "Come Get It".
JA: There was a fresh rawness to "Come Get It" that would have been hard to duplicate.
RJ: Yes, there was — it was a sound thing, I agree. On "Fire It Up", I knew what I wanted, though, and I went after it.
JA: Is it exactly the way you wanted it or are there some things you wish you had done differently?
RJ: There are a couple of tracks that I could have done differently, but overall I'm happy with it.
JA: Are you already thinking about your next album?
RJ: The songs are finished already — all I have to do is record it.
JA: Will it be more of what we have come to accept as the Rick James Sound, or is the need to experiment further going to arise?
RJ: It's going to be a bit different because every album I do will always be different. Part of the sound that I have been credited with comes from being able to change my sound. I don't feel I have one sound and I consciously try for a lot of different sounds.
JA: Yet you are instantly recognisable.
RJ: Like the Beatles — they were great at changing sounds and yet they were always the Beatles. I'd like to be able to do that.
JA: So far, most of your success has been with uptempo material. Is that synonymous with your chosen direction?
RJ: No — because I'm a ballad freak! I think that on "Fire It Up", there is a ballad that is strong enough for a single. But I don't know if I'm ready to do what Lionel Richie and the Commodores have done and that is to stun my audience with an over-abundance of sensitivity. But I love ballads and I eventually want to be able to create acoustical music and be accepted; and I do look to cross-over eventually with a ballad. On "Fire It Up", there is a thing I wrote about my ex-old lady called "When Love Is Gone" — it's a jazzy kind of monologue. There's another tune called "Love In The Night" on the first side, too; it's a story about meeting a girl and having a sexual affair.
JA: Is there a way to define your sound?
RJ: I don't think so. I could define my concept, but not my sound.
JA: Would you say that you are a fusion of R&B, Rock and Jazz and some of just about everything else?
RJ: For sure…
JA: Do you feel that your varied background — which we'll go into later — helped make you what you are today?
RJ: For sure. A lot of black musicians limit themselves to just R&B or Jazz and they don't get off into the classics, for example — or folk music. There aren't too many Funk performers who would even know who Robert Johnson is, for example!
JA: If I were to ask you to name your major musical influences, who would they be?
RJ: So many! But Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, certainly.
JA: Is it hard for a black musician to get acceptance as a Rock musician?
RJ: Very! But it's in me and I'm going that way. I feel that all music is valid and should be accepted as just that. It shouldn't be just a record business tool. But personally I love doing what I call Funk & Roll.
JA: Do you feel that you are contributing towards bringing R&B and Rock together?
RJ: I hope so. But there aren't too many blacks into R&R. Mother's Finest are one act I can think of. I love Rock and I'd like to see more black musicians into Funk & Roll.
JA: Would you acknowledge Jimi Hendrix and Sly as the first to bridge the gap?
RJ: Jimi before Sly. I think Sly took funk and amalgamated it to come up with a more sophisticated music than Jimi. I don't feel there was too much Rock in there.
JA: Did Jimi and Sly influence you?
RJ: For sure. Sly more for his lyrical content, though.
JA: Where does George Clinton fit into the picture?
RJ: A lot of people compare us. George opened up the concept of comic book funk but, to me, that's very mentally limiting. And it'll prove hard for him to get away from. It I had to do what George does for a living, I'd probably get out of the business! It would be like prostituting myself to the point of musical blasphemy. A total drag!
I have to write me a song! That's where I'm at. If George has any real songs in his material — other than "funk the dunk"! — I haven't heard them. We get classified a lot together and that burns me up because I feel that people who can compare us must be blind and deaf!
JA: I guess the comparisons come off the bass line…
RJ:…All funk comes from the bass line and the percussion, so if you relate that way then everyone sounds like George Clinton! But I do like George's concept and I admit I have written some songs with his concept in mind. He has a lot of talent, I'll say that much for him.
JA: And he is the master for creating riffs — taking over where James Brown left off.
RJ: Exactly. But to me it's not about the riffs and the licks. George could never have written a song like "Spacey Love" or "Dream Maker".
JA: But he could have written "Sucker For Your Love"…
RJ: Maybe — but you may be giving him too much credit! To me, he looks at music like a boxing match. All of that "let's take it to the stage" crap…
JA: On a character note, he reminds me of you in that he is such an extrovert professionally and totally different in-person. But since he is so conscious of what he is doing, I have to respect him.
RJ: Oh, I do respect him and he is totally conscious. But I'm just not into that "take it to the stage" crap; and "is there Doobie in your funk". On one concert, he even asked who gave Chuck Brown permission to funk! He has no patent on funk and I want to say that loud and clear!
JA: It's surely just part of his show to be outspoken and outrageous.
RJ: I guess so. But it's part of mine to tell it like it is.
JA: Why do you react so violently to being called a disco artist?
RJ: It's just some more stagnating, limiting verbal bullshit. I'm not a disco artist. I'm not a Rock artist or a Funk artist. I'm an artist.
JA: Yet you were the one to coin the term Punk Funk. Aren't you labelling yourself?
RJ: Labelling myself is different!
JA: But labelling is a necessity…
RJ:…Then let me label myself! (smile!)
JA: Let's look at the two words. I can understand 'funk' but how come 'punk'?
RJ: Punk, to me, is relatable because Punk Rock was poor, white British kids whose only vehicle to get away from their suppression and economic stress was through their music. Poor Cockney kids who didn't have a lot of money. So they played their music and somehow were tagged Punk Rockers. Now, I was born in the ghetto and everyone in my band has starved and we've all been through the rats and roaches syndrome. We're from the streets and we've been through the gang trip, too. So, it's relatable. Whether I'll still see myself as a Punk in five years, I don't know. Maybe I'll always be a Punk.
JA: Are you a Punk today?
RJ: No. Because Punk, to me, is just another word and I can't let words hold me back. If somebody calls me an asshole and I smack them in the face then that makes me a Punk. I'm not going to let anyone call me an asshole so you see, yes, I'm a punk.
JA: But a lot of rich and educated people would react the same way.
RJ: Then there are a lot of rich and educated Punks! To me, a Punk is someone who says what's on his mind and who doesn't take no shit. That's my definition. Some people call a Punk a homosexual — but that's bullshit to me. And since I called myself a Punk, it's my definition that matters to me. I can label myself whatever I please.
JA: Rick, I know that lyrics are very important to you. Did your folk and Rock days have a lot of influence on your affinity with lyrics?
RJ: Yes. People like Dylan, Sly and the Beatles are responsible for my lyrical feeling. I feel that I have to say something in a song and that it's not just enough to lay down the music.
JA: Why is it, do you feel, that lyrics are less meaningful in R&B than some other music forms?
RJ: A lot of people just don't have anything to say — black and white! But a lot of blacks are afraid and haven't busted out yet.
JA: Do you think that your experiences with Rock bands has given you the confidence to bust out?
RJ: Probably so, yes. It's a very pertinent question because it deals with the nature of the two races. Blacks have been suppressed for so long that they're a little apprehensive. Me? I'm not afraid of shit! I will tell you what the deal is and be very open. A lot of the Rock musicians are that way; they don't give a damn. Some of it with me stemmed from when I was in England because they are very, very open there — incredibly so.
JA: Do you prefer it that way?
RJ: Yes, I do. My message to black people is to bust out and say what's on your mind and to hell with the consequences.
JA: How much of your lyrics is you?
RJ: All of it! I love marijuana — Mary Jane — and you can print that! I smoke it every day and it's the greatest thing since ice cream and I'm not afraid to say it.
JA: Who, then, was the "Fool On The Street"?
RJ: That was me. I was in love with a lady — an English lady — and we got married but ended up in divorce. When I made it, we tried to patch it up but it just didn't work out. So, I realized I was the fool. "Hollywood" was me, too.
JA: Now that you've made it and are no longer hungry, will you be able to write such meaningful lyrics?
RJ: You mean, will the fame and money and shit change my attitude? Not really — because I'm still the same person. Money has never had that much effect on me. I still go to the same places and do the same things I always did.
JA: Do you, therefore, still relate to your early lyrics?
RJ: Yes — I certainly do.
JA: Rick, I'd like to check out your production schedule. For example, is there a new Teena Marie album in the works?
RJ: There is — but I'm not doing it I just don't have the time. Teena is at a point where she should be on her own. She is very talented. I hear that she and Minnie Riperton's husband (Dick Rudolph) are collaborating on the next album.
JA: She is still with Motown, though?
RJ: Oh, Yeah.
JA: But you are getting ready to record your band, the Stone City Band. Is that for Motown, too?
RJ: Yes, it is. I'm also cutting my girl singers, the Colored Girls, and my horn players, the Punk Funk Horns — but they are not with Motown…yet!
JA: Does Art Stewart have any involvement with your productions now?
RJ: Now now. He helped on my first two albums and on Teena's album and he helped mix them, too. He is one of the great engineers and one of the greatest people I've ever known. My break off with him only came because he didn't have the time to work with me. He taught me enough and I felt that I was ready to branch off on my own.
JA: Do you want to briefly run through your early career for those who don't know?
RJ: It began in Canada. I was young and with a group called the Minah Birds that included Neil Young, Goldie McJohn and Bruce Palmer. They later became Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and Steppenwolf.
JA: When was that and why were you in Canada?
RJ: The late 60's. I had joined the navy and went A.W.O.L. (absent without leave). I had joined underage and I have since got a discharge but that's how it happened. Then after that I went to London for a year and a half and that's where I really went back to studying. There were so many starving bands trying to make it there that I realized I'd need to be extra great. Believe me, when you starve in London, you really starve!
JA: Did you find it an advantage to be a black American, though?
RJ: Yes, for sure. But I didn't enjoy it much because I don't like starving anywhere! I didn't see the country — but next time it'll be different — I'll have food in my stomach and some shillings in me' pocket!
JA: Didn't the Minah Birds sign with Motown?
RJ: That's right.
JA: Was that intended for their Rare Earth label?
RJ: We actually signed before that but when Rare Earth came along, they thought of us for the label.
JA: Did you want to be with Motown?
RJ: I always wanted to be with Motown. Ever since when I was a kid and Stevie and the Temptations were my heroes.
JA: Is that how you ended up with them for "Come Get It"?
RJ: Actually…no! In fact, I had told the people who were negotiating my deal not to even talk with Motown! I had heard all kinds of things about them that I later found out to be completely untrue. There were always the thing about how they ripped everybody off. But it's all bullshit. The only way these groups get ripped off is by not looking after their own interests properly and by not having the right lawyers and accountants.
JA: Did you find it hard to get through musically at Motown because of their tradition?
RJ: I was scared and afraid that they would lose the first album. But the deal was so great that I didn't care if the first album flopped — in fact, I expected it! But I had a guarantee for a second album.
JA: What was it about that first album that got it over?
RJ: "You And I" came out at a time when negroids and whiteroids were doing some serious dancing. There are negroids, whiteroids, jewroids — then there are assholes and haemorrhoids! And Polish people are polaroids. Anyway, all the 'roids were really dancing and listening at the time.
JA: Did the disco market really break the record first?
RJ: It helped but it was the R&B market that really broke it. A whole lot of disco records never go over R&B. A very good friend of mine is Suzy Lane and she has a Top 10 disco record out called "Ooh La La". But won't find it on the R&B charts because she has become a disco artiste. Now Donna Summer isn't a disco artiste — she's Crisco! She's oiled all the way so she goes disco, popsco, MORsco.
JA: Out of interest, are you happy at Motown?
RJ: Yes, John, I am. They're helping me and I'm helping them. It's one big happy, helping family.
JA: Is Rick James your real name?
RJ: No, my real name is James Johnson. A witch told me that I had to change my name before I could make it. At one point in my life, I was really into astrology and numerology and the occult. That was about ten years back. There was one girl who really had me hooked because she seemed to be so accurate. At the time, I was using the name of Ricky James Matthews — that was given to me while I was A.W.O.L. in Canada by Shirley Matthews. She had a hit record, remember? Called "Big Time Boy". Anyway, I was told to change my name to Rick James and that it would take eight years for me to make it and that I'd have to pay all kinds of dues first. And it happened exactly the way she said it would.
JA: You're back to living in Buffalo again now, having moved back from L. A. What brought you back?
RJ: Visions of earthquakes! Really! I actually left because I didn't want to risk my life. That's part of my destiny that I can control and I had a premonition that told me and my band to get the hell out of L.A. And Hollywood is so plastic! Also, my mother is getting older and I want to spend more time with her. Buffalo is a real place — it's funky. The ghetto is incredible — I grew up there.
JA: Didn't they recently name a street after you in Buffalo?
RJ: Right. It's the street my mother lives on. Now I can say to a taxi driver: Take me to Rick James Street. And he'll say: "where?"
JA: Would you say that success has changed you?
RJ: Of course, success changes everybody. But not too much. Maybe I'm crazier!
JA: Does it give you the confidence to be more outspoken?
RJ: Sure! Of course! If I'm riding an elevator and some guy in a suit and tie looks at my braids, we'll stare at each other now. Before, I'd look away more easily.
JA: And do you get the temptation to tell him you could probably buy him ten times over?
RJ: Yes — literally! Because it's true! But I'm not on an ego trip over money — though I realize what money can do. If you've got money, it doesn't matter what color you are. Probably the only place I've ever been to where that's not completely so is England because there they don't give a shit.
JA: You have an image that you have projected through your music and on stage. Is that your true identity?
RJ: No, it's an alter ego. There is a Rick James and a James Johnson.
JA: Who am I talking to today?
RJ: James Johnson…
JA: Which do you prefer?
RJ: I prefer James Johnson because I can deal with him better than Rick James. Generally, people can't deal with Rick James because they expect some kind of a wild lunatic.
JA: Because that's the impression you give on stage…
RJ:…I never meant to give that impression. You can tell from my music that I'm sensitive and that I can be hurt if you say the wrong thing. An that I don't like hurting people.
JA: But you come across as being anti-establishment.
RJ: Isn't everyone who busts out? But I'm not really anti because the establishment accepts you if you've got the dollars and cents. Ask Richard Nixon! But I have always known I was different — even as a kid. Today, I look at a lot of my old friends and they're junkies or winos and I know now how right I was. It used to worry me for a minute and not it saddens me that the ghetto has beaten them.
JA: Was it your rebellious nature that helped you to bust out?
RJ: Yes — I was always prepared to take a lot of chances.
JA: And it was always on your mind to better yourself…
RJ: Always. Not so much for me, but for my mother.
JA: They tell me you have a sex image, Mr. James! For the ladies' sake, pray tell if that is an image you try to project.
RJ: No, John, I'm just a sexual person!!! I really don't know what a sexual image means, to be serious with you. If you mean do I try to project sexuality, I guess I do — both consciously and unconsciously.
JA: I also understand you have a large gay following, too.
RJ: That's nice. Because they like to funk, too. And they buy records. I think that the gay community is a wonderful, open thing.
JA: Do you feel that the world is getting a better place to live in?
RJ: No — but I think events will put us on the right track. The only thing that will put this planet on the right track will be some visitations from somewhere else. You see, we all think we know so much and yet we understand so little. I don't think there is any hope of us solving our own problems. But individually we can all try.
JA: Do you have any hobbies or pastimes?
RJ: No — because I don't like the stage that much. It's boring. I'm comfortable there but I didn't see myself gigging forever. I might not even always make records. I don't like the bullshit of the business, you see. And I can't stand the travelling — except when I'm not working. I don't like having to be somewhere. I hate being regimented.
JA: Here's a loaded question for you — how do you feel about the record business in general?
RJ: Shit! Strange!
JA: Do you feel a part of it?
RJ: I am a part of it — but I wish I wasn't! People tell me I'm like the industry's prodigal son. I've seen it all — the drugs, the chicks, the money — and it's all bullshit. And it's not what it's all about or what I'm all about.
JA: If you had made it ten years sooner…
RJ:…I'd have been one of them, a nutcase! For sure! Neil Young is one of the few people I know who has survived. He's so much into his family and home life that he has risen above it all.
JA: Is it necessary to find that escape route?
RJ: You've got to! That's why I live in Buffalo. If I was in Holloweird, I'd be burned out and crazy.
JA: Did it ever worry you that it took so long for you to make it?
RJ: It used to. I was a catalyst for a lot of people. But the woman I told you about, she told me it would be this way. She was an honest-to-God real witch and she told me I'd be a catalyst and that I'd have to pay eight years of karma dues. But then that I would be bigger than I'd ever dreamed of being. In those days, I wanted to be as big as Sly was at the time. Now, there's no telling how Big Rick James can get if he hangs in there.
I really like my own music — honest! If I really take myself out of myself and I find that though Rick James may not be the most original artist or writer in the world, he's good. Anyway, what is there in the world today that is truly original?
JA: Are you still ambitious?
RJ: Spiritually, yes. But I've not been feeling really good lately. I always wanted to be a big star and that happened. I always wanted lots of money and that happened. Now, I wake up in the morning and ask myself if it is all worth it.
JA: Are you happy?
RJ: In the true sense of the word — no! I was happier when I was broke. I'm happy about the security and success — but not in myself.
JA: What would it take to make you happy?
RJ: I really don't know, and I often try to find out. I probably need me an old lady! I don't have one regular one anymore. Then again, maybe I'm not ready to deal with that just now, either. Maybe you've just caught me on a bad day but it's the truth. Hey, if you take the joint out of a lot of guy's mouths, you'd hear the same thing.
JA: Would you trade everything you've achieved over the years for some happiness?
RJ: Immediately! Immediately!! To be content and to wake up happy — that has to be a magical experience. You see, I've become a recluse because I am not the kind of guy who gets off on being recognised all the time. I enjoy going out but I hate having to disguise myself to enjoy myself. Sometimes, people just want to fuck with me but they don't consider that I have feelings, too. If I don't feel like signing an autograph while I'm sitting on the toilet, it's they that get offended. And I hate hurting people because of my own sensitivity.
JA: This gentle, sensitive side of you isn't something you try to project.
RJ: People have their own vision of me, I guess.
JA: The way you are talking now doesn't go hand-in-hand with "Love Gun" or "Fire It Up".
RJ: That's Rick James and you're talking to James Johnson, today. Rick is the entertainer; he's the wild man. When I go to the city, it's James Johnson that drives in and Rick James that steps out of the car. And he is ready to play the game.
JA: So actually Rick James is perfectly happy. It's James Johnson that isn't…
RJ: Rick James is always incredibly happy. James Johnson is something else, though. But that's the trip when you're dealing with alter-egos. You see, James Johnson doesn't have the patience or drive to deal with the bullshit of the industry anyway. Rick James is the one who wants to stay on top and go out and have the wild orgies. he wants to get high and groove all the time.
But now I understand it all. I know what they both are and I stay on top of the situation all the time. Meeting David Bowie and a lot of others, it seems they are all the same way. Most of them are beautiful and sensitive people. Teddy Pendergrass is the perfect example. Mick Jagger, McCartney are both the same. And George Clinton is another; he's an older guy and a perfect father!
JA: Let's face it, the average guy couldn't stand up and perform in front of 20,000 people.
RJ: But it's always the average guy who wants to change places. Always on about the money, the women and the fast cars. I wish they could all have it for one day and see what it really means. That's why the vast majority of entertainers need their place of escape, of solitude. For example, I haven't been outside the house in a week and a half. it's good because I have been creating. But then in another way, I'm trapped. Fortunately, I've got my pool inside and a little gym downstairs and I've got my horses. But it's also like being a prisoner.
JA: Let's end on a happy note by asking you to explain why you referred to yourself as being the Exlax of Music.
RJ: Because my music clears out your insides and you can have a good inner shit. Drop some Rick James music and it will give you mental diarrhea. So, for all you mentally constipated people, try my new album, "Fire It Up"!