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#ThrowbackThursday: “Super Freak” by Rick James

Rick James “Super Freak Cordy/Motown Records

by Sean Smith

On the morning of August 6, 2004, eleven years ago today, the legendary Rick James was found dead in his Los Angeles home. The longtime singer and producer had died at the age of 56, from a combination of health issues that included heart issues, diabetes and stroke.

Describing Rick James as legendary is by no means an example of hyperbole, nor is it always complimentary. While there is no denying the musical genius of Rick James, there can also be no denying the existence and severity of his drug use which play a central role in many of the legendary stories told about the charismatic singer’s many escapades.

Perhaps the most well known tales about Rick James come courtesy of the infamous “True Hollywood Stories – Rick James” skits on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show. It was on these skits that Charlie Murphy, brother of actor/comedian Eddie Murphy, and James discuss stories from their time hanging out together in the 1980s and are brought to life in the skit with Dave Chappelle playing the role of Rick James. And while these legends are perhaps the most well known, there are certainly many many more.

There was the time early on when he attempted to finance his fledgling music career by becoming a pimp. Talking about this time in his 2014 autobiography Glow, James wrote about himself, I lacked the hard-edged discipline and cold-blooded attitude a good pimp requires. If my b**** said she was too tired to work, I said go home. If she said some john had beat her, I’d find the john and beat his a**. Pimping was too inhuman for me. I let the girls go and went back to my music.”

There was also the time when according to boxer Mike Tyson in his memoir Undisputed Truth, James walked up to Tyson and actor Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) who were having a drink in front of a hotel on Sunset Boulevard and punched Ribeiro in the face, snatched the drink from his hand, and drank it in front of him before turning to Tyson and calmly quipping, “What’s up, n****?”

He openly talked about how he would go into public restaurants, lay out lines of cocaine and snort them right there in front of everyone.

At his 32nd birthday party James walked up behind an unsuspecting Prince who was seated at a table; grabbed him by the hair, pulled his head back, and proceeded to pour cognac down his throat. Laughing at the fact that he left the iconic singer in tears.

These are just a small sampling of the many legendary stories surrounding Rick James, many of which are not so flattering. But there is no denying the legendary status of James as a musical genius. After all, this is the guy that was able to turn Eddie Murphy into a chart topping singer by writing and producing “Party All The Time” for the actor/comedian in 1985. So this week we take a moment to remember what would become one of Rick James most popular songs in his extensive discography, “Super Freak.”

Rick James released his fifth studio album Street Songs in April of 1981. “Super Freak” was released as the second single from the record, after “Give It To Me Baby.” The track “Super Freak” was the last song recorded for the Street Songs album. In Glow, his 2014 autobiography, he wrote about how the song came into being:

“It was about three in the morning. We had just put the horn parts on “Give It to Me Baby” when I was sitting in front of the console with my bass. I wasn’t trying to write. I was just noodling. This bass line came out of nowhere. Four descending notes. Nothing particularly striking. It was cheesy, but it was also catchy. I couldn’t stop playing it. At the same time, I started singing, “She’s a very kinky girl…” I was about to stop — the whole thing sounded a little dumb — when one of my cats said, “Cut it, Rick.”     “You crazy?” I asked.     “No man, it’s cool. It’s hypnotic.”     I kept playing the riff and realized that it was hypnotic. Right then and there I had the engineer hook up a mic and started singing the story as it came to me — this story of a super freak. I never wrote down a word. Made it up on the spot.”

Rick James took that song and rode it all the way to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100. The track also reached the number three position on the R&B chart and topped the dance chart for three weeks in the United States. But 1981 is not the last time that Rick James would garner success with “Super Freak.” In 1990, rapper MC Hammer sampled the opening riff of the song for his mega-hit “U Can’t Touch This”. However, Hammer didn’t get permission from James and so James sued, eventually leading to Hammer settling out of court and giving writing credit for the “U Can’t Touch This” to James. This being the case, Rick James not only made millions on royalties thanks to the success of MC Hammer’s song, but also earned Rick James a Grammy in 1990, when “U Can’t Touch This” took home the award for Best R&B Song.

So in honor of the legendary Rick James, who passed away 11 years ago today, this week we remember not only some of the legendary stories about Rick James many escapades, but also his 1981 classic “Super Freak.” Enjoy.

Rick James 

“Super Freak”

From Street Songs 

Gordy/Motown Records

Related Media 

MC Hammer

“U Can’t Touch This”

From Please Hammer Don’t Hurt’em 

Capitol Records/EMI