“It was a do or die situation,” said Buffalo funk legend Rick James, by phone, about the making of his most successful album to date, 1981’s “Street Songs,” which yielded such smashes as “Super Freak” and “Give It to Me Baby.”
The album, which has just been re-released with a bonus concert disc to mark its 20th anniversary, was the followup to his dismal ballad-heavy set from 1980, “Garden of Love,” which failed to even go Top 10 on the R&B charts. Prior to recording “Street Songs,” James began thinking that his career was almost over. He knew it would take drastic measures to save it.
So, for inspiration, he packed his bags in Los Angeles and headed back to the place where his dreams of stardom were born and his musical talents were nurtured, the East Side of Buffalo.
The result of this homecoming? An album that would spend 20 weeks at No. 1 on the R&B chart, and would also come to be representative of the social and political climate of black America in the early ’80s in the same way that classics by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield captured the signs of the times in the ’70s.
“When I listen to that album, I think of Buffalo in the early Reagan years,” said Craig Werner, author of “A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America,” who lived in the city at the time. “The optimism and hopefulness associated with the industrial economy was gone.
“In 1980, you had to be a damn fool to think that you were going to get a good union job. There was no hope for making any kind of a living. So you could see the hustling culture developing at the time. And Rick catches that beautifully.”
But unlike Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” James’ tunes, such as “Ghetto Life,” which he said “typifies” “Street Songs,” weren’t intended to change the conditions in the inner city.
“The ghetto’s not going anywhere,” said James. “Ghettos are going to be around until the end of time.”
Rather, James simply wanted to record what he saw around him in as visceral and truthful a manner as possible.
“My career has always been based on me being as honest as I can,” James said. “And I’m down with the ghetto; pimps and “hos;’ dope dealers; getting high; having a good time and dancing; crying; making love; not wanting to make love; being too high to make love; the police, and player haters who called me a (expletive) because I’m rich and I look good and I got a lot of women and cars. “Street Songs’ is the story of a young brother growing up in the ghetto trying to get over the best way he can.”
But in addition to chronicling the rough-edged realities of inner city life, “Street Songs” openly and, for the times, explicitly, celebrated sexuality in the way that would come to be associated with contemporary acts like R. Kelly.
Indeed the album’s biggest single was the song that most clearly expressed James’ erotic ethos, the infamous new wave-inflected funk jam “Super Freak.”
“That song was inspired by the lifestyle that I was living,” said James. “To me, a freak was an uninhibited woman. It wasn’t meant as a bad connotation. It’s complimentary. It just means being sexually open and not constricted.”
He doesn’t even mind when people associate him with the term. “I’ll wear that jacket,” he said.
This smash tune also figured in James’ heavily publicized battle to get his music videos, as well as those of other black artists, played on the then rock-dominated MTV. His campaign, which even reached ABC’s “Nightline,” was largely unsuccessful.
But soon afterward, the network began playing clips by Michael Jackson and Prince. And in 1990, one of MTV’s most played videos was M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” which takes its entire backing track from “Super Freak.”
“That was a bitter pill,” said James. “I’d be lying if I sat here and said it wasn’t. But I beat them at their own game in the long run, because they played the (expletive) out of MC Hammer and that’s like playing Rick James. I own that (expletive). Whether it’s me or him, I don’t give a (expletive). The checks are the same.”
Because of the enduring success of “Super Freak” and some of the album’s other tunes, like the R&B radio staple “Fire and Desire, “Street Songs” marks the commercial and aesthetic high point of James’ career.
But it also coincided with James’ spiraling descent into a drug addiction so intense that it would lead to a 1993 sentence of five years in a California correctional facility for drug, assault and imprisonment charges.
“I look at ’81 as a changing time for me because not only did it give me the biggest album of my career, but it was the year that I started smoking cocaine,” said James. “I had never done that. I had only snorted it. So that was a whole ‘nother game for me. As opposed to spending a couple of hundred thousand a year (on drugs), now I was spending damn near half a million. So it was an astronomical change, mentally, spiritually and physically.”
Nevertheless, James still remains nostalgic for the heydays of “Street Songs” even though they arguably led to his personal and professional downfall.
“Things were simpler in the ’80s,” James said. “We didn’t have rehab in the ’80s. We didn’t have to worry about denial of our addictions, whether they were drugs or sexual. We didn’t have to worry about doing cocaine and going to Betty Ford, because we didn’t know about those things. So we did all the coke in the world. We didn’t have to worry about too much sex because there was no HIV. We didn’t have to worry about anything other than getting into discos and dancing and having fun and whose body we were going to jump on that night.
“I guess I was living ghetto fabulous. Yeah, I was.”