By Deon C. Jefferson
When it comes to music, nobody does it better than a Black artist. Over the years Black musicians have made indelible impacts on the way the industry is structured. Our influence has been sprinkled on almost every genre from country to gospel. Funk music is one of the biggest genres we’ve shaped. Throughout history there have been plenty of funk pioneers. We’ve celebrated the groundwork that James Brown laid, in addition to the showmanship and ingenuity that Parliament funkadelic displayed. Thanks to a new documentary “B*tchin: The Sound and Fury of Rick James”, new and old fans can remember the monumental impact Rick James had on funk music.
“We wanted to give people the full picture of who he was,” said director Sacha Jenkins. “He wasn’t perfect. He did some horrible things, allegedly. For some, he was convicted. Growing up, he had some trauma and abuse. Maybe that informed some of the decisions he made in life.”
The documentary presented Rick James as a human. When he was living, he received accolades and recognition for his music, but thanks to his lifestyle choices he received a lot of negative attention. “B*tchin” paints a totally different image of the singer. The documentary starts by diving into his very humble beginnings in Buffalo, New York. Director Jenkins gave fans a glimpse of how James grew up. His childhood was spent watching his father abuse his mom and him being abused by his mother. Despite the abuse, James adored his mom. As a child, his mother introduced him to music such as jazz and blues. His mother would end up being one of his biggest supporters over the years.
The documentary features original interviews from notable artists like Bootsy Collins, Ice Cube, Roxanne Shante, and Big Daddy Kane. A good majority of the members from his group Stone City Band also gave interviews. They were very honest about their relationship with the artist. Friends and family members also chime in on the “punk-funk” music legend. It’s one of the first times the world has seen James as a father. In fact, the opening scene from the documentary starts with his daughter going through his furniture at a storage facility.
Throughout his illustrious career, James has released thirteen successful studio albums. His debut album “Come Get It” was released in 1978. It featured his breakout singles “You and I” and “Mary Jane”. The song solidified him as a trendsetter and a bad boy. “Mary Jane” paved the way for artists today to be open about cannabis in music. All the songs on James’s first album were written and produced solely by himself. This was considered a rarity in those days. In fact, it’s been rumored that James was responsible for changing the business model for Motown. They were known for being a well-oiled manufactured machine. Motown had a team of songwriters and producers that gave artists songs. It’s not that these artists couldn’t write their own songs; this was just the norm at Motown.
James’s most successful album was “Street Songs”. The album featured the iconic “Give it to me Baby”, which was his second single to top the R&B chart for five weeks. However, it was the single “Super Freak” that became his signature song and his biggest hit. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked it as one of the 500 “Greatest Songs of All Time”, and it became heavily sampled by hip hop artists. In 1990, MC Hammer famously sampled the song for his crossover hit “Can’t Touch This”, which won the artist a Grammy. This would go on to be the only Grammy Rick James has to his name. “Street Songs” spent an impressive twenty weeks at the number one spot on the US R&B chart and it sold over four million albums. He was the first African American male to be nominated in the “Best Male Rock Vocal Performance” category.