Do Ya Do Ya Do Ya Do Ya Do Ya
Rick James "Below The Funk (Pass The J)" (Street Songs, 1981)
Rick James' best selling record is 1981's Street Songs, a concept album about city life where most of the songs deal with prostitution. Thanks to hits like "Super Freak" (featuring his uncle Melvin Franklin's band The Temptations on backing vocals), "Give It To Me Baby" and "Ghetto Life" the album achieved double-platinum status, stayed in the Top 100 Album chart for 54 weeks and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Even though "Super Freak" and "Give It To Me Baby" are classics that are impossible for anyone to deny (I once saw my mom dancing to "Super Freak" at a wedding), it's the non-single tracks that really demand attention. "Below The Funk (Pass The J)" finds Rick smoking dope (a common thread throughout his songs) and reminiscing about his days growing up in Buffalo, NY. The flamboyant singer mentions the ridicule he was burdened with for being so different; in retrospect James finds it laughable:
But it's strange the gossip is so tragic They called me a faggot Me and all my women laugh at it
Rick James can certainly be called a lot of things, but a homosexual is not something that immediately springs to mind. "Below The Funk" tells James' story with surprising clarity, all the while being carried along by the shit hot funk rock of the Stone City Band, the backing band for his entire career. It's funny to think of Rick James (real name James Ambrose Johnson Jr.) coming from a place so bland as Buffalo, but life was not easy for the Johnson. The third oldest in a family of eight, James was raised solely by his mother, whose main source of income was running numbers for the Italian mob.
Mama raised me on the numbers racket With eight kids and no father Said she couldn't hack it
"Below The Funk" fails to mention James' first prison stint after going AWOL from the US Navy as a young man. He had fled to Canada where he hooked up with Neil Young and formed a band called the Mynah Birds (the band also featured future Steppenwolf member Goldie McJohn). The band signed to the Motown label but their career was cut short because of Rick's military trouble. After his jail time James went to Europe where he would hone his musical craft for the next seven years. James remembers the time with fondness in an Onion AV Club interview: "It gave me a sense of independence, a sense of the whole traveling minstrel thing. I was just over there singing and playing for a living".
James would return to the States a new man. He formed the Stone City Band, signed to Motown's Gordy label and became the now legendary superstar Rick James. But songs like "Below The Funk" prove that he never forgot where he came from: "It's like going to see a psychiatrist. It's no different than that. If you're telling it the way it is, and you're being really honest, you're going to get help. If you bullshit and lie, then you're not going to get any help. I'm trying to get my mind and my soul together. The only way I can do that is to be as honest as I can be."