When Rick James and his girlfriend, Tanya Anne Hijazi, 21, were arrested Aug. 2 on a litany of felony charges ranging from sexual assault to torturing a woman with a hot cocaine pipe, many who know him weren’t shocked. The self-proclaimed ”king of punk-funk” sold more than 15 million albums in the late ’70s and early ’80s by mixing hard funk with a streetwise sexual bravura. But acquaintances say the singer had been on a downward spiral for years.
”Rick is a chameleon with a lot of different sides to his personality — and most of them aren’t nice,” says JoAnne Funderburg, who as JoAnne McDuffie provided lead vocals for the Mary Jane Girls, a popular funk group created, promoted, and produced by James in the mid-’80s. Funderburg claims the group members were never paid royalties for their work. ”Slaves were treated better,” she says.
James, 39, was dropped by his label, Warner Bros. Records, just weeks before his arrest. Although he made a small fortune last year when M.C. Hammer’s ”U Can’t Touch This” — a rap based on James’ 1981 ”Super Freak (Part 1)” riff — became a hit, a new James LP slated for release last spring had been shelved at the last minute. A Warner insider cited ambiguous ”personal reasons” and ”concerns over production quality” for the rejection.
James, who had signed a recording deal with Motown Records in the late ’70s, got his first break in 1978 with the top 20 single ”You and I.” The success brought him a seven-figure income, but he once estimated he blew $1 million on ”cars, wine, women, and booze.” One year later, he was deeply in debt and suffering from hepatitis. Yet despite James’ vices, his star continued to rise during the early ’80s, when albums like the multiplatinum Street Songs and its infectious single, ”Super Freak,” put him in the same stratum as Michael Jackson and Prince. But while Jackson traded on his eccentricity and Prince promoted raw sexuality, James courted an image as a druggy macho man.
”You smoke a joint and write a song, and the next thing you know you’ve got a check in the mail,” he told People magazine back in 1982. James also named his Buffalo home studio ”Le Joint” and puffed grass onstage at Madison Square Garden in 1983. But as rowdy as he appeared in concert, his life-style offstage was said to be far more outrageous.
”After ‘Super Freak’ hit big, Motown rented Rick a huge Spanish-style villa off (L.A.’s) Coldwater Canyon,” says a former business associate. ”It was Drug City. There were pipes and bongs everywhere, and women in all shapes, sizes, and colors were running through the place. I never saw him without a joint in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other.”
Eventually, however, the party came to a crashing halt. In and out of detox, James found it difficult to clean up his act. He refused to take the emerging rap phenomenon seriously and soon found his brand of funk being passed over. In addition, James and Motown executives butted heads over his career.
The showdown between James and Motown reached its climax in 1986, when the label sued for breach of contract after he was late turning in a new Mary Jane Girls album. James countersued, accusing Motown of stiffing him on royalties and advances. Court documents provided a startling look at James’ life-style, including the Motown claim that James had freebased thousands of dollars’ worth of cocaine a week.
Two years after leaving Motown, James signed with Warner. Finally caving in to hip-hop in 1988, James hit No. 1 on the R&B singles charts with ”Loosey’s Rap.” He talked about forsaking drugs and said he was free of the coke addiction that he admitted had cost him $15,000 a week. Yet his comeback bid fell short, culminating in an embarrassing performance in a highly touted show at Harlem’s Apollo theater. And, finally, the financial windfall from Hammer’s hit wasn’t enough to turn the tide in James’ life. ”I was surprised, but not real surprised by his arrest,” says Funderburg. ”With all the things he’s done over the years, this latest incident is just karma working its way around.”