Rick James, who returned to the spotlight this year after a long absence, thanks largely to Dave Chappelle's outlandish impersonation of the funk legend on Comedy Central's ''Chappelle's Show,'' was found dead on Friday at his Los Angeles home, the Associated Press reports. The ''Super Freak'' singer, whose funk riffs influenced two decades of R&B and hip-hop performers, was 56. Police told AP that James apparently died of natural causes.
James was as celebrated for ''Super Freak,'' his 1981 hit (and the basis for MC Hammer's even bigger 1989 hit ''U Can't Touch This'') as for his hard-living ways. In the mid-1990s, he served two years in prison after two women accused James and his girlfriend of torturing and imprisoning them. In a jailhouse interview with EW, he called prison a ''blessing in disguise,'' saying that it had helped him kick his cocaine habit. But it was James' hedonistic lifestyle, as depicted in Chappelle's celebrated performance (and with James' blessing), that put the singer back on the map this year, making ''I'm Rick James, b----!'' a national catchphrase.
James had been in frail health in recent years. A stroke cut short a 1997 comeback tour. He underwent hip replacement surgery in 1998. At the time of his death, he was working on an autobiography, to be called ''Memoirs of a Superfreak,'' whose movie rights Paramount has already optioned as a starring vehicle for Chappelle.