Friday, October 06, 2006

The Sons of Sly

Anyone who came of age in the 80’s will tell you that the music that pre-dominated Black radio back then was funk. Hearing a rap record on the radio at that time was a treat. And you best believe that everyone from the on air personality to the program director detested the airing of the song.

In the 1980's Michael Jackson was the most popular thing in music. His fame eclipsed that of Elvis and the Beatles. He was like a 500 ton elephant sitting on the recording industry.

But the world of funk was dominated by two forces: Rick James and Prince. Both men were undisputedly funky and although they were rivals, their common influence was
Sly and the Family Stone.

Prince Rogers Nelson had his own sound.
He took a whole heaping of Sly, a fistful of James Brown, a chunk of Parliament-Funkadelic and a dash of Jimi Hendrix and created what can only be called the ‘Minneapolis’ sound. With his androgynous looks and all around eccentricity he started a movement whose true believers included: The Time, Vanity 6 (later to be called Appollonia 6), Sheena Easton, Sheila E, Ready for the World and many others.

Artistically the man was on island all to himself. Though most of his albums stayed on the charts his commercial endeavors were mostly enjoyed by his die-hard fans.

In the movie ‘Pulp Fiction’ the question is asked: “Are you a Beatles fan or a Rolling Stones fan?” It’s a straight forward question, because depending on which group you liked or identified with it said something about who you were. But you couldn’t be both; you were either one or the other.

The 80’s equivalent of that argument (before hip hop took over) was you were either a Rick James fan or a Prince fan. You could love them both, and many did and still do, but more than likely you were feeling one more than the other.

From my own personal observations Prince fans tended to be just as eccentric as he was. This was the era where it was pretty common to see dudes wearing long Jheri Curls, eye liner and rocking long leather boots. I couldn’t get down like that. I liked some of his records but I wasn’t about to be walking around looking like that.

So I dug the other guys music more…

Born the son of a numbers running, Mob connected mother James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. was born in Buffalo, NY in 1948. According to published reports as a teenager he was shy and reserved. But young James’ quietness shielded a burning determination that would drive him to the top of the charts. But it was a long, hard windy road to the pinnacle of fame whose heights he’d bask in before falling off into a pit of drug abuse and a five year stretch in prison.

According to published reports when young James Johnson popped up in Toronto, Canada sometime in the mid 1960’s his name was Ricky James Matthews, how he came up with that name is not known, but a good guess would be that it was probably to keep the law off his tracks. You see, young Ricky was a wanted man; he was wanted by the FBI for being AWOL from the Navy. Friends and colleagues from that time say that James was a talented and charismatic performer who was heavily influenced by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.

In the mid 70’s Ricky James Matthews changed his name to Rick James and single handedly saved Motown from the brink of extinction. It was also at Motown that James, whose influences were rock, jazz, salsa and funk – but more so rock, was introduced to a young white female singer who loved the hell out of Rhythm and Blues. It is said that they were an odd pairing, but a good pairing. Her name was Teena Marie.

Being a young New Yorker transplanted to the West Coast I was enthralled with the emerging sound from the NY streets: Hip-hop. I had neither the auditory attention nor musical taste for anything that didn’t match the break-beat style that predominated New York rap at that time.

That was until I fully got to dig Rick James.

“Standing on the Top”, “Mary Jane’, ‘Cold Blooded’, ‘Dance with Me’, ‘17’, ‘Pimp Simp’, ‘Ghetto Life’ and many others captured my imagination.

The first concert I ever went to was at the now gone Circle Star Theatre in San Mateo, Ca. I had to beg and plead with my mother for 2 weeks to allow me to go.
“Mark, do you know what kind of people go to Rick James concerts?”
“Nah, what?”
“Pimps, prostitutes and gangsters!”
“So”, I said, ‘they ain’t gonna bother me!”
“Well, who are you gonna go with cause I’m not taking you?”

There was no doubt about that, because there was no way on God’s green Earth or in the hell below, that I was going to go see Rick James with my moms, that was out of the question. I wanted to go with my home boys: Mark and Rodney.

“What, the three of you at a Rick James concert?” My mother yelled.
“Yeah, well, Damina’s going too.” I said.
“Oh hell no!” she said, ‘you’re right the pimps and gangsters won’t want you guys – they’ll want her!”

She had a point there.

Damina, my home boy Mark’s older sister, who was 19 years old at the time, had men all over the Bay Area falling over each other trying to get with her. Gangsters included. But to her credit she didn’t let any of them dudes play her out.

We sat in the front row at the Circle Star Theatre that night. I don’t know how Rodney’s mother pulled that one off, but she did. After the Mary Jane Girls did their set, the Stone City Band did theirs.

At the end of their set the lights were dimmed and Rick James was introduced. Rick came strolling down the aisle in a white outfit sporting a captain’s hat, wearing dark shades while holding his guitar in one hand and smoking a joint with the other. Rick was cool.

I felt Rick’s brand of funk more than I could Prince’s. Rick, if you close your eyes and listen to his songs comes off like a p-i-m-p in a lot of his records. From the sound of things he smoked a lot of good herb, snorted the best cocaine and regularly took 4 or 5 girls to bed a night. To my teenage ears… that dude was God.

On the other hand I could hardly understand what in the hell Prince was talking about in most of his songs. I knew the dude was deep but…sleeping with your sister? Come on hops, you gots to come better than that. And all of these years later I still don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about on “When Doves Cry”, which is one of my favorite recordings from the man, that and “Lady Cab Driver”, but I don’t know what in the hell he’s singing about.

Rick James was much more straight forward: ‘Give it to me Baby”, ‘Super Freak’, ‘I Love you 69 Times’ – real pimp shit. And that's pimp spelled the way Black folks say it 'p-e-e-i-i-i-m-p'.

Speaking of pimps, yes, their were plenty of pimps, prostitutes, players, gangsters and all kinds of other underworld types at the Circle Star that night. The pungent smell of marijuana hung over the theatre like a rain cloud.

Damina bought her best friend Perdita with her that night and we ended up trailing the groups back to some hotel somewhere in San Mateo. We were hoping to meet Rick, instead we met Monty of the Stone City Band, who just so happened to be hanging out at Denny’s.

Rick James’ bodyguard and brother, a short, bald- headed dude with a red rag tied around his head threatened to beat anyone down who went near Rick. Let’s put it like this: We must’ve gotten pretty close that night, because as I turned a corner down a lone corridor in the hotel, the bodyguard jumped to attention and yelled: ‘Hey lil nigga!”

I took off running down the hall yelling “Yo, the big dude is coming, the big dude is coming!"

Nowadays Rick James has been become notorious for a phrase, one which I think will live on just as long as his music: "I'm Rick James, bitch!"

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