Super Freak Rick James is a complicated figure in cannabis history. This is clear from the opening and ending song, "Mary Jane," in the new Showtime documentary, Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James, directed by Sacha Jenkins.
James' ode to weed appeared on his debut album in 1978. Back then James featured a large joint on stage and made constant toking references to the crowd like, "Where is the ganja tonight?" Dr. Todd Boyd says about "Mary Jane," which is listed as the No. 3 Pot Song of All Time at CelebStoner: "This was a guy making a song about smoking weed, which back in the '70s was radical."
In the documentary, James explains that music gave him "a vehicle to write anything I wanted to write about. I smoke marijuana, I can write about it. If I don't like Richard Nixon, I can call him an asshole."
James embodied the '70s ethos of racial liberty, drug experimentation and open sexualty. Born in Buffalo, he originally hooked up with the Minah Birds in Toronto, a group that included Neil Young, following a brief stint in the service (he went AWOL to Canada). After being deported, James moved to Los Angeles to make it in the music business. More of rocker at first, he adapted to the funkier music of the era and created an outlandish R&B character as a next generation James Brown or Sly Stone. The hits on Motown started coming - Grammy winner "You Can't Touch This," "Bustin Loose," "Give It to Me, Baby," "Super Freak" - and so did the much-publicized excess.
Rick James: "I smoke marijuana, I can write about it."
This is where James' story become difficult. For many in that era, cannabis and cocaine use was common, but ultimately coke dominated his life and then crack. He called it a "helluva drug," but cocaine landed him in rehab more than 30 times, according to his former girlfriend Tanya Hijizi. "I never saw Rick sober for more than three months," she comments. "Addiction was the bane of his existence. He was a tortured soul."
James' life completely spiraled out of control in the early '90s when he faced numerous assault charges and spent three years in Folsom Prison in California. After his release, James had a moderate comeback (partially due to Dave Chappelle's mimickry: "I'm Rick James, bitch!"), but soon fell off the wagon. His last few years were marred by drug abuse and poor health. He died in 2004 at 56.
Rick James' place in musical history, merging rock and funk (he called it punk funk), is indelible. However, his personal life was shameful and it will likely prevent him from ever being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame where he otherwise would belong.
The next screening is September 13, 8 pm, on Showtime Extreme.