When describing the downfall of the artist in the raw and intimate documentary Bitchin’: The Sound And Fury Of Rick James, venerable journalist and biographer David Ritz says, “Show business, if you’re not emotionally well-grounded, will chew you up and spit you out.”
It’s a sobering tale witnessed through the hard-earned rise and inevitable fall of Rick James, a gifted performer whose turbulent childhood shaped his rebellious nature. His penchant for living on the edge and thirst for fame and notoriety led to his 2004 death at 56.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Sacha Jenkins, Bitchin’ is an almost two-hour ride filled with rare concert footage, never-before-seen home videos and ruminant soundbites from weary ex-flames, business associates, artistic collaborators and admiring rappers. James’ only daughter, Tyenza ‘Ty’ James, acts as its emotional linchpin.
“Rick James’ influence is massive, and few people realise how deep his music runs because they’re not educated,” Jenkins tells SBS.
The film documents how James Ambrose Johnson Jr, born in 1948 in racially segregated America, is disturbingly forced to grow up too soon after being sexually abused by two older women – once as a pre-teen, then again at 13.
His streetwise mother influences his passion for music thanks to youthful visits to jazz, soul and blues nightclubs. In addition, she encourages his knack for unlawful activities by introducing him to running numbers, a.k.a. illegal gambling. In archival interview footage, James recalls a teacher telling him, “You’re either going to be a hoodlum or a great entertainer”.
In many ways, he became both. James’ career legacy emanates from a self-taught virtuosity and remarkable precognition with musical fusion.
He exhibited cultural pride through the clarity of his catalogue, unsparing production for stars like The Temptations and Eddie Murphy, activism in the early 1980s against MTV’s whitewashing (“We’re being sat in the back of the bus, TV-style”) and the Maasai-inspired braids he also demanded his Stone City Band members sport.
Simultaneously, he learned from white acts like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Mick Jagger, soaking up their rock and folk essence. He explains his longing to merge sounds and add his personal, “nasty and raw” touch in detail. The outcome of this magic is unmistakable in his seminal work with blue-eyed soulstress Teena Marie, acknowledged in the film as his creative twin flame.
The documentary also explores how underpinning these sonic wins (‘You And I’, ‘Mary Jane’, ‘Give It To Me Baby’) were criminal stints of theft, burglary and copious amounts of drug-taking, plus a dark connection with women. James’ most high-profile case came in 1991 when he and then girlfriend (later wife) Tanya Hijazi were arrested on charges of holding another woman hostage, tying her up, forcing her to perform sexual acts, and burning her with a crack cocaine pipe during a week-long cocaine binge. He faced a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted on all charges.
While on bail for that incident, James assaulted a music executive named Mary Sauger, who claimed James and Hijazi, both high, pretended to meet her for business, then kidnapped and beat her for almost 24 hours. He was found guilty of these offences, serving several years in jail. Hijazi says in the film that her late husband’s power to relate to his diverse fanbase was “because he had been in every shoe”.
Raised in housing projects in Buffalo, upstate New York, James’ authentic street cred and urge to shine a light on the inner city through his art (seen in classics like 1981’s ‘Ghetto Life’) would later translate into hip-hop deification. Curiously, we learn in Bitchin’ that James loathed rap music and wanted rappers to stop sampling his tracks. But when his accountant told him how much money he was making from MC Hammer’s 1990 monster hit, ‘U Can’t Touch This’, with its interpolation of 1981’s ‘Super Freak’, he quickly changed his mind.
While he was a forefather to hip-hop’s zaniest characters, he was also respected by its finest lyricists, with MCs like Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube and Conway The Machine called upon to pay tribute in the film.
“It’s easy to get caught up in Rick’s sensational side, the crimes side. The drugs. The abuse of women. The stints in prison,” Jenkins says. “But his hip-hop side – or at least the direct influence his music has had on hip-hop by way of samples – is undeniable. And influential. Ask MC Hammer or the RZA.”
Naturally, Bitchin’ highlights how, towards the end of his life, James, an almost forgotten relic in early 2004, would return to the cultural zeitgeist through the comedic work of Dave Chappelle. During a sketch on Chappelle’s Show, James, played by Chappelle, utters the now-famous catchphrase, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” (so embedded in pop culture is the expression, there’s an independent LEGO store in Pakenham, Victoria called I’m Rick James, Bricks). James punctuates the sketches by clarifying his past behaviour with the utterance, “Cocaine is a hell of a drug!”
While this was a welcome yet brief resurgence for the still drug-addicted James, Stone City Band member Lanise Hughes says his longtime friend’s depiction angered him. “It made him a toy as opposed to a real human being.” Months later, in August 2004, James’ caretaker would find him dead in his Los Angeles home. A coroner ruled his death was caused by heart failure, while an autopsy found a cocktail of drugs in his blood.
In Bitchin’, one of James’ former video directors muses of the pop star, “He wanted the fame, he knew how to get it. But he didn’t know how to turn it off.”
Bitchin’: The Sound And Fury Of Rick James screened on Saturday 15 January on NITV and is now streaming at SBS On Demand: