He’s Rick James, bitch — and don’t you ever forget it.
That classic Dave Chappelle catchphrase is exactly the kind of emphatic statement that the late “Super Freak” funkster made in one encounter revealed by his former manager Kerry Gordy in the new documentary “Bitchin: The Sound and Fury of Rick James,” which premiered Tuesday night at the TriBeCa Film Festival and will be available to stream on TriBeCa at Home beginning at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Gordy — eldest son of legendary Motown Records founder Berry Gordy — vividly describes how James, frustrated by disappointing sales for his 1982 album “Throwin’ Down” and its accompanying tour, marched into the office of then Motown President Jay Lasker to deliver his next LP. Then he proceeded to pour coke onto Lasker’s desk, snort it, jump on top of said desk, take out his penis — and shove it in Lasker’s face while yelling “Sell my goddamn record!”
Then Gordy reveals that, after the singer left the room, Lasker simply said “Lionel Richie,” effectively signaling that all of Motown’s muscle would now be put behind another one of the label’s stars —and James’ career was never the same.
That’s just some of the juicy tea in the documentary about the artist born James Ambrose Johnson Jr., who died at 56 in 2004 from cardiac and pulmonary failure — with nine different drugs in his system.
One big surprise comes early in the film when it is revealed that at the beginning of his music career, after the Buffalo, New York native fled to Toronto to escape the Navy, James — then going by the name Rickie Mathews — was in a ’60s R&B band with Neil Young called the Mynah Birds. That was until their manager dimed him out for deserting and he ended up in the brig.
Then after stints with other bands, he busted out of the Motown mold in the late ’70s, funking up the legendary label with his Stone City Band culled from his favorite Buffalo musicians. But James wanted his crew to be in hair harmony: “He said, ‘If you wanna be a part of this band, you have to get your braids,’ ” says SCB drummer Lanise Hughes of James’ signature style, which was inspired by an African woman from the Maasai tribe who he met on a plane.
Their drug use went as deep as their grooves. “There was plenty of dope around,” says keyboardist Levi Ruffin Jr. “I think I snorted everything on God’s planet Earth when I was in the band.”
In archival interview footage throughout the documentary — which will premiere on Showtime later this year — James himself reveals just how much debauchery went down: “We were f–king standing on the verge of insanity in those days. Everybody was snorting cocaine. Everybody was taking quaaludes, drinking Cristal and Dom Perignon champagne, and getting butt naked and doing it in the bathroom.”
Although James was indeed a very kinky guy, pushing the boundaries of what women could withstand sexually, he had his own particular limits. “His sexual exploits were more ‘You do that to that person. Let me watch. I wanna orchestrate some s–t over here,’ ” says his ex-wife Tanya Hijazi. “He wasn’t personally involved. He was not that kind of super freak. He didn’t let people touch him. He wasn’t, like, in the orgy — he would watch the orgy.”
But James would meet his super-freak match in Prince, who opened for his punk-funk predecessor on tour in 1980 — when the Purple One was just beginning his revolutionary career — and it turned into one royal rivalry.
“Rick definitely had an attitude with Prince. They just was competing with one another,” says Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins, who did some shows with them. “They would pull plugs on each other … and [be] getting ready to go to blows.”