Coming Soon:
Ariana Grande - "thank u, next" / Ariana Grande - "thank u, next" / Ariana Grande - "thank u, next" / Ariana Grande - "thank u, next" /
Request Line: (833) 321-KORD
  • App Store Download

From the KORD writers:

Rick James’ ‘Super Freak’ creates a whole new form of new-wave funk

If you were a teenager in the 2000s, you probably associate Rick James with one of three phrases, all first heard on the February 11, 2004 episode of Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show: “Cocaine is a hell of a drug,” “Fuck yo’ couch!” and, most famously, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” If you were a teenager in the 1980s, however, you associate Rick James with a different phrase: “She’s a very kinky girl/The kind you don’t take home to mother” — the opening lines of “Super Freak,” the 1981 hit that transformed James from a successful funk singer and producer into a pop music idol and a symbol of modern libertine excess. Without a doubt, “Super Freak” is James’ most enduring commercial and artistic accomplishment, the reason he could say “I’m Rick James” with such unassailable confidence, and no doubt the reason he could say “Cocaine is a hell of a drug” with such authority, too.

From the mid-1960s, when he formed a rock band in Toronto called the Mynah Birds (which included a then-unknown Neil Young, of all people) to the late 1980s, James blazed a unique musical path. While he wrote and produced records for other artists, including Motown compatriots Teena Marie and Smokey Robinson, it was the music he recorded under his own name that made the most impact. James’ brand of stripped-down, new-wave R&B paved the way for the success of subsequent artists like Prince and Cameo: sexy jams like “You and I,” “Mary Jane” and “Give It to Me Baby” took the mid-Seventies funk of Parliament and Ohio Players, and turned it into something novel. 

Photo of Rick James with Teena Marie Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Super Freak” was written with the new wave sound in mind, and recorded at the end of the sessions for James’ 1981 album Street Songs. “I wanted a silly song that had a bit of new wave texture to it,” he told Musician in 1983. “So I just came up with this silly little lick and expounded on it. I came up with the bass part first. Then I put a guitar on it and keyboards, doing the ‘ehh ehh,’ silly keyboard part. And I put a very operatic vocal structure on it ‘cause I’m really into opera and classical music.” 

James may have enjoyed the refined pleasures of classical music, but on “Super Freak,” his mind is definitely in the gutter. This is clear from that first line, which tells you exactly what the song is about. By today’s standards, the lyrics to “Super Freak” are actually pretty tame: incense, wine and candles are about as freaky as it gets. But James’ vocal delivery is so lascivious, it imbues the song with a sleazy sexiness that few records can match. (Evidently the original take — improvised by James in the studio — was much filthier. Los Angeles D.J. Alonso Miller helped James clean it up enough for radio airplay.)

American musician Rick James (born James Johnson Jr, 1948 – 2004) performs onstage at the Auditorium Theater, Chicago, Illinois, March 31, 1979. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

“Super Freak” is propelled by an absolutely delicious bass line that alternates between a descending figure and stop-and-start syncopation. Cheesy synth accents and histrionic backup vocals supply James’ “new wave texture,” bringing to mind period hits like “Whip It” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” These modern touches are countered about two and a half minutes into the song when, at James’ command, Motown legends the Temptations come in with a series of ascending and descending “Ohhs” before saxophonist Danny LeMelle takes us out with a solo that sounds like it belongs on a jump blues record from the 1940s.

Surprisingly, James was not that impressed with the final product. He ended up including it on the Street Songs album because he wanted a track “that white folks could dance to,” according to Ebony. Both white folks and Black folks did, vaulting “Super Freak” to number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart and number 16 on the pop Hot 100. That year, James toured the record with Teena Marie and reportedly out-earned the Rolling Stones. 

American musician Rick James (born James Johnson Jr, 1948 – 2004) performs onstage at the Auditorium Theater, Chicago, Illinois, March 31, 1979. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

If that was the end of the story, “Super Freak” would still be remembered and loved today. But there’s no denying that some of its current stature has to be laid at the feet of parachute pants-clad rapper MC Hammer, who sampled “Super Freak” nine years after its initial release for his monster hit “U Can’t Touch This.” So extensive was Hammer’s recycling of “Super Freak” that James sued him, and was eventually given a co-writing credit. “U Can’t Touch This” won Best R&B Song in 1991, and represents the only time Rick James was awarded a Grammy.  

“Super Freak” remains a rich source of inspiration (and samples) for hip-hop artists: everyone from Big Daddy Kane to Nicki Minaj has incorporated it into their own recordings. It turned James into a superstar, and allowed him to indulge his considerable appetite for sex, drugs and bad behavior. The berserk party monster lampooned by Dave Chappelle on his sketch comedy series was apparently close to reality: “[The sketches] were 99 percent accurate,” comedian and Chappelle’s Show co-star Charlie Murphy told Ebony. “He was that kind of character.” 

“Rick had two sides to his personality,” said Danny LeMelle years later. “One minute he was the nicest person on the planet… an angel. Then the next minute, he was Lucifer!  A lot of that had to do with the prevailing drug of the moment.” 

Rick James during Rick James Forum Party in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage)

The drugs would prove James’ undoing, leading to abusive behavior that would land him in jail, sully his reputation and likely prevent him from achieving “Super Freak”-levels of success again. They also did nothing good for his health. The Chappelle’s Show sketch includes contemporary interviews with the real Rick James, and he appears heavy, slow and slightly confused: nothing like the slim, leather-clad sex god from the “Super Freak” video. He would die a short six months after the premiere of the Chappelle’s Show skit, passing in his sleep at only 56 years old.

Six months after that, YouTube launched. The video sharing platform would give James a whole new kind of viral success. That it came through the lens of Dave Chappelle’s hilarious impersonation doesn’t really matter: Rick James had long ago achieved immortality on his own. 

Rick James File Photo with Eddie Murphy 1983 (Photo by Mark Weiss/WireImage)

Related Songs

Write for KORD

Think you have what it takest to write for KORD? We need talented, passionate writers to reveal the stories behind the songs.

Send samples / links to [email protected]