There are a number of eye-opening revelations in Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, a new documentary on the late funk legend from filmmaker Sacha Jenkins (Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men).
In the film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be broadcast later this year on Showtime, friends and family offer candid testimony of how the “Super Freak” and “Give It to Me Baby” singer suffered from a crippling addiction to cocaine, pills, and alcohol—and how those substances often made him monstrous, culminating in a 1990 conviction for the brutal kidnapping and assault of a woman that landed him in Folsom Prison.
James was a complicated figure—undeniably brilliant and deeply troubled. He was molested at the age of 8 by one of his mother’s friends and never seemed able to rid himself of the demons that haunted him. He was also territorial, and when a funky new artist by the name of Prince exploded on the scene, James saw the musical prodigy as a threat to his throne.
“My manager brought some tapes over and said, ‘Well, there’s this kid who’s got this record, ‘I Want to Be Your Lover,’ and I loved that record. And I saw some videos of him, and he was cool. I felt that he resembled us a lot,” offers James in the documentary, courtesy of archival audio, before adding, “Prince was givin’ me hell on the road.”
Prince wound up as James’ opening act on his 1980 Fire It Up tour, and things got tense, according to James’ friends and experts surveyed in Bitchin’.
“Oh my god. Rick had a love-hate relationship with Prince,” offers critic Steven Ivory. “He loved him because he loved what Prince was about—he loved the swagger, he loved the music. He hated him because Prince gave him heat.”
“Rick definitely had an attitude with Prince,” adds Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic. “They just was competin’ with one another.”
As the story goes, James became incensed when 22-year-old Prince began copying some of his concert moves.
“Rick got mad when Prince would watch us onstage and do the same goddamn shit,” explains Levi Ruffin Jr., James’ bassist. “Prince was like, what, 21, 22? We couldn’t do what a 21- or 22-year-old dude could do anymore. We tried! But we had a lot of B-12 shots and shit that we used to have to take.”
Kerry Gordy, James’ former manager, expands on the feud further: “Rick would go ooh-ooh!, and his audience would go crazy every time he would do that, and Prince would start doing the ooh-ooh! before Rick would come out. Rick was like, ‘Man, you can’t do that ooh-ooh! stuff, that’s what I do!’ And Prince was like, ‘Dude, you don’t have a monopoly on ooh-ooh! I can do what the fuck I wanna do!’”
On top of all that, in James’ memoir Glow, the musician described an incident where he angrily confronted Prince after he refused James’ mother an autograph backstage.
I chased after that little turd. I caught up with him and was about to lay him out when his manager stepped in.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Rick?” asked the manager.
I told him Prince had dissed Mom and that I was gonna kick his scrawny ass. Prince explained that he didn’t know who Mom was.
“Well, now you know, motherfucker,” I said.
“Prince will be happy to apologize to your mother,” said the manager, “and he will be happy to apologize to you.”
Prince apologized to Mom and apologized to me. I was a little disappointed ’cause I really did wanna kick his ass.
“I remember being on shows with Rick and Prince, and they would pull plugs on each other, gettin’ ready to go to blows,” adds Collins.
Yet the blows never came—thanks in no small part to peacemakers like Nile Rodgers of Chic, who tried to explain to the hotheaded James that he and Prince are cut from the same cloth—two virtuosic talents who strut to their own rhythm.
“I used to always say to Rick, ‘We all are just doing our own kind of thing. Prince is Prince, you’re you—we all have our own identity when it comes to the world of funk,’” says Rodgers.
Author David Ritz, who collaborated with James on his posthumously published autobiography, sums it up best: “I think whenever the master sees an acolyte who might be younger and hotter, the master gets a little nervous.”