While recording 1981’s Street Songs, Rick James threatened to quit music. The R&B singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s prior album, Garden of Love, hadn’t done as well as he had hoped and he was ready to throw in the towel. “The Street Songs album was the pinnacle of Rick saying, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’m gonna be a carpenter,’” remembers keyboardist Levi Ruffin Jr., who, as a member of Buffalo, New York’s Stone City Band, toured and recorded with James from the late ’70s until the late ’90s. “He really put his heart and soul in this thing, man, and I’m glad it jumped off. ’Cause that was a hell of an album.”
Thankfully, Ruffin wasn’t the only one who thought so. In the summer of ’81, Street Songs went Platinum and ascended to No. 3 on the Billboard 200, spending more than a year on the chart. And the album’s sex-crazed singles, “Super Freak” and “Give It to Me Baby,” went on to radio immortality. The boundlessly funky LP was concerned with more than just pleasures of the flesh, though. Alongside stories of lust and cannabis were meditations on poverty (“Ghetto Life”) and police brutality (“Mr. Policeman”). James died in 2004, at age 56, and today his extraordinary contributions to pop history fold into a contentious legacy full of drug-addled tales ranging from the deeply disturbing to the comically outrageous.
“Give It to Me Baby”
Lanise Hughes: When we was rehearsing “Give It to Me Baby,” the drumbeat was just tom-tom, and they were playing the music to it. And I made a face. Rick looked at me and said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “Eh, nothing.” He said, “What’s the matter?” And I said, “Well, it just don’t feel right.” And he said, “How come it doesn’t? It sounds fine to me.” And I said, “Well, OK. It’s your song.” Then he said, “Just do a straight four on it.” And when we did that, it just gelled all together. It was like a new song.
Nate Hughes: Once I heard the beat, all I had to do was add the spice on top. I can lock in with my brother anytime.
Ruffin: That was straight Buffalo. That’s how we lived in Buffalo. Tenement slums. Only way to have some fun, picking on the winos. It was cold and too damn funky, OK? But it was our home. Rick had traveled the whole world, man. He did it all. And he put a band together, not realizing that the band he put together was us — the guys from Buffalo, where he was born and raised. He searched and searched. He did all kinds of bands, the Mynah Birds [a Toronto-based R&B group that also featured Neil Young] and stuff up in Canada. But it took him to come back to Buffalo to find that switch that he just couldn’t find before. It just made sense. We were playing … what we do in Buffalo.
Lanise: We recorded what we felt at the time. We was in Rick’s basement rehearsing. We were down there all night long, laying down a groove, putting the songs together. And we was also rehearsing our band album, The Boys Are Back. So we recorded two albums at the same time. It was constant.
Nate: Lot of people didn’t know that most of the band were athletes anyway. We had endurance, whether we stayed up all night or whatever.
“Make Love to Me”
Lanise: That was his tribute to Bob Marley.
Ruffin: Rick brought in Stevie Wonder. Stevie comes in. Beautiful brother. I had met him before, ’cause we’re all from the Motown family. Stevie wanted to put a certain thing on the harmonica. And this is when I knew we had made it — that Rick James was a superstar — because he told Stevie Wonder, “No. I want it this way.” And Stevie was suggesting, “Look, I can do this.” Rick said, “Stevie, this is my album. I want it to be played like this.”
That’s when I said, “Rick James is telling Stevie Wonder to shut up and play what I want you to play. We in the big time now!” And it worked out. That was a great song. A lot of people didn’t understand it. It was for Bob Marley, but it was also for a couple guys [Rick] knew that got shot and killed by the police in Buffalo. That song was way before its time. And it’s still apropos now, if they’d put it out again. ’Cause the cops are still killing us.
Brad Farberman: Did Rick talk a lot about Bob Marley?
Ruffin: Rick was an aficionado of good weed. He loved the weed.
Nate: He loved to share.
Ruffin: And he loved to share the weed. When we played in Jamaica, Mrs. Marley — Bob’s widow — she gave Rick a bag of it. I’m talking about a nice paper bag full of skunk weed. The Jamaican skunk. And I remember playing in Jamaica, and I started smoking weed a long time ago, but I had to hit the weed down there. That weed was so good, you wanna just lay down and chill out, man. That weed was excellent, man.
Nate: Rick was a fan of the Sex Pistols and that whole genre. Devo. So we just vibed off of that. Once Lanise locked in the groove, we just fell in place. We were automatically locked in as soon as we heard the music: “Oh, this one here. Oh, this is going there.” It was just automatic. We were in tune, believe me.
Lanise: We had to do one more song on the album, ’cause it was basically a throwaway song. And we just played it and put our feel into it. We didn’t know that was gonna be the biggest hit of the whole album.
Farberman: So you turned the album in to the label, and they were like, “Well, we need one more song”? Or, “We need a single”? What did they say?
Ruffin: That’s exactly what happened. We gotta do one more track. And we were pissed. So we threw a song together. Nobody in the band — except my old lady at the time and one of the assistant engineers — told us this is gonna be a smash hit. We looked at them and laughed at them. Nobody expected that song, none of us in the band. Rick didn’t expect it. That’s a song that when you do it, and you got a hit on it, you have to play it the rest of your life.
Farberman: It just sounds like the most incredible thing ever. Getting Stevie Wonder to come in, and the Temptations.
Ruffin: You’d be surprised how many more people wanted to be in there. Robin Williams was in there, man.
Farberman: Robin Williams was in the studio when you were recording Street Songs?
Ruffin: Had us dying laughing. God, he was funny. Good Lord, he was funny, man.
“Fire and Desire”
Farberman: Did I read something like Teena Marie was really sick while she was recording that?
Ruffin: Teena Marie was a hypochondriac anyway. Teena was always sick. “My toenail hurts.” Girlfriend had the biggest heart and the smallest body I’ve ever seen in my life, man. She’s always sick, she’s always hurting, but she’s always singing that little butt off.
“Call Me Up”
Ruffin: Another thing about call up the dope man or your girlfriend. Booty call, basically what it was all about. They called them booty calls then, back in the day. I think they do still. Simple booty call.
“Below the Funk (Pass the J)”