When Dweez thinks of Rick James he thinks of Busta Rhymes first?
“For millions of people today, this phrase is all they know about Rick James, and, in fact, it may have captured a large part of Rick’s underlying personality. His daughter Ty told a TV interviewer the phrase summed up what he wanted everyone to know about him before he died: ‘That’s Me,’ she said he told her, and he was partly right. Born into a shaky family structure in a shaky environment, he had spent his entire life fighting, stealing, lying, and creating in order to make it to the top, and no one was going to prevent him from crowing about his success.”
Peter Benjaminson, Super Freak, page 323
In the fall of 2006, I strolled into a nameless park off Avenue de Las Moreras, in the northwest quadrant of Madrid, on my return home from class. I was catching up on rap releases I’d missed while in Germany for the 2006 World Cup, all of them huddled en masse on my bulky second generation iPod. I remember trudging through some fallen leaves, it being autumn and all, with headphones wedged in my ears.
At that moment, I was listening to Busta Rhyme’s only Dr. Dre-helmed album, The Big Bang. The world remembers that album for the songs “Touch It,” “New York Shit,” and “I Love My Chick” and the disappearance of Busta’s dreadlocks. It also boasted two back-to-back Dre tacks featuring Stevie Wonder and another Motown great.
After the aforementioned Stevie graced “Been Through The Storm,” Busta warned me, via Treach of Naughty by Nature, against coming to the ghetto. Then, he told Rick James to give me a tour of it. The song was called “The Ghetto.” It stopped me in my tracks.
This couldn’t be the same guy from Chappelle’s Show, right?
I made a mental note on that day 11 years ago, to not let the man’s legacy be reduced to a punchline. But that’s as far as it went. In my over 33,000 tracks hosted on iTunes, only one, “SUPERFREAK,” labeled just like that in all caps, had snuck in alongside the Busta song. I feel only marginally better that the phrase “I’m Rick James, Bitch,” was shelved for “The Ghetto,” as the soundtrack in my head when I ripped open a package from Chicago Review Press earlier this month, unveiling a copy of Super Freak: The Life of Rick James.
Come to find out, as so often happens in the study of hip-hop music, the Busta track was lifted almost entirely from a song called “Ghetto Life” from Rick James’ 1981 album, Street Songs. Author Peter Benjaminson does an excellent job tracing the play-by-play musical journey that led Rick James to record over a dozen studio albums and a hand in about as many as a producer for other artists. It’s unlikely that a name, date, or time/space detail escaped Benjaminson’s retracing of James’s musical life.
Though his recording career didn’t technically start until he was 30 with his Motown debut, Come Get It!, James musicianship was well honed on the streets of Toronto amidst a flood of fellow draft-dodgers and Neil Young, with whom he formed a band called the Mynah Birds. Benjaminson spends the first third of his book covering these many years James suffered in musical obscurity before he created what became known as Punk Funk. Once Rick makes it, the author spends the second third of the book steeping in Rick’s successes as well as outlining complex feuds with Prince, MTV, and MC Hammer. A run in with Salvador Dali is even thrown in for good measure.
Super Freak also serves the foremost duty of any marketable book—it fills a gap in the literature on the subject. Although James already put together two books about his life, both released posthumously (one, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak, in 2007 and the second, Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James, in 2015), Benjaminson completes what could be called the triple crown of books about a lived life: memoir, autobiography, and biography. What was missing in the first two, as many independent biographies are quick to point out, is the bad stuff.
Perhaps most impressively is the author’s adeptness at explaining the well-publicized (and later mythologized by Chappelle) legal troubles in James’s life. The last third of the book is punctuated by evenhanded explanations of extraordinarily tangled court cases involving drug use and sexual abuse, among wilder things I won’t spoil. Benjaminson acts as a gifted stenographer through these difficult years, laying the facts out for readers to come to their own conclusions without trying to push one verdict or the other (which can be a powerful temptation for biographers).
Strictly speaking, Benjaminson captures the facts surrounding James’ often cloudy career and thus succeeds in creating a document of historical record: the primary service of any biographer. Unfortunately, his stylistic decisions—perhaps the downside of that stenographer quality—and the organization of the book itself, make for a laborious read when approached as a whole.
Benjaminson’s choice in vernacular, once referring to James’s hustle as trying to make the “big time” on three consecutive pages (16,17, & 18), betrays the musician’s incredibly specific journey—the same one he’s so adept at researching—and recasts it as a clunky cliché. In Chapter 26, titled “A Bottomless Pool of Human Flesh,” Benjaminson serves up spotty anecdotes about the women James and his entourage had at their disposal. Clocking in at less than three pages total, the chapter provides several paragraph-long micro-stories that do nothing to paint a picture for readers beyond whatever “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” archetypes are already at their disposal. By not spending the time to tell a story here and many other places in the book, Benjaminson makes it impossible for readers to contextualize James beyond a list of checked boxes.
The book has 77 chapters, averaging out to less than four and half pages per chapter for the 342-page ride. The titles for these tiny chapters sometimes read like clickbait: “Rick Writes a Song about His Penis,” “Rick James, Thief,” and “Rick Denies He’s Gay and Confronts the Cops.” Elsewhere they read like placeholders meant to be corrected later: “Guilty…sort of,” “A Glowing Rick Chases a Woman Along a Beach,” and “Reactions Run the Gamut.”
There is a way to make a book structured this way work, but Chicago Review Press seems caught between many minds. Are these titles made to be tweetable? Then how does “Trouble,” “Jailbait,” and “Comeback,” make sense? Are they meant to make us laugh like Chappelle’s Show punchlines? How does “Rick Dies Alone with Drugs in His Veins,” jive with that?
A book isn’t made or destroyed with chapter titles, but they drive the content in each of these 77 flash-biographies, which also don’t seem to be aware of each other. Benjaminson reintroduces sources throughout the book (ghostwriter David Ritz and screenwriter Richard Wesley, for example). He reuses the same quotes on occasion (“The musical textbooks of my youth,” on pages 3 and 185). Lexicon redundancies make the sensation of reading these chapters consecutively feel like you’re somehow reading it wrong. Are the chapters meant to be stand-alone, self-contained stories where readers just open the table of contents and flip to the one most fitting of their mood while on the John? If so, why not build the book that way, and add something design-wise, like drawings or graphics, to signal readers in that direction? If that’s not the purpose of the structure, keep in mind that by presenting readers with a traditional fact-heavy, photo-spread-in-the-middle biography format, you need to give them some semblance of a unified story.
What’s missing, ultimately, is narrative. For any kind of personal book (be it memoir, autobiography, or biography) small stories are used, brick-by-brick, to build an overarching narrative of a life. It’s impossible for any life to fully fit into a few hundred pages, especially not one like James’, which makes it more important to tell a story, piece by piece. By inundating readers with facts, names, dates, and organizing them in this tiny-chapter format, Benjaminson seems to have forgotten to tell much of Rick’s.
But Should You Read It?
With so much else to worry about, perhaps it can be excused if one classic artist in your study of the greats is mostly defined by a Dave Chappelle joke. Worse things could happen, to be sure, like them being defined by an MC Hammer song or Common patronizing you (and then contradicting himself) about their greatness. That being said, if you consider yourself a well-rounded music listener, understanding the role Rick James played in not only hip-hop, but all popular music, should be a requirement.
Super Freak: The Life of Rick James is, at the very least, a fair portrayal of his career and life, despite mountains of evidence as tall as the cocaine mounds at his parties, begging any biographer to make their own wise cracks at the comedy show James’ life has become. The author shows outstanding character, even during bizarre rants comparing Rick James to Norman Mailer and William S. Burroughs, to plead the case for the presumption of his innocence in pop culture. That’s an admirable goal for any biography to achieve.
You could do worse than picking up Benjaminson’s book, pouring over the table of contents, and flipping to the tweet-able chapter title of your choosing. If there were ever a musician’s life story that required no hyperbole, no adverbial dressing up, and no picture painting, it would belong to Rick James. As dry as Benjaminson presents things, there is no denying the unimaginable amount of work that went into collecting the facts, and thus, helping to preserve the legacy of an incredible musician.
If you are just in it for the cocaine stories, though, I’d stick with Chappelle.
Page numbers are taken from Super Freak: The Life of Rick James, 2017, Chicago Review Press. That was the edition reviewed.