The Phenomenon Of Rick James’s Iconic Hit Song “Super Freak”
1981 was a super good year for Rick James. His classic hit “Super Freak” rose to No.3 on the R&B list, and managed to climb to No. 16 on the Hot 100 list. Here’s the story of how one “silly song” would take James’s career to a whole ‘nother level.
Singing A Different Tune
According to James, “Super Freak” evolved out of his desire to “…write a silly song. I was in the studio and everything else for the album (Street Songs) was done. I just put “Super Freak” together really quickly. I wanted a silly song that had a bit of new wave texture to it. So I put ‘She’s all right’; very operatic, sort of funny, stuff.”
Rick Sanchez, an engineer on “Super Freak,” recalled how James had been influenced by Sly Stone. “Well, Rick was a music fan and a history buff. He was a huge Sly Stone fan. When he came, he said, ‘I want to use the same people and get the same vibe as some of those Sly things.’ Sly was another person who was able to take so many different musical styles and combine them into something completely different. You can hear a lot of it in some of Rick’s arrangements.”
Initially, James wasn’t sold on “Super Freak,” but enough people around him, including Sanchez, convinced him of the song’s potential. “It’s funny, because at first, “Super Freak” was not going to go on the album. Rick said, ‘I don’t know if that song’s strong enough.’ The band loved it, and I don’t know if it was the record company that was a little bit unsure about it. A few people came into the studio, and when they heard it, they just said, ‘Oh…that is…great.”
According to Sanchez, “For Street Songs, we set up a bedroom for Rick at the studio. There was a shower, a jacuzzi, and a conference room that we turned into a bedroom. It was right next to the studio. He stayed there the whole time. Sometimes he would just say, ‘OK, I’m going to bed. You guys do the editing.’ During one session, we didn’t take a break for 36 hours.”
Before recording Street Songs, James had just put out three gold-selling albums as the frontman of the Stone City Band, all produced under Gordy Records, a subsidiary of Motown Records. For the Street Songs album, James’ worked under the Motown banner.
Throughout the recording of Street Songs, Sanchez couldn’t help but notice the many musical similarities between Rick James and Sly Stone. “Sly and Rick had a lot of similar personality traits, where their minds were working so quickly, and their ideas would be coming so fast, that it was hard to keep up with them. Rick would have an idea for a bassline, and then all of a sudden, a clap in that line would come into his mind. Before he would forget it, he’d want to get it onto tape. So, we pretty much had everything ready to go.”
After releasing “Super Freak,” James rode a wave of fame during the 1980s that led him to do two stints in jail and a cocaine habit that, at times, cost him $8,000 a week. Definitely not super cool. But to this day, the song “Super Freak” recalls the living large excess of the 80s that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.