Despite its cultural ubiquity, Rick James’ bawdy single “Super Freak” was by no means an overnight hit. By 1979, James had more than earned his due with a series of professional accomplishments under his belt. While he achieved success as a songwriter for Motown (as well as with gold and platinum solo albums) he hadn’t yet hit the heights of celebrity, when he embarked on his headlining tour for his third album, Fire It Up. All that was soon to change. James could sense competition coming from his tour opener Prince, who he felt was encroaching on his own signature style and he was eager to prove himself as a superstar.
While his ballad-heavy Garden of Love album was well-received, garnering another gold plaque, his biggest success was his 1981 album Street Songs, an album that portrayed the real-life struggles and tribulations inspired by the gritty streets of his hometown of Buffalo, NY. Propelled by numerous hit singles including “Ghetto Life” and “Give It to Me Baby,” the album would go on to sell over 3 million copies combining elements of rock, funk, new wave, and soul. Yet, the album’s highlight was the immensely popular hit single “Super Freak,” a song that propelled its creator to iconic status and cemented him as the king of funk ‘n’ roll. Rick James had fully arrived.
‘Super Freak’ was written as an afterthought
While it would become Street Songs’ biggest hit, “Super Freak” was written as an afterthought. James would reflect on the process in a 1983 interview with Musician magazine, “I was in the studio and everything else for the album was done,” James recalled. “ 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 just came up with this silly little lick and expounded on it. And I put a very operatic vocal structure on it ‘cause I’m really into opera and classical music. So I put (sings in a deep voice) ‘She’s all right;’ very operatic, sort of funny, stuff.” James blended genre and technique to create something completely unique in his mega-hit, which novelty aside, led to huge success.
The lyrics were improvised over The Temptations’ backing vocals
The entirety of Street Songs was recorded between December 1980 and January 1981 in California for Motown’s Gordy imprint. James rallied his labelmates, The Temptations, to do the backing vocals while he improvised lyrics over the wildly addictive, funk instrumental. He was supposedly not particularly excited by the results but could see the potential for the track’s crossover appeal. His instincts were correct as “Super Freak” conquered the sales charts, eventually selling a million copies of the single alone.
“Super Freak” was a bonafide smash hit and a career-defining song for Rick James. Primed for MTV, James was a charismatic performer with a bold visual style perfect for the video era, and he radiated on the screen in the “Super Freak” music video, surrounded by hyped-up dancers. Critical acclaim soon followed as James was nominated for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the 1982 Grammys for the song. Follow-up success with Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” and the Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long” continued for the punk-funk pioneer but he never achieved the dizzying heights of “Super Freak” commercially again.
The song lives on through sampling
Like most artists, James’ career had many peaks and valleys. He embodied his libertine image a bit too literally and ended up serving a two-year prison term in the late 90s before entering rehab and releasing the album Urban Rapsody in 1997. While James spent most of the decade out of the public eye, his best-loved song would have a new life on the charts. “Super Freak”s infectious riff was repurposed for another smash hit, this time for Oakland rapper MC Hammer, whose “U Can’t Touch This” sampled the song and propelled Hammer to mega-fame in 1990. James eventually received proper songwriting credit and reaped the financial rewards. Incidentally, the song would earn him his only Grammy, when it won Best R&B Song in 1991 and he was recognized for composing the song.
Rick James’ place in pop culture remains as prominent as his music with his generation introducing appearance on the Chapelle Show in 2004, but “Super Freak” has remained his calling card, enduring beyond its early 80s debut and becoming a perennial party classic. It’s no wonder new generations continue to rediscover its unmistakable groove.