Jenkins understands the importance of the Black geographies and roots of the subject matter he tackles. His stories center place. In Burn Mothaf*cka, Burn! (2017), he used narrative as a tool to address ahistorical conversations about multigenerational state violence in Los Angeles—all while presenting the secret rhythm in rioting as a kind of cultural work. Equally impressive is his handling of the musical mapping of Rick’s music and legacy in Bitchin’. I hadn’t considered the interior lifeworld of Rick James, and not until I learned that Buffalo, New York, was his hometown did I check for the history of Blackness in that small city. The film shows how Buffalo’s proximity to Canada was critical to James’s artistic trajectory. Prior to commercial success, he was a local gig musician in Toronto. After being drafted for the Vietnam War, he went AWOL to Canada and changed his name to Ricky James Johnson to live under the radar of the American government. He spent the 1960s in community and conversation with folk artists like Richie Havens and Joni Mitchell. Rick was also central to several bands—most famously, The Mynah Birds, which Neil Young was invited to join. An exploration of the Caribbean diaspora in Toronto would have been an exciting place to unpack reggae-inflected songs like “Mr. Policeman.” But pinning Rick to folk does the work of demonstrating his range.
Eventually, Rick was deported back to his mama Betty Gladden’s house after being reported to authorities by a disgruntled former band manager. He spent years there writing and adjusting to home life and taking up the philosophical musings of neighborhood Black nationalists. Found footage of early Black communities in Buffalo helps to support the picture painted by rapper Conway the Machine, who also hails from there. Conway breaks down city demographics and Rick’s status and impact as a local hero representing a new generation of Buffalo rude boys. He’s a credible source that explains Rick as a local legend and an artist.
By the late 1970s and after years of hustling demo tapes, Rick James landed a recording and production contract with Motown Records. He capitalized on the label’s cultural shift that accompanied its move from Detroit to Los Angeles. Rick represented a label that was finding its way in the gray area between the Motor City and Hollywood films. Here James became the official king of freak rock, a prince of the (newly coined) punk-funk genre. This, of course, complicated the squeaky-clean image of Motown Records. While he lyrically disclaimed all possibilities of being gay, Rick’s stage show during this era was nothing less than an adventure in Black queer poetics. Rock journalists hate to admit to, and often actively downplay, the proximity between late 1970s funk, rock, and disco. But Rick James’s genre-blending draws on a four-to-the-floor dance music tradition among others, which is to say that punk-funk was a queering of Motown and Black musical masculinity.
Rick James created and performed a gender and then produced a soundtrack for it, and Bitchin’ gives you the context you need. He inspired those who loved his music to live in and question the world between his leather thigh-high boots and his proclivity for dangerous emotions. Those signature braids, which he required the entire band to wear once they got signed, became a trademark after Rick met a Maasai woman on a flight, and she showed him a book of braiding patterns from Kenya. He fell in love with her designs and patterns and asked her to braid his hair. In Little Richard fashion and to the chagrin of their respective musicians, Rick added glitter to his braids and poured glitter on the heads of everyone in the band.
The small slot reserved in the film for Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls left me wanting more. Teena Marie, also a staff writer for Motown, was produced by Rick James, but it’s important to note that she was not discovered and developed by Rick James. Rick was attracted to her sound, her production, and her skills as a writer. Following the duo’s professional and romantic breakup, Teena Marie went on to produce thirteen solo studio albums. She was a peer to Rick James, not a protégé. Their collaboration “Fire and Desire” from Rick’s Street Songs album (1981) is one of the most essential songs in the quiet storm radio format and genre. It was also the last song they performed together during a BET Awards show in 2004. Rick, visibly winded and worn from his high-risk life, passed later that same year. The Mary Jane Girls, like Prince’s Vanity 6, disappeared into obscurity after two albums, though songs like “All Night Long” and “Nasty Girl” are Black cookout and dance floor classics. Rick James also produced the Temptations’ “Standing on the Top” in 1982 and co-produced “Ebony Eyes” with Smokey Robinson in 1983.
Bitchin’ isn’t a cautionary tale about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. If anything, it shows how during specific eras, cocaine and other substances were partly responsible for creating much of the music we love. But the period where Rick “busted out” of his industry cell was in the 1980s. The place of entry to the Rick James story for many is the 1980s, and for those who saw the power of sampling with Hammer’s use of “Super Freak” for “U Can’t Touch This,” the entry point is the 1990s. Importantly, Bitchin’ surveys how the music industry and specifically the rise of video culture blocked the visual representation of Black music. Both Rick James and Little Richard called out MTV for the racist practices that were common in the industry at that time. In The Life and Times of Little Richard, his 1983 authorized biography, Little Richard said of MTV, “The videos are ninety percent white groups . . . mediocre at best. Even a star like Michael Jackson has trouble getting airplay unless he teams up with Paul McCartney.” And when Rick James presented his music videos to MTV in the 1980s, they rejected them, claiming they did not fit the format intended for the network’s viewers. His offense grew into the strategic public shaming of the new video channel, which ironically, as pointed to in the film, opened the space for Michael Jackson, who was notably less edgy, to break MTV’s racial barrier. Prince’s videos on MTV further inflamed Rick’s rage against the machine.
Rick James epitomizes the sound and fury of the crack era, and yes, his public decline is part of the film. What he represents is best captured in an interview with Norwood Fisher of Fishbone, who describes funk and the world that Rick created around it as being “Black excellence and nigga shit, the worst made beautiful.” Rick’s career is a time capsule that we peek into and must deal with everything that surfaces, from the thousands of people who were disappeared under Reagan’s regime to all the families who struggled as loved ones battled addiction. I consider myself a survivor of the 1980s, and most clear to me, as I watched the impact of the AIDS epidemic and the “war on drugs” on my family and community, is that there is a library of memories in my parents’ record collection. There you’ll find Little Richard, Sly and the Family Stone, Prince, and Rick James. Bitchin’ reminds us that albums carry those who are missing and their stories.