The crazy real-life story of Rick James

He was a weird guy, the kind who might take home your mother. But he'd never let your spirits down because he was often high. Rick James was pretty wild now, Rick James the Super Freak, the kind of guy you read about, which is why you're reading about him now. James was like a roller coaster ride without restraints — full of ups, downs, danger, and an inevitable fall from the glorious heights he reached.

But let's not forget that Rick James was also an amazing musician. An icon of funk and defier of convention, he blended different music styles seamlessly and produced numerous hits, adding his name to the list of Motown greats and cementing his legacy as the King of Punk-Funk. At times an enemy of his own success, James ravaged his health and career with drugs. But he also engaged in madcap antics, left a huge impression on a number of people's faces, and nearly came to blows with Prince. For better and worse, he lived life on his own terms — even when it resulted in prison terms. Here's the unbelievable life story of Rick James.

He adopted his stage name while running from the law

The now-iconic catchphrase "I'm James, b*tch!" is so culturally ubiquitous that a Lego store in Australia officially goes by the name I'm Rick James Bricks. But if it weren't for the Vietnam War and Stevie Wonder, that store might be called I'm James Johnson Bricks.

Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr., Rick James dreaded the idea of getting drafted to fight in Vietnam. So around age 15 he lied his way into the Naval Reserve. Before long James dodged the Reserves, too. He told Buffalo News that he couldn't take the "regimentation and conformity." Instead, he spent much of his time drumming for jazz groups and doing drugs. In 1964 he was placed on active duty, but as Vibe described, James "defiantly told the military draft board to kiss his ashy black a** and promptly fled to Toronto, Canada."

In Toronto, James chilled with Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and formed a band called the Mynah Birds, which Young joined. The Mynah Birds got signed to Motown, where James met Stevie Wonder and performed for him. Impressed, Wonder wanted to know his name. James gave the alias Ricky James Matthews, and Wonder suggested that he shorten it to Rick James. Still a fugitive, James ended up serving time in a military prison, which effectively ended the Mynah Birds. But Rick James was just getting started.

Mike Tyson's Hollywood story: Rick James hit Carlton from 'Fresh Prince'

Chappelle's Show fans fondly remember the Charlie Murphy "True Hollywood Story" segment in which Rick James — portrayed by Dave Chappelle — tried his hand at slapstick comedy: "What did the five fingers say to the face? Slap!" Of course, the punchline was that he actually slapped Murphy. According to Mike Tyson, James' five fingers also spoke to Alfonso Ribeiro, aka Carlton Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

As recounted in his memoir, Undisputed Truth, Tyson was drinking with an underage Ribeiro and his Silver Spoons co-star Ricky Schroder in a hotel lobby on Sunset Boulevard when James showed up in a Rolls-Royce. Tyson estimated Schroder was about 17 and Ribeiro about 16, which would place the encounter around 1987.

Anyway, James "came over and slapped [Tyson] five and then he looked at Alfonso." He asked Ribeiro, "Aren't you an actor?" and "then, boom, he hit him." James then grabbed Ribeiro's beer and drank it. Tyson objected to James hitting "a kid" which is a little weird since kids also can't legally drink alcohol. "Iron Mike" might have been the baddest man on the planet, but Rick James may have had the baddest hand.

The time he accidentally set himself on fire

Rick James said it best: "Cocaine is a hell of a drug." It's also a hellfire of a drug in that Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing the stuff in 1980, and 10 years later James went up in flames during a freak crack accident. The latter incident happened shortly after an MC Hammer concert. James had recently ended a beef with Hammer, who infamously ripped off "Super Freak" to make "U Can't Touch This." Rather than rip the rapper, James got on stage with him, a gesture made even more generous when you consider that Hammer likely took up most of the stage with his parachute pants.

One feel-good moment deserves another, and James thought it would feel good to smoke rocks. As described by his drug supplier Rayce Newman, things went awry when James set a plate ablaze in an attempt to burn smokable crack pipe residues. While walking with the flaming plate he dropped it and his robe caught on fire. The flames raced up his robe, spreading to his sleeves. Newman extinguished them with a bedspread and James, "still smoldering, picked up the plate as if nothing had happened and took it into his room."

The King of Punk-Funk meets the Lizard King

Rick James and Jim Morrison are music royalty, and both wear ironic crowns. James, the King of Punk-Funk, created his crowning musical achievement, "Super Freak," as "just a joke." Morrison, the self-proclaimed Lizard King, gave himself that title "ironically … half tongue-in-cheek." But when these ironic monarchs crossed paths in the late 1960s, it was unintentionally hilarious.

As James described in his autobiography, while staying at the Los Angeles home of Hall of Fame rocker Stephen Stills, he awakened to find "a young dude sitting on the floor in the lotus position." That marked "the start of the extreme strangeness." That strange man turned out to be Morrison, and blood was dripping from his wrist. The Lizard King just marveled at it, remarking, "Isn't the blood beautiful? Isn't that the deepest red you've ever seen?" James alerted Stills, who stemmed the bleeding and introduced the musicians.

Morrison picked James' brain about Motown and read a poem about "the dead angels of history returning as groupies." James appreciated his trippy poetry but considered Morrison a terrible singer. They attempted a group trip to Disneyland but were denied entry. However, James went on a different trip when Morrison tricked him into taking LSD by passing it off as mint. Along the way James learned something valuable from the Lizard King: a singer's persona is just as important as their voice.

A pimp with a heart of cold

Thanks to Dave Chappelle, it's almost impossible to hear Rick James' hit song "Cold Blooded" without picturing James (as played by Chappelle) punching Charlie Murphy in the face and melodically calling the hit "cold-blooded." Of course, the song isn't about punching Charlie Murphy. James supposedly wrote "Cold Blooded" about Exorcist star Linda Blair, whom he dated during the 1980s. But the word "cold-blooded" is meaningful to James on a different level as well. Cold-blooded is what he allegedly couldn't be during his brief stint as a pimp.

As detailed in Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James, during his early days in Motown James worked as a staff writer and wanted to augment his income. Enter singer Jimmy Ruffin, the brother of former Temptations lead vocalist David Ruffin. Jimmy proposed getting into the pimping business and using their respective girlfriends as employees. Someone with a normal moral compass would have rejected that suggestion outright. But James' compass pointed north to Canada, where he and Jimmy embarked on their shady endeavor.

According to James, he didn't have the heart to be good at the job, or rather, he had too much of a heart. He didn't force women to work when they were tired. He loaned them money and beat up violent johns. Ultimately, he let them go because he "lacked the hard-edged discipline and cold-blooded attitude" the (awful) job required.

I only wanted to see you crying in the purple pain

It's hard to picture Rick James punching Prince, mostly because it's easy to picture them both as Dave Chappelle. However, that epic altercation nearly happened. Prince used to open for James, and James used to pick on Prince. While celebrating his own birthday on tour James said he "grabbed [Prince] by the back of the hair and poured cognac down his throat" and laughed at him. But he wasn't amused when Prince opened for his 1980 "Fire It Up" tour and stole the show.

James accused Prince of stealing much more than his thunder: "Prince was emulating my mic moves like a motherf*cker. He was calling out my funk chants and even flashing my funk sign." James allegedly got revenge while opening for Prince. Per Pitchfork, he supposedly stole Prince's synthesizers, used them on the 1981 album Street Songs, and then returned the synthesizers with a "thank you" note.

Violence nearly erupted after the American Music Awards when James' mother — an avid Prince fan — asked for Prince's autograph and got snubbed. An enraged James chased after Prince, or as James called him "that little turd." Prince's manager intervened, and Prince apologized for disrespecting James' mom. However, he also stole James' date, model Denise Matthews, started dating her himself, and launched her music career (as Vanity). Cold-blooded!

He chose Teena Marie over Diana Ross

In addition to being a magnificent musician, James was an accomplished songwriter and producer. He wrote, produced, and performed on the Temptations' 1982 hit, "Standing on the Top." He also co-wrote, produced, and performed on Eddie Murphy's biggest hit, "Party All The Time," which hopefully made up for the time James decided to grind his boots on Murphy's couch. James nearly collaborated with the legendary Diana Ross, too, but a phenomenal up-and-comer named Teena Marie caught his attention and captured his heart.

As James recalled, while walking around Motown's headquarters, "I heard this girl singing her a** off. I walked in … I said, 'Wow you're really great." James would later say, "Never in my life had I heard such a range with so much passion." Even so, Marie didn't taste commercial success until she teamed up with with James, who produced her first album. They would go on to sing a series of duets, including the immensely popular "Fire and Desire."

Marie and James became lovers, but their romance didn't last. They were just too different, Marie explained. James was insane and she, well, wasn't. Moreover, she came to see him like a brother, and not in a Cersei-and-Jaime way. Even so, they remained close, and James bonded with Marie's daughter. In 2004, during his final musical performance before passing away that year, Rick James performed "Fire and Desire" with his dear friend, Teena Marie.

Steven Tyler's blow-ie knife

Celebrity drug stories are a dime bag a dozen, but some are nonetheless noteworthy. Oftentimes, they're fascinatingly negative, like when James Brown led police on a PCP-fueled car chase after threatening a room full of people with a shotgun because someone might have used his private bathroom. Luckily, when Rick James and Steven Tyler snorted cocaine off a large blade together, things ended on a high note.

As recounted in his autobiography, Glow, James really enjoyed Aerosmith's music and loved their song, "Dream On." So it must have been a dream come true when he shared a building with the band while working on his 1978 album, Come Get It! One day Tyler dropped by and asked to have a listen. James played the delightfully funk-tastic track "You and I," and Tyler "started dancing like James Brown." After starting off on the good foot, Tyler "pulled out a big bag of blow and a long bowie knife."

The men took turns illegally powdering their noses, and Tyler praised James' music. James had "never felt more confident" in his abilities and worked tirelessly to finish the album. "You and I" became James' first hit song. He met Tyler again in rehab … multiple times. James claimed the Aerosmith frontman made rehab meetings fun by spouting "brilliant" B.S. and hopping on James' back for piggy-back rides.

His mother ran numbers for the Italian mob

It wouldn't be surprising if the first thing Rick James did when he was born was slap his doctor. That's just the kind of brazen hellraiser he was as a kid. According to his mother, he gave her "the most trouble" of all of her eight children. Some of his troublemaking was almost charming or at worst mildly evil. Rolling Stone reported that young James filled the family bathtub with stray dogs, dumped itching powder down his baby sister's back, and lodged a pearl in a brother's ear. But by age 13 he had a habit of stealing cars simply for the thrill of it or sometimes because he wanted to see his "women on the other side of town." In addition to treating grand theft auto like a game, he spent his early teens doing heroin and committing burglary.

Psychiatrists didn't think James was crazy, but maybe the nature of his environment nurtured his bonkers behavior. James grew up in poverty, and his father, whom he remembered being abusive, abandoned James before he was 8. His mother, meanwhile, was a contradictory mix of religiousness and lawbreaking. "She raised us strict Catholics," according to James, but also made most of her money facilitating illegal gambling for the Italian mob. He recalled "crying and carrying numbers books in big shopping bags" for his mother during the winter.

He was accused and convicted of horrific crimes

In 1991 James crossed over to the dark side of insanity after his mother passed away. He wrote in his memoir, Glow, that "there was nothing to keep me from descending into the lowest level of hell." According to two women, that meant false imprisonment, torture, and sexual assault.

In 1991 James and his then-girlfriend, Tanya Hijazi — whom he later married — were arrested for tying up a female guest at their home, burning her roughly 20 times with a crack pipe, burning her with a heated butcher knife, and forcing her to take drugs and do things she didn't want to do. While out on bail in 1992, James and Hijazi reportedly imprisoned music exec Mary Sauger — who had known James for six years. Sauger said the couple slapped and choked her repeatedly over the course of 20 hours.

James and Hijazi stood trial for both crimes in 1993. In court the singer described spiraling into a deep depression and trying to numb the heartache with narcotics. But he also insisted, "I abuse drugs, not women." Hijazi pleaded guilty to assault and served 15 months. James was narrowly acquitted in the first case but convicted of imprisoning and assaulting Mary Sauger as well as selling drugs. He received a five-year sentence but had it reduced due to prosecutorial misconduct.

I'm Rick framed, snitch!

In the 1990s Rick James hit rock bottom and kept on sinking. In 1994 the singer was sentenced to five years and four months in prison for imprisoning and assaulting music exec Mary Sauger and selling cocaine. However, he only spent a little over two years behind bars, during which he wrote more than 300 songs. As Buffalo News noted, James wasn't released early because of his good behavior but because of the awful behavior of an investigator.

Craig Gunnette was so determined to see James rot in prison that he became a criminal himself. Police records revealed that Gunnette admitted bribing a key witness with heroin, money, and other favors. That witness, Michelle Allen, received hundreds of phone calls and thousands of dollars from Gunnette while she was in jail. In addition he bailed her car out of impound and made illegal searches on police computers at Allen's behest. In return, Allen provided damning testimony against James and even accused the singer of breaking her arm. But while incarcerated she admitted that a boyfriend — not James — had actually injured her.

James' defense attorney maintained that the musician also didn't attack Sauger, alleging that James' girlfriend was the sole attacker. The evidence pointed to James having punched "at least one woman" repeatedly "during a drug binge." But Gunnette, who served no jail time and was allowed to retire, tarnished the integrity of the case.

He would have told Hammer not to touch 'Super Freak'

MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" was one of the biggest songs of 1990 and perhaps the most unintentionally ironic song in rap history. The first verse begins with "My music hits me so hard / Makes me say, 'Oh my Lord," and ends with, "And this is a beat, uh, you can't touch." While Hammer was busy being hit by music, other rappers knocked him for sucking at rhyming, and Rick James slapped him with a lawsuit because it wasn't really Hammer's music.

Turns out the beat you can't touch was also one that Hammer couldn't touch. He simply sampled Rick James' 1981 hit "Super Freak" without permission, tried to rhyme "hard" with "Lord," and bragged in bland fashion. Billboard lauded the strategy as a stroke of genius, noting that "piggybacking on a well-known hit" helped grab people's attention. "I wasn't impressed with that sh*t," Rick James declared. " He also wasn't impressed with the practice of sampling … at first. But as James explained, "'U Can't Touch This' made me a sh*tload of money" and "did wonders for my appreciation of sampling." Nonetheless, he claimed he would have never allowed Hammer to sample "Super Freak" if the rapper had asked before hand. In other words, James would have said, "You can't touch this."