Purple Hippies and Michael Maniacs are still in a dance floor dispute. They battle at “Michael vs. Prince” parties, trying to settle a score in an argument that endured since the mid ‘80s. In fact, Michal Jackson and Prince themselves came close to an actual face off in 1987. The taunting title track of Bad, Jackson’s anticipated follow-up to Thriller, was designed by visionary producer Quincy Jones as a duet for Jackson and Prince. He arranged for the two to meet but it didn’t amount to anything past expressing mutual respect. And so fans were forever left to provide their own take on “Who’s Bad?” The feud remained vivid even in the mindset of mass audiences as comedian Chris Rock addressed it in his 2004 Never Scared show. He proclaimed Prince won over Jackson—at least, in terms of one’s sanity. Perhaps so, but this ongoing debate overshadows Prince’s initial effort to overcome a different musical foe: Rick James.
Like Prince, James issued his debut album in April of 1978. But he was the first to enjoy chart success and position himself as the next prominent figure in funk. James wrote, arranged and produced Come Get It! as a satisfying blend of hedonism and romance. It included thrusting grooves such as “You and I”, soul searching ballads like “Hollywood” and reeked of sex and drugs with “Sexy Lady” and “Mary Jane”. James dominated on bass while sporting a healthy horn section and relied on bright female backup vocals. His own singing was teasing and raw, but never too emotional to completely tarnish the party vibes.
James’ presented his cheeky style as “Punk Funk”, a clever marketing tool made to distance his blasting tunes from disco. That reputation further emphasized his fresh and unapologetic approach, shielding him from any risk of looking outdated. That was a key sentiment sought by James’ label, Motown. The prestigious label was an empire in decline during the late ‘70s. Its recent film endeavors flopped and many of Motown’s classic acts were gone, and resident genius Stevie Wonder was losing his edge with a concept album exploring the life of plants. So Rick James’ street smarts and appeal were in desperate need, bursting through with perfect timing.
James’ punk attitude and labeling also hinted a sacred bond with the disenfranchised, intriguing fans overseas. In a 1979 Blues and Soul interview, he pointed out the similarities shared by UK punks and his own rough experiences: “To me, a punk is someone who says what’s on his mind and doesn’t take no shit. Punk… is relatable [to funk] because punk rock was poor, white British kids whose only vehicle to get away from their suppression and economic stress was through their music… Now, I was born in the ghetto and everyone in my band has starved and we’ve all been through the rats and roaches syndrome. We’re from the streets and we’ve been through the gang trip, too.” Rick James was 30 years old then, enjoying his big break after roaming around since the late ‘60s. Previously, he served some jail time for minor felonies, played with numerous bands and tried his luck in Toronto, Los Angeles, and London.
Meanwhile, Prince was barely 20 years old. He still boasted his high school afro and lived in his somewhat remote hometown of Minneapolis. Despite those odd circumstances, the young Prince secured a three-album record deal with Warner Brothers. His 1978 debut, For You, consisted mostly of bashful love songs that didn’t quite excite as much as James’ entry onto the scene. It was a rather moody album—even its lead single, “Soft and Wet”, wasn’t so daring. Despite acting as a one man R&B band—writing, arranging, producing and performing—Prince was still far from being in full swing. His wider musical spectrum rarely shined, only glimpsed through rocking tunes like “I’m Yours”. Vocally, he maintained a high pitch, which proved a bit tiring due to excessive overdubbing. The uneven effort and modest sales further increased Prince’s fears that he might be mismanaged by Warner’s industry-standard “Black Music Department”. He would soon pen more risqué tunes than before and establish a distinct image to avoid any kind of labeling.
Almost effortlessly, Rick James was on a roll with his subsequent releases. Bustin’ Out of L Seven (1978) and Fire It Up (1979) quickly went gold, keeping intact James’ devious tradition of featuring himself with at least one girl on the cover. He also continued to avoid the strong social commentary funk was known for earlier in the decade, and showed no interest in creating a sci-fi alter-ego like George Clinton and his adventurous space cadets band, Parliament. Instead, he composed his funk tunes as a marching band for freaks—one of his most commonly used adjectives. In many of his songs, James presented himself as the natural go-to-guy for any kind of action. Resting his case in “Come into My Life”, he sweetens the deal by promising to “bring my private stash if you come”. James had a knack for pounding beats and didn’t permit long improvised solos. Still, he enjoyed shout outs, like “Horns Blow!”, cueing his group to step up. At times, James appeared as strict as James Brown was when he bossed around the J.B’s. But often enough, James led his parade at ease, demanding satisfaction and promising liberation for all the dancers, hustlers, and druggies to come his way.
Prince went on to record his self-titled second album in 1979, carrying a more reserved, mystical persona. He gave rare and awkwardly brief interviews which didn’t quite complement his newfound musical aggressiveness. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” and “Bambi” soared with crushing sexual frustration; ballads such as “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” and “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow”, were now eerily erotic instead of hopelessly romantic. He generated profound intimacy by sparse instrumentation, soft voice and confessional lyrics, such as “sex related fantasies is all that my mind can see/ baby, that’s honestly the way I feel”. The looming theme of obsession was mostly sugar coated, for the time being, in the up tempos of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel for You”. Thus, Prince’s sophomore release was catchy enough to earn him his first immediate commercial success, including a national TV performance on American Bandstand.
Prince and Rick James were turning heads as the new men of funk. Each was a bluntly sexually driven figure who was exciting to follow as he groomed a musical talent about to manifest in its entirety. Yet to fully crossover, both continued to depend upon the same fan base of young black Americans. In 1979, James had begun hearing about Prince without giving him a second thought. However, concert promoters regarded them as two of a kind and a guaranteed attraction if billed together. Soon, Prince was slated as James’ opening act for the Fire It Up tour. An inevitable clash was on its way.
James’ baffling first impression is duly noted in his autobiography The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak (2007): “The first time I saw Prince and his band I felt sorry for him. Here’s this little dude wearing hi-heels, playing this New Wave Rock & Roll, not moving or anything on stage, just standing there wearing this trench coat. Then at the end of his set he’d take off his trench coat and he’d be wearing little girl’s bloomers. I just died. The guys in the audience just booed the poor thing to death.”
Other accounts suggest Prince made a point in upstaging James. Either way, tensions were running high throughout the tour. Backstage shenanigans of stealing instruments, physical confrontation and general intolerance were served cold by each artist. Long after parting ways, Prince and James never resolved their resentment and remained touchy when comparisons were drawn between them.
For both, the ‘80s marked the beginning of trying times and notable turning points. Prince released Dirty Mind in 1980, which gained him the most notorious reputation he could have ever hoped for. His sexual frustration was slowly graduating into sheer confidence. Prince’s sensitivity in “When You Were Mine” and “Sister” had led to a challenging moral and sexual ambiguity. His desire was no longer confined to a traditional adult relationship. He also started to represent a collective thought, similar to Rick James upon backing those in need of “Bustin’ Out”. Prince’s “Uptown” and “Party Up” were also songs that projected the dance floor as the vital sphere in which a new breed will arise, free of any hang ups. He further crystallized this progressive idea with his own multi-racial and gender-bender backing group, soon to be dubbed The Revolution.
Prince adapted wholeheartedly the New Wave sound on Dirty Mind, and his subsequent albums also included plenty of synthesizer-based tunes, ditching the traditional funk gear and sound. He eschewed a “Punk Funk” tag to his current musical direction, but he did dress the part. He performed nearly in the nude with a new borderline spiky haircut, while attaching a “Rude Boy” pin to his coat, embracing the calling card of Ska-heads. He was also pleased to preach to NME straight out of the punk manifesto in 1981:”All the groups in America seem to do just exactly the same as each other—which is to get on the radio… Obviously, the new wave thing has brought back a lot of that greaser reality. There are so many of those groups that there is just no way many of them can make it in those vast commercial terms. So they have no choice but to write what’s inside of them. I think it’s all getting better, actually.”