Here Comes The Crack
Alright you squares, it's time to smoke.
Fire up this funk and let's have a toke.
It can make you dance or some of everything.
Everybody get high...
Bustin' Out by Rick James (1978)
Although the remorseless monotony of the Disco music that began to dominate dance floors in the mid seventies had more affinity with cocaine, cannabis continued to inform the groove perpetrated by the funkiest groups of the era.
Rick James was born James Johnson and raised in Buffalo, upstate New York. He joined the US Naval reserve, but when he was called up in 1966, he escaped by slipping over the border to Toronto, where as Ricky Matthews he hooked up with Neil Young and formed his first band, the Mynah Birds. In 1971, James did eight months in a navy brig in Brooklyn and then bummed around Europe for a while before re-inventing himself as Rick James, fronting the Stone City Band, and becoming a contender for the Funk crown.
In 1978 a song called You & I became Rick's first big hit and the album that accompanied it, Come And Get It, was a smash. He followed that with Bustin' Out of L Seven - 'L7' being hipster slang for 'square' - the cover of which shows a guitar-wielding Rick escaping from a prison labelled 'Serious Joint' and the title track of which invited everybody to get high.
Marijuana was a major preoccupation with Rick James, who extolled his adoration of the weed in songs like Mary Jane (1981) and even launched an all-girl group called the Mary Jane Girls in 1983. Sadly, the sometime Superfreak's interest in illicit substances didn't stop at the soft kind and he became a rampant cocaine addict. In 1993, James was incarcerated in California on charges of drugs-engendered violence against former girlfriends, where he was interviewed by Pamela Des Barres for a chapter in her book about depraved rock stars, Rock Bottom.
When the drugs change, the music changes, too. Throughout the late seventies and into the eighties, as club culture spread globally, cocaine use became correspondingly widespread and this was reflected in music made for the dance floor, which was no longer categorised simply as 'up-tempo' or 'down-beat', but more precisely by its number of beats per minute. Gradually, the disc jockeys who spun the records in the clubs began to become more important than the musicians who made them. If the BPM of a record would not fit the DJ's mix, often it had to be changed to ensure a hit, with the result that dance records began to sound monotonously predictable.
If new records began to sound increasingly like old records during the 1980s, that's because they very often were old records, re-styled. In 1979, a record called Rappers' Delight by The Sugar Hill Gang introduced the world at large to a new form of dance music in which 'MCs' ('Masters of Ceremonies') 'rapped' their own lyrics over the rhythm track of old hits, which were 'mixed' and 'scratched' by the DJ. Later, the technology advanced to enable record producers to 'sample' bits of old records and re-assemble them to make new ones. The lyrics to early rap records consisted of basic braggadocio, with rappers boasting about the money, clothes and women that were the trappings of their success.
Another prized symbol of success was access to high quality cocaine, the purer the better. Rather than snort street coke, the cognoscenti would purify it through a process known as 'freebasing'. Eventually, enterprising drug dealers came up with a marketable form of cheap, freebased cocaine, called 'crack'. And when crack hit the streets, rap music went mental.