Over Rick James
Among the most popular, successful, flamboyant and notorious funk pioneers, Rick James began his career in Toronto, playing in a group called Mynah Birds, which also included Neil Young and Goldy McJohn (Steppenwolf). James played bass with many different bands before landing a solo deal with Motown in the late 1970s. His reign on the charts started shortly thereafter, thanks to supremely funky singles like "Mary Jane" and "Give It To Me Baby." His biggest hit and signature track was the aptly titled "Super Freak," one of the most popular songs of 1981. Blessed with a unique sound that drew from disco, New Wave and R&B, he was at the top of his game as a solo artist and producer in the early '80s, putting together key albums with the Mary Jane Girls, Teena Marie and Eddie Murphy, among others. His own hits continued with singles like "17" and "Cold Blooded," though the rise of hip-hop and his growing drug dependency soon derailed his illustrious career. James was later convicted of felonies stemming from two coke-fueled assaults on women, and spent several years behind bars in the '90s. Upon his release, he cleaned up his act and went back into the studio, releasing his final LP, Urban Rhapsody, in 1997. Though the album spawned no new hits, he made millions off of rap artists sampling his vast catalog; most notably, MC Hammer liberally borrowed from "Super Freak" for his own mega-smash "U Can't Touch This." In 2004, James was back in the spotlight, thanks to a hilarious skit on the Dave Chappelle show, which coined the pervasive catchphrase "I'm Rick James, bitch!" After releasing 14 solo albums in less than 20 years, and producing many more, James firmly established himself as a funk icon on par with legends like James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton. He was working on an autobiography and film about his life when he died of natural causes in August 2004. He was 56 years old.