Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Did Dave Chappelle Help Kill Rick James?

James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., had a life filled with many narrow escapes. After dropping out of high school in his hometown of Buffalo, he joined the Navy, and then in 1964 narrowly escaped service in Vietnam by going AWOL to Canada. There, he started playing music with a band and, seemingly overnight, returned Stateside with a new name and a new game: He was Rick James, bitch.

Though the career of Rick James had peaked before most of us were old enough to know what a "Super Freak" actually was, he remained a pop icon even after his star had faded. He was a symbol of the 80s: fast-living, cocaine-addled, flamboyant, and, some might say, regrettably influenced by disco. A mainstay at the hottest clubs in New York and LA, he was a notorious womanizer, drug abuser, and rowdy reveler.

All that outlandish behavior would one day catch up to him in the form of one man: his grim reaper, his resurrected spirit, comedian Dave Chappelle.

In the aftermath of his celebrity, Rick James, nursing a bum ticker (a pacemaker, actually) and hampered by a stroke, seemed again to have narrowly escaped with his life. His name had been out of the tabloids for ages. He was too infirm to appear in the reality shows that his contemporaries were jumping on.

That's when Dave Chappelle put him back in the spotlight and, in doing so, killed him.

Was it his name repeated in the mouths of every drunk person of college age? Was it the caricature of himself that Chappelle had resurrected that troubled him? Did he think that this new fame would overshadow his career? A defining moment in the reemergence of Rick James had to be his appearance at the BET Awards in 2004, during which he unleashed an unbearably hard-to-watch duet with Teena Marie, staggering through the aisles, breathing heavily into the microphone, moving stiffly with his stroke-ravaged muscles.

Not many weeks after that, he was found dead, with 9 different drugs in his blood. Valium, Meth, and Coke, just to name a few.

Of course, to saddle Chappelle with blame for killing James is patently ridiculous. But is it completely absurd to imagine that, in some way, his demise was hastened by the fame Chappelle and Charlie Murphy's "True Hollywood Stories" had brought him? Perhaps Chappelle imagined that he could – as he had done with other characters in his show – bring the sickly James back as a recurring character. And given Rick's track record, how could James NOT have been tempted to milk the fruits of his newfound fame for all they were worth.

When Rick James passed away in August 2004 from cardiac failure, Chappelle wasn't on the scene. He wasn't standing over his limp body with a pillow. But he did get a $55 million dollar reward for, among other things, reintroducing Rick James to the national discourse. But what did it do for Rick besides send him to that China Club in the sky?

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