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POP MUSIC | POP EYE

Rick James Goes Public on Private I

September 07, 1997|Steve Hochman

Rick James and Joe Isgro would both like to put their pasts behind them--and they're teaming to do it together.

James, the pioneer '70s-'80s "Super Freak" funk singer and bassist who spent two years in state prison after being convicted for a drug-related assault on a woman whom he and his girlfriend held prisoner in his house, is releasing his first album of new material in nine years on Oct. 14.

And the label that's putting out the album, titled "Urban Rhapsody"? It's Private I, owned by Isgro, the former independent record promoter whose 1986 arrest on payola charges shook the music business.

James did his time and says he's gotten on the right track. Isgro was exonerated last year after a 10-year legal battle when a judge dismissed the payola charges on grounds that the prosecutor failed to give him a speedy trial.

"It's like kindred spirits, me and Joe," says James, 47. "He's had his share of bad-mouthing and so have I. But we want to move on, keep funk alive."

Even through his problems, James' funk stayed very much alive. In the R&B pantheon, he still slots right between George Clinton's '70s funk and Prince's '80s revolution, and his music is cited as a key influence (and sampling source) by hip-hop stars.

The problem is that due to his tabloid-making exploits, his resurfacing could itself become a super freak show. James is not concerned.

"Either people are going to forgive and forget, or else they'll invoke whatever devils they have on me," he says. "But that's not my job. My job is to move on, enjoy life, enjoy my children and family. If people want to harbor things they read in the press or saw on television, that's their problem."

Isgro, 50, who relaunched Private I recently in a distribution deal with Mercury Records, is confident that the music's appeal and James' fan support will outweigh lingering images.

"I think this album will do fine, and all that other stuff is in both our pasts," says Isgro. "We're looking forward now."

And what kind of reception can they expect?

"Without minimizing James' music," says Alan Light, editor at large for Vibe magazine, "there's a novelty interest to what he's going to do at this point given what we have been hearing in recent years. The publicity will come, for better or worse.

"The hardest part a lot of times for many pop artists is growing older and still retaining coolness. The fact that James has been away for the last few years means that the Rick James music people know is from the peak of his game." Isgro and James had a previous business relationship, with his company handling the musician's publishing for more than a decade. They spoke several times during James' imprisonment, and then met after his release and decided to work together.

Now they're working out the final details of the album's launch, with a "preview" concert scheduled at the House of Blues on Sept. 29 before a full tour begins in Indianapolis on Oct. 3. A single, "Players Away," featuring a guest appearance by Snoop Doggy Dogg, has just gone to radio stations. A video for the single will also be shot soon.

They're not completely above exploiting James' sordid past to get attention: He's already been booked for an appearance on "Oprah," where it's a good bet that the subject will be raised.

But James is hopeful that people will be more interested in his artistry.

"That past is history, dead and gone," he says. "But not the music. I feel very blessed that the music has endured, and that people have a good feeling for that."

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