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This song is about a girl who is very adventurous sexually, especially with members of a band. A "Freak" is slang for someone willing to try various fetishes, thus a "Super Freak" will try just about anything. James was famous for his penchant toward "freakish" behavior, which got him in trouble with the law when he and his girlfriend were arrested for kidnapping another girl for sex.
This was the biggest hit for James. He had just modest success on the Hot 100 (where he never scored a Top 10 hit) but had four #1 R&B hits and was a prolific producer and innovator of Funk. Explaining how he came up with this song, he told Musician magazine in 1983: "I wanted to write a silly song. I was in the studio and everything else for the album (Street Songs) was done. I just put 'Super Freak' together really quickly. I wanted a silly song that had a bit of new wave texture to it. So I just came up with this silly little lick and expounded on it. I came up with the bass part first. Then I put a guitar on it and keyboards, doing the 'ehh ehh,' silly keyboard part. Then I found a tuning on my Oberheim OB-Xa that I'd been wanting to use for a long time – it sounds like ghosts. And I put a very operatic vocal structure on it 'cause I'm really into opera and classical music. You probably hear a lot of that in my music. So I put (sings in a deep voice) 'She's all right'; very operatic, sort of funny, stuff."
The famous bass line in this song was sampled by MC Hammer for his biggest hit, "U Can't Touch This
." James filed suit against Hammer, which ended in an out-of-court settlement giving James a songwriting credit on the track. This resulted in James' only Grammy Award when "U Can't Touch This" won in 1991 for Best R&B Song.
This was released on Motown Records, and featured backup vocals by The Temptations, something James points out in the song when he screams: "Tempations sing." One of their members, Melvin Franklin, was Rick James' uncle.
"Super Freak" was released about five months after MTV went on the air, and Rick James made a slick video for the song hoping it would get some spins on the network. At the time, however, MTV refused to play videos by black artists, and they rejected this clip, continuing to feed America a steady stream of Rock and EuroPop. This refusal to play black music was a holdover from radio station programming, where conventional wisdom was that you would lose your white listeners if you played black music. The first black artist to make MTV with a new song was Musical Youth, who despite adapting a song about smoking marijuana
, was a lot less scary to network executives than the glitter-vested James singing about kinky sex. This color barrier was shattered by Michael Jackson, who brought a new sound and sophistication to the network with the videos for his Thriller
Even though the network didn't play this video, Rick James eventually made peace with MTV and put their co-founder, Les Garland, in the video for Eddie Murphy's song "Party All the Time
," which James produced. As for exactly why MTV passed on "Super Freak," their director of acquisitions, Carolyn Baker, explained in the book I Want My MTV
: "It wasn't MTV that turned down 'Super Freak.' It was me. I
tuned it down. You know why? Because there were half-naked women in it, and it was a piece of crap. As a black woman, I did not want that representing my people as the first black video on MTV."
Over the years, the word "Freak" became very popular and Hip Hop and R&B lyrics. It's a versatile word that can be used as both a verb ("Freak Me") and a noun ("The Freaks Come Out At Night"). Use of the word peaked in the mid-'90s with the phrase, "Get your freak on."
The Dutch dance duo The Beatfreakz covered this in 2006. Their version reached #7 in the UK, the first time this song charted in Britain as Rick James original version wasn't a hit there.
In the movie Little Miss Sunshine, the little girl Olive does a wonderfully inappropriate dance to this song in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. (thanks, Nicole - Raymond, WA)
When James implores, "Blow, Danny!," he's talking to his sax player Daniel LeMelle just before his solo.
A Los Angeles DJ named Alonzo Miller is credited as a writer on this track along with James. Miller worked on the lyrics with James, helping tone them down so the song had a better chance of getting airplay and crossing over to a white audience. Miller was able to get the song played at the station where he worked, KACE.
Meet the "sassy basket" with the biggest voice in country music.