Rick James Once Tried to Fight Prince for Disrespecting His Mother
The two musicians were in a fierce feud for much of their careers.
Both Prince and Rick James released their debut albums in 1978, but while the 30-year-old James shot straight to the top with hit singles "You and I" and "Mary Jane," it would take the decade-younger "Purple Rain" singer a few more years to become a star. In the years in between, a sharp rivalry formed between the two funk musicians. Read on for the full story behind their legendary antagonism and how it once led to James chasing Prince down to make amends with his mother.
READ THIS NEXT: Michael Jackson Said That Prince Was "Mean and Nasty" to Him.
Prince dethroned the king of "punk funk" on tour in 1980.
Before his 1980 "Fire It Up" tour, James had heard Prince's second album I Wanna Be Your Lover on the radio and requested a video of the singer. "I thought he reminded me a bit of myself, except he didn't move as much," he later commented in his 2007 autobiography written with David Ritz, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak. James then invited Prince and his band to open for him. At the time he was worried the act would be too meek for the tour, having only heard that Prince was shy. He even wrote in his book that he "felt sorry for him" the first time he saw Prince perform in person.
To his surprise, the young and hungry singer and his band went on to steal the show with their set, upping the ante on sensuality with each passing night and exhausting audiences before James was even out. Fans and critics took note. According to Per Nilsen's Dance Music Sex Romance: Prince: The First Decade, seeing the show led The Chicago Sun Times critic Patricia Smith to write: "Rick James fancies himself the king of an R&B music genre called punk funk. And until Thursday…he probably was king. But he probably didn't expect to be shown up by a mere Prince."
But James said Prince stole the show—literally.
According to James, Prince owed more than a little of that success to him. Although the two stars and their bands would hardly talk offstage, the younger singer was a keen observer. "Whenever I was on stage I'd see Prince on the side of the stage just staring and watching everything I did, like a kid in school," James wrote in his memoir. "He was remembering everything I did, like a computer."
The older artist said he soon found Prince doing both his signature dance moves and crowd chants. "The boy had stolen my whole show," he wrote. "I was pissed, and so was my band."
Bassist Levin Ruffin Jr. backed James' claims that Prince had copied him in the 2021 documentary Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James. "Prince was like, what, 21, 22? We couldn't do what a 21- or 22-year-old dude could do anymore," he said in the film, as reported by The Daily Beast. "We tried! But we had a lot of B-12 shots and shit that we used to have to take."
Tensions eventually got so high between both the stars and their bands that they all had to sit down with their managers and come to a terse agreement. But, according to James, Prince still didn't stop, leading him James to lash out at his 32nd birthday party. "I went over to his table, grabbed him by the back of his hair, and poured cognac down his throat," he wrote in Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James, Ritz's own 2015 edit of his work with James. "He spat it out and started crying like a baby. I laughed."
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Even James' mom was a fan, however.
James would also have less than kind things to say about Prince in the press, telling Rolling Stone, "I can't believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince's jive records" and calling him "a mentally disturbed young man" whose music couldn't be taken seriously.
Say what he might, the younger singer was becoming a star—so much so that when James brought his own mother to Dick Clark's 1982 American Music Awards afterparty, Prince was among the stars she was excited to see, according to Glow. James was horrified to learn that not only had she asked Prince for his autograph, but he had arrogantly snubbed the request. "'When I asked him, he just turned around and walked away,'" he recalled his mother saying.
"That's all I needed to hear," James wrote. "I chased after that little turd. I caught up with him and was about to lay him out when his manager stepped in."
Prince ultimately apologized to both James and his mother, the other musician recalled with dismay. "I was a little disappointed 'cause I really did wanna kick his [expletive]," James recalled.
James got the last word.
By this time, James had already gotten back at Prince, deciding that if Prince would steal his moves, James would steal his synthesizers for us on his next album. That means it may be Prince's personally programmed Oberheim OB-Xa synth you hear on "Super Freak" from 1981's Street Songs.
"He took [the synthesizers] to Sausalito and he actually used them on the Street Songs album and then he sent them back to [Prince] with a thank you card," singer Teena Marie revealed to journalist Eddie Santiago in 2009.
James, who died in 2004 at age 56, would serve Prince, who died in 2016 at age 57, further comeuppance a few years later. According to The Confessions of Rick James, he also offered The Purple One front-row tickets to his show at the Universal Amphitheater, then gave the seats to his buddy Rod Stewart instead.