New York Series: Rick James ‘Below the Funk (Pass the J)’

"I was born in a city we call Buffalo, Zero degrees below is too damn cold and funky"

Many artists on the cusp of reaching their creative aspirations look forward, not backwards, to create their masterpiece and attain the level of fame and artistic fulfillment they strive their entire career to achieve. If they have the means, they move out of their old shacks and away from the rough life they’ve become accustomed to in order to comfortably hone their craft. Many artists move to major cultural centers such as New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco to join creative movements, exchange ideas with like minded individuals, and be inspired by all that is happening. Rick James, however, declined this option at a point before absolute stardom. In 1977 he moved back to his hometown and used the frigid, violent streets of Buffalo as inspiration for his hit record Street Songs.

“Everybody kept telling me I should go back to my roots. So, I said fuck it, wrote about ghetto life and growing up, and decided to call the album Street Songs.” – Rick James

The last track on the album Street Songs, an album that catapulted James to a level of fame he only dreamed he could achieve, submits a snapshot of James’ life growing up on the East Side of Buffalo and the changes the city saw over the course of his then short life. ‘Below the Funk (Pass the J)’ acts as a call to arms for everyone living in the ghettos of Buffalo to join together, share what they have, and be kind to one another. From the time he left at 15 years-old to join the Navy to when he returned, it seemed the ghetto had only gone further downhill. Throughout his life he was devastated with the poverty, corruption, violence, drug use, and degradation of his hometown and used upbeat, funky music as an outlet to express his concerns and establish hope for such communities.

Rick James sits on the hood of his Cadillac in front of the Buffalo Savings Building

Growing up in the ghettos of Buffalo was no sheltered lifestyle, and it left a mental scar on James. On another track from the album, ‘Ghetto Life’, he describes the experience as being surrounded by “tenements, slums, and corner bums, playing tag with winos the only way to have fun.” He had nothing and was forced to learn how to navigate through life on his own accord. When he returned to write Street Songs in the late 1970’s, he didn’t want his inspiration to be from the grand mansion in the suburbs of Orchard Park he now called home, but from the ghetto streets he used to haunt. He would disguise himself as a bum, visit the ghetto, and expose himself to the pimps, hoes, police corruption, and bloodshed that was once his reality. From there he was able to capture the essence of Buffalo’s East Side and shape the feelings he had about the area into what would become his most popular album.

Pardee Fountain in Gates Circle at Martin Luther King Jr. Park

Today the East Side of Buffalo shares many of the struggles James experienced, however it’s beginning to change as the city grows. Violence is still an issue, but it has been on a steady decline since the days of the Super Freak. The area holds the Buffalo Science Museum as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. Park, two well-maintained, visitor-friendly attractions. Additionally, there are architecturally fascinating churches scattered throughout the area and an abundance of jazz festivities in the summer for music lovers.

In the last few years, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has invested substantially in the area, thus expanding their campus and skyrocketing property values. While they have yet to take over the entire East Side, the gentrification of the neighborhood is slowly becoming apparent, forever altering the streets Rick James once called home. However, there will always be a reminder of the funk titan’s presence in his hometown as James is currently buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, NY.

‘Below the Funk (Pass the J)’ Lyrics:

I was born in a city we call Buffalo
Zero degrees below is too damn cold and funky
Mama raised me on the numbers racket
With eight kids and no father
Said she couldn’t hack it
On the eastside where I started
Singin’ on the corners
Hangin’ out with all the hoodlums
Pass the joint
Now the love I find in the city
Is such a cryin’ pity
Ain’t no love for brothers
Pass the joint
I think I want to talk
‘Bout the place I was born, I was torn
Said pass the joint
Give me one mo’ hit
I ain’t finished with it
I got some more to say
Now the players hangin’ ’round the main strip
Actin’ like they’re on a trip
If they had my cash they could be hip
But it’s strange the gossip is so tragic
They call me a faggot
Me and all my women laugh at it
Love I got my good friends there
They really keep me dancin’
They really keep me laughin’
In the country me, my dog and horses
Hangin’ out with my family talkin’
‘Bout stone city
Pass the joint
I wanna talk ’bout the city I was born
I think I wanna talk ’bout the place where I was torn
Said pass the joint
I need one mo’ hit
I ain’t finished with it
I got some more to say
‘Bout the city I was born
I got to talk
I wish they wouldn’t be so torn
I wanna talk ’bout the city I was bred
I need to talk ’bout the city that has led me to my thang
I was born in a city we call Buffalo
Zero degrees below is too damn cold and funky
I think I wanna talk about it
Ooh pass the. Joint
La la la la la la la la la
I think I wanna sing about it
Pass the joint
Thank you