The story of Prince and Rick James is a strange one. It’s the tale of the two artists whose similarities can be attributed to their decades-long feud, and instead of uniting the two together, it caused one of music’s most notorious rivalries — one that started when James invited Prince to support him on his ‘Fire It Up’ tour in early 1980.
At this point, Prince was a rising star, and due to his music being so different, he attracted both a black and white crowd. This was something James was all too aware of and, with that, decided that he had to make use of both for publicity and economic reasons. Little did he know, however, it would kick off one of the defining relationships of his career.
Showing just how similar Rick James and Prince’s careers were, both artists released their debut solo albums in 1978, and both their careers would diverge greatly before ending in eerily similar fashions. The ‘Fire It Up’ tour was hailed as ‘The Battle of Funk’, and that was an understatement. The battle was a war, and the war was a protracted one.
James’ friend and saxophonist, Daniel Lemelle, remembered how the string of live shows went down in Mike Judge’s Tales from the Tour Bus in 2018. Both acts were somewhat jealous of each other, both viewing the other as possessing the skills that their own act needed. They would both watch each other’s performances from the wings, with the jealously quickly bubbling up. Shortly after, James claimed that Prince stole his moves, aesthetics and even his idea for the girl group Vanity 6.
Saxophonist Lemelle, meanwhile, went as far as to say that the Prince and his band were snobs and that he once forced Prince to drink cognac, which made him cry. Anyway, after the tour, animosity between both camps would reach a fever pitch. The story goes that Prince would make James work harder than he’d ever done on his artistry which is said to have been driven by intense jealousy.
Adding to the animosity, James was very open about his rivalry with Prince. Showing just how far their competition went, when Prince formed his group The Time with Morris Day, James started his own group, Process and the Doo Rags. James also wrote Eddie Murphy’s mega-hit ‘Party All the Time’ in 1985 as a means of kicking back against Prince’s newfound superstardom and admitted he wanted to give the comedian a hit to “stick it in Prince’s ear”.
Allegedly, Prince once refused to sign an autograph for James’ mother. This angered Mr. Super Freak to such a degree that he wanted to fight Prince. James recalled the event in his memoir, Glow: “Prince had dissed Mom and that I was gonna kick his scrawny ass”. Luckily, things were calmed down by Prince’s manager, who made him apologise.
By the end of the 1980s though, it was clear that Prince had won the battle between the two. James and his wife, Tanya Hijazi, ended up in prison for a couple of years in the mid-1990s after being found guilty of the kidnap and torture of a young girl and the kidnap and beating of a record company executive.
Strangely, both would die in similar circumstances. Rick James passed away in 2004 from heart failure attributed to a mix of drugs in his blood, and in 2016 Prince would be found dead owing to a similar circumstance.
Looking back, it’s easy to understand why James was jealous of Prince, he was younger and more experimental. However, both are rightly hailed as titans of funk, and both were great at what they did. It’s a shame that similarities caused a divide between them, as a collaboration between the two would surely have been the most fruitful for all parties. It would have been iconic.
Listen to James’ band recall the fateful tour below.