One of hip-hop’s founding fathers, Slick Rick weaves stories out of street life.
A legend in his own time, Slick Rick is a name revered among the old-school hip-hop crowd, hailed as an inspiration for the likes of OutKast, Snoop Dogg, Nas and Eminem. Yet to a wider audience, the self-proclaimed “Ruler” Slick Rick may be the greatest artist they’ve never heard of, his career hurt by stints in prison and run-ins with immigration authorities over his British passport (he was finally made a dual citizen in 2016). Now on tour throughout Europe, the most sampled hip-hop artist of all time seeks to rectify that, proving that his pioneering approach to the spoken word is as relevant now as it was during his early years in the mid-1980s.
Still living in the same Bronx neighborhood he grew up in, Slick Rick was born Ricky Walters in Mitcham, South London, where he lived with his Jamaican parents until the age of eleven. His background influenced his style, which bears the hallmarks of both American and British accents, colloquialisms and humor. When asked about his transition across the Atlantic, he recalls the “variety of cultures and faster pace of life,” as well as the attitude: “The kids were a little more blunt in America. You have to adjust to the fast pace and that bluntness.” He compares it to the U.S. sitcom Happy Days, saying, “It’s like Ron Howard and The Fonz; you kind of feel like a nerd until you get used to it… You have to let Fonzie school you a bit first.”
Still, acclimatizing could be awkward, further hampered by a childhood accident that left him blind in one eye at an early age. But Slick Rick caught up, developing a sharp wit and a knack for recounting funny misadventures to his peers. When rap surfaced, he would be well-prepared, eschewing freestyle rhymes for expansive, witty stories. His eyepatch would become an honored trademark.
Once Upon a Time
Describing his own style as “like watching a movie,” Slick Rick developed it by asking himself, “how can I tell Scarface in three verses?” He also cites the impact of comedians like Eddie Murphy, who taught him to “approach serious subjects in a humorous manner.” Over time, his simple tales grew into picaresque vignettes of street life – but rather than glorify gang culture like his contemporaries, his protagonists are often led to ruin by poor choices. Take “Children’s Story” from his debut record The Great Adventures of Slick Rick: Opening like an old fairytale with “Once upon a time not long ago,” it tells of two kids drawn to robbery, one of whom is caught and killed when trying to escape the police.
Another bleak morality play is “I shouldn’t have done it,” where The Ruler recounts his philandering ways; far from stereotypical macho fare, his girlfriend ends up committing suicide over his cheating by the last verse. Throughout both, you can hear his trademark wit, effortlessly flowing between the beat as he skips between characters. His narrative style has influenced countless others since, like Jay-Z in “99 Problems,” or Kendrick Lamar’s “The Art of Peer Pressure,” both similarly relaying real-life episodes while playing multiple characters. Hip-hop is well into its fourth decade now, no longer a fresh-faced genre spouting couplets from a shellsuit and hi-tops, but a mature art form of wildly divergent styles and themes. Drawing from all aspects of life and continuing to push the envelope, perhaps Slick Rick saw the potential more than any other of his contemporaries: “It’s really speaking,” he declares, “It’s like the people’s pulpit.”
Apr 6, 19:00, Grelle Forelle. 9., Spittelauer Lände 12. grelleforelle.com