Slick Rick - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Meticulously placing worlds together at a rapid pace, and remaining steady while on a speedy rhythm is difficult enough. To intensify matters, try factoring in the ability to tell clear-cut and entertaining narratives. Complex as these factors seem, they were pioneered and perfected by Hip Hop legend Slick Rick. A true innovator in lyrical storytelling, Slick Rick’s eye-patch, gold tooth and massive chains, made him one of the most recognizable figures of Hip Hop's Golden Age.
Richard “Ricky” Walters was born in London, England, but while in his tenth year, he moved with his family to the Hip Hop hotbed of The Bronx, New York. While in New York, Richard met a rapper named Dana Dane. The pair formed the Kangol Crew, named after the British head-wear brand. While working together, Rick began to hone his ability to efficiently tell tales while simultaneously maintaining orthodox rapping rhythm. Ricky’s voice was also drawing intrigue for the mere fact that there really weren’t too many rappers without New York accents, let alone foreign accents. Rick's lyrical partner, Dana Dane, also began to bend his words to fake a British accent. Subsequently, the Kangol Crew pair sound quite similar to one another.
Ricky was also working alongside legendary MC and beat-boxer Doug E. Fresh. With Fresh, Ricky, now going by Ricky D, recorded the B-side “La Di Da Di” from the 4-track twelve-inch The Show / La Di Da Di (Def Jam-1984). Even though it was just a B-side, “La Di Da Di” immediately became a classic Hip Hop anthem. The songs hears Rick narrating a day in his life, meticulously describing everything down to the most minute details: brushing his teeth, applying cologne, and his interactions with the individuals he often befriends. “La Di Da Di” has been mimicked many times, most notably by Snoop Dogg on his version “Lodi Dodi” from his watershed album Doggystyle (Death Row-1993). As he grew more visible, Rick began to wear several massive gold chains as well as a gold-capped tooth. These panache accessories, coupled with his eye-patch (the result of an accident he suffered as a baby) and Rick’s humorously witty rhymes, began create a fair amount of hype around the London-born rapper.
Three years after he recorded “La Di Da Di” and now going by Slick Rick, the Bronx-by-way-of-London MC released The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (Def Jam-1988). The Great Adventures of Slick Rick was a humorous showcase of Slick Rick’s clever rhyme schemes and was a cornerstone in earning Slick Rick his reputation as the greatest storyteller of all time, within rap music. Despite the less-than-serious tone on the album, many critics were not amused and called Slick Rick’s debut album excessively misogynistic, mainly due to tracks like “Treat Her Like A Prostitute” and “Indian Girl”. Despite the steady stream of vulgarity-laced humor, the most well-known song found on The Great Adventures of Slick Rick was the stern “Children’s Story”, a didactic tale, which explicates the dangers of gang violence. the production for the album was crafted by Slick Rick himself, as well as mover/shakers like Jam Master Jay (Run DMC) and Hank Shocklee, whose Bomb Squad production team would go on to craft classics for other influential Hip Hop forces, Public Enemy and Ice Cube. Having attained The Source Magazine’s prestigious “Five-Mic” rating, the reach of the album’s influence has had a fruitful run; “Children’s Story” was covered by Mos Def on he and Talib Kweli’s collaboration, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (Rawkus-1998). Homage to the track has also been put out by U.K. artist Tricky as well as Compton rapper The Game, who subverted the track to be “Compton Story”.
Slick Rick later found himself in legal trouble, being convicted on charges of attempted second degree murder and possession of a firearm. Def Jam founder Russell Simmons bailed Slick Rick out of jail, who hastily began working on his second album The Ruler's Back (Def Jam-1991). The recording, promotion and production of the accompanying music videos, were all done hastily, as Rick was sentenced to serve five years in prison. Despite the expedited construction of the album, The Ruler's Back was a success.
While in incarceration, Slick Rick released his third album Behind Bars (Def Jam-1994). Rick’s third album featured production from East Coast Hip Hop mainstays like Pete Rock, Large Professor, Prince Paul and Easy Mo Bee, as well as guest verses by longtime collaborator Doug E. Fresh and Long Beach rapper Warren G. However, despite the plentiful amount of high caliber guest appearances, sales and critical response for Behind Bars were lackluster. Slick Rick appeared to be a shadow of his former self, as the lighthearted debauchery that had made Slick Rick famous, had sunk into morose and regressive reflections of his past mistakes. The sales for the album were also unkind, Behind Bars peaked at a disappointing #51 on the Billboard charts. While in custody at Riker’s Island penitentiary, Slick Rick was interviewed by Russell Simmons, who had initially bailed Rick out of jail, for the Hip Hop documentary, The Show. In the interview, Rick muses about rap music’s ability to vividly and objectively describe the scenarios many individuals are faced with in the inner-city. His theories on rap’s significance in society certainly provide a logical accompaniment to his legacy within Hip Hop culture. The original generation MCs thrived primarily on competing with one another’s self-aggrandizement. Slick Rick’s lyrical prose were immensely innovative and gave rappers a whole new perspective on the descriptive possibilities of rapping.
While still in prison, Rick still managed to contribute guest verses to albums from artists such as singer Aaliyah on “Got to Give It Up” from One In A Million (Atlantic-1996) and Montell Jordan’s “I Like” from his album More (Def Jam-1996).
With the cohesive factors of imprisonment and subsequently less-than-stellar record sales, Slick Rick’s status as a household name had somewhat dissipated. Nonetheless, his influence on Hip Hop still loudly echoed throughout the genre. The street-inspired narratives of rappers like Outkast and Nas drew heavily from Slick Rick’s early records, mainly his debut The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. Once Slick Rick was released from prison, it was evident that his contribution to the genre had not been forgotten. He helped write and performed on Atlanta-rap duo Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” from their critically-acclaimed opus Aquemini (Arista-1998). “Da Art of Storytellin’ ” would also foreshadow Rick’s next album,The Art of Storytelling (Def Jam-1999). Rick’s fourth album was largely seen as a return to form for the London-born rapper. Further proving that his influence had not been forgotten within the Hip Hop community, The Art of Storytelling featured Rick’s narratives being performed alongside contemporary Hip Hop icons like Snoop Dogg, Nas, Raekwon and Big Boi (of Outkast fame), among others. Also Slick Rick’s most commercially lucrative album, The Art of Storytelling was praised by fans and critics alike and helped reestablish the career of the 80’s rap icon, a feat which had proven remarkably difficult for many other early pioneers of the genre.
Slick Rick capitalized on his resurgence by yielding collaborations with De La Soul, Common as well as fellow-80’s icon Will Smith. He also provides backing vocals for Jay-Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” from Jay-Z’s lauded album The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella-2001). While Slick Rick doesn’t technically “rap” on “Girls, Girls, Girls”, he does provide almost ghostly background vocals to the cinematic track, perhaps revealing Jay-Z’s subtle tribute to the lyrical storytelling legend.
In 2002, Slick Rick was again arrested after he performed on a cruise-ship and tried ot reenter the United States. A law created in 1996, stated that immigrants who were convicted of felonies, were to be deported to their countries of origin. While Slick Rick had long slid under this law’s radar, in a tense post-9/11 era, this law was rigidly enforced. The efforts to deport Walters intensified in 2006, however, in 2007, New York Governor David Paterson pardoned Ricky Walters for his attempted murder conviction. Hence, Walters was allowed to remain in the United States.
Slick Rick has recently joined the good-company of fellow-Hip Hop legends such as Run DMC, Public Enemy, De La Soul and KRS-One in VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors ceremony and rightfully so. Hip Hop’s status as a raw interpretation of urban America and all if its triumphs and tensions, owes a good deal to the explicit tales of Slick Rick, the greatest story telling rapper of all time.