Slick Rick's fourth release, The Art of Storytelling, has recently gone as gold as the caps on his front teeth. This is particularly good news for the legendary MC, né Rick Walters. Since releasing a solo full-length five years ago, he'd all but disappeared from the rap realm that he was once dubbed "the Ruler" of. In many ways, he has quite literally been to hell and back since he first broke as a major rap star in the mid-Eighties. He's been incarcerated numerous times, gone down the old, familiar road of artists whose ascendance to fame is inversely mirrored by their own steady decline. He's seen his career fade into the background as hip-hop claimed a new generation of fans for whom the name Slick Rick was more likely to evoke a used-car salesman than a pioneer of the genre. Yet today Rick will tell you "the Ruler" is back, and this time it's for real.
"The single is out right now and is doing good," he says from his home in the Bronx. "The album went gold, thank God. The single played heavy on [Black Entertainment Television]. It's almost like if they don't know me, they know me now for the new single."
The single to which Rick refers is "Street Talkin'," which once again found him paired with up-and-comers OutKast, a partnership that initially helped reintroduce the antiquated rapper to a new audience. Last year, he appeared briefly on the track "The Art of Storytelling" from that act's breakthrough album Aquemini, and the song is the source for Rick's album title. "Street Talkin'," though, is clearly Slick Rick's show, and it's been a mighty successful one: The single blazed the clubs all summer long, and its video, which features the outlandishly garbed OutKast and Rick leaving prison sporting fly gear, jewels and a wad of bills, was a permanent fixture this summer on BET's Rap City top ten.
Slick Rick, as part of Lyricist Lounge featuring Planet Asia, Kingdom and Don Blas. 8 p.m., Monday, November 1, Gothic Theatre, 3263 S. Broadway, $26.25, 303-380-2333; 9 p.m., Tuesday, November 2, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $26.25, 303-443-33
"Street Talkin'," however, hardly marks Slick Rick's first trip to the charts. As MC Ricky D, he joined forces with Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew to release one of the quintessential hip-hop classics of all time -- the split 12-inch, "The Show/La-Di-Da-Di" -- in 1986. The single secured Rick a cushy position on the throne of the then-emerging genre of rap and was the first true highlight in a career that began in the Boogie Down Bronx where he grew up -- not on the street like so many rappers of the era, but in art school. The UK native first gravitated toward the mike as a member of the Kangol Crew, (which also featured Dana Dane), an outfit that he helped start in the early Eighties at the Manhattan School of the Arts. The group grew out of lunchroom sessions, where "we used to just bang on the desk in the lunchrooms. We didn't really have any instruments or anything, we just used to have fun, banging around, but it caught on," he says. Modeled after some of the groups that helped make the Bronx known as the birthplace of hip-hop, the group characterized themselves equally by their kinetic rhyme flow and their flair for fashion. "We used to dress alike, wear the same suit jackets, the Kangol hats," says the rapper. Early on, the group championed the Kangol hat, which eventually became the de rigeur hip-hop accoutrement.
After the release of "La-Di-Da-Di," Rick changed his MC name and released his highly anticipated debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, in 1988. The album became one of the first full-length rap classics and included numerous hits such as "Children's Story" and "Mona Lisa." The success of the album made Slick Rick a certifiable superstar and established his position as one of rap's gifted innovators. But his good fortune was short-lived. Two years after the album's release, he was involved in a scenario that eerily paralleled the narrative of "Children's Story" and brought his words to life: "He raced up the block doing 83/Crashed into a tree near University...Rat-a-tat-tattered and all the cops scattered/Ran out of bullets but he still got static/Grabbed the pregnant lady and pulled out the automatic...Sirens sounded and he seemed astounded/Before long the little boy got surrounded." On July 3, 1990, Rick, who was driving in a car with his then-pregnant then-girlfriend, approached his cousin Mark Plummer, who had worked for the rapper as part of his security team, on a street corner in the Bronx. Plummer had allegedly extorted the rapper for money and had threatened his life and his family's lives, so Rick decided to take the matters in his own hands. He confronted his cousin, things escalated, and Rick pulled out a gun and fired shots that wounded Plummer (who later died in an unrelated altercation). Plummer wasn't the only one hit: An innocent onlooker also caught one of Rick's bullets. Looking back nearly a decade later, the rapper describes the incident as "an accident. I could have shot somebody by accident, which I did, and they could have died, and I could have been serving a whole lot of time for something which wasn't my intention." After the shooting, Rick fled the scene and led the New York Police Department on a high-speed automobile chase throughout the borough. He later crashed the car and was apprehended. Although both shooting victims survived, the incident eventually led Slick Rick to spend a total of six years in various New York penal institutions for charges of attempted murder, weapons possession and resisting arrest.
Spending years in a confined cell when he'd just grown accustomed to the trappings of fame wasn't exactly a comfy adjustment for the rapper. Yet Rick says "the experience made me more adult-minded, more grounded, more aware of the responsibilities. You don't really take seriously the circumstances of your actions until after you do it when you have a younger mentality. After losing six years of my life, I definitely feel I had to look at my life in a more mature way." The experience also led Rick to the insight that he offers to many other young people faced with similar situations. "It's up to you to break the law," he tells them. "It's not wise, and it's not in your best interests. It's best to use the law to your own advantage, and to not go above or beyond it. You only hurt yourself in the long run. Sooner or later, your luck is going to run out."
Understandably, Rick's career slumped considerably as a result of his incarceration. He went on to release two albums, The Ruler's Back, in 1991, during an anxiety-ridden time right before the beginning of his sentence, and Behind Bars, in 1994, during a period in which he was free and optimistic that he would never return to jail. (He was later nabbed on an immigration violation and threatened with deportation to the UK.) With seemingly insurmountable legal troubles, his label Def Jam brought in outside producers to finish Behind Bars, which left Rick little control over the finished product. Both albums were universally panned, and today, even he isn't proud of the recordings. "The second and third were not good. They were garbage to me," he says. "It was rushed under the circumstances. I had made like two albums both in under a month, because I was going back and forth with the system. I was really trying to keep my name alive, but my spirit wasn't all in it."
In 1996, Slick Rick left the prison system. Upon his release, Rick says, the world was more than a little bit different. For one thing, he wasn't famous anymore. Friends had stopped calling. People had moved on and away from him. It was a humbling experience for the former star. "[When you're released] what you immediately notice is who your real friends are and who aren't and who was there for you. These are the things that you realize and you appreciate it." One person who was there for him was his wife Mandy, who stuck by him through all the trials and tribulations. "She was a big part of me being able to come back and fit back into society," says Rick.
The rap game had also changed, and Rick was in no hurry to rush right back into it. "The first thing you think about when you're freed is not really to pressure yourself to go in and work. You imagine yourself just coming home. You wanna eat a steak, enjoy life, settle back in with your family ties, enjoy the little things that you missed." Plus, "the Ruler" learned from his previous experiences of trying to hastily put out product. Eventually, as he became acclimated back to civilian life, Rick began entertaining thoughts of returning to music, and he began work on The Art of Storytelling last year, with Def Jam backing him. "When the time was right, and the spirit was right, we went full speed into the album," claims Rick.
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The finished product is an album that puts the emphasis on the rapper's ability to spin a tale. The track, "Who Rotten' 'Em" places us back in Moses times, the pre-Charlton Heston era, where Rick assumes the persona of a slave. "The Pharaoh heard that some slave that he had in the field is like lyrically good," he explains. "He's almost like a jester -- well, he calls me in the castle to entertain him, because the jester he has now is getting kind of boring. So I kick I couple of raps to the king and queen. They like it, and they decide to hire me as the new jester and fire the other one and send him to the lions. So then I get on a mission to change the king's heart into a more softer one, a more down to earth one." A close reading might reveal this song to be analogous to how Rick, the ultimate clown prince, might bring rap back to the days when hip-hop was more about fun and entertainment and less about how many gats you could blast.
Implementing this approach is Rick's trip down nostalgia lane on "Memories," where he reminisces about a time in the Seventies when "Shaft was in the movie theaters, and you remember the long, long cars, and you remember the afros and the high-heel shoes that men used to wear."
According to Rick, Storytelling is an attempt to "blend old school and new school. We took the best of the old and the new and mixed it together to see what we could come up with." To achieve this, the disc features a number of guests, some hand-picked by the artist and others suggested by Def Jam, because "they say I'm rusty, coming out of jail, and everything." Alongside OutKast, Slick Rick pairs up with Nas ("Me and Nas Bring It to You Hardest"), Canibus ("King Piece in the Chess Game"), Raekwon ("Frozen") and Kid Capri. Rick also joins forces with longtime fan Snoop Dogg, whose own re-twist of "La-Di-Da-Di" helped Rick pay the bills when he was in lockdown. The track "Unify," with Long Beach acolyte Snoop, "was a real nice thing to do. It just showed the West Coast appreciated my work. Me and Snoop got together, and he gave me his West Coast flavor, and I gave it my flavor. We just did it together and called it 'Unify,'" he says. Rick's reunion with Doug E. Fresh on one new track ("We Turn It On") and live versions of "La-Di-Da-Di" and "The Show" should similarly inspire even the most rigid of hip-hop heads to work toward squashing any bi-coastal beefs. On "I Own America," which was the original title of the album, Rick calls himself, "the black Clark Gable" and boasts that "This sure hit alone will bury ya/And even if I get deported/I Own America."
The Ruler might not have quite achieved the status of say, Bill Gates, who truly does own America. But Slick Rick is still at least serving on the supreme court of the rap world, an arena often dominated by posers trying to keep it real without any true-life experience. To paraphrase Dr. Dre, Slick Rick has certainly been there and done that. And if he's to leave any kind of legacy, it would likely be a simple one. "I was a human being that came to earth that was given the gift of music," he says. "I mean, you can almost tell my whole life through my music. I wasn't perfect in my ways, but I think you will see there was more good in me."