“It’s Slick Rick style,” says Rick Rubin, nodding to Jay-Z, smiling. “Yeah, I wanted to take it on some old-school, storytelling shit,” Jay responds.
The quick exchange, during the making of “99 Problems” in the film Fade to Black, captures Slick Rick’s enduring legacy. Two decades since The Great Adventures of Slick Rick went platinum, he’s now a point of reference for modern artists. His spirited look—eye patch, big jewelry, even bigger smile—was a stylistic turning point for rappers.
No longer in headlines for music or legal troubles, Rick is now vocal about the responsibility of his twenty-year craft. “Rap can reach kids and can help adults reach kids. It should be utilized,” says the forty-three-year-old rapper, readying to perform to a crowd of youngsters. “These kids weren’t around when hip-hop started. So we, as the artists, can’t keep living in the past. Hip-hop is an adult now, so it should act like one. I want future generations to eventually benefit from our art.”
As future fans discover his art, Wax Poetics asked Rick about his story, his maturation, and how hip-hop can be a tool for change. He now tours occasionally and enjoys the quiet life he’s earned. Times have changed, but as Rick Rubin and Jay-Z pointed out, Rick’s presence can still be felt.
What are your days like now?
I just take it easy, taking care of things and such.
Do you still get recognized often?
Yeah, I still get recognized. I mean, there aren’t too many people walking around with an eye patch on, so it usually sparks their memory.
You came to the U.S. when you were eleven years old. What were the immediate differences between England and America that you remember?
What I remember about London is [that] they didn’t play any Black records. Records I grew up with were common stuff like the Beatles, Bill Haley, and stuff like that. I love that stuff, don’t get me wrong. But when I came to the Bronx, it was a lot more multicultural. The Black soul of the ’70s was in full effect! Shaft, Bruce Lee, and all that was going on! America, the Bronx specifically, was exciting and a lot busier in comparison.
What sights did you see as hip-hop was becoming really popular?
When it first came out, it was the same story you’ve heard: people started break-dancin’; people would bring out huge speakers for block parties; violence stopped for a while. It was a great sight to witness. And great groups started to formulate, like the Cold Crush Brothers. And all this happened in the Bronx!
People used to do routines, people started looking for records that had a reputation for being dope—it was great. Guys started freestyling over these popular records, and young artists were very conscious of people’s reaction to those records. They were very aware of the routines they were doing. And they were onto something, ’cause those same records and routines are still popular today. I also remember cassettes and how important they were too. That really helped popularize hip-hop a lot.
What were you listening to at the time?
It was the disco era, you know? People were really diggin’ disco, and that’s what everyone was playing. A lot of people forget that disco was a huge part of hip-hop when it first started. Heartbeat by Curtis Mayfield was real popular. Gloria Gaynor and those kinds of records were everywhere. You wouldn’t think I was a disco head, but I was listening to a lot of disco then. [laughs] I also liked Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight too, of course. But everyone was getting down with disco whether they like to admit it [now] or not. [laughs]
Talk about the Kangol Crew and how it developed your career.
It was a group of guys I went to high school with. We didn’t have any instruments or headphones or anything. [laughs] We would just bang on the desk and rap along to it. We would come up with real slick routines, and people in school loved us. We would also do songs that were popular at the time, so we got a lot of recognition. We named ourselves the Kangol Crew because we loved the Kangol hats, and just that whole style—Puma, Adidas, British Walkers, Clark Wallabees, Cazals-everything that was hip and stylish at the time. We’d wear suit jackets and perform around the school and neighborhood. We were nuisances really. [laughs] And once we graduated, two of us went on to make records. That’s primarily the reason why people even know of the Kangol Crew, because Dana Dane and I went on to become famous.
How is your relationship with Dana Dane?
Our relationship is good. I was glad to see him do well for himself after we grew up. I mean, he made his mark on hip-hop with “Nightmares” and “Cinderfella Dana Dane.” I think his first album did real well too, and I was glad to see it. I know it’s been reported that we feuded or whatever, but that didn’t happen. I wish him well.
Do any tapes of the Kangol Crew tapes exist?
Nah. [laughs] We were poor kids. We were just banging on tables and having fun.
You were one of the first to wear huge, overemphasized jewelry. What made you do that originally?
To the mainstream public, that wasn’t seen too often until rappers like me did it. But from the areas we grew up in, you’d see that all the time. Dudes would be wearin’ huge, ridiculous gold chains! [laughs] They probably didn’t get the chains in a nice or legal fashion, but they were considered the kings of the neighborhood. So we took from these older cats and used it for ourselves when we got famous. We were just trying to be like the older brothers. Plus, once women were exposed to such giants in their own community, why would they care for the small [fry] of the world? [laughs] That’s how it started, and it just got bigger and bigger; I definitely didn’t invent it or anything. Nowadays, some rappers look like they raided Queen Elizabeth’s hidden chest. [laughs] It’s ridiculous.
Take us back to the day you met Doug E. Fresh?
Well, I’ll always remember, because he was the Original Human Beatbox, which was a fairly new branch of hip-hop then. I was introduced to him twice, once at a skating rink that he was performing at, and the other [time was] when he was judging a rap competition. He was already known and was judging different rap competitions around the city. At the skating rink, the first time we met, I was bugging him like, [imitates kid’s voice] “I’m a good rapper, you should hear me, you should hear me!” But he didn’t pay me much attention, ’cause I’m sure a lot of people bothered him and stuff.
So the next time I saw him was during a battle my friend was in. My friend asked me to go onstage and rap with him. It was a very big contest, and we went up against some very good neighborhood rappers from the Bronx. Anyways, we came in second. [whispers] Although some people said we came in first. That’s when Doug recognized me and said what’s up. That’s when I told him we had met before, and I was like, “I told you I was good. You should put me on.” [laughs]
Do you remember your original routines you guys would do back then?
We’d do “La Di Da Di” all the time. He’d beatboxed over the “Impeach the President” break a lot too. Meanwhile, I’d do my story raps. A lot of people weren’t into the story side of rap then, so I guess I just sort of fell into it. I’d just try to tell humorous stories that people could follow along to.
Did people notice you immediately?
Yes. People seemed to like my shit right away.
Where did the phrase “La Di Da Di” come from?
I guess it comes from my upbringing in England. A lot of my phrases came from my childhood and stuff I picked up from other people’s music. Like the Beatles, for example: [sings] “Michelle, ma belle…” You don’t even need to say these artists’ names, you just have to touch on their music and people will get it. So I guess I incorporated influences from America and England into my songs.
You made a lot of beats when you were younger. Did you stop producing for a reason? Or was rapping just more your calling?
When I was making my first album, making beats came easy to me. There wasn’t complicated equipment or stuff like that. Things were just basic. So when hip-hop became bigger, they came with all this complicated machinery and the sound sounded more clean and professional. So it became hard to compete with professional producers. And, plus, record labels would try to push producers onto your projects, so it was difficult to grow as a beatmaker if you weren’t already one. I guess it’s wiser from a business standpoint. But, hey, the beats on “Children’s Story” and “Hey Young World” and “Mona Lisa” weren’t so bad, right? [laughs] I made all those beats, and I liked what I did on those songs.
What sticks out in your mind about the time when you were making 1988’s Great Adventures?
It was a time of breakthroughs. I mean, I was a mail clerk making 560 bucks a month. I had a girl and the whole shebang, so I had to be budgeting shit all the time. But I was basically still doing okay for myself. While you’re just making ends meet, you don’t realize how hard you struggle, ’cause you just wanna work and have your own place. And from bugging Doug E. all the time, he gave me three hundred dollars for a show. I know it may sound petty now, but you could imagine going from a five-hundred-dollar budget, paying three-fifty for rent, plus you gotta buy food and tokens to get to work? It was hard. Then, all of a sudden, I was making three hundred bucks a night! In two nights, I could make what I made in a month! The difference in money was a big jump. Getting paid to do a hobby, something that’s fun and exciting, and you’re getting paid for it? It blew my mind. That’s what I remember ’bout that era.
Nowadays, people don’t care much for stories; they just wanna hear their favorite rapper’s personality shine through.
In Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique, you said you didn’t like the Bomb Squad’s work on Great Adventures. What about it did you specifically not like?
Certain beats and me don’t work. “Teacher, Teacher” was garbage. No disrespect, but it was filler to me. I mean, you got people [working] on a record behind the scenes who have to keep score of what they think the public would like, and that’s when they brought in the Bomb Squad. You have A, B, and C level beats. Of course, you have your D and F level beats too [laughs], but you always want to stay in the A or B levels. I mean, sometimes a good beat just doesn’t bring out the best in an MC, or vice versa. And that was the case with Bomb Squad’s beats for me. I mean, I like their beats, I just didn’t think they work well with my style.
Did you ever work directly with Eric Sadler and Hank Shocklee? How were those sessions?
Actually, we only worked directly with each other once. It was for “Lick the Balls.” They were great guys, and it was fun as far as I can remember. I knew that they had done songs for Public Enemy and were well respected, so I was excited. They’re nice guys, and working with them was actually cool. Just ’cause I didn’t like some of their beats doesn’t mean I don’t respect them. “Lick the Balls” is definitely my favorite of all the tracks they gave me.
Your songs “La Di Da Di” and “Children’s Story” have both been covered by other artists.
It just proves to me that the public has an excellent perception of things—and not the experts. Time and time again, it proves that experts don’t know as much as they think they do. “Children’s Story” has been covered so many times, and it just means that I connected with the public.
How was your relationship with Russell Simmons, and what role do you think he played in your career?
Well, he was a record-exec type, manager, whatever you wanna call it. But being an exec means I didn’t see him as much as I would’ve liked. As the artist, you want to work closely with the guy that’s gonna make the final decisions on your record. We had our ups and downs. Pretty much what I told Russell was that it was hard for me—going from a kid who had two rap songs, and having to make twelve songs overnight, was difficult. Plus, he had all these “experts” telling him what was best. I felt he didn’t know what was best for me as an artist; he was all business. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to make money too. But he didn’t take a lot of my suggestions on those early records.
Can you give us an example of how you guys disagreed?
I wanted “Children’s Story” and “Mona Lisa” to be released as singles first, but they put out “Teenage Love” instead. I mean, it’s not a bad song, but in a fast era where hip-hop was booming, you want to put your best foot forward, I felt. And you have cats like Rakim and Kane out there too, and they’re killing it, so it didn’t make sense to me to put out a slow-sounding record. It’s almost like you’re defeating your own purpose. I mean, “Teenage Love” was a cute song and all that, but still. Luckily for us, the people didn’t abandon ship. Russell and I had a lot of minor conflicts like that.
What was it about Big Daddy Kane and Rakim that struck you?
They took hip-hop to the next level. They were skillful in many things, and they obviously perfected the art of battle rapping. Their beats were gritty too! You know how they say, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere”? Well, Kane and Rakim got love from everyone in New York. They brought everyone’s skill level up by being so skillful themselves. Their grit was great.
In 1991, you released your sophomore album, The Ruler’s Back. What do you think of it when you hear it now?
I don’t like it. It was during the trial, after I was incarcerated for the whole gun-possession thing, so I wasn’t able to do my best. A lot of the music was added to my vocals after the fact, so I don’t think it complemented me correctly. It definitely wasn’t my best work. The rhymes were too fast, so you couldn’t get into the stories. It was just really rushed. I think my best albums are the first and the last album.
What about 1994’s Behind Bars? You made that after getting out of jail.
I recorded Behind Bars while I was out on bail, and it wasn’t a good experience either. I only had such a little bit of time to do it in. Basically, I recorded The Ruler’s Back and Behind Bars in a span of two to four weeks. Behind Bars was rushed, and wasn’t what it needed to be. I needed outsiders looking [in] to slow everything down and not keep pushing these projects. But with those projects, nobody did.
So you consider 1999’s The Art of Storytelling to be one of your best works. What was life like by this time?
Things were a lot more relaxed. I learned from the mistakes of the last two projects. People actually listened to the input I put into it. You could pretty much hear the variety of stories I told on that one. I was also able to collaborate with the hottest artists of that moment: OutKast, Snoop, Nas, and Raekwon. A lot of those cats I worked with showed me a lot of respect too. That was a good experience, and I think the album reflects that. To me, this album was an achievement. I went from making silly rap songs in ’85, to being incarcerated, to being back out, struggling, then making a great album. It went gold, so I’m proud of it. So now, I get to say: [yells] “My last album went gold!”
Hip-hop should be used to help people, to reach kids, to get messages across. Like all art, it can teach.
Are rumors about an upcoming album entitled The Adventure Continues true?
Yeah, but I’m only releasing it when I’m ready. We’re recording it at the house, and we’re taking our time with it. No record execs this time! [laughs] It’s a constant work in progress.
Do people ask you about your eye patch? There have been many stories about it. What’s the real story?
Well, I can’t see out of my right eye. A window shattered when I was about two years old, and glass got into it. And the patch is for cosmetic reasons too. It’s like Superman going into his closet before he has to face the world. Instead of a Superman suit, I throw on my eye patch before I rap. [laughs]
As a revered rapper, where do you see the art of rapping going in the future?
I think people will just try to perfect the personality they want people to hear. Some of us just kick raps—and some are very conscious of how they portray themselves on wax. Nowadays, people don’t care much for stories; they just wanna hear their favorite rapper’s personality shine through. It’s gonna be less person and more persona, you know? So I think that’s where lyricism is going, not necessarily good or bad, just changing.
How do you see hip-hop advancing?
I see it as a racial melting pot, which is a wonderful thing. I mean, hip-hop is already multiracial and diverse, but it’ll continue to be more widespread. It’ll be like a pulpit for the world—like in church. You get the right people in front of a pulpit and you can change the world.
I interviewed Chuck D recently, and he said, “People nowadays use hip-hop as a toy, instead of a tool.”
I definitely agree. Rap is being disregarded as the art it can be. Hip-hop should be used to help people, to reach kids, to get messages across. Like all art, it can teach.
Do you hear yourself, your influence, in contemporary rappers?
Sure I do. But I’m sure you could hear Cold Crush Brothers in my style too. I think it’s only natural. It’s all about making our art, hip-hop, richer. If a child is hungry, you feed it porridge. If humans out in the world are actually hungry for smart, digestible hip-hop, then it’s our duty provide it. Each one, teach one.
What has been your approach to writing stories you’ve told?
Well, I think it comes from high school English class, believe it or not. [laughs] That’s where I learned to strategize and lay out an essay. First, you have your intro, then your body, then the conclusion. And hip-hop is pretty much just like that—you have your three sixteen-bar [verses] and a little chorus. And your three bodies have to relate to the chorus. And all the while, you display your level of maturity and smarts through what you say. You have to make things sensible and accessible. Otherwise, it’s like force-feeding somebody liver, and nobody likes liver. [laughs]
What other songwriters have been influential to you?
I love the Beatles. I like the Supremes and Dionne Warwick. Oh, and Queen too. [sings beginning of “Bohemian Rhapsody”] “Mama, just killed a man...”
How do you want your songs to be remembered?
I just want people to enjoy my records. When you go to a club and you’re getting your drink on, you want to do so while [you’re] listening to good music. If the music sucks, then you’re just gonna feel like an alcoholic. [laughs] I don’t want to make anyone feel like an alcoholic.
What do you want younger cats to gain from your recordings?
Just to know that my raps have morals in ’em. You don’t always have to be tough, acting hard, and all that. Sometimes, rap celebrates the worst qualities of our neighborhood, and I think my music has lessons hidden within the songs. Like, I’d use humor to get a message across, and kids should use other ways of asserting themselves without violence and all that.
Ultimately, what do you want your legacy to be?
As a storyteller on wax, as the icon of storytelling in hip-hop. I’d be happy with that. I’ve just always been honest and tried to write humorous stories that anyone can enjoy.