Slick Rick’s forced hiatus caused many of us to forget and move on to the next. Some of us though, like myself, have never forgotten. When somehow, ‘The Ruler’ escaped to LA, just after his release from being confined in Florida by the INS, I had to meet up with one of the illest emcees, thanks to Los Angeles-based promoter Sean Healy and Jerry Doby Publicity. So, sit back and enjoy some story-telling of mostly how he came to be one of the most original emcees who helped pave the way for hip hop to be as big as it is today. When one thinks of or hears a Slick Rick track, immediately a vision comes to mind – a jewelry-clad, eye-patch wearing brother, almost always formally dressed like he was part of the Black GQ issue. Maybe it’s his slight British upbringing, although his true roots lie elsewhere, and New York City definitely polished something already inbred in him as he casually flips over words in rhyme more creatively than most emcees to ever grab a microphone. We’ve honored The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, and nodded our head to 1991′s The Ruler’s Back and 1994′s Behind Bars, then his entire presence became hidden, just like his right eye. Although he staged an impressive comeback with 1999′s The Art of Storytelling, which featured Outkast, Redman and other guests, the pop world was already onto pushing the greater emcees away from the airwaves and relegating them to the status of ‘OLD SCHOOL’ – a term the powers-that-be use to psychologically steer younger listeners away from, while the less talented, less original and less important become larger than life. Here’s how life in itself started for Ricky Walters, without the Kangol and the gold, or the Polo cologne.
Q. When you were in England, at what age did you move to the U.S. and in what year – did you move straight to the Bronx, NY?
THE RULER: “Straight to the Bronx, 1976.”
Q. And your roots, you’re British by nationality, but like most – if not all British Blacks – the immediate link to another place of origin is almost directly tied to the Caribbean islands or an African country. I’m really trying to touch on why and with whom you came here withâ€¦
THE RULER: “I came with myâ€¦well, my mother and father are from Jamaica first of all. They moved to England for job purposes, or for better employment. Then they moved from England to America because you get more for your dollar, you know how it go. So they moved to America, ’cause we never had like a big offspring in England, yuhknowhati’msayin’. They just moved there (England), did their little thing and they moved to America and now that’s where they are. I was age 11 when we moved to the Bronx. I got family in Jamaica still, but I really wouldn’t know them, and I don’t have any family in England. Everybody was really making moves for employment purposes, yuhknowhati’msayin’.”
Q. You’re amongst the first cats, probably with that natural Jamaican lyrical flow to tap into and make hip hop culture your own type of culture. Tell us a little about Jamaican transplants from England and NYC – folks like Shinehead, KRS-ONE, Grand Master Flash, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambatta – who demonstrated a unique skill on the mic or handling the decks by Djing, especially amongst your others in the game?
THE RULER: “Alright, well we come from that heritage, yuhknowhati’msayin’. This is from after-Ska. That’s what they call it back in Jamaica. Even I don’t know really what it was. But it was some lil’ happy happy Jamaican music stuff going on. They started mixing records, it’s pretty much the same thing what hip hop is now. But before hip hop became hip hop, the Jamaicans was doing it. Using instrumentals, or dubs and rhyming on them in their Jamaican style. And they was also playing with the mixer, getting even more fly. So, then came Kool Herc, who is also considered Jamaican, I’m not sure, but that’s what I heard. He was one of the first pioneers to take the two turntables and the mixer, take the juicy part of the record and try to extend it by mixing them back and forth – the break. And somebody would rhyme on top of them, and there was the birth of hip hop.”
Q. But he wasn’t doing that with reggae or dancehall then, was he?
THE RULER: “Nah, with James Brown, American records, Disco records that you know, people would seek out the juicy part where nobody wasn’t talking or singing, or where the drums or the music sounded rich and soulful. He had a gift,” he concludes referring to Kool Herc.
Q. Where was Slick Rick during this milestone, art form-shaping process? Still in England, or by this time you’ve already arrived in the Bronx with your ear to the street?
THE RULER: “I’m not sure when Herc was doing his thing, but I know that in like 1979, I started to get into hip hop, it started being BIG. I was too young to go to the concerts and the stuff that the Kool Herc’s and the Cold Crush’s and all that. But you hear about it, and that’s when cassettes was the only thing happening, so everybody had the boxes – the boom boxes. The cassettes, everybody was selling them all over the place. Like if somebody went to a concert or was at a block party where they performed and they made a recording, they would duplicate the tape and it would spread all over the city like that.”
Q. So that’s how you got into it, nice. And your ‘art of storytelling’ – where back in the day, many other emcees as well were eloquently able to depict the illest stories in rhyme – you were still tops with it. Your classics such as “Children’s Story,” “The Moment I Feared,” “Indian Girl,” “The Art of Storytelling” w/ Outkast, “It’s Wrong” and the list goes on. Even that 2003 Morcheeba cut, “Women Lose Weight” stands as proof. How did you realize this gift you had of depicting such vivid stories through rhyme as opposed to typical boastful raps many used as ammo?
THE RULER: “I guess I grew up, when I was in school I used to like English. English was like my favorite subject and telling stories, maan I used to tell stories for goofing around for my parents to make them laugh, just for fun -before rap. You tell a funny story, and you have to use silly punch lines that would make everybody laugh. I guess I liked the thrill of seeing the excitement after you make a good punch line. So I used to write stories, and then when hip hop came about, it was just about transferring the stories into rhyme, which was just basically all you really doing is matching the last words,” he says laughing smartly. “Yuhknowhati’msayin’, you could get creative later,” he continues laughing. “You get that spirit, that story, the whole visual picture in there so that’s how that pretty much came about.”
Q. And that style or ‘storytelling’ format, especially back then was so ripe and relevant. But today, we don’t see anything really close to your ‘storytelling’ art in the forefront of the hip hop market. Sure they’re some, but by no means are they on the level you took it to and how we enjoyed it then, and still do.
THE RULER: “Today, maaaan, the market is pretty much flooded, yuhknowhati’msayin’. It’s flooded, it’s big business, it’s not a lot of branches for mature rap – mature, growth-full, healthy, not stunting your growth rap. Like in my days when the tree was just starting, the tree was like a seed, it was just growing, then all these branches just branched out. You had the KRS-ONE, or before you had KRS, you had the Public Enemy branch which was like very Black Panther-y. You had the Rakim branch, which was very Muslim, 5 Percenter…you know, he was doing his thing. Then you had my avenue, which was just fun, happy, Christian, whatever,” we laugh. “You had all these different branches that was popping up, it was like a tree. SO as a tree, well you know the Melle Mel, Cold Crush Brothers, etc these were the forefathers, those were the real seed, but then we took it and started making branches. And that’s pretty much how it went.”
Q. Where did the inspiration or idea arise from, for you to exert such energy in cladding yourself with such a massive amount of jewelry? Most wore one or two rope chains at max, while you wore tons of it, together with bizarre looking medallions, rings, and so on.
THE RULER: “It’s just a culture, it’s a whole black culture kinda thing. Jamaicans, from even way before hip hop, used to wear big chains, yuhknowhati’msayin’. And then into the hip hop generation. It really was like you know you would see people with enormous wealth – maybe they was selling drugs or whatever, more than likely they was yuhknowhati’msayin’,” he changes his pitch to humorously suggest. “And they would have these enormous chains on, so to us in the environments, at that time – because back then they was no rich hip hop stars and if you was rich you was like Smokey Robinson, we wasn’t into that type of thing. So to us, these were like almost idols. You could see these people with enormous chains on, and enormous rings and nice cars, very expensive stuff. And you know, you wanna add it to your life, it’s beautiful. So you’d take the beauty out of the negative situations, just like how a pimp would dress. You don’t want to be a pimp, but you add or take what you learnt from him. His style, the ways of dressing, and you could take what you see from other people that had it almost all from whatever. So that’s pretty much what I did, without having to cross those negative boundaries.”
Q. But then, back in the day, would you say this image carried you to being described as ‘way over your head’, ‘swell-headed’ and very extreme? Crossing the ‘negative boundary’ as you suggest? Sort of like this great talent, destined for self-destructive results, eating into the whole materialism mindset of ‘I’ve got this, you don’t-mentality’?
THE RULER: “As far as ego is concerned, I’m sure I’ve had a little touch of that. I even say it in my song,” he begins to ponder his line going: “You conceited bastard!” he bursts out in his Slick Rick rapping mode. “I think the ego thing was overrated, because of a lot of people thought I was very egotistical, ’cause they didn’t walk in my shoes, or whatever the case may be. Maybe certain things was taken out of line,” he admits. “Maybe to a certain extent I was arrogant or whatever. But I don’t think it was the way people assumed it was. And I’m sure that’s become clearer by the day.”
Q. It seems slowly you’re sort of admitting to it by saying yes, I was egotistical. And seeing you’ve been to jail, and most recently held up by the INS for almost over a year, how does all of these experiences – with all the time you’ve had to reflect on yourself and your predicaments – compare to your outlook on life now as you live it?
THE RULER: “How does it reflect on my life now?” he repeats asking himself. “It’s a learning experience, you learn from your errors, you learn from your mistakes, you wanna be a better person. You wanna have a good character, you don’t wanna have a character where people find fault. So if you have a fault within yourself, it’s best to admit it and change it, and learn from it than to be like,”nah I wasn’t like that nah uh uh uhhhhh,” he shrugs. “You don’t want no ugly, negative characteristics that somebody can hold against you or hold it up in your face and dangle it in front of you, like you was a ‘conceited bastard’, or you as this or you were that, or you deserve to be in jail, or yuhknowhati’msayin’. You wanna have a clean, clear conscience. As long as you know that you are living upright and God don’t find no fault in you, it restores the confidence within yourself….. because you can’t please everybody.”
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