Slick Rick, The Mitcham Rap Legend, Is Still Deeply In Love With Hip-Hop

Words: Jesse Bernard

The great adventures of Slick Rick have been rich and pioneering, but filled with tumultuousness over the years. Before he became known as MC Ricky D, and then later Slick Rick, Richard Walters tells me that despite being from Britain, the Bronx immediately felt like home and it didn’t take long for him to fit in. Mitcham in the 1970s was a huge contrast to that of the Baychester area of the Bronx, where the Walters family eventually settled. Although Mitcham is in London, it was very much its own enclave with a village-like atmosphere compared to the NYC borough of the Bronx—the birthplace of hip-hop—which was experiencing record levels of poverty at the time.

An eye injury as a child that made him blind in his right eye left Slick Rick wearing an eyepatch, which soon became an iconic symbol within hip-hop circles. Taken from one environment and thrust into one that was entirely different, the two worlds that came to define Slick Rick’s early years were ones that would distinguish him from his peers. You can still hear traces of the English-Carribean accent to this day, and in 1985—when he released “The Show” and “La Di Da Di” as part of Doug E. Fresh’s Get Fresh Crew—it was even more pronounced.

Not only does Slick Rick represent the crossroads where hip-hop’s Bronx origins, Jamaican toasting and identity meet, but his being from Britain exemplified the transatlantic synergy that was present within the genre. Had the Walters family stayed in London, there’s every chance that Slick Rick may have ended up as a dancehall deejay, given that they lived in South London. He allowed his presence to be felt and he left a mark, and with Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash being of West Indian origin, the Mitcham rap star laid the foundation for a musical triangle that brought the UK, US, and Caribbean together.

Nowadays, Slick Rick takes life at a much slower pace, finding time to enjoy it wherever he can. His legal troubles early on his career stifled him, but the subsequent battle he later had with the INS reflected the contentious and fragile relationship black immigrants have historically had with the state. The influence and legacy one man was able to build between the years of 1985-1990 alone was evidence of the ways in which hip-hop has largely been regarded over the decades, where the innovators themselves were exploited while the culture is profited from and enjoyed as a major cultural phenomenon. But before Snoop Dogg, Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar and all of the great storytellers who have contributed to hip-hop’s growth, there was Slick Rick.

How do you feel about your career looking back on it, and the legacy you’ve created?

I look at it as a good thing. I can say that I chill with the legends and icons. You’re always going to have people calling you up to do shows every now and again, so it’s a good feeling.

Do you hear yourself in contemporary rap, in regards to being an influence?

Not as much as before; I don’t see too much humorous storytelling at the moment. It could be re-energised, I think.

Rap was still young when you dropped Great Adventures, but don’t you feel that there is more storytelling out there?

I don’t think there’s enough variety and that’s what the audience is open for. There are avenues waiting to be explored in rap, at least in the mainstream side of things.

There’s a lot of variety out there but I think what it is, is that the mainstream hasn’t really allowed for much diversity in styles. What’s your take?

Hip-hop has variety and it always has done. If everyone follows one blueprint then it starts to dry up, so I just see it as being able to explore the varieties and seeing if you have what it takes to be recognised for your skill level on a high, international status.

Do you ever think about whether you’d still be an artist had your family stayed in London?

Probably so. I was always into music, humour and telling stories. If it wasn’t music exactly, it would’ve been something related to writing humour and telling stories.

That’s interesting because dancehall was the most popular underground scene at the time, so perhaps that may have been a route? Although, some could argue that you did through hip-hop.

Well, my parents were born in the Caribbean. Jamaican parents, English upbringing and then American raised, so you mix that all up and you’ve got this English-American accent which is quite unique. You’ve got different cultures there that I’ve been exposed to, especially when the Beatles were around, and that’s what embodied me as a rapper which allowed me to reach all kinds of audiences.

Back in the day, were there many people approaching rap in a storytelling fashion such as yourself? You obviously had Rapper’s Delight but your storytelling always came across as much more layered.

Not really. When hip-hop came on the scene, I was already in America in the late ‘70s and because I had an accent, people found what I was saying was funny. Like Eddie Murphy’s skit where he’s a kid and performing in front of his parents, I was doing that with my age group as well. Everyone would take their turn and rap, but mine was very much so about making people laugh. I’d start something like ‘once upon a time’ and finish the rhyme by adding humour and it stood out at the time—it gave variety.

I can see how that would’ve been unique at the time, considering how competitive it was, as it showed what you could do with rap. Then you had Snoop cover “La Di Da Di” as well, which shows how influential your style was.

African-American culture has a charisma about it which everyone wants to incorporate in their swag and conversation. Children are drawn to it. It’s like Ron Howard trying to be the Fonz: you’re drawn to the charisma and steez, and then you want to do it yourself. That’s why it’s the biggest movement on the planet—everyone wants to incorporate modern swag and charisma in their everyday lives.

Are you inspired by what’s coming out these days?

We’re like sponges, in the sense that we soak up what we see. When I see what the craft is today, I see how you use the lingo and how you play with words and carry a certain charisma about yourself. That’s how you become who you are to your audience. Someone like Cardi B, it’s the way she carries herself as a rapper—that’s why people of all sexualities and races are drawn to her. When it comes to the vets, we maintain our lingo and charisma and we see what’s happening among younger artists but we still maintain what we were doing. There’s the side where you’ve got to cross your Ts and dot your Is and there’s the other side where you can let your hair down.

Do you feel like older rappers have found it difficult embracing that modern swag and charisma you mention?

I don’t think it’s hard to embrace, it’s hard to translate that into rap. If it’s not natural, then you end up falling under the bar. You can talk a good game, but if you can’t talk a good game and rap well, then your status is going to be someone else’s for the taking. If want to have the status of a Jay-Z or a Wu-Tang Clan, then you have to maintain your charisma.

Part of that is not compromising on who you are as a rapper, and Jay-Z is a good example of that, especially with each album that he comes back with.

We analyse what people are into and what they love, and then we explore that using our lingo and charisma; that’s what give guys like Jay-Z that large status. He’s crossing the Ts and dotting the Is in the business world but he’s also influencing people through words—which some people will call ‘ebonics’, but you have to maintain that language.

How have you found being able to maintain your style and bringing yourself into the modern era?

First of all, it’s not about compromising yourself. When I first came in, I had an English accent and I was having fun—but it worked! When you’re raised in that environment, this is how they were talking amongst each other in the Bronx, so I had to adapt. When this thing started, we were battling each other’s charisma and persona.

What does your future look like in regards to your relationship with hip-hop?

If I find a door that’s open then I’ll do what I can to help rejuvenate whatever’s dying. Like it says in the scripture: I don’t want my water lukewarm, I want it hot or cold. I want my lemonade cold and my tea hot. Right now, the world is full of lukewarms and that’s why when you have all these major festivals, people are not content. I say that because lukewarm isn’t going to enrich you, it’s not going to energise you. You need electricity, do you know what I mean?

Yeah I get you. So how do you maintain that electricity in your life?

I think it’s just natural. If I put something out, it has to maintain a certain level of electricity otherwise it doesn’t have purpose. It’s like going to a market to sell your goods: if they ain’t selling then you have to go back and fix whatever’s wrong with it. You have to stay above a bar. Or change your career.

I guess that’s where stepping outside of your comfort zone helps, right?

I think stepping outside of your comfort zone is more about making yourself comfortable. Once you can enrich yourself, then you can enrich others.

When you first started writing, how did you know that that’s what you wanted to put out into the world?

I don’t know, I guess being with my peers. Back then, your peers judged you a lot on your bars before they were heard by anyone else. When they were enjoying it and there was a general intrigue, and I realised I had this small community of friends finding humour in what I’m saying, I knew I could go bigger. Once you impress your small, minority hip-hop community, you can continue to widen it. That’s why it’s worldwide now. I was always going to stand out, but I made sure I did so in ways that Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Rakim, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes did.

A lot of people consider that hip-hop’s traditional principles aren’t always adhered to these daysdid you ever feel that it was always going to go this way?

Right now, hip-hop’s everywhere and no matter where you are, people want it black, rich and hot—not lukewarm. It’s not just a poor minority thing anymore and that’s changed the way people approach the artform. It was always going to go that way once people decided they wanted their music black and rich.

Slick Rick’s two new singles, “Midas Touch” and “Can't Dance To A Track That Ain't Got No Soul”, are both out now.

Posted on August 14, 2019