The South London rap legend talks making music again after a 20-year hiatus.
“I feel like I’m from the future visiting myself in 1975!” jokes Rick as he sits perched on a park bench with one of his mammoth gold chains swaying gently in front of him. He sports a pastel pink suit over a blue t-shirt with a matching eye-patch and Clarks Wallabees – overlooking the South London tower blocks he inhabited in his formative years. The Mitcham native turned Bronx Hall of Fame inductee now prevails in an altogether different reality though, one with Naomi Campbell charity fundraising balls and Nobu dinners in Malibu. Yet, as we return to the corner store where his mom would buy him sweets after school as young boy, even someone with a life as extraordinary as Slick Rick can’t help being flooded with recollections. “A lot of memories man… a lot of things have changed but it still feels very nostalgic,” he reminisces as we wait for our order of wings from the chicken spot next door.
Earlier on in the day when I’d met Rick outside an upmarket hotel bar near Waterloo, the sun was beating down, so we took refuge at a large round table under the shade of a parasol and dove straight into conversation. He opens up to me about the obvious adjustments that came with a relocation to the Bronx, New York aged 11. “I felt like kids were a lot cooler than I was so I had to step my swag up and stuff like that. I had an accent, I was different” admits Rick while playing with the clasp on his diamond encrusted watch. “You find friends in school eventually though, if you like the same things or share the same culture and have similar backgrounds, you know?”
As the sweeping cultural phenomenon that is hip hop grew to popularity in the late 70s, Rick found himself in an ideal location – its birthplace. “When rap came along, that became the new toy everyone was playing with, like the skateboard…so everyone was into it. It’s just that some of us stood out and others didn’t” he says frankly. It was only after joining Doug E. Fresh’s Get Fresh Crew under the name MC Ricky D, and featuring on prominent tracks like “La Di Da Di” (which would go on to become one of the most sampled records in history), that Rick garnered the attention of budding music mogul Lyor Cohen, who was rising through the ranks in Def Jam records at the time. “Lyor brought me in and then I linked up with Russell (Simmons) and the rest of the crew” he recalls. “We had an office on Elizabeth street in the Village, it was small, we were only starting out but we thought it was nice you know what I mean? It was definitely big news to us coming from the Bronx to Manhattan!” laughs Rick before taking a sip of his coffee.
The winter of 1988 would be ushered in by the release of Rick’s solo debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, a project that went on to attain the #1 spot on Billboard’s R&B/hip hop chart, thus propelling the British/American emcee to mainstream success. Three decades thereafter, and with the latter two involving a musical hiatus of sorts, Rick blessed his fans with a re-mastered release of his seminal masterpiece which included a small collection of previously unheard and newly-recorded tracks for us to revel in. The group’s standout single, “Can’t Dance To A Track That Ain’t Got No Soul”, is a contemporary interpretation of Ricks’ sound that fuses his sublime wordplay with an upbeat tempo and a polished, thought-provoking visual.
Many of the individuals who were fundamental in the history of hip hop tend to adopt a more reclusive role in current times – “If you enjoy your craft, your niche, then you’ll stand out. But if you choose to fade away and stay in the cut that’s your option too” states Rick. With the genre growing exponentially and global inter-connectivity at an all-time high, I’m keen to understand what spurred this new wave of creativity within Rick and how much influence he takes from newer sounds. “If you have a passion to keep on painting then you should do so, after that you take it to the market place and see if anyone appreciates it, and then you’ll understand your value or whatever, you know? If there’s something modern and inspirational you grasp it, styles change so you incorporate things that you feel will enhance your persona. You keep it moving like that and you maintain relevance.”
Rick’s most recent single delves into the challenges that often arise when working with labels and big organisations alike. The disconnect between art and corporate money is undoubtedly apparent, but while many young artists often fall prey to the temptations of a quick cheque, Rick is no rookie, and his outlook on the topic reflects this. “When the corporation is weaker than the music we need to keep it in perspective, no matter how much money they’re spending. If it isn’t gunna move the community that you come from and who created this environment…then you got to keep it in perspective. Now if they want to spend a bunch of money to make subpar stuff that’s they prerogative, sometimes you gotta move and shake with them cos they control the financial strings, but you see if you can work it out and make something beautiful.”
“Remember, they’re catering to a community that has now mushroomed into something a lot bigger. The thing that corporations fail to realise a lot of the time is that they must cater to that community were this all blossomed from, so when they come in they miss the point. You gotta be from the sea, you know what I’m saying? You gotta talk the lingo of the people.”
Whether it be through his timeless lyrics, his eclectic style or his outlandish jewellery collection, Rick’s always been ahead of the curve – consciously or not. Nonetheless, I feel as though some of his recognition due in this regard is only now truly being affirmed. Recent collaborations with the luxury leather goods brand MCM and an aforementioned induction into the Bronx Hall of Fame in 2016 make me wonder if Rick has ever felt almost overlooked in the past and if he’s encroaching on a level ‘career completion’ within himself. “I don’t look at it too negatively, for me it’s all teaching experience” he tells me. “If someone says to me I like what you have on or I like what you’re saying, that’s a teaching moment. Live day-by-day, whatever the day inspires you to do you just keep it moving like that. Like a high metabolism you just keep going and working the five senses, eyes and ears you know, I look around I see something I like I might record it, hear a song somewhere grab it on my iPhone and try flip it to something better. And just like that we keep it steppin’.”