Slick Rick has been there, done that, and got the T-shirt – or in his case, the velour gown. Throw in a crown, an excessive amount of jewellery and his trademark eyepatch, which covers an eye injury that resulted in him being blinded as an infant, and you’ve got one of rap’s most instantaneously recognisable characters.
Considered hip-hop royalty after more than 30 years in the game, Rick may have found fame in the US signing to rap powerhouse Def Jam Records and releasing his classic 1988 debut album ‘The Great Adventures of Slick Rick’, but he was actually born in Mitcham, London.
During a brief visit back to the motherland, NME caught up with Rick in Lambeth to talk about his legacy, whether he considers some of his lyrics to be misogynistic, Brexit, and why now, for the first time in 20 years, he’s releasing new music.
It’s been 31 years since you released your debut album, ‘The Great Adventures of Slick Rick’ and you’re still rapping and performing at 54. What is it that keeps you going?
“I guess it’s my metabolism. I still have that youthful energy, so until that wears down I’m just going to keep on going.”
You recently dropped a pair of singles, one of which is ‘Can’t Dance to a Track That Ain’t Got No Soul’. What made you make that particular record?
“It’s like an instinct when you know you’re not getting satisfaction from what you see and hear on the radio and the TV. It’s about being in the industry and labels offering you stuff to rap on or perform on and it’s not up to your standards. So it’s like saying to the record executives in a humorous way: ‘I can’t dance to a track that ain’t got no soul and I can’t rap to a track with no soul. We’re defeating our purpose here. I thought this was about making money not losing money. We shouldn’t be shelving rap culture.’”
In the video you feature both Miles Brown from ‘Black-ish’ and Kida the Great of ‘World of Dance’ fame. While they quite clearly respect hip-hop culture, do you think the youth respect it as much as they perhaps should?
“I don’t really pay attention to it because it’s not really like that. Whether they pay attention or not has nothing to do with how the culture goes, it’s just about maintaining relevance. You can’t force the youth to appreciate something. You have to maintain a relevance and then they’re intrigued. Like some people have that capability to maintain relevance and intrigue and some, you know, fall by the wayside or just lay in the cut with their classics.”
But it’s important to remind people of where this thing started, surely?
“It’s important to try to maintain the essence of hip-hop. If you steer too far away from the root, the seed, you know, the culture, or you get too far up in the clouds with the suit and tie element then you’ll lose what it was. You know what I mean?
“It was really just an underground fun thing for kids who talk like this. Not like they’re in class, or in a situation, or looking for a job, or any of that type of shit. It was a relaxing atmosphere. So while we maintain that relaxing element the youth today still represents by bringing a modern element to it. So anyone my age or below is a child of hip-hop.”
With the release of your new single, does this mean there is a new Slick Rick project on the way?
“Yeah, there will be two new projects coming next year. That’s all I’m saying about them at the moment.”
You’ve released four albums across your career, but you haven’t put anything out in the last 20 years. Do you regret not releasing anything in that time?
“No, I don’t. I don’t regret it.”
Is there a particular reason why you haven’t?
“If you’re not inspired, then you know, you just chill. But if you’re inspired, then get your paintbrush and get to painting and then if you feel it’s ready to be exposed then expose it.”
You’re regarded as one of the greatest storytellers in rap. Who are some of your personal favourite rap storytellers?
“I’d say the Wu-Tang Clan, Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes. [Big Daddy] Kane and Rakim. There’s also Public Enemy, Jay-Z and Nas.”
What about from the new crop of rappers?
“I don’t really hear too much storytelling to be honest.”
From Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z to Black Rob and Onyx, your music has been sampled, remixed and interpolated so many times. Do you have a favourite?
“I liked the Lost Boyz version of ‘Hey Young World’ (‘Love, Peace & Nappiness’). I loved the Snoop one (‘Lodi Dodi’), that was big. The Biggie Smalls one (‘Hypnotize’) was big. Those ones stood out the most to me. I can’t think of one I didn’t like.”
It must be nice that people want to give you props?
“Yeah, the props are nice – the chips are too.”
The royalty cheques?
“Yeah. Plus, it keeps your name relevant for different generations of hip-hop.”
Speaking of your name, was it in any way inspired by Rick James, who used to call himself Slick Rick sometimes?
“I used to call myself MC Ricky D when I was younger and when I met Doug E. Fresh he gave me the name Slick Rick. He just kept saying ‘Slick Rick. Slick Rick,’ and so it just stuck. So it could be, I’m not sure. You’d have to ask Doug E.”
When you and Doug E. Fresh made ‘La Di Da Di’, did you think it was going to be as iconic as it ended up being?
“It was just like another record to me. When we were wondering around doing ‘La Di Da Di’ it wasn’t even a record yet. But it started getting recognition around the way so we made a cassette. People then got hold of the cassette and it was that cassette that ended up playing on the airways, not a record. So it was the cassette that got us so much popularity on the airwaves.”
And then the rest is history?
“Yup. [The label] saw how much money they were losing by not recording it and they put us in the studio and we made it into a record and that’s how it took off.”
‘Treat Her Like A Prostitute’ garnered a little backlash when you released back in the late 1980s, but have you ever thought about what it would be like if you had released it now in the age of social media and #metoo?
“Well, social media is always going to be social media. It just depends on how you choose to interpret something. If you interpret it as misogynistic you have the right to your opinion. But if you’re from the element, the culture, the essence, you know it’s just humour and fun and entertainment. Maybe you’re just not familiar with it. So I don’t believe that the culture I come from took it as overly misogynistic, I thought they took it as three humorous stories about infidelity or whatever, like an angry comedian.
“I thought it was hilarious. In fact, the culture thought it was funny. So we don’t care if somebody that’s not funny, that doesn’t have any personality lays out their opinions on it. You are irrelevant, but you think you’re more relevant than you really are. You’re not funny like this guy so who cares about your truth? You’re not bringing anything to my life. You’re not bringing joy to my life, substance to my life. You’re just giving me opinions to cut what I find enjoyable in my essence off because you feel it doesn’t meet your boring irrelevant standards.”
You witnessed Def Jam’s meteoric rise first hand as its third signing. Recent reports claim DMX and LL Cool J recently resigned with them. Do you think it still has the same clout as a label that it once did?
“Yes, I do. They have a certain high holding as an American rap organisation. So if you want to talk record labels and stuff, if you want to go that route then they have the exposure, they have a lot of power, they have a lot of influence.”
As someone who was born in the UK but lives in the US, have you been paying much attention to Brexit?
“Yeah, a little.”
What are your thoughts?
“I think the European Union is a good thing. It unites all of Europe to have one mind, one soul, and it keeps the morals and principles together. And then when one breaks away, I don’t get the logic of it. I don’t see why you would want to break away after preaching that whole one world thing. So in breaking away from it, it seems like there’s something fishy about it. It’s like I unite with you and then I sneak away from you and then I’m going to try and control you.”
What’s worse: Trump’s America or Brexit Britain?
“I think that they’re all connected so I’ll leave it like that.”
What about UK music, do you pay attention to that?
“Yeah, we follow the hip-hop scene and follow what’s going on. We know about Stormzy. We know about Giggs. We know about Chip. We know about Stefflon Don and about Fekky and Skepta. So we know a little somethin’ somethin’. We check the videos on the internet.”
It must be crazy for you to now see the British hip-hop scene celebrated in the US, because back when you first got in the game it wasn’t something American rap fans really paid attention to.
“I’ve never seen it as a separate thing. To me, hip-hop started in New York, in the Bronx, and that’s always going to be the root. But then it mushroomed into a worldwide hip-hop ambiance, an essence. So I see it like that. I see it as one big tree made up of young modern humans who are into the lingo, vocabulary, essence, dress code, swag, interaction. It’s like there’s an invisible connection sharing the same truths with low-income areas making an impression on higher-income area kids and becoming one voice together – each one, teach one type of stuff.”
You’ve always been known for having an on-point jewellery game, but here’s the ultimate question: gold or platinum?
You can’t choose both…
“It depends on what you’re wearing. If I had to choose, I would go with platinum and ice, not just platinum. Ice on white looks better than ice on yellow, which is gold. So they both have to have ice on them in modern day. But the thing now is rose gold looks good with ice too. It gives it a modern flavour. Rose gold flooded with ice is modern, so it could stand up to platinum with ice. Now you have a variety, it’s always good to have variety.”
Slick Rick’s ‘Can’t Dance To A Track That Ain’t Got No Soul’ is out now.