Slick Rick: You learn from prison time what doesnt kill you makes you stronger

His morality tales of ghetto life made the Anglo-American rapper famous and chillingly predicted his imprisonment for attempted murder. Now, 13 years since he was last released, he reflects on his legacy

Ricky Walters is famous notorious, even for several reasons. There is his reputation as one of the finest-ever MCs from hip-hops golden age. Then there is his eyepatch, concealing an injury caused by a shard of glass from a broken window when he was 18 months old the main reason he gets recognised at home in the Bronx. As he says: Im usually the only person walking down the street with a patch on.

His upbringing is key, and gave him his distinctive style as Slick Rick. He wasnt born in New York he moved there with his mother, having spent the first 11 years of his life in the somewhat less rap-mythic south London suburb of Mitcham. He hasnt been back for a while. No, its been a minute, he says, no trace of a London accent when he speaks. Every time I visit, I go to the old neighbourhood, just to be nostalgic. Ive pretty much been raised in Manhattan, but Mitcham is my youth, my roots. Equal respect.

This mixed upbringing gave him another memorable trait: an Anglo-American sing-song intonation described by one critic as Dick Van Dyke on dope. Or as Roots drummer Ahmir Questlove Thompson put it more poetically: Point blank: Slick Ricks voice was the most beautiful thing to happen to hip-hop culture. Walters is taken aback by the compliment. Wow, I never heard that one before, he says. It just came out naturally, he adds of his unusual cadence. I cant explain it. It just flowed good. It tended to lend his songs a comical quality, one that offset his often seamy lyrics. He has been called the godfather of gangsta rap, but really his songs were picaresque narratives that proved inspirational to everyone from Snoop Dogg and Notorious BIG to Danny Brown. He used different voices to portray varied, vivid characters, influencing Eminem and Nicki Minaj.

I think what I brought to hip-hop was a visual, storybook-type of a style, like reading a childrens book, but in rap form, he notes, referring to a US musical whose own fame has grown in the week since this interview. Or like the Broadway play Hamilton, bringing American history to the theatre in rhyme form.

I think what I brought to hip-hop was a visual, storybook-type of a style Rick in the late 80s. Photograph: Def Jam
But like the comedian who makes jokes to avoid being bullied, Slick Rick invented tall tales as a response to his teasing classmates at school. I stayed indoors and wrote stories, he explains.

It was at New Yorks Fiorello H Laguardia high school of music and art, the launchpad for the film and TV series Fame, where he majored in visual art, that Walters came out of his shell and began rapping. Before long, he effected a transformation from self-conscious dork to self-styled black Liberace. He was reborn as Slick Rick, a caricature of the flashy lothario, all smooth flow and chains: P Diddy, to name but one, excised the cartoon dimension and built a career in Ricks image.

His fully realised persona and mellifluous delivery drew the attention of human beatbox Doug E Fresh, who recruited Rick in 1985 to rap on his double-A sided single, The Show and La Di Da Di, making Rick famous for another thing: being sampled hundreds of times. It helps pay the bills, you know? he says, laughing. But its probably true, especially cos of La Di Da Di. The vocals are clear and easy to sample.

La Di Da Di was a worldwide hit and Rick became the third artist to sign to Def Jam. His burgeoning star status was confirmed by his 1988 debut album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time. It included the US top five hit Childrens Story, a grimly compelling morality tale in the guise of a lilting, funky nursery rhyme culminating in several shootings. It and another Great Adventures track, The Moment I Feared also chillingly predicted the final thing for which Rick is equally famous: his incarceration.

It was his success that proved his undoing. After he accrued wealth and fame and some of the hubris that he had initially set out to lampoon, it was decided that Rick needed protecting, as much from himself as anyone else. So his mother (then his manager) hired a bodyguard: Mark Plummer, who was also his cousin. If Rick was a walking, talking parody of ghetto effrontery, Plummer was the real thing: before long, he took to extorting his newly minted cousin with the jewellery and series of rental properties in New York. Rick fired Plummer, who responded by trying to rob him and then threatening to kill him and his mother.

After coming home to find bullet holes in his front door, Rick decided it was time to fight fire with fire. On 3 July 1990, having received a phone call from a friend telling him Plummer was in the neighbourhood looking for him, Rick set off in his car to find him. In his boot were six fully loaded weapons, including two machine pistols and a shotgun. Spying Plummer, Rick fired once, missing Plummer completely, but wounding an innocent passerby. A second bullet ripped through Plummers sneaker and grazed his foot. Fleeing the scene, Rick panicked and crashed into a tree. The police arrived within minutes, and he was arrested. He immediately pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder and other charges including assault, use of a firearm, and criminal possession of a weapon, although perhaps understandably he called it an act of self-defence. He was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison, serving five two for the crime, and three as a result of ongoing problems with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). As for Plummer, there was a ghastly coda to this sorry saga when he was shot and killed in retaliation for an unrelated crime.

It was like a prophecy, an omen, Rick says of The Moment I Feared, in which the protagonist winds up in jail for life. As ever, he used blackly comic humour to undercut the terrifying denouement in which he is approached by salivating prisoners (Im scared / Some kids snuffed me cold and greased me where no one dared). Did that ever happen? No. But its good to use your imagination to entertain your audience. Its about shock value and humour.

He rationalises his use of graphic (and elsewhere gynaecological, and depraved and misogynist) imagery by emphasising that he is generally in character in his songs, and by comparing his technique to the X-rated comedy standups of Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Redd Foxx. But is he philosophical now about his own past?

It depends how you look back on yourself, he muses. If you overly scrutinise yourself, you could say: I should have done this or that. You can look back and see how certain things influenced you to make wrong decisions. But you learn from your mistakes; what doesnt kill you makes you stronger. You learn from your prison time, your bad and good situations. Its like the story of Van Gogh with the ear-cutting-off: it depends on how you look at something.

While incarcerated, was he largely unbothered? When you first get to a place, youre treated like a new kid in a new school, or a new guy in a new job; everybody feels you out, but they pretty much leave you alone after a while, he says.

During periods on bail, he rush-released The Rulers Back (1991) and Behind Bars (1994). I had a lot of stress, I still had the jail sentence, and I wasnt sure what was going to happen in the future as far as imprisonment and how much time I had, how I was going to make it back out, and how I was going to keep myself relevant in changing times, he says of the pressurised recordings, which struggled, justifiably, to match the absurdist wit of his debut. They were desperate, got-to-keep-your-name-relevant and keep-the-bills-paid jobs.


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The cover of Childrens Story. Photograph: PR Company Handout

The Art of Storytelling (1999) featuring cameos from star fans such as Nas, OutKast, Raekwon and Snoop Dogg was his comeback proper. I was in a more relaxed state of mind, he admits, cos now most of the prison sentence was gone and you were more able to enjoy your craft and see the pros and cons of where you stand and what you need to excel in that day and age.

That wasnt the end of his problems, though. In 2001, returning to the US after performing on a cruise, he was arrested again by the INS and spent 17 months in prison as the authorities sought, unsuccessfully, to deport him on the grounds of being a foreigner convicted of a felony. The Department of Homeland Security had another go in 2006, but in 2008, New York governor David Patterson gave him a full and unconditional pardon on the attempted murder charges.

So how is Rick now? He is <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>touring these shores for the first time this month, but he hasnt made an album in more than 15 years.

No, I was thinking Ill probably put something together now, put it on the internet for my core audience to check out, he says, sounding wistful not for nothing did Jay-Z say of him: Like all great comics he knew how to hide deeper emotions between the punchlines, emotions like regret and loss.

Im pretty much in a relaxed state now, theres no pressure or nothin, he adds breezily, looking forward to coming home and showing us some of his fancy-dancey moves. Be good to just put [a new album] out there and show that youre still a Picasso, a Rembrandt or Van Gogh in this game, you know what I mean?

Slick Rick plays the Manchester Mantra on 25 November, then tours the UK until 30 November.

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