Published Wed, December 31, 1969 at 7:00 PM EST
Slick Rick is perhaps one of the more unique MCs that rap music has ever produced.
It’s not just his flamboyant fashion sense and his British accent that sets him apart from his counterparts. It’s not just his ability to tell stories that are humorous, entertaining, and extremely visual. It’s not his ridiculous jewelry and eye patches that match every outfit. It’s not even his cadence and the way that he voices the characters in the stories that he weaves. It’s quite literally a combination of all of those things. Sometimes an entertainer can be so different from what preceded them that they can initially be misunderstood and underappreciated.
MCs at the time were aggressive, and almost yelled during their deliveries — from Run to LL COOL J, the energy was loud and in your face.
I can vividly recall making my weekly trek to the local record store in the fall of ‘85 to see what new rap records were in stock. Reality Records was a trusted label, and the name Doug E. Fresh, though spelled differently from his previous releases, was familiar and trusted as well. I wondered who Ricky D was and what “La-Di-Da-Di” meant.
I got the record home, opened it, and dropped the needle. I heard two songs, unlike anything I’d ever heard. I’d heard Doug beatbox and I’d heard Chill Will and Barry B do their orchestrated scratches, but I’d never heard a voice like Ricky D’s. For context, Run-D.M.C. had just released King Of Rock, and a young LL COOL J was making noise with "I Need A Beat" and "Dangerous." Grandmaster Melle Mel had recently released "Pump Me Up," where he rhymed about battling a shark and feeding it rhymes until it exploded. MCs at the time were aggressive, and almost yelled during their deliveries — from Run to LL COOL J, the energy was loud and in your face.
Rick's vocal style was extremely laid-back and flamboyant. Hip-Hop had never heard a voice like it and within weeks of its release, "The Show" and "La-Di-Da-Di" were blasting from every passing car, boom box and house party. From the first week of the new school year, until the next summer, the hallways and cafeterias of every school had wanna-be Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick's doing their rendition of "La-Di-Da-Di."
The song actually created a subgenre for a few years in the music. Songs like "Faye" by Stetsasonic, "Oh Veronica" by Craig G and The Glamour Girls, "Latoya" by Just Ice, and dozens more were thick with the DNA of Doug & Rick. The beatboxing, vocal styling, and raunchiness of those songs were all directly lifted from "La-Di-Da-Di." Hurby "Luvbug" Azor actually commissioned Super Nature to create a Doug Fresh & Ricky D diss. That song, "The Showstoppa," actually kickstarted the career of the group now known as Salt-N-Pepa.
I'm sittin' on my lunch break grittin' my teeth/It's the last day of the week boy what a relief/my muscles kinda ached they felt rigid and stiff/So I looked around then I smoked this big fat spliff..."
- Slick Rick ("The Moment I Feared")
When most of us finally saw Slick Rick, it was on an episode of Soul Train where he rocked a red sports jacket, signature Kangol, and a dress shirt and tie. But in another year or so, Rick would update his dress style, pursue a solo career and elevate his storytelling and delivery. In 1987, New York radio stations began playing the Doug and Rick track “Treat ’Em Like A Prostitute” on their late-night mix shows. A year later, “Treat ’Em Like A Prostitute” was released as the B-side to Rick’s debut solo single, “A Teenage Love,” on Def Jam Records. The song was also featured in Run-DMC’s eagerly awaited movie, Tougher Than Leather, thus building the anticipation of a new project from Rick. But whispers that it would be a solo project left many wondering how he would fare without the human percussion of Doug E. Fresh providing the sonic backdrop.
The Great Adventures of Slick Rick was released in November of 1988 and solidified Rick as the genre's greatest storyteller. Draped in a black suit with a red Kangol and red Ballys, the album cover featured Rick creeping across New York City's skyline. Creatively, Rick was firing on all cylinders.
Songs like “Lick The Balls," “K.I.T What’s the Scoop," “Mona Lisa” and “The Moment I Feared” reveal the genius in not only Rick’s storytelling but the technical style in which he records his stories. When Rick tells a story like “K.I.T," “Lick The Balls” or Mona Lisa, not only does he change his vocal tone to represent the individual characters, but he records the characters on different tracks and the voices overlap each other, giving the audio an illusion of a real conversation.
Excuse me, I'm tryin' ta' earn a mere buck or two/Solemn rapper comes in and who the fuck are you?/Around this part of town wit' dollars and your girl in fur/ I'm tryin' to enter in this rap contest you're havin', sir/ You're kinda late — flat tire well that do occur/Well, alright pay me now and you'll be after her/I hope I don't mess up or run outta breath or even/ Rick, don't worry hun you'll hit em harder than a fuckin brick!"
- Slick Rick - ("Lick The Balls")
Rick's sophomore album, The Ruler's Back is not as critically acclaimed or celebrated as his debut it stands as one of his most creative. On "Moses," Rick tells the story of the biblical prophet and he is one of few MCs who could take on such a feat and make it interesting.
He spits: "So Mo', parts the sea, went across and said run it/ Did some ol' abracadabra and water fell upon' em/The soldiers that is, since Moses was suaver/ Then Mo' in the mountains havin' a convo wit' the father/Came back in the tents, seen panty hoes droppin'/partner swappin', folks wasn't into what po-poor Mo was poppin'."
Rick shows an equal level of creativity on "Top Cat," where he actually assumes the character of a cat, and once again, displays the schizophrenic style of different vocal tones and cadences.
It's easy to point out the genius behind hits like the heavily sampled "Children's Story," the relatable "Teenage Love" or the infectious Warren G remix of "Behind Bars," but it's the vivid storytelling in "The Moment I Feared" and the vulnerability on "Mistakes of A Woman In Love With Other Men" that makes Rick one of one.
He's not an artist that releases music often, in fact, his last full-length release was 1999's The Art Of Storytelling, but yet he is as much a part of popular culture as he's ever been. His first recording was in 1985, yet when he popped up on "The Root of All" with Lil Wayne last year, he sounded classic, but he also sounded like right now. It's the IT that very few artists have.
Slick Rick The Ruler will follow Hip Hop icons such as Public Enemy, Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, and Salt-N-Pepa when he receives the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2023 ceremony, and it's well-deserved.