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What could have been a stupid question made a lot of sense at 2:15 in the morning this past Sunday at the Ritz nightclub. Doors had been open since 10 for a show that was slated to start at midnight. The crowd in the main room had long begun to slip away to other rooms to groove to reggae and go-go. It’s entirely possible that the young college partiers, plied with alcohol, distracted by each other, and weary of waiting, might have forgotten whom they had paid $20 to see so many hours ago. But, even if some had to glance back at their fliers, the audience greeted the host’s question with an indiscernible but nonetheless resounding yell.
Even without his own insistence, Slick Rick, the self-proclaimed Grand Wizard, aka the Ruler, aka MC Ricky D, would be recognized as a major figure in hiphop history. He paired up with Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew in 1985 for both “The Show” and “La Di Da Di,” two of the most popular rap songs ever to rock a house party. Virtually every line of Slick Rick’s first verse on “La Di Da Di” has been sampled and hooked by an untold number of less-talented artists. Whereas Doug E. Fresh has practically made a career out of performing these same two hits, Slick Rick, born Ricky Walters in 1965, went on to release his own highly successful solo project in 1988, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. The album contains a string of radio-friendly singles, including “Mona Lisa,” “Teenage Love,” “Hey Young World,” and the crossover classic, “Children’s Story.” In hiphop, where theft—not imitation—is often the ultimate form of flattery, Slick Rick had scored again. So far, everyone from R&B singer Montell Jordan to rappers the Lost Boys to reggae artist Capleton has taken a chunk out of this collection for his own efforts. The album went platinum, and its humorous narratives earned Slick Rick a reputation as a smooth, charismatic storyteller.
Finally, at just about 2:30 a.m., the promoter announced Slick Rick. The modest crowd screamed as he stepped onstage. Then something weird happened: One of Rick’s hype men pulled a stool out on stage for the Ruler. It was eerily reminiscent of another charismatic black storyteller, Bill Cosby, who is getting up there in years. But while Cosby is nearly a codger, Slick Rick is only 34—old for an MC, but not quite over the hill. Fortunately for the audience, Rick didn’t use the seat too often during the performance; he managed to jump right along with the crowd. It was obvious, however, that he was developing a sizable spare tire beneath his clothes. And his outfit—a white linen three-piece suit with lime-green trim, matching lime-green Wallabees, and a white Kangol hat—seemed a bit anachronistic among his grungier fans. Even his eye patch was lime-green.
Superficial stuff aside, Rick immediately touched base with the younger cats by doing his verse from OutKast’s “Art of Storytelling” remix. From there, he went right into “Mona Lisa,” which clinched the older heads in the room. “La Di Da Di” still sounded good even without Doug E. Fresh. With so many crowd-pleasers to his credit, it was not difficult for Slick Rick to pick a winning set list.
But there were still a couple of awkward moments. At one point, his DJ asked the audience members if they wanted to see Slick Rick dance. They did, and so he danced, looking disturbingly like that drunken uncle who shows up at every family cookout trying to keep up with the kids. As an introduction to “Children’s Story,” Rick popped open a bottle of Moet and donned several of the ridiculously thick and gaudy gold rope chains that he wore in his heyday. Funny, but kitschy. The audience stayed with him regardless, and by the time he was singing the chorus, “Hey young world, the world is yours,” the Ritz was his.
Aside from a string of evergreen hits, Slick Rick also possesses what passes for street credibility in the ass-backward collective mind of hiphop. His first successful solo underground song, “Treat Her Like a Prostitute,” seems only mildly misogynistic by today’s standards, but it established Slick Rick as a pimp and a player long before Big Daddy Kane and Snoop Doggy Dogg. His affinity for flamboyant, expensive jewelry was only part of that image. And long before Biggie had beef with Tupac, or Tupac had beef with the cops, Slick Rick had beef with one of his own cousins and tried to kill him. In 1990, Ricky Walters went to prison for second-degree attempted murder. Upon his conviction, Rick, who was born in England, was threatened with deportation.
During his time in prison between 1990 and 1996, Def Jam released two too-quickly produced Slick Rick albums. Though both The Ruler’s Back and Behind Bars are slipshod, each contains traces of Rick’s signature narrative ability and, more importantly, evidence of his maturity. Before his imprisonment, Slick Rick’s music showed some understanding of consequence: “Children’s Story” ended with the admonition “Straight and narrow or your soul gets cast”; on “Hey Young World,” he cautioned, “Don’t admire thieves ’cause they don’t admire you/Their time’s limited, hard rocks too.” Later, as a convicted hard rock himself, Rick began to show evidence of regret with song titles like “I Shouldn’t Have Done It” and “Cuz It’s Wrong.” In general, his subject matter became befitting of someone with adult concerns. In addition to his usual tall tales, the Ruler rhymed about the birth of his son, being “All Alone,” and finding “A Love That’s True.” His newest album, The Art of Storytelling, is a mellow, well-produced amalgamation of similar themes, unique narrative, and typical hiphop braggadocio.
Unfortunately, Slick Rick included no material from his second, third, or fourth albums (except for the newest single) in his set. There was no sign of the progression of an artist. It was more like an old-school showcase—enjoyable, but extremely brief and lacking depth. The show ended abruptly with Slick Rick’s entourage—more drunken uncles—guzzling champagne and indiscriminately inviting young women back to their hotel for the after-party: “Eleventh floor, Loews Hotel, ladies.” At some point, it would have been nice to hear Rick perform “2 Way Street,” a song about fidelity from his current album, because almost no one got to see the Ruler put his arm around his wife, Mandy, and walk her out the back of the club. CP