5x5: Slick Rick Interview

As part of last year’s Red Bull Music Academy World Tour, five hip hop legends – each representing one of the five boroughs of New York, the birthplace of hip hop – took to the couch over five days. Coinciding with this week’s Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, we present the highlights of the series. In today's session, we have the Bronx' Slick Rick, interviewed by Ego Trip co-founder and RBMA team member, Chairman Mao.

RBMA: Tell me what the Bronx means to you. You were not born in the Bronx, however, this has been your home for some time.

SLICK RICK: The Bronx is like, the birthplace of hip hop, it’s a multicultural place – a lot of Latins, mixed with blacks, you know what I mean, and we just had fun. Breakdancing, doing our thing, growing up. Hip hop became a toy for us, instead of graffiti and all that stuff. So, we just worked it to where it is now, so, I mean, it’s a cultural thing.

RBMA: What’s your first memories of encountering hip hop, you know, as a kid living here, moving here from England?

SLICK RICK: I guess it was the big boomboxes, the older brothers that had the big boomboxes, and they would be playing breakbeat records – “Daisy Lady”, “Impeach The President”, and whatever was happening, you know what I mean, before mixing and like that. On the back of the trains, and stuff like that. And it was just very stimulating, it was like meat and potatoes, so pretty much it was like taking wack records and taking the meat and potatoes and then keeping it moving like that, and then rapping on top of it. There used to be a group called Daisy Ladies, I remember them, they used to be hot, cuz, females, you know, the tomboy look was hot back then. Everything was flavour, you know? So, like, if you’re in a small community, where you have little options, you get to drawing on the walls, doing little things with your body to make yourself different from everybody else or whatever, your raps, whatever’s clever. So, it was a fun time for us, yeah.

RBMA: Where’d you grow up in this area?

SLICK RICK: I grew up, 233rd Street, 241st Street, it’s a little further up, all the way in the north, but I used to play around here, cuz it’s more stimulating, you know?

RBMA: Now, you’ve obviously inspired many people to pick up the mic and become MCs. Who were some of the people who inspired you back then?

SLICK RICK: The Cold Crush Brothers inspired me the most, cuz they had good routines, and they picked good records to rhyme on. They pretty much come from the Bronx, so, you know, they did their things in the schoolyard, so it’s all free, so we’d get to see a lot of stuff or hear a lot of stuff loud, which is, you know, also very stimulating. You hear the whole thing real loud in the streets. It was, you know what I mean, a lot of fun. So, Cold Crush Brothers I’d have to say was one. I’d have to say Busy Bee was one, you know, with his “Bah-diddy-bah-do-bang-do-bang”, you know. And that was pretty much it for me, for the Bronx.

RBMA: Perfect that you should mention those guys, because you know, anybody that studies music and knows the history and knows your catalogue can sort of see some of that influence, from, say, a Cold Crush, and their singing routines, or Busy Bee or Grandmaster Kaz, with his storytelling. Now, you know him for storytelling, for a lot of us, hip hop storytelling is divided between before Slick Rick and after. So, how did that develop for you, the signature sort of style of yours?

SLICK RICK: Well, when I was going to high school, English was probably my favourite subject, so you know, you study essays, how you write an essay. You have your beginning, then you have your body and your end, like to “Teacher, Teacher”. So that’s pretty much what rap was, it was like three verses, story-style. You start with a beginning, what you’re going to talk about, then you get the body is what the, you know, the whole thing, and then the end is, even “The Message”, Melle Mel’s “Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge”, or whatever. You know which one I’m talking about. So, pretty much it was like an essay. I write like essays, stories, mostly positive endings or whatever the case like that. That’s pretty much my style, like that. And humour. Throw in some humour, you know, kids, you know how it goes.

RBMA: Always humour, yeah. Tell us a little bit about the Kangol crew, for those who may not be aware of who those folks are and how that crew formed.

SLICK RICK: The Kangol crew was basically a high school group, Dana Dane was one of the members. We didn’t have turntables and mixers, none of that stuff. We was poor. So, we just banged on the desk and made up cute routines and vibed with the whole school with our routines. We went to music and art, multicultural school, you know? And then we used to wear the heat, Kangol, because Kangol was part of the fashion of the game. Anything to make you, anything to sell yourself, you know, sexy, whatever. So we had the Kangols and the suit jackets and we used to just play around like that. Then when we got famous we took it to the TVs.

"I had a high-pitched voice like a girl, because the voice didn’t change yet, you know what I mean, so nobody wasn’t checking for a kid like that."

RBMA: Now, was Dana Dane rhyming the way he’s known to be rhyming, I mean that seems like you’re an influence on him, because he’s from Brooklyn originally, right?

SLICK RICK: Yeah, Dana’s from Fort Greene. Dana didn’t use to rap like that, it was the industry that pushed him to sound like something that’s already, you know. They said, “If this sells, then you should sound similar, with an English accent.” So, he did what he had to do to get his foot in the door, you know what I mean? Whatever’s clever like that.

RBMA: What was the first reaction from folks when you started rhyming back then, even before records, with your voice sounding the way it sounds, so unique.

SLICK RICK: Well, before, it didn’t sound, I had a high-pitched voice like a girl, because the voice didn’t change yet, you know what I mean, so nobody wasn’t checking for a kid like that. It was like, it’s cute, whatever, but as you grew, after high school and the accent, I mean the maturity in the voice came out with the English accent or whatever’s clever, it all worked together like that, you know?

'Behind Bars' era Slick Rick. Photo by Jules Allen.

RBMA: Yeah, I mean, exactly what you mentioned. I’m thinking, early 80s, it’s more likely that the old school flow, like the Flash. And then, like ’83, we get to a more aggressive style. But you were able to find your place. What was the turning point, you think?

SLICK RICK: I think it was more stories and humour and knowing how to pick the right records to rap on, and fashion, you know, you gotta have the fashion mastered. Like I said, the Kangols, the Clark Wallabees. Before the Clark Wallabies and Kangols, it was Adidas and Pumas and um, Pro Keds. Mock necks, silver medallions and stuff like that, and then the Bronx moved on, or really Brooklyn too, with the Jamaican, the Clark Wallabies, and the whole suit pants and the slacks and the shirt, it was just, like, a mature look, so it looked good on a young person, cuz you know, you look better when you’re young trying to look old than when you’re old trying to look old. So, it looked slick to see a young kid wearing shoes and slacks and dress shirts with a little, you know, a little stylish piece of jewelry here and there and a little Kangol, and a little glasses to sell yourself.

RBMA: You rocking the sunglasses back then?

SLICK RICK: I used to wear like a contact lens, anything that camouflaged the eyes, cuz you know, the eyes is kind of messed up, you know, and gradually I just started wearing, I was wearing Ray-Bans for a while. Then after I while I just said, “I’m just gonna wear the patch.” And then the patch seems to have caught on. So, I just stuck with the patch. Sometimes I wear the glasses, but you know, most people prefer the patch.

RBMA: How did you meet Doug E Fresh?

SLICK RICK: I met Doug E Fresh at 170th Street on Jerome Avenue, at this rap battle they was having over there. They used to have these rap contests in the Bronx, where they would get all the people together to see who was the best, and whoever win gets $1500, and a little recognition, or so. Doug was already established, so he was one of the judges, so me and this other kid from my school named John Porterfield, he died, God bless him. He was in the contest and I just went to play around. He invited me on stage with him and we just did our thing, know what I mean, Cold Crush did that thing, too, man. So, you know, we did our thing and we got recognition, and Doug E said, “Yo, we should do something together.” I was impressed with him long before that, but wasn’t paying no attention. Like I said, he was already established, he had records, so he would go and perform, and you know, do his little thing.

RBMA: So, once you guys formed together Get Fresh Crew, just tell us a little bit about how that came together, leading up to the single you guys recorded.

SLICK RICK: Well, Doug E used to carry me around with him, when he was doing his shows, highlight me or something on the show, like he does with Lil Vicious and stuff. So, I would just come out and, you know, do my little “La Di Da Di” or whatever, some small routine that made the crowd… first they would look at you like, ‘whatever, skinny nerd trying to get put on’, but then when you kicked the humour and they got to laughing and enjoying themselves, it sold itself. So, it’s like yeah, it’s an asset, I became an asset to Doug’s show, you know. Yeah.

RBMA: How long was “La Di Da Di” the first routine that kinda became a signature thing for you guys, or was there something else that you guys worked on?

SLICK RICK: Um, yeah, we did other things, like, other little routines, but it was pretty much “La Di Da Di” and “The Show”, you know what I mean, so “La Di Da Di” went around, before it became a record it was already a mixtape, it was all over the place, which surprised both of us, because it was like a record that wasn’t out but everybody had it on a cassette, you know what I mean, from going to his shows.

"...you know, slim guys, you don’t get much respect unless you’re packing, you know, no disrespect or nothing."

RBMA: Just from a live recording, right?

SLICK RICK: Right. And then, I guess once his label saw the popularity of this cassette all over the streets, they decided to make it into a record, which turned it global.

RBMA: Now, “The Show” and “La Di Da Di”. Two huge, classic hip hop singles. How was that experience for you? I mean, you went basically from this, what you said, a skinny kid, people looking at you funny, like, “Who is this guy?” All of a sudden, you’re internationally known.

SLICK RICK: Well, like I said, back then it was a hard rock thing. You had to be able to shake or move in the hood, you know what I mean, you know, slim guys, you don’t get much respect unless you’re packing, you know, no disrespect or nothing. So, you know how that goes. So, it was a nice experience, you know what I mean. So, to go from, I had a job, I used to work at Lehman Brothers, and places like that downtown, as a mail clerk. So, once Doug E put me on, the difference in the finance – I used to make like $520 a month! And that’s working every day, too. Five days a week. After taxes, $260 every two weeks, and my rent was $350. So, you can figure out, 520 minus 350 leaves how much for food and tokens, and floss and fun, and whatever. Old English or whatever, you know what I’m saying.

RBMA: Tough to make that stretch. I always like to ask people what it’s like when they had their day jobs, like before they blew up. Was there any cross overlap between when you were still at Lehman Brothers and when the record was all, the buzz was starting to grow?

SLICK RICK: Yeah, well, I was still working when the record was taking off, so it got to the point where it was like, “You gotta leave now, kid,” you know what I’m saying. It’s a wrap, because $260 compared, at first I was getting like $300 just to perform with the kid, you know what I mean, and that was like, I’m doing $260 every two weeks, after taxes, and eventually, when it just kept going and going, Madison Square Garden-type tip, it was like, doesn’t make sense to keep, to stay at your job, when you know you could be getting $300 a show, whatever.

Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh performing on 'Soul Train'

RBMA: What would you say is the apex, the high point, for you and Doug E and that original Get Fresh Crew team? What experience, what moment?

SLICK RICK: The highlight, I guess, would be travelling overseas. We went to England, to the BBC, to what they have over there, their Soul Train. We went to Holland and different places. So, it was big like that for us, you know what I mean, so it was a big experience to go across seas, to other countries. See, I’m from England, so to go back to England, like that, you know what I’m saying, is a big thing.

RBMA: Did you see family when you were over there?

SLICK RICK: Yeah, I saw a bit of family when I was over there. I mean, they don’t remember me, I was 11 years old when I left. I mean, they know me because they know my parents, know what I’m saying, whatever’s clever, we grew up a little. But now I’m like 19, so I guess that’s like 8 years later, you know how it go, but we still had some family ties. I went back where I used to live, just to see the old buildings, all that kind of good stuff, you know. And, you know, the people treated us like celebrities, for that time, you know.

"A lot of them producers, to make you famous, don’t always work, know what I’m trying to say?"

RBMA: And you were how old around this time, then?

SLICK RICK: I’m like 19. 19, 20, like that. 19, 20, 21, like that.

RBMA: So why did the Get Fresh Crew break up, then? What happened at that point?

SLICK RICK: Well, it was a finance thing, you know what I mean? Because, like I said, we was, not to blow up the kid’s spot, you know it’s his ship, so I was an invited guest, and the finances. We just had a situation with the finances, like if you do a show for, I don’t know, six grand, and you’re only getting 300, you don’t try to say you’re starting to get crazy. You know what I’m trying to say, not to rock the boat or nothing, so I kinda said, “Yo I kinda need to make moves. I don’t want to destroy your ship,” you know, so whatever’s clever from there.

RBMA: So, you leave the Get Fresh Crew, around when, maybe, ’86, ’87?

SLICK RICK: Yeah, ’87. ’86, ’87.

RBMA: And this album we’re here to talk about today comes out in ’88. So, what was happening in those two years, in the interim? Between Get Fresh Crew and releasing Great Adventures.

SLICK RICK: Well, between then I was with Def Jam, so it was a new experience for me. I had to make my own album by myself. I had to make the records, I had to make the music, the cuts, like I told you about the essay, the whole layout of things, and I had to make sure that I had tracks that would sell myself, because relying on producers, well this is my theory, because sometimes you don’t get lucky. A lot of them producers, to make you famous, don’t always work, know what I’m trying to say? So, I had to put my own stuff together and make sure it sounded like a record and from scratch, and then you gotta deal with a lot of politics, you know what I mean, with people needing to produce they records. I don’t think they should have put out “Teenage Love” first. I think they should have put out “Children’s Story” or “Mona Lisa”, but they put out “Teenage Love” first. That was like trying to kill a nigga career. You know what I’m saying? [Laughs] You got Big Daddy Kane out there, you got Rakim with the nice fast joints.

RBMA: So, whose idea, who can we blame?

SLICK RICK: Well, I’m just saying it was bad. If you own a label where you’re trying to make money, you put out your best foot forward, you know what I mean? Then you can slow down once the cat got recognition or whatever, has built up some fan base or whatever, you know what I mean? So, but other than that it was just a learning experience. So hey, I made “Children’s Story”, I made “Mona Lisa”, “Hey Young World”, and you know, the rest of them I made, too. But I wasn’t too crazy about the music, you know what I’m saying, except for “Lick The Balls” [laughs], no disrespect, and so I had to sell myself, you know what I mean. I pushed those records and those are the ones that people remember the most. The other ones, they were ok, but the public don’t really remember the other ones as much as they remember the ones that I made myself.

RBMA: I think one of the things lyrically that stands out to me, that’s on full display on this record is your style being so unique for the time. It’s like you said, there’s a sort of thing in hip hop where everybody’s super aggro or whatever. You diss people on this record subliminally, but you do it in a way that’s so, ‘I’m just gonna do this, but I’m not gonna act like it’s really a diss’. You know what I’m saying? Would you say that’s accurate?

SLICK RICK: Well, my style was never really battling, you know what I mean, that was pushed upon me. I was just a happy little humorous rapper, and all these angry motherfuckers, you know what I’m saying, start coming at niggas with their angry shit, you know what I’m saying. So, like, pushing confrontational situations in front of you, so that’s why I say, like, I’m not the type that disrespects just to earn respect, but I can’t get conquered in my style of rapping, you know, whatever’s clever. You know, just generally doing my little you know, whatever you call it, wise as an owl, soft as a dove thing. It’s really like that, they’re not gonna stop, they just keep coming, know what I’m saying. So, you make your mark and then you try to give yourself some space in between all the ruckus, you know what I mean. And if you’re able to make space for yourself then you’re fine.

RBMA: [“Hey Young World”] is totally dedicated to a pretty positive message. What was your mindset going into this?

SLICK RICK: I guess it was just, again, seeing life from my eyes at that age, and you know, be having a job and everything, you know, the mistakes that others may fall into, you know what I mean? So it was just writing a rap from my perspective as a person with a job and a high school diploma, or whatever’s clever. Not to knock nobody else that, you know, find it hard to get that high school diploma or you know, because it’s a different struggle, you see what I’m saying. And uh, basically just telling the story like that, don’t blame society, hold your head and all that type of stuff. Not trying to be too rough, you know what I mean, just relate from my point of view in my environment.

RBMA: But it’s simple, but it’s you know, so effective. Is there a favorite jewel or line that stands out to you after all these years?

SLICK RICK: Oh, I guess it would have to be, “If you smoke crack, your kids will smoke crack tomorrow.” So yeah, stuff like that, you know, whatever’s clever like that.

RBMA: And this also has, to me, an interesting vocal arrangement, because like, the background vocals are doing half the rhymes, and then you’re answering them.

SLICK RICK: Yeah, I got that from those little squirrels guys, I don’t know what they was called.

RBMA: Chipmunks?

SLICK RICK: Yeah, so I was just pretending to be the chipmunks and that guy, talking back and forth to each other. It didn’t really sound like them, but that’s what I was going with.

RBMA: Okay. I didn’t realize that, and we learned something, that [Alvin and] the Chipmunks actually had a big influence on “Hey Young World”.

By Jeff “Chairman” Mao on July 13, 2012

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