‘You Have To Win Respect’: Slick Rick On Decades Of Great Adventures

As ‘The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick’ celebrates its anniversary, The Ruler talks about taking his environment and turning it into a story.

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Slick Rick Great Adventures interview
Cover: Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

Once upon a time not long ago (when people wore pajamas and lived life slow), The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick took the hip-hop world by storm. Now celebrating its anniversary, it’s fair to say there is a timeless quality to the debut album by that bejeweled, eye-patched MC known for his English accent and masterful storytelling ability. To figure out what went into the making of The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick, we spoke to the man himself and went back to the beginning.

Listen to the anniversary edition of The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick now.

Born on the outskirts of London in the town of Mitcham, Surrey, Richard Walters – otherwise known as Slick Rick – immigrated to the Bronx at the age of 11 in 1976, just as hip-hop was bubbling up. Inspired by pioneering rap group The Cold Crush Brothers, he tried his own hand at rhyming as a young teen.

“They had like a street reputation. They would do outside block parties for free,” recalls Rick. Then while attending the High School Of Music & Art, in Harlem, Rick formed a posse. “We called ourselves The Kangol Crew.

“We used to wear suit jackets with the Kangol hat and each person had their own raps and competed every day. We would write a story and bang on the desk to each other and just entertain ourselves and the high-school kids around us.”

The great adventure had begun

By 1985 MC Ricky D, as he was then known, linked up with established rapper and “The Original Human Beatbox,” Doug E Fresh, and his Get Fresh Crew. The resulting single, “The Show,” backed by “La-Di-Da-Di” – a hilarious story about an encounter with an ex-girlfriend and her mother – was an overnight sensation.

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The recently rechristened Slick Rick was squarely in the sights of Def Jam Recordings. Within a year, he broke off from Doug E Fresh and got a record deal as a solo artist. The great adventure had begun.

“It was the first time making an album, going from two singles to 12 songs,” says Rick, explaining why his The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick took more than two years to make. “Pretty much all the weight is on yourself. You don’t want to make corny songs and you’re trying your best to make 12 strong songs without any album fillers. You’re doing a lot of work on your own.”

During the interim, his former Kangol Crew partner Dana Dane released a string of hit records that saw the Brooklynite rapping in an English accent (under the advisement of his label Profile Records).

“He was on Soul Train, I was on Soul Train – it was a good look for the two high-school kids,” says Rick, but it became apparent that the world was itching for a new Slick Rick record.

“I produced mostly the hits”

Rick not only penned every lyric on The Great Adventures…, but also self-produced almost half the album, including the opener, “Treat Her Like a Prostitute” – a routine dating back to his days with Doug E Fresh that he reworked with a drum machine standing in for Doug’s voice. “I produced mostly the hits,” the rapper, now 54, recalls, laughing. “Not to sound vain or nothing, but the ones that stood out the longest, like the ‘Children’s Story,’ ‘Mona Lisa,’ ‘Hey Young World,’ s__t like that.”

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If The Great Adventures… has a centerpiece, it’s undoubtedly “Children’s Story.” Thanks to the 30th-anniversary deluxe edition, you can now hear an early demo of the song that got regular rotation on rap/R&B radio and MTV well into 1989. By the time the version we all know and love was recorded, Rick had added a piano part – an interpolation of jazz musician Bob James’ oft-sampled 1974 instrumental “Nautilus.”

“They used to play it [‘Nautilus’] at block parties way back in the days, when hip-hop was like just starting out,” explains Slick Rick. “It was one of those legendary breakbeat type of sounds. Once I made the record ‘Children’s Story,’ we just mimicked the same sound because it was already known through the whole urban community.”

“It was grasping things from your environment and turning it into a story”

Between the demo and the album, Rick re-worked the subject matter of “Children’s Story” from a fairytale to a cautionary story about criminal behavior. Rick, however, dispels the rumour that the inherently quotable and cinematic lyrics describing a kid running from the cops and stumbling upon “Dave the dope fiend” is based on actual events he witnessed.

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“I just made it all up. It was just grasping things from your environment and turning it into a story,” explains Rick.

“The old heroin addict thing, the whole desperation to make illegal money, robbing and stealing to keep up an image or whatever. None of that was a true story. It was just a young adult’s imagination. If you went to 125th Street, where the methadone clinics were, you would see a lot of people with swollen hands from addiction. Older cats. That’s a generation before me that was about to die out, before the crack era came in.”

Another demo on the deluxe edition that was drastically reworked for The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick is “Teenage Love.” Originally a midtempo dance number, Def Jam brought in Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad (the production team responsible for the sound of labelmates Public Enemy), who helped turn “Teenage Love” into a ballad.

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“It’s like a give and take thing,” explains Rick. “They felt like it should have been a little slower and more lovey-dovey like that LL Cool J type of thing, and I wanted it the other way. But I took their recommendation.” The gambit paid off and “Teenage Love” became a crossover hit on the R&B chart, much like LL’s “I Need Love” had in 1987.

“The whole thing is about attraction, it’s like a mating call”

Sadler and Shocklee produced five more tracks for The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick, including “The Moment I Feared,” a song that begins with a rapper being robbed of his gold chains at the notoriously dangerous Latin Quarter club that hosted hip-hop nights from 1986 to 1988. But what was the motivation behind wearing all that “truck jewelry” that helped to define what is now considered the golden age of hip-hop?

“The whole thing is about attraction, it’s like a mating call,” says Rick. “You gotta know about colour co-ordination, it’s not just the chain. You start off small, because you can’t afford the chain, and then you play with your clothes, your colours and even start off with fake jewellery until you get the real stuff. It’s a whole Cinderella story, like when the carriage changes back into a pumpkin at midnight.”

Rounded out by “The Ruler’s Back,” produced by the late Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC, The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick captures the spirit of 1988, which is often considered the most important year in hip-hop’s colourful history.

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“The atmosphere was more aggressive back then”

“Back then, rappers were competing with crack dealers for girls and nice cars,” Rick remembers. “It was a dangerous habitat, but it was also a much freer atmosphere when it came to hip-hop. It’s like when you watch [Showtime] At The Apollo, and those people come out with the stick to drag you off if you’re not good – it was pretty much like that.

You had to really stand out among your peers to make a living or an impression. Your whole ambiance – style, clothes, car, swagger and your unique sound – has to draw an audience and be accepted by your peers in poor, urban communities. You have to win their respect and the community has to really appreciate it and enjoy it.”

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The competitive atmosphere of that period created a pressure that produced diamonds, as well as platinum. The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick crossed the one million sales mark in October 1989, a huge feat within a genre that was just beginning to attract mainstream attention. An even bigger feat is that Rick The Ruler made a record that has no apparent expiry date.

This article was first published in 2019. We’re re-publishing it today, in celebration of the anniversary of The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick‘s release. The anniversary edition of The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick can be bought here.

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