After a lengthy battle with authorities, Ricky Walters, better known as the rapper Slick Rick, was awarded American citizenship on Friday. Speaking with Rolling Stone over the weekend, the MC is relieved. “It’s a weight off the shoulders,” he says. “It’s a good feeling: new opportunities, a fresh start.”
Though he’s an important piece of New York rap history, Rick was born in England in 1965, moving to the U.S. in 1976. His place in hip-hop’s early pantheon is forever secured by “La Di Da Di,” a live routine that eventually turned into a single, packing sartorial swagger, artful narrative and plenty of jokes into a whirlwind five minutes. Questlove once described to Rolling Stone the moment he first encountered the song: “Slick Rick’s voice was the most beautiful thing to happen to hip-hop culture … He is the blueprint … no one will ever, ever sound like him.” When Rick’s debut album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, arrived in 1988, The Source awarded it with a coveted 5 mic rating.
But in 1991, the MC pleaded guilty to attempted murder — after an ongoing altercation with his former bodyguard escalated into gunfire — which partially derailed his rap career and subsequently threatened his ability to stay in America. Rick managed to release The Ruler’s Back in 1991 and Behind Bars in 1994, despite his time in prison, but he later told Insomniac Magazine, “I thought they were garbage. Rushed … it’s something I would not have released to the public like that.” (That is not an entirely fair review – the hushed “All Alone (No One To Be With)” is one of Rick’s smoothest, most satisfying moments.) His last album, 1999’s The Art Of Storytelling, served as an assessment of influence, allowing a younger generation of MCs a chance to work with a hip-hop pioneer: Nas, Snoop Dog, Big Boi and others jumped at the opportunity.
“It’s a good feeling. New opportunities; fresh start.”
As a foreign national with a criminal record, Rick lived in threat of deportation – in 2002, immigration officials detained him as he returned to the country following a performance on a cruise ship, and he spent 17 months in INS custody. He no longer has to worry about this sort of treatment as his fight for American citizenship ended victoriously. “We went through a lot of appeals,” he explains. “You never know. I’ve been through so many different surprises, last-minute shocks. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, somebody said something about something, they threw it to another appellate court here or there or wherever.’
“I was planning to live on Mars,” he adds with a laugh.
Though Rick is praised for his abilities as a raconteur, he is surprisingly succinct on the phone, distilling a lengthy ordeal into a few laconic responses. His voice remains inimitable – light, mellow, plush and unusually accented, due to his mix of Britain and Bronx.
The rapper kept his citizenship celebration low-key. “I had a victory party with my attorneys and friends and family. That’s pretty much it for now,” he says. He is not overly interested in delving into the past. “I lost a lot of years,” he notes. “What can you do?” He follows that later with another dismissive platitude: “If that’s what it is, that’s what it is.” Still, he’s not ruling out the possibility of writing a track about his experience. “It couldn’t hurt,” he acknowledges. “It’d make it funny, humorous, light-hearted.”
“I’m probably going on a victory world tour.”
For an MC firmly ensconced in rap’s canon, Rick has a surprisingly cavalier view of the profession that made him famous. “I have a studio in my house, so I play around a lot,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Just as a hobby, ’cause I enjoy it. It was never really a job to me; it was more like a hobby.”
Occasionally a new rapper might pique his competitive spirit. “Sometimes another artist might step his game up, so you gotta sharpen your skills and stay current and relevant,” he says. “I keep up. I think right now, who’s got the current swing with the youth: Missy Elliott and Drake. Everybody else is ok.”
Rick suggests he’s staying current on politics as well. “You’re always going to follow somebody that sounds familiar to how you think,” he notes. “Let’s say Hillary Clinton. You make educated choices, you check their longevity, their posse – Al Gore, Bill, the rest of the crew.” He sees Clinton as the frontrunner. “I think most of the world is leaning towards that,” adds the rapper. “You know their heart, their passion, their soul – you know they’re good people. You make an educated guess, and you go with what you feel the United States wants.”
What’s next for Slick Rick? “I’m probably going to go on a victory world tour,” he says. “And I might get into a custom shoe line.” Here he briefly flashes some of the spirit that made him a seminal rapper: “You know my swag is dangerous.”