With his trademark eye patch, chunky gold chains and sing-song English lilt, Slick Rick is a quirky stand-out among New York rappers. Despite legal problems and periods in jail in the 1990s and early 2000s, his feted solo albums and high-profile collaborations with the likes of Doug E. Fresh and OutKast have kept him relevant to a new generation, and he’s one of the most widely sampled rappers alive – largely thanks to that unique voice.
From Britain to the Bronx, Collaborating with Doug E. Fresh
Richard Walters was born on January 14, 1965, in Mitcham, south London, with mixed English and Jamaican heritage. He was blinded in his right eye as an infant following an accident with broken glass and felt that had a role in his later development as one of hip-hop’s premier storytellers. “I was always pretty shy because of the eye,” he told Sabotage Times, “so rather than going out and playing sports, I stayed indoors and wrote stories.”
His parents relocated to the Bronx, New York in 1976 and Walters began attending Fiorello H. Laguardia High School. This is where he formed his first rap group, The Kangol Crew, with future Profile Records artist Dana Dane. There was an uncanny similarity to their rapping style and accent – although only Walters’ was genuinely British.
While The Kangol Crew never released a record, Walters was soon to find almost overnight fame when he met the rapper and beatboxer Doug E. Fresh at a 1984 talent show. Walters made an impression on Fresh, who invited him to join his Get Fresh Crew, before they recorded the single "The Show."
'The Show' to 'The Great Adventures of Slick Rick'
A slice of free-wheeling fun with a witty give-and-take between the two MC’s — and a brainworm of a sample from Inspector Gadget — "The Show" was released in August 1985 and sold more than half a million copies in the US; in 1986 it was hailed by Spin magazine as “last year’s top rap single.” It was a big hit in Europe, reaching No. 7 on the UK singles chart. They subsequently performed the hit on the long-running UK music show Top of the Pops. However, it was the B-side, "La-Di-Da-Di," which was to have a more lasting effect on Walters’ career. With Fresh providing the beatbox and Walters all the lyrics, it’s the first capturing of his humorous narrative style, and so catchy and quotable it has been sampled relentlessly, covered by Snoop Dogg and even referenced by Miley Cyrus and Robbie Williams.
This success and his original look and sound encouraged Def Jam Records to make him their third signing and, with friend DJ Vance Wright, he recorded the debut album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. With this 1988 classic, Walters allowed his Slick Rick persona to spin out far-fetched antics of crime and sex, indulging in internal conversations in different voices, from women to children. At a period when hip-hop albums were more concerned with either braggadocio or Afrocentric politics, Great Adventures was determined to tread its own path. It was “an incredible statement of purpose,” according to Rolling Stone, as he “established himself as a master weaver of tales.”
Doing Time for Attempted Murder
Walters failed to capitalize on the popular and critical success of his debut as his life took a turn that was seemingly straight out of one of his vivid slice-of-crime stories such as Children’s Story. Having hired his cousin Mark Plummer as a bodyguard, he later fired him and their antagonistic relationship exploded into violence. On July 3, 1990, Walters — driving in a car with his pregnant partner, Lisa Santiago — shot at Plummer in New York, injuring both his target and a bystander. After a car chase ended in his arrest, he was convicted for attempted murder, serving five years in Riker’s Island prison. He had, however, found time to record his sophomore album, 1991’s The Ruler’s Back while on bail. The lead single’s title, "I Shouldn’t Have Done It," tells its own story. “I know that the crime I committed was drastic,” he said in court in 1995, according to The Village Voice, “and I know that at the time, I wasn’t on a right way of thinking.”
The Comeback: 'The Art of Storytelling'
He addresses his legal issues with some honesty on the uneven 1994 album Behind Bars – much of which was recorded on work release – but Walters wouldn’t really scale the artistic heights again until his most recent studio album, 1999’s The Art of Storytelling. His biggest commercial success, reaching No. 8 on the Billboard 200, it allowed a new school of rappers to pay tribute to Walters’ influence. Snoop Dogg, Big Boi from OutKast and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon all feature and Entertainment Weekly raved: “It’s like he never left… his breathy sing-song delivery remains a hip-hop national treasure.”
Walters’ legal problems were far from over, however, which goes some way to explaining the absence of a follow-up to this triumphant comeback. Having failed to apply for U.S. citizenship, the Immigration and Naturalization Service attempted to deport him in 2001 as a foreigner guilty of a felony. He was incarcerated once more until November 7, 2003 when he was cleared to remain in the country by the U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in a 20-page ruling. Walters' publicist, Bill Adler, told CNN that the ruling was “a very, very hopeful thing. The American justice system works sometimes.” The wrangling continued until David Paterson, Governor of New York, granted Walters a full pardon on the attempted murder charges in 2008.
Back to Britain
Walters, who has two children from earlier relationships, lives with his wife, Mandy Aragones, in the same neighborhood his parents originally moved to in the Bronx. And having received U.S. citizenship in 2016, but retaining his British passport, he now has the freedom to leave the country knowing he can return. In late 2016 he announced his first ever solo tour of the UK, telling journalists, “I’m looking forward to a nice cup of tea and some tasty biscuits.”
(Profile photo of Slick Rick by Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
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