Slick Rick's "Children's Story" isn't just one of my favorite rap songs -- it's one of the best songs of all time, both from a technical standpoint and in terms of sheer entertainment value. From a literary perspective, the realistic yet dramatic tale of a small-time ghetto hoodlum with big-time dreams and a propensity for getting into ever-worsening situations (because of errors in judgment) is Pulitzer-quality material. Rick's visual alliterations drip with a grotesque hyperrealism worthy of a Chester Himes novel: "Dave the dope fiend shooting dope/Who don't know the meaning of water nor soap." To this day, that line is still chanted at clubs whenever the song comes on.
Other ingredients include a subtle message ("He starts to figure, 'I'll do years if I pull this trigger'") and an ironic twist at the end, when the protagonist crashes his car into a tree and survives, only to get gunned down by the boys in blue. Rick's Cockney-via-the-Bronx accent, voicing multiple characters, adds seasoning; an infectious, danceable rhythm provides flavor. Stir for four minutes and change, top with a Kangol cap, and you have a recipe for a hip-hop classic.
Songs like "Children's Story," "Mona Lisa," "Hey Young World," and of course, "La-Di-Da-Di" -- perhaps the ultimate party-rap song -- are a big reason Slick Rick has long been a personal hero of mine. I was first introduced to his unique voice and storytelling abilities in 1985, along with approximately 500,000 other kids who bought the single "The Show"/"La-Di-Da-Di." So you can imagine how excited I was to meet Slick Rick in person, have a sit-down interview with him, and watch him perform to a packed house.
Slick Rick has cultivated an image as a flamboyant, outrageously egotistical character. Yet he seemed modest and extremely down-to-earth as he sat in Oakland's Embarcadero Hilton. Unlike his stage persona, he was hardly ostentatious -- except for his trademark eye patch. I'd half-expected him to still be sporting the Mr. T starter set of fat gold chains he rocked back in the day, but he appeared almost conservative, dressed simply in a striped collared shirt and a long wool coat.
The man known in hip-hop circles as "The Ruler" graciously held forth on topics ranging from his recent seventeen-month stint in an INS detainment facility under threat of deportation (ultimately, he beat the rap), why he feels government types are "worse than criminals," his thoughts about the proliferation of gangster rap (it's part of the corporate agenda), and his earliest hip-hop memories.
When the culture first began, he recalled, "it was just records that were the instrumentals, the fruit of a record." He remembers early hip-hop DJs using two copies of the same breakbeat and backspinning them. "It was like, they would give it longevity, and then somebody would rhyme on that," he said. "That was the real beginning of hip-hop, you know what I mean? Taking the juicy part of a song and prolonging it with the turntables." Before long, he started seeing MCs rhyme over the breakbeats. "That was the beginning of rap," he concluded. There you have it, straight from the Ruler's mouth.
Although Rick was surely tired (having just arrived from New York) and needed to get ready for his show that night, he was never rude or impatient -- fledgling rappers, take note. He even took the time to shake hands with several hotel employees, who wanted to tell him personally how much his music has meant to them. Slick Rick came off overall as a pretty classy individual; if any 38-year-old rapper can make a comeback these days, it's him.
And so, at the January edition of Hip Hop 101 -- held in the cavernous environs of SF's Space 550 -- I ambled my way backstage, past a seemingly starstruck Lyrics Born (who performed earlier), and spoke to Rick for a few minutes before he went on. The Ruler had changed clothes: Now he was dressed in an immaculate white suit, sporting a custom-made eye patch that could have been either platinum or white gold.
Yet he remained humble, at one point offering me one of his personal drinks, a rum-flavored libation that I washed down as if it was the nectar of the gods.
For some reason, it seemed imperative at that very moment that I explain to Rick that there were exactly three rap songs worthy of memorizing and reciting the lyrics line-for-line: Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message," and his collaboration with Doug E. Fresh on "La-Di-Da-Di." He offered a gold-toothed grin in response, having already related the story behind that particular rhyme, and how he met the leader of the Get Fresh Crew.
Doug E. Fresh was already an established recording artist who frequently played in the Bronx, Rick recalled. "I would scream out and yell, 'Yo, you gotta hear me rap!' when Doug was onstage or whatever. One day, he decided to give me a listen. Then he started bringing me around with him when he would do shows. I did a routine called 'La-Di-Da-Di,' and he liked it." The public's response was overwhelming, Rick noted, and "we decided one day, we can make a record out of it."
Then Rick took the 550 stage and plowed through tunes like "Children's Story" and "La-Di-Da-Di" as the crowd went absolutely crazy. I was no saner, having regressed to a state of primal hip-hop consciousness. To paraphrase the man himself, Rick had caused a cozy condition -- if that moment could have lasted forever, there would be no war, crime, or homelessness in the world.
Evidently, I wasn't the only "party person in the house" feeling it. "It was my birthday," rapper and producer Kool Kyle, of Berkeley's Nameless and Faceless, said of that night. "That was the best birthday I've ever had." DJ Sake One, who spun before Rick's set, gushed in his e-mail newsletter that he experienced a "spiritual awakening" watching the Ruler live. And while local old-schoolers often bandy about the mid-'90s Bomb magazine showcases at the DNA Lounge as Bay Area hip-hop's peak experiences, seeing Slick Rick easily equaled those fabled performances.
It was, to paraphrase "La-Di-Da-Di," "The type of shit that doesn't happen every day."
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