‘JUST CALL ME SLICK:’ A CONVERSATION WITH SLICK RICKBy Peter R. Russo
Before Saturday’s Spring Weekend concert, I sat down for a few minutes with Slick Rick (a.k.a. Richard Walters) to discuss his beginnings as a hip-hop artist, his current legal troubles, and his feelings on Internet file sharing. While perhaps now best known for his time spent in prison for an attempted murder conviction and immigration violations, Slick Rick was at the forefront of the East Coast rap scene during the mid-1980s. A collaborator with such luminaries as Run-DMC and Doug E. Fresh, he helped lay the groundwork for hip-hop as we know it today.
The Tech: I’m not sure what I should call you. Do you go by “Slick”?
SR: Just call me Slick...
TT: What do you think of MIT so far? Have you been around campus at all?
SR: Well, we just jumped out the limo right here. So I don’t really know what to expect yet...
TT: Are you planning on taking a look at campus at all?
SR: I don’t think we’re going to have too much time to look around. But I’m going to get to meet the kids after the show.
TT: I’m curious about your background. When did you decide to be a rapper? Was this during your time at LaGuardia [High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts]?
SR: No, it has always been a hobby. It was a hobby that turned into a profession. I had a regular job. Once I left high school, I didn’t bother to go straight to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. So I just did like a lot of other kids do, and went into the job market. I was a law library clerk and a mail clerk. But then my hobby just took off. It was just something I did as a play around thing. And next thing you know, I guess you stood out in a crowd, and you started generating finances, and I quit the job, and never looked back since.
TT: What do you think about the state of rap today?
SR: The state of rap today is very juvenile. It’s pretty much “party.” It’s not really political or intelligent. It doesn’t really cater to a mature audience or stimulate an audience mentality of growth. It’s pretty much just “party.” If it’s not partying, womanizing, then it’s gangsterism or negatives. It’s not really being allowed to grow. Hip-hop is like 30 years old. It’s not in its puberty stages anymore, but big business makes it this way, because of sales. ... So instead of allowing hip-hop to grow into a mature human mental mind state ... it’s being forced to stay naÏve and young. And you can’t really blame the rappers that are at young ages because they’re not mentally mature yet. Like, you can’t make Bow-Wow a grown man. You can’t make Nelly a guy that’s not supposed to like women and want to run around. You can’t turn him into a married man with kids. So you can’t really blame the rapper, per se, too much. Once [current rappers] mature up, and start wanting to speak, the younger generation is going to come and take their place, so it’s almost like a recurring cycle.
TT: How important do you think “street cred” is these days?
SR: Street credibility? I think it’s just another marketing scheme. I think it’s not really that important to have street credibility. Music was originally created for people to relate to you, and enjoy you, and become a fan or an admirer of whatever you bring to the table. Street credibility is another form of admiration, but it’s only one form of admiration. It’s not a necessity.
TT: You were a close friend and colleague of Jam Master Jay. What was your reaction to his murder in 2002?
SR: It’s a sad day for hip-hop because I guess you don’t realize what you’ve lost until you lose it, because I think a lot of people overlooked Run-DMC. [Jam Master Jay was a member of the hip-hop group Run-DMC.] ... But then when an icon falls victim to such a heinous crime or whatever, then we realize the importance of icons in the game, and the whole root of the tree. ... So it was a sad situation to see a legend that was pretty much overlooked by mainstream to take such a fall.
TT: With the large number of hip-hop artists that have been killed in the past few years, Biggie, Tupac, Jam Master Jay, do you think being a hip-hop artist is an inherently dangerous profession?
SR: It is dangerous if you follow one outlook of the game. Like I said, big business, to some degree, caters to credibility. And the credibility is usually negative, like you said. “Oh I got shot a hundred times” or “I have a reputation. I used to be a drug dealer...” So it almost forces the kids to admire the wrong, instead of “I came from a bad past, and now it’s like I’m a Cinderella story.” The responsible people that are supposed to be responsible to make sure that the right messages are put out there are more interested in financial gain than the growth of all youth.
TT: Recently you were in a legal battle regarding your immigration status. Are your legal troubles over at this point? [Walters was born in London and emigrated to the United States at the age of 14.]
SR: So far, God-willing, it looks like they’re pretty much over. God-willing. But you never know. It seems like they had a hard-on to try to hurt immigrants who might make a mistake. Like I said before, the powers that be are not acting in a humane fashion. ...What is the purpose of rehabilitation if you’re not rehabilitating nobody while they’re in there? The people that are in these positions to reconstruct human human beings, mental states, whatever, are not doing a good job. And then they’re penalizing people, overly penalizing harshly, and throwing people out of the country... Immigrants...we’re getting thrown out of the country for spitting on the sidewalk or something like that. It’s not humane. They don’t have people in position to weed out good and bad. You can have somebody who committed heinous crimes, okay, yeah, well they should be deported. Then you have people that might have jumped a turnstile, and they’re also getting deported. ... So it’s not really fair. There needs to a human being, not machines and laws or whatever, in place to do these jobs.
TT: What about your own crime? [Walters spent six years in jail for an attempted-murder conviction in 1991.]
SR: My crime happened in 1990. I did my rag. I shot somebody that was trying to rob a liquor store or whatever the case. I’m not going to try to take the holier-than-thou route. I was wrong too. I injured some bystander I shot in the foot. But this was also in 1990. I served my time. This is 2004. So that’s 14 years ago. Now in 2002, ... now you want to deport somebody for something that happens over thirteen years ago? I mean, does that sound like human growth, or does that sound like backwards thinking? Thirteen years ago, and then to be on the street for over six, seven years with not so much as a traffic ticket? It shows that it’s illogical.
TT: How has your time in jail influenced your music?
SR: It opens your eyes to society, and errors that need to be fixed. ... There should always be laws. There should always be policing. We should always have boundaries. If you don’t have order, things will be chaotic. But if order is not run properly, then it could be defeating the purpose, just how like we see now with this fictitious war.
TT: What is your position on Internet file sharing, and do you think this is something that helps or hurts the music industry?
SR: Music is one of the last beauties left in the world, that is pretty much being spoiled now. ... The music industry, for a long period of time, has been cruelly manipulated and robbed. Like, a person could be born with a talent. He’s happy, he’s energetic, he goes and gives his talent to the world, and then when it comes time for him to get his paycheck, he’s totally robbed.
TT: By the industry?
SR: By the industry, exactly. They’re spitting their heart out to the world. The fans don’t know this. They want to see him a star. They’re admiring, they relate to you. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, these no-talent bums is robbing you and taking all your money, and making you put up a front like you’re wealthier than you really are, because you don’t want to let your people down. ... These stars, these god-given stars have been manipulated and robbed since the system became started. So when Internet sharing came, it was almost like God came and said, “Listen to me,” and he says “Look, you stole, you tried to gain and steal and profit off of everything you’ve given the world. This is a payback. You can’t control it. You can’t control Internet sharing.”
TT: So you think it’s affecting the industry more than it’s affecting the artists?
SR: We as artists, we was never getting a dime, regardless. We’re happy if we get, like Prince says. ... if Prince was to go and sell his own little records, even if he can sell a hundred-thousand records, he’s rich. If he sells it himself. In these industries, they tell you four million, five million, you’re not seeing the same money you would make if you sold your own records. Like if you sold 50,000 records, you’d be rich ... well, somewhat well-off. But if you let the industry, which is supposed to take their cut and give you your cut, do it, and they sell millions, they’re not giving you your fair share. They just keep on manipulating you. It’s like having a bunch of cows that are milked inappropriately. They lose their spirit to create. And the next thing, they’re just a dried-up cow, which means that you as a manager, industry, you have just manipulated, and brought despair upon your cows. Now they can’t create milk. ... I think Internet sharing is a blessing to humans. I think Internet sharing is a blessing to the average man. ... I think [Internet sharing] is a blessing in disguise.
TT: I read an article that said you were “quite possibly the most snobbish artist ever to hold a microphone,” yet in person you seem like a nice guy. How did you acquire this reputation?
SR: Snobbish? I don’t really care about that. The whole snobbish thing to me is a personality. It’s actually a fun personality. If you can come across as a snob, ‘cause my whole thing is to try to come, well it used to be, to come across as an upscale, rich ... like a black Vanderbilt or something. Like a Liberace type of a thing. So it’s good to give off the impression of being kind of snobby, so there’s a character. But in real life, I’m not really snobby, I’m pretty much down-to-earth.