The Misadventures of Slick Rick

Before 2Pac and Notorious BIG there was Slick Rick. The Godfather of gangsta rap, who only had one eye and was born in South London. In 2002 he spoke to me from his cell about guns, drugs, fame and hard luck...
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When you're blind in one eye and your pregnant wife is screaming in the passenger seat, it's virtually impossible to outrun New York's finest. Just ask Slick Rick. Recognised as the godfather of gangsta rap, British-born Ricky Walters inspired the likes of Snoop Dogg, Notorious BIG and Eminem with the elaborate yarn-spinning style he championed on his 1989 debut album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. But just one year later, the year the record went platinum, Rick's American dream turned into a nightmare.

Following death threats from his cousin, Rick found himself embroiled in a worst case scenario which ended with the rapper shooting his cousin and an innocent by-stander before leading the police on a high-speed car chase across New York. The result was a six-year sentence for attempted murder. It was ironically similar to the ignominious end of the trigger-happy gangsta from his own hit single "Children's Story", a cautionary tale for wannabe tough guys. Today, six years after he was released from jail, Rick is back behind bars, this time fighting the US Government's attempts to deport him back to England. Bizarrely, the real life adventure of Slick Rick, hip hop's greatest ever storyteller, is the most intriguing tale of them all.

Following the success of The Great Adventures..., the 24-year-old rap superstar blew his first royalty cheque on two houses, a jeep and $100,000 worth of gold jewellery. Now aged 38, and trapped in a Florida detention centre since his arrest almost a year ago, Rick's tastes are more austere. As he fights for his liberty, phone cards are far more valuable to him than anything 24-carat.

Despite having paid his debt to society, the Immigration And Naturalization Services are determined to rip Rick from the Bronx, his home for the last 27 years, and return him to London, the city he left when he was just 11 years old. As he relays his story, Rick sounds noticeably exhausted, his softly spoken voice barely audible over the crackling trans-Atlantic line. He says he finds much of today's rap "too destructive" and bling-obsessed, that it needs a renaissance to make it less negative. Could this really be the same man whose supremely confident style saw him dubbed "the Cassius Clay of rap"?

Slick Rick is unlike any other in the Hip Hop Hall of Fame. Straight outta Mitcham, Walters was born to Jamaican parents working in Surrey. Growing up, he was always different from the rest. An accident with broken glass blinded his right eye at just 18 months. The injury had a huge impact on his personal development, psyche and, eventually, the history of hip hop. "I was always pretty shy because of the eye", he says, "so rather than going out and playing sports, I stayed indoors and wrote stories."

While he was inside, rap had taken over the world and now he was free, Rick was proclaimed a pioneer and hero. But the good times didn't last. By June, Slick Rick was back behind bars.

Just before Rick was old enough to attend senior school, his parents moved the family back to the Walters residence in the Bronx, New York. There, the painfully self-conscious one-eyed cockney was badly out of place. "The girls liked it but the guys used to tease me".

His arrival coincided with the birth of hip hop, and little Ricky embraced the slang and style of the new black street culture. Influenced by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and Fatback's "King Tim III" (the first rap single to hit the airwaves), a glorious transformation began. The stories that he liked to scrawl in his notepad began evolving into rhymes and thanks to some nifty accessorising, a Kangol hat here and a gold chain there, homely Ricky Walters emerged from his cocoon as superfly guy Slick Rick. "I figured everyone wanted to see a black Liberace," he says.

With his dead eye concealed behind a pair of Ray-Bans, the cycloptic 19-year-old began competing in local rap battles under the name MC Ricky D. The combination of his engaging stories, accent and smooth delivery caught the ear of one of the judges, Doug E Fresh, a human beatbox with his own record deal and his own eye for new talent. In 1985, he recruited Ricky to rap on his double-A sided single, "The Show" and "La Di Da Di" (later covered by Snoop Dogg with an introductory homage: "Gotta say what's up to Slick Rick/Those that don't like it, eat a dick"). It promptly became a massive worldwide hit. "The crowds loved it", he recalls. But its success was not because of Doug, says Bill Adler, then a publicist for Def Jam. "Nominally Ricky was Doug's sideman," says Adler. "But his was such a potent presence, he was so charismatic and so funny that he quickly overshadowed Doug."

The partnership was destined not to last, and Ricky disappeared from the scene for a year before Def Jam founder Russell Simmons sought him out to relaunch him as a solo artist. After 12 months of hard toil in the studio, The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick was released in 1988 and the transformation of Ricky Walters from geek to ghetto god was complete.

With the combination of Rick's Dick Van Dyke-on-dope accent and his unique narrative style, the record was an instant classic. Each of Rick's songs was an amusing, enthralling story that lasted from the first groove to the last. "You never know," says Rick, "it could have been down that good old British education."

Tracks like "Children's Story", with its sorry, and strangely prophetic morality tale of a youth sucked in to a life of crime, hooked the listener, while "Mona Lisa", about an encounter with a girl in a pizza parlour, sparkled with Rick's wisecracks. Slick Rick's art of entertaining the listener rather than beating them around the ears not only made him a star, but made hip hop what it is today. As Russell Simmons says, "He made a great mark that's going to last forever."

For those that knew Rick, the contrast between the individual and the on-stage persona was astounding. Drawing on his English roots for imagery, he called himself "The Ruler" and would bowl on stage wearing a crown, regal robes and, in his own words, "more gold that that man on the A-Team". As his success grew, the line between Ricky Walters and The Ruler began to blur. Despite sharing the same management team as LL Cool J and Run DMC, Rick had no qualms about dissing them both in public.

He also began going out to clubs as Slick Rick, dressed in six pounds of gold and acting like the Sun King reincarnate. But beneath the arrogance lay a deep-seated suspicion in his dealings with other people, as reflected in his song "Treat Her Like A Prostitute", the first rap track to use the word "bitch".

"Ricky was like an old blues man", says Adler. "He believed every time he turned his back, his wife would be making it with the mailman." His paranoia was further fuelled by a blossoming drink problem (champagne mainly) and a chronic weed habit. "He drank to give himself courage and to pump himself up," Adler says. "Alcohol helped Ricky to be Slick Rick." The drinking, though, was creating more problems than it solved, and would soon land Rick in jail.

Plummer was a thug, and a lazy thug at that. Too work-shy to sell drugs, he made his living from robbing street dealers, even dressing up as a woman to ambush one particular pusher. Naturally, he didn't waste much time before shaking down his extremely wealthy cousin.

"Rick had become a huge, huge star very quickly," remembers Adler. "He decided he needed a bodyguard and truthfully he did, because he had a big fucking mouth and was pissing people off all the time." Rick hired his first cousin, a Jamaican hood called Mark Plummer. It was a decision he would live to regret.

Plummer was a thug, and a lazy thug at that. Too work-shy to sell drugs, he made his living from robbing street dealers, even dressing up as a woman to ambush one particular pusher. Naturally, he didn't waste much time before shaking down his extremely wealthy cousin. "He was supposed to watch my back," says Rick, "but he ended up trying to extort money from me." Realising his mistake, Rick was forced to fire him - then the gloves really came off. Plummer sent a few friends round to try and rob him and, when Rick refused to pay, they threatened to kill him and his mother.

The next night, when the rapper came home to find bullet holes in his front door, Plummer's malevolent intent became clear. Feeling unable to turn to the cops, Ricky started to collect guns. "I felt I had to handle my own business," says Rick. "I had to fight fire with fire."

On the morning of July 3, 1990, Rick got a phone call from a friend telling him Plummer was in the neighbourhood. He went to the garage and loaded a bulky holdall into the boot of his car. The bag contained six fully-loaded weapons, including two Tec 9 machine pistols and a shotgun that had already been reported stolen from a police department in Richmond, Virginia. With his six months pregnant wife, Lisa Santiago, wedged into the seat beside him, he began patrolling the streets looking for his cousin.

It was the year hip hop went pop, and while New Kids On The Block were serenading their summer love on the radio, this old school rapper was on the street waving a gun at his tormentor. The first bullet missed Plummer completely, wounding a passer-by. The second, however, tore through his sneaker and ripped into his foot.

The Jamaican had barely hit the ground before the sirens began wailing and Rick, frightened and disorientated, leapt back into the driving seat and hit the gas. Within a few blocks, the interior of the car was illuminated blue by the closing pack's flashing lights. Like his "Children's Story" protagonist, Rick panicked, made a wrong turn and crashed into a tree. He gave himself up without a fight. Unlike his fictional character, Rick didn't want to wind up dead.

After pleading guilty, Ricky Walters was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to three to ten years in 1991. One year later Plummer was shot dead. "My career was hurt and I lost six years of my life," says Rick, "but he got what was coming to him." Despite being stripped of his designer clothes and superstar trimmings, Slick Rick never lost his dapper style; even in prison he was known to accessorise his standard issue green uniform with a matching cardigan.

Apart from that one indulgence and occasionally giving the cons their own rap show - "I got some respect for that, which helped" - he took care not to be too flashy. "I kept my nose clean and minded my own business but it was a learning experience," says Rick. "By the time my sentence was up I had changed. I had grown responsible."

In 1996, having served five years and 12 days, Rick was released from jail aged 31. Determined to get his life back on the rails, he married his high school student girlfriend Mandy Aragones, 17, and began work on a new album.

The Art of Storytelling was hailed by the press as a remarkable return to form after the patchy Behind Bars LP Rick knocked out with Prince Paul while on a work release programme. The Ruler was back. The Art of Storytelling featured a string of collaborations with top MCs: Snoop Dogg, Nas, Canibus, Wu Tang Clan's Raekwon and Big Boi from Outkast. The main men of the day were keen to show respect to original don Rick. When Nas met his hero, he literally prostrated himself. "I don't know if he kissed Rick's feet, but he bowed down," says Adler.

As confirmation of Rick's status, in March 2002 he was inaugurated to the Hip Hop Hall Of Fame. Ricky Walters was flying again. While he was inside, rap had taken over the world and now he was free, Rick was proclaimed a pioneer and hero. But the good times didn't last. By June, Slick Rick was back behind bars.

Rick found himself embroiled in a worst case scenario which ended with the rapper shooting his cousin and an innocent by-stander before leading the police on a high-speed car chase across New York. The result was a six-year sentence for attempted murder.

The hammer blow struck on the morning of June 1. Rick had been performing on a Caribbean cruise and the ship was heading back to Miami. It had been a good gig, and on their last night Rick and Mandy danced till dawn on the deck. At 7am they were preparing to disembark when there was a knock on the door.

"We thought it was our friends," says Mandy, "but they announced they were from US customs."

In his shorts, Rick answered the door and was promptly informed by two officers that he was under arrest. It was the Immigration and Naturalization Services. They'd had a warrant since 1999, but took three years to act on it. He was spared handcuffs, but was marched onshore in full view of everyone on the ship.

"I had to kiss him goodbye and that was the last time I touched Rick," says Mandy. That was over 11 months ago. H is held at Florida's Bradenton County Jail - almost broken by a system he thought he could trust. His living conditions are primitive says Mandy, Rick has nothing but phonecards for company, rotten eggs for nourishment and a sperm-stained uniform to wear.

The travesty is that Slick Rick is not being held in prison with chains, but red tape. His lawyer Alex Solomiany explains that Rick's family never had him naturalised as a legal US citizen when they moved to New York. Once he committed a felony, the government gained the right to deport him to the UK. The move would be disastrous for Rick, who has a wife and two children, property and a career in the States.

"I have nothing against England," he says, "but there I'd be like a fish out of water." Friends find it difficult to understand how all this happened.

"Anyone who's known Ricky knows he doesn't belong in jail," says Russell Simmons who helped set up a Free Slick Rick petition, while pals Will Smith and Chris Rock even wrote to the INS to vouch for his character. But it will be Justice Kimba Wood who determines the next chapter of Slick Rick's great adventures when she presides over his case later this month. Whether his future lies in London or New York, one thing is for certain: "I've got to look after myself," says the rapper. "After all, I've only got one eye."

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