The Ruler spoke candidly with Billboard about his thirty-year tenure in the game, his circle of trust who first heard his debut album, and which rappers of today remind him of himself -- as if there could ever be another.
I know you weren’t born in the Bronx per se, but you certainly are a vital part of the history. What did growing up in the Bronx mean for you and for your contribution to hip-hop, or even becoming an artist, especially at the time of the birth of hip-hop?
It was a special moment in Bronx history – being at the beginning of the birth of hip-hop, like you said. It was kind of like Ron Howard trying to be the Fonz, as far as me coming from London. It was something more like that: trying to get the whole American lingo, the American cool swag thing, and all that type of stuff. And then when hip-hop came around, I just kind of excelled at it, maybe because of having a different accent at the time -- because it was a lot stronger back then. And you know, I liked to tell humorous stories, almost like a comedian.
You got to the Bronx when you were about 11. Were you always a storyteller as a kid ,before you actually started rhyming?
I can’t remember before the age of 11, but from about then, give or take; yeah I was always into telling stories and stuff like that and adding a little humor to it. So when hip-hop came along, it was just like turning the stories into rap.
Do you feel that had you stayed in England, would you have still pursued hip-hop? Or was it the environment that kind of nurtured you into becoming who you were?
I would say it was the environment, because the English environment is a lot different, so it wasn’t really the same type of… As you can see, most hip-hop artists are American. I mean, they’re coming up now, but Bronx and all that started it first. So if I was still in England at that same time, I probably wouldn’t have been into it. I probably would have been into something else -- whatever the kids was doing at that time in England, you know?
What’s crazy is that when you think of hip-hop, you and Monie Love are actually the only two old-school hip-hop artists who originated from the U.K. who managed to become so influential. I mean, nowadays there’s such a struggle still connecting the U.K. to America when it comes to hip-hop.
Yeah, true, true. Like I told you: It’s like Ron Howard trying to be the Fonz, you know what I mean? It’s hard for an English rap artist to have that kind of a cool Fonzie effect to Americans and a wide-variety audience. So either you have to go a comical route or something, a Pee Wee Herman route -- I don’t know, something! You’ve got to come with something other than trying to be Elvis Presley.
The Great Adventures of Slick Rick turns 30 this year, which is crazy. Do you remember what Slick Rick at 23 was thinking about when you were putting that project together? You had already long since become part of American culture at that point, in terms of having been here long enough, but do you remember what your mindset was when you were putting that project together?
Well, the mindset was probably, “You put out a single here and there, but now you have to make a whole album, so you have to mentally prepare yourself for at least 12 songs. You have to come up with 12 good subject matters, you got to make sure that the music is good, the subject is interesting and humorous to your age group.” You know, you’re mentally preparing yourself.
And then you want every one to be a hit. You know, like “La Di Da Di” and “The Show” [both with Doug E. Fresh] were before? You want to get as many hits as you can out of 12. So it’s like a mental preparation type of a thing, plus you still got that youthful excitement and energy and all of that stuff going on too so that helps.
What would you have told your younger self that you wish you would have known before putting that project out?
I don’t know if there’s too much I could give myself, other than maybe some songs -- I thought the musical ideas wasn’t as good, although when I look back now, they wasn’t bad at all for that time. Other than that, there’s not too much you can do. You’re working with record labels, you got to work with their decisions.
I would have put it out in a different order. You know how they say you put your best foot forward and then whatever after that? Like, when we released the album, the first record that was put out was called “Teenage Love,” which SHOULD have been “Children’s Story” or “Mona Lisa.” If you’re trying to go for mass record sales, if you’re trying to get every piece of juice out of an album, you know what I mean? You always put your best records out first, so I would have put out “Children’s Story,” then “Mona Lisa,” then whatever. You know, a certain order of power, intrigue, strength. Other than that, everything would have been pretty much the same.
So did you know when you were doing “Children’s Story” that you had that hit on your hands? From what you’re saying now, you would have put it out first, but were you confident at the time that it would be a hit?
You can pretty much tell your song is popping when you’re with your peoples at that age group, and everybody is feeling it, and you don’t feel like, “Oh I need to tweak this, I need to touch this up.” When you can see the reaction to yourself and your peers, then you know, “Yeah, this is good to go,” before it hits a mass audience. You know the molehill could turn into a mountain.
Do you remember anyone in particular from your fellow legends who heard that and automatically was amped for you and felt like that was the hit?
As far as peers, I would have to say the only one I can remember is Big Daddy Kane. I let him hear the album before it was released, and he was pretty impressed. Other than that, Dana Dane, my neighborhood friends and stuff like that. But as far as celebrities, I’d have to say Dana Dane and Big Daddy Kane.
Now you were 23 when that project came out, which is kind of the average age now for a hip-hop artist like a SoundCloud rapper or any one of these younger kids. And it seems like at their age, their approach to hip-hop is so fundamentally different from yours. But when you hear some of these newer guys who are the age of when you released this breakout project, do you feel any similarities to who you were as a person? Or does it feel so far away from what you were doing?
You put yourself in their shoes. You’re about the same age as them, it’s the same mindset, the same excitement, the same anticipation, the same energy, the same want to impress your peers of your age group. It’s very similar other than maybe the sound and the delivery, it’s pretty much the same spirit, the same energy, the same anticipation, the same thrill, the same “I can’t wait to go around in my new car, my new jewels!” [mentality] You know, all of that excitement of that youthful, ghetto energy.
Do you listen to any of these new guys?
Yeah, whatever I see on TV or what I hear that’s catchy that moves the spirit, moves the soul. Let’s say Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA,” or A$AP Rocky performed on Jimmy Fallon the other day, and that was kind of fire. Jaden performed on Jimmy Fallon and that was kind of fire. You know, once the sound is good and intriguing, and the video gives it that little extra oomph, you still enjoy the crowd. It’s variety.
Your peers keep entertaining you sometimes. You know how they say on the seventh day you rest? On the seventh day, you watch others! You watch others entertain you. Sometimes, you sit back and smell the roses.
My personal opinion is that there isn’t anyone, but is there anyone out there that you feel you see yourself in who you feel is the modern day Slick Rick?
Maybe bits and pieces, but not really the same exact person. Let’s say 50 Cent has a humorous side to him, even when he’s not rapping. He has that humor. And then you may have your conscious cats who are more conscious than humorous. Then you have the guys that can dress a little something something. It’s bits and pieces.
They’re all chips off the Slick Rick block. You had mentioned a few years back that you were entertaining the idea of another project, a follow-up. I was just wondering if that’s still in the pipeline?
Yeah, that’s still in the pipeline.
Is that in the soon pipeline?
Yeah, soon pipeline.
And is it going to be a follow-up to let’s say one of your legendary works, or is it going to be a brand new project?