A 25th Anniversary Tribute
by Bill Adler
Let’s take a moment to appreciate a great album that was a hit from the moment of its release and which has since taken on the stature of a bona fide cultural icon: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, which was released a full 25 years ago, on November 1, 1988
Slick Rick did not have much of a profile then. He was known, if at all, as MC Ricky D, a member of Doug E. Fresh’s Get Fresh Crew. Despite Doug’s top billing, everyone who loved “La-Di-Da-Di” and “The Show” – the crew’s smash single in the summer of 1985 — understood that Rick was its star. Among his earliest fans were Rick Rubin, the founder of a label called Def Jam, which had begun releasing its first records in 1984, and Lyor Cohen, who ran Rush Artist Management, the firm which managed the careers of the Def Jam artists. It was Lyor who signed Rick to Rush and Def Jam in March of 1986.
The kids for whom Rick made Great Adventures, most of them leading lives not so very different from the one being led by the 23-year-old Bronx-based rapper himself, went nuts for it from the jump. Within a few months of its release it had sold northwards of 700,000 copies, well on its way to platinum status.
Clearly, these young people “got” Rick right away. They appreciated his wild humor, sexual frankness, and unprecedented storytelling skills – not to mention his willingness to express vulnerability in romantic affairs, a trait much more shocking in its nakedness (especially given that it was issuing from a rapper) than the most graphic of Rick’s erotic escapades.
More happened in one of Rick’s songs than occurred in whole albums by other rappers. Consider “Children’s Story.” Produced by Rick himself in collaboration with his pal Vance Wright, it is arguably Great Adventures’s masterpiece. The story of a couple of young stickup kids who fall afoul of the law, the track is framed as a cozy little bedtime tale, as if Dr. Seuss had gone hip-hop. A jagged, descending, one-fingered piano figure in the bass register alternates with a moaning horn line. Together these elements generate tremendous action-movie momentum in a song that never exceeds medium tempo. Rick proceeds to give voice to a broad cast of characters: Uncle Ricky (the Cat In the Hat-like narrator), Uncle Ricky’s young niece and nephew, the stickup kids, and – in a memorable cameo appearance — Dave the Dopefiend. Plot-wise, there is a robbery and long chase followed by a groundbreaking climax; one of the stick-up kids is shot dead by the cops. At the very end of the track, Uncle Ricky warns his young relatives not to act like the kid who was killed. “Straight and narrow or your soul gets cast,” he says. This kind of concern for his listeners was one of Rick’s trademarks.
The rest of the album revealed even more range. “Teenage Love” and “Hey Young World” are absolutely un-ironic and touching love songs a la New Edition, as is “Mona Lisa,” a sweet boy-meets-girl-at-a-pizza-shop scenario that nods to Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” and to a super-romantic ballad by Nat ”King” Cole that was also called “Mona Lisa.” “The Moment I Feared” tells three separate bad-luck stories; in the final one our hero is the victim of a jailhouse rape. “The Ruler’s Back” (remade by Jay-Z in 2001) takes bragging about one’s rap skills into a fantasyland of royal tribute.
Very quickly, Rick became beloved not only for his lyrical flow and sense of humor, but for his fashion style, which reflected his roots in England and Jamaica. From his Kangols to his eyepatch to his gold-and-diamond fronts, and from the truck jewelry around his neck and the rings on his fingers to the Ballys on his feet, Slick Rick looked like no one before him. Tall and slim, he was “a fly brown brother” from head to toe, even if he did say so himself. Today it’s clear that Rick was one of the founding fathers of bling.
Over the years, the renown of Great Adventures has only continued to grow. Go visit whosampled.com when you get the chance and see for yourself. The website notes that the album’s songs have been sampled nearly 900 times and covered 16 times. “Children’s Story,” of course, was famously sampled by Montell Jordan for “This is How We Do It,” a monster hit in 1995. But it has also been sampled by Eminem, A Tribe Called Quest, Biggie Smalls, Mos Def, Ludacris, Mary J. Blige, Lauren Hill, Ghost Face, Method Man, Aesop Rock, UGK, Lupe Fiasco, Boogie Down Productions, Rakim, Shyne, and Capleton, among many others. “Hey, Young World” has been sampled by everyone from Redman to Scarface to Fat Joe to Queen Latifah. But it was also covered by Macy Gray (featuring a new guest verse by its author) in 2001 and remade by Nas in 2010. Alicia Keys built her ”Teenage Love Affair” (2008) on top of Rick’s ”Teenage Love.”
Even more astonishing, perhaps, is how many hundreds of times Rick has been shouted out in the songs of other recording artists over the years. In this case, I’d suggest a visit to the scholarly environs of RapGenius.com, but the highlights include M.I.A. on “Bring the Noise” (“’Cause I’m a mom it don’t make me thick/I’m a overweight, heavyweight, female Slick Rick”), Kanye West on Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down” (“Hey, young world, I’m the new Slick Rick”) and Amy Winehouse on “Me and Mr. Jones” (“Made me miss the Slick Rick gig/And thought I didn’t love you when I did”). And this is to say nothing of the tributes to The Ruler by rappers in other languages, including French, Spanish, Dutch, and Polish. Here’s Lt. Dan Frost, a German rapper, in a song called “Infiltration” — “Du rappst und kennst nicht mal Slick Rick/Ich hab da was fur dich hip hop knowledge, genickwick.” In plain English: “You say you rap but you don’t know Slick Rick? I’ve got some hip hop knowledge for you, son!”
But Lt. Frost’s regard for Rick is no higher than Rakim’s. In “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” Ice-T’s documentary feature film from 2012, Ra says, “When Slick told a story, you was right there. If he was talking about running through the park, you smelled the grass.” Jay-Z is also an admirer. In “Decoded” (2011), Jay lays out just how Rick’s work influenced his own development as an artist and a human being: “Slick Rick taught me that not only can rap be emotionally expressive, it can even express those feelings that you can’t really name – which was important for me, and for a lots of kids like me, who couldn’t always find the language to make sense of our feelings.” Many of those kids happen to have been young women, including Beyonce, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott, all of whom have sampled Rick’s recordings, and Miley Cyrus, who quotes Rick in a song released just this year.
It really is amazing. Play Great Adventures today, 25 years later, and see if it doesn’t sound as fresh as the day it was born.