By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
La-di-da-di, we like to party
We don't cause trouble, we don't bother nobody
We're just some men that's on the mic
And when we rock upon the mic
We rock the mic right!
"There was nothing like it," says Bill Adler, a hip-hop historian and publicist who's represented Walters for decades. "It was really a song-length narrative. It was immediately memorized by kids paying attention from coast to coast. They ate it up with a spoon." The familiar song also influenced Snoop Dogg enough that he covered it almost verbatim as "Lodi Dodi" on Doggystyle, his breakout 1993 debut album.
"That was one of the few times anybody had ever covered a song," says Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. "That just showed the influence that he had in New York and across the country to the West Coast."
Almost overnight, Slick Rick was a household name, at least in houses where hip-hop was played. He signed with Russell Simmons at Def Jam Records, then the biggest label in the business, and in 1989 released The Adventures of Slick Rick, which hit number one on the Billboard R&B/hip-hop charts and quickly went platinum, one of the first hip-hop records to do so.
"It was recognized as a classic from the moment it dropped," Adler says.
"What Slick Rick brought to the table," says Yvonne Bynoe, author of The Encyclopedia of Rap and Hip Hop Culture, "was the idea that rap songs were not ditties but vehicles to convey important messages and thoughts."
Slick Rick's raps did more than shout out or posturethey told stories. This skill ensured him a place in hip-hop's pantheon of MCs.
"This is when people are still experimenting with choruses, with ways of using that song form. Rick quickly mastered that," Chang says. "He was able to transform rap from a kind of live performance thing to a much more story-based pop song. Slick Rick was one of the first people that recognized that rap could be . . . turned into a story with a beginning, middle, and end."
Walters was quickly imitated. Dozens of artists have sampled, covered, and re-mixed his songs. You can hear the echoes in songs by everyone from NWA and Biggie Smalls to Ghostface Killah and Nas.
"He's been really unheralded, but I think that his particular mode of rhyming has really touched a lot of different rappers over the years," Chang says. "You can see his influence everywhere. People are always going to hold him in high regard just for 'La-Di-Da-Di' and his first album."
As his star rose, Walters played the part of the MC to the hilt, decking himself out in jewelry and chainssometimes $60,000 in baubles at a time. And besides the trademark eye patch, he also sometimes wore a gold crown. Next to him, Run D.M.C. looked like a pair of monks.
"All of that stuffthe fuzzy Kangol, the eye patch, and the big fat gold chainbecame identified with him, but you would see it pop up on everyone," Chang says. "His sartorial style, this idea of the artist as a real fabulous kind of personhe was the person who made that image. It was a little bit different from the raw black-on-black of Run D.M.C. or the youthful exuberance of LL Cool J."
But there was also something disarming about Rick's charm. "In contrast to many rap artists who promoted a gritty, often one-dimensional street persona, Slick Rick's persona was that of a dapper ladies man who could be both funny and insightful," Bynoe says.
True, there were less lovable things about him. Walters took heat for the lyrics of one of his biggest early successes, "Treat Her Like a Prostitute," which became a mixtape hit in 1990 even though radio kept it off the air for lines like "take off your rubber and there's one more inside her." But Rick's delivery was rarely harshhe seemed somehow lovingly misogynistic.
As his fame grew, however, his notoriety quickly outpaced his ability to deal with it. Newly rich, he bought real estate he couldn't afford and fancy cars that got him unwanted attention.
"I was a little more flashy," Walters told an immigration judge in 1995. "I used to wear a lot of jewelry, drive fancy cars. I just got a lot of money real fast, and I just acted like a child with a lot of money."
Walters also spent money on protection. He knew that in his part of the Bronx, a slight, newly minted superstar with vision in only one eye and gold on every finger made for a tempting target.
Increasingly concerned that he was vulnerable, he began carrying firearms and hiring bodyguards.
"Living by myself, making records, and my name already being known all over the place, I felt I would need a little protection of some sort," he testified later.
So when his cousin, Mark Plummer, arrived in New York fresh from Jamaica with a tough-guy reputation, Walters hired him as a bodyguard. It turned out to be a bad ideaPlummer wanted easy money and drug connections, not work, Walters claimed.