I started to take a deeper interest in hip-hop when I got to college, since the library at the music school had a whole bunch of classic rap albums that the local public libraries where I grew up in Maryland deemed too explicit to carry. You didn’t even have to be a music major to borrow albums from the music library, so I made a habit of stopping by on a constant loop, taking out three albums at a time. (It took me five different trips to borrow all fifteen volumes of a compilation series called Blues Masters. Yeah, I’m pretty intense that way.) Once I discovered they carried old rap albums, I started investigating those, too. I remember once I checked out Public Enemy’s first three albums, and another time I checked out Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic. (There was probably a third album, but I don’t remember what it was anymore.)
I had fun with those for a while, since I wasn’t able to get my hands on too many more classics, though I did manage to grab Lauryn Hill’s album and the Beastie Boys’ first couple albums. It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles and visited the local libraries out here that I was able to flesh out my own library considerably, finding treasures like The Low End Theory and Paid in Full. I also found The Great Adventures of Slick Rick there at the Studio City branch of the Los Angeles County Public Library system, which is mere minutes from where I live. I wasn’t familiar with Slick Rick’s body of work, but I was a huge fan of his song “Children’s Story,” which had been featured in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I actually think it’s one of the greatest rap songs ever, and since I had never spotted any of Slick Rick’s albums on Rolling Stone‘s greatest albums list, I had mistakenly overlooked them.
When I brought The Great Adventures of Slick Rick home some time ago, I knew as the album unfolded during my very first listen that I had at last found the master. The production isn’t the greatest — it’s pretty standard for its pre-Chronic time, despite featuring some heavy hitters in the producer’s chair in Run-D.M.C.’s Jam Master Jay and the Bomb Squad’s Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Hank Shocklee (known for their work with Public Enemy) — but the ideas are there and besides, with Slick Rick it’s not really about the production. Slick Rick actually gets my vote for rap’s greatest MC. Rakim may be more technically gifted, but the influence of Slick Rick, when you listen to this record, is overwhelmingly obvious. His songs are stories, and imaginative — and risque — ones at that, whereas with Rakim, a lot of his lyrics are just about how great Rakim is.
And while hubris is commonplace in hip-hop (and Slick Rick is no exception, certainly — his post-Great Adventures career has been plagued by legal issues), Slick Rick manages to create characters (varying his voice accordingly — Eminem would later make a career of this) and spin these long, winding narratives that entertain with remarkable ease. In 1985, a single was released by Doug E. Fresh and MC Ricky D — as Slick Rick called himself at the time — called “The Show,” with a B-side called “La Di Da Di.” Both are formative hip-hop songs, the latter of which was covered — with some alterations — by Snoop Dogg on his debut Doggystyle in 1993, styled “Lodi Dodi.” Snoop comes to mind the most when I think of Slick Rick’s impact; they both have that lazy drawl. And you know that song “Hypnotize” by the Notorious B.I.G.? The chorus of that song was taken from “La Di Da Di.” (Originally it was “Ricky, Ricky, Ricky, can’t you see? Sometimes your words just hypnotize me.”)
Nas’ song “The World Is Yours” takes its subject from “Hey Young World,” and Jay-Z samples — and more or less steals — “The Ruler’s Back” for his song of the same name that leads off The Blueprint. Rap albums are notorious for sampling previous works, but in the case of The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, subsequent albums have sampled it more times than it sampled previous works in the first place. If that’s not the mark of an influential work, I don’t know what is. Plus, the songs here are really just fantastic. “Teenage Love” shames every ’80s power ballad, “Indian Girl (An Adult Story)” is, thanks to Slick Rick’s vivid imagination, absurdly graphic and “Children’s Story” may very well be the single finest track in the entire hip-hop canon.
Also, if you look at the context, just about all of the rap acts of the ’80s were groups. Public Enemy, N.W.A, Run-D.M.C., De La Soul, Beastie Boys, Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions — all of these were groups or duos, and there really weren’t a lot of major solo players aside from LL Cool J and Ice-T. Slick Rick hasn’t had much of a career after this album — he was in jail for much of the next decade — but he managed to release three albums of varying quality (supposedly — I haven’t heard them) before disappearing completely.