In the middle of the Bronx lies the Paradise Theatre, a vision of beautiful weirdness packed to the rafters with gurning gargoyles, cheeky cherubs, terracotta vases and prancing statues. Built in 1929 to give the inhabitants of one of NYC’s poorest boroughs a fantastical escape from reality, the former cinema was designed to look like an Italian villa twinkling under a night sky. 82 years after it opened its doors with a screening of The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu, its ambience is still breathtaking (see our picture gallery).
So it was a bit of shock to find out that our interview with local hip hop legend, Slick Rick was scheduled to take underground in the belly of Paradise – aka a whitewashed room that looked more like a prison cell. We were going to point this out to MC Ricky D, but thought better of it considering his long running battles with America’s judicial system. Instead, we decided to ask South Wimbledon’s most famous rap export about growing up in the Bronx and how he regards his classic album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick…
Dazed Digital: How would you introduce yourself to someone who has never heard of you before?
Slick Rick: Hi, my name is Slick Rick, Ricky Walters, hip-hop rap star, icon, legend, whatever, a man who once represented the hip hop hits.
DD: I see you wear less jewellery today than in your heyday. How did your image come about – the jewels, the eye patch, the Kangol hats?
Slick Rick: The fashion came from the neighbourhood. Each one teach one, you learn from everybody, you see what looks good on everybody who has the same complexion as you, and you incorporate it in yourself. It’s like harvesting; you harvest everything. The patch was a handicap: I had a bad eye, so I guess that was a nice way to address it.
DD: You were born in Britain. What was it like coming from Wimbledon and relocating to the Bronx as a kid?
Slick Rick: It was rough and a little tough so I had to fit in like a glasshouse. I’d fit in as best as possible and incorporated everything they had to teach me, blending it with my Englishness. I started hip-hop in like 1980, before that it was just playing around with the kids in school. I was accepted for that, there was no major big failure.
DD: You’re renowned as a storyteller – how did the bleakness of the streets and the Bronx in particular influenced your narratives?
Slick Rick: It didn’t really impact on my writing; if I admired something, it inspired me and stimulated me to put it into a record. I liked the tough kids, the clothes, the slang, the lingo, the segregated environment, the whole US lifestyle, the whole New York lifestyle, the whole Downtown versus Uptown, the whole Brooklyn versus the Bronx and Queens and Manhattan, everything. What I did was incorporate it all with stimulation, shock value, and humour.
DD: You started your classic album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick with the song “Treat Her Like A Prostitute” which was very provocative in 1988. Have you always seen yourself as a provocateur?
Slick Rick: Well I was like eighteen or nineteen at the time, so it was really just playing around, child shock stimulation mixed with humour, it wasn’t really to cause no philosophers controversy. It was just really having fun as a young adult, shock value, humour, with a little touch of reality too. If you just come out and say whatever you want to say, nobody’s going to pay you that much attention, they know where you’re coming from.
DD: Are you nostalgic about that era?
Slick Rick: If you look at the glass half-empty I was very thin at the time, very nerdy and not getting girls. But if you look at the glass half-full, well I went from being a nobody to being a celebrity, which makes good my finance, I got to meet lots of famous people and travel the world, have nice things… I guess you can look at it both ways.
DD: It’s been 23 years since the album came out – do you still like it?
Slick Rick: Well I like the songs Children’s Story, Mona Lisa, Hey Young World and a couple more, cause they have eternal modern value. The music is still relevant, still strong, and it still moves you in your soul. It still gives off good vibes.
DD: What do you make of the state of hip-hop right now?
Slick Rick: I’ve been in the game since 1985 – everything has to grow, you can’t be thirty years old and still wearing Pampers. But this industry appears to be controlled; the youth is just caught up with sex, and usual puberty stuff, so it recycles itself like that. It’s not going to have any political value like Woodstock’s generation. As a person who’s been in hip-hop for thirty years I don’t want to have to go through all the puberty stuff I went through thirty years ago.
DD: Do you still have a connection with what’s going on in the streets of the Bronx?
Slick Rick: Yeah, pretty much, I believe that, it’s like harvest; you harvest everything that this culture has to offer, what America has to offer, what New York has to offer, what hip-hop has to offer. You harvest all the beauty, all the essence and you incorporate it in your life. I still think that I carry a lot of relevance and there’s a lot of things that people aren’t doing anymore, fashion wise. They don’t have that richness I do.