By Matthew Wolfe
Few entertainers, whether in film or in music, appear as elaborate and managed as rappers. Whether it’s the entourage, the clothes, the exorbitant wealth or the tabloid-making antics, rappers’ music cannot seem to be separated from their personalities as larger than life figures.
Yet, if Brooklynites wish to hearken back to a simpler time, on May 29, they can revisit the lyrical stylings of Slick Rick, the famed golden era rapper, who in his heyday appeared in a simple track suit and gold chains when performing, and who will take the stage of Greenpoint’s Club Europa.
Slick Rick, although a current resident of the Bronx, has strong Brooklyn connections. He played early shows in the small hip-hop clubs that sprouted in the borough in the late 1980s, and left an imprint of his style on many of the local up-and-coming rappers of the time, many of whom have grown into the marquee names which we associate with such neighborhoods as Bedford Stuyvesant.
Foremost among these are Jay-Z (who derives his names from the J and Z lines that ran by the Marcy Projects where he grew up) and who – notably or infamously, depending on whom you ask – has borrowed more than a couple famous Slick Rick couplets for his own compositions. He’s often cited Slick Rick’s focus on crime and a clear central narrative as a particular influence on his own rapping.
Also bearing Slick Rick’s torch was perhaps Bed-Stuy’s most famous resident, Christopher Wallace – a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B.I.G. who, in countless interviews during his brief life, mentioned his affection for Slick Rick. Smalls, cannily, noted that Slick Rick’s innovation to the rap game can be pegged down to a concentration on narrative.
Slick Rick’s voice reminds the listener of the late Christopher Buckley, both in its remarkable capacity for articulation, its mildly lackadaisical quality, and the vaguely mid-Atlantic caste to his accent that seems to drift in and out. Slick Rick is in fact British, although he was raised in New York and his manner of narrative – perhaps fittingly – swerves between studied nonchalance and weariness, and tremendous excitability. In this respect, he is not unlike a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel.
Most notable about Slick Rick – especially for its absence among New York rappers – is his calm demeanor. There’s a remarkably unhurried quality to Slick Rick’s rapping, which can perhaps be attributed to his being a foreigner who is not, for all his appreciation in the Borough of Kings, not at home and must do his most to maintain his composure.
Listening to Slick Rick’s protégés, the words seem expelled like the issuance of an automatic weapon, aimed both at their perceived enemies and the listeners themselves. But when Slick Rick raps, the words come out often in a drawl, with a lack of urgency that’s almost unheard of outside of the south.
And when Slick Rick – who, by all appearances on his records, which lack a single combative “diss track,” had no enemies – is called upon to make the noise of a machine gun and law enforcement officers fleeing, he’s just as breezy as on any of his other songs. “Rat a tat tatta; all the cops scattered,” he almost yawns, on his famous “Children’s Story” song, from his first album, 1988’s “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick.” When he says the line, he draws out the short “a” sound of “all,” making it the center piece of the phrase. In this way, he’s placing the emphasis not on the violent scene, but on his own telling of the violent scene.
Like rap, the story, no matter how well told, is still, in the end, all about him.
Slick Rick, with opens Murphy’s Law, will be performing May 29 at 8 p.m. at Club Europa at 98-104 Meserole Avenue in Greenpoint. Tickets are available at TicketWeb.