For our first discussion I wanted to focus on one of Hip Hop’s all time greats, but direct it towards something perhaps a little less obvious. That in mind, the topic will be Slick Rick “The Art Of Story-Telling” (Def Jam 1999).
Slick Rick is undoubtedly one of the most gifted rhyme writers and influential MCs of all time. You will find heavy traces of his style in Redman, O.C., Snoop Dogg, Outkast, Jay Z, Mos Def, Wu-Tang, Nas, Eminem, Notorious B.I.G, Ceelo Green, Boots Riley of The Coup and so on. Essentially, just about every MC that comes up in discussions about great lyricists took something from Slick Rick.
Most often when people discuss the greatest verbal achievements of Slick Rick two specific things come up; 1)His debut in 1985 alongside Doug E Fresh, “The Show” and particularly “La Di Da Di” and 2)”Children’s Story” from his debut album in 1988 “The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick”. Both of those songs exemplify what is widely considered his foremost talent, storytelling.
Slick Rick wasn’t the first MC to craft detailed stories. Previous to him, MCs such as Spoonie Gee, Grandmaster Caz, Jimmy Spicer a.k.a Super Rhymes, and Count Coolout were already mastering the art. However, Slick Rick brought a unique and captivating full package to the table, paired with his ever-evolving writing prowess.
When listening to Slick Rick on “The Show” it’s not that easy to predict what his future status would be. He still hadn’t mastered the use of his voice or learned to let his British accent flow naturally and effectively. Although his outlandish humor would follow him for his entire career, on “The Show” his over-the-top delivery is sometimes cartoonish. Given the option back then I would have chosen Doug E Fresh as the better of the two. However, things take a fairly drastic change when you flip that record over and Doug E Fresh’s mic time is strictly for providing the backing beat, Human Beat Box style, while Slick Rick takes you on visual journey, a la adult cartoon theater, describing a supposed typical day in the life of the great MC Ricky D. Truthfully, “La Di Da Di” is all the proof you need that Slick Rick was destined for a solo career. It showcased that he clearly shined when he had full lead on the direction of the songs lyrical content. On “La Di Da Di” he gives an excellent preview of all the things that support his status as one of greats. His introduction, done in a conversational rhyme style showcases his charisma and stylish approach. The first half of the verse is one of the finest examples that even a massive ego can be appreciated and even applauded when done with class and flair. It's no easy feat that he speaks so highly of himself and is still able to transfer himself into some sort of a victim by the songs end.
Surprisingly, it took three years from that point for him to release his debut album, “The Great Adventures Of Slick”. The album was filled with inventive and edgy stories, most of which showed he was further developing and harnessing all those skills we witnessed in “La Da Di Da”. He hadn’t changed the formula, he was just further perfecting it and this would largely remain true for his entire career, even semi-recently (see Mos Def's "Auditorium" on "The Ecstatic" album). There’s something worthy of note about many of the songs on his debut, but if I had to single out two that were the most influential it would be “Children’s Story” and the unapologetically titled, “Lick The Balls”. “Children’s Story” is fairly universally regarded as his greatest work. It’s a certified Hip Hop classic that everyone who calls themselves a fan of Rap Music should be familiar with. If you are not familiar, pause your reading and go seek this song out before continuing on…
“Children’s Story” is great for so many reasons. Namely, it’s just great storytelling, but also it’s so effective at using very simple and direct language to paint very vivid pictures. When this released in 1988 there was a lyrical writing revolution taking place in Hip Hop. Most those who were regarded as the greats of the time were introducing new advanced forms of technical writing and complex rhyme patterns, such as Kool G Rap, Rakim, KRS One. The mass population of MCs had finally caught on to the idea of multi-syllabic rhyming thanks again to MCs such as the aforementioned, although the technique had been a part of MCing since the late 70s in some form or another. At this point MCs were trying to push the limits. However, if you search “The Great Adventures…” you will find only minimal use of multi-syllables, this makes Slick Rick among the only MC at this time period to be regarded as on of the elite who was not using techniques such as this*. He was in his own class.
On the other hand, “Lick The Balls” is important for capturing another key component of Slick Rick’s talents, Shock Value*. Again, Slick Rick wasn’t the first to use Shock Value in stories for effect. Trickeration beat him to it on “Western Gangstertown” in 1980, as did Grandmaster Caz with “Yvette” a little later. However, neither had quite impact that Slick Rick did. First, he certainly made jaws drop and pre-teens/teens giggle with his closing line to “La Di Da Di”. On “Lick The Balls”, the title alone achieves this. This reveals a sort of hidden strength of Slick Rick's lyricism. He has continually been successful in making pre-exisiting information you know about him a key part of what makes his rhymes so engaging. Essentially, his mere existence sets up the punchline and adds to the wit.
He also used this skill to effect with his own pornographic adventures, tales of adultery, jailhouse horrors and other rendezvous with the opposite sex on tracks like “Moment I Feared”, “Mona Lisa”, “Indian Girl”, and “Treat Her Like A Prostitute”. Not as widely mentioned, but impressive none-the-less was how Slick Rick so intricately and effortless combined so many characters in the first verse of "Lick Of The Balls". It all happens so quickly that it is easy to get lost in what is going on. In the short thirty seconds Slick Rick plays a MC trying to enter a rhyme contest (aka himself), his girlfriend, his DJ Vance Wright, the person taking names to sign up for the battle, and finally ends with some narration. The characters have different personalities; Slick Rick is humble and nervous, while the door person is challenging yet understanding, and his partners are supportive and encouraging. The remaining verses assumably serve as his battle rhymes for the competition once he enters the contest, making it a nice conceptual battle rhyme song.
Taking a step back and observing, it was as if Slick Rick took Spoonie Gee’s ladies man essence, Grandmaster Caz’s engaging presence and rampant ego and fused it with the explicitness and humor of Blowfly, then injected a heavy dosage of a signature personal touch and flavor with his eye patch, sense of fashion, and blinding jewelry, all the ingredients for a legend in the making.
Unfortunately, a series of unfortunate events landed him in jail just three weeks into working on the second album. While this didn’t derail his career completely, as he released two albums while incarcerated, it certainly affected it. The next two albums had moments of greatness to help in the continued building of his legacy, but never quite lived up to what his full potential suggested:
-Key tracks to listen:
1)The Rulers Back Album (Def Jam 1991)
-“King”: easily on of the best freestyle/battle rhymes of his career, relentless fast-paced multi-syllable mastery.
-“Moses”: A overlooked excellent track in his storytelling discography with a biblical touch. Very well done.
-“It’s A Boy”: A song dedicated to his first born. It touches on life lessons, but it is honestly more focused on trivial issues and offering an alternate take on his braggadocio style. However, it’s stylistically magnificent.
2)Behind Bars Album (Def Jam 1994)
-“Get A Job”: Slick Rick delivers life advice while simultaneously hurting feels…he has this skill mastered…ha.
-“Behind Bars”: He reveals the challenges of life being locked up from a insiders perspective.
In 1999 Slick Rick released his fourth album “The Art Of Storytelling”. It doesn’t seem like it’s widely talked about, but any many ways it is the best work of his career. The writing on the album is superb. He had completely perfected his delivery and could accent words at will for effect, as well as flow intricately while maintaining perfect articulation. The album paired him with some of the MCs that he was a great influence to; Nas, Raekwon, Snoop Dogg, and Outkast. In each case Slick Rick sounds as good, if not better, than his guests, proving his skills were still relevant to the times. Plus his storytelling skills were arguably at the height of his career, not to mention among the best stories Rap music has ever witnessed. Join the discussion to find out why…
-Tonights' Focus Tracks Will Be:
"I Own America"
"Who Rotten Em"
*It’s worth considering that it’s likely that many of the songs on “The Great Adventures…” were several years old by time it dropped. For example, “Tream Her Like A Prostitute” was a part of his live show with Doug E Fresh as far back as 1984. However, even knowing that, we have to assume that Slick Rick’s lack of such techniques wasn’t because he lacked knowledge of them because he used Multi’s in “La Di Da Di” in 1985 and one of the few, arguably the best, multi on the album is on “Treat Her…” that was at least four years old when the album dropped. Basically, Slick Rick flirted with the style at a time when not many others were and then abandoned it when it became the trend, but returned to the skill in the 90s showing he was among the best doing it. That’s how kings do….Written By Kevin Beacham
MIC MATH MONDAYS public lyric forum takes place on Mondays at 6 PM USA Time on Kevin Beacham's Facebook Page
Microphone Mathematics is about studying the art of lyricism in all eras of Hip Hop. It is the brainchild of Kevin Beacham. It first originated as a column in Caught In The Middle Magazine in 1994 until it went out of print. It existed in a few freelance projects/blogs for the next decade and recently returned as an ongoing feature on the FE blog (read those stories HERE). It is also the subject of a book by Kevin Beacham. Most recently it is also a interactive public discussion group called "Mic Math Mondays"!!! Details below...
In our “Mic Math Mondays” discussions we will break down songs, discuss the best examples of creative writing, seek to decode hidden meanings, and so on. Overall, the goal is to celebrate great lyricism and have fun, but I also have a “higher” interest in using these discussions to help me understand how people listen to and process lyrics. I want to ask questions such as, but not limited to, these:
-How do individuals process lyricism differently
-Do artists and fans process lyrics differently
-Is there a difference in your favorite song from an artist vs their most well-written song and do people recognize that difference
-How does production effect how you process lyrics
-Fnd things to add to my “Great Rap Quoteables” list*
Yes, you are part of my experiment…(insert mad scientist laughter here).
When I speak about creative lyricism and well-written verses here is a list of some of the things that I’m listening for and what we will discuss:
-Attention to detail
-Vocabulary and the purposeful manipulation of language
-Poetic License, Metaphors, Double Entendres, Personification, etc…
Note, that does not include all the additional things that you will need to add to the list if ywe were discussing the idea of what made a great MC, such as:
-Spontaneous Rhyming (a.k.a Off The Head, Gift Of Gab or “Freestyle” to some…)
-Influence and Impact
-The “Mic Math Monday” Launch
“Mic Math Mondays” takes place at 6 PM Central USA Standard time every Monday night and will run about an hour as a standard, but if time permits and the discussion is strong we can keep it going. This is open to the public and I encourage everyone to participate, as well as invite people to participate. I have reached out to many of my artist friends/acquaintances and fellow journalists to ask them to be involved as well.
This is how it will work:
-Advance Announcement: Moving forward, on the Friday before the next discussion I will post what the topic will be and give a list of music to listen to so you can be prepared and have the weekend to prep and let the lyrics marinate/refresh your memory.
-On Monday when we start I will post the first song in a status update and pose questions about it. Everyone involved will give their feedback and thoughts. I suspect this will lead to some debates with disagreements, which is good (see below).
-I will create a new post for each new focus topic/song so it doesn’t get confusing on what we are talking about. However, feel free to continue adding on to the previous posts if other things come to mind or you want to comment on new things being introduced
-The Rules: There should not be a need for rules, but since humans are complex animals here they are:
1)Be respectful to the people in the discussion and the artists we are discussing. Yes, we want to be critical and to have healthy debates when needed, but blatant disrespect is not welcome. If you dislike the artist we are discussing and can’t discuss why intelligently then wait for the next discussion. If you don’t like the topics or artists I pick…well it is MY discussion so, there’s that... However, I’m open to suggestions.
2)Stay on topic: Please DO NOT post other songs from the artist we are discussing or other artists in these posts, that will get confusing. The goal is to stay focused on the specific topics and then move on. Every other day on Facebook is random time, so quell your urges during Mic Math Mondays please...
3)Come to learn, share, and have fun! That’s it party peoples.
Hope to hear from you on “Mic Math Monday” every Monday at 6 PM Central USA Time!!!
Created and Written By Kevin Beacham
*Yes, I have one of these and it’s probably as nerdy and/or absurd as it sounds. It currently has approx 300 of what I consider the most clever/creative one-liners from the early 80s to now.
In yesterdays post about the trials and tribulations of transcribing lyrics [READ HERE] I concluded that the ultimate solution is that artists, particularly those with something important, clever, or intriguing to say, should include the lyrics with their releases in some shape, form or fashion.
Transcribing Lyrics is not an exact science by any means. Even when you think something sounds obvious, it can turn out that it wasn’t so clear after all...