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‘My jewels are my superhero suit’: Slick Rick on hip-hop bling

I have been telling stories through my attire and adornments for as long as I’ve been telling them with beats and rhymes. Jewels are my thing and every piece in my collection is attached to a fun story and deserves its own Wikipedia entry.

I was born in Mitcham, a neighbourhood in south London with a sizeable Jamaican community, in 1965. Looking back, I can say that Mitcham, and England more generally, had a huge influence on me as a writer and a poet. I absorbed the fact that the country was a monarchy, which is probably one of the reasons why, when I started making records, I often referred to myself as Rick the Ruler or Richard of Nottingham. Britannia also had a huge impact on me, style-wise. The Kangol hats. The king’s crown and regal cape.

I moved with my Jamaican mother and sister from London to New York in 1976 when I was 11 years old. It was on Fordham Road in the Bronx, when I was still a student at the LaGuardia School of Music & Art, that I found my true style. The stores on Fordham Road were full to the brim with clothes, sneakers and shoes, and the young folks who swarmed there lit up the strip with their electricity and vigour. I would save every penny just to get all dressed up: cashmere sweaters, slacks, furry Kangols, colourful Clark’s Wallabees, Adidas. I even wore the Polo Ralph Lauren suits and button-ups. I was into the flyest looks, taking my cues from the drug dealers of the day. That devotion inspired Dana Dane and me to name our first rap group the Kangol Crew. When it comes to style, either you have it or you don’t. It’s simple.

But it was jewellery that was the most massive thing of all. Displaying our opulence affirms the traditions and wealth of our culture. I adore the stuff because I feel it in my DNA. My jewels are my superhero suit, an extension of my beautiful brown skin. It’s a gift from ancestors who sat on thrones and reigned with rings and rocks the size of ice cubes. It’s a measure of how visual hip-hop is that we believe in the power of jewellery to communicate who we really are, a practice that dates back to the earliest folks in the hip-hop game. We used to go to a club called The Rooftop around 135th Street in Harlem, where the guys wore insane pieces. I had a little money then because I was only starting out in my career so I bought some rings, a few watches and bracelets and began to build up my “bauble collection”.

Then I began charging full steam ahead, constantly upgrading my collection from Canal Street in New York’s Chinatown, which was the spot for gold back then. It was there that I stumbled upon a store displaying a huge pendant with the Libra star sign in the window. I just had to have it, but it was a bit too expensive for me. I visited the store obsessively for the next nine months as the piece just sat there, unsold. But with time, patience, hard work and success, I was able to march in there one day with a pile of cash and sail out with the pendant. Now I’m a Capricorn, but that didn’t matter. It was the justice scales that meant something special to me.

After the purchase of the Libra piece in 1988, my appetite for jewellery became insatiable. I acquired a Star of David pendant after being informed of the meaning behind the symbol by some Black Jews from Brooklyn. Then I began making my teeth gold. At the time, a lot of Caribbeans were replacing their bad teeth with gold ones, and it soon caught on as a status symbol with the younger generation. I started with a single side gold tooth, but quickly upgraded and expanded my “grill look” with a platinum-and-diamonds ensemble. Next, I hired Jacob the Jeweler to make me an extravagant diamond eye patch to replace the more prosaic patch I’d been wearing my entire life. These days, my collection includes four eye patches, all of them custom-designed by yours truly.

When it comes to jewellery and hip-hop, there was always danger. You might get robbed. You might get hurt. You might even get killed. But we moved forward anyway. That’s just how we roll. We rise up always. The most satisfying payoff is when someone on the street asks me that age-old question: “Where’d you get that from?” My answer is always at the ready: “What, you ain’t know!? I made it myself.”

Run the jewels: Slick Rick’s acquisitions

The oversized Libra justice scale pendant, and diamond rings bought over the years, mostly from jewellers along Canal Street in New York.
Photograph: Clay Patrick McBride

The oversized Libra justice scale pendant and diamond rings bought over the years, mostly from jewellers along Canal Street in New York.

Rick’s Libra scales piece, plus diamond star and various rings purchased from Canal Street, Manhattan.
Photograph: Clay Patrick McBride

Rick’s Libra scales piece, plus diamond star and various rings purchased from Canal Street, Manhattan.

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Famous Eddie’s Gold Teeth, first set up by entrepreneur Eddie Plein in Queens, New York in the 1980s.
Photograph: Bryce Duffy

Famous Eddie’s Gold Teeth, first set up by entrepreneur Eddie Plein in Queens, New York in the 1980s.

Rick popularised the thick double rope chain in hip-hop. The crown is a nod to his upbringing in the UK.
Photograph: Janette Beckman

Rick popularised the thick double rope chain in hip-hop. The crown is a nod to his upbringing in the UK.

This is an edited excerpt from Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History by Vikki Tobak, published by Taschen (£80) on 14 September.

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