THE RULER: This is not another burnt-out legend packing an iPod — this is Slick Rick.
Last year I would have said that 2006 sucked. That’s just my style. But backtracking through my pre-iCal day planner, attempting to place myself at the end of that summer, I’m tearfully nostalgic. For two years ago. That August, Gnarls Barkley smacked Avalon so hard that I held my piss for the entire set. On the first weekend that September, Brooklyn’s Boot Camp Clik reunited at the Middle East downstairs, where Jedi Mind Tricks, Kool Keith, and Lupe Fiasco played the same month. And on September 22, Jam Master Jay’s mother dropped her own needle on the record when, in front of more than 1000 people at the Berklee Performance Center, she scolded DMC for never calling with condolences after her son’s tragic 2002 passing.
But of all the tumult and talent swinging through town that summer, I cherish most my memories of Audible Mainframe backing Slick Rick at Harpers Ferry. I stood with my crotch against the stage that September night as Boston’s organic hip-hop ambassadors heroically tweaked old-school instrumentals while the Ruler guided a swollen crowd through his eternal catalogue. It was a cross-generational adventure; as “Hey Young World,” “Children’s Story,” and “Mona Lisa” spilled back-to-back-to-back, rap fans young and ancient sang along. This was not another burnt-out legend packing an iPod stuffed with instrumentals; this was Slick Rick — pimping a mint’s worth of platinum splurges on his neck, wrists, teeth, and fingers — reanimating some of hip-hop’s greatest cuts with a little help from some local boys made good.
“I felt like I was 10 years old all over again at that first show,” says Audible’s MC Exposition, who plays hype man when he’s on stage with Rick. “I used to rap those songs in the mirror to myself as a kid, so to be on stage doing the callbacks with the man who wrote them was crazy. I have a shit-eating grin on my face in every picture that I’ve seen from that night.”
Although fans might have expected the Harpers debut of Audible and Rick to roll smoothly, wariness prevailed backstage. The band had had no rehearsal time with Rick, who till that night had never performed with so much as a rhythm section, let alone a horn-and-keyboard-studded outfit like Audible. “Preparation” consisted of Rick’s management sending Audible a list of songs two weeks before the gig, with little supplemental instruction, so that when judgment day arrived, the whole thing still seemed unbelievable, if not unfeasible. “Rick showed up like an hour before the show, and even he was a little skeptical,” said Exposition. “We knew the songs, and obviously we knew that he knew the songs, but neither of us has ever done this before.”
Nearly two years later, Rick (who returns to Harpers next Thursday) has kicked more than 30 such shows across America — most with Audible, others with Boston soul unit the Eclectic Collective (who’ll play with him at Harpers), and a few down South with Portsmouth (New Hampshire) jazz-hoppers the Press Project. What was scripted as a one-time-only Harpers event for a few hundred lucky heads evolved into a new phase of Rick’s career, a platform that is leagues more authentic than a Vegas-style “One Night with the Ruler” revue would be. Call it chance, destiny, or karma, but the reinvention would have been impossible had Ricky not met worthy supporting cast members on that first night in Beantown.
“That show was a totally off-the-cuff idea,” says Boston Event Works booker Ron Peleg, who along with Harpers talent buyer Dan Millen conceived the spectacle. “We followed the Roots model; if those bands could do it right, there was no reason a legend like Rick couldn’t do it. At a lot of traditional hip-hop shows, people are getting the same thing over and over, but this is entirely different — especially for someone from Rick’s generation and the people who come to see him.”
A partnership was born. But after rocking some New England venues with Rick that winter, Audible relocated to Long Beach, California, and Peleg had to devise a fresh strategy for booking Rick, whose new operation was in increasing demand. The obvious choice, he figured, was the Eclectic Collective, which had been booked to back Rick at the initial Harpers show in the first place. (“We took another gig for more money instead,” says EC guitarist Salim Akram.) Despite being in the process of shedding the hip-hop classification that it earned opening rap shows at the Middle East, EC weren’t about to let the opportunity slip again — particularly since it had worked so well for amicable rivals Audible Mainframe.