September 24, 2009

Slick Rick - Behind Bars (November 22, 1994)

Master storyteller Slick Rick recorded his third album, Behind Bars, while on a work release furlough from being, well, behind bars. He was still serving a sentence for the second degree murder charge he caught (after shooting his cousin, who admitted later that he was trying to set Rick up, and an innocent bystander), combined with the immigration hassles he was dealing with, which would eventually result in the man coming thisclose to deportation before getting pardoned by the New York governor David Patterson, presumably for his positive contributions to hip hop.

Behind Bars is actually the second album MC Ricky D released while in the slammer. Prior to beginning his prison sentence, Def Jam Records locked the man in a studio with producer Vance Wright, and the two knocked out The Ruler's Back, the follow-up to his well-received debut The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, in a matter of days. The label set the tracks free in 1991, and critics all across the land were confused at how Ricky's skilled wordplay could possibly be paired up with mostly ridiculous sounding house beats, thereby nearly derailing the man's career, all while he couldn't do anything to fight it.

This time around, Vance Wright was allowed to stick around in the studio, but Def Jam trumped him at nearly every turn, hiring on names such as Prince Paul, Pete Rock, Easy Mo Bee, Large Professor, and, in what seems like an odd turn but it's not so weird when you realize that he was one of the label's biggest stars in 1994, Warren G.

Behind Bars wasn't very well received commercially, but it helped win some of Ricky's fans back, as it was considered a sort-of return to form, one which could have only been made better if the man himself was able to promote the project.


Prince Paul (and The Epitome of Scratch) provides the instrumental for Ricky's fictional exploits in prison, ironic given the context of Ricky's life at the time. Paul's beat isn't as goofy as he is characteristically known for, in fitting with the theme, and Ricky's attention to detail is impressive. Sadly, this version of the song was not the one Def Jam commissioned a video for.

This is depressing as shit. Much more serious than Ricky's typical material, here he takes on the subject of loneliness and how it specifically impacts the main character of his story. Proof that he can weave a compelling tale even without the aid of humor. Vance Wright's beat, unfortunately, diffuses the track, as the moody melody is frequently interrupted by a Slick Rick vocal sample, but you can't have it all, I suppose.

The version I'm more familiar with, unfortunately, is the Jermaine Dupri remix, which was released to both radio and BET. And I actually like that remix, which is a rarity for me, considering the guy who was behind it. But Vance's original production is good, too, and Doug E. Fresh's beatboxing, which reunited him with his old rhyme partner, is a nice touch. Ricky's monologue seems to work regardless of the musical backing, which is both weird and impressive. I remember the video for this featured Doug E. sittin' in the titular car while a silhouette of someone who was supposed to be Slick Rick performed for the cameras. I always thought that was interesting.

Ricky provides his own beat, which works very well for the aggressive content. The man shares his adventures in searching for the love of his life, and as of yet, he seems to only come across "bitches" with herpes (clearly he needs to expand his search parameters). This is nowhere near Rick's classic storytelling, but this wasn't at all bad.

Easy Mo Bee's beat was pleasant, and Ricky flows over it like water rushing over a riverbed. Nice!

Greg Nice's shouting at the very beginning is annoying as fuck: I almost wanted to throw this CD off of a high-rise. His verse is pretty lacking, as is Smooth B.'s, but Ricky's calm demeanor provides a hilarious contrast to the very excitable guests and the beat they brought with them, so this doesn't end up being a complete waste of your time.

Slick Rick spins a yarn from the point of view of a slave, easily making this the most controversial song on Behind Bars (especially when the main character starts sleeping with his master's wife). Pete Rock inserts his trademark horns into the proceedings, helping make this shit sound as jazzy and anachronistic as possible.

This sounds as if Slick Rick borrowed one of Pete Rock's discarded instrumentals from The Main Ingredient. I liked this beat more so than the one from "I'm Captive", but chastising those who are too lazy to find work doesn't typically make for a good rap song, so this was a bust.

Slick Rick hijacks the same instrumental from the first installment and, surprisingly, provides listeners with a reggae song. He doesn't sound half bad, but it's not what listeners would expect, so it is what it is.

The original version was featured on The Ruler's Back, but this remix has Large Professor behind the boards. Extra P gives this track the gravitas it originally deserved, and your mind will automatically delete any memory of the original song.

It's not very often that this sentence gets the opportunity to be read, so here goes: Warren G. remixes the original Prince Paul-produced track. Fuck it, that was so weird that I'll write it again: Warren G. remixes the original Prince Paul-produced track. This is much more radio friendly, owing to the G-Funk sound that was still winning fans in the West, which pisses me off, as that means that Paul Huston was cheated out of having a radio hit of his own. However, looking past Warren G.'s ill-conceived vocal contributions, this was still some pretty good stuff. Not a bad way to end things, either.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Behind Bars still suffers from the lack of follow-through from its star attraction, as Slick Rick was still a prisoner in the system when this was mastered and released, but Def Jam learned from the mistakes they made during The Ruler's Back, and surrounded the man with name-brand producers this time around. The songs don't span as many topics as either of Ricky's previous efforts, but the execution of this is much more polished, as he is paired up with master beat crafters who seem to all understand Slick Rick's place in the hip hop genre. As such, Behind Bars is actually a hidden gem in the man's back catalog. It isn't as good as his debut, but it's miles ahead of The Ruler's Back, which counts for a lot.

BUY OR BURN? I would actually recommend a purchase. This shit was surprisingly good (even though Def Jam could have just bitten the bullet and includes the "Sittin' In My Car" remix as the final track, but whatever), and hip hop heads will all find something to enjoy.

BEST TRACKS: "Sittin' In My Car"; "Behind Bars"; "It's A Boy (Remix)"; "Cuz It's Wrong"


Other Slick Rick projects are being discussed here.


  1. That Behind Bars Remix was so hypnotizing. It got mad spins on the video music channels back in 1994 and if I remember correctly, was highly requested on The Box (brings back memories of getting grounded for running up the phone bill). This was a good little album from The Ruler and it helps that it's only 11 tracks long.

    Now Max, speaking of the The Main Ingredient..............

  2. Interesting. I'd been given the impression that this should be lumped in with The Ruler's Back as not being worthy of attention. I'm gonna check it out for myself now.

  3. I love The Ruler's Back!!!! It's a weird album, and you can barely understand Ricky D's overdubbed breathless babbling. It's been almost 20 years and I'm still deciphering it.

    Behind Bars was a disappointment at the time, I mean it's basically an EP. Back in 1994, someone broke into my car and didn't even bother to steal this CD.

    But in retrospect, it's not bad--but a desperate attempt to make some money with Slick Rick while his status eroded in the slammer.

  4. behind bars remix was just better then the prince paul version

  5. Here is Prince Paul's original unreleased version of "Behind Bars" (apparently track 1 on this album isn't Paul's production, but was remixed by the Epitome of Scratch):