I I told stories through my clothes and ornaments as long as I told them with rhythms and rhymes. Jewelry is 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 south London area with a large 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 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 called myself Rick the Ruler or Richard of Nottingham. Britannia also had a huge impact on me, style-wise. Kangol hats. The king’s crown and the royal 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 shops on Fordham Road were packed with clothes, trainers and shoes, and the young people who swarmed there lit up the Strip with their electricity and vigor. I’d save every penny just to dress up: cashmere sweaters, pants, furry Kangols, colorful Clark Wallabees, Adidas. I even wore the Polo Ralph Lauren suits and shirts. I was in the craziest looks, inspired by the drug traffickers of the time. This devotion inspired Dana Dane and I to name our first rap group the Kangol Crew. When it comes to style, you either have it or you don’t. It’s simple.
But it was the jewelry that was the most massive thing of all. Displaying our opulence affirms the traditions and richness of our culture. I love the stuff because I feel it in my DNA. My jewelry is my superhero costume, an extension of my beautiful brown skin. It is a gift from the ancestors who sat on thrones and ruled with rings and rocks the size of icicles. It’s a measure of how visual hip-hop is that we believe in the power of jewelry to communicate who we really are, a practice that dates back to the earliest people of the hip-hop game. We used to go to a club called The Rooftop around 135th Street in Harlem where the guys were wearing crazy pieces. I had some money at the time as I was just starting out in my career so I bought a few rings, watches and bracelets and started building my ‘trinket collection’.
Then I started going full steam ahead, constantly upgrading my collection of Canal Street in New York’s Chinatown, which was then the gold spot. This is where I came across a store displaying a huge pendant with the zodiac sign Libra 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 sat there, unsold. But with time, patience, hard work and success, I was able to walk in there one day with a pile of cash and walk away with the pendant. Now I’m a Capricorn, but that didn’t matter. It was the scales of justice that meant something special to me.
After buying the Libra coin in 1988, my appetite for jewelry became insatiable. I acquired a Star of David pendant after being told the meaning of the symbol by black Jews in Brooklyn. Then I started doing my gold teeth. At the time, many Caribs replaced their bad teeth with gold teeth, and it quickly became a status symbol with the younger generation. I started with a single sided gold tooth, but quickly upgraded and expanded my “grill look” with a platinum and diamond set. Then I hired Jacob the Jeweler to make myself an extravagant diamond eye patch to replace the more prosaic patch I had worn all my life. These days my collection includes four eye patches, all custom designed by yours truly.
When it comes to jewelry and hip-hop, there was always danger. You could be robbed. You could hurt yourself. You might even get yourself killed. But we still made progress. That’s how we roll. We always get up. The most satisfying reward is when someone on the street asks me that age-old question, “Where did you get that from?” My answer is always ready: “What, you don’t know!? I made it myself.”
Run the Jewels: Slick Rick’s Acquisitions
The Libra Justice Scale oversized diamond pendant and rings purchased over the years, mostly from jewelers on Canal Street in New York.
Piece of scales from Rick’s Libra, plus a diamond star and various rings purchased on Canal Street, Manhattan.
Famous Eddie’s Gold Teeth, first created by entrepreneur Eddie Plein in Queens, New York in the 1980s.
Rick popularized the thick double rope chain in hip-hop. The crown is a nod to his upbringing in the UK.
This is an edited extract from Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History by Vikki Tobak, published by Taschen (£80) on September 14th.