When Mandy Aragones watches a movie or television show with her husband, Ricky Walters, she is ready for a running commentary.
“Anything we watch, he always has another scenario,” she said. “He always finds an alternate ending.”
In the 1980s, his ability to spin a tale earned him fame as Slick Rick, the gold-draped rapper, also known as Rick the Ruler, with an eye patch and an English accent whose adventures propelled him to stardom. That was followed by prison time for a shooting, immigration problems and — to his relief — a 2008 pardon from Gov. David A. Paterson of New York.
But like a storyteller used to improvising endings, Mr. Walters does not dwell on those rough spots. He still tours and composes songs. He leads a low-key life, living in the same Bronx neighborhood that he settled in with his Jamaican mother and his sister when they moved from England in 1976. For someone who is considered to be among the pivotal figures of hip-hop’s golden age, what better place to be than in the borough that spawned a global culture?
“People always want to hear about the Bronx,” Mr. Walters, a Grammy-nominated artist, said. “It’s the essence and the ambience of the culture. It’s my little English accent with the slang, it’s the shoes, the jewelry. The swag. It’s the whole essence of representing the Bronx.”
The borough occupies a mythic place. The Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann just announced he would work with Netflix on a series about the birth of hip-hop in the South Bronx. But other times, the Bronx gets no respect. A recent issue of Time Out New York magazine listed New York City’s “Top 10 Locations in Hip-Hop,” but somehow avoided a single reference to the mainland borough (yet found room for Herald Square).
Granted, most lists are subjective, if not spurious. Mr. Walters took one look at the Time Out list and gave it a dismissive smirk.
“It needs a bodega,” he said. “Maybe a housing project. You need to see some different neighborhoods here.”
His own life offers a different take on the usual retelling of hip-hop’s origins. He did not grow up going to DJ Kool Herc’s fabled parties at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, or grooving to Afrika Bambaataa’s turntable wizardry at the Bronx River Houses. He found his style on Fordham Road, a fitting place for a high school art student who was into fashion.
“They had stores with all the clothes, the sneakers, the jewelry,” he said. “It was a good place to go and talk to girls. The whole pace was electric, and where there is electricity, there’s fun. And where there’s fun, that’s where kids want to be.”
In a way, Mr. Walters said, all the neighborhoods were the same: places where young people entranced by an emerging culture took their shots at fame. Some with cans of spray paint wound up in galleries. Others with dazzling footwork danced on the world’s stages. As for the young Mr. Walters, he became a storyteller, with hits like “Children’s Story” and “The Show” with Doug E. Fresh.
“Ricky thinks of himself as a storyteller and that’s apt,” said Bill Adler, a former executive at Def Jam Records, which released his recordings. “It was pioneering because he was so writerly, I call it rap lit. Ricky was conscious early on about the possibilities of rap.”
A few decades on, those possibilities have become middle-class accomplishments. With his earnings, Mr. Walters bought two three-family houses, living in one apartment and renting out the rest. In one corner of his home stands a mannequin, decked out in the Slick Rick stage outfit: a crisp Kangol cap, thick gold chains, huge medallions and custom-painted Adidas sneakers.
So iconic are those accessories that Mr. Walters and his wife have donated about a dozen items from his collection to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. His wife beamed. He, on the other hand, was subdued. He spoke about politics and society, segueing into an analysis of how hip-hop stagnated and went astray.
“Hip-hop disrupted the order of things,” he said. “It was the pulpit, and if you put the right person in front of the pulpit, they can speak for the youth of the planet. Instead, it was altered and diluted. What you see now are performers who have been broken to fit into a mold. They are not going to disrupt the order of things.”
Mr. Walters is hardly broken. And he is comfortable not just with what he has accomplished, but with what music still lies ahead. Above all, having just turned 50, he is content.
“I don’t feel like I’m 50,” he said. “I don’t talk like a 50-year-old person. Sometimes miserable old people depend on happy young people to give them a sense of purpose. Not me. Of course not!”