Slick Trouble

Chances are, if you're under 35 but old enough to have voted for president a couple of times, you're still carrying around the mental imprint from the day your adolescent brain was stamped hard by lyrics describing a robbery gone bad.

Once upon a time not long ago

When people wore pajamas and lived life slow

When laws were stern and justice stood

And people were behavin' like they ought ta good

There lived a lil' boy who was misled...

The words themselves are probably enough to bring up the memory. There was no melody, just the slight British accent in the voice rapping the tale, likely still as familiar as when you first heard it, which was about the time the first George Bush became president on a mandate to read his lips.

"... We gonna make some cash

Robbin' old folks and makin' tha dash"

They did the job, money came with ease

But one couldn't stop, it's like he had a disease

He robbed another and another and a sista and her brotha...

The song, "A Children's Story," wasn't the first hit for rapper Slick Rick, but it was one of his most enduring. He had burst onto the hip-hop scene a few years earlier, in 1985, with a couple of memorable tales, "The Show" and "La-Di-Da-Di," that he'd rhymed to the rhythms of the human beatbox, Doug E. Fresh. By 1989 and the release of his first album, The Adventures of Slick Rick, the trademark eye patch, flashy gold chains, and storytelling songs of Ricky Martin Lloyd Walters were as well-known to hip-hop fans as his other handle, "The Ruler."

Rick the Ruler reigned at a key moment in rap's history, when it was rapidly taking over the mainstream but before it took on a harder, more sneering gloss. A nice guy like Will Smith could still sell records by calling himself the Fresh Prince, Slick Rick's rhymes about prostitutes and holdups were as tongue-in-cheek as they were memorable, and the harder gangsta style was still waiting for Tupac, Biggie, and Snoop to arrive.

The late 1980s were Slick Rick's moment. And the song on that first album, the one about the young kid who found himself sucked into a life of crime, remains his high-water mark. "A Children's Story" anticipates the crime-obsessed music to come later, but along with Rick's characteristic narrative style, there is also a childlike quality echoed by the video made for it, which featured Keystone Kops, cluelessly chasing the young thief.

He went outside, but there was cops all over

Then he dipped into a car, a stolen Nova

Raced up the block doing eighty-three

Crashed into a tree near University

Escaped alive though the car was battered

Rat-a-tat-tatted and all the cops scattered

If only it were so easy for Rick Walters to make the cops stalking him today scatter.

For the past 16 years, Walters has been caught in his own nightmarish chase with authorities that has had more stops and starts and twists and turns than one of Slick Rick's legendary raps.

Most hip-hop fans with an old-school jones know the basics: Walters, born in London to Jamaican parents, came to New York as a child but never bothered to get citizenship. At the height of his fame, in 1990, meanwhile, the rapper injured two people in a shooting in which he claimed to have feared for his own life. He served time in prison, and after he got out, the INS began its long campaign to kick him out of the country. Rick fought his deportation, winning some battles over the years and losing others. And in general, the New York court system where he fought most of his skirmishes proved friendly territory.

But Walters, who still lives in New York, also has a long relationship with Florida, a state with a much more complex attitude about immigration.

Much of Slick Rick's family lives in Fort Lauderdale, and Walters has always made regular trips to South Florida, including one pivotal journey to Miami for a cruise that took him into international waters in 2002.

Arguing that by taking that cruise, Walters had deported himself, the INS detained him, beginning the darkest chapter of his life: a 17-month stay in a Florida prison.

And now, Slick Rick's long fight to remain in the United States may finally be about to end with a final, likely futile battle in a Florida judicial district notorious for its conservative reputation.

Walters vs. Ashcroft, meanwhile, has become much larger than simply a case against an aging hip-hop star. It grapples with some of the most technical and novel problems in immigration law in the security-heightened, post-9/11 era, and its outcome may affect the fate of every alien in U.S. custody. Four times longer and many times costlier than the average case, it's one of the most unusual immigration cases in the nation's history.

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Julia Reischel