/ 8 March 2022

Riky Rick: The last of a dying breed

Rapper Riky Rick In Kingston Frost Park.
Riky Rick and HHP will live forever because they left an indelible mark through their music. (Gustav Butlex)

“Akekho omunye o swenka nje ngam [there’s no one who dresses fresher than me],” declared Riky Rick on Stay Shining, and it’s hard to think of a more apt summation of his aesthetic approach. The 34-year-old was an avatar for a generation of “cool kids” who always show up dressed to the nines. It’s no secret that his rise to mainstream stardom was largely by way of his consistently unique (and at times outrageous) sense of style. Sidlukotini, one of the biggest hits of his career, was a song entirely dedicated to him flexing about how his sense of style was the standard. 

At Friday’s memorial service, South African house legend Black Coffee echoed that sentiment: “Riky was different, Riky was a special guy. You could see in how he walks in the room; you could see in how he dressed. Riky was a style icon — Riky was my style icon. You know when I wanna put effort and dress up and I’m kinda scared to be the light in the room and I wanna down dress, I always think what would Riky do, then I’m like, ‘Fuck it, Riky would wear these green shoes.’ I wore these shoes for Riky.”

Beyond his fashion influence, Ricky Rick was a tastemaker of note, hopping onto whatever trend was bubbling and putting his weight behind it until it exploded. He did this when he jumped onto the then relatively unknown rapper Frank Casino’s Whole Thing Remix. He did it when he started aggressively promoting Costa Titch’s Nkalakatha, incessantly posting it on his Instagram stories, day in and day out, and imploring us to give the guy a listen. 

He did it when he discovered a teenage Uncle Vinny and started taking him around everywhere he went, punting him as the next best thing to whoever would listen. And many people listened, because with his taste goes the rest of South African hip hop and pop culture. He muscled these guys, and many others, into the industry by sheer will and force. 

Rapper Cassper Nyovest, with whom Riky Rick had a public fallout that played out in subliminal shots on social media and in their music over the past few years, took to the stage at the memorial to share how they’d buried the hatchet and speak on Riky’s much vaunted reputation for putting people on. “The same way Riky Rick reached out to all the kids, at one point I was also just another kid from Maftown and it wasn’t really easy to move in Johannesburg but he still had the time for me and he did that for hundreds of people after me.”

Cassper also paid homage to Riky’s affable nature, explaining how over the past few months, Riky had been calling him incessantly in an attempt to make amends and had invited him to play at this year’s Cotton Fest. This is hardly a surprise. That’s what we’d come to expect of him.

Whereas many of his hip-hop peers initially shunned amapiano and refused to cross over as interest in South African hip-hop waned, Riky was among the first mainstream hip-hop acts to try his hand at the genre as he worked with the likes of Mas Musiq, Major League DJz, Busta 929 and Mr JazziQ.

Depending on a few factors — taste, age, genre predilections — Riky’s approach could, at times, come across as genius or cultural plagiarism. His close ties with all the aforementioned acts have played a major part in him remaining relevant, especially during those periods when he would go months on end without releasing his own music. 

His amapiano ties in particular never felt forced. It felt like he belonged. And that was mainly because he really immersed himself in that culture: he learned some of the dances, he had command of the lingo, and he seemed to be genuine friends with the genre’s biggest names. 

Rapper and presenter Nomuzi Mabena touched on this during her MC duties at the memorial. “Over the last few months, there’s been a particular conversation about hip-hop and amapiano and culture … and, instead of getting caught up in the politics, Riky Rick just really wanted to be in the vibe. Whether it was a hip-hop party, an amapiano party — whatever party it was, Riky Rick always brought the vibe. 

“And he was able to collaborate with artists who were different from him and produce something that was so amazing. Over the past few months, we’ve seen so many new artists coming up, so many people shining, and so many of those people had the privilege of collaborating with Riky Rick,” Mabena said. 

Riky’s shrewd and collaborative approach was a hugely successful way of doing business, and it also extended to his overall brand marketability. Over the past few years, there has simply been no other artist in South Africa that had been as bankable as he was. Riky regularly scored partnerships and collaborations with major brands such as MTN, Stimorol, Rémy Martin, Puma, Huawei and, most recently, African Bank. He was even a part owner of one of the biggest barbershop chains on the continent, Legends Barbershop. 

In building a hugely successful career filled with dizzying highs, Riky curated an almost flawless brand. In complete contrast to storytelling legend Slick Rick, the messy former convict English-American rapper who inspired his name and style, Riky’s career was clean and without much controversy. He was personable and likeable in how he interacted with people, paving the way for him to build a strong and loyal following. This all led to him being an ideal candidate to front major brand campaigns. 

In 2019, Riky embarked on perhaps his most fruitful brand partnership when he teamed up with one of the biggest cognac producers in the world, Rémy Martin. Over the past three years, they struck up a consistent relationship that gave rise to Rémy Producers South Africa, a nationwide competition that gave producers a chance to compete for an opportunity to produce a track with him, several international activations and campaigns, and undoubtedly a lot of bank for Riky. 

Also in 2019, Riky founded Cotton Fest, the hugely influential street culture and music festival that drew tens of thousands of fans to its 2019 and 2020 iterations and became a cultural phenomenon unlike any we’ve seen locally. That too drew tons of brand sponsorships, and this year was on course to include partnerships with Jägermeister, YFM, Bettr App, Flying Fish and Puma. The Cotton Fest memo was simple and built on Riky’s aesthetic approach: come in your finest clothes and come ready to rock the night away. 

This formula, and much of Riky’s appeal, takes a page out of the Travis Scott play book. Scott is known for his style, he has his very own cultural behemoth of a festival (Astroworld Festival) and, before last year’s Astroworld tragedy, he’d been a constant magnet for huge brand partnerships, securing deals with the likes of McDonald’s, Nike, Dior and Epic Games. Much the same way the multi-hyphenate star used his cross-industry duality to keep himself top of mind, Riky had figured a way to leverage his star power across the board. Through his charm, smarts and generosity, Riky was able to bring people together and maintain relationships better than most anyone. 

In a commercial shot as part of his announcement as a new member of the African Bank family, a few days before his untimely passing, Riky said, “I’ve tried to have ordinary dreams. I’ve tried to put myself in a position where being content is more important than taking a chance on an idea that sounds crazy. That didn’t work for me. It never has. What makes me happy is pushing myself to achieve the unlikely, building the impossible, dreaming with audacity.” And dream with audacity he did. We may never see anything quite like him.