RATKING Are Straight New York
New York's RATKING may have gone from rappin' in a Harlem dungeon to rappin' Down Under, but it's still strictly no pretending.
"A drunk mutt, that's my pedigree, it's meant to be/Hennessy’s the only thing that's friendly to me/I'm straight New York when a lot of y'all pretending to be" – Wiki, Wikispeaks
At only 21, Patrick ‘Wiki’ Morales has been tasked with the tall order of keeping the New York hip hop fire burning into the future. The task falls to him as lyrical leader of the band RATKING, an outfit that many believe are bringing back to hip hop some of the street acclaim the genre enjoyed in the '90s, when Jay Z, N.A.S. and Wu-Tang stoked its flames. Wiki, whose nickname comes from a rap act he started with a friend at age 13, 'Wiki & Googs (Wikipedia and Google)' is far from fazed, despite being an artist working in the age of creative inertia. In fact, together with RATKING bandmates Sporting Life (Eric Adieles) and MC Hakeem ‘Hak’ Lewis, Wiki already has a plan in place to achieve the aforementioned. Wiki - who was raised by a wealthy banker Puerto Rican father and Irish mother on the Upper West Side (hence the Hennessy lyric reference), and has an arts degree behind him - fills Pilerats in on the plan, in the process revealing himself as quite the well-spoken, and thoughtful, young musician: "You can’t recreate anything that happened in the '90s, in terms of the era’s social happenings, you can’t get into the heads of young men and women at the time, so you can’t recreate its sonics."
Instead, Wiki and Sporting Life have made a conscious decision to, says Wiki, "move it forward, do you know what I mean? To take influence from grime…and Southern hip hop. Of course, when I was younger I grew up on all that stuff, but you can’t romanticise the '90s." Wiki and Sporting Life are joined in their desire to look forward, and not back, by artists such as Young Thug (although, he’s arguably now on a mainstream level, albeit a mutant outlier) and Gucci Mane; who are presently rejecting popular bland radio hip hop to push the boundaries of the genre, along with a host of other rappers making the most of the Internet’s free-culture renaissance and non-primetime personalities to muscle their way into our listening Soundcloud, spurning about a billion new rap deviation genres every day.
Said I'm stuck in New York, stuck rappin' in a dungeon
Well I'm really lovin' all the action in this dungeon
Ain't leavin' 'til I'm runnin' every faction of this dungeon -Wiki, Wikispeaks
We probe Wiki on what it means to 'pretend to be a New Yorker’ as he raps in his WikiSpeaks lyrics above, and learn that, to Wiki, being New York is owning your city, being 'stuck in the dungeon' but 'loving the action in the dungeon', says Wiki: "New York isn’t the same place it used to be. New York radio doesn't even play New York artists. When I was in Atlanta, the radio was playing Atlanta rappers - some that I knew, and some that I didn't know. They were playing all Atlanta rappers like [Young] Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and Young Thug. It was great, because they were playing the music of their city. New York rap sounds different - dudes in Staten Island are making Miami trap rap, others rappers are sounding like Chicago, no one is rapping about how they’re living, their tracks sound great, but there’s no habitat connected to them; no-one in New York rap is interested in trying to work out what connects those sounds, to give their songs a sense of place."
Ideologically, however, RATKING seem rarely bound by their five boroughs: there's music connections coming from left, right and centre: between Cam’ron and Black Dice, between Animal Collective and Zomby, between RZA and noise bands, between Suicide and Wu-Tang Clan. Tellingly, the group chose the name RATKING - a giant mess of rats tangled together by their tails - to signify that musicians are connected in a band and their ideas must co-exist. RATKING’s style is left of the mainstream, a homage to the spirit of '80s hardcore punk, '70s no wave and its associated art movement, and mid-'90s hip hop/R&B hits, without ever becoming any of those things; remaining a pastiche; an antithetis-ridden experiment in hearing. It’s all evidenced on their 2014 album So It Goes, where noise music converges with hip hop; each track a blur of nondescript shouting, sharp-as-nails-raps, industrial beats and other inventive combinations of sound that draw from all over. A lot of this comes down to Sporting Life’s production on So It Goes, a beatmaking approach where the emphasis is on diversity, with the producer citing everyone from Dr Dre, to French Montana, Zomby, Actress, and Panda Bear among his production inspirations.
Ratking:(left to right) Sporting Life, Wiki and Hak (Photograph: Graeme Robertson)
A shining example of RATKING's capability for stylistic interconnectivity as an outfit lies in Wiki’s recent verse for the American release of UK grime legend Skepta’s massive tune That’s Not Me. Wiki’s rapping melds into the grime track seamlessly; there couldn’t be a more perfect collaboration to kickstart the potential spread of UK grime across the Atlantic to the States. "Wiki murdered his verse, murdered his verse, man," said Skepta, who recently shared with FADER that it was his being a fan of Ratking that led him to them in the first place: “When I first heard their song Piece Of Shit, I was like, "These guys probably don’t know because they’re from New York, but this shit is grime! He didn’t know how much I’ve been listening to his stuff so it was cool to have a mutual respect for our talents." Wiki details how the initial meeting and subsequent collaboration between himself and Skepta played out: "We were at this radio station, Know Wave, which is like this online radio station run by my friend A-ron [OHWOW gallery founder Aaron Bondaroff], and Skepta was there and we freestyled with him and we just clicked, it was so cool. Then the song came out in London, and then next time Skepta was in New York he hit me up and was like, 'Yo, I’m doing a US release of the track and I want you to get on it’. And I was down, I was really hyped, and we got in the studio. Yeah, it was dope how that shit came together. Then for the clip, we just kinda got a bunch of my friends together, and had a good time with it, you know?" The clip in question witnesses Skepta transplanted into a rooftop party, as Wiki and friends bounce around in sweat towels under snapbacks drinking beer from red plastic cups and rousing Skepta into a New York state of mind. The music video was directed by Video Dub and features cameos from future-forward crew Jammer, Visionist, and J-Cush, among others.
Above: Skepta - That's Not Me (US Version feat. Wiki of RATKING)
Skepta isn’t the only trans-Atlantic collaboration RATKING have going for them: they linked up with British prog-hop royalty Archie Marshall - better known as King Krule - for So Sick Stories, a single from So It Goes. Mellow flows, rapidfire beats, and a coating of what could only be described as fucking coolness, is how we would describe this musical coming together of alt scene kings. The track also sees swoon-crooner Krule reveal his own talent as a rapper; that Krule fans will already be familiar with his work as Edgar The Beatmaker, and in side project Sub Luna City (who RATKING have toured with previously). Krule and RATKING are labelmates on XL Recordings; who set up the initial meeting, but not the bond that came thereafter, as Wiki explains to us: "We met Archie through our label people, and became tight with him. Him and his friends are like me and my friends, so we found it easy to hang out… they're open minded with music too. We influence each other. Archie has a big, distinct sound, he knows his stuff. He's a dope producer, too. He has a natural instinct. We get along on a lot of levels.” RATKING has remixed Krule's track, Octopus, and the RATKING boys and Krule also filmed a Lost Boys-style video for the So Sick Stories track together in Brooklyn, a clip whose visual tone serves as a reflection of the track’s gritty production, as the boys roam in the dark along train tracks and through cemeteries.
Above: King Krule & RATKING, So Sick Stories video clip
A love for the visual arts, too, weighs in heavily: Sporting Life first met Wiki in high school, at a jam in a downtown park. Young MC Wiki was freestyling over a beat and when it ended, Wiki continued a capella, much to the joy of the crowd, and of Sporting Life, a Harlem-based kid who was in the audience. "You know what’s good," were the only words it took from Sporting Life to Wiki to lead to the two starting a strong friendship that would eventually lead to RATKING. "We’ve got a shared interest in no wave…film and music and art," explains Wiki of his connection with Sporting Life, "With RATKING we sort of wanted to inject no wave ideas into hip hop. No wave was going on at the same time as hip hop was and it was influenced by hip hop. There was this parallel between the two which made putting them together something organic. With RATKING, we wanted to continue that conversation, where Fugazi is talking with Cam’ron, who is taking with graffiti artists. Harmony’s Korine’s films are a big influence for us. Like, in one track, the loop is supposed to sound like a film jumping."
Get a look inside the Harlem basement space RATKING created So It Goes inside, along with a fair amount of wall art, in this NAH RIGHT article.
The boys reference a lot of films and literature in their lyrics; but they’re not just talking the talk: photos from RATKING’s one-time headquarters/studio in Harlem, whose walls are scribed with graffiti cartoons and lyrics, and shots of them and their friends. Or the exhibitions they've been involved in, namely Sometimes We Explode: An Exhibition of Underground NYC Through Video Games and Hip Hop, a collaboration with XL Recordings exploring the realities, fantasies, and curiosities of different populations that share, co-exist, and conflict within New York City, that launched So It Goes. Then there's their own film/video clip work:of key interest is RATKING’s work with filmmaker Ari Marcopolous, who created the video for their track Piece Of Shit.
RATKING - Piece of Shit, video by Ari Marcopolous
Ari Marcopolous, a former assistant to Andy Warhol, is a cult photographer and filmmaker around New York way, having published several books, including the best-selling Beautiful Losers, curated together with Alleged Gallery owner Aaron Rose, profiling over 100 artists in the '90s DIY skate/art/film scene in NY, including Mark Gonzales, Ed Templeton, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Sonic Youth and Terry Richardson. "Ari, to me, is like a part of RATKING," says Wiki, "a lot of our friends are an extension of RATKING." Pilerats raise the name Arvid Logan, who directed the video for 100, has designed most of the band’s merch, and was responsible for the cover art on So It Goes, and Wiki launches into a discussion of the aforementioned Sometimes We Explode exhibition: "There was skate photography, Street Fighter projections, installations, and quotes from Make It Rain, Hak’s zine, all over the walls. It was really dope, way too many people RSVP’d and a lot of people couldn’t get in but it was dope, Arvid painted the whole place, details of the city all the walls, it was kinda like the album cover, but up real close." The artwork for Wiki and Sporting Life’s first release prior to formalising themselves as RATKING, Wiki93, featured artwork made by Wiki himself during his high school art class (it was also one of Complex Mag’s Best Album Covers of 2012).
So It Goes artwork by Arvid Logan
The underground visual community RATKING have immersed themselves in and drawn inspiration from isn’t the only way the DIY punk aesthetic rears its head in their work; they legitimise punk subculture with their energetic live show. For RATKING, punk is less of a label and more of an adjective to describe a state of being; to describe the reckless abandon that unfurls during their live sets; the rapid frenzied energy of Wiki's raps, the joshing crowd. It's a set of performance signifiers tied to a genre of music; but that, as RATKING have ably demonstrated in their live sets, can enshroud a performance from hip hop musicians, too. "The show is a time to be able to kill it again and let everyone right in front of us know that we’re killing it.. your chance to get them to fuck with you right then and there," Wiki told The Hundreds recently. We asked him to elaborate on the sentiment, and explain the theory driving their loud, abrasive (and sweaty) live shows: "I grew up listening to a lot of punk, but also Animal Collective," says Wiki, "Sporting Life was like, ‘let’s make a hip hop album’, and talked to me and was like, ‘let’s make it live, more like a band. This will separate us from the other whack hip hop’."
Continues Wiki: "We’ve toured with Trash Talk, Death Grips, Run The Jewels…our performance approach has meant we can play a lot more support slots than most hip hop acts, we have to compete less with hip hop and rap acts for support slots because punk and indie bands are cool to have us on their bills too. We adapt to the venues, too - some venues that might bring out more of a punk energy in us, we’re reactive performers. Rappers want to be indie-cool so we have respect for indie bands, indie bands want more street cred so they have respect for rappers, it all works out." The aforementioned collaboration with King Krule proving Wiki’s point. "We feel like a lot of hip hop these days…it’s a little dry, continues Wiki, "I like how performing like a punk band allows us to be cavalier in our performance… you’re going in killing a verse… jumping around on stage." Even Wiki’s mum gets in on it, shares Wiki: "My parents can see we’re doing alright, they’re supportive of what I do. Like, my mum comes to our gigs all the time… She mostly chills at the back though. Except one time she got up in the mosh - I had get two of my friends to guard her."
"I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life…Forget about our mothers and our friends. We’re fated to pretend." In fellow New Yorkers' MGMT’s 2008 indie hit Time To Pretend, off their well-received Oracular Spectacular album, they sing of the expectancies of being a young person moving up in the New York music scene; discussing the ego structures muscians adopt (parties, cocaine, models, fancy cars) in order to enact their professional lives; be it at the loss of their sense of private self. What does an indie track from eight years ago have to do with a hip hop act that are defining 2015? Well, it perhaps signals a shift in musicians' ideals and ideas about what being an artist entails, a shift possibly being driven by RATKING. If you think about it, RATKING’s trailblazing tour de force So It Goes channels the "rough and raw” energy (and history) of the New York cityscape that’s inspired and ostracised the young members of RATKING – now in the "prime of their life" - in equal measure. However, unlike MGMT’s predictions of a modern New York musician’s life, RATKING’s story is firmly rooted not in fantasy, but in their roots – they haven’t forgotten about their mothers or friends – to the contrary, it’s these things that define them as artists.
So It Goes is filled with the stories of New York characters who are Wiki, Hak and Sporting Life’s friends (likewise, the creation and art/performance/video projects surrounding the album have been built by RATKING’s extended ‘family’, as Wiki said), and while perhaps Wiki doesn’t have the intention to "romanticise" history, or make his work a nostalgic throw-back to retro rap, there’s a similiarity between something like So It Goes and N.A.S’ Illmatic in that N.A.S’ release was so seminal for its ability to paint an auditory picture of New York at the time, in detailing the narratives of the characters walking N.A.S’ own streets at the time: "Six million stories to tell, whose one?" rap Wiki and Hak together on the title track of So It Goes. If RATKING are "fated" to do anything now, as they head towards global fame in 2015, it’s to be "straight New York"…to be real. To mosh with their mothers, to make videos and art with their friends, to define the connection between music and habitat that Wiki feels is so sorely missing in the work of New York artists. "And once you see what’s real or what’s not real," explains Wiki, "that’s when you become a New York artist. You separate the real from the fake. And you keep moving up."
RATKING play the Red Bull Music Academy x Future Classic Stage at St Jerome's Laneway Festival this month across Australia, with headline shows presented by I OH YOU in Sydney (tickets HERE) and Melbourne (tickets HERE).
Sat 24 Jan - SINGAPORE - THE MEADOW, GARDENS BY THE BAY
Mon 26 Jan - AUCKLAND - SILO PARK
Sat 31 Jan - BRISBANE - BRISBANE SHOWGROUNDS, BOWEN HILLS (16+)
Sun 1 Feb - SYDNEY - SYDNEY COLLEGE OF THE ARTS (SCA), ROZELLE**
Fri 6 Feb - ADELAIDE - HART'S MILL, PORT ADELAIDE (16+)
Sat 7 Feb - MELBOURNE - FOOTSCRAY COMMUNITY ARTS CENTRE (FCAC) & THE RIVER’S EDGE
Sun 8 Feb - FREMANTLE - ESPLANADE RESERVE & WEST END