Ratking's ecstatic noise-rap feels just like home
From the magazine: ISSUE 91, April/May 2014
When I show up at Ratking’s practice space, a graffiti-covered nook hidden deep in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, the first voice I hear is that of Louis CK. Inside the room, which is tiny even by New York standards, Ratking’s resident producer, Sporting Life, is simultaneously playing around with a mixer and streaming an episode of Louis on a beaten-up computer. Since the group’s other two members have yet to arrive, I pull up a folding chair and get in on a scene in which Parker Posey sits perched at the edge of a Manhattan rooftop. It’s unclear whether she’s admiring the city view or preparing to jump to her death. “This show is so good,” says Sporting Life, whose real name is Eric Adiele. Dressed in a black North Face jacket, black cap and marijuana print socks, at 32, he’s Ratking’s eldest member by over a decade, even though he could be mistaken for much younger. “It’s funny, but it’s also super heavy. It kind of gives you hope that things that are really good and still kind of fucked up can actually be popular.”
The same thing might be said of Ratking, a New York-based trio that has spent the better part of the last four years slowly perfecting its own brand of messy, noise-inflected rap music. Looking around the group’s diminutive practice space—which includes a small pile of audio equipment, a few taped-up flyers from shows long past and an on-the-wall co-sign from King Krule—it’s hard to believe that Ratking’s bombastic debut album, So It Goes, was almost entirely conjured up here. Within a few minutes, Wiki bursts into the room, sporting a scraggly beard and a mane of curly hair so unruly it could almost be a wig. Born Patrick Morales, he’s the group’s 20-year-old frontman—small, loud, half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican and generally impossible to ignore. He’s followed by fellow MC Hakeem Lewis, aka Hak, who is one year his junior, tall, baby-faced and the very definition of unobtrusive. For a group whose image has mostly been predicated on being a bunch of self-described “mutts”—weed smoking, graffiti-tagging brats running wild in the streets of New York—they are immediately and strikingly polite. Some folding chairs are pulled out, and Ratking’s three members align themselves opposite me, in a row. Wiki slips a beer out of his pocket and pops it open. “We’re excited,” he says, smiling and showing off the sizable gap caused by his now almost-trademark, missing upper front teeth. “We’re ready.”
Ratking have, for lack of a better phrase, a very New York kind of story. Wiki and Hak have known each other since second grade, back when they both attended Cathedral, an Episcopal school at 110th and Amsterdam on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The two spent their childhoods doing basically exactly what you’d expect—listening to music, chasing girls and getting into small amounts of mischief. “You know, smoking, jumping turnstiles, dumb shit,” says Wiki. “We’d get each other in trouble a lot. Like, Hak might do something, and I’d get blamed for it. It was like, ‘Okay you two—get the fuck out of here!’” Though they bonded as kids over a mutual love of music and graffiti, the idea of recording together didn’t occur to them until much later, when Hak took five months off from school in eleventh grade to travel in South America and saw some clips of Wiki rapping on YouTube. “I thought it was so cool,” says Hak. “When I came back to New York we started hanging out again all the time. It wasn’t long until we started making songs together.”
The dynamic that Wiki and Hak manifest in Ratking is a fitting parallel to their real-life relationship. Wiki is the group’s impish lead MC; he’s spastic and full of stories, and frequently pauses mid-conversation to pull a blue Paper Mate pen out of his pocket and scrawl notes on his left hand, which appears permanently stained with the faded letterings of a million different things he’s trying to remember. The quieter Hak, by contrast, tends to defer to others in conversation, frequently slipping away to take a photo or text his girl. While Wiki has perfected a kind of snarling, rapid-fire flow that has garnered superficial comparisons to a young Eminem, Hak’s lines are often sonorous, elongated and willfully abstract. Though he would eventually quit high school altogether, Hak continued to cultivate a variety of artistic curiosities through his adolescence, including painting and writing poems. “I always felt like I was making my own school by just walking around,” says Hak. “I’d spend a lot of time up at 140th with [Sporting Life] or just reading and making zines or writing my lyrics.” Hak’s feelings about his education—and his occasional reticence about being a performer—creep up, quite literally, in one of his lines from “Remove Ya,” one of So It Goes’ best tracks: Dropped out of high but remained a student/ Not one for great speeches but I think I’ll say/ Unsown my mouth with words decayed.
While the pair’s friendship is undoubtedly at the core of Ratking, the group wouldn’t exist without the addition of Sporting Life, who linked up with them after catching Wiki freestyling in a park on the Lower East Side. Sporting Life is the only non-native New Yorker in the crew, having migrated to New York from Virginia back in 2005. A self-taught producer and beatmaker who came here under the most classic of auspices—“to make cool shit and do music”—he’s happy to talk at length about his early love for West Coast hip-hop and his father’s collection of African highlife cassettes. More than anything else, it’s his fondness for ecstatically genre-mashing production that’s shaped the group’s sound. “I used to obsessively listen to old DJ mixes,” he says. “I’d always be into the transitions, the moment one song would blend into something else. I’ve always wanted to make songs that sound like two different things coming together.”
The music on So It Goes—produced by Sporting Life, and engineered by Young Guru, a New York legend who has mixed records for Jay Z, Beyoncé and Kanye West—is a heady, somewhat craftily assembled collage of early ’90s hip-hop, no wave drones and trip-hoppy beats, sprinkled with elements of Detroit house music and the faintest stutterings of drum & bass. “We wanted it to be like Suicide meets Wu,” says Wiki. “Or like noise and no wave meets, like, Cam’ron. We wanted it to be something fucked up and new that sounded like what our lives were like. Half-noise, half-hip-hop.” Given Wiki’s casual involvement in hardcore (he not only has a Germs tattoo, but dallied in a high school hardcore band called Homo-Thugs), it’s not surprising that the record is littered with a variety of not-so-subtle “fuck you” moments aimed at various establishments, including the police (“Remove Ya” includes audio from an actual stop-and-frisk search) and mainstream hip-hop in general. Mostly, though, the album is a paean to the relative joys and hassles of being a teenager in New York—hanging out, smoking out, possibly making out and finding a place to simply be that doesn’t involve getting harassed by the cops or your parents.
In a broader sense, it’s hard to think of another record in recent years that so clearly articulates the New York experience from the mindset of people just creeping into adulthood, starting with Wiki’s first line on So It Goes, which speaks to what is perhaps the most common dilemma for guys his age: Graduated, what’s next?/ Everybody’s asking/ What college you going to?/ What you had planned? The record largely eschews typical hip-hop self-aggrandizing in favor of soul-searching, with Wiki providing mini-narratives on city life and Hak delivering slightly more abstract prosody in exchange. On “Snow Beach,” for example, Hak describes the infiltration of Washington Square Park by NYU students like he’s a doctor diagnosing a disease: Infecting the apple, a cancer in its heart/ Why’d you make a campus out the park? Elsewhere, rapper Princess Nokia, aka Wavy Spice, Wiki’s real-life girlfriend, shows up to trade verses on “Puerto Rican Judo.” It’s a standout track, not only because of Sporting Life’s unstoppable house beat, but because it epitomizes the kind of earnestness that makes Ratking so appealing. When Wiki busts out, How you look at me like that?/ When I got no teeth/ Even the folk on my own street/ Look at me phony/ You hold me like you know me to his girl, it’s hard not to be taken by his wise-beyond-his-years desire to be known in a real way.
“It kind of gives you hope that things that are really good and still kind of fucked up can actually be popular.”—Sporting Life
Ratking first blipped onto the radar in 2011 with a self-released EP called 1993. Even though it didn’t make waves among mainstream media outlets, rap obsessives took notice, as did a handful of record labels. Though the group says they were courted by a few different A&R people, ultimately it was the British label XL that signed them, releasing a slightly retooled version of the EP called Wiki93 in 2012, under the imprint Hot Charity. According to Wiki, while other labels either wanted him to go solo or see the group somehow clean their sound, the folks at XL were happy to leave them be. “They just wanted us to be us,” he says.“Which is good, because we don’t know how to do anything else.”
When you’re underage in a city that feels like it’s mostly made up of bars, finding an open spot to hang out becomes a regular part of the day. After our initial meeting at the practice space at noon, we’ll spend the next 10 hours or so basically drifting around lower Manhattan. As far as I can tell, this is a common course of events for the mostly nocturnal group, who split their time pretty evenly between that Bushwick enclave, a slew of favorite hangout spots downtown, some all-ages, DIY venues in Brooklyn and their homes on the Upper West Side and Harlem.
After lunch at one of their favorite haunts, a hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant on Sullivan Street called Pepe Rosso, we head over to a skate shop in SoHo. Everyone seems to know them there, and when we come out, Wiki points out an empty billboard space that until just recently featured a building-sized image of Ratking. “It was a Converse thing,” explains Wiki. “I walked by and looked at it a bunch of times.” The group’s three members text out some feelers to see who might be around, and eventually, we stop by the Broome Street apartment of Alex Goldberg, a Lower East Side teenager-about-town who had the distinction of being dubbed “The Littlest Hustler” by New York Magazine at the age of 14. No one in Ratking seems to remember exactly how they know Goldberg, just that he was one of those New York characters whom, if you were of a certain age, you probably met at some point. Inside, Sporting Life finds himself fixated on the grand piano sitting in the living room. “I could sit down and play you all some Ratking songs,” he jokes. “Wiki can spit some bars right here.” Before we head off for our next destination, Alex’s father, Richard Goldberg, comes home and offers everyone a snack.
The New York landscape as it appears in Ratking songs is complicated, but it’s definitely more playground than prison, a particularly potent message at a time when the prevailing perception of the city is that of an artist-averse metrotopia that exists only for the benefit of the rich. This perspective may stem in part from the fact that two-thirds of the group don’t have to worry about actually making rent yet (both Wiki and Hak still live at home with their parents), but on record, it registers as an all-encompassing embrace of New York as a bastion of not just everything cool, but everything. When Wiki raps, Six million trains to ride, choose one/ Six million stories to tell, whose one?/ There’s plenty as many as pennies in the futon/ Hidden waiting to be spitten once the crew’s gone, it springs from a place of genuine curiosity. In their understated clothes and street-smart verses, Ratking melds nicely with the Supreme-worshipping downtown skater crowd, many of whom are their friends. Still, unlike so many of the graffiti cognoscenti with whom they skate and make trouble, one gets the feeling from So It Goes that the members of Ratking have as many books in their backpacks as they might have cans of paint.
By the time the sun starts setting, a small amount of weed and a few paper-bagged beers have been procured and we find ourselves near the corner of Broadway and Canal Street, by the home of Arvid Logan. A longtime compatriot of Ratking’s who often collaborates with them on music and videos, Logan is responsible for the meticulously rendered, bird’s-eye-view image of Manhattan and Brooklyn that appears on the cover of So It Goes. Since the 19-year-old Logan still lives with his mother, we all politely remove our shoes and eventually crowd around on the floor of his tiny bedroom, which is situated in the kind of austere, minimalist loft space usually only seen in movies. We listen to drum & bass cassettes and discuss whether anyone in the room has ever been arrested (I have, the members of Ratking have not). A joint is passed, random YouTube videos are shared and it’s hard not to think about the lyrics to the So It Goes track “Canal,” especially since the sounds of the song’s namesake are buzzing just outside the window: Make a thug uptown/ Come down/ To hustle on Canal/ What the bustle all about?/ Sweet kid with a free crib/ Hustle on his couch. Sporting Life picks up a piece of paper and draws a picture of a car rolling down a palm tree-lined street. Afterward, we all go to a nearby diner to get tacos and café con leche, and everyone shares tales of house parties gone awry, the first time they smoked weed and what it’s like to sneak onto Pier 40 with your friends in the middle of the night to hang out on the playfields. For a few minutes, sitting in a dimly lit greasy spoon with Ratking and a bunch of African dudes on a break from hawking knockoff shit on Canal Street, New York has never seemed quite as friendly. Since we are all getting real about our personal lives, though, I take a moment to ask Wiki what happened to his teeth. It’s a much less happy kind of New York story. “Some random dude got mad at us about something and naturally he came at me first, the smallest dude in the group,” he explains. “He punched me in the face and then, as I’m bending over spitting out my teeth, he jumps on a bike and rides away. What the fuck? So it goes, man. For real.”
Tomorrow is the first day of spring, and New York shows its true colors by being miserably cold and rainy. I head uptown to meet with Ratking for one last time at Wiki’s apartment on 95th Street. His mother, Clio Garland, greets me at the door. She offers me a leftover St. Patrick’s Day cupcake and takes my coat. A psychotherapist specializing in couples therapy, she’s friendly and funny in the way you’d imagine a cool Upper West Side mom to be; her and Wiki’s father separated when he was young, but he says he grew up with both of them in his life. The apartment is full of comfortable, overstuffed furniture and tasteful abstract paintings, nary a skateboard or Ratking flyer in sight. Wiki might be a loud-mouthed street urchin on record, but I’m reminded that nowhere in Ratking’s discography does anyone in the group purport to have been raised in a bad part of town, nor do they espouse a kind of violent fantasy life that stands in contrast to how they actually live. In fact, on record, Ratking rarely even curse. Given his upper-middle class background (his father is a securities lawyer, and his brother recently graduated from Yale), it seems like Wiki’s parents might have pressured him to excel in a more conventional profession than underground rap. “My parents wanted me to go to college, I know,” he says, “But they also always knew that I was the creative one. They just wanted me to work hard at what I was good at, you know? I just had to figure out what that was.”
“We wanted it to be like Suicide meets Wu.”—Wiki
Though I am supposed to meet up with all three members of Ratking for a final sit down at Wiki’s apartment, Hak never shows up. Neither of the two members present seems particularly bent out of shape about this. “Hak is mysterious,” says Wiki. “He dips sometimes, but he’s always there for the show. He’s probably with his girl or something.” I can’t help but wonder if Sporting Life ends up playing the father figure in Ratking. “I’m like the big brother,” says Sporting Life, “but I can’t be the dad.” Still, it’s hard not to notice that he’s the one reminding Wiki about the phone interviews the group is supposed to be doing after I leave. He’s also the one who is happiest to speak in broad strokes about a new permutation of dance and rap music he imagines Ratking might eventually make. “You always want to try and make something that’s genuinely new,” he says. “And luckily, living here in New York City, there are clues around you at all times as to what the future should be. You just have to figure out how to connect the dots.”
When it comes time to say our goodbyes, everyone pauses to look out of the living room window. Even in the rainy afternoon light, it’s hard not to get lost in the dizzying view of the lower Manhattan rooftops—a million different shapes and hard angles and a bit of green punctuated by the new World Trade Center tower in the distance. For those of us who moved to New York possessed by the vague notion of chasing something cool, the city—its rising prices and condo developments not withstanding—still feels as mythical and puzzling as ever. Ratking has, at least in this moment, become a conduit for the kind of manic cosmopolitan energy that so many people come here to try and tap. By simply laser-focusing on their own lives, they do that thing that made acts like the Velvet Underground or the Beastie Boys so synonymous with New York. They reflect the dirty, inspiring, terrifying, sometimes infuriating but always compelling heart and soul of this town, simply because they can’t help it. They do it just by opening their mouths.
It’s hard to discern exactly what kind of success Ratking envisions for itself; from the way they talk about their career, it seems like simply having made the record they wanted to make, playing shows with friends like King Krule and Earl Sweatshirt and getting to travel abroad are signs of having finally made it. Still, it’s easy to imagine them striking a nerve with a larger audience as long as they don’t shy away from the impulses that make them as weird and alive as the city they call home. Just before I leave, Wiki offers one last thought. “There’s this E.B. White essay called Here Is New York,” he says. “He’s talking about the history of New York at the time he lived here—the 1940s or something. He talks about being a young writer here and knowing that somewhere in those buildings were all these other writers that he loved and that one day he might be one of them. It’s still the same. New York will always be cool. There will always be people here doing cool shit.”