A Conversation With Sporting Life About His Mind-Bending Solo Sounds

Ratking’s feverish beat-maker talks shooting hoops, mangling samples, and his recent cassette, 55’5's.

November 24, 2015

Considering his chosen alias, it makes sense that Eric “Sporting Life” Adiele would bring up athletics when you ask him about music. When we meet in the East Village at a small Tibetan restaurant that he chose, the 32-year-old points out that the two things are not that different. Both involve dedication to practice and performance, as well as agility, ambition, and stamina. Chatting with the Virginia-born, Harlem-based producer—who’s wearing his usual monochromatic uniform, complete with the mandatory sportswear-themed hat—it’s obvious that he has the skills required for both. He tells me he's just come from messing around with a new music software program, and he's visibly giddy to return to it. Sport’s always looking for new ways to incorporate sounds into a composition; at one point, he asks for the noise he makes while slurping a banana smoothie to be mentioned in this article, in brackets, as an aside. It’s almost like he’s sampling our meal.

Last year, Sporting Life was featured on the cover of The FADER with the rest of Ratking, the New York trio breathing new life into the city’s hip-hop scene with a sound as expansive as their stomping grounds. The oldest of the group, Sport helms the ship, constructing a broad range of beats over which Wiki and Hak—and now occasionally Sport himself—spit bars. In September, after three Ratking full-lengths—the most recent being March’s surprise BitTorrent bundle, 700 Fill—Sporting Life released a solo tape titled 55 5’s on R&S Records, a Belgian label that has put out music by Aphex Twin, Derrick May, and James Blake. Named after his beloved sampler, the 10-track instrumental cassette is an amalgamation of two year’s worth of stockpiled beats. They’re woven together seamlessly, and with integrity. The flashy lead single, “Badd,” is a carefully curated percussive craze in the vein of late, great DJ Rashad. The cavernous “Triple-Double No Assists” moves at the rapid, scuffled pace of basketball footwork drills—if practice was being held at the Metropolitan Opera.

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What might not be obvious while listening to 55 5’s, or when watching Sporting Life attack his SPD-SX sampling pad onstage, is the producer’s compassion. He is razor-sharp and focused when talking about his plans for the future, but extremely humble when discussing what he’s already accomplished. A wide, genuine-seeming grin often lights up his face during our conversation. Perhaps one of his lines on Ratking’s “Steep Tech” best summarizes Sporting Life’s easygoing determination: My tracks ill and that’s no sweat.

How did you become interested in making music?

SPORTING LIFE: Listening to it. Growing up with a father who collected a lot African music on cassette tapes. Being around hip-hop, or whatever else was on the car radio.

Have you always been interested in producing, or was there a time where you were trying to be in a band or play an instrument?

Most of my life was focused on basketball. Producing came to mean as much to me in a certain way, because you can apply the same practice habits. I played varsity basketball, and it instilled in me the work ethic that I now apply to making tracks.

Do you practice music every day?

I try to make it a daily routine. I try to find new things about music everyday. Sometimes, I'll just go outside and listen to the street.

You recently moved to Chinatown. Has living there been influential to your music?

I think walking through the streets at night—2 am, 3 am—is really inspiring. It's a cool hour; not that many people are on the streets, and it can really inspire ambient soundscapes.

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How did you meet the other Ratking boys?

Patrick [aka Wiki] started off making beats, but not that many people had heard them because they knew him from rapping around the neighborhood. He gave me a couple of beats that I rapped on, and that was kind of how we first met. When he decided to become an MC, I started making beats for him. His rhymes were so strong, we would have ended up meeting anyway. I couldn't even make beats that strong, but that was my intention, and I knew I would eventually attract the people who could enhance that ability. He's definitely one of them.

What was your approach to making 55 5’s? Were there already-made songs that you wanted to put into a collection, or did you compose all new tracks?

A little bit of both. I had a bunch of tracks that were like notes on the particular music I was studying at the time. Some of them were coming out better than others. Most of them are one-take recordings. I came up with a track listing over the span of a few months. Since I was listening to other new shit, I was making new stuff too. I spiced it up with some new stuff I was making, so there's a good variety.

“I think walking through the streets at night—2 am, 3 am—is really inspiring.”

In an interview with FACT you mentioned that you’re working on a full-length. Can you elaborate on that project?

I’m working on a half-length, a quarter-length. I’m working on a bunch of tracks. I recorded some rap tracks that are gonna be the illest. Now I’m just trying to produce them so they can be some street level Yeezus-type shit. I’m like maybe two power levels down from full Yeezus.

What led you to start incorporating your own vocals into the songs?

If you get an inspiration, then you don't feel stupid when you rap. Plus I feel like some space had been created after gaining certain power levels in production. I’ve learned some things, so maybe I do have time to write more. It's like 'Oh, I can breathe now—I don't have to go so intensely.' I have a bunch of stuff recorded with Dev Hynes, Wiki, and Novelist.

Why did you decide to release 55 5’s as a cassette?

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Just so I could write raps about it afterwards [laughs]. I wrote a rap about it afterwards. It's on a song called "Safe." I’m like I just hopped out of the airport I made it here safe / I just made 55 5’s and I put it on tape. Tapes are cool because it's a whole adventure opening them, wondering if the sounds are going to be warped. The whole production game, and music in general in a certain sense, is about coming out with sounds that nobody has heard. To pull something like that off a tape, that you know nobody is ever going to find out where it's from, is cool.

Could you reveal any of your favorite samples from the tape?

The thing is, there aren't really any samples on the tape. You gotta understand the processes that are happening to these samples. Gone are the days of MPC chopping where you could just hack chunks out of a sample. Today's samplers you can actually send MIDI information into a sample and put it at different pitches and create something totally new—you’ve completely gotten into the DNA of it. You add that with the fact that I make so much stuff, it would be impossible for it to be unearthed, which is the cool thing about it.

Do you feel like it's possible to develop a voice as a producer—especially when you're pulling from so many elements?

I think if you do anything for a continuous amount of time you're gonna develop habits and trends. At that point, that will be your voice to other people. Depending how deep you are within your own work, I don’t know if you'll even be able to hear what your voice sounds like to another person.

The musician may not always be thinking like the critic.

You can do both. I've definitely listened to music for way more hours than I've spent making it, so it's easy to put your mind in the mind of a critic. But you can't remain there, you got to pick and choose.

What is the importance of live performance to you, and has it changed for you as you perform more—both with Ratking and alone?

I think it's really important to a creative cycle, just like exhibition is important to the creative cycle of a painter. On a physical level, people need to know what you're doing and they need to see what you're doing. You need to physically figure out how to put a show together, and how to play the show. On the more ethereal side, your creative ideas need outlets so new creative ideas can come in. That's what live performance offers, even if you don’t consider yourself a performer. I think that enhances what you're going to make in general, just like dribbling with your left hand enhances your game if you are right handed. It makes you ambidextrous.

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“If I don’t feel sweaty at the end of the show, it’s like—what did you actually do?”

When you perform live with Ratking, do you try to throw in new elements to tracks?

SL: To a certain degree. I definitely try to enhance all the tracks because we don't play with mp3s, it’s more like all the individual tracks laid out in Ableton and sequenced in real time along with live-drum programming and Leap Motion hand control over Ableton. You basically change elements of the beat with the wave of your hand, by moving your hand in space: left or right, up or down. If I don't feel sweaty at the end of the show, it's like—what did you actually do?

Finally, can you tell me a little bit about the “Badd” video?

SL: My friend Alon [Sicherman] taught himself how to fly a drone, and then had to get a pilots license to fly it, [since it was] over a certain height and for commercial purposes. He got a hot air balloon flyers license and now he flies a drone; he's an ace at it. Ray [Mitchell]—the voice at the beginning of So It Goes and 700 Fill— we shot the video at his high school. Luckily I'd been playing a lot of basketball leading up to that, so I wasn't off. If you haven't played basketball in a long time, you just like, dribble the ball with your foot or something. It was a really hot day, but there were no clouds in the sky. It's really blue collar—I’m not tomahawk dunking. It's just what you would do at a basketball court.

The drone was really the only extravagant element, but even that's sort of become commonplace.

Anything you shoot on a drone is amazing. People get so desensitized to amazing things that are happening. George Lucas couldn't get these shots in like '89, and my friend has these shots now. If I can put footwork and drum-and-bass and basketball into that system, that's like art. It’s a track that's inspired by footwork, and jungle, but also Dipset, and then you have my friend Alan shooting this on a drone at a basketball court in Harlem. That's what Sporting Life is, if you actually look at it. None of those things have ever been put together like that.

You manage to blend all these different styles seamlessly together, both on Ratking songs and in your solo work.

I try to trim it and arrange it so it's pretty cohesive. I'm still getting better at it. It's not perfect.

A Conversation With Sporting Life About His Mind-Bending Solo Sounds