Birth, growth, love, infatuation, decay, death – and rebirth, and around again. The lifecycle of hip-hop plays out on web browsers and iPods the world over, day in, day out. But nowhere is the movement heard as loudly as the streets of New York City: the birthplace of these modern-day folk tales set to beats instead of strums, these sermons on realities skewed and lampooned to help the everyman see beyond their four-walls existence. It’s here that the artistic topsoil crawls most palpably with MCs and producers ready to explode into the global conscience. It’s here that Ratking make their dens.
The trio – young MCs Wiki (aka Patrick Morales) and Hak (Hakeem Lewis), with experienced producer Sporting Life (Eric Adiele) – have a blossoming catalogue well underway, but their highest-profile release to date is undoubtedly ‘So It Goes’, the act’s debut album for XL/Hot Charity, released April 7th (UK). The set recalls aspects of the late-‘80s Beastie Boys output in its inventive sampling and cornucopia of instrumental creativity, albeit processed through myriad evolutionary steps: trap echoes, grime drifts. The lyrics come fast and aggressive, but without vitriol – this is rap to join with, not flee from. It’s community spirited, embracing of possibilities but respectful of the music’s past.
Clash grabs 10 with all three members ahead of their London gig with Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt…
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Ratking feat. King Krule, ‘So Sick Stories’, from ‘So It Goes’
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The name Ratking implies an underground attitude, so how are you responding to the increased visibility of the group?
Wiki: I think that we definitely started out as a real underground thing, but the goal of ours was always to get bigger. We never started out wanting to remain unknown. But our growth has been pretty steady – it’s not like we’ve experienced any over-the-top hype or anything. We’ve just found ourselves becoming busier. We’re always going to try to push forward and develop, so I don’t feel like being that bit more visible now is really affecting us.
So the gradual progression has been beneficial to you, do you think? It’s not like you’ve really blown up off the back of one track, as some acts do only to fade away as quickly as they arrived…
Wiki: Yes, I feel like our progress has been really good. It’d better that we didn’t pop up heavily, as that can put all sorts of heavy pressure on a band. We’ve had room for development, and it’s not like people are just expecting this one thing from us now. I think that’s a real advantage for us.
So going into the ‘So It Goes’ album, you’re confident that the varied sounds on the record aren’t going to alienate anyone, as you’ve set this precedent for not just doing the same thing, track after track?
Eric: I think we do deliver the unexpected, and I hope that people find something different in what we’re doing.
Wiki: I think that they will.
Do you feel like outsiders? I get the sense that while you fit a certain New York archetype as the rap trio slinging rhymes over beats that resonate with urban edge, you’re probably not directly relatable to much else going on in the city…
Eric: I don’t think that we’ve ever been a part of any particular scene. We do have friends who are in bands, and who make art, so we have always been surrounded by creative individuals, whatever they’re doing. One of those friends did our album cover. That’s the way we’ve come up.
What does being from New York mean to you, in terms of your personal identity and its stamp on your music?
Hak: New York is a part of us. It’s such a part of our identity that it’s impossible to remove. I’m Hak from New York, y’know what I’m saying.
Eric: It goes so deep. Like, feeling the vibrations of the trains, or just walking along the sidewalk. It all becomes a part of what we do.
Wiki: New York is unlike any other city in the world – you simply can’t get the same experience anywhere else. Obviously other cities have their own distinct features, but not like New York does. San Francisco is an inspiring place, but it’s not like New York. London is inspiring, too, but again…
Eric: I think we can appreciate every place we visit for what it is.
I suppose you take a little bit of New York with you wherever you go, so…
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Ratking, ‘Canal’, from ‘So It Goes’
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The introduction to the album really impressed on me – where there’s the spoken piece about how the current generation of hip-hop artists should be able to create removed of constant comparison to the older guard. Do you think that this level of connection between generations is higher in hip-hop than any other genre, because it’s such a young form of music?
Eric: That voice, it’s a friend of mine, who recorded that based on some ideas we had.
Wiki: I think that a lot of the influence we take from older acts is in terms of respect, and pride that goes into that music. I guess that is how you can connect the music of now to then. And I do think that the fact that so many original hip-hop artists are working still plays a part in these comparisons, more so than in other genres. But I’m certain we’re trying our best to take these influences in new directions, and we’re drawing from other genres than hip-hop, too. Every genre is spawned from another genre, anyway.
And this creativity, though, it can’t come entirely consciously, can it? It has to be entirely natural or else you’d be rumbled for mixing constituents purely to present something slightly against convention, with no reasoning as to why…
Eric: Some of it is conscious! And part of it certainly is unconscious. I feel like how we play live, that’s never the same way twice. That’s totally unconscious. But when it comes to recording, we are sticking to a set of plans. But after that, that’s when the natural element begins to take hold.
Wiki: I don’t think we ever set out to make a song a certain way and it actually comes out just like that. I feel that there is that natural element to the way we work, an organic side.
And on the production front, the album does convey familiar hip-hop motifs at the same time as presenting itself in some quite challenging ways. It’s a pretty schizophrenic listen, in a positive sense.
Eric: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. It’s trying to encompass a series of references, but putting it through a system where these influences aren’t so immediately recognisable. So if I’m referencing a Wiley track, I don’t want that to be so transparent, and I want to immediately turn those cues into something else. The direction of the tracks comes from playing around with these samples and things – and all the time I’m looking to take references into different places. Sometimes you let them through clearly, and at others you disguise them.
Wiki: I think the production takes us to a different place, but it’s a very natural vibe for us. It’s undeniable that every hip-hop artist of note has their own production style – something that might be weird, or different, and exclusive to them. You can just rap to predictable beats, but once you get into that pattern then it’s hard to shake out of it. You don’t want to put things out that people have heard before.
A lot of people in the UK will be more aware of Ratking right now because of the King Krule connection. How did that collaboration with Archy come about?
Wiki: We met Archy about a year and a half ago, when we were in London. We played a show together, and I knew that we were fans of each other’s music. There was a mutual respect there immediately, which turned into a friendship. We realised we had the same perspective on a lot of things. He’s from another city, but Archy and his group of friends really reminded us of how we were working in New York. We recorded some stuff in London, like a demo, and then he came to play in New York, so we got him in the studio again. It was all really natural. Once we’d met him, we really wanted King Krule on a track.
Well, it sounds like the ambition for the track has been pretty well realised. Cheers guys.
Wiki: Thanks. You guys in the UK can see us again in May, when we’re over. We have a bunch of dates booked for then.
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Words: Mike Diver
Photo: Jamie James Medina
‘So It Goes’ is released through XL/Hot Charity on April 7th. Find Ratking online here and see them live in the UK as follows…
27th – O2 Academy, Islington, London w/ Earl Sweatshirt
3rd – Liverpool Sound City
4th – Stag & Dagger Festival, Glasgow
7th – Electrowerkz, London
9th – The Great Escape, Brighton