Loud and abrasive, New York trio Ratking is out in the world proving that there are still risks to be made within hip-hop. Sometimes, we as fans get so caught up with this false nostalgia quest of what once was, all the while forgetting what still is. This art form doesn’t pause in time while we gripe on our favorite adolescent acts from the golden age. Contributions are being made to shape what is to be the future.
So It Goes, Ratking’s critically acclaimed debut release on XL Recordings that came out last April is a perfect example of this. While minds are rooted in what is traditionally known to be the New York sound, these natives have been on the battleground pushing the envelope encouraging the denizens of not just the city that never sleeps, but the rap universe as a whole – that à la Sam Cooke, there’s a change coming. The noise mixed with the boom bap and rawness that producer Sporting Life exudes out of the ever loyal SP, juxtaposed with the raw lyricism of frontman Wiki, and the etheral Icarian presence of Hak has shown itself to connect and best represent where many of the youth see the future to be heading. I caught them at their first headline show in LA at Jewel’s Catch One, which turned into a crazy adventure in and of itself. We went over what it means to create the future, why the live performance always matters more than the album, the desire for more minimalism within hip-hop, the grime influences that showed themselves on So It Goes, and exhibiting growth as an artist without being a biter. They also surprised us with news of a new EP in the works 700 Fill.
SENAY KENFE: Sitting here with two of the members of Ratking, New York’s finest – say what’s up to the people so they know who you are.
WIKI: It’s Wiki.
SPORTING LIFE: This is Sporting Life from Ratking.
We just caught you guys at the Jewel’s Catch One show, it’s thrown by the Church off York. How’d you guys feel about the set?
Sporting Life: I thought it was good, barring a couple of glitches –
Wiki: It was dope.
Sporting Life: It was dope. Those are good when you play through them too.
Wiki: I fuck with LA now, officially, I fuck with LA now.
Oh, you didn’t before? What happened?
Wiki: I did, but I never had an ill show like that in LA where people were out – shorties were out, everyone was out. It was like, “Oh, shit, tight!” You know what I mean? You never have that in LA. We never headline, we opened and they weren’t there for us – we never had a show that was like a New York show. Everyone fucked with us.
How important is the live performance to you guys? In terms of getting people to visualize the album.
Wiki: Well, I think to me, the album – our album’s ill as fuck but not everyone has our album, it’s not this thing that’s so out – our album, to me, is a classic, but an unsung classic. You know when Little Brother has that line, “We made a classic that no one ever heard”? That’s what I think about our album, it’s a classic that no one ever heard. Not enough people have heard it, it could’ve been the illest album of that year, but nah. Of course not.
But the last show is always something you can go back to. It’s always like, fuck the album – we’re going to kill it right now. 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. Whether you heard the album or not. The recorded shit, it needs to have hype, but when you’re playing live, whoever is there right there is going to see you do that live.
Sporting Life: Yeah, that’s your chance to get them to fuck with you right then and there.
How do you feel – because the album came out in April, what is that? Six months now? How do you feel six months later after dropping the album?
Sporting Life: I still feel good about the material, I still feel good about playing the songs live for people who have never seen it live, even if they had heard the album and vice versa. It’s still like new music to certain people.
And starting to work on new shit – recording things individually and together.
Wiki: Ratking is putting out another album in January. 700 fill. 7 tracks, sure album.
Do you already know what it’s called?
Wiki: 700 Fill, you can be the first to announce it.
Sporting Life: It’s going to be fire.
Wiki: No check it, because January is mad close, we’ve got to start – we gotta get that name out, that’s like three months away. I’m saying – this is off the record – You know? If that’s an album we gotta promote that shit. 700 Fill, that’s the new Ratking project, we can’t just put it out on some mystery, we gotta let people know.
Like, 700 Feel?
Sporting Life: F-i-l-l . It’s like the fill of a really heavy down jacket.
Wiki: You a West Coast cat – damn, the West Coast cats aren’t going to get it.
Because we don’t wear heavy shit like that, man.
Wiki: It don’t matter, it’s still a cool ass album name. It’s even better that they won’t get it, because then they’ll eventually figure it out. And they’ll be like, “Oh, wow, that’s some New York shit, that’s even iller.” It’s like if you heard a grime artist had some ill London reference as their album, and you never understood and then you went to London and then you got it.
Sporting Life: Regardless of when it happens it’s always – people just find out shit like, “Oh, that’s the speed racer from the Daytona 500 video.” People pop up and find the little nuggets, “Oh, this is that reference to Ian Mckaye in ‘100.’”
[To Wiki] How important is an influence from the West Coast, sonically, been for you?
Wiki: For me, I’m mad influenced by the West Coast. To me, hip-hop at first, it was a very “where you’re from” type of thing. Because that’s what your surroundings were, but we live in a time where you can listen to anything. So obviously, anything that’s dope that I listen to is an influence for me. I’m mad influenced by Southern rap, West Coast rap, everything.
I don’t ever try to be extra East Coast or extra New York because I know that I’m so New York you couldn’t take that away from me. I’ll spit a West Coast flow and still be New York. That’s just regular, I’m not trying to be – I want to step back and be ill on some New York shit but on some West Coast shit, but still New York. It’s like some exec in Hollywood who is some Jewish dude from New York, but now he’s in LA. He’s still New York as fuck, he’s still like, “Ey, get the fuck outta here.” He’s still New York as shit but he’s in LA. I don’t even know what that means but you can take any influence and flip it, and I’m mad influenced by West Coast.
[To Hak] Do you consider yourself a poet?
Wiki: [To Hak] Say yes. No, say, “I don’t want to say yes, but I think of my shit as poetry.”
HAK: All I’m saying is I like to learn more. Learn more about the etymologies in the English language. I like to toy with that and play with it and shit.
How do you feel about the album six months later? Where you at with it?
Hak: I guess I’m just looking forward to making new shit. Just focused on new things, like new songs.
I was going to talk to you in terms of what were the influences, specifically, with the album – tying that in to being a native. Being a native Virginian and coming to New York, how does that tie in to your production style?
Sporting Life: It’s an ill mixing pot of different things.
You from North Virginia?
Sporting Life: I went to high school in Lawrenceville, Virginia, which is maybe 45 minutes south of Richmond. I also went to college there for three years at Virginia State University.
So you meet a lot of different people from different places like New York, DC – so a lot of go-go influence, obviously East Coast hip-hop influence. I think the first East Coast tape I found, when my Mom started working at this college in Virginia, was Lost Boys’ Legal Drug Money. Before that, it was all like Too $hort. But that’s what’s so funny, it all circles back around, now we’re in LA and shit like that and I grew up listening to Too $hort and Ice Cube and shit like that. Lethal Injection is just a classic.
That’s a great point that you brought up, specifically Lethal Injection and Ice Cube, because Ice Cube’s a perfect example of that mesh of a West Coast artist that went to New York and clicked up with the Bomb Squad – which for me, when I think of hip-hop, when I think of the first noise bands that I’ve heard, it’ll be all the production that Bomb Squad did with Public Enemy. For me, what you guys make is future, I wouldn’t call it old school or anything, I think you guys make future music. And for me, you guys have a lot of noise elements to you. As a producer, what’s that noise element mean to you?
Sporting Life: Just coming to New York and seeing a lot of cool shit, like bands like Black Dice and Animal Collective, and bands like that and trying to emulate their set up. But knowing what my influences were and trying to put it through a similar set up and then seeing – not knowing what it would render, but just being excited to see what it would render. Especially when you have Wiki, who is such a good technical MC, and Hak who’s just almost paints with words – it’s a good combination of things to combine.
But as far as the noise element, going to a ton of Black Dice concerts and shit like that. Actually, I’m trying to make it as clean as possible, as less noisey as possible.
For the next album?
Sporting Life: Just in general, just how it comes out. Just the learning curve and what I know how to do at this current time – getting better and better. A lot of it’s not really even intentional, it’s just the outcome of how it comes together. Then when we play it live, it’s like a whole ‘nother thing.
You guys had a better recording situation because you guys did it at Just Blaze’s studio?
Sporting Life: Yeah, we did some of it at [Just Play] Studios, some of it at our boy Max [Eisenberg]’s, DJ Dog Dick Studio… I remember visiting the studio, this guy Brad, and just hearing about the album that he was working on at the time. After hearing that… you got a little time and now you can think about the little things and correct things you might’ve looked past before and grow from what you did before. You want a certain clarity. That’s kind of what I’m going for, and hopefully we got a good sound and it’s all good after that.
Your man just dipped [referring to Wiki].
Sporting Life: The night grows thicker… This is how it starts. This is actually how the Ratking swells come together, just people in all different directions like, what the fuck?
How do you feel about your situation with XL? How’s that working for you?
Sporting Life: XL’s cool, they give us support. They give us support, but also – this is the van right here. You gonna jump in the van with us?
Yeah, I guess, I mean, that’d be cool if I could [jumps in the van].
Talk to me about your favorite BPM to produce within.
Sporting Life: I’m learning about all of them, I was on 160 for about four or five months and I just got really nice at 160.
Were you just really into Juke or some shit?
Sporting Life: Yeah, yeah. Definitely people like DJ Rashad – all those dudes, that was just a breath of fresh air for me, all those dudes. Production-wise because the beats were circular rather than linear almost, they almost roll over on each other, you can fit so much other stuff in there. It was almost Dipset for the dance floor. When I first heard DJ Rashad it was like, “Oh, shit this is if Cam made dance music, this could be some New York new dance music.”
Yeah because it’s so wavy. It’s pretty funny that you brought up the Dipset connection, because you guys flipped “Remove Ya.” What is the connection that, you specifically, have to that whole Dipset movement that was so heavy in New York?
Sporting Life: Just listening to music under that time and Cam and all those dudes killing it so hard, you can’t help but be influenced by it. So that was a coming of age time, when those were the thing that influenced you. I grew up definitely listening to Cam’ron in Virginia just speeding down back roads. So eventually it was going to come out.
But that track in particular was more like trying to be on some Grime shit. I know this is an obvious sample but if some Grime producer did it they wouldn’t care if it was an obvious sample. I wanted to make a track that you find on a grime tape or something. So it was like, “Yeah, I can use this sample even if it’s been used already.”
But so it was like trying to make something that Kano or Wiley would’ve made on one of those Avalanche mix tapes or some shit like that. And it just so happens, “Oh, it’s a Dipset shout out,” so some people are like, “Oh! That Dipset sample.” So it was good that people think that, but it was kind of – it was intended to be like what a Grime dude would do, I just so happened to sample that. This spot is ill [referring to Lee Spielman of Trash Talk’s house, which they arrive at].
Say what you were saying about reality and the actuality of things [earlier].
Sporting Life: Reality is, I guess, what we are comfortable with agreeing with because it maintains our society and how it operates. But actuality is the geometry that operates our reality. So if you can get in to what actuality is, you can start seeing the causes rather than the effects.
We were paralleling that in terms of the music scene. Talking about certain people –
Sporting Life: Yeah, winning things and Grammys and all that – that’s all good, if somebody voted on something we did. But at the end of the day it doesn’t really have anything to do with a sine wave. Or a square wave. That is still what it is and if you can get down to why square waves and sine waves are important even beyond just making a crazy bass line – if you can get down to even deeper, what they mean and what they actually are – not to say I know that stuff, but I’m trying to uncover something deeper than just making a dope beat.
So then it can be something, then a dope beat, then a dope song. But what is it actually? What are these sounds you’re sending at people actually doing to them? I don’t know that yet because I’m at the level where I’m just trying to make some dope shit, but hopefully I grow in my knowledge of the sonics and stuff like that so you can heal people or make people sick with music too.
How important is growth to you as a producer?
Sporting Life: I think it’s really important because it allows you to have a certain amount of control with what you – because new things come and times change but if you’re continuously growing with them then you’re at a better position to soak in the new things you’re hearing. Because it’s never going to be not new shit, but you need to be open to be able to absorb it all – to take the good, leave the bad, and move forward. As a rapper or a producer.
I think that’s important as a creative, to be able to synthesize what’s going on around you and then be able to draw inspiration from – not emulate, but draw inspiration from it.
Sporting Life: And that’s hard. That’s why you have to work continuously so you’re not biting shit. The easiest thing in the world is to bite shit, but if you can bite the blueprint and then fill it in with your shit, that’s another level and then you can keep on building on that. Until the point where all your influences are almost completely transparent and people can feel them but not hear them.
Do you feel that’s how you work when you’re using samples?
Sporting Life: Yeah, I try to work with the history of what people know. I might use something like – something like Capone-N-Noreaga use just so I know that you know where it came from, but then you can know where I’m taking it. Just playing with people’s memory like that and trying to make some futuristic style shit.
People like to connect you with the New York scene in terms of your lyricism and Eric’s production. I would describe it more-so as future music. Why do you think it’s important for you to be recognized you’re making new music – that you’re making the future rather than, “Oh, I’m a New York rapper making New York music?”
Wiki: I feel like that’s what New York is missing, that’s what makes New York, New York: New shit. That’s why it’s called New York. I mean, obviously it’s called New York for another reason, but new shit shouldn’t be the same shit. To me, if you’re making the same ‘90s shit that was made in the ‘90s, that’s not New York to me. If you’re making that now, you’re not New York because that’s not what New York is now. So we’re just trying to make shit for the times.
How important, to you, is growth as a writer?
Wiki: Mad important. Growth – I just want to simplify. Simplify to the point that it’s ill as fuck, but it’s simple, it’s like Blueprint. Jay Z, he simplified, simplified, until he made Blueprint, that’s his best album. It’s all perfect, nothing more and nothing less is what you need. It’s perfect.
So the minimalism approach.
Wiki: Exactly, minimalism within rap. To figure that out and still make crazy meaning out of it and have crazy layers to it, but minimal as fuck. That’s my goal. I used to spit crazy bars and now I’m trying to simplify.
Is it because you’re looking out for the listener or is it for you?
Wiki: It’s both. I want to look out for the listener and I want to make ill music for myself and I want to get better. In writing in general, no matter what you’re doing, you can express the same feeling with more simple writing – that’s better to me. Don’t overdo it.
You guys already start recording for the new album or no?
Wiki: Yeah, we got a new short album coming out in January, 7 tracks, 700 Fill. That’s coming out in January, that’s some new shit.
How do you feel about that? Because Eric was telling me that his goal in production was for it to sound more clean. What does that mean to you?
Wiki: To me that sounds tight, I’ve been working on my own shit too. I got a solo album coming out.
Oh, you got a solo album coming out?
Wiki: Yeah, I’m doing an album in spring, but we’re focusing on the Ratking album, 700 Fill for the winter. So that’s going to be tight, Eric’s going to put out a solo album too I think. 55 5’s.
Is it going to be through High Charity too?
Wiki: I’m not sure, it might be through another label. My shit’s going to be through XL.
How do you feel about that connection that you made with that label? That’s pretty esteemed, everybody knows about it. In a creative world, that’s something you really want to be on.
Wiki: Yeah, XL is a dope label and other labels, I think, seem wack. Not wack – but they support us and let us do what we want to do and sit back, do us, and they’re down with it. They’ll give advice but they’re cool in general so I fuck with them. It’s really up to you though. A label isn’t really going to do shit for you, it’s up to you to make the fire shit. Not even fire, it can be fire and no one will fuck with it – but make the shit people want to fuck with. The label isn’t going to do that for you, you use the label as a utility, but it’s up to you really at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter if you’re signed or anything.
Your integrity as an artist as well as your work flow.
Wiki: Yeah. But I also mean a label isn’t going to make you pop off, you are going to make yourself pop off because the shit you make. You gotta make bangers, it has nothing to do with whether you’re on a label or not. That’s just a level of comfortability.