Poppin’ Bottles & Fuckin’ Models with Ratking (Part Deux)

 
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Neither bottles nor models were uncorked, but I got to spend time with the New York collective and see what they’re about.

I’ve written about RATKING numerous times over the past year, even linking each track off Wiki93 to personal experiences.  Being a diehard New Yorker with compulsive tendencies, their music is like crack for me.  Signed to XL with nothing to their name but a garage quality 6 track mixtape, joining chart smashers like Adele and musical innovators like Radiohead, RATKING is nothing short of a phenomenon.

It was krks’ article back in February that captured Wiki, Hak, and Sporting Life’s music so accurately in the context of our generation, RATKING’s members themselves were taken aback by it, krks “hit the nail on the head.” Before beginning this piece, which is about the individuals behind the music, how they function, and what their vision is.

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Over a weekend in early April, Cornell University was hosting Unbound from the Underground, a weekend dedicated to hip hop.  Events included panels from legends like Afrika Bambaataa, who is a 3 year visiting scholar at Cornell, and an exhibit of artifacts from hip hop’s origins.  On the final night, GZA and RATKING took to the stage at the local watering hole, The Haunt. Since Cypher League’s executive editor Preston West is a Cornell student, I decided to head upstate for the weekend.

On Sunday, Preston and I headed into downtown Ithaca to check out one of the weekend’s events, “Get-Up State” at the Cornell University Press Building. Cornell U brought street artists to go in on what were previously unblemished white walls of its press building. It was there we ran into Wiki, Hak, Sporting Life-together forming Ratking–as well as their Letter Racer homies Jonny and Arvid.

It came up pretty quickly that we have mutual friends and that they were looking for tree, so I rolled up a joint in their tour van, and we smoked up.  Having just arrived from their last show, the RATKING crew had a few hours to burn before they had to be at The Haunt.  We suggested they scope Ithaca’s famous gorges.

They were down.  RATKING piled into their tour van as Preston West and I took the lead in his white Honda CRV (dubbed the “Cypher Mobile”), we caravaned to a particularly palatial cut.

“I’m straight New York, what a lot of ya’ll pretending to be” - “Wikispeaks”

Juxtaposed with the idyllic landscape, temporarily bereft of the harsh backdrop of New York City and Sporting Life’s MPC thrashing, the dynamic of RATKING’s front line became more evident. Sagging pants, teeth-missing, and uncouth, the Irish-Puerto Rican “mutt” Wiki seemed to be subdued by the natural beauty, taking it all in.

Normally fighting to break out from under the City’s crushing mania, the absence of cabs honking and sirens blaring rendered Wiki passive–a state I can’t conceive he’s usually in. Beforehand, I saw him, 40 in hand, his vigor always outmatching his surroundings as if he grew up warring against New York’s sounds, seeking to be heard above the screaming crackhead in the apartment next door or the all-male nudist party fist pumping all night on the roof or the audible horror of the man living in the apartment directly below my family’s killing his mother in cold blood with a knife to the throat.  These are all noises I’ve come across in my time as a New Yorker, and it’s a similar intensity Wiki is channeling in his rhymes.  

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Hak, on the other hand, appeared to be more at one with nature.  Unlike Wiki, he has lived outside the City’s boundaries, attending Putney for high school, a boarding school up in New Hampshire (though he never finished).  His flannel shirt was ripping, and when one piece tore off completely, he awarded it to Wiki as a present, who exclaimed: “this is going to be worth a lot some day.”  Hak’s vibes are light and graceful, on the day-to-day he believes in “keeping it simple.”

“freshness of the air/sparkle of the water/eagles are our brothers/flowers are our daughters” -“So It Goes”

Wiki and Hak complement each other like New York and pizza, much like the duality of sunlight and shadow stretching across the valley floor.  A few minutes after arriving, the two strode off together, deep in conversation.

“We’re just compatible because we’re opened minded people and me and Hak have known each other for mad fuckin’ long, but I don’t know, it’s not even about that, we’re just down to live and listen to everything.” - Wiki

Meanwhile, Sporting Life was leaning across the stone wall with chin on hands, lost in thought.  Nearly a decade senior to his RATKING compadres, Sporting Life has already cemented his brilliance, which his beats and recent DJ set can attest to.  Not only, but he plays a crucial role in the collective’s dynamic.  The urban soundscapes he crafts are the streets Hak explores and Wiki assaults.

As it drew closer to 6, their tour manager Doug began shepherding his charges into the van.  Wiki offered to put us on the guest list and made arrangements with me for more trees to appear.

After resting at Preston West’s apartment for a couple hours, we recessed Cornell’s stuffy campus for Ithaca proper.  We arrived at the Haunt, where we found Wiki at the bar.  Drink in hand, beginning to work himself into a frenzy so he could “lose his shit” once on stage.

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The rest of the crew was in the venue’s green room, Hak idling and Sporting Life submerged in beatmaking.  While Sporting Life is one of those producer types with a regimen something along the lines of eat, sleep, and make beats, he’s seized the live performance as an arena for experimentation.  He doesn’t just spin the studio recording, but “alternative versions”, an opportunity Sporting Life considers “dope” because “he can hold a groove longer”.

Not even a habitual purveyor of hip hop, all of Sporting Life’s rap influences come from Wiki and Hak.  His samples are even more far flung, often flipping Detroit House music on which he lays down a fat bass, glitchy vocals, and staccato drums-made unpredictable by having moved passed conventional hip hop signatures.  The effect is like a subway car barreling through tunnels, erratic lateral movements but maintains a direct line forward.

Me, myself, and I go in on everything that the god makes but gods fake - “Wikispeaks”

For the latest group to be arbitrarily hailed as the “savior of hip hop,” their musical guidance comes from sources that some hip hop heads are unfamiliar with.  That’s because that’s neither what they are nor their purpose-“saving” hip hop-though it may be an intrinsic result of what they are doing.

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Out of the three, Wiki can be most closely identified with conventional hip hop, rapping on “Wikispeaks”, Man I feel Like ODB in ’93, Jay-Z in ’96, am I even an ’04 Ye?  However, the refrain isn’t just a hip hop reference, it’s an allusion to the cultural and historical context of those rappers in those years.  Ol’ Dirty and HOV were doing something different that got people going.  

“We want to be the next Rolling Stones.” -Wiki

Nonetheless, when they were directly asked, “who are your influences?” they didn’t go off listing Biggie, Nas, etc. Instead, according to Sporting Life, it’s the “people [Wiki, Hak, & Sporting Life] talk to on a regular basis” that shape RATKING, like Arvid and Jonny. They’re more than just “mutts” of various races, but a potent mix of New York’s multifarious influences.

“Sucker for love, made me a sucker for drugs/fuck it, I’m fucked, it sucks to be muck” – “Piece of Shit”

Their full-length debut, So It Goes, will be an aggregation of all these experiences, marked by the strides RATKING has made in progressing their craft.  Wiki’s Latin side became more evident as the conversation moved on to their future plans, expressing with his hands how the group’s “energies are all perfectly together.”  His face illuminated as he went on to explain, “that’s what [So It Goes] is going to be.  People are going to flip out, because they have no idea.  It’s real, true development as an artist.  That’s what art is about.”

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Photography: XLRK

Editing: KRKS

 
Ben Toren