RATKING have seen an interesting three years, evolving from a loosely formed two-person basement project to a fully-realized cohesive trio on a mission to bring back lyrical hip-hop. Most recently the guys linked up with Jay Z’s engineer, Young Guru, to wrap up the final touches on their debut album for XL Recordings, just in time to hit the 2014 summer festival circuit for the first time in what we expect will be a trend in the years to come.
We got up with the group’s founders Wiki and Sporting Life to dig deep on their history, influences and extremely bright trajectory as career musicians and cultural leaders.
What’s your guys’ background with music? When did you start making music and what inspired that direction?
Wiki: I’ve been writing raps and shit since I was in middle school, but it wasn’t really like making music. I mean, not that that’s not music, but until I met up with Eric [Sporting Life] it wasn’t like I was making structured songs, you know what I’m saying? I fucked around before but nothing serious. I think Eric was making music for awhile before he met me.
Sporting Life: It was kind of similar for me. My dad is Nigerian and my mom is from the South, so I grew up around a lot of African high-life music, and recording hip-hop over my dad’s African tapes. When I think about it now, it makes sense in relation to what we’re doing now because it’s kind of that same thing. It wasn’t really that much of a huge decision to start making music, I just started messing around with Reason. But before I met up with Wiki I hadn’t done anything serious. I had a bit of an idea of what the music industry was, just through going to a couple of producer conferences and funny beat battles, but I had never sat down to make an EP or an album or anything like that. It was more about trying to get good at making things.
Eric, did anything ever happen to those tracks you made with your dad’s tapes as a kid?
SL: I moved around a lot so it’s probably lost—some half hip-hop/half Nigerian high-life mixtape sitting somewhere for somebody to find.
It’s gonna be wild when RATKING blows up and people are hunting for that hard drive.
SL: Whoever finds it should send it to me!
Wiki, you grew up on the Upper West Side and your father is a lawyer, which is a nearly polar opposite path to the one you’ve chosen as an emcee. What inspired you to enter a creative field and take on the struggle it takes to succeed in rap?
Wiki: Well, for me I’ve always been into creating. It’s not like my parents were really hard on me to follow their path, and also my older brother was really good at school. And since he was older than me, they just kind of let me do me. For me, it was never any question, I always knew I was going to do something with art in some way. Even when I was younger I always knew that in the back of my head. In New York there’s so many kids whose parents are some favorite artist or something and they feel entitled. But I think it’s dope when you don’t come from a background of artists, but you perceive it as real. I got into some argument with this kid whose dad was a famous producer and he thought he deserved it, like it was in his bloodline, and I think that’s whack.
I know you said your parents mostly let you do your thing, but did your parents ever have any apprehensions about you becoming a musician?
Wiki: I mean, they wanted me to go to college but I didn’t go. I feel now they’re kinda chill with it, but there was definitely a period where I was like, “I’m not gonna go” and they were like, “No you should go!” But everything kind of fell into place at the right time, where [RATKING] seems legitimate enough to them.
Do they listen to RATKING or come out to your shows?
Wiki: They come to shows sometimes. My mom comes to shows and stuff; my dad does sometimes. I don’t know if they listen to RATKING but they accept it and support it. Also we played in Baltimore once and Eric’s parents came out and it was the worst show for your parents to possibly go to. It was one of those real DIY shows. Eric’s mom was in the front. I made sure our friend Johnny looked out so no one bumped into Eric’s mom. It was mad cool. Eric’s dad was in the back, not feeling the smoke.
Who else has had your back? Who put RATKING on in the beginning?
Wiki: Not just one person, but I know Jamie-James Medina saw Ratking and he hit us up to talk about possibly doing a deal with XL Recordings. But besides that it was pretty much just us on our own setting up shows with our friends.
And how did Jamie come across you guys?
Wiki: We used to play with this band, Normally Important, who was our friend’s band, and I think Jamie was looking for a new guitarist for Cerebral Ballzy or some shit ’cause they’re a black punk band also. But then he saw RATKING and was like, “Oh shit” and looked into it more and then he hit us up. If anyone put us on it was Eric Yue when we did that “Wikispeaks” video. The EP was kind of dense, really lyrical; it’s not the most accessible thing necessarily, so a good visual with that really helped people get into and see what we were doing. We still work with Eric, we just shot the “Canal” video with him, we did the comic with him.
SL: Once we saw the “Wikispeaks” video we were like, This is gonna translate what we were saying to people in a way we couldn’t by ourselves. That video was a pivotal point for us, to have someone translate what we were doing authentically. Eric Yue is like us, he’s like Wiki about his rhymes and me about the tracks I make, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. He’s really hard on himself to try to push the boundaries so that people see his work as new within the medium. It’s good to have someone take their job really seriously even without notoriety.
It’s been said that RATKING’s sound is much more raw than that of your peers in hip-hop right now, blending punk and hardcore elements at times for an undeniably “street” sound. Who is responsible for bringing the punk and hardcore elements to the table?
Wiki: I definitely listened to hardcore and that was an influence on me, but I’d say [with RATKING] it all happened naturally. We’d be playing with a punk band, so it just made sense. It’s not in the recorded music necessarily, but in the live set there’s definitely that element there. And after playing live, and having that become a part of our process, I feel like when we were recording the album I tried to incorporate that live energy. Which is also similar in terms of arrangement how Eric tried to have it be reminiscent of the live set while also being crisp and clean and recorded.
Who were some of those punk and hardcore bands that had an impact on you?
Wiki: I was really into The Germs, Black Flag, Minor Threat. Cro-Mags. Mad shit, you know what I mean? Kind of that era of punk and hardcore. I went through a phase almost. Not that I don’t fuck with that it anymore, but you know in tenth grade I was really into that.
Eric, you’re over ten years older than Wiki. How did you guys form that relationship with such an age gap in place?
SL: I think it was more that we were just fortunate to be into the same kinda thing.
Wiki: We met at this park jam, but that was set up by someone who’s ten years older than Eric. I was playing there because I knew him. Age doesn’t really matter as long as you have a certain mindset. We were all there at the park jam, listening to the music, vibing out, skating. So it’s not like age is really gonna come into play.
Do you think RATKING’s approach to hip-hop will change the landscape of the genre?
Wiki: I think we’ll definitely have an influence, no matter what level it’s at. Everything influences everything, and even if it’s not on some huge level it’s definitely going to impact something. What do you think Eric?
SL: Who’s to say what impact we’ll have but everything else we’ve been doing has been more subtle than major. As we travel and meet more people and vibe with different people the impact will grow.
What’s the process like working with an engineer as seasoned as Young Guru? Was he just there to track vocals, or what was his role?
Wiki: Young Guru mixed the album, he wasn’t just there to track vocals. We were there and tracked vocals with him in the beginning and worked on some songs while in the studio with him but it wasn’t like he was there telling us what to do in terms of song structure. But he was there helping us out and mixed it also.
SL: Basically we brought in 90% finished tracks to lay vocals on and get his input on, because a lot of this stuff was made on PA speakers and we had been playing a bunch of them live and we knew things were going to be a bit noisy, for lack of a better term. We felt like Guru, with his ear, would be able to reign it in. Is the kick too loud? Are the vocals where they need to be? We wanted the vocals to be as present as any Cam or Jay album, but sonically the beats to be on some next shit.
Where do you guys see hip hop going in the next five years?
SL: If you look at the whole trap movement that, to me, is evidence of producers getting more and more comfortable with certain sonics and sounds that haven’t traditionally been in hip-hop. What I’d like to see in the future, or what might happen, is some type of good World Hip-Hop. Like, Nas on a different sonic level. Everybody could appreciate Nas’s lyricism, he was on some underground hip-hop shit. Emcees now are really good, like Pat [Wiki] is exponentially better in thought and in skill than a lot of emcees before him. And dudes like Earl or Vinny Staples. If emcees of this skill connect with whatever that sound is, it could be like really good World Hip-Hop, not cheesy either. Hip House was almost there. Even the stuff Kid Cudi was doing a couple years ago with “Day ‘N’ Nite” was almost there it just wasn’t the dopest lyrics.
Does Ratking’s relationship with street culture and the genres you’ve incorporated into your music inspire your style or aesthetic as a group?
SL: Just growing up in hip-hop, you definitely gonna need to rock a lot of polos. But then the reality starts to set in, living in the current state of New York City, and wanting the things you wear to be functional and minimalist. It’s what you do, in what you wear. It shouldn’t trump the rest of the stuff you do. You gotta be able to run around.
Wiki: Whatever works! It’s a toss up! It’s not a set thing like, This is what I choose to be. It’s just like, All right what did I put on this morning? Not saying we don’t try to get fresh, but you gotta do it in a subtle way.
Listen to the Converse CONS EP featuring featuring RATKING x Eric Copeland of Black Dice: “GAUCHOS”
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