If you’re not familiar with Ratking yet, chances are you will be hearing a lot of them soon enough. This three-headed New York collective of friends-turned-collaborators has been unknowingly helping change the sound of hip-hop from the Big Apple since hitting the scene emphatically in 2012. Growing up together in Harlem and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, lyricists Wiki and Hak would produce their own homemade recordings. It wasn’t until they met their future-producer Sporting Life (who was new to the city) that they fully realised their potential as a group. As their musical moniker suggests, the lives of the members of Ratking have been intertwined ever since.
After a little stroll through the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, I found the trio huddled up in their converted apartment-cum-practice area, as they were preparing for a major North American tour with indie rap giants Run the Jewels. The space, a term being used lightly here, can best be described as cozy; floor and furniture covered in studio equipment, walls strewn with Ratking related tags, the scent of man sweat and another unnamed smell. It sums up the intimacy of living in New York, something that they wouldn’t have any other way. “It’s just regular,” says the wiry and charismatic Wiki. “Our friend John, his little brother moved here for school and when he got home he was like ‘Oh my god, silence.’ To me the noise and shit is just so regular.” Sporting Life, the cerebral core of the group, chimes in, saying “it really is silence after a while.” They equate the sound of early morning construction work and police sirens with the playful chirping of birds. “The thing I noticed when I first moved to New York [from Virginia] was the sound of big trucks, it was like a tornado coming down your street,” recalls the NY transplant. Having lived there all his life, Wiki adds “to me it’s normal but I can see it has affected what I write.”
Their sound, which has elements of UK grime (incidentally one of their favourite genres) and a punk aesthetic, is one not particularly associated with their stomping grounds of Harlem and Uptown. Those with initial visions of Dipset or Ma$e in their heads are in for a surprise. “Some people think we’re from London or they think he [pointing to Hak] is Jamaican,” Wiki says jokingly. “People just associate dreads and a beat that doesn’t have straight-ahead snares and say ‘he must be a grime artist,’” Sporting observes. The soft-spoken member of the crew, and supposed Rasta grime god, Hak believes their cultural ambiguity may be part of the appeal. “Some of the sounds are definitely foreign or not too easily digestible, maybe sounds you haven’t heard before, but that’s what brings people in.” Their appeal is one that has apparently attracted everyone from “smart people” and “grannies” to “pasty nerds” and “hip-hop heads.” Let the image of that diverse audience at a live show sink in for a minute. With a raw, unfiltered sound that has crossed over to listeners with disparate tastes, you could conceivably compare Ratking to a famed, fellow NY collective. “It’s like Wu [Tang Clan], everyone fucks with Wu,” Wiki blurts out. “It wasn’t the most pristine shit in the world.”
While they may not have a RZA type master plan of building a multimedia empire just yet, these determined Uptown dudes seem very aware of what they need to do to succeed in the long-term. “You have to stick to your consistency and your aesthetic for long enough and can’t let it get watered down through collaboration or things you associate yourself with,” Sporting says. “You need to be really stringent about it.” For some artists, consistency and complacency end up becoming one in the same. This is a pitfall that already weighs on the mind of Wiki. “We like to develop our sound, it’s not like ‘It has to be this classic beat.’ I would hope it’s always changing.” Rather than just think about it, all three are constantly working and pushing each other to evolve from where they last left off. “With Sports’ beats, it’s not like one period sounds like the other. And I mean within a matter of a month. His newest batch of beats is a totally different sound.” As a writer, Wiki likes to whittle away at his lyrics with a metaphorical hatchet, until they’re at their most potent. “I don’t want it to be like ‘Oh a new Ratking project, it’s gonna be like So it Goes,’ because it’s not, it’s gonna be something new.” Sporting, living up to his competitive name, takes things a step further. “As you get stagnant other things attach themselves to you. It’s like everything else in nature, if you start out at a certain speed and you slow down, other things can latch on to you and pull you in different directions. You can meet people and slowly they can start attaching themselves to your aesthetic to gain a bit of your ‘cool.’ You’ll look back in a year and think ‘How did I turn into that?’ and that can happen real easy if you’re in the midst of it.” As he succinctly sums it up, “to grow your skill level and also not become corny over time, that shit is tough.”
Developing their live show and their following is also an important aspect of what they do. Along with their 20-plus date tour with Runs the Jewels, the NY triple threat have also played dates with the ostensibly disbanded Death Grips. Performing to these unique audiences has helped expand their fan base, something they are mindful of. “You’ve gotta gain a market in different cities,” Wiki says. “We played some shows with Earl Sweatshirt in DC, then when we went back on our own mad people came out. There are people in every city that will get it. We met kids in the Midwest with Ratking tattoos.” They also understand the importance of attracting female listeners to their shows, as Wiki tells us. “You gotta get girls to fuck with your music, you don’t want it to be a ‘bro fest.’ Girls should be into it too, because that’s what hip-hop was, for everyone to have fun and dance.” Going into hype-man mode, Hak pokes fun at the level of aggression that can come with hip-hop shows. “‘Put your fuckin’ hands up, now throw your wallet on stage, now I’m gonna play this song.’”
With more shows under their belt, they have also noticed a change in their confidence when performing. “I feel like I’ve found my comfortableness on stage,” Hak reveals. “There was definitely a point where I was conscious of every fucking second being on stage. Now it’s kind of fluid and natural.” Wiki agrees that their comfort on stage has improved but can change based on the factors around them. “It depends on the energy, the crowd, the sound, all of that plays a role. At the same time, I think we generally get it together.”
The beauty of live performance, and the rather anarchic music they produce, means that getting everything note-for-note doesn’t have to be their main priority. “It’s a live show, so nothing is perfect,” Hak states matter-of-factly. “Every song, every rendition, it’s different every time.” Wiki adds that “sometimes what’s not perfect is dope.” Not focussing on perfection allows them to experiment and add new elements, which may later surface on future recordings. “We’re almost working on new stuff even when we’re playing.” This experimental approach extends to the studio, giving their recorded work a live and unpredictable feel. “When we recorded the album [So it Goes] we definitely did a lot of just straight up getting the verses down, but at a certain point we went in and experimented a lot,” Wiki recalls. Sporting echoes that, saying “we tried to make the album as close to what the live show is. It’s all using the same samples, so the songs can exist in two different forms simultaneously.” The same will undoubtedly apply to their upcoming project 700 Fill, which they will be released sometime this year.
These accomplishments are impressive for any group that has just released a debut album, let alone one that is new to the professional studio environment. “It was the first time any of us had really had that kind of serious studio recording experience,” Sporting reveals. Indeed, their acclaimed debut EP Wiki93, which put them on the map and led to their discovery by the UK-based XL Recordings, was a self-recorded and released effort. Armed with one handheld mic, while Sporting presided over the mixing duties, they had little knowledge of traditional studio techniques and etiquette. That changed quite drastically once the sessions for So it Goes began. “We were learning ‘like you record the verse, then you’ve gotta do adlibs’ and everything that goes into more professionally made songs,” Wiki reflects. “We started learning that during the recording process of the album and I think we now have a better grip of what sounds best.” Also taking the time to record music on their own, all three members of Ratking have built a standard of quality that they want to uphold.
Understandably a certain level of pressure would be expected for young artists recording an anticipated debut album for a revered record label. Any pressure felt came from their own desires and not from outside forces, Wiki clarifies. “We were making what we wanted to make, but for us we know we wanted to make a dope album. We didn’t feel it from the label, like ‘we have to make these certain type of songs.’” They experienced an enviable level of respect that any new artist would hope to receive during the recording and release process. “They have our best interests in mind, it’s never an aggressive situation where ‘you have to take this off or we’re not putting it out.’ They’ll give you their opinion.” One of those opinions was to cut the tracklist of So it Goes from 14 songs down to 12. “The album was gonna be longer and I think it was better when we cut it down,” Wiki states. “We chose what to cut but it was good to have that conversation, because they know, that’s what they do.”
Along with label input, the members of Ratking were also guided through the process by production luminaries like the magnificently named DJ Dog Dick and former Roc-A-Fella Records studio engineer Young Guru. “His working method and seeing how strategically he goes about recording a verse, and the kind of things he leans towards and prefers [really helped],” burgeoning producer Sporting says of his experiences in the studio with Guru. “For the most part it was about watching and picking up as much as you can. He’s more of the quiet type, he’s not explaining every little piece as he goes along.” After working with Guru, the trio chose to reconvene in the studio with DJ Dog Dick and others to add extra some touches and experiment before going back to the famed engineer to perfect the final cut. “When we went back in with Guru we started cutting down from there and he helped us with that process, to simplify it.”
The recording of So it Goes saw the emergence of a new Ratking, not just musically but mentally. “Doing the album helped a lot and we’re still learning. Whether it was a hook or ‘we need something here,’ not just a verse necessarily,” Wiki reveals. “Changes and those little events that need to happen to keep people’s ears interested, that’s something DJ Dog Dick really impressed upon us,” Sporting adds. “But everything is a give and take. The more you add on this side, the more somebody else is like ‘You know what, these songs aren’t simple enough.’” Synthesising their own vision with all of the advice and wisdom they have received is a skill they are looking to work on as they develop as recording artists. “With everything you learn you’ve gotta find that proper balance. You only get that over time and through trial and error.”
The experience of going through the recording process has also helped with how they work individually and interact as a unit. “We’re finding how to work as a band together in the most streamlined, easy way, with our diverging interests and weekly activities,” says Sporting, who handles all of the group’s production. “Sometimes ideas will come out of a conversation we had or a song title, where we match the title with an idea. A lot of stuff comes out of maybe we all hear something and decide to push forward on that. I like writing beats constantly.” On the same note, Wiki says that he never stops writing lyrics or coming up with concepts. “I’ll always be writing or jotting shit down,” Wiki notes, as he coincidentally has writing on his hands. “We all like to work separately too and then we’ll come together to make it happen and it usually happens naturally.”
However how much they feel they’ve learned or no matter how much critical acclaim they have garnered, all three members are looking to keep evolving. “It’s like ‘Alright, you made a little bit of noise but what have you done since then?’” Sporting says, outlining the group’s sentiments. “It’s about what you do after recognition, because after that you have a target on you. But I like that challenge. I want it to be like ‘Yeah we did it again!’”
Words by Andrew Hickey
Photos by Will Robson-Scott