Fear of a Wack Planet: Ratking interviewed
As Ratking circle back for another assault on the UK, founding MC Patrick 'Wiki' Morales lays out the full scale of the burgeoning Harlem rap crew's ambition
New York is steeped in hip-hop history; from the block party turntablism of the early 70s to the multitudinous figures, groups and movements that since broke out of the city’s parameters to become iconic around the world. But its future belongs to Ratking – two precocious and hungry MCs by the name of Patrick 'Wiki' Morales and Hakeem 'Hak' Lewis in their early 20s, flanked by restless beat-maker Eric 'Sporting Life' Adiele, a decade their senior.
Formed in Harlem in 2011, the trio draw disparate elements of the city’s heritage into a collage of irregular beats, oblique samples and abstract lyrics. Reaching across the Atlantic, the chaos of the resurgent UK grime scene is present, along with futuristic post-dubstep touches, and above all an abundance of uncompromising youthful creativity. It’s not quite rap, but it’s not quite like anything else either.
Ratking aren’t trying to build on the past or posthumous reputation of its demigods – they’re attempting to reach beyond the mundanity of the present. "We all grew up on hip-hop but we were over it… Over the bullshit of it," explains Wiki, currently back in the city after two months of touring Europe. "So the ideology with me and Sporting Life from the beginning was to do something different by creating a mix of everything that was going on in the same era. Let’s mix the uptown rap scene with downtown punk and No Wave and then give a modern perspective of how it is at street level now."
"We want to create our own culture" – Wiki
They’re more likely to namecheck jazz punk fusionist James Chance – an idol of Wiki's since his thirteenth birthday – than Public Enemy as a source of inspiration. It’s not just the no-holds-barred experimentation of such No Wave progenitors they admire, but also the movement’s rejection of commercial popularity. You won’t find any bling-based bravado in Ratking’s message. "It’s not that we don’t want to make any money, but that’s not our main concern. It’s the art and craft of it," says Wiki. There’s more an unruly desire to break the rules and strike crowds with visceral punk fury at their live shows. "You can’t dress in some crazy fashionista shit when you’re on the road carrying all your gear anyway," he laughs. "We’re gonna go about this shit like we’re a band and do it head on." And that’s where they sit, more Suicide than The Furious Five.
Every gig is a feral slice of youthful deterministic angst, which they're currently tightening up for a UK return this August. In 2012, while Wiki and Hak were still teenagers, the reputation of their performances was such that the group bagged a tour support with fellow anarchic anti-establishment peers, Death Grips, who Wiki admits had a "massive influence" on the way they do things live. "It’s mad inspirational to see the intensity of their shows. The level they do everything on is unreal."
Onstage, Sporting brings the ‘band’ element, playing with midi hardware, a drum machine and other electronic gizmos to brashly flesh out a futuristic punk-inspired cacophony that stretches from psychedelic Shabazz Palaces-style haziness to the syncopated abrasiveness of 2014 single Canal. "That’s Sporting’s influence from No Wave," says Wiki. "He gets a kick from buying new gear and figuring new ways to configure it to create a completely new sound. We want to challenge our audiences, tell them to keep an open mind, then push just how open they can be," he expands on their rationale as a touring force.
Like the most vociferous punk and grime acts, Ratking want to connect the underground and effect social change on their own terms by making thought-provoking and uncompromising music – striding into the path of most resistance. Lyrically, there’s grit and idiosyncratic references to the city they grew up in – an aural assault, again similar to UK grime’s aggressive Bow council estate references, or the way punk and hip-hop initially gave voice to working class frustration.
Despite his Upper West Side origins, the lens Wiki places on New York presents a dystopian high-rise claustrophobia, where an underclass dwells amid drug addiction, depression and police brutality. Remove Ya, from last year's full-length debut So It Goes (inspired by a recurring line pertaining to death in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse-Five), is the most stark example of the latter – a stop and frisk commentary as striking as the Mitchell Brothers’ Routine Check before it. Beginning with a sample of a secretly-recorded search conducted on a Harlem teenager, in which the police tell the accused that he’s being frisked because he’s a ‘fucking mutt’.
"I’ve had police stop me in the street and go through my pockets without asking, not as much as my friends because I look pretty white, but it really affected me when I heard about that. It was like, ‘Oh shit! This is happening in New York,’ and it related to us because we’re all some mutt shit too," says Wiki (mutt being slang for a young civilian of mixed race). "In the UK it’s different because you’ve got the cameras on smash, y’know? You know you’re getting watched but it’s more subtle. With young black and Latino teenagers, it’s a real struggle on a daily basis."
Nevertheless, the source message translates around the globe. The group's recent collaboration with King Krule, on So Sick Stories, saw New York contrasted with London as Krule sings the hook: ‘Now do you see this, the way the grey controls only the souls that go to sleep to sink and dissolve / Are set adrift in between the concrete and the mist / Just another inner city river bliss.’ Wiki chimes in on the group's far-reaching empathy: "I’ve noticed in a lot of places we’ve visited on the road there’s deprivation and hard times. There’s a lot of people out there who feel like they need a voice and whether we can be that or not, it’s nice that they can relate to us."
What legacy do Ratking want to leave? "We’ll be around for a long time and we’ll build the opposite to mainstream culture. There used to be a defined line between the mainstream and the underground but that’s becoming more blurred. Maybe we can unite the underground into a mass movement," he ponders with unblinkered optimism. Though signed to XL, an under-the-radar ethos was typified with the release of their 700-Fill mixtape as a free download through BitTorrent this past March. The project was written and finished in six days but shows the abundance of spontaneous ideas at Ratking’s disposal. "We were just having fun and seeing what was good; we wanted to put it out for free and BitTorrent fucked with us in the past, so it made sense. It’s still some dope shit, y’know what I mean?"
Like another major influence, Wu-Tang Clan, Wiki is looking to create a multi-functional cooperative that stands alone in the capitalist world. "Sport’s putting out a solo record pretty soon and I’m working on a solo project. Hak is doing some stuff, and whatever we do we’ll make it remain strong in the roots of Ratking – the way Wu-Tang was. No matter what they did, they all went back to the Wu. There was a strong ideology that fortified what they did, and that’s where we want to sit with Ratking. We want to create our own culture and be defined only by our own music."