By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
Patrick "Wiki" Morales, frontman of the Harlem hip-hop group Ratking, is dressed in a baggy T-shirt and jeans, sitting at the Pakistan Tea House in Tribeca. He's with his bandmates, producer Eric "Sporting Life" Adiele, 31, and Hakeem "MC Hak" Lewis, 18, shoveling forkfuls of rice pilaf and chicken tikka masala into his mouth while speaking almost as frantically as he raps. Almost. "I'm like a shy person," Wiki explains. "But when I'm on stage it's over, it's like letting it all out. I don't have to worry about what I say, or what I look like and shit . . . it's our show."
At just 19, Wiki has been widely lauded as the future of New York hip-hop, held up as the kind of lyrical savant the city needs in order to regain the prominence it once boasted in the '90s with acts like the Notorious B.I.G, Jay-Z, and Wu-Tang Clan. But even while other uptown rappers like A$AP Rocky and Azealia Banks are busy scoring No. 1 albums and hit singles worldwide, it's clear that Ratking sees New York, and what it needs in order to move forward, a little differently.
"I'd rather be the future—us as a group would rather, I mean—be the future of New York in a little bit more than just hip-hop," says Wiki. He's sporting a freshly buzzed head and a few of his front teeth are missing, though no one offers an explanation. "The future in culture and in art. But maybe that is part of the future of hip-hop."
Things have happened fast for Ratking. Since the music video for their song "Wikispeaks" first began to buzz on the Internet last spring, the group has toured the U.S. and the U.K., played the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris, split with their fourth member (producer Ramon), and signed with prestigious British record label XL Recordings (Radiohead, M.I.A, Adele).
Their debut EP, Wiki93, is like an unwashed window into urban rot. The world brought to life by Wiki's nasally, spastic flow is one of teenage delinquency and discontent. Jumping subway turnstiles, wreaking havoc on the police, getting drunk and stoned on city stoops—all of the small vices one might associate with growing up in Manhattan (on the Upper West Side for Wiki) come through on the record.
"A drunk mutt, that's my pedigree, it's meant to be/Hennessy's the only thing that's friendly to me/I'm straight New York when a lot of y'all pretending to be," declares the half-Irish, half-Puerto-Rican Wiki on "Wikispeaks." And while it's true—the style is authentically NYC—it's also undeniably left of mainstream, somehow too avant-garde to be labeled as just plain hip-hop. The influences of Biggie, early Jay, and Dipset's Cam'ron can be heard on 93, but it's done as homage, almost pastiche, and coupled with tastes of '70s No Wave, layers of noise, and the spirit of '80s hardcore punk to keep things interesting.
"We try to make songs that haven't been made before," explains Sporting Life, the group's producer. "Like we mix some things that maybe singe your eyebrows off, or explode in your face, but when we finally get that mix right. . . ." He trails off.
"The master of analogy over here," laughs Hak. Tall and soft-spoken, Hak has his head down and is busying himself by drawing a cartoon on a paper napkin. "You should try rapping using only analogies."
Sporting Life first met Wiki and Hak (the pair have been friends since middle school) two years ago at a downtown park jam. Wiki had fought his way onto the stage and was freestyling over an instrumental. When the beat ended, the young MC continued a cappella, causing the crowd to go wild and Sporting Life to take notice. In the days that followed, the group quickly bonded over their love of hip-hop, as well as a shared appreciation for film, art, and New York No Wave acts like proto-punk duo Suicide.
"It was like, 'Oh, you guys know what's good,' " says Sporting Life, who grew up in Virginia, and then Baltimore, before moving to Harlem. "I guess it was serendipitous that all of us could be into Cam and also into Alan Vega, you know what I mean?"
While much of the attention has been placed on Wiki—the frenetic pace at which he spits, the bushy unibrow set above his eyes (Wiki One Eyebrow is one of his nicknames), the overall strangeness of his bravado—Ratking views itself as a band, not a solo project. One of Sporting Life's favorite analogies is to a basketball team: Wiki playing shooting guard and knocking down jumpers, Hak as the big man in the paint crashing the boards, and Sporting Life handling the ball at the point, setting up all the plays.
"We're all getting to the stage where everyone is getting more comfortable with their roles in the band," he explains. "Like if I'm going to play guard, then you guys can't play guard. You can be forward or you can be center. It's a team effort. You gotta get rebounds, and I'll get assists, and he gets points."