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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."
The group's aesthetic, though more refined and pronounced on their newer material, is indeed largely a product of Sporting Life's loop-laden production and Hak's odd mixture of spoken word, sung melody, and straight-up rap verses—no longer solely a platform for Wiki to showcase the wit and intricacy of his rhymes. Songs like "Comic," a glitchy, fast-paced track added to the XL re-release of Wiki93, as well as cuts leaked off their forthcoming LP So It Goes, show Ratking moving away from retro rap and toward something more inventive, a style bound less and less by the five boroughs. The beats are noisy and industrial, pushing the sound closer to that of California punk/rap outfit Death Grips than, say, Jay-Z's classic Reasonable Doubt or Wu-Tang's 36 Chambers (two albums that Ratking members still reference constantly in conversation). Hak's role in the band has also been amped up, and his dueling vocals with Wiki give the songs a certain amount of tension and drama they once lacked.
The result is something fresh, weird, and a little bit schizophrenic, like we're listening to Ratking wrestle with its own potential. The title track from So It Goes (the name is a nod to Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five) continues in a similarly manic vein; the group says they've started to build a collage of ideas found in literature, film, art, magazines—even words they've seen carved into city sidewalks—in order to create something new.
"[So It Goes] is not necessarily more experimental, but it's more mature—even with 'Comic,' I didn't necessarily have my hands completely around the sound I was going for," explains Sporting Life, who says he strives to construct a record the same way that Quentin Tarantino pastes elements of classic film genres together in his movies. "'Comic' was like a rest stop on our way."
Wiki jumps in: "Yeah, it's not just past it, it's past it and then that way and that way," he says, pointing left and then right.
Though there's no release date yet, Ratking has finished tracking between 12 and 14 songs for So It Goes. The album was recorded by Young Guru—the Grammy-nominated audio engineer who has mixed 10 of Jay-Z's 11 albums—and New York's DJ Dog Dick, and will be a chance for the group to see if artistic ambition can translate to staying power in a genre that doesn't always reward it.
"We're trying to merk Hot 97 and merk the art world at the exact same time," says Sporting Life. "We wanna box with the big dogs."
Fresh from SXSW, Ratking are hitting the road for a mini-tour with Wu-Tang Clan's GZA starting in late March. For more info, visit ratkingnyc.com or follow @RatKing on Twitter.