It’s 6:30 pm on a Tuesday and it’s hectic on West 14th Street outside Babycastles Gallery, where the three members of the up and coming hip-hop group Ratking are trying to figure out how to get all of their friends into their album release show. Upstairs, the two floors of the gallery are already filled to the brim with 19 and 20 year old kids, enough diversity to fill 30 university brochures, though administrators might shy away if more than half the kids looked like these: hair-dyed, tatted up and smoking like freight trains.
I’m outside talking to Patrick Morales, the 20 year old de facto leader of Ratking, if only by virtue of being the most extroverted member of the group. Morales, who goes by the name Wiki — short, curly-haired — is gracious enough to concede to doing an interview just 30 minutes before show time, even as we’re constantly interrupted by the scores of his friends and acquaintances coming by to congratulate him on the album.
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A fan and fellow rapper who goes by Rio Flows greets Wiki: “Your fuckin’ project… on repeat, my nigga.”
It takes a moment for Wiki to place him but when he does he’s all smiles, showing the gap in his teeth that’s twice the size of Danny Brown’s.
Rio’s still praising. “‘Puerto Rican Judo’… it’s a tight little love song.”
“Puerto Rican Judo” is one of the standout tracks on So It Goes, the group’s debut album available this week from XL Recordings. New York rap fans will pick up the Cam’ron reference in the title, but the song barely nods to the Harlem rapper, aside from repurposing his slanguage. It’s a creature all its own, combining Gotham-style samba and dance with clattering drums and drunken, off-kilter raps. Following an introductory verse from Ratking’s Hak, Wiki trades verses with his girlfriend, who raps under the pseudonym Wavy Spice. The song is like nothing you’ve ever heard, and yet, the parts that make it up feel familiar, a series of déjà vu moments packed like sardines into a single track.
Plenty of people in the coming weeks and months are going to attempt to classify the music of Ratking, flipping lists of soundalikes and signifiers. Credit that to the fact that the music on So it Goes is weighty, that it sounds like something that matters, like something that came before. It’s an album that can’t help but to bring to mind other crews of young city-dwellers. Dipset to Def Jux to Digable Planets to Death Grips, and that’s just the “D” section.
Ratking draw influences from everywhere: in their interviews, they’ve mentioned the work of grime stars like Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, the angelic, looped dub of Panda Bear and neo-psychedelia of Black Dice, just to name a few. Comparisons to rap traditionalists are apparently the only thing the group finds irksome — Wiki has garnered comparisons to a young Eminem, mostly due to his snarling delivery. When I ask him about it, he can’t hide a grimace.
Instead, he compares the album to a Tarantino flick.
“Kill Bill, all these different references put into one world, and one look. That’s how I feel our album was in a way, like we took all these different things and then put it in this one world, one universe.”
The group’s rejection of straightforward hip-hop comparisons may come from the fact that So It Goes is self-consciously post hip-hop. The name of the album is cribbed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, in which the phrase is uttered every time something too horrific to process happens. Ratking like to think of themselves as unstuck from the time-stream, like that novel’s hero, Billy Pilgrim.
“I feel like we related [the title] to New York like people say, oh New York’s dead, oh hip-hop’s dead, and its like, so it goes.” says Wiki.
That attitude is made explicit on the album’s introductory track, which rejects rap’s eternal habit of comparing novice acts with everything that came before. The skit makes the point that, almost two decades removed from Biggie and Pac, rappers are working in an entirely new context. Rap’s bloodstream has been completely replenished so it’s unrealistic to expect today’s youngsters to make the same kind of music as their forbears.
That perspective separates Ratking from the gritless golden age revivalism of the most prominent of their fellow “rebirth of New York” rap crews. There’s nothing that screams “retread” on So It Goes — instead, old parts are cannily recycled, repackaged, brought into the fold of something new. You can hear it on “Canal” where traditional boom-bap vocal samples are submerged in siren-like noise, hooks tumbling in from out of nowhere, echoing the bustle of the main drag in Chinatown.
That’s the other big thing about So It Goes: it’s defiantly New York in an era where regionalism, and New York itself, are supposed to be either dead or dying.
Not surprising then that the group’s genesis came with a return to the city. Ratking was formed when the Harlem native Hakeem Lewis, known within the group as Hak, returned from a trip to Ecuador and began making music with Upper West Side Wiki. The two have known each other since second grade, when they attended The Cathedral School together. The two supply the more explicit New York elements of So It Goes, in-depth discussion of deli meat, trains taken, and bullying cops.
“I was more of a visual person,” Hak tells me, of switching his focus to creating music. “You really don’t understand something until you start doing it.”
The first song that Hak and Wiki did together was “646-704-2610” a more traditional hip-hop song, that showcases the duo’s dynamic, as they trade bars about girls.
“It’s true, I do more jackin’ than mackin’,” Wiki raps. “And I do more eyein’ than tryin'”
Then Hak comes in and encourages him, deferring to his elder’s experience: “Wik, you small, but you ’93, I’m ’94/ Let’s explore your cerebral cortex wall.”
A respect for the knowledge of elders may have led the two to recruit Eric Adiele into the fold. Adiele, who goes by Sporting Life or Sport, hooked up with the group about three years ago.
“We met at a park jam,” Sport tells me. “No-Wave bands were playing and Wiki was spitting. I was there with one of my friends from Germany.”
(That’s the funny thing about Ratking. Even as they attempt to reject any comparisons to rap history, there are things about their origin that are so explicitly hip-hop — birth at a park party, for instance — that it just makes you shake your head. At the same time, their insistence on staying outside the timeline manifests in their music, almost as if they evolved out of some early branch of parallel universe hip-hop.)
If Hak and Wiki bring the lyrical components of New York into the music of Ratking, then it’s Sport, who at 32 has more than a decade on both his fellows, that brings the atmosphere. His beats are crowded, cluttered, overwhelmed with ideas. The near seven minute opus “Snow Beach,” is animated by more than four different through lines, chattering keys, an ever-present Greek chorus, random vocal snippets, and eventually, a beautiful, jazzy sax loop, like encountering a particularly talented busker in the middle of a crowded subway platform.
Sport rejects the idea that the decade he has on the other two gives him any kind of authority.
“They’re teaching and guiding me in a way too,” he says. “Letting me know that you don’t have to take everything so seriously. You can just be into some shit and make it and see how it comes out.”
Wiki recognizes the welcome tension that each member of Ratking brings to the music. “It’s like we’re all tugging in different ways but then it comes together,” he says.
On the album, the trio sound serious, engaged, in the midst of writing a manifesto for like-minded young men. But out here, on the day of its release, they’re all just stressed about the people being turned away from their party. Hak is scowling at his father, who is looming over the scene, taking pictures of everything.
“My dad’s really annoying me, being a weird photographer,” he says.
Meanwhile Wiki and Sport are busy apologizing to every single one of their friends who has been shut out of the now-closed show. Ratking is nervous, stressed, excited, but none of them really seems prepared for what’s coming in the weeks and months ahead.
“I don’t see anything else but this because this is all I got right now,” Hak tells me, when I ask him what’s next.
Sport’s response to the same question: “It’s kinda just starting. Our album is out, but I just got a new drum machine, so that’s what I’m thinking about. On to the next one.”
“So it goes,” I hear Wiki say a couple minutes later, in a response to someone else.
So It Goes is out now on XL Recordings.