Ratking"Never name it."
Portrait by Jon Puglia
It’s possible that NYC based rap trio Ratking laid down their 45 minute live set at least once a week this summer- whether touring with groups like Death Grips and Trash Talk or playing their hometown everywhere from Webster Hall to Fitness Center for Arts and Tactics. This emphasis of live performance isn’t the only thing that separates Ratking from the majority of Hip Hop released today, whether mainstream or independent. The combination of Sporting Life’s live beats, Wiki’s flow as an MC and Hak’s vocal stylings made their debut EP Wiki93 on XL records an instant anomaly both as a studied 90’s throwback and a direct vision of the future. With their first full length LP due out this October, Sex decided to reunite Ratking with Aaron Bondaroff, one of the groups earliest supporters.
Wiki: It's good, how you doing?
Aaron: You looking good. You feeling good?
Wiki: Yeah, feeling good. A little sick.
Aaron: Wait, Sporting Life can you put a little background music on for me so we could, like, kind of get the vibe going? Who's in the Know Wave studio right now?
Wiki: Got Sporting Life, Hak, Johnny Problems. Johnny is our body guard/merch man/whatever-dirty-work-we-need-to-get-done man.
Aaron: Making it in Manhattan. Making it happen in Manhattan.
Wiki: Downtown, Browntown, Dirty Don—remember that shit?
Aaron: Wait a minute. Downtown, Browntown, Dirty Don... fuck I don't remember how it goes. I just remember from cook ups to hook ups, to make ups to break ups, I'm napping, I'm nodding, I'm never not... I can't remember, it's like my old rap. I could probably come out of retirement and do a quick hook for Ratking.
Wiki: Of course, of course.
Aaron: I know there's a lot of paperwork these days to work with you guys.... So let's just get right into it. Wiki, what's up, where you from originally?
Wiki: I'm from the Upper West Side.
Aaron: And what's your background?
Wiki: My dad's Puerto Rican, my mom's Irish-American.
Aaron: I’m right with you man. Puerto Rican, Jew, you know.
Wiki: Of course.
Aaron: I knew when I first met you, you were still in high school.
Wiki: I think I was in the eight grade.
Aaron: That's not high school buddy. That's junior high school. I remember when you and Rob rolled through and dropped some free-styles on me. Rob was your A&R back then cause he kind of kicked down the door first. He was like, “Yo, my man, he got rhymes.” Did you finish high school?
Wiki: Yeah, I graduated. I got good grades too.
Aaron: Congratulations. When you were in high school people knew that you were rapping right?
Wiki: Yea, people knew by my senior, maybe junior, year. Senior year people started realizing that Ratking was popping up.
Aaron: Hak, grab the mic, are you younger? How old are you?
Hak: We were in the same grade. I'm '94, but Wiki's a year older than me.
Aaron: Is that what the 1993 EP refers to?
Aaron: Damn, 90's babies. That's cool, that's a good year. What about you, Sporting Life, where were you from?
Sporting Life: I’m from Birmingham, Alabama.
Aaron: How did you get into making music?
Sporting Life: I started making beats right before I moved to New York. That was 2006. My older brother moved here first. At the time he wrote and spit and I was gonna make beats for him.
Aaron: What were some of the musicians or sounds that were inspiring you at that time?
Sporting Life: I was inspired by Beastie Boys and shit like that. Pharrell. Early Kanye, DJ Toomp. But, you know, you can't emulate forever.
Aaron: And I was the one who introduced you and Wiki to Eric, right?
Wiki: Yeah, I was just kind of rapping over like instrumentals, putting videos up on YouTube. You sent me some of Eric's beats and shit and we ended up meeting at that park jam. Hak was there too.
Aaron: So Hak was a part of Ratking from the beginning?
Wiki: Hak always did a lot of visual art, that was kind of more his thing. After a while, he just kind of eased his way into the group. It was just like, “Oh, of course.” It just made sense.
Aaron: I know it's bullshit with titles and all that nonsense, but what do you guys consider yourselves? You guys pull inspiration from a lot of different places.
Wiki: I think in the end it is what it is. It's forming as it goes. We try to pull in a lot, we reference and recycle. The three of us all have a different angle on everything. I try to be the most pure in the spirit of hip hop, to really keep that authenticity. Hak's not a rapper and he's not a singer: he's an artist that just uses those mediums. And then Eric's really influenced by a lot of noise music, like Black Dice and Animal Collective, as well as the hip hop he grew up on. I think we take those inspirations and try to tighten them up as much as possible, play it as live as possible.
Aaron: You’re coming from so many different places. You don't want to get caught up in categories.
Sporting Life: Yeah, never name it.
Aaron: Hak, you're more like a performance artist. I’ve seen you perform a few times, but it was a while ago.
Hak: At first, honestly, I was really uncomfortable in my own skin being on stage. Now I enjoy it. I always try to find something new and take risks during live performances.
Aaron: When you guys play shows, do people know some of the songs and stuff? How do they react?
Wiki: In the city we have a bit of a fan base, whether it's our friends or our friends’ friends. We played this one show, and when we played Piece of Shit everyone was spitting during the whole thing. That was pretty dope. When we're out on the road, on the other hand, we have to win over the crowd. In the beginning they're not really with it. During our first tour no one was really clapping at the end of our shows. For the last one with Death Grips, there was applause, everyone was feeling it. Everyone was going to the merch table, checking it out. It's working. The project's working.
Aaron: When I met you, you were MC Patrick. And I told you that you should be Lil’ Wiki, cause you were like an encyclopedia. You were educating me.
Wiki: I liked being named. To me that was some old school shit—to be named by an older cat. I thought that was kind of dope and the name stuck
Aaron: Do you go by Patrick or by Wiki? Does your family call you Wiki?
Wiki: My dad actually calls me Wiki which is a little weird. I don't know, my boys call me Wiki, and they call me Pat.
Aaron: How did the name Ratking come around?
Wiki: It just kind of encompassed a bunch of ideas we were thinking about at the time we started. It's kind of a tough name. You can't really fuck with it. It looks dope when you write it too.
Sporting Life: A Ratking is just like a bunch of rats when they get into a certain situation. They become tangled and have to kind of live as one organism. I don't know, a lot of people are creeped out by it.
Aaron: You got some good rat stories? I want to hear some rat stories.
Wiki: I'm honestly pretty scared of rats.
Aaron: I'm fucking freaked out by rats.
Hak: What's your rat story?
Aaron: I remember like in Williamsburg I had an apartment on Manhattan Avenue in the late 90’s. There was just rats galore, rats everywhere. I would come home at night and they would be on my stoop in b-boy positions smoking blunts. These rats were holding shit down. They were like blocking me from getting into my place. I would open my front door and all the rats would run up the stairs before me and find spots to hide. I'll be like watching my TV and all of a sudden a rat would walk in front of the TV—like "look at me!"—and keep going to my kitchen. Then it would drag the whole garbage bag into the other room. They were like baby pit bulls.
Hak: I think you might be the Ratking.
Aaron: How long have you guys been Ratking now?
Hak: Two and a half years.
Aaron: Pretty new. What are some of the other young bands that you guys play shows with?
Hak: The Illuzion with Salomon Faye and Rebel. DJ Dog Dick from Far Rockaway. He's actually helping us out with the record and he's featured on some tracks. Wavy Spice is on the album too. Kaila Paulino from the Bronx. Show Me The Body.
Aaron: But you also work with your peers, your community. Like Letter Racer.
Wiki: Letter Racer are kind of all our artist friends. We're all trying to help each other out, whatever it is, art or music.
Aaron: You also work with some older cats. I know Ari Marcopoulos did a video with you guys.
Wiki: Yeah. He had this art show and asked us to play that. Then he filmed the video for Piece of Shit. It was a live version of the song.
Aaron: What do you guys go for with your videos?
Sporting Life: I don't know if there is an overarching message. We were talking yesterday about a new video we’re trying to do called CANAL. With anything you create I think the content has to be dope, but so do the means by which you create it. That’s the ill combination. That’s the only rule we use to make things.
Aaron: It’s really important for you guys to perform live, right? That’s kinda rare now in hip hop.
Wiki: Yeah. Our songs are changing as we play. It’s part of the writing process. Sometimes playing live might make it that we're off for a sec, but that might make something new happen that's even doper than the recorded version.
Sporting Life: It also takes hip hop away from what I feel big business and success brought it to—that stage versus crowd kind of mentality. “We’ve got chains, we’ve got shoes and we fuck all your girls, it’s us versus you.” Playing it live I feel bridges the gap between the people on stage and the people in the crowd, because they see you moving to the music and they're feeling it . It's all of us dancing to the same thing, not me stunting on you from an elevated position on stage.
Aaron: You bring a lot of punk energy to hip hop.
Wiki: You don't have to scream, rip your shirt off, or crowd surf to be punk. But if you set up a certain situation, then you're going to want to scream naturally. You might smack yourself in the face with the mic if you're feeling a song in a certain way. If somebody on the outside considers that punk—then whatever, that's the word, but it's just the outcome of what you're feeling at the time.
Hak: You’ve got to handle yourself in real time. It kind of humbles you because you have to realize it takes practice. It also sets you apart, raises the bar to a degree of difficulty for what you're trying to do.
Aaron: Wiki, what are some of you MC influences?
Wiki: I mean, I’m influenced by everything. But specifically? Definitely Jay Z’s Blueprint Volume I, II, III. A lot of Cam’ron. Freeway. I'll be like telling Eric, “This is like some Freeway shit but on a jungle beat from my voice.” You would never connect it back. ODB is a big influence too. On the new album I definitely go mad drunken style on my ad-libs . There's definitely some Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Germs-type shit on the album too.
Aaron: You guys are doing pretty well. You’re with XL, you're playing pretty major venues. Why do you still play small gigs?
Hak: We try to play shows anywhere we can play shows. Our friends have this venue called Apostrophe, which is kind of a gutted Bodega turned art gallery and performance space. We played a bunch of shows there and it was always a good mixture of kids from the neighborhood, adults from the neighborhood, and other people from everywhere. At a lot of those shows we're on the same level as the crowd. I love switching it up from being on stage to being on level with the people we're speaking to.
Wiki: A lot of the shows that we play in Bushwick will draw kind of a hipster crowd... but Apostrophe really does bridge the gap between hip hop and new shit. Once I had the flu and missed a show we played there but saw the footage later—I remember seeing all these Spanish kids from the neighborhood bouncing out! They get to see and hear something new. It's just dope, it’s good for everyone.