Rat kings were once a phantasmic apparition, folklore amongst German peasants. As the tale goes, they occurred when a number of rats stuck to each other by entangling their tails. Purposefully or not, the rats grew together despite being intertwined and feeding off of whatever scraps came their way. The adhesive that kept their tails tied together is unknown but during the plague in Europe, it was said that blood, dirt, ice or perhaps their own droppings caused the entanglement. A bad omen has always hovered over the mere pronunciation of the word, but it’s a group that has surfaced above the toasty New York City tunnels to make the hairs behind your neck stand up. Absent Hak, we recently sat down with the rap collective Ratking to talk about hip hop outside the box and how it should still be approached as an art-form.
You have to understand that these guys are raw, there is a quiet confidence that bleeds through their pores. Their debut EP Wiki 93 featured 6 tracks with an insightful interview with Academy Award nominated filmmaker and good friend Christine Choy serving as the finale. These dudes have studied the game not through the eyes of others but through their own life experiences. Adding a piece of themselves into their craft – brothers tied together through a bond called hip hop. Whether you are old school or new school there is something to love about Ratking. Wanting more from the artists that represent the genre you love is not too much to ask for and that power is like a tool, a rusty tool that us fans keep away rotting in the shed.
What inspired the name Ratking?
My name’s Eric, stage name Sporting Life. We had a couple of names that we had and when it came down to it we picked it to show the duality, like rat and king, black-white, ying-yang. It was a balance and plus it is a New York City reference. The idea of a rat king is all these individual things that through strange and rare turn of events get tangled together but ended up being able to work as one and be more powerful. In a way it’s like a bad omen for things outside of that rat king because when people start seeing rat kings they know something is about to pop off.
My names Patrick, Wiki. And yeah, Ratking.
Wiki, how did you get into spittin’? And Sport, what got you into producing?
Wiki: I started rapping when I was in 6th grade, just out of wanting to write, going to parties, freestyling and getting in cyphers. Hearing people that were doper than me made me want to get better and develop over time. Keeping a good perspective on life, I think that goes into being a good writer. Not just technically good but writing about ill s*** and not being corny.
Sporting Life: As far as making sounds, I started around 2006 but I didn’t really get cold until 3 or 4 years after that. I’ve always been interested in hip hop in general. I’ve grown up in hip hop and trying to figure out how things are made, what you are going to add to or not, that’s kind of like a long process. After a while, if you can make it through that process you can come up with something pretty dope. And, because hip hop is ubiquitous if you can come up with something creative or some next s*** it’ll push through hip hop.
Wiki and Hak are two 19 year olds working with a 30 year old Sporting Life. A trio that baffles the minds of some hip hop fans. It bursts the bubbles of people who have a fixed mindset on what hip hop collectives should look like. In an era where everything is categorized and creative control comes with a dotted line, their approach broadens the spectrum.
Wiki: I think what made me and Eric work together was just us meeting up and talking, having similar ideas in music, culture, and art. Thinking outside the box a little bit made me want to work with him and I hadn’t worked with a producer before that. And with Hak, he always just wrote a lot. He wouldn’t write raps but us just hanging out together it just kind of naturally happened. He stepped up and started to write verses, then stepped up another level on our new album. Hak has a lot of parts incorporating singing, chanting, so stretching it past being a rapper.
Wiki adds that on a new unreleased song called Eat, Hak laid down an ill solo and that it took him forever to follow it up with a verse. Sporting Life chimes in and says that as a producer it makes it that much easier for him to play around with the song because he can embody both characters, the spitter and the vocalist. Wiki and Sporting Life were both uplifted when they mentioned Wiki’s finished verse for that song, affirming that the project ended up being dope.
Being that you guys are a mix of a lot of things – not just culturally, what were your earliest influences for you artistically?
Sporting Life: For me, growing up in hip hop culture you don’t realize it is artistic because you’re just in it. You argue about it, Nas is better than this person, Jay is better than this person, no this beat that beat. You don’t realize it is an artistic endeavor but coming to New York, you start getting exposed to all the artists that have walked these streets, you start going to events and putting your foot in the water into what art culture is now. You reflect back on the stuff you do know and start to see the art in it. Once you start to see the art that’s in hip hop its a wrap! It just opens your eyes because it’s just electronic music, you know. You don’t realize that coming up you think this is just rap but it can be broken down further from that. I think that was the most eye opening thing for me.
Wiki: Going through different phases growing up, getting into different things in different times whether it was punk or hip hop or whatever it was. It exposed me to different ideas and then connecting them as I grew and being around a lot of ill culture in the city influenced me.
The first time I saw Ratking live was last summer on the rooftop of a 10 story Lower East Side building. There was no ceiling but it was a hot box, packed with people of all different creeds. It felt like 2012 because hip hop was once again infused with cultures outside its boundaries, but something in the air took me back, the DJ was playing Dipset so I guess I had no choice. A friend of mine reminded me of this kid who was nasty, Wiki he called him. Unfamiliar with who he was I kept waiting for him to finish saying his name, “Wiki what?” I said. A couple of acts opened the show before the owner of the apartment asked me if I knew Ratking and he gave me his whole life story about him being some art student from Spain, then he handed me a bottle of ripe but refreshing wine. Here I stood, sipping from a bottle of wine at an art student’s rooftop deck about to hear what my friend said was straight New York hip hop, I can’t make this up.
The New York Underground is so vast yet it goes unexplored or overlooked. What’s your view on the landscape and what is going right now?
Sporting Life: Being that it’s so easy to do these things now, you have to add a degree of difficulty to the shit you’re doing. It’s just like anything else, if everybody’s doing kick flips you have to do something else. You can’t carry the attitude of somebody who does switch tres if you’re only doing ollies. I feel like there is a bunch of people doing ollies but they’re walking around like they’re doing switch tres. But it’s all good because nobody’s set it off yet, once somebody sets it off people will be like “oh s***.”
Collectively, they are well versed in skateboarding and graffiti. Their aesthetic is concrete and embodies the culture that nurtured them as they were growing up. During CMJ last year, Hak handed me their 8×11.5 stickers with “Ratking, Wiki 93” written on a blown up postage sticker. When I asked him if he bombed Hak just simply shrugged his shoulders as if to say: “well you see what I just handed you.” Graffiti and their style of music mirror each other. You find yourself deciphering what you hear visually, similar to someone unfamiliar with the art form trying to make out the artists’ name or message. When the pieces are put together it all makes perfect sense.
Wiki: I think it’s important to stay out there and be part of it to a certain extent, but then you also have to stay in the music and stay focused on making the music as dope as possible. A lot of people are so focused on image and the outward things, but you need to master the music first.
Sporting Life: With artists – especially rap artists, I feel like a good part of rap is really topical. It’s really easy in 2013 in the internet age and how the internet is a visual medium so everybody is going to be flicking pictures, to get caught up in that. There is a lot of would-be dope rappers that a third of the way into them being dope get pulled into the internet and it’s all image based, you’re not going to get nice. Imagine if when Alchemist had first started making beats and everybody was just like “put this out, put this out” like, you need that woodshedding time. Everybody has to find the balance in that and that’s what we try to do.