Since the release of their 2012 EP Wiki93, Ratking, the Harlem trio consisting of emcees Wiki and Hak alongside producer Sporting Life, have been heralded as New York's great rap hope. Blending eclectic samples with raw rhymes about various New York concerns—gentrification, stop-and-frisk—it's understandable why the group's music has been so firmly associated with the city. "It doesn't mean anything," Hak demurs. "We're just from New York."
However, to hear Ratking talk about their debut record So It Goes (out today April 8th), it becomes clear that what's New York about the trio isn't their origins, but their ability to take far-flung influences and collaborators—which on their latest record include Bronx rapper Wavy Spice and British baritone King Krule—and meld them into a familiar, but novel, sound.
ERIN BRADY: Where did the name Ratking come from?
WIKI: It came from a lot of different things. It's not one thing or one meaning. It has two sides to it—a rat and a king. Yin and yang shit.
SPORTING LIFE: The actual definition of a ratking is when rats get in the situation where their tails are tangled together and they have to live as one organism. It's a metaphor of kind of how we work together in a way.
HAK: It stems from folklore shit. Sometimes they'd live in a wall and get tangled up in excrement and shit.
SPORTING LIFE: —and then they'd start rapping.
WIKI: It's also a sign of the plague. It's a sign that there's so many rats in such a dense place back in the day, if you want to get into the history. It's also a character from Ninja Turtles. I guess that's the light side to it.
BRADY: What's the group's origin story?
HAK: We're all brothers.
WIKI: Me and Hak have known each other since we were in second grade, but actually Ratking started when Eric (Sporting Life) met me. Actually, Hak was there that day too and [he] was there the first couple days we worked on stuff. There was like a park-jam thing and I was rapping and Eric went up to me and was like, "You have a lot of potential," and stuff.
SPORTING LIFE: I definitely did not say those words.
WIKI: Yeah, you did.
HAK: "I see it in you."
WIKI: Yeah, whatever, so you tell the fucking story then.
SPORTING LIFE: Basically, what he said. Everything is true.
BRADY: Do you guys have any pre-show rituals?
WIKI: We like to relax. Drink tea. Clear our throats and stuff. Besides that it just really depends. We've played a lot of different venues in a lot of different types of cities, so it just depends.
SPORTING LIFE: It's not going to be equally comfortable everywhere you go. Best case scenario, you're sipping tea in a relaxing environment with a bunch of your friends around you and then you play.
BRADY: It seems like you guys have been on the road a lot. You're getting ready for your second tour at SXSW and your first Coachella...
WIKI: [Last year's] SXSW was really dope. We played the first day four shows and the second day three shows. We played as much as we could so that we could get out there.
BRADY: Do you guys like doing that many back-to-back shows?
WIKI: To me, it was good training. After that, I was like, "A show in a day? That's nothing." It was a dope experience, but it was exhausting.
BRADY: Speaking of getting out there, you guys have a record, So It Goes, coming out. How does it compare to your previous EP, Wiki93?
WIKI: it's not like drastic changes, but it has developed a lot. This one masters our influences a lot more. Stuff that we were into, we had elements of that in our music, but now we've mastered them more in our own way. Lyrically, I feel like I've simplified a bit. Also, Hak has a lot more on this record. Our vocals compliment each other so I think that it has gotten a lot better and it has changed, but it's still in the same vein.
BRADY: How long did it take to make?
WIKI: It's hard to say. We had some of these songs when we put out our EP [in 2012]. In general, when we sat down and started working on the record, it wasn't all of 2013. It takes a long time even after all the tracks are done with sample clearance and all that. It has taken a while, but I think it's the right time.
BRADY: You guys sample a YouTube video made by a Harlem student who was called a "mutt" by the NYPD. Did you guys reach out to him in order to get clearance?
SPORTING LIFE: We did get clearance from him, but we didn't hit him up.
WIKI: They let us use that sample for free. Other samples, which were random shit off YouTube, people would be like, "It's $1,500."
HAK: I feel like people are going to connect with that track just from experiencing that. We're talking about daily things New Yorkers experience.
BRADY: Are you guys from Harlem?
WIKI: No. I'm from the Upper West Side.
HAK: Yeah, uptown, Harlem.
SPORTING LIFE: Yeah, Harlem Heights.
BRADY: Do you all connect with this track because of your own experiences with stop and frisk?
WIKI: Just in some young kid way. Just messing around. Nothing serious. But yeah.
BRADY: Some people have said that you guys have a "New York sound." What does that mean to you guys?
HAK: I mean, we come from New York, but we're also influenced by other groups that have come from New York.
WIKI: We're influenced by enough things outside of New York, but we've put it together in a cohesive enough way that our music is a melting pot, so—
SPORTING LIFE: Yeah, that's the New York sound.
WIKI: Exactly. It's not like everything is, "Oh, this is from New York!" We're influenced by Southern hip-hop. We're influenced by grime and jungle. We have influences from so many things, but we're doing it from our perspective as New Yorkers, so it comes out like a New York sound.
BRADY: I read a review on Pitchfork of your first album and they said that you guys were still searching for something to say...
SPORTING LIFE: They weren't listening. It makes sense. If somebody is used to having not-real strawberries and then you give them an organic one, they might be like "Ugh! This isn't right." It's like that. You haven't been eating the right shit for a while.
WIKI: Yeah, that's fair enough, you can have your opinion, but I think they're bugging. I don't think they understood how to listen. If you listen to those verses, I'm not just saying some random shit. At the same time, it's fine. I'm hyped on this new record. I simplified a lot, which is important. I think I've gotten better at trying to say what I want to say without a verse that's so dense.
SPORTING LIFE: The tracks are a lot better. The mixing was done by Guru, so overall sonically it's a better album. It was all a growth process up until now. We couldn't have made this album without making that one.
BRADY: Last question for you guys. Wiki, what happened to your teeth?
SPORTING LIFE: He had to sacrifice them to the rap gods.
WIKI: I just got punched in the face; that's all that happened.
HAK: It happened at a Rangers game.
SPORTING LIFE: You can't root for the Rangers that hard.
BRADY: [laughs] Did it affect your ability to rap?
WIKI: I'm a little bit scared about that. Maybe if I have teeth again it will. Nah, I'm going to get new teeth.
BRADY: Planning to get some gold ones?
SPORTING LIFE: I feel like when that first happened to you, a lot of people were seriously suggesting that you do that, like it's a real option. That's not a real option!
WIKI: My mom would not fuck with that.
RATKING'S DEBUT ALBUM, SO IT GOES, IS OUT TODAY VIA XL RECORDINGS. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.