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In The Lab with RATKING

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

From the depths of the Big Apple, the young and fearless members of RATKING emerged on the scene in early 2012, riding the buzz of their lead MC Wiki’s EP 1993 (it actually dropped under-the-radar in late 2011) and his Creative Control-produced video “Wikispeaks” that introduced us to his ridiculously raw rap skills, as well as the RATKING aesthetic. Within the year, Wiki (above right) and his RATKING bandmates, producer Sporting Life (above left, who they regularly call by his real name Eric) and MC Hak (above middle, their fourth member disbanded), were signed to British indie label XL Recordings and began doing shows overseas in support of the re-release of the EP (which was a group effort to begin with). And their fairly overnight success was all well-deserved—RATKING was a breath of fresh air for New York hip-hop, no bullshit. Their beats were concrete-hard, and their rhymes were so effortlessly dope and authentic, it was virtually impossible for rap fans of any age or persuasion not to be instantly impressed and intrigued on sight.

It’s now 2014, and RATKING is getting ready to release their proper debut LP, So It Goes, on April 8th via XL imprint Hot Charity. It’s a showcase of their sound—which Sporting Life described to us as “Dipset grime” in its essence—and their innovative songwriting and production talents. These are three dudes who live and breathe hip-hop music, which becomes immediately clear when you hang out with them, as the topics bounce from DJ Clue mixtapes to why N.O.R.E. and Ol’ Dirty Bastard are ill MCs to recurring dreams about cyphers where Jay Z is spitting unreleased verses. But RATKING doesn’t exist to simply piggyback off their heroes. Though their roots are hip-hop to the core, this trio is on some next shit, for real for real.

We trekked out from the 914 to the back blocks of Brooklyn recently to link up with RATKING in their basement-level rehearsal/recording space for our latest In The Lab feature, and we discussed with them the making of So It Goes, how their recording process and live set are connected, where they seek out inspiration, working with Young Guru at Just Blaze’s Stadium Red studio, collaborating with their labelmate King Krule, laying down their latest single “100” in London, and much more. Get to know how RATKING does this below.

Rehearsal/Recording Space

Wiki: We’ve had this space for like a year. We usually use this space to rehearse if we have shows or a tour coming up. We work on stuff here, too. I know Hak and Eric [aka Sporting Life] were working on stuff a couple days ago. And me and Eric did a little mixtape two weeks ago, just fucking around and spitting and shit. Things on the album came from this space. There’s some songs on the album that we were working on even before we had this space, and then there’s some songs that we fleshed out in this space.

We used to have [a different spot to work out of]. Eric was living on 140th and Broadway, and we had some friends that were living there too, so that was our home base to work on shit. But then people moved out or whatever. So we basically just needed a place where we could all meet up, and be loud as fuck.

Sporting Life: [We needed a place where we can] play at game speed. The live set is really important.

Wiki: You can’t make a lot of noise in a regular apartment. We like to play loud as fuck. And Eric likes to make beats loud as fuck. [Laughs.]

Sporting Life: To make shit so you know how it’s going to sound live, basically.

Wiki: Which is important, now that I think back to our early shows. Remember we played that show at Santos with Gunplay and Bodega Bamz? The bass was too loud. The vocals were completely drowned out. So that’s really important, to practice [the way it’s going to sound in the venue]. And he’s playing the beats live. He’s not DJing the shit. It’s not an MP3. He’s playing it off an SP and an SPD.

There’s cribs all above this and on the other side of the building, but this is just a basement with mad types of bands [that have studios and rehearsal spaces]. We fund it. It’s affordable.

Hak: We save show money [to pay for it].

Wiki: This spot is run by this guy Todd P, who also runs a couple venues in Brooklyn.

Hak: He runs 285 Kent.

Daily Routine

Hak: We end up getting shit done. Sometimes, when we’d meet up on the reg, we’d kind of just chill. But we always end up getting shit done.

Wiki: Sometimes, we’ll actually meet if we have a tour or a show coming up and be like, “Alright, let’s practice.” And we’ll low-key go through the set. And usually that’s the best set we’ve ever done. When you practice in the room, it’s like, “This is the greatest set ever!!!” Or we’ll just jam. Eric will be playing new beats. Maybe Hak will write some shit and lay it down, and I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s shit’s fire!” And it will make me write something iller. Just kidding.

Hak: It’s all competition amongst the three of us.

Sporting Life: I’m in here until I can’t be in here anymore. My life is just that, and then chilling with friends. And then, going to see DJ Rashad at 285 Kent or something. That’s pretty much it. For me personally, I came up thinking that I knew what making hip-hop beats was. Then you realize the difference between a hip-hop producer and [those] who aren’t attached to a [genre], who still make electronic music and don’t submit beats to rappers. It’s like, “Oh shit. I can’t just make tracks that are good enough for MCs. I gotta expand myself.” And after you see that, you realize how much work there is to be done. So for me, I take that as some “five beats a day for three summers” shit. That’s the kind of shit I’m on. But that doesn’t even matter, if you can make one beat that’s the equivalent of the knowledge you can get from making fifty beats. But it took me fifty beats to get to that point.

Wiki: He has like a thousand beats.

Sporting Life: It’s not a thousand beats.

Wiki: Come on, yo. You gotta build the legend, bro.

Sporting Life: Fuck a legend. I’m talking about actuality. [Laughs.] That’s gonna cause some kid to stop making beats, like, “Aw, fuck. I only got three beats, and they don’t even loop well.”

Equipment

Sporting Life: We’ve got a Roland drum machine, the SP-555. Then we’ve got the mixer by Mackie. Then we’ve got the MPC2500, which is like the New York Yankee cap of hip-hop. Everybody has to have it. Then, a Technics tape deck. I didn’t even know Technics made tape decks, but my friend Joey brought this over here and he left it, so we sample shit off of it. Then, we have this drum pad, where you can load individual drum sounds on it [which we use to enhance our live performances].

Wiki: We added the drum pad about four months ago [to our live shows], and at first I was like, “Yo chill, you’re gonna fuck everything up!”

Sporting Life: [Laughs.]

Wiki: I was tight at him. Not tight, but giving him looks and shit. It took time to get into it.

Sporting Life: You can’t be off, or you’re gonna hear that shit. They have to rap to it.

Wiki: I had to get past that hump. But now, it makes the shit so much iller.

Sporting Life: There are a bunch of sounds in there already, but I dump a bunch of sounds into it, too. So yeah, I make beats on the SP and the MPC. And also software, I got this new VST that’s supposed to emulate a TR-909, which is pretty cool. And I use Ableton Live to chop up shit.

Beat-Making Routine/Sampling

Sporting Life: I try to get in here at like 9 or 9:30 in the morning. I might sleep in here and wake up from the night before. [My routine changes over time, but I usually start by listening] to a bunch of songs, either scouring the Internet or listening to tapes. I have a bunch of tapes right now that we got from Chinatown in San Francisco. They’ve got really funny covers, too.

I’m not really [a big vinyl collector]. I want to be, but then again, I’m also trying to be as minimalist as possible. [Vinyl] attaches you to a place. But right here, I can just throw my stuff in a bag and dip to San Francisco for two weeks, and not necessarily change up the way I make things. You know that Nas verse where he’s like, “Know how to leave anything in 30 seconds?” I like that kind of way of doing things.

So I’ll start off at a certain BPM. Then, most of it is experimentation. I feel like I already know how to make beats. I know what it takes to make a dope hip-hop track. I can always get there from no matter where I start from. So I just start running things through different effects, and shit like that. And then, sampling different things, and flipping the samples until they get to the point where you can hear the essence of a sample, but you can’t really hear what the sample is. And I know for a fact nobody in hip-hop can do that with me. Because nobody uses what I use. It’s kind of like some revolutionary shit. I’ve gone into the DNA of the sample. But sometimes, I’ll take something and put it in there so you do know what it is, just for the reference.

How the Live Set Influences Studio Work

Sporting Life: No song’s gonna be the same twice when we play a live set, just by nature. How Hak and Wik come on the beat, what the crowd’s doing, and stuff like that. So it’s a huge weight off any artist’s back [to make tracks with the live show in mind], because you never have to finish anything. You know it’s gonna grow live. It never has to be a fixed thing.

[Then, when it comes time to record the song, we use] the verses and stuff to arrange it, and how we perform it. Songs like “So It Goes” were completely arranged from playing it live. We never recorded it, like, “Stop here. This is where the verse is gonna go.” It was never linear. But then, when we went to record, we had played it so many times that Wiki and Hak were all over the beat. People don’t understand. Wiki is gonna be murking cyphers so hard because he’s so used to spitting live with a mic, just going in. There was a video posted up from that last Boiler Room, and you see people like, “Oh shit. Where did this little motherfucker come from?” He’s so nice with just a mic, and his complete personality. It’s all him. Live. A lot of other people do the flowery movements, but it’s all false. It’s not, like, spitting.

Through the process we work with, it’s empowered all of us. I’m on some next shit now, on some beat shit. And Wiki and Hak are on some next shit, on some rhyme shit. The way we do things might have been a bit unconventional, but it’s given us room to grow past the limitations of what hip-hop has been thus far.

Recording/Unreleased Mixtape

Wiki: We recorded the re-release of the EP in here. But our album, we recorded in Stadium Red, and this spot in Greenpoint with our boy DJ Dog Dick, and Brad. But we record all the time. [In terms of the mixtape I was talking about before], we were supposed to do a mix for ID Magazine. So we were like, “Oh, a mix.” So we were just fucking around, making new shit, having fun. And we did that, but they kind of wanted a DJ mix. So we were like, “Oh.” [But what we did] had some verses from other shit, we spit on “Sippin’ on Some Sizzurp,” this X-Files beat, we put the original “646” on there, and the new version of “Sporting Life.” We wanted to show all the eras of RATKING. So it’s in the bank. We can release it whenever. I’m thinking, we should put that shit out on tape.

Sporting Life and Hak: Yeah.

Wiki: Because then it will be mad rare. Then someone will put it out [online], but it will be mad months later.

Sporting Life: And it will have the tape sound quality. That would be dope. That’s a good idea.

Wiki: Yeah, because it has some verses from the album. And some of them sound really dope. Like, I do the “Canal” verse [which is one of the songs from the album] on “Sizzurp,” and it’s fucking ill.

Inspiration

Wiki: Literally, I can’t spit until after I listen to mad hip-hop. I’m not even fronting. It’s important, to me.

Sporting Life: It’s like a skate tape. You watch it, then you go out and skate.

Wiki: It’s like, I can’t think of anything to write. Then I’ll listen to some ill track, and I’ll take the shit that they’re saying, and put it into my perspective and what I’m trying to say. I’ll take the meaning and the intensity [of the track and use it as inspiration]. Sport, right? I’ll always be like, “Let me play a song!” And you’ll be like, “I got mad new beats I gotta play you.” But I’ll be like, “Let me play this DJ Clue mixtape. Let’s listen to the whole thing right now!”

Sporting Life: [I like that process too actually], because you listen to that, and realize that those beats were so fire and how taken for granted something like DJ Clue The Professional was, and [it inspires me to make some new beats].

Hak: I’ve been listening to a lot of people around us, [friends of ours that make music].

Sporting Life: Hak does that the most out of all of us.

Hak: I listen to this band Show Me the Body. And Illuzion.

Wiki: Someone posted this old Fam-Lay song with Pharrell, “Ambulance,” on Facebook. I listened to that shit, like, “This is the most fire shit ever.” I’ve been bumping it for the past week.

Writing Rhymes

Sporting Life: I write all their rhymes.

Wiki and Hak: [Laughs.]

Wiki: I’m not the dude who’s just writing constantly. I like to freestyle if I’m hanging out, and if I’m working on a song, I’ll write verses for it. And I’ll write verses in my spare time, sometimes. And I’ll think of lines randomly, and look back on them like, “That shit’s wack.” Or, “That shit’s dope,” and I’ll use it.

When I’m on the train, I’ll listen to music and write in my head, over another track. I’ll be listening to a song, and coming up with a line, like, “Is this thievery?” But it’s not, because they didn’t say that line.

Hak: I don’t write enough. I read. But I don’t read enough [also]. I just found this old journal [that I’ve been using]. It’s shit I would write down, and then piece together.

Writing Hooks

Wiki: Me and Hak both have a bunch of hooks on the album. I still haven’t mastered [how to do hooks]. We’ll be in the moment, and just figure it out. There’s not one direct method. If I need to write a verse, I’ll write a verse. But with a hook, [it doesn’t come as methodically].

Sporting Life: I think we’ve been really lucky. Sometimes I’ll listen to [songs on the album] and be like, “Yo, where the fuck did these hooks come from?” I’m glad we have them, but I don’t remember writing them.

Wiki: Hak came up with the hook [for this song we have on the album called] “Cocoa ’88,” and then I [added on] and made it like a Juelz/Cam thing. You know, like when Juelz and Cam would do the same hook, but just a little different, and it’s just ill to hear them each do it in their voice? It’s like different, but the same.

Hak: “So It Goes,” you just murked that.

Wiki: Sometimes, I’m not thinking about writing the hook, but I’m like, “That’s a hook.”

Hak: Didn’t you reference that from [our friend Rob], and something he said?

Wiki: Yeah! Mad long ago, I was walking on the train in like eighth grade with my boy Rob, and he was [singing], totally as a joke, “Six million trains to ride, choose one.” And I took that, and I was like, “Bong.”

Sporting Life and Hak: [Laughs.]

Wiki: It’s random. We’re never writing for a hook. Things just turn into hooks. On the original version of “Sporting Life,” there was a Knicks sample that was like, “Patrick! He did it!” And my name’s Patrick. Then for the re-release, that was a sample that we would never be able to clear. So [Eric] was like, “Let’s do it [DJ Premier style with the vocal scratches].”

Getting Twisted in the Studio

Wiki: For Eric, it’s like he can’t stop snorting coke! Jesus!

Sporting Life and Hak: [Laughs.]

Wiki: I’m like, “Yo, chill son!” Nah, I’m just kidding.

Sporting Life: You know the vocoder, how that one thing goes in your mouth? That just goes in my nose.

Wiki: Honestly, for me, I do like to have a drink, and be smoking, when I’m in the studio. Sports likes to smoke an occasional pure joint.

Sporting Life: I don’t drink at all.

Wiki: Which is a good thing, because he’s doing all the beats live. Sometimes I’ll be a little too drunk for a show, or Hak will be a little too drunk for a show, and [he’ll hold it together for us]. Hak was drunk at this one show, like, “Turn me the fuck up!” But you were pretty loud [already]. It was so funny.

Hak: I went in for you, though.

Visitors

Sporting Life: It’s secluded, to a degree.

Wiki: There’s certain people we’ll have through. But it’s not the chill spot, like, “Yo, everyone’s coming through to hang out.”

Sporting Life: That’s the dopest thing about electronic music. Your boy can just come through with an MP, or a laptop, and you can just plug it up to the mixer and jam out. That’s kind of like what RATKING is. It’s like a mixer, and everyone just plugs into it.

Working at Just Blaze’s Studio Stadium Red with Young Guru

Wiki: We were like, “Oh, we’re on a label, let’s use this opportunity.”

Sporting Life: We’re making the beats on the PA speakers, so we know it’s gonna be raw as fuck. But we needed something to rain it in. And also, this dude worked on The Blueprint. Jay Z in his illest eras. Dipset. So it was like, “How do we get our live set palatable to people?” And Guru was the bridge.

Wiki: Honestly, when we were recording [the album], I was still getting used to recording. Now, I have my process down, [but that developed from recording] the album. The hardest part was like, okay, you got the ill verse. Now, what do you do? Do you ad-lib it? Do you double it? Do you just let it be? But now, all I need is a blunt and a brew, and I can do ad-libs.

Sporting Life: But that’s also what’s good about having a live set. You can always refer back to how you do it live for the recording. That’s what I’ll encourage them to do. Like, “Nah, spit it as close to how the live set would be. Do your ad-libs on some live shit.”

Hak: I wish I did more ad-libs on the album. There’s different styles I guess.

Wiki: We were in with Guru recording for a week, because we had songs already prepared. Then after that, we got the first round of mixes back, and we were like, “It needs more.” So we went in with our friend DJ Dog Dick to another studio. The illest part of the album is that we recorded at Stadium Red, Just Blaze’s studio. Mad hip-hop, mad history, mad official. Guru is there on the board.

Sporting Life: The speakers there are fucking crazy.

Wiki: Then the other half, that we added on top, was done at a really dope studio, but much less official, chill as fuck, low-key, DIY. This dude Brad set up the studio himself, him and his friends. So [the album] has both elements in it. Then after that, we stripped it down, because we added so much to it. And then Guru did the final mixes.

Sporting Life: He wasn’t positive or negative about [what we added to the first mixes]. He just saw it. There was a level of respect.

Hak: Then he just whittled away at it, because we added so much to it.

Wiki: He gave us advice while we were mixing. Eric was a big part of it, being right next to him.

Sporting Life: The whole time I’d be going back, adding things, changing drum arrangements. Then Hak would be like, “Can you take those hi-hats out?” And I’d be like, “Nahh!” But then we took it out, and it gave it space.

Working with Guru was dope. He knows the background on every plug-in. He knows about the hardware. The actual version of this emulation. He knows both. A person like that is just a bastion of knowledge. And also for me, it was like, “What’s Jay Z’s vocal chain?” And he’d [show me]. But it’s basically just this really good mic, and an Avalon compressor. It’s no big secret. It’s just Jay’s voice.

Wiki: That’s what’s so ill about Jay.

So It Goes Collaborators

Wiki: King Krule is on the album. We met King Krule in London, and we just became boys. We’re friends. Most of our features come like that. We did the King Krule track in London, but me and Hak recorded our verses at Stadium Red in New York.

Sporting Life: The beat I want to say was made at 140th? But then it got developed over time.

Wiki: King Krule also plays guitar on it. But we took his parts and made it part of the beat. It wasn’t just him playing [over the beat]. And our boy Solomon Faye, from Illuzion [is on the album]. Solomon is nasty.

Sporting Life: He’s so dope.

Hak: He’s just an ill being.

Sporting Life: Yeah, this motherfucker actually is a being.

Hak: He has an ill aura to him.

Wiki: When he talks, he’s rapping.

Sporting Life: Think of like, Redman in ‘91. Like, “That’s a rapper.” Or Busta Rhymes. He’s just a rap being.

Wiki: We also have Wavy Spice, aka Princess Nokia [on the album]. She’s a rapper from East Harlem.

Sporting Life: She’s dope as fuck.

Wiki: She’s sick. And this kid Isaiah plays sax on this song “Snow Beach.” He’s an ill kid. He’s all about practice. Last time I saw him, he was like, “All I do is practice.” I was like, “Fire. That’s dope.” And also, our friend Kaila Paulino sings on the album. It’s all real close knit people.

Sporting Life: But it’s not like [they’re on the album just because they’re our friends]. You gotta be dope, too. We’ve been fortunate to attract people that are real individuals.

The Making of “100”

Wiki: We recorded the whole thing in London. We had the whole thing done, Eric had the beat, and XL has a studio there, so it was like, “Let’s just record something.”

Hak: I wrote that shit on the plane. It was Halloween, too.

Wiki: That’s fucking ill. I remember I had the first verse on it, and I needed a second verse. And I had those lines, but a completely different flow. Then I tore apart the verse to make it [what it is now].

Sporting Life: The funny thing about that beat is that it sounds like a sample, but it was made purely with no drum machine. Just some guitar pedals.

Wiki: Sick.

Sporting Life: I think I had something running through Abelton. I was listening to a lot of lo-fi hip-hop at the time. So I came up with that piano loop, and saw where the BPM was, then was like, “Okay, I can make this out of this.”

Wiki: We recorded it in London, then we went in with Guru to [re-record the vocals]. And it just wasn’t there. So it was like, “That’s it. That’s the one. The one we recorded in London. That’s where we wrote it.”

What’s Next

Wiki: The album comes out April 8th. We have a video coming out for “Cocoa ’88” in the next month or two, which is not on the album, but it’s a fire track. Then we have a video for “Canal,” which is the first single off the album, dropping [after that]. And we’ll be touring around then, too.

Photos by ip, and via Letter Racer and Stadium Red.

Previously: In The Lab with The Alchemist and Evidence (Step Brothers)In The Lab with Thelonious Martin | In The Lab with Troy Ave |  In The Lab with Marco Polo |  In The Lab with Black Milk | In The Lab with Oddisee | In The Lab with Pete Rock | In The Lab with Party Supplies | In The Lab with Mac Miller | In The Lab with Roc Marciano