The smell of malt liquor and spray paint is suffocating at Babycastles, the 14th street gallery hosting Ratking’s album release show. Dozens of people are crowded around the windows trying to catch quick whiffs of fresh New York air. Many yell apologies down to friends trapped in the block-long line of those who could not get into the event. Even rising Queens rapper Action Bronson was reportedly denied access.
A small group of artists continually add to the graffiti covering each of the tiny main showroom’s walls, except for one. That wall is reserved for a looped visual projection of Hentai porn, mashed up with Dipset's Rap City freestyle. The music, courtesy of a young DJ who is rocking out harder than anyone in the room, shifts abruptly back and forth between classic rap tunes and futuristic EDM. There are more joyous greetings than actual conversations happening in the room, almost as if everyone present knows each other. The atmosphere is grimy and chaotic, yet intimate and contained.
The lights go off. A wailing cheer rises from the crowd. Ratking's two MCs, Wiki and Hak, enter invisibly, their presence only evident from their growling mic-checks. Behind them, their producer, Sporting Life, is but a shadowy figure fiddling with a drum machine with glowing red pads. Camera flashes that resemble lightning sporadically reveal their silhouettes. An echoing vocal sample comes alive: the intro to the album's untitled opening track. As soon as the heavy, skittering drums hit, the crowd becomes one violent organic mass. Wiki stops to ease his fans, warning they might knock over the soundboard, chuckling, "Damn, this s**t happens at every show…" There is no stage; the artists are at eye level with their audience. The barrier between musician and listener is non-existent here.
Ratking's debut album, So It Goes, heard for the first time in this sweaty gallery, comes at a very ambivalent time for New York hip-hop. The scene has becoming increasingly divided in recent years: Joey Bada$$ and the Beast Coast movement have made their names trying to resurrect the golden era ‘90s NY hip-hop sound, while others, such as A$AP Mob, have put their trust in a more modern, Southern-trap sound. Is the past the future? Is the future getting old? Most importantly, what will come next? On “Protein,” Ratking answers confidently: "This ain't ‘90s revival / It’s earlier, it’s tribal revival." The punkish trio believes that when there are no more trends to hop on, the only way for art to thrive is to strip down to raw energy. The message comes through loud and clear to the Babycastles crowd.
Ratking's signature sound is unsettling and new, yet eerily familiar. Sporting Life's unusual mix of soul samples and trappy 808 drums, it is like a hip-hop time machine gone haywire. He crams the genre’s most primal elements and its most modern developments into one mangled, buzzing wall of sound. Conventional song structure is thrown to the wind on songs like "Snow Beach" and the brooding, eight-minute-long "Take." The sonic chaos makes the more collected moments of the album stand out more boldly. So It Goes is a savage, calculated frontal assault.
Wiki and Hak's cryptic lyrical styles take obvious influence from Wu-Tang Clan, but the hard-hitting delivery is what makes the vocals on this album, and at this sweaty performance, something special. Wiki's cartoonish voice, tinged with a dead-eye seriousness, is unmistakable. Hak ranges from low-key mantric hooks ("Eat") to high-energy, explosive flows ("Bug Fights.") He makes up for his slightly forgettable voice with well-crafted style and delivery. Both rappers’ subject matter is relatable to almost any NYC teen, covering everything from police harassment ("Remove Ya") to multicultural ancestry ("So It Goes"). It is not hard to tell, as Ratking thrashes amongst their fans, that they really are of the people.
Taking a breath from their raucous gallery performance, Wiki comments on the development of their sound as a group: "We combined everything we always been into. Everything we saw around us. Playing shows…that's a big part of it. You gotta have that energy, not just on record, but live. This is us, its what we live."
As the screaming synths on the group's latest single, "Canal," drop on the relentless crowd, a young man dives from a 10 foot high platform, eventually emerging to float atop the sweaty, tumultuous sea of moshing youths. The four walls of the gallery can barely contain the joyful disorder. It all goes back to the name–a “ratking” is a multitude of rats intertwined by their tails, stuck together by dirt, blood, and feces, forced to live as one single creature. Thrown together by circumstance, by the dark convulsions of an unsympathetic city, they somehow find a way to live together, to revel in their chaos and make something both haunting and beautiful.
by Martin Blondet '16