The Ratking Experience

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Every review I read about Ratking’s So It Goes album praising it for planting a new flag for New York rap makes me want to hock a negative comment on the site that is just one word—TOURIST. I imagine it was written by someone that was not born in NY, or hasn’t at least spent ten years entrenched in the city to feel the effects of its conflicted evolution. It takes a New Yorker to know a True Yorker. And I have to honestly say Wiki and Hak, the vocal members of Ratking, are the best narrators of a New Yorker’s joy and pain. Sporting Life, the group’s producer and DJ, from Virginia, now rooted in Bushwick, is a city insider too because of his creation of a frenetic sound that appears as big as the buildings it’s meant to bounce from, preferably at high volume. When you have two stimulated personalities in Wiki and Hak, absorbing their surroundings to tear through the days of their lives in a matter of 6 minutes and 53 seconds on “Snow Beach,” it’s easy to tell a native from a transplant. That’s not to say that Ratking discriminates against those who migrate to New York. Many of their fans are quite likely were born outside of a 212, 917, 718, 646 or 347 area code. I’m not mad at New York’s newcomers either. The problem is how New York City has allowed corporations to turn specifically Manhattan and Brooklyn into a mall. Gone are the characters who inhabit Gray’s Papaya or Max Fish in exchange for condos and Chipotle. The beneficiaries unfortunately though are those newcomers who see luxury rather than institution. If New York was ever in search of a new tagline it surely has one now for being “safe” and sterile.

Ratking represents the New York that I know and that’s why I’m such a fan. I see in them a sliver of myself and the kids I rolled with between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Having to travel from Canarsie to Manhattan on the L train for 45 minutes—in both directions—I had a lot of time to let the sights wash over me. My friends at my prestigious private independent school in the East Village lurked the city any chance we could get. When I saw Ratking perform at an art gallery in TriBeCa a couple of years ago, I mentally transported back to my salad days. It looked like Ratking hung with a similar set of private and public school kids (predominantly White, plus a few Black and Latinos) who were street and book smart, talked with slang, wrote graffiti, skateboarded or rode the iron horse (subway), drank 40s, and posted up at the type of 30-year-old hole-in-the-wall establishments, which are all staples of Ratking’s videos. Their latest, “Canal” is set in one of the few corporate gentrified neighborhoods of New York City—Chinatown. A downtown neighborhood that holds onto its Chinese culture amidst commercial infiltration. Food costs what it should, and cheap beer still exists. Director Eric K. Yue beautifully films the band against the desolate Manhattan Bridge entrance to NYC, Sarah Roosevelt soccer field, and Coleman skatepark. Shots of alley cats (human), fish markets, and graffiti’d walls scroll through like furious tabbing of a Viewmaster. Going as far back to Ratking’s first video, Wiki performed in front of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, traveled through empty streets and gazed down from fire escapes and rooftops. It’s amazing that they shoot some of the best videos in NYC devoid of advertisements and cameos by sellouts. The less adventurous New Yorker can even learn something from their local excursions. You are welcomed into their world. Name-dropping brands doesn’t bait your ears. It’s New York, no gimmicks; no strings attached.

I rarely hear writers talk about Ratking’s stimuli. Despite what New York looks like on a street level, Ratking’s issues are not everyone else’s, and that could be why the mainstream overlooks artists like them. For example, Californians can’t be expected to connect with traveling on foot or by train. If you’re too high from smoking weed, taking the subway is a really bad idea, and walking the city streets is better for your piece of mind, even on “blocks, some where killers have been slain, others where killings have been made,” says Wiki on “Snow Beach.” The NYPD’s Stop and Frisk program, gentrification, and NYU’s expansion plan may not be on your favorite rapper’s list of themes, but it is very important to Ratking. Such current events make headlines in the media capital of the world, which inspired Prodigy from Mobb Deep to coin the phrase reality rap on “What U Rep” (H.N.I.C., 2000). To this day, what goes on in the streets is the greatest influence on New York rap’s longevity, regardless of pop appeal. So it goes …

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