As society slowly and painfully becomes more “woke,” we’re more careful than ever to identify and condemn cultural appropriation — the ugly exploitation of a culture for selfish gains. But not every cultural exchange is exploitative, and whether it’s through an exploration of personal identity, mutual respect, or just genuine curiosity, artists are constantly borrowing and sharing art and influence from other cultures. Through Intersect, a new column by Matthew Ismael Ruiz, we’ll take a look at a pair of bands or musicians whose music represents a coalescence of disparate cultures to make something new.
Hip-hop has been a part of New York City’s longstanding diversity from its humble beginnings in the Bronx. Itself the child of soul, jazz, and disco, hip-hop was conceived in the basements and park jams, a youthful sound built from the record collections of a previous generation. Too poor to afford instruments, hip-hop’s pioneers took the tools they had (records, turntables) and created something no one had ever heard before.
Both hip-hop and its birthplace are a prime example of what happens when disparate cultures come together to make something new, something arguably better than the sum of its parts. The ingredients aren’t unique, and most households in the 70s had turntables and records. But when the mix happens within the five boroughs, it coalesces into something else, something uniquely New York.
Perhaps no young rapper today embodies this spirit more than Patrick “Wiki” Morales. Morales is a producer and MC who records and performs with Ratking, a hip-hop group signed with XL Recordings. Half Puerto Rican, half Irish, he’s a lifelong New Yorker. He’s proud of his ancestry, but is quick to admit that when it comes down to it, he’s a New Yorker first.
When we meet Morales at an apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown, he points out that just a block away, you can actually see the melting pot in action. “There’s this block over there that’s so fire, Rutgers,” he says. “It’s like Chinatown meets Puerto Rico, where the projects are, this weird Chinatown meets LES. That block is the block.” And indeed, on Rutgers Street, a four-block stretch in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, you can see abuelitas pushing grocery carts past old Chinese men smoking cigarettes in undershirts; young Asian American children walking to school past car stereos blasting Latin music. It’s New York as fuck.
Morales and his music have a distinct downtown vibe, but he grew up on the Upper West Side. “I fucked with the Upper West because it’s obviously mad Jewish — shout out to all the Jews — but it’s tight because there’s that Latin pocket there, too,” Morales says. “From 96th up until 110th on Amsterdam, even down on 86th…you’re walking east from Riverside and it’s mad nice, then there’s the Latin part, and then Central Park.” His Irish and Puerto Rican identity was never pushed on him by his parents, but just living in New York made him curious about people from different places, with different cultures.
Seeking that out helped shape Morales’ perspective from a young age. And seeing his identity made manifest on the city streets drew him to explore his own roots. “When I was young, I was into being Irish and shit, and then being in New York, surrounded by Puerto Rican shit made me want to be extra connected to that,” he says. “Like, ‘Yo, there’s more Puerto Ricans in New York than in Puerto Rico.’ This is my home. The idea of being Nuyorican, that’s OG.”
“That was always the Ratking formula. We’re gonna do Dipset meets Animal Collective.”
Musically, Ratking doesn’t sound particularly Irish, or Puerto Rican. It sounds very much of New York, but not in any traditional sense; part of what helped them break onto the scene in the early 10s was how fresh the sound felt. It was clear they worshipped the silver age NYC hip-hop everyone else did, but from the start, the group was about conceptually mixing in disparate influences. “That was always the Ratking formula,” Morales explains. “We’re gonna do Dipset meets Animal Collective. And we use these two things, and we mix it together, and then it becomes something different.”
And it goes beyond just musical influences — the city informs their identity at its very core. In part, the Ratking name references the “creature” that’s formed when a gang of rats gets their tails tangled and fused with dirt and grime, more fearsome moving together than alone. But there’s a deeper meaning as well. “The whole idea of Ratking was always a kind of balance,” he says. “It’s like the Rat and the King, that’s New York, the low and the high. Same thing with every race together. Just like a melting pot, the mixture.”
As a sixth grader, Morales got “mad with The Ramones,” but then started listening to golden age heroes like Run DMC. In New York, everyone worships the classics from the 90s (the Biggie/Jay-Z/Nas trifecta, etc.), but Morales also got into hardcore and punk bands like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and the Germs. You can hear the influence in Ratking’s music; aside from the obvious guitar samples, the confrontational punk ethos bleeds through pretty much every song.
Morales is far from being the first Puerto Rican MC to come out of New York; one could even make the argument that cats like Big Punisher and Noreaga made their Puerto Rican identity a bigger part of their music. They both incorporated horn-heavy samples and Spanish-language raps and interludes, even if Noreaga’s lack of fluency was quite transparent. Pun even made “Boricua” a household name on the smash hit “Still Not a Player,” with the singalong chant of “Boricua…morena…Boricua…morena.” While Morales’ experience on the Upper West Side was more diverse, Pun’s music comes from the very specific intersection of Puerto Rican culture and hip-hop culture — an intersection as old as the art form itself.
Noreaga’s cultural fascinations are a bit more complicated — he identified as Muslim, called himself the “Arab Nazi,” and repped “Irak,” a nickname for his home base of Lefrak City, Queens. But his Puerto Rican and African-American identity still looms large in his music, often as a version of ghetto dual citizenship. As Victor Santiago, he gets love from the Boricuas; as Noreaga, he gets love from the brothers.
Pun and Noreaga’s Latino spin on hip-hop came to a head with “Oye Mi Canto,” the second biggest hit of Noreaga’s career. Riffing off the title of a Gloria Estefan song and the legendary Big Pun sample, N.O.R.E. finally took his Latinidad to its logical conclusion, bringing in Boricua twins Nina Sky for a more inclusive hook (“colombiano…dominicano…”) and Daddy Yankee for some reggaeton bars. He even translated his trademark catchphrase “What what!” into Spanish, to great comedic effect. While one could certainly argue that he took advantage of reggaeton’s burgeoning popularity, no one was better equipped to play the Boricua/morena card than he, and it made for a monster summer jam that will be likely played at Latino weddings for the next 30 years.
But you won’t likely see Wiki dancing salsa in a video any time soon — both with Ratking and as a solo artist, Morales’ music pays homage to hip-hop legends while trying to carve out a new space for himself. He’s currently hard at work on his second solo album (he dropped Lil Me late last year).
The stories are of themselves, and of New York. And New York contains multitudes.
“In the back of my mind I think I need to do something different,” he says, “but at the same time you always got to reach in the old bag of tricks.” One of those tricks is the semi-fictional hood tale, story raps woven from an indiscernible mix of real-life events and creative fiction. On an upcoming collaboration with Your Old Droog, the pair weaves a tale of vigilantes hunting down a guy who broke the unwritten rules of the block. While Morales says he was worried at first about the implications of the song’s first-person perspective, Droog reminded him, “it’s a story, it’s all good.” Morales points to Nas’ “Blaze a 50” as an example of such a story — in the song, a married woman Nas is seeing conspires to help him kill her husband, but Nas realizes that if he helps her, he takes all the risk and kills the woman by mixing crushed up glass in her cocaine.
Such tales are often composites of people and stories from real life, massaged with fantasy and artistic license. “It’s hard to tell the truth sometimes,” Morales admits. “It’s a different type of hard. It’s hard to write a fucking novel, obviously. But it’s also harder to reach deep. Write about yourself.” At their core, Wiki’s stories are very much New York stories, shaped and influenced by the city that did the same to its author. It’s a longstanding tradition. So when Big Punisher writes about assassination attempts, or Wiki about hood vigilantes, what is true and what is not is almost irrelevant, because regardless, the artists are true to themselves. The stories are of themselves, and of New York. And New York contains multitudes.
Matthew Ruiz is currently the Music Editor of Flavorwire.com.