Interview: Sporting Life on “Dipset-Grime,” Ratking, and His Beat Tape on R&S

Anthony Obst meets the prolific producer

Andrew Kass

Hearing Sporting Life talk about “Dipset-grime” and “Panda Bear-meets-Heatmakerz” style, you can tell he’s sincere. The Ratking producer and newly knighted R&S signee speaks in a language that his fans will understand. Growing up as Eric Adiele in Virginia, Eric developed a whole-hearted passion for ‘90s New York hip hop, which has stayed with him until this day. But arriving in the Rotten Apple in 2005, Eric’s musical journey started branching out into different paths. He developed an affection for the sounds of Animal Collective, Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance, ’80s No Wave and other New York-centric styles outside of hip hop.

His path crossed with that of Patrick Morales, AKA Wiki, another kid, roughly ten years his junior, who had soaked up the golden era like a sponge and was thirsting for something different but equally New York. Together with Wiki’s childhood friend Hak, they formed Ratking and added a new voice to the choir of the city’s young underground. While turning Ratking into a household name, Eric continued working on his own material, finally leading to a solo release on the esteemed Belgium label R&S that once brought us Joey Beltram, Ken Ishii and a number of Aphex Twin classics.

His beat tape, 55 5’s, is a wonderfully strange amalgam of what’s been brewing in the shadows of New York’s skyscrapers. It draws on the grit of Eric Copeland’s productions, interprets dub in a way akin to Noah Lennox, pays homage to Sean Carter and glorifies Alan Vega. Hints of Havoc and Bobby Digital are mangled up in the fangs of his SP-555, too. We wanted to know more about Eric, his trusted hardware companion and his way of reconciling life in one of the world’s hottest rap groups with life in an ever-expanding mental library of beats, so we checked in with him on Skype last month.

What are you up to in London right now?

I’m just at this Airbnb with Patrick, Hak, and my friend Alex Goldberg. We’ve just been here chilling and recording at XL, working on Wiki’s solo project. There’s maybe eight or nine things that I’ve worked on so far. It’s going to be sick.

How did the 55 5’s tape end up on R&S? Were those beats you had been sending out to a bunch of different labels or did you make that specifically for them?

Well, the relationship came about because me and my friend Tomo at R&S were doing a show together in Paris, maybe a year and a half ago, or two years ago. He was like, “I’m a big fan of Ratking and just of your production in general, let’s keep in contact. I work for this company called R&S, this is what we’ve put out, this is what we’re about,” and since then we just have been building a friendship and sending each other tracks. I was sending him some beats I had. Just folders, or maybe three or four beats at a time, of the stuff I was making. And then over time they curated out of that batch of tracks and made 55 5’s. The oldest stuff on there is maybe two years old and the most recent stuff is maybe two months old. Things have been bubbling in the background for a couple of years and now it finally came to fruition, which I’m really happy about.

R&S has a long history of pushing left-field dance music, but they’re not really known for signing hip hop artists. Not to pigeonhole you or anything, since your beats are not strictly hip hop in many cases, but was that something you were conscious of while working on these beats? That this will probably reach a slightly different audience, compared to the stuff you’re usually working on?

Yeah, I went through different stages of being conscious of it, or even worried about it. I was like, “Man, these dudes have Lone, they put out shit by Aphex Twin, James Blake.” They have such an ill roster of stuff they put out and artists they work with. I knew my stuff wasn’t necessarily like that, but I figured if they were really as cool as they said they were, they would be able to recognize the uniqueness, and hopefully that’s what they would be basing their decision to put my stuff out on. I mean, it’s not even genre-based for me. I make my stuff however I make it and then, whatever the BPM is, I’ll decide at the time, you know what I mean? I’m pretty flexible.

Is that just a switch you flick when you’re working on strictly instrumental stuff versus beats you make for people to rap over, or is that line not really so clear?

The line is not really so clear as far as the beat construction and the elements that go into the beats. The difference comes within the arrangement. If Patrick or Hak is rapping on it, or my friend Evy is singing on it or something like that, it’s just a matter of arranging it right, and maybe taking certain elements out. Looking back on things, I feel like I’ve been more maximal, trying to hit people with a wall of sound. But now I’m trying to learn how to be great while keeping things rather minimal. I think at the end of the day, most of the beats I make are still rap beats, but then I’ll embed some element that’s ever-changing, so it never really gets too monotonous. Like a loop that doesn’t loop, you know?

It’s a beat tape on R&S with this Jay Z reference, and I feel like all those things put together equals something that’s pretty unique.

Right. So are you always, in a sense, looking for an element that takes the place of where a vocal would usually be?

Yeah, yeah, I mean, if you listen to Mobb Deep shit or Premier, all those beats were basically just loops. I feel like that has a lot to do with the state of hip hop at the time, because it lays a steady bed for a certain type of MC to rap over. I think when raps were more dense and more lyrical, the beats were about having a steady loop, and then some drums over it and maybe a bassline. But then as the rhymes got simpler, the beats came more to the forefront. So that’s what we have now: TM88, Young Chop or Mike Will Made It all make beats that are almost in front of the rappers.

I try to find my way somewhere in the middle of it, while knowing that most of the stuff I use, hip hop producers don’t really use. Whether it’s the SP-555 or just MIDI-syncing all of this stuff up, that’s usually more what experimental or dance music producers might use. I feel like that’s my connection to a label like R&S, the way it’s being done. I still come from hip hop, so many of my aesthetic choices are still grounded in that. But as time goes on, I develop new methods.

How did the SP-555 become your weapon of choice?

Well, for one, it’s lightweight. It’s really simple and easy to use, at least in the way I use it. It has a lot of on board effects to it. As far as my knowledge of the machine goes, I’m probably still at like 60% of completely using its functionality. I’m sure there are people who can run circles around me with using it, but the way I use it, it’s loading stuff in from Ableton, re-sampling it back into Ableton and continuously processing samples. You can take the original sample out and then it’ll have the ghost of the original sample, but with new drums and other elements, so that way you basically never have to think about whether you have to clear a sample again.

The original 555 that I was using, which I borrowed from a friend, actually got stolen. Our practice space got jacked. So the reason for the title of the tape was an homage of sorts to the one I had been using up until this time. And then also Jay Z had this song called “22 Two’s,” where he uses the word “two” 22 times. I went to his anniversary concert for Reasonable Doubt years later, where he did a track called “44 Four’s” as an a cappella.

I don’t even know if it’s ever been recorded, but there’s an a cappella recording of it online from the concert, where he just uses the word “four,” like “Roc-A-Fella forever, Hov for life, debut’s a classic, first album, four mic’s,” and he does that 44 times. So I wanted it to be in the lineage of that also. Really, at the end of the day, it’s a Jay Z reference. So it’s a beat tape on R&S with this Jay Z reference, and I feel like all those things put together equals something that’s pretty unique, you know?

Sporting Life - Badd

You’ve brought up Mobb Deep and Premier, and now also Jay Z. Obviously you come from that background of golden age hip hop. Is that something you still listen to when you’re making beats, like, “What would Premier do in this case?” Or are you looking more towards newer stuff and younger producers for production input?

Well, I try to take everything into account. I feel like the good thing about growing up on hip hop is that you accumulate this library of beats, which you didn’t even know at the time. At first you just thought you had a library of rhymes, then you realize when you start making beats like, “Man, I have a library of beats that I can reference.” It’s good to have those songs in your memory so you can always reference stuff and go back to it and say, “Okay, I know people heard this, but have they heard this spin on it?” Then you can come up with different styles, like Dipset-grime or Panda Bear-meets-Heatmakerz style, you know what I mean?

These are some of the styles that are in my head. I don’t know if that is going to mean anything to anybody else but me, but I feel like I can identify the thing that made Dipset Dipset. And if I can identify the thing that makes Panda Bear who he is, I can combine that with something and make something new. So yeah, I try to take everything into account, like some of the newer ill producers like Arca, Kaytranada, Mike Will Made It, all those producers from Atlanta that just have such a grasp of the low end and the kick drum.

You can start off with some Black Dice shit and end up with some Dre shit, you know?

Do you train actively train yourself when you’re making beats? Do you approach some beats thinking, “I want to try something new with kick drums on this one,” or do you not really think about individual elements like that?

I mean, every producer has certain weaknesses or strengths, just like any artist or any skateboarder has tricks they favor and then tricks they know they probably shouldn’t be doing. I feel that way as far as the mixing of individual sounds goes. If you just want to do things as quick as possible, I feel like you can always make something dirty clean, you know what I mean? You can’t necessarily make something that’s really clean dope. The hardest thing you can learn is what makes something really dope.

It’s a very subtle thing. Like, why somebody would wear Air Max with Nautica sweatpants and a rugby? The reason why somebody would do that is more valuable than the actual clothes they bought, because when you understand it, you can apply it to other things. I can figure out pretty easily what sounds dope to me, and I feel like the cleanliness and musicality of it can always come later down the line. I’m not too concerned with having some pristine kick drum, but more with at least cracking in on some new style: a new signal chain, a new MIDI chain that might be slightly unstable, almost falling apart, that’s bubbling and the samples are flowering out into their own different directions randomly. I want the idea to start out good, and then make the song more musical and refined later. You can start off with some Black Dice shit and end up with some Dre shit, you know?

We just wanna try to make it sound like some Scorsese shit.

I know you’ve also been in the studio with Dev Hynes also. I can imagine he’s an amazing musician to work with. Is there anything specific about his approach and the way that he works that you admire?

Man, yeah. This dude is a happy genius in the studio. Just hearing him, or him and his friends talk… You know, if you hear two really good skateboarders talk, they just talk about all those spots and then talk about all the 15 people who did tricks there and then be like, “oh, this is my variation of it.” So when you hear Dev talking about a guitar part like, “Yeah, that was cool, but then this is another variation, and did you hear when this person did this slight variation?” Then you realize how deep it goes, you know what I mean? Just being in the studio with him was really eye-opening and inspiring. Without any alcohol, without any drugs, he’d just so joyfully craft a song, effortlessly. It’s crazy. When you do things that easily, it makes the whole songwriting process really pleasant. It really taught me a lot about collaboration in general.

He’s able to just listen to what you’re doing and then graft his style onto yours; to find the part of your track where he can vibe and then just immediately add chords, and then his voice, his lyrics after that, then guitar, then bass. It’s a flurry! To see that was really cool, and at the end of the day he’s just a nice dude, so sometimes we meet up in New York at like 12 o’clock and just play basketball and shit like that. But yeah, we worked on a few songs, and me, him and Wiki have a track. I think it’s going to be on his album.

Ratking Boiler Room London Live Show

You touched on it briefly in the beginning, but is there anything else you can disclose about the Wiki album? Or at least the tracks that you’re working on for that?

Well, it’s probably going to come in spring 2016 if everything is straight. Production-wise and bars-wise it’s just going to be some next level shit. Wiki’s at such a high level right now. It’s crazy how advanced he is at rapping in comparison to most people. All the stuff we’ve been making, and the stuff I listened to that he’s made with other people has been really, really good. It’s definitely at a stage now where we have to craft it into a cohesive story. We were talking about it the other day, how he has to make it sound like where he lives, you know what I mean? It’s this movie we’re trying to create, kind of like the Wiki biopic, or the part two after Wiki93. We just wanna try to make it sound like some Scorsese shit.

By Anthony Obst on September 10, 2015

On a different note