In the closing seconds of “Hit the L,” the fourth track off Wiki’s 2015 mixtape Lil Me, renowned art dealer Aaron Bondaroff, also known as A-Ron, offers a cautious soliloquy on the perils of slipping into creative complacency in New York. Even the most established tastemakers feel apprehension toward the prospect of fading into obscurity, while the next wave of prodigious talent alters the artistic landscape.
“The next kids are gonna come. They’re coming for everybody. That’s the good thing about the hunger of downtown culture is that if you think that it’s sweet and you think you’re gonna hold your crown and you’re gonna hold your position, it’s getting taken.”
28-year-old Wiki is an unabashed New Yorker whose guttural timbre captures the essence of a street corner cypher. A self-described “mutt,” Wiki grew up Irish and Puerto Rican, an integral source of pride expressed heavily in his music, visuals and merchandise. His signature emblem is the self-painted WikiFlag, which merges the colors of the Irish flag with the Puerto Rican pattern. Over the past decade, Wiki has left an indelible mark on an underground scene that favored bruising and jagged production, feverish rhyme styles, and punchy, bar-driven hooks. In the process, he’s maintained his position as an alternative rap innovator through quality releases and collaborations, a strong grasp on aesthetics, and embodying inimitable originality.
Alongside rapper Hak and producer Sporting Life, Wiki was a founding member of RATKING, a kindred trio that blurred the lines of hip-hop, jazz and grime. Despite releasing only three projects, their fingerprints can still be seen on modern alternative hip-hop, particularly within the melancholic and lyrically-incisive movement that gained traction over the last half-decade. Talented producers and wordsmiths like Navy Blue, MIKE, Medhane, Maxo, Mavi, and Earl Sweatshirt took the genre to new heights, but the most telling characteristic might be the RATKING philosophy that prevailed over time. The idea of creating art without borders, doing it yourself, and staying true to who you are.
In what felt like a continuation of the grassroots foundation set by RATKING mixed with New York’s explorative present, Wiki linked with Blue for his latest record “Half God.” The result being a striking collage of warring emotions: from the thrill of falling in love to the importance of preserving community and culture, to anti-capitalist rage over gentrification.
Written during the trenches of quarantine, the spiritual first single “Roof” transports the listener to Wiki’s rooftop, where the tranquil stillness of an otherwise bustling city helped alleviate the insular dread brought on by the pandemic. Buoyed by wistful keys and a teetering guitar loop from Blue, “Roof” offers a window into Wiki’s lens, where anonymous faces on the street resemble ants and the cool breeze restores serotonin levels. Ever aware of his ability to paint pictures with his words, Wiki smirks through the line “You ain’t gotta see it/you could hear the portrait.”
Blue’s imaginative beats and Wiki’s evocative writing yield lucid depictions of growing up in New York City. The hallucinogenic texture of “Grape Soda” conjures vivid nostalgia out of Wiki, who recounts hot summer days spent cooling off under a spraying fire hydrant. “Still Here” is anchored by a bubbly and weightless acoustic section that Wiki weaves into a forlorn reflection on high school awkwardness and fitting in. Elsewhere on “Never Fall Off,” a romantic Wiki muses on the natural love he shares with his significant other over sleek guitar and shimmering strings.
Wiki is protective of the city that raised him. It pains him to see his community transformed by money and greed while real-life human implications often get ignored. The anger is palpable on “The Business,” a scathing track where he snarls “Don’t know a soul from the city, why’d they even move? To your home that they stole from right up under you/What I can’t understand or get through to me is / After all the schooling you did, don’t know what community is?”
As if it was somehow unclear to this point, Wiki is New York to the core. He even paused our interview halfway through to chop it up with someone on the street while he was running errands. “Half God” reinforces his commitment to preserving his city’s artistic roots while keeping a cautious eye on the future.
We caught up with Wiki to talk about his new record, working with Navy Blue, RATKING’s lasting impact, and what New York means to him. – Ross Olson
Half God has been out for a month now. What’s your life been like since it dropped?
Wiki: It’s been good, I just been focusing. Doing everything I needed to do to follow up with it. Sometimes when you drop a record, it’s like “aight I dropped.” Now it’s a weight off your shoulders, but then it’s a whole ‘nother weight. Not on the creative side and making music, but it’s all the other shit you gotta do. So I’m just focused on that and trying to do everything properly to get the best out of it.
You gotta do a lot of press runs and events I imagine?
Wiki: Yeah I mean it’s not too bad. It’s nice to do press, it’s nice to have people interested in the record, you know? So I can’t complain.
How have you felt about the reception of the album overall?
Wiki: I feel like it’s been a good reception. I was excited. To be honest, it was better than I thought. I thought it was gonna be really good off the rip, but you never really know. I’ve been doing it so long, usually when I drop in the past it’s not exact. I put my all in, everything I have. Not everything I have, but I’m like ‘this is my only focus.’ Then it’s maybe not how I foresaw it.
This one was like I put my all in, but I just felt free with it. It wasn’t a stressful situation. So once we got that response, I kinda knew. It was one of the first times, like before I felt like I knew but then it wouldn’t stand out. This was the one where I knew where it actually worked out and it clicked. A lot of the time in the past I was like ‘what am I doing wrong?’ I don’t know exactly what it was but this one I felt like people got where I was coming from.
I know you said you felt more free during the recording process. Did you think it would land differently with the crowd than some of your past works?
Wiki: It was just a feeling. Speaking of recording, there was this certain confidence I gained in myself during recording where I just felt confident in myself as a recording artist, as a vocalist. When I was recording it, I was feeling it out and laying it down. Not overthinking, not doing a million takes. That goes along with the freedom cause once you have that confidence in what you do and how you execute it. I think it takes years to figure it out, ya know?
But I think that I was at that place. The beats that Navy was sending me and what we were working on were perfect, and what I was always wanting to work on and always what I wanted to make. All the pieces came together. It wasn’t planned out, but it couldn’t have been planned out better. It just kind of happened.
I think when it was first announced that you and Navy were doing a project together everyone felt like it made a lot of sense.
Wiki: It’s a weird one where you wouldn’t think of, but once you put it together you think ‘oh this makes sense.’ I feel the same. That’s the best shit. Not where it’s so obvious. It’s a certain thing where it crosses over, there’s this line, this gray area where we both really make sense together. Especially him as a producer and me as an MC.
When did you and Navy first link up?
Wiki: It’s one of the ones where you connect like ‘oh Wik’s known Earl [Sweatshirt] for a minute. Sage knows Earl.’ There’s a lot of crossover shit and that’s why we’ve known each other for years, and that’s why people be like ‘oh when did y’all meet?’ And It’s like 8 years, we don’t really know. Over the years through passing, you become better friends and there’s always that rapport. And this one made the friendship even stronger. I was working with some people Sage was working with.
When I was out in LA, he hit me up to pull up to Al’s [The Alchemist] studio and that’s where we did the ‘All I Need’ joint. Then I got a couple more joints off and we knew we gotta do a record together. At first it was in the air. You know how that is, there’s always talk and ideas. But then it just snowballed. It was like oh shit, five joints is done. Ten joints is done. I felt like this was my next record. Sage was very vocal the whole time like ‘yo I’m trying to make something for you. This is your record. I wanted to make some shit for him.’ And I think he executed it perfectly.
What did you like about Navy’s production style right off the bat?
Wiki: I could get on any type of drums. It’s like what does the music bring out of me? It’s a feeling. I just started writing and I didn’t stop. He just brought it out of me. There’s a certain simplicity where I could just go. My voice was very clear and not fogged up by too much experimentation in the beat. It wasn’t some crazy production process. We literally just did this with beats and raps and that shit speaks for itself. That simple essence is untouchable and unfuckwittable. I love pushing the sound and experimenting. I make music like that all the time. But there’s a certain thing with this one where it cut out all that shit and was the bare minimum but also the bare necessities.
I was just thinking about this the other day. I feel like his beats, when I hear them they just give me a certain feeling, or a memory, or a flashback.
Wiki: Exactly. It’s like you get the goosebumps off rip. Just off the beat. Then you know I’m ready to write to this shit. It’s not like ‘oh this is cool.’ It’s like I could listen to it a million times.
On “Grape Soda” that vocal loop went so well with you rapping about your childhood and playing in the street with the water from the fire hydrant. You could just picture it.
Wiki: That beat is hypnotic, it brings you in. But it’s funny. It wasn’t one where I was thinking that was gonna be the one. There’s the fans that are just getting into it and they’re like ‘oh I love the Earl joint.’ But the Wik fans will be like ‘yo grape soda.’ It’s that certain simplicity. I’m really just getting the story up, I’m not flexing my rap skills on that one. It’s just the writing itself and that fucking loop. It’s a short loop but it keeps going and you can stay with it the whole time.
Do you like working with one producer on a project?
Wiki: I really did. It made it so you can focus on what you gotta do. There’s this certain cohesion from the simple fact that this is the same person. There’s ‘The Business.” That beat stands out a lot. Sage was like ‘yo Remarkably was some beat I had laying down from like five years ago.’ And I was like that makes OD sense cuz there’s a classic vibe to “Remarkably.” In the studio you can hear my homies talking shit in the back. And I’m freestyling on the hook kinda.
It was some raw shit he made back in the day and I’m bringing that energy. I think for the producer on the other side there’s a challenge where it’s like ‘I can’t just give this dude the same beats.’ It was like how can I make an album out of all my beats where it works cohesively and musically. I’m gonna focus more on the story and getting my side across where I don’t have to work with 10 different producers.
“Roof” has very descriptive writing that makes me feel like I can see what you see when you’re up there. How important was the rooftop of your building during the pandemic?
Wiki: That’s where I wrote it. On the roof in quarantine. I would go up to the roof every day. That song wouldn’t have come out unless I was literally I was on my roof every single day writing all day that summer where it can’t kick it outside like that. It was the illest spot because you get isolation because you’re outside but still feel the energy of the city. I don’t like to be inside. There’s a certain thing that’s really precious about a roof to any New Yorker, but especially during quarantine it just elevated that even further and really brought it out of me.
How much do you think your early days with RATKING influenced the sound that guys like Navy, MIKE and Medhane are doing?
Wiki: I think all those people at one point were influenced and also respected especially Sport [Sporting life] as a producer in RATKING and me as an MC. In that spirit of RATKING influenced that idea of creating your team and your people and doing it. Doing it on your terms. RATKING wasn’t fully that but it was kind of our ethos.
We can be self-sustained and underground artists. We don’t have to do shit one way. There’s not a formula to this shit we can do it our way and still make some dope music. I think that was influential in the city. It’s dope to see all the people coming out the city too now that are in that same storyline. I’m not trying to take credit but I know that the respect is there and the ethos is still part of the same storyline.
Is it important to you to pass off information and guidance to the younger generation in NYC? I know you’re only 28 but you’re a veteran in your own right.
Wiki: I try to give the utmost advice. I try to give it from a perspective where I’m not telling everyone like ‘yo I know everything.’ I haven’t seen everything but I can give people my perspective. Sometimes you can see people doubting themselves or dealing with this label thing. I’m trying to take advice too. A couple years ago I was trying to get my videos together. I was talking to MIKE and he had his shit.
His team and everything was just smooth. And was he like ‘bro just do it. Just figure it out and do it.’ Don’t overthink it. You don’t have to have the craziest budget. Get with your friends and do it.’ It goes both ways. You been in the game so long you get to thinking oh this is the way it has to be. At the end of the day we’re making art and that’s what it should be. Never lose sight of that. A lot of the younger cats have kind of helped bring me back to that. Help ground me a little bit.
Like you were saying about RATKING and your ethos being very DIY, independent and grassroots. Do you think that’s what you guys have passed to the next guys coming up?
Wiki: I think it’s the energy and philosophy of it. Just being creative and being you. I think that’s something that was in the original Hip-Hop. It was just a little bit more connected to home and connected to the roots and I think it’s getting back to that. And when I mean the roots I mean the city, the neighborhoods whatever it is. I feel like that’s important. Especially these days where everything is online. You can kind of be a weird character online and get all your sauce from the internet.
I love that line on “Can’t Do This Alone” where you’re saying how you do need a stage to rap you can do it right here on the street. I thought it was really authentic and part of why Hip-Hop heads respect you and RATKING. Is it important to you to embody that spirit of street rap in NY?
Wiki: That’s so important to me. I’ve always had that, but now I’m understanding more that idea of like bro, that’s what makes it special and that’s what I’m always trying to uphold. It’s for Hip-Hop, it’s for culture and the city and the neighborhood and the people. Staying with that in my head is really important. Like you said, at the end of the day I’m gonna be rapping either way on the street to you or whatever. That’s the most fun shit. Not losing sight of why you did it in the first place. Honing that energy and doing it properly and staying true to that. I like being on some underground shit.
You can tell with your music that you can do it on the street and take it straight to the booth. I feel like that’s hard to find these days. It’s coming from the underground and I feel like that scene has so much momentum and I feel like you were behind a lot of it in the past decade or so.
Wiki: I’m just happy to play any role that I have. Like I said, at the end of the day I’m just a servant to the game, ya feel me? On some hip-hop shit. I’m just playing my role. I don’t gotta be the best MC in the world. I just gotta be the best version of myself and be the best MC to me that I can be. It’s some like some Marvel Universe shit where everyone had their own thing but it all can cross over.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Even with anything you do, it’s not like this is the underground move and this is the mainstream move. It’s about the mentality you go with that and the way you go about everything. I think it’s becoming better because you can do it more yourself. There’s a lot of cutting out the middle man. People can figure out things themself. Over the time I used to get hard on myself but I realized I’m an artist and I do this for Hip-Hop and rap and you don’t understand then that’s cool. But that’s my artform. I don’t gotta bring shit to anybody.
It kind of reminds me how Curren$y is. How he’s done everything on his own terms and never compromised for a second and stayed true to himself. I think you guys are similar in that respect.
Wiki: It’s funny you say that because he’s someone I listened to all the time when I was younger. I wasn’t into current shit at that time, but that was someone who was coming out who I fucked with heavy. Those were the formative years for them that became all that shit with RATKING and everything. That definitely had an influence on me as well because I knew a little bit of the backstory seeing the way he was with Cash Money and then that didn’t work out but he made it work.
I fucked with that, that he flipped it and was like ‘I don’t have to be that kind of rapper, I’m just me Curren$y.’ I think that set the tone for a lot of people. You see someone like Danny Brown. It was like I don’t have to be this or that. You could like the weirdo shit or the bars. I think that’s a dope thing that’s in Hip-Hop right now. There was this era where everything was so big. Even the underground shit was so big. It was like Kanye or something was talking about underground shit. I’m saying like early Kanye, but it was like bro that shit is selling millions. Not starving artist, but working artists who’s making it happen. Day by day living and doing it through their art.
In some of your older music you’ve talked about how you feel like it’s only a matter of time before you get your spot taken. But it seems like if anything, you’re gaining more acclaim and recognition as the years go on. How have you been able to keep growing as an artist?
Wiki: I think about that all the time but I try not to. Same thing as I was saying before as being connected to the roots. Not in a forced way, but as being a real authentic person to yourself and how you go about your life. You see people act a certain way when they get on. Losing that connect to normalness in a way. It’s like a never ending thing. You never wanna be fully on or else the only way to go is off. So I think it’s that humble side and as well as that confidence.
Keeping that balance and always trying to check yourself. As well as checking yourself like ‘oh I am that dude. I’m nice.’ You have to have that balance. That’s kind of what Half-God that title is about. I think that’s helped me keep the growth. It’s a scary thing to think about if I’m going to lose it. Also it’s a race with yourself. Hip-Hop is a competitive sport no doubt, but I look at it like I’m in a race. Yeah I might be racing you but I’m not competing with you. I’m in a race with myself. I need to figure out my pace and my lane. I’m looking down straight my lane like what’s my path? It’s not all just gonna be fun when you’re in your twenties, like I’m over that.
Life is continuously going. I think there’s a reason I’m in the game so long and remained in the underground as long as I have. I’ve solidified that and it’s been a part of my process and it’s only growth from there. It’s important its taken me time. I’m a writer at the end of the day. I had all the energy when I was young. It was fun smashing a mic into my head. But at the end of the day it’s deeper than that. I’m happy with age to grow and with knowledge to grow. I’m happy that I didn’t get too successful too early. I feel like it’s a new start for me with this record. I’m happy to be coming at it late. You can come out later and figure it out.
You’re very protective of the city you come from. Why is New York so special to you?
Wiki: I mean it’s where I’m from but also, I was talking to my girl yesterday and she was talking about her pops. She was like how her pops maybe isn’t the most connected with his parents and how his mother is Mexican and his dad is part Native American. He’s just like I’m from here, that’s his identity. She was like ‘oh he’s so disconnected,’ and I’m like there’s two sides to it. I always try to connect to my roots but I do like that idea.
For me too, also being part Puerto Rican part Irish, half and half. Irish American kinda but a little Italian on my mom’s side, you know just basic New York shit. New York I gravitated to as my identity even more. It’s like you can’t fully identify with one thing so you’re like ‘This is New York, this is my city.’ Especially with being Puerto Rican is such New Yorkian. Puerto Rico is such a small ass island but in New York you go out and see the flags everywhere. It feels like home. People used to be like ‘what was it like growing up?’ And I couldn’t really tell you. But now looking back, I can from traveling.
Going to school, I went to a nice school but I was in downtown Brooklyn, near the Fulton Mall with all the jewelry stores and everyone’s shopping. Being down on Canal Street. All those things it’s like everyone together, you see the world different. I find people get into this this thing where they get shocked. They’re like ‘oh my god.’ Not that New York is the craziest place in the world, but you see it all. You see it all from the top to the bottom. All in a small, dense area.
Of course there’s borders and of course there’s segregation and all that. But there’s not a highway separating it. There’s a block separating it. It’s a small area. I think that’s part of what I love. I was out in LA with my boy and he stood out in the street and was like ‘you know why I don’t like New York? You never get this much space anywhere in New York.’ And I was like ‘Yeah that’s why I love New York.’ I never feel alone. Even if I can be alone for days working on my music, I can go out on the block and so much is going on.
On the song “The Business” you talk about how these people who aren’t from New York come in and try to throw some money around to change it to make some profits. Does it make you angry to see that in the areas you grew up in?
Wiki: Obviously it’s New York City, people will come to New York. That’s a fact. It can be a bit weird. Even just yesterday I went to the bar and everyone in the bar except for like two people were from out of town. You hear the conversations and it’s all about moving to the city. Meanwhile these people are kinda looking at you weird and shit already ‘like who’s this guy?’ And I’m like ‘bro, who’s this?’ That shit gets me hot, bro. They’re looking at me maybe the way I’m dressed or whatever on their bullshit hipster shit. I be getting hot but I can catch myself. When you see some brunt shit downtown and it’s just obnoxious music and people being all drunk in the most annoying obnoxious way. It’s just about having the certain respect that people are from here and live here to, ya know?
It’d be different if they came from out of town and they tried to ingratiate themselves in the different boroughs and the culture and not just question everything.
Wiki: There’s New Yorkers who aren’t from New York that have just been there long enough and they’re part of the culture and part of the city. It’s like you’re coming in and seeing things the way you think things should be. Like “oh this is what’s nice to me.” Without understanding there’s a whole ‘nother culture here how we live that what polite is and what nice is. It’s just about having respect. Some people know how to do it right. It’s not black and white but people can be really obnoxious and not have respect for the place.
In your songs you make it known you want to preserve the cultural essence of where you come from. It seems like a big deal to you to use your art to push that position.
Wiki: There’s a certain thing in the city where the tradition still lives on in this way. You’ll see kids from the city who are from New York. They’re all on the new shit, totally tapped in, but you’ll still hear them bumpin’ Big L or something. They have that respect for what New York is. It’s not just like ‘this is the new shit, fuck that old shit.’ It’s like nah, that old shit is what makes us and laid the groundwork.
It was that period for a minute where it was like ‘fuck the old heads,’ but the kids now have that respect for what people laid down you can see it. Even you can see it when the LOX did the battle. All the youth are tapped in with that. It was dope to see that. And what I said earlier, Imma just do my thing cause look at the LOX. They did their damn thing. They let everyone know what it’s really about. It all came around and they just stayed true to themself.