Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a journalist and filmmaker who covers art and politics. Originally from Tirupati, India, he grew up in North Carolina and studied film, political science, and environmental policy at Duke University.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, a stone's throw from Apple's headquarters, is a 68-acre homeless camp that's widely believed to be the largest in the country. The Jungle, as it's known, is more accurately described as a shantytown: a collection of shacks, adobe dugouts, and treehouses inhabited by some 300 people, many of whom have lived here for years. In a land of million-dollar bungalows, it's a last place of refuge for many locals who've missed out on the booming tech economy.
All of that is about to change, however. Citing safety and sanitation concerns, the city of San Jose says the Jungle's inhabitants must move out by Wednesday; whatever they can't take with them will be demolished and hauled off before Christmas.
"It's hard for us to find spaces for folks, especially when they are competing with young techies."
"These people have houses, and even though they are not traditional homes, they have been living here for years," says Robert Aguirre 60, an unemployed electrical engineer who has camped in the Jungle for six months. "And now they are going to kick them out and they are going to be completely homeless."
San Jose is spending $4 million to give 200 Jungle residents vouchers for subsidized housing. But it's far from enough, residents say. Overwhelming demand for vacant apartments allows landlords to rent to people with perfect credit histories and known addresses. "Saying, 'Oh, well, I live in the Jungle'—that's unacceptable," says Agurirre, who has been using his voucher to look for a place to live since July.
"It's hard for us to find spaces for folks, especially when they are competing with young techies," admits Ray Bramson, the city's homelessness response manager.
Despite Silicon Valley's immense wealth—or, perhaps, because of it—San Jose and surrounding Santa Clara County have the nation's highest rate of homeless living on the streets—7,500 at last count. And despite popular perception, most of these folks didn't move here looking for a free ride. Three-quarters were born in the county, and most live in one of the county's 247 tent cities, not in homeless shelters. Many of them have jobs, yet don't make enough to afford housing.
Aguirre, for instance, did tech consulting for Dell, Apple, and Cisco in the 1990s before losing his business when Valley companies outsourced manufacturing to China. His wife's salary as a full-time medical clerk wasn't enough to pay the bills. For more on how the couple gets by, read his first-person account of life in the Jungle.
The rat king is a haunting image from European folklore: a bevy of rats, tangled together by their tails and thought to grow together as a bunch. (Rat king characters also make appearances in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics and the animated show Adventure Time.)
In an age of hypersleek solo rappers, RATKING celebrates the grime of the streets, faces on the subway, steam rising from manholes.
Then there's RATKING, a left-field hip-hop group that's one of the most exciting recent acts to come out of New York City. The mythical metaphor is apt. In an age of hypersleek solo rappers like Drake and Kanye, the three-member posse celebrates the grime of the streets, the everyday beauty of faces passing on the subway, the steam rising from manholes.
Together they're a motley crew, with a lot of growing left to do. The group formed in 2011 and has released two albums since: 2012's Wiki93 EP and the 2014 full-length So It Goes. The first version of the 2012 EP, before they signed to British label XL, was titled 1993. That's the birth year of frontman Wiki, a.k.a. Patrick Morales, 21. Hakeem "Hak" Lewis, Wiki's rapping partner and childhood friend, is a year younger; Eric Adiele, 33, who goes by "Sporting Life," is the group's producer.
If you've never heard of RATKING, you couldn't do better than to start with their single "Canal." The track distills RATKING down to its essence, and the result is like nothing else in contemporary hip-hop. Sporting Life's lumbering, explosive production hits you first. "I wanted it to be like Dipset meets Three 6 Mafia," he says, listing some of the group's canonical influences. "Shit Juelz Santana woulda spit over, Juicy J, Project Pat. But flipping those, running them through weird delays and effects."
Then come the verses, paeans to Manhattan's Canal Street—home of pawn shops, hawkers, and travelers of all colors and nationalities, mashed together as densely as Sporting Life's production. (Or a rat king.) Taken together, the effect is visceral. You can almost smell the streets. Wiki, with his two missing front teeth, shouts over the din of a dirty metropolis, buoyed by the quieter, more poetic Hak's reflections on his "17 summers" growing up in the city.
Shot in 16mm, the accompanying music video is the perfect complement. Celluloid film isn't like digital—there's no previewing or deleting, so what comes back from the lab can often be surprising. And that's the beauty of the medium, as the video makes clear in an instant. Utterly unpredictable film burns—the washing in and out of colors at the ends of a reel—cut quickly between stunning Technicolor observations of daily life in New York City. Clothes wave from windows; fish stare back from Chinatown aquariums; all types of people walk down sidewalks and alleyways, but we only ever see them from the back. It's the same teeming city where, by chance one day, Sporting Life watched a teenage Wiki freestyle in a Lower East Side park and approached him on a whim. The song celebrates the vitality of a place that people love to complain has strayed from its creative roots. Wiki pushes back defiantly on his bridge: "Think the city has let up? / Get up, wake up! / Open your eyes, wake up!"
The exhortation is so energetically earnest that never for a moment do you think that this is "rap with a positive message," proselytizing in any way. All it is is a heartfelt reflection on a world these artists know firsthand. When I ask the group (minus Hak, who was taking a break from the road after picking up a weed charge while touring in North Carolina; band management insists the incident had nothing to do with his absence) about their attitude toward politics, the answer is in that mode. "Me personally, I don't know everything that's going on, all the current events," Wiki says. "And I feel like you should be informed as fuck before you start throwing around opinions. But if there's something in front of you…"
Sporting Life chimes in: "If it comes into your world, hopefully you say something about it, you have an opinion about it."
This is the spirit most memorably on display in their track "Remove Ya," where over a grimy, UK-influenced beat, Wiki and Hak trade bars about facing police harassment just for being teenagers in New York. Half-Puerto Rican, half-Irish Wiki riffs off the well-circulated Nation recording of an NYPD officer stopping and frisking a guy ("for being a fucking mutt"): "I'm a mutt, you a mutt, yeah, we some mutts."
It's a telling hook for a song that could easily carry so much anger and resentment. RATKING's world is not so much a battle between good and evil as a constant assertion of life in all its wonder against the forces of boredom, bureaucracy, and routine. It's a party where everyone's invited, and the only foul is being dull.
In that way, the music is stridently youthful, which makes sense. Two out of three of the band's members still live with their parents, after all. So how have the folks reacted to their sons' remarkable success, their multiple national tours before they were old enough to drink legally? "My mom's definitely been really cool," Wiki says. "She's always been very supportive of me in the arts," he says, emphasizing the words self-mockingly. Okay, but what about all the rhymes about smoking weed and getting drunk? "She knows that I smoke weed. She knows that I drink," he says. "She probably doesn't understand fully…" They laugh. "But I would never filter, you know?" Wiki goes on. "In regular life, I filter more than in my music."
Among the group's influences: '50s noir, '70s no wave, and the spirit of New York Mayor LaGuardia, "that chubby little motherfucker."
"Anyway," he adds, "I think I'm gonna move out when I get back. My mom's actually moving to a new cr—apartment." Presumably he was about to say "crib," but stopped himself. It's incontrovertibly the case that the members of RATKING, for all the hooliganism in their image, are remarkably mature in person. The Fader's T. Cole Rachel noted that they're an "immediately and strikingly polite" bunch, the type to throw a smoke bomb at a Fashion Week party (as Wiki did in the 10th grade) but then sit and read Kurt Vonnegut, whose refrain in Slaughterhouse-Five inspired the name of their last album.
I was surprised by how eager they were to listen, how often they'd stop to ask if they were making sense. That unusual openness is also apparent in their wide range of declared influences, which go way beyond hip-hop to include the 1970s no wave scene, '50s film noir, the nonlinear storytelling of director Harmony Korine, and even, Wiki insists, the freethinking spirit of former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, "that chubby little motherfucker."
How do you take all of that and make a cohesive sound? Here, too, the thoughtfulness of the approach belies the band's youthful aura. "The longer people don't know about what you're working on, the stronger it gets," Sporting Life explains. "Being present and able to recognize what's ill around you creates kind of like an ill void. You pick enough things out of that void and put them together, and you can create something that glides through people's consciousnesses." And that process is painstakingly iterative. "There's this period where you're just adding, taking all these elements," Wiki says. "But then you have to start moving toward the simplest form."
"And that takes work," notes Sporting Life. "It's like when you see a tai-chi master. It's so much work up until being able to do that, but it looks so simple. And we're closer to that now than we've ever been."
The group is now touring with kindred alternative rap acts Run the Jewels and Despot while working on a 7-track project, 700 Fill (like the fill power of a jacket). Look for the new release in January or February. "If we miss the winter, it's not coming out 'til next winter," Wiki says. "It's a winter album."
After I'm done, the band members check to see if I have any lingering questions, considerate as ever—did I get everything I need? Actually, I would like to know one more thing. As perceptive young artists, what worries and excites them the most about our culture today?
Wiki fingers the toothbrush he's been holding in anticipation of a preshow shower. He frowns. "You know," he says, raising the brush like a staff, "the same shit that worries me excites me." Sporting Life concurs: "I mean, there's little to be worried about, really…There's a lot you can do these days, just sitting in a bedroom or wherever. The individual has really been empowered if they have time to just sit and build. Just try not to be bored."
UPDATE, 11/26/14: This article has been updated with further information from Ratking's manager on why one band member was absent from the group's tour.
"There are only three ways to get land," said Tony Cerda, chairman of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe, in 2010. "You can buy it, have it given to you, or steal it." It's clear which one of those applies to his people, the Ohlone, who lived in the central California coastal region for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. The Ohlone once numbered as many as 15,000 on lands stretching from the San Francisco Bay to Big Sur. But following years of enslavement under the Spanish mission system and, later, persecution by settlers, they are now largely a people in exile.
Cerda's tribe—about 2,000 people living in the Pomona area east of Los Angeles—are now the largest contemporary Ohlone group in the state. They're leading the push for cultural recognition in the city of San Francisco. Specifically, they're asking the city for land to build a cultural center as part of a proposed shoreline redevelopment project in the Hunters Point Shipyard area. The area was once the location of a historic Ohlone village and burial site—one of over 425 in the San Francisco Bay region.
Ohlone leaders say a cultural center would highlight the oft-overlooked history of California's native people while serving as a permanent place for today's tribes to continue their song, dance, language, and art traditions. And they're also hoping to rebuild their cultural presence through community events like the annual Big Time Gathering, which took place in October in San Francisco's Presidio National Park. This year's gathering was the biggest yet, drawing more than 100 Native Californians from seven different tribes. Their goal is to honor their roots, says Neil Maclean, one of the event's organizers: "Through hearing them sing, seeing them dance, and joining with them in ceremony, the Ohlone will tell their side about what it is like to survive."
Last Friday, just days after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, 29-year-old North Carolina rapper J. Cole uploaded the stirring tribute "Be Free" to his SoundCloud, dedicating it to "every young black man murdered in America." The song promptly went viral.
Protests against the shooting, and police brutality more broadly, already had been gaining steam as the police launched a highly militarized crackdown, and Cole's timely reaction—in visceral, heartfelt form—struck a chord among people who know what it's like to be profiled or harassed by law enforcement. As Cole writes in a blog post introducing the track, "That coulda been me, easily. That could have been my best friend."
Cole is hardly the only one speaking out: Artists as far and wide as Frank Ocean, Big Boi, Moby, John Legend, and Young Jeezy have taken to Twitter and the airwaves in recent days to express their dissent, and Cole is part of a long tradition of musicians who have done so in song. Here are eleven other amazing tracks on the topic of police brutality in America:
1. "Oxford Town," by Bob Dylan: Dylan wrote this tune in 1962 in response to a magazine solicitation for songs about the admission of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi, its first black student. Covered here by Richie Havens, it makes terse observations about a racist police force that don't seem too far off today: "Guns and clubs followed him down / All because his face was brown / Better get away from Oxford Town."
2. "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," by The Rolling Stones: "You're a heartbreaker / With your .44," Mick Jagger sings of the New York police in this symphonic 1973 double-ballad from the album Goats Head Soup.
3. "Who Got the Camera?" by Ice Cube: Released on the heels of the Los Angeles riots provoked by the beating of Rodney King, Ice Cube narrates the experience of being a black motorist harassed by law enforcement. "Police gettin badder," he raps. But "if I had a camera, the shit wouldn't matter."
4. "Sound of Da Police," by KRS-ONE: "Whoop, whoop! That's the sound of the police!" goes the memorable hook off KRS-One's 1993 debut solo album, Return of the Boom Bap. "After 400 years, I've got no choices," he raps, noting the continuity between slavery and racist policing. "The overseer rode around the plantation," he raps, while "the officer is off patrolling all the nation."
5. "The Beast," by The Fugees: "Warn the town, the beast is loose," the Fugees sing over police sirens in this 1996 classic. Lauryn Hill, Pras Michel, and Wyclef Jean spit old-school rhymes from gritty "ghetto Gotham," where "I pay taxes out my ass but they still harass me."
6. "American Skin (41 Shots)," by Bruce Springsteen: "41 shots," goes the chorus to Springsteen's 2000 tribute to 23-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, shot at that many times by four NYPD officers who killed him outside his Bronx apartment in February 1999. "Well, is it a gun? Is it a knife? / Is it a wallet? This is your life," he sings, referencing the cops' purported rationale for the barrage, which began when Diallo reached for his wallet. Backed by the E Street Band, Springsteen mournfully reminds us that "You can get killed just for living in your American skin."
7. "Made You Die," by Dead Prez, Yasiin Bey, and mikeflo: Dead Prez's stic.man, consistently one of hip-hop's sharpest social commentators, opens this Trayvon Martin tribute with his characteristic community-mindedness: "Now let's put it all in perspective / Before the outrage burns out misdirected / What can we do so our community's protected?" The three other MCs join in to flow on what Bey calls a "young black world in a struggle for a survival."
8. "Don't Die," by Killer Mike: Killer Mike has long protested the corrosive effects of racist policing on black communities in his native Atlanta, where his own father was a cop. In this song off his 2012 release R.A.P. Music, Mike works through the nuances of that personal history, acknowledging that while police are often honest, working-class individuals, their institutional role can be insidious. "'Fuck tha police' is still all I gotta say," he concludes, paying homage to the NWA hit from the dawn of gangsta rap.
9. "Stand Your Ground," by Pharoahe Monch: Here Monch repurposes the name of the Florida law used to justify George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin into a slogan for community organizers rallying in the killing's aftermath. "Get involved, get involved, get involved," the Queens rapper urges over roaring guitar riffs, soliciting support for the Martin family foundation in its effort to repeal the statutes.
10. "Amerika," by Lil Wayne: Lil Wayne is a rapper far better known for punch lines than political analysis, but he leaves the puns behind (mostly) in this somber single from last summer. In the video, riot police stand glaring in front of a flag whose stars "are never shining." Wayne's "Amerika" is a blighted landscape of foreclosed homes and teargas for which he modifies the patriotic anthem: "My country 'tis of thee / Sweet land of kill 'em all and let 'em die."
11. "Remove Ya," by Ratking: In this dance-y, grime-influenced track, the young rap experimentalists reflect on their daily experiences with cops in today's New York. The song is a upbeat call for community against adversity, featuring rapper Wiki playing off the well-circulated Nation recording of an NYPD officer's stopping and frisking a guy ("for being a fucking mutt"): "I'm a mutt, you a mutt, yeah, we some mutts." His companion Hak chimes in with memories of being arbitrarily stopped by an officer: "Hear the 'whoop whoop whoop whoop, stop don't move' / 'Hands on the hood, you gave me that look, wearing your hood.'"
Music festivals these days offer far more than music: When attendees step on the grounds, they're a captive audience (fish in a barrel?) for all manner of food, drink, goods, and services. They're also automatic eyeballs for companies that shell out big bucks for the chance to provide "branded experiences."
There's a growing feeling that the "music" part of the megafests is starting to take a backseat to the array of other experiences. At Coachella, you've got dodge ball, relay races, and the famed ferris wheel. At Bonnaroo, you can supplement your music with yoga, a movie theater, and a 5k footrace. And of course, trendy food and drink are increasingly a big draw. Far beyond mere funnel cakes and ice cream (unless they're artisanal or organic), the modern music festival is host to just about every new food fetish. At Coachella, you can pay an extra $225 (on top of the $375/weekend general admission) to enjoy a four-course dinner at a communal table. All of which begs the question: Is there even time for music?
Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the music industry publication Pollstar, says that 20 years ago this state of affairs would've been unimaginable. "It's been a gradual process over the last decade or two that music festivals transitioned from strictly being about the music to being more about the social environment and other things as well," he says. The proliferation of big festivals, he points out, has prompted each fest to try and differentiate itself. "That's why the most successful events create an an environment that’s appealing to music fans no matter what the music is onstage. It's why Coachella can sell out two weekends without anyone knowing what the talent even is."
Bottom line: Where once there were hot dogs and light beer, now there are bacon flights, artisanal cocktails, and a full-on playground for adults with disposable income. Just check out a few of the goods and services available to attendees at this year's Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco.
A BaconLand patron displays his $10 "bacon flight"—five strips from five different producers. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Water really is an afterthought on a cocktail menu featuring mixers like chamomile-infused local honey, Hawaiian black salt, and "live" ginger beer. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Gluten-free and fleur de sel varieties available, of course. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp Pub. (Not to be confused with fellow vendor Beer Lands.) Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Barefoot Wine had its own Refresh Lounge just next door, for Beer Camp escapees, perhaps? Prashanth Kamalakanthan
No one company could rival the draw of Wine Lands, which hosted 36 wineries. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Wine Land voyagers were immersed in a parallel economy, one where currency ($1 tickets) came in 10-packs only, and a $2 reusable cup was required. One-ounce "tastes" cost two to five tickets, while a four-ounce pour went for $8. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
The US Postal Service's Janis Joplin stamp debuted at the festival, highlighting Joplin's legendary connection to Golden Gate Park. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Actual snack offerings, or culinary word scrambles? Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Wearable nostalgia from San Francisco's hippie past: $30 a head. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Power to the people—at least those willing to pay $10 to rent a phone charger. A precious commodity at a fest with a strict no ins-and-outs policy. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Order your fine, handcrafted lamps here. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Facepainting: No longer just for kids under 12. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
A few more must-have festival supplies. Prashanth Kamalakanthan
Humanity's final triumph over nature? Prashanth Kamalakanthan