Music by VICE

Ball Is Sporting Life

On his 'Slam Dunk' EP series, the Ratking producer and solo artist is on a quest to bridge his twin passions—basketball and music.

by Gary Suarez
Dec 9 2016, 8:52pm

Photos by Tonje Thilesen

All Sporting Life wants to do right now is play ball, but New York City keeps conspiring against him. Mere minutes before we meet up on an unseasonably cold October night, a text hits his phone informing him that his weekly nighttime basketball game at a downtown public school has been cancelled, replaced by a Halloween dance for the kids.

The night marks our second failed attempt in a week to get some time on the court; our previous try was thwarted by a wintry cold snap that kept the spacious outdoor courts nearest to Sport's apartment in Chinatown all but deserted. "I really wish we'd gotten in," says the 33-year-old producer and artist born Eric Adiele, the production arm of leftfield hip-hop group Ratking and a forward-thinking solo artist in his own right. "It's such a nice gym with freshly waxed floors. Just so good."

His face full of almost childlike disappointment, he doles out goodbyes to the other displaced players, a crew that includes Supreme co-founder Aaron Bondaroff. "The game is always a mixture of artists and athletes," Sport says, occasionally dribbling his ball. "It's kinda cool, because you can block your favorite singer's shot."

In New York City, basketball boasts its own subculture, one that accepts players from all walks of life—provided that they have skills. Beyond being home to two different NBA teams, the five boroughs provide devotees of the sport hundreds of parks and gymnasiums in which to play, develop skills, show off moves, and, perhaps most importantly, compete. Rucker Park in Harlem, the West 4th Street courts in Greenwich Village—these contemporary coliseums of passing the proverbial rock are treated as hallowed ground for talented amateurs and professionals alike. Sport lives and breathes basketball—perhaps even more so than he does music. "I wanna play in the Euro League," he says, the seriousness in his eyes indicating that somewhere in his mind he's working on a practical path towards that very goal.

Sport continues his quest to bridge his twin passions—basketball and music—with his athletic-themed trio of Slam Dunk EPs, released digitally over the course of 2016 on Ratking's Letter Racer and R&S Records. The entire series is out on vinyl today with three bonus tracks, including a collaboration with Novelist called "No More Stress." Nearly every track title contains a winking reference to the game, and the producer speaks in sports analogies when describing the series, like "triangle offense strategy," "winning teams," and "favorite players"—the latter referring to his production peers and heroes in the contemporary electronic music community. As he branched out into DJ sets under the Sporting Life moniker over the past year, Sport made real-life connections on bills with experimental-leaning artists like Actress and Galcher Lustwerk. "Those are very inspirational artists to me, players you like to watch," Sport says. Both of these producers, along with Dean Blunt, appear as remixers on the Slam Dunk volumes.

Following last year's 55 5's mixtape for R&S Records, the sample-centric Slam Dunk project reveals influences from Aphex Twin to Panda Bear. Each of the three EPs also showcases different aspects of Sport's aesthetic, from the slightly fractured trap of "Space Jam Money" to the lush tropical house of "Court Vision." On the third and final installment, released on November 4, he brings back that unhinged Ratking post-boom bap of hip-hop—another example of the blend of classic and futurist ideas that essentially makes him a veritable triple threat.

Growing up, Sport bounced between Maryland, New York, and Virginia, ultimately playing high school basketball during the years he lived in Baltimore. While not a factor for much of his childhood, that Basketball Jones took hold around the age of 12, and changed Sport forever. "I was pretty much practicing all the time," he says of his teenage years as we stroll slowly down 6th Avenue. "Waking up early in the morning, going to the court in our apartment complex, practicing with my left hand, watching Jason Williams and Allen Iverson highlights." Unprompted, he demonstrates the latter's left-to-right crossover move for me.

The roots of his respective passions stem from his Nigerian father, who first came to the US to play soccer for East Carolina University. Prior to his immersion in hip-hop, Sport's musical education began with his father's Highlife cassettes—recordings of African music from Sunny Bobo, Fela Kuti, and the like. "Looking back, my dad must've really been into music to dub all those tapes," he says. "We moved a lot, so a lot of that stuff got lost in transit."

Like basketball, hip-hop came later in Sport's life. "I got introduced to rap through my older brother," he says, citing Nas' It Was Written and Kanye West's The College Dropout as particularly impactful in his adolescence. "That was the music I was choosing."

That hip-hop upbringing served Sport well once he arrived in New York in 2005, where he immersed himself in the city's music, underground art, and basketball cultures. It was here that he learned about artists like Animal Collective and Suicide, and met his current Ratking cohort Patrick "Wiki" Morales. Though the on-mic personalities of Wiki and former member Hak kept joints jumping on the group's rise to indie rap stardom in the 2010s, Sport's sonic multiplicity defined Ratking's unmistakable aesthetic. Informed by, yet not beholden to, the city's hip-hop traditions, the group's gritty, oddly beauteous sound absorbs subway rumbles and car alarms, projecting them back out in mutated fashion. "I feel like I'm still catching up," he admits, regarding his continuing education as a listener.

The evolving sound of Sporting Life's releases comes from that melange of influences, with the producer actively trying to reconcile them into a singular brand. "The fun is solving a Rubix cube, seeing if these things will mix together," he says. Sport makes little distinction between his hip-hop work in Ratking and his electronic solo endeavors, but recognizes that for his listeners, that may not always be the case. "You never know how another person is going to hear what you're doing," he says. "You have a whole lifetime of references in your head, musically."

Whether its teaming up with Dev Hynes for the Slam Dunk Vol. 3 single "Nothing To Hide" or working with Wiki on new Ratking music for an as-yet unnamed future release, Sport values collaboration as any team player ought. "Your work is going to be the true icebreaker," he says. "The energy of your music is what's gonna bridge the connection between you and another artist."

Heading back towards Chinatown, Sport still dribbling the ball, we walk past revelers in costume, including one dressed quite credibly as Donald Trump. Sport fumbles to get his phone out, lamenting, "I wanted to take a picture of that guy." That brief moment marks a rare distraction from someone who otherwise comes across entirely fixated on his two preoccupations: ball and music is his life. And if his 2016 is anything to go off, that champion focus will pay off in the 2017 season.

Sporting Life's Slam Dunk EP series on out now digitally and on vinyl via his Bandcamp

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