Wiki and Sage Elsesser discuss NY hip-hop and measuring success in music

Written by on 14/12/2021

It must be tough to be a local hero. Balancing the demands of fame, validation, community and internal drive. That unlikely combination of high-flown ambition and ground level humility. No rapper embodies this kind of local heroism like Wiki (born Patrick Morales), New York City’s native son, whose lauded lyrical diffractions have earned him international recognition and local fame. While some rappers marshal their NYC credentials like rap sheets, Wiki’s documentary gaze spins narrative webs that transform Manhattan into a lyrical playground, a layered topography full of personal history, buried strata unearthed by rhymes. (“To continue to tell / bad or good / everything I been through / so you don’t have to / go through the same mistakes that Wik do.”)

Wiki’s third album, Half God (released October 1), is an inner-exploration of the Manhattan-born rapper’s psyche. The record is produced entirely by Sage Elsesser (a.k.a Navy Blue), a creative polymath — model, skater, artist, producer, rapper and i-D cover star — who’s collaborated with Earl Sweatshirt and Mike, among others. In 2020, he told us: “I have been saddened by this reality, this generational pain, since I was a little boy. I am grateful to have been taught about the struggles we faced as Black people, by my dear grandparents.” It is that awareness of history and reservoir of personal, familial creativity that Sage taps into to create stirring lo-fi beats, constantly referencing and sampling soulful pioneers like Calvin Keys Jr. and Johnnie Wilder to draw a throughline between history and future.

We met up with Wiki and Sage on an unusually warm fall day in Lower Manhattan, where they discussed freestyling, skating, Supreme, fame, freedom and their upcoming tour.

wiki looking into the camera and sage elsesser staring off

It’s cool to see you guys making an album together. It feels like New York hip-hop is becoming communitarian again, as it was in the 90s.
Wiki: It’s the spirit of it, more than the music. It’s a 90s revival. Like you said, communal. 

How did you and Sage link up?
Wiki: We’ve known each other for a minute. We met mad long ago. Maybe nine or 10 years ago. We’ve known each other from being around. Being in the city. It’s all in due time, you know?

Sage, when did you start producing music?
Sage: Really young, I must’ve been 10 or something and my dad bought me a drum machine for Christmas. I would take it in my backpack to school. My dad is a musician. I remember him showing me a J Dilla song and I was like, ‘Oh, man. This is the best thing I have ever heard’. He just showed me the formula. The first song my dad and I ever made, we sampled [Nina Simone’s] “Four Women”. I just loved making beats. It was the first time I felt in control, like skating. I grew up playing football. I remember one day at practice, I saw these kids skating at the park. I was like, ‘Damn, that looks like so much fun.’

Wiki: How old were you?

Sage: Maybe 12, maybe 11. I decided I would skate that weekend. I remember when I started skating again. The independence is so nice.

Wiki: You had skated previously but then got back into it?

Sage: I grew up skating. I always had a board. But I remember thinking I wanted to get back into it. Once that light turned on in my brain, I got to feel that independence.

Wiki: Freedom!

Sage: Yeah. When I got to boarding school, I had so much time to myself. I would go home and finish my homework and just make beats. I was making beats for a long time.

sage elsesser smoking a cigarette on a new york rooftop

Pat, what’s your origin story? I remember seeing you rapping in the middle of a party in Brooklyn when I was like 16 or 17, and I just thought ‘Yo, who is this dude?’
Wiki: Yeah, I feel like I recognise you. I always wanted to rap. I felt like I couldn’t. I thought, ‘Who am I? I’m just some kid from the Upper West Side.’ But then in high school, being out and meeting all different types of people at those parties, where everyone in the city our age was there in some warehouse. Everyone would be dancing and we would be in the cut just freestyling. It was mad funny. Mad dudes just freestyling in the corner! But I would always be the loudest. I was small as fuck, but I would just be loud. I would project. I would rap over people. It was something I was always drawn to. It was just a way for me to get my confidence out and express myself. It was something I was skilled at. It’s a type of thing in New York.

Sage, it sounds like your father really supported you. Wiki, was it the same for you? Were your parents supportive?
Wiki: My mom is really into the idea of being creative. She wanted me to do piano lessons and this type of shit. I also had an older brother who was academic. So it kind of let me be the younger, creative spirit. I could really play that role in the family and they supported it. They wanted me to go to college but I wanted to take a year off and try to figure it out. My dad’s from Puerto Rico. He went to Yale. He values education. My dad is always 100 percent supportive, but I don’t know if he got it as much. Now I think he gets it.

wiki and sage elsesser sitting on the edge of a new york rooftop

How do you balance making art with the public reception of that art?Sage: Well, Pat’s been doing it for so long. Even just being in a cypher like that. I could never do something like that. I’m so self-conscious! Even when I started rapping, when I first started making Navy Blue stuff – putting it out on Soundcloud – I was always on YouTube, finding cuts about this weird video or this guy rapping. I wanted it to be weird.

Wiki: You wanted it to be mysterious. To have a perspective.

Sage: Exactly. Navy Blue was birthed out of being depressed in college in my first year.

Wiki: Alone in your room?

Sage: Yeah. I used to sit in this little chair, in this crib. I was living with this girl I went to high school with. I had just started making decent money from skating, so I could pay rent. I say all that because I never had any intentions for this to become a thing. I wanted it to be some anonymous thing. And then I remember Earl Sweatshirt told me we were going to put out this song “The Mint”. I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t know…’ And he told me, ‘The cover is going to be a picture of you.’

Wiki: It’s a dope introduction to the world.

Sage: Yeah. I’m very ambitious and I love skating, but music really feeds my spirit in a way that skating doesn’t necessarily.

What does success look like for you in today’s music scene? When I was growing up everyone wanted to be on a major label. I’m not sure it’s still like that.
Sage: I just signed to a fucking major. I don’t want to block my blessings. Nothing really changes. I think about that. Like with Supreme. It became a billion dollar company, but James still runs it the same way that it was run when he started it. Nothing’s going to change. A little more bread in my pocket. More exposure. I’m not really fearful of that.

Wiki: These days it’s not about majors. It’s about having nuance to the way you do shit. Whatever deal you sign now, it’s not the type they used to sign 20 years ago. It’s all about being smart about how you do it. To me, what we have, the youth now, is nuance and understanding that things aren’t so black and white. You can navigate your own path and create your own way to be successful. It doesn’t need to look one way. I always want to stay grounded. If you’re too focused on whatever’s happening over there, you’re going to lose touch.

Sage: I never wanted the type of fame where I couldn’t ride the train!

Wiki: Exactly! You don’t want to lose touch. Because then you can’t rap about the train no more! So, what is “success”? With rapping, you might think you want to be like your favourite rapper and then realise you didn’t want to be like that dude.

wiki holding his hat in his apartment

Sage: It’s nice when you get comfy though. Because a lot of life is fear-driven. One of the biggest things about being a human being is we can all identify with fear. You have a fear of success and failure. Simultaneously. It’s a weird thing. You want to stay in that comfortable place where you don’t want to push yourself too much, but then I might get uncomfortable. Music is easy.

Wiki: I know what you mean. I feel most comfortable when I’m making what I want to make. When I’m not making music, I’m like ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ But then I’m like ‘Yo, let’s get in the studio.’ In a way, it’s not work. Whether it’s in your room or at Al’s studio [The Alchemist]. You create that space where you’re comfortable. You and I made one song there, but being there hearing the music playing and waking up hearing Al talk shit — all that shit is so important. That brings a connection. You see it. People are coming in and out and you feel a part of something with your peers. You get that love. We’re all a part of the same thing. It’s like some Marvel Universe shit. You might be a small character, but you’re still part of it.

Sage: I love Al. I used to be at his studio. And he would just be like, ‘Yo, play me some joints.’ Like, how did he even know I made beats? The other day he told me, ‘You have the potential to really do this. I want you to challenge yourself. Sing more. Fuck around. Get out of this thing we’re in. Just experiment and be young and have fun with it.’

So what’s next for both of you?
Wiki: I’m working on a bunch of music, like Sage just said, having fun. That’s always good to do I think. Just stay creative. I have a bunch of different ideas. I’m just not trying to rush anything but keep it going. I’m trying to play shows. I haven’t played in mad long. We did this record together. It’ll be good energy. I’m excited to rap live.

a portrait of wiki and sage elsesser leaning against a wall
wiki and sage elsesser standing on a new york rooftop smoking
wiki and his girlfriend embracing on a new york rooftop

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Photography Alex Hodor Lee.

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