Roc Marciano, the Man Who Would Be King

From releasing 'Behold a Dark Horse' to 'KAOS' in 2018, Roc Marciano continues to run New York's underground scene.

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Complex Original

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“I want to score movies.”

Roc Marciano’s biggest goal isn’t to achieve the riches that mainstream success brings, or to go platinum. He just really wants to score films.

“I make cinematic music that's more for movies and not for clubs, so I think that's the natural progression,” Marciano tells me while grabbing a big piece of shrimp by the tail. In keeping with the mobster decor in New York’s famed John’s of 12th Street, we’re both wearing bibs, so as not to get sauce on our garments. “I want to challenge myself,” he adds. “Staying safe is not where I want to be.”

I invited Marciano to the East Village restaurant for a meal of crustaceans because it seems like the right kind of place to meet a guy who writes music that makes you feel like a crime boss discussing fates over pasta. After the busy 2018 he had, we have a lot to talk about. Following RR2: The Bitter Dose in February, Roc gave us Behold a Dark Horse and KAOS (with DJ Muggs) in October before teaming up with Adult Swim to close out the year with Pimpstrumentals.

Marciano’s prolific run put the 41-year-old rapper in a position to finally get his flowers. He’s a veteran, though, and isn’t surprised by all the attention he’s been receiving. He knows the game. “I’m not on a major, and I don’t have people in office buildings fighting for dollars for me,” he says. “As far as getting all the love and notoriety, I knew that was just a matter of me putting out more music and just staring in their face. So it don’t surprise me at all.”

Roc Marciano Complex interview

In a different era of rap, the Hempstead, Long Island spitter would have been considered the Rotten Apple’s Frank White. If even a mixtape got sold in Union Square, you would’ve had to give Marci a cut. As far as I’m concerned, Roc is a deserving candidate for the King of New York title. Or, at the very least, the godfather of its underground scene. And he’s been slowly working his way to becoming NYC’s street boss since releasing his debut solo album, Marcberg, in 2010 (some would say that he sacked it then).

Marciano is up on how rap media moves. When I mention the frustrations I have with not always being able to cover lesser-known artists I enjoy, he’s nonchalant about it all. “I've never been a disgruntled artist,” he tells me. “You’ve never heard me online crying about none of this shit, because I understand business. If you got an opportunity to interview me, and then you got an opportunity to interview 6ix9ine, I know I'm losing that round.” He continues, “But the job should also be to acknowledge all of the culture and the people that are influencing the culture.”

“It’s not a secret. It’s been documented that I’ve inspired a lot of cats.”

John’s is scenic, much like the imagery Marciano uses in his lavish tales of pimping and drug dealing. Opened in 1908, the restaurant was featured prominently in a scene on The Sopranos, and the late Anthony Bourdain made a stop here during the very last episode of Parts Unknown. Seated with a small entourage, Marciano is dressed in a dark orange Helmut Lang hoodie, a chunky gold cuban link with a diamond-encrusted clamp, blue jeans, and matching Balenciaga Track Trainers to round off the outfit. There are four other patrons in the place, and they’re naturally fixated on us—as one would be if they saw people huddled around taking pictures of a celebrity as they tried to enjoy their food.

We’re at a table right in front of John’s famous mountain of candles. They’ve been lighting these candles every day for 80 years, and so much wax has built up that they had to move it to the back of the restaurant. It now looms over diners like a majestic shrine to Old New York—a time when the city didn’t feel like an avocado toast commercial stuck on constant loop. A time when you could cop $40 sacks of haze that would burn the back of your throat with each hit of the blunt, as Prodigy’s “Can’t Complain” played in the background.

Roc Marciano Complex interview

Marciano’s music sounds like pre-gentrified New York City. I hit play on his shit and it brings me back to when we hopped turnstiles with pockets full of fat and ravioli dimes of chocolate from Jerome and Elliot (IFYKYK). That’s why his arrival in 2010 was so important to a rap fan in his late 20s at the time, like myself. 2010 was the beginning of a new period in rap. Listeners, artists, and labels alike were starting to figure out the power of the internet. Rap blog darlings like Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, J. Cole, and Wale bubbled to the top, becoming stars in their own rights. And Drake dropped his debut, Thank Me Later, on the heels of his seminal So Far Gone tape the year prior. The genre was in flux, both in sound and the way we consumed it.

New York was going through an identity crisis at the time, too. ASAP Rocky, French Montana, and Nicki Minaj were breaking onto the national scene, and in September 2009 Max B—the city’s underground superstar—found himself looking at 75 years. “It was the dark ages around that time, man,” Marciano remembers, dipping his bread in scampi sauce. New York rap has once again bubbled to the top in recent years, with rappers who aren’t named 50 Cent, JAY-Z, or Nicki Minaj. A Boogie, 6ix9ine, and Cardi B have dominated the charts, bringing the city back from the proverbial mainstream grave, even if their sound isn’t distinctly “New York.”

Roc didn’t care about bringing that “New York” sound back when he was making his debut solo album, though. “I just wanted to make music that would inspire me and inspire other people,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about any of that. It wasn’t about preserving the sound or nothing like that.”

Marcberg was released in May 2010, and the album had a major impact on the underground rap scene. “I knew when I put out Marcberg—even when I was doing it—there was nothing out there like it,” he says. “I knew it was something special.”

Marciano has been using the power of the internet to his advantage ever since. Roc’s fans purchase his music directly from him when it drops. In 2017, he released Rosebudd’s Revenge on his website before making it available on streaming platforms, and he continued this practice with each of the last three solo projects he’s put out. His discography hasn’t received as much ink as those of his mainstream peers, but his name always manages to come up in conversations about who’s really out here rapping. Real always recognizes real. His penchant for keeping his sound authentic has helped him build a loyal fanbase.

Roc Marciano Complex interview

Throughout his career, Marciano has continued to sharpen his sword and expand his sound. Years before he even considered rolling his sleeves up to write and produce Marcberg, he was a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad, making his first appearance on Busta’s Anarchy standout “The Heist” alongside Busta, Ghostface, and Raekwon. At one point, he even found himself on a song with Biggie.

As legend has it, Busta was getting a lot of Dilla heat in those days, and he and Roc were already working on the track once Big decided to lay a verse on it. Due, however, to Biggie’s feud with 2Pac, Busta balked at releasing the song because B.I.G.’s verse was filled with subliminals aimed at his West Coast foe. As Marci’s manager Jazz recalls, “Kay Slay was the first person with the original version and was the only one to play it.” A version of the song ended up on B.I.G.’s posthumous album, Born Again.

From the Flipmode Squad era to signing a deal with Carson Daly’s 456 Entertainment with his group the UN, Marciano has had a long, strange trip as a rapper. He admits that his early days in the business almost made him quit. “I was in the streets. I was back. I wasn’t even… I thought that was my chance,” he tells me somberly.

“As far as getting all the love and notoriety, I knew that was just a matter of me putting out more music and just staring in their face.”

Marcberg was an opportunity for me to get back to the basics,” Marciano says. “When I did my first situation with Busta—the demo he had heard, I did all of the beats.” And the production is what sets Marci apart from the rest. His music could be the soundtrack to a mob hit: Imagine Roc instrumentals playing over the scene of Michael Corleone walking toward the bathroom to grab the gun stashed for him. Scoring movies isn’t far-fetched.

Somehow, Roc Marciano is able to make music that sounds traditionally New York without coming across as dated or washed up. “I did enough rhyming over industry beats and doing everything everybody else’s way,” he says. “A lot of that heavy production we was doing with the loud drums and big bass lines—a lot of that stuff wasn't showcasing how nice I was as an MC. I wanted quieter beats so people could really hear what I could bring on the mic. I felt like once I got behind the board, I would get production tailor-made for my voice.”

On each of his projects he’s released since (alongside Marcberg, Reloaded, Marci Beaucoup, The Pimpire Strikes Back, Rosebudd’s Revenge 1 & 2, and Behold a Dark Horse), Marciano’s stripped-down beats (and songs where he raps over old-school soul tracks à la Redman and Ghostface) have slowly influenced the East Coast underground. His frequent collaborator Ka is among the rappers who have been able to make critically acclaimed projects with the sound Roc helped bring out from the shadows. Ka dropped the solid Iron Works in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2012’s Grief Pedigree that the Brooklyn emcee blipped on everyone’s radar.

Roc Marciano Complex interview

“He’ll tell you himself,” Marciano says when I mention Ka’s name. “I produced the joint on the Gza’s album where a lot of people first heard him. When he came through, he was looking for the sound that he was rhyming on.” He humbly adds, “I gave him that sound. Instead of bringing a man some fish, show him how to fish for himself. I showed him what I was doing, and boom.”

Ka isn’t the only rapper Roc has influenced: Jersey’s Retch and Dash, and Buffalo’s Westside Gunn and Conway, also come to mind. “It’s not a secret. It’s been documented that I’ve inspired a lot of cats,” Roc continues. “But my thing is, I feel like all these brothers, they’re helping. What I brought to the game, they’re making it even more popular. That means a lot to me, man. I hold that dear.”

Marciano’s recent run was inspired by watching his newborn son grow while making his sophomore album, Reloaded, in 2012. “I was making a lot of the tracks at the crib with my son there,” he says. With a beaming look in his eyes, Roc continues, “He was rolling around in the walker, you know what I’m saying? I got to see his face while I was making stuff. That was a lot of fun.”

He had success releasing The Pimpire Strikes Back and Marci Beaucoup in back-to-back months in 2013, so saturating the market isn’t new for Marciano. “I had flooded it before, so I knew that felt good,” he says. “I had a son, so once I got situated and back into my groove, I put myself back in a position to be able to do that again.”

Roc Marciano Complex interview

In 2019, Roc has shown no signs of slowing down. He recently posted a photo on Instagram of himself in the studio with Ka and producer Animoss, so we might finally get the Ka x Roc Metal Clergy album the streets have been whispering about. His feature on Retch and GriMM Doza’s After the Verdict also has fans clamoring for a collab album from the two.

As it remains, Roc Marciano has been running New York’s underground like Peter Gatien once ran the city’s nightclub scene. Similar to the way Gatien’s impact on nightlife culture in NYC was felt after he was forced to close down his clubs in the late ‘90s, Marci’s influence can be heard in the music of a growing number of rappers and producers, nearly 10 years after the release of Marcberg.

He’s not done innovating and inspiring, either. Roc wants to push the limits of his creativity this year, and he’s eyeing the possibility of producing a full project for another rapper. “I’m just getting started,” he says. “You’re gonna hear a lot of different styles from me. There’s definitely artists I want to produce full tapes for.”

As we finish our meal, Marciano ends the conversation with a boastful proclamation: “My taste in music is so vast that it's just the tip of the iceberg.” His 2019 just might fair better than his monster 2018. As long as Roc Marciano is still in the game, rap will never get stale. He’s smoother than textures in a pimp’s dresser, after all.

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