Lead photo by @hotsoupny, courtesy of the artist
Roc Marciano is your favorite rapper's favorite rapper. Though by no means a household name, Marci is East Coast hip-hop's secret weapon. Just ask Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, and Questlove — all diehard fans — or do a cursory Google, and you're certain to find endless claims that the Long Island-born artist is "one of the greatest, most influential rappers of the decade."
Roc has carved his own path within the rap canon, establishing himself as an inimitable, endlessly-clever lyricist and aural auteur. Though he got his start in the early 2000s as a member of Busta Rhymes' major label-signed Flipmode Squad, it wasn't until he released his solo record Marcberg in 2010 that the artist cemented himself as a cult-favorite wordsmith and beatmaker.
That first LP was a grisly, cinematic affair that at once felt anachronistic and timeless. Its pitch-black mood resembled the type of mid-90s murder music perfected by groups like Mobb Deep, but Roc's idiosyncratic flow, unique sampling sensibilities, and undeniable knack for crafting visceral scenes made it anything but a nostalgia record. Sure, he'll harken back to bygone eras through the occasional dated reference — "The ring sparkle in your grill like 7 Up / In the Lexus truck, dressed up, word to Dapper Dan / Gold bands on the hand like Shazam (damn!)" — but his montage-like jumps from image to image, vignette to vignette inspire the senation of being on a fantastic voyage with a time-traveling hustler who spits magic.
Since Marcberg, the artist has only upped the ante and honed his skills as an semantic savante. Not only is he considered a source of pride for the old guard of East Coast MCs, but Roc’s become a hometown hero for the next gen of underground rappers. You can hear his influence — from the dank, wordy rhyme schemes, to his sparse, somber production chops — on everyone from Conway and Westside Gunn to Mach-hommy and other street-savvy shit talkers.
Roc's latest record, Rosebudd's Revenge II: The Bitter Dose, was released in March, and it may feature his finest flows and most left-field production work to date. Take "Saks Fifth," for example. The track opens with a simple bass line before a wonky piano lick kicks in that resembles either the soundtrack to purgatory or something a volunteer organist might play at the local retirement home's bingo night. Soon, Roc starts taunting "Who you lovin? Who you wanna be huggin? Who you wanna be wit kissin, takin pictures in public?" It's a surrealist's ballad, and few other rappers could make the strangeness go down so smooth — a bitter dose, indeed.
"Tent City," on the other hand, samples the rare, 1974 soul song "Walking in a Crowd" before Roc unleashes a flurry of off-kilter rhymes low in the mix — ones so complicated in form they're even difficult to recite with a lyrics sheet in front of you. (Choice cut: "Catch you while getting kicks at Jimmy Jazz / You can tell I'm a pimp I got pretty hands"). RR2 invites countless re-listens, and each time another flourish or stylistic gem will reveal itself.
MERRY JANE has been a Roc Marciano fan since day one — hell, our Editor-in-Chief Noah Rubin was even featured in Roc’s “Emeralds” video off 2012's Reloaded. So when offered the chance to talk to the lowkey legend, we jumped at the opportunity and took a bus to New Jersey, where the rapper currently resides. He picked us up in a white Maserati and we spent an afternoon doing errands around his neighborhood and shooting the shit.
While cruising, we talked with the self-made musician about everything from the first time he recorded a rhyme, to his newfound interest in composing film scores. He even explained why he made the switch from spliffs to vapes, as well as what his cannabis brand will look like — when he inevitably creates one. (Shouts out to Jazz, too! Nothing but respect for the UN Music crew).
Photo by @hotsoupny, courtesy of the artist
MERRY JANE: You've got a series of tour dates coming up. Do you prepare for performing live?
Roc Marciano: I do it organically, as long as I know my words, you know what I'm sayin'? I just make sure I'm not gypin' the people up in there, like, you know, being high and forgetting my rhymes and stuff like that. It could happen to anybody, but I'm just saying I try to make sure I know my material.
I could see you eventually playing with a live band.
Yeah, I would love to. I want to start a band. More like a studio band, like, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, George Clinton… that type of stuff.
Did you see any concerts growing up that were influential to you?
Nah, I wasn't going to concerts or anything like that. Where I'm from we didn't really leave the block much. We were listening to the radio, stuff like Rap Attack, Marley Marl, Stretch and Bobbito, and all of that shit. I'd listen to Mr. Magic, at the end of the dial, and then stuff on college radio stations like WFMU. College radio had a smash. I was just a fan of it. So, that was pretty much how I got into rap.
What gave you the bug to make music, though?
When I started hearing the kind of rapping that I could see myself doing. When I started hearing dudes like Kool Keith, Ultramagnetic MCs, Eric B. and Rakim. Kool Keith is amazing; he embodies everything that I like about rap. I always bring him up.
How old were you when you gave rapping a real try?
Early teens. Maybe 13 or 14. I was in junior high — I remember that. Hip-hop just got so interesting, and I figured I'd give it a shot, see what I had to offer.
I was going to school in Uniondale, my uncle had a place there. My family was using his address so I could go to school in that district. At my uncle's crib, he had a girlfriend at the time and she had kids, or whatever, and the kids were staying at the house, too. Actually it was a white dude, too. His name was Chief Rapper L.D. He was dope, too. He had a little rap group, he was making tapes and stuff like that, and one day I kicked my rhymes to him. I was writing and stuff and he was like "wow" when he heard me.
He immediately was like, "Yo, come on. Let's go around the corner to my crib.' This man had studio equipment, or at least DJ equipment. So we tried recording my rhymes, but I couldn't get it right. It was my first time hearing myself, so... I was just not polished at all, you know what I'm sayin'? But that was the first time I went in the booth.
And after that did you feel like, 'I'm gonna keep doing this forever' type shit?
People's reaction when they started hearing me rhyme — that let me know I had something. It wasn't about my response to rhyming in the booth, it was other people's reaction. When they were like, "Whoa, 'dis motherfucker's good!"
I was just giving it a shot. I wasn't feeling like I wanted to make a career out of it. I just thought I had something to offer. It's like when you're playing football or basketball, people can tell who has talent, and they'll be like, "Yo, you need to stick with this." I guess people saw my talent to talk the junk.
When did you begin to carve your niche out within rap? Or when did you start developing your personal style?
I came in the game with that. If anything, I had to learn how to get back to what I started with. Because when I got into the label situation — the hustle and bustle of being an artist on a major label — you kind of, like, fall back and let the powers that be handle the business.
Before I was working with Busta Rhymes and Flipmode Squad [in the early 2000s], I already had a fire demo that I had produced and was doing things my own way. I always had my own sensibilities, my own vision. But, you know, when you're on a label… it's like having a job, you know what I'm sayin'? Like, "Aight, this is what y'all want? This is what sells records? Aight, cool."
Being with Busta and Flipmode Squad, it was like I didn't need to make beats no more; he had all the best beat makers. There was DJ Scratch, J Dilla… what am I doing on the beat? You don't need me to make beats, you got these guys. I need me on the beats, though. I need me on the beats to get the best outta me.
So was it when you started producing your own music again that you found this return to form? That vibe that you said was there from the start.
Yeah, it was just like getting back to my comfort zone. Like, "This is how I make music…" I don't just want to be a rapper, I want to actually be an artist. When people hear my music, they know this is that Long Island gangsta shit. I wanted that individuality like De La Soul, like Public Enemy — dudes that were making music with their own unique sound. That's what I wanted, I didn't want to just be rapping on a good producer's hot beats.
So after the major label stuff, we were working on this album UN or U Out, and a lot of greats produced on it — Pete Rock, Large Professor, my OG's. I love them, but my joints embodied what we were about. I felt like my beats saved the album. I remember feeling like, "If I don't add some of my production to this, it's not gonna even have a glimpse of what we really are." So that's when I dug in and put a few of my tracks on there, with my own beats, like "Mind Blowin," "Golden Grail," and "Get Yo Bitch." All them beats was fire. Once I put that together, they knew that I could produce anything.
Year' later, when I was working on my first solo record [Marcberg], I said, "I'm producing the whole joint, I don't want none of y'all nigga's beats." And that's pretty much how it started with me doing the auteur thing.
So now we have Rosebudd's Revenge II. What was it like making this record, compared to a decade prior when you were working on Marcberg, your first solo record?
I was just recording some of it in the Brewery, out in Brooklyn. I recorded some tracks at Space Lab Recordings. Some in my own home studio. The behind the scenes stuff hasn't changed much. My studio sessions are never parties. Some of the mixing sessions after the work is done, sure, but not while recording. I don't need all that energy in the room when I'm actually creating songs.
What about this release do you think makes it particularly special or stand out among your other records?
I went real strange with some of the musical choices. The samples and production are real strange. I was purposefully just looking for stuff that was different, that was strange. I really didn't want typical stuff on this. I didn't want [predictable] hip-hop on this. I wanted strange shit, and I feel like I saw that through.
Once you're doing something for a while, it's hard to keep finding it interesting. Like, "We heard this before, we did this before"... That's not fun. You gotta be able to test the boundaries, try some shit we ain't never heard before. This was one of the albums where all the experiments worked. I have some albums where it's like, "Yeah, we'll try some experiments, we tried this, it didn't work, though…" Not on this one.
Here, I said, "Fuck it, if people already following my lead, well I'm gonna take them off the deep end of some shit this time. Imma take them somewhere where they might probably be afraid to go."Some people don't try new shit. Some dudes afraid to rap on something that people don't feel is hard… but not everything gotta be hard.
Are you a movie buff? Your music feels really cinematic to me, and I've always imagined you as someone who pays attention to film scores and soundtracks.
Yeah, I'm a big movie fan. The Godfather, The Godfather II, Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction. I pull from a lot of classics. Scarface… then Super Fly, The Mack. Even The Sopranos, The Wire, and The Education of Sonny Carson.
I'm gonna be scoring films. I'm in the process of getting that shaking right now, yup. It's been a longtime goal. I'm doing the score to a small-budget film, and the movie is actually inspired by my music. This is some really gritty shit, you know what I'm sayin? It's just going to be fitting for what I do. I'm waiting on the footage, once I get that then I'll start rolling up my sleeves and putting it together.
Photo by @sivvytah, courtesy of the artist
Can you tell me about the first time you smoked weed?
The first time I smoked was in my hood. One of the OGs passed us a blunt and me and the little homies ran off with it. Once I smoked weed I was like, "I could do this... I could continue to do this."
These days, I'm only really vaping. I haven't been burning any spliffs for a minute. Just for health purposes, man. I wanna age gracefully and the tobacco doesn't help with that.
Does weed help you creatively? How does it relate to you making work as an artist?
I think it just relaxes me. When you're high, you're not necessarily thinking about all of the pressure and stuff…. all the things that been going on throughout your day. Once you smoke, you get that release and now you can just catch a vibe. You're not really thinking about whatever happened earlier.
I've never been a hardcore pothead, like where I have a blunt on me all the time. I kinda always made sure I got something out of me getting high, meaning I got something done off it. Like when I'm smoking, I try to roll up my sleeves and do some writing, get some work done, get something out of it.
I got friends that are like, 'Yo, where's my weed? I gotta have weed,' but that's never been me. If it's there, we'll get high. If it ain't there, I ain't gonna be runnin' around, like, getting in trouble behind it.
Why do you prefer vaping?
It's just smoother. The high is smooth, nice 'n smooth… it don't stink my fuckin' cars up. It's just more grown and mature for where I'm at right now with my life. You riding around smoking blunts and shit like that… get pulled over car smelling like weed. I'm past that in my life right now. So for me it's just more mature to be able to move around and still get my little buzz on and do what I need to do or whatever and not be blowing up the spot, you know what I'm sayin'?
If you were to start a vape company, what would it be like? What's the vibe?
Like a Sativa or something, something to keep you up and working. Something that I can work to, write to. Something with a nice good taste. I'm not really big on strains and names and stuff like that. Whatever works, works, but right now, I'm smoking Purple Kush. A Purple Kush vape pen — that'd work good for me.
Any weird weed stories or memorable moments over the course of your relationship with the plant?
Only thing that comes to mind was my first time trying a dab. It was at Action [Bronson's] crib. I remember I had a flight to catch back to L.A. and he set me up with a dab beforehand. I swear I coughed from his crib all the way to the fuckin' airport. Like, i think I left out my last cough moments before I got on the plane itself. I was so high that I thought I was just gonna get arrested. I was paranoid, like, "I look suspect, I'm too high…" And I'll never do it again. I almost felt like he set me up with that! [laughs]
Anything else on the horizon? What's next for you?
I'm putting out some instrumental projects. I'm putting out some beat tapes, yup. I also got a EP that I'm pretty much almost complete with, so I'm about to put that out just for the people — on my website. It will be free for everybody who purchases the instrumentals, the beat tape. They're both untitled right now, but I'm going to release them probably in about a month.
And we already spoke about me going into movie scoring and stuff like that...and fashion. Yeah, definitely something on the fashion tip. People look to me for not only music, but how I get fresh and all of that. So I'm gonna capitalize on that 'cause that's something I know what I'm dealing with.
And again maybe the band. Just creating some of the stuff that I grew up loving. Making, like, a Hot Buttered Soul album, an Isaac Hayes album. That'd be an exciting challenge.
Good shit man. Any last thoughts you want to add about the weed shit or anything?
Oh yeah man, definitely. Vape in all ways [laughs]. Ain't had a spliff in a while, but I'm definitely vaping. And for everything I missed, check www.rocmarci.com. Stay with me.