Roc Marciano: Roc City
Hempstead's lyricist talks about his late '90s run with Busta Rhymes, providing background vocals on a Grammy-nominated album, and his acclaimed "Marcberg" LP.
Rap music is making a lot of colorful statements in 2010. From Joanna Newsom to Bon Iver to Dan Auerbach, respected artists in other genres are coming to our stars for collaboration. We have iconic emcees rhyming about environmentalism and African diaspora, while others attempt to run for presidential office in foreign nations. Some rappers think they're Big Meech, others think they're Malibu Barbie, and a wealth of creativity has emerged on endangered store shelves, digital retailers and your friendly neighborhood blogs.
Whatever happened to just locking yourself in a room, making an album completely by yourself, and telling your life story?
Roc Marciano did just that. Marcberg is the Hempstead, Long Island emcee/producer's solo debut. The album lives in the New York portrayed in Spike Lee's Clockers. The album is dark, with accounts of drug sales, pimping and violence, but it's hardly absent of hope. Morever, Roc's strategic rhyme schemes and impressionistic images make for one of the best listens this year.
This week, HipHopDX contacted the man behind the mic. The former Flipmode artist explained his past and his intentions for the Fat Beats Records release. Roc revealed that he provided background vocals to a Grammy-nominated 2009 album very different from his own, as well as how he pulls from both MC Eiht and Kool G Rap in constructing his street poetry. Perhaps this self-made album from a largely self-made artist is one of this year's most unique offerings, simply by not trying to be. Meet the humble man behind the loaded weapon.
HipHopDX: I think you've made one of the best albums this year in The Marcberg, and I'm sure you know that...
Roc Marciano: Aw, man. I'm humble. I don't get into that. But if people feel so, then thank you. I really do appreciate it.
DX: How's the reaction been? What have you been hearing?
Roc Marciano: As far as the feedback, what I've been hearing from people, verbatim, from their mouths, it's been overwhelming. Everybody's had great things to say, man - greater than I even expected.
DX: You spoke to us in spring. Marcberg was just on the fringe of dropping, the vinyl EP was out. I wanted to use this opportunity to let our readers know your back-story a bit. I want to understand how this album came to be. Coming from The U.N., how did you know what you wanted your solo debut to shape up to be?
Roc Marciano: I always knew what I wanted. Even the tracks that I did for The U.N. [Un Or U Out] were tracks that I was keeping for myself, really, but I'm a team player. When it comes to what we have to do right now, I don't get into selfishness. I just move with whatever we got. Basically, that's just how it went down, as far as gettin' in gear to do [Marcberg], it was just basically a matter of linin' up the beats and stuff. I knew what I wanted it to sound like, so I had to make sure the production sounded right.
DX: I believe I read in the Unkut.com interview, that despite the fact you've always had an ear and a hand for production, this album is where you purchased your first beat machine?
Roc Marciano: Yeah, that's true.
DX: In my first listen of the album, the production actually jumped out at me before the lyrics. How much of the unique sounds in the production do you attribute to the fact that you were learning as you went?
Roc Marciano: To be honest, I don't really do half of what that machine can do. Really, I just used it as simply as I would use any drum machine that I had worked on before. I didn't really do anything with the machine that nobody else [could not] do...if you listen to the album, it's just loops and drums here and there. It was nothin' crazy - maybe a couple of the samples was chopped. That was about it. I didn't do anything groundbreaking with the machine at all.
DX: This project in 2007, 2008, when you started pluggin' away at the album?
Roc Marciano: Definitely. Yup.
DX: Listening to the album, there's a '70s Blaxploitation element, there's a part of the album that I find very futuristic as well, apocalyptic and all that. Those are three entirely different things. I'm curious to know, from you as the artist, what would you say - and I don't mean necessarily musically, but in your life - what really influenced the tone and theme of Marcberg?
Roc Marciano: Actually, it was constructed after my life. Just really that simple. A lot of the struggle was up to the point before I even got into the [music] business, so I had to incorporate that too. So I went back to...them starvin' days. I'm not starvin' now, so I had to go back there. It was those times. When I signed my first deal, man, I weighed about 120 pounds, man, literally. Literally shakin' when I'm signin' the contract! [Laughs]
DX: What year would you say this was?
Roc Marciano: Probably around '99, 2000. I was hustlin' and everything before that. But in order to get into the business, I put all of that to the side and said, "Fuck it. I'ma get on."
DX: Who did you sign your first deal with?
Roc Marciano: I signed my first deal with Flipmode/Elektra [Records], as a soloist.
DX: I know that's the past, and you came after Flipmode Squad's 1998 The Imperial album, but how would you describe your role in the click?
Roc Marciano: My role was to... when I signed my deal, my role was to be a soloist. My role was to come in and do what I'm doin' now, you understand what I'm sayin'? [I was there to] put together an album. But when I got there, my role changed; I became a team player, which I had no problem with. I have to give [Busta Rhymes] all the credit in the world, man. When I came there, he treated me like royalty. I was there when emcees who had been with quite some time [were part of the Flipmode Squad], but he put on records [like "Heist"] with [Ghostface Killah and Raekwon] and stuff like that. He was definitely making a push for me to be a solo artist. That was pretty much my role - to make sure I did my thing when it was time to get busy. Anything he need me for; I sat in a lot of sessions with him and stuff, and just contributed my energy.
DX: Being around Busta at those times, I have to ask you, especially since you're a producer, if you had a relationship with J Dilla?
Roc Marciano: With [J] Dilla, no. I can't say that I had a relationship with Dilla, but I met him with Bus. I remember my first time meeting Dilla. During that stage of the Anarchy album, I was there for the beginning to the end; I saw that whole project through basically. I left right before it came out [in June of 2000] actually. When I first met Dilla, the first thing I could say to him was, "Yo man, you've got the hardest drums in the industry. We're listening to your beat tapes versus everybody else's beat tapes, and your shit's was just smackin' everybody's shit - not to discredit anybody." [Busta Rhymes] worked with a lot of legends, but [J Dilla's production] had some special snap to it. Bus was like, "What you doin' to them drums, man?" [Dilla responded], "Just pickin' the right samples." [Busta Rhymes told him], "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it." Great guy though, man. [He was a] real humble individual.
DX: Long Island has always had some of my own personal favorite emcees and groups. I'm curious to know if being from Long Island, was it any harder for you to break onto the scene, as opposed to say Queens or Brooklyn or Manhattan?
Roc Marciano: Hmmm...for me, no. Not at all. If anything, we weren't out there as much. I can't say it was easier 'cause I was from Long Island, but these people was in my neighborhood; I could touch the stars. I met Erick Sermon as a shorty. Biz Markie, I used to see all the time. Grand Daddy I.U. is my man; he's from my neighborhood. I grew up around elements, so it wasn't hard for me to reach out to people - anybody who knew somebody. I went to school with Busta's little brother. I used to see Bus all the time [around] Leaders of the New School. I know all of them. It wasn't really hard. I did my first demo with my man on South Franklin at The Bomb Squad's 510 Studios. I was working with Kerwin "Sleek" Young, a producer who was helping out with them around that time. I was always close to the element. I'm from Hempstead. Hempstead is like the city of Long Island.
DX: That's the backdrop of your album cover, right?
Roc Marciano: Oh. Nah. I'm not. That's not Hempstead on the album cover. Actually, that was photo-shopped behind me, 'cause I took that photo somewhere else, and my man hooked it up.
DX: My favorite song on the album is "Thug's Prayer." Because you said this album is so based upon your life, can you speak about that track?
Roc Marciano: "Thug's Prayer" [is] real life experiences. I lost a good friend of mine in the [drug] game. I still really haven't fully healed from it, so "Thug's Prayer" is touching on it.
DX: Is making music therapeutic for you? Did you learn anything about yourself in making it and writing it?
Roc Marciano: What I really learned... therapeutic...to me, making music is only therapeutic to a degree, 'cause the pain is still there. Music don't make me feel any better, I just like doing good music. If you lose somebody, it still hurts, even if the [tribute] song is done. Therapeutic in some senses, I get a good feeling from making something that I feel is decent enough to listen to. I look at making good music as a blessing from God. It's not my skill. It's 50% maybe, the rest is a blessing. But it comes it out right. I did learn about myself. I learned that I could [make] an album from beginning to end, on my own. I did have friends and things and people around me to help me do it, but for the most part, it was just proof that I could do it on my own. I didn't need the big name producers and nothin' like that. I always knew I could, but [Marcberg] confirmed it, especially now that I see that people love the album, or like the album. That's what I learned.
DX: When I got into Hip Hop in the early '90s, there were obvious links between terms like "Underground Hip Hop" and "Gangsta Rap." You look at Black Moon's Enta Da Stage as proof. These were dudes rhymin' about the streets, violence, weed and whatnot, but the music and presentation still appealed to people who may have been against those things in the traditional sense. I think you music has a foot in both circles too...
Roc Marciano: I understand what you're sayin'. I think you can reach those people when it's still done with care. What I mean by saying "care" is when you're really focused on making sure the artistry is above satisfactory. I love Gangsta Rap. I like some of the most simplest lyricists ever. Like, you can't find a bigger MC Eiht fan than me, but he's not really known for being a technical rapper. When you're talkin' some of that same stuff that maybe Eiht is talkin', but then you're doin' on it a level of maybe a touch of a [Kool] G Rap or Nas or what people might call a higher level of lyrical ability... a lot of those people who are attracted to that kind of music, they pull to a project this because of that. They're probably saying, "Okay, wow. This dude has some skills here." They're not necessarily just listening to it for the gangsta aspect. Then you've got cats who are actually out there, you know, doin' some of this silly shit still, but they can relate to it too. I'm speakin' that stuff, but I'm also spittin' it on a level that's not super-simplistic.
DX: I'm glad you mention Eiht. I'm a huge MC Eiht/Compton's Most Wanted fan myself. When I first visited California, his music made even more sense to me because it captured that vibe. Putting that on you, I'm curious to know how New York City influences your music?
Roc Marciano: As of now, the way New York City is now, had nothing to do with the inspiration of this project. [Laughs] To be honest. Right now, it's like a police state. There's a police stand on every corner. This album was an album [inspired by] a time when you could sit on the corner and drink a beer and smoke blunts. My mind-frame was back there in the process of making this album. The new New York really had no influence on this album.
DX: Do you see a video coming into play? I'm surprised there hasn't been one yet, 'cause I'm eager to see if there's any visuals that could complement these rhymes.
Roc Marciano: There's been some talks about it. I've been talkin' about doin' it with a few people and stuff like that. We're definitely gonna do it. Better late than never, right? I got plans of doin' it, I just want to keep it simple, man, as far as that.
DX: Now, news broke from Twitter that you're remixing this album. In 2008, Madlib remixed the album he had already done with Percee P. Lord Finesse has been talking about his remix album of Return of the Funky Man for going on 10 years. What made you decide to do this so soon?
Roc Marciano: I don't know why people are callin' it a remix album, 'cause it's not. It's gonna be like part two to [Marcberg]. Marcberg Reloaded is not a remix project, and I know a lot of people are comin' to me like, "Yo, heard about the remix album." It's gonna be all original material.
DX: So lyrically, all new?
Roc Marciano: Yeah.
DX: Blame us for that one, I saw the tweet, and I hate using that word even, but people needed to know...
Roc Marciano: It's all good.
DX: You listed some pretty iconic names on there. Without letting the cat out of the bag, what's one track on there - one collaboration that really impressed you?
Roc Marciano: So far? There's certain stuff that I don't want to let out the bag. Certain records are to the point where I don't even know if I'm gonna put them on this project. But I'd say that the most fun I've had recording so far has been [Q-Tip] and Alchemist.
DX: Correct me if I'm wrong, but a lot of these guys reached out to you after hearing Marcberg? I do realize that you've had associations with these people going back close to 15 years...but I think it speaks to Hip Hop to know that Q-Tip is still listening to independent projects, 'cause I think a lot of us forget that.
Roc Marciano: A lot of people reached out. Tip's a friend. I've known Tip for a long time. I was with him [while he was] recording The Renaissance album. I was there in a lot of sessions while he was recording them. I'm even in the background vocals on certain tracks. [Laughs] Tip's my man, and we've been in the process of doing stuff. Actually, he jumped on a hook for The U.N., we just never used the record. He's always been there. As far as him doin' some production now, we're just finally at a time where he had some time. He finished The Renaissance. While he was doing The Renaissance, he wasn't really doing any tracks for anybody. So right now he's finally at a time where he does have free time. He's done working on The Renaissance obviously. That's that.
As far as Alchemist, been knew Al. Al did tracks for The U.N. also, that was unreleased. Al's my man.
Madlib, we all know mutual people. I ended up reaching out to Mad, 'cause we had mutual people. We was expressin' that we wanted to work with each other. Boom. We just made it happen. He hit me, I'm good.
Everybody else, I've known for a long time. I've known Just Blaze since Flipmode days. I got Just Blaze beat tape cassettes!
DX: Before we finish, there's a question I've wanted to ask you for six years. The U.N.'s Un Or U Out album was a real gem. It came out on Carson Daly's label. How involved was he in the project?
Roc Marciano: Not much. Strictly financial. It's more financial, but he has an ear for music though. It wasn't like he didn't come to sessions; he came to sessions. I knew he was very passionate about the music, without a doubt. But as far as how much he was doing as far as calling him up like, "We need to do this, we need to do that," there wasn't much of that. At least for that project. Carson has a good ear for music, I ain't gonna front. He knows what good music is. When I was getting ready to do a solo project, he was 100% behind me. Even to this day, I feel like I could call him up, and he'd help in any way I need - a real cool dude.
DX: As a result of this album, have you seen increased interest in The U.N.'s work from people who may not have known of you at the time?
Roc Marciano: To be honest, no. [Laughs] It's not really many [copies] available, as it is. I'm sure it is sparkin' interest in [Un Or U Out] again also, but I haven't heard much.
DX: A lot of people have heard grumblings of you and Sean Price getting a group off the ground. Can you speak to that effect?
Roc Marciano: Me and Sean [Price], every time we speak, we bring it up. We're still tryin' to get some of the screws tightened up. But it's somethin' we want to do. We've already worked together, and we plan on working together in the future. As far as I'm concerned, once we get everything straightened out, I'm on deck. I'm with it. It's something we both want to do.