Twenty-Plus Years Into Rap, Roc Marciano Is Still Setting Trends

If you’ve never bought sneakers anywhere but on an app, you probably can’t sit at the same table as Roc Marciano. And when, on 2017’s “Rosebudd’s Revenge,” he raps, “I’m in Miami wearing your rent on a pair of kicks,” you just know that wherever he gets his from is as top-secret as the spots where he buys all those rare records that make up the samples on his tracklists. What Roc, a 20-plus-years veteran, does is give the listener limited-edition, ultramodern vibes, but with quaint, brick-and-mortar charm. His style was perfected in the era of “off the meat rack” — you can’t get it off the rack.

Making his debut in the late Nineties with Busta Rhymes’ rambunctious Flipmode Squad, the mercurial MC came back years later with 2010’s Marcberg. Like some wacky Anthony Bourdain concoction, the album proposed a kind of deconstructed boom-bap — slow, drum-less tempos, flanged-out guitars, and a haunting arthouse ambiance. Not to mention, Roc was rapping with a quiet ferocity, sounding so strictly in his lane that he made the exclusivity of it all sound thrilling.

The entire Griselda clique can trace its lineage back to Roc Marci; his no-filter, direct-to-consumer model is so tapped in but unconcerned with the mainstream as such that it raises questions about what “mainstream” even means anymore.

Even Jay-Z is paying attention. The Roc Nation head honcho isn’t currently on Instagram, but go on over to Roc Marciano’s page and there they are: the Brooklyn don posed up for a recent flick with the Long Island maverick. Roc’s last solo outing, 2020’s Mt. Marci, built off the late Nipsey Hussle’s pathbreaking model, allowing listeners to purchase the album directly from his website at $40 a pop. And his coveted vinyl releases — which go for as much as $100 — are the stuff of countless Reddit threads.

What wows you about Roc Marciano are his mind-meltingly intricate bars — filtered, it seems, through a bugged-out auteur’s lens. When he boasts, on “Thread Count,” off 2012’s Reloaded, “Tan like I been to Cuba/Keys is white like sand in Aruba/Exude confidence from my view of the metropolis,” his visuals evoke a storyboard from some lost postmodernist Blaxploitation classic.

From that album on, Roc, like a rap game Philip Glass, began to further unpack the concept of boom-bap, rendering it into something damn near minimalism. With all due respect to MF DOOM (may he rest in beats), every time you hear a spare chord sequence or a ragged, indeterminate loop with nothing but a ghostly wail and, at most, a tambourine or muted woodblock for percussion — as on J. Cole’s “Snow on tha Bluff” or Pink Siifu’s “Stay Sane” — a not-small debt is owed to Roc Marci.

Roc’s experimental flair informs his project with Syracuse, New York upstart Stove God Cook$, 2020’s Reasonable Drought — a one-of-one union of highbrow brick talk and avant-garde beats — as well as Delgado, his new collaborative album with Mobb Deep affiliate Flee Lord. The new single from the latter, “This Is What Ya Want?” is all boss-tier bravado, with Flee sounding scrappy over his mentor’s demented, bass-heavy backdrop.

Roc himself exhibited some bravado in our interview, where he confidently talked about his mic prowess, experimenting with psychedelics, friendly competition with Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, and that one time he had that brief run-in with an on-the-lam Jay-Z.

Marcberg had a bugged-out sensibility that made it kind of different and fresh. Eleven years later, you see a whole crop of younger artists, like the Griselda acts, doing something very similar. How did you manage to predict that whole wave?

Honestly, I feel like just having good taste, first and foremost. I know what works for me, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to rep my hood. It’s like, “This how we sound” — which I feel like is the real essence of hip-hop in general. That’s what it really was about.

Your most recent solo project, Mt. Marci, has a song called “Downtown ‘81,” which is, of course, a reference to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Could you have seen yourself back in the day hanging out with him and Fab 5 Freddy, and that whole early hip-hop crew?

Absolutely. That’s the New York I remember, when New York used to look crazy. Forty Deuce and sex stores and hoes and stuff like that. That kind of embodies the spirit of where my music is even from, you know what I’m saying? Even though those dudes is older than me, I got older brothers and family, so I know ’80s New York.

What were some of your inspirations, as far as music, growing up?

Just like everybody else, I grew up on Luther Vandross and Michael Jackson. It’s not like I come from a music household where I was introduced to all the crazier stuff. I went looking for the crazier stuff as a youngin’, because I loved hip-hop and I wanted to see where they was getting the music from to make the music I like. So I started on that journey early, listening to all kinds of stations at the end of the radio station, listening for my own samples and stuff like that, and then I started to get appreciation for all types of music — from jazz, to soul, old rap, stuff like that.

Do you think you’re the best producer on the mic?

I mean, I’m not going to say I’m the best producer on the mic, because God damn it, you got Kanye, you got some big shoes to fill. You know what I’m saying? [Laughs.] As far as producers rapping, I modeled myself after Large Professor and shit like that. But I definitely think I got the best pen out of all the producer-rappers. I don’t think no producer-rappers can fuck with me on the mic.

Do you ever get any inspiration from some of these younger artists who maybe don’t rhyme as intricately as you do?

Yeah. Oh, hell yeah. I just love good shit. It don’t matter what style it is. Every style of rap, whether it’s trap rap or the style of rap I’m doing, you got good shit and you got bad shit. So I can appreciate it for sure.

I was listening to “Saw” the other day off the Marcielago project, and that’s like four minutes of straight up, spacey, apocalyptic, Ayahuasca, vision-from-St.-John shit. What were you on when you wrote that?

That’s what that beat was saying to me. I was just talking back. This is me and the track having a conversation, really. That track took me there. You know what I’m saying? Some serious Mad Max shit.

Have you ever tried psychedelics?

Definitely. I tried DMT before. Shit like that. I never got crazy… I dabbled with mushrooms and psychedelics here and there. I seen some shit. [Laughs.] Yeah. I’ve seen some shit.

There’s a line on “Saw” where you talk about being in the building, getting dapped up by Jay-Z after he allegedly stabbed Lance “Un” Rivera in 1999. Is that a true story?

Yeah. That’s a true story. That’s definitely a true story. I mean, as far as the stabbing, I don’t know how true that is. But the night that [laughs] allegedly happened, yeah, I was there. Yeah, he gave me a pound. When he was dipping through the party and shit. I wasn’t the only person he probably gave dap to. It’s Jay-Z. You know what I’m saying?

I’ve seen more recent photos of you and Jay on your IG. I guess we can assume he’s a fan of yours?

I mean… If he put me on his list at the end of the year a few times, that should make it a personal declaration that he’s a fan, know what I’m sayin’? 

Any projects or partnerships with him in the works?

You know, with Jay anything is fucking possible. But not right now, we fully independent.

You produced Flee Lord’s new album, Delgado, in full. Flee sounds hungry on the new single, “This is What Y’all Want.” What did he say to you when he first heard that beat? What was that like in the studio?

That’s crazy. I sent him that. Flee is a horse that you better put your money on. I wasn’t surprised when I got it back. He’s a monster, I’m a great producer. [Laughs] What niggas thought was going to happen?

I know Flee Lord was down with Prodigy, and you were as well. Could you speak about that?

Well, I was always a fan of P… I wouldn’t say I was down with him. But he was from the same hood. We met P and Havoc when they was just kids like we was. We ain’t even know people could get a record deal that young. It was kind of crazy. How do you even get a record deal? … And then, fast-forward to, you know… Eventually, P hit me and I started working with him in the studio, at Alchemist’s crib. That meant a lot to me.

He’s definitely missed — a true legend.

When I got there, P already had his verse done, or he had just finished it. I remember when they played his verse. I looked at him. I said, “Oh, you brought the old Prodigy out.” Yo, he went savage… I was like, “Oh, you on your bullshit today?” Like…when I got in there, I heard Prodigy verse? I didn’t think I could top it. I was like, “Damn!” Like, I can’t fuck with that, but I’m going to just give it a good old college try. [Laughs.]

Everything from your merch to the way your album covers are designed to has a distinctive look. I can see a Roc Marci and MoMA collab or something. Could we see a Roc Marci album playing in an art exhibition anytime soon?

Absolutely. I mean, look at what I’m doing with Gallery Dept. That shit is art. That’s actually going on, under people’s noses, whether they aware or not. They’re playing my shit at exhibitions and things of that nature, and playing our music in Paris at fashion shows and shit like that. It’s happening already. But I definitely could see more of it.