Roc Marciano Is Ready For His Flowers

Joaquin Vargas

Roc Marciano Is Ready For His Flowers

Joaquin Vargas

After shifting the sound of underground rap, the 46-year-old innovator believes he belongs on your top 10 list

For someone renowned for delivering raps in a crackly purr, it feels kind of strange to hear Hempstead, Long Island’s Roc Marciano even slightly raise his voice.

“Yeah, for sure [I get frustrated]!” the 46-year-old says with uncharacteristic irritation when asked what it feels like to see his name left off those “top 10 best rappers” lists that always go viral on Twitter. “I feel like they’re stupid. A lot of people don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”

On his new sunny-Sunday-afternoon-smooth, Blaxploitation-channeling song “Goyard God,” from March’s typically inventive new album Marciology, this cult artist spits the words: “Cowards ain’t want to give me my flowers/ It’s childish.” The self-proclaimed “De Niro with a tan” intelligently contrasts this track’s laid-back sonics by rapping with a war-ready wisdom that sits somewhere between quasi-strategist Sun Tzu and folklore pimp Iceberg Slim.

And, just when things threaten to get too personal, Roc (real name Rahkeim Calief Meyer) remembers not to take himself too seriously, scaling back to unleash an X-rated belly laugh about a sexual encounter that left a kitchen counter “wet like a pound of salmon.” It’s the perfect crystallization of who Roc Marciano is as a songwriter: someone who doesn’t know if they want to be profound and talk about willing things into existence or to crack a dirty joke about sullying the curtains at the Waldorf Hotel. Someone whose music sounds like Dr. Octagon and Life After Death just had a baby.

I ask if the triumphant yet disappointed tone of this excellent new song, and all the talk of flowers, reflect how underrated Roc feels when it comes to the current critical landscape. His answer tells you everything you need to know. Roc believes it is time he was mentioned alongside the greatest, dead or alive. “The culture has been infiltrated and so many people have been welcomed in without being properly vetted,” he explains, slightly rankled.

“They have free reign to speak about other people’s art. They might be a failed musician… and they’re just taking out all their frustrations! You can’t trust that everybody who is critiquing music is coming from a genuine place.” He pauses. “The funniest part about it is the people ranked highly on the lists of the best emcees, they all think that I’m the hottest rapper! I’ve influenced most of the people on those lists: Not even just with the music, but the fashion too. A lot of people jack my music and my style, you know what I’m saying?”

Daniel Tennis

Roc has more than earned his right to be seen as one of the world’s greatest living emcees. From his days hustling in the 100 Terrace Avenue projects (a place “home to the biggest, most notorious open-air drug market on Long Island” according to the New York Times) to operating from the sidelines within Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad, the Long Island rapper and producer is an example of gnawing perseverance. The self-made millionaire spent decades working his way up the competitive ladders of US street rap, finally building a pioneering label (Pimpire) with major label connections (through Empire and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation) and consistent critical acclaim.

He truly found his sound on classic independent releases like 2010’s Marcberg and 2012’s Reloaded, perfecting a style built around dishing out absurdist insults in a voice that expertly towed the line between silky slick and roughly weathered like a veteran NYC taxi driver who smokes 60 a day. “You literally live as a guinea pig!” Roc hilariously rapped on the gangsta rap slow jam “76,” pronouncing the words so spitefully it felt like he’d just spat them directly into your mother’s face. This elevated shit-talking (“My pockets got elephantitis/ Come with choppers like helicopter pilots,” Roc rapped alongside frequent collaborators Ka and Knowledge the Pirate on another early banger, “Not Told” ) and all the whizzing non-sequitur flows hit listeners like a poetry segment at the Playa Hater’s Ball.

Unlike a lot of his peers, who patch in their vocals and struggle to replicate the same energy in a live setting, a Roc Marciano gig is a rap purist’s dream, with the pristine performer sounding exactly like he does on wax. Roc delivers cutting bars like “I get paid to stand here and gloat” and “ni***s can’t touch me I’m a germaphobe” as if he’s Ernest Hemingway doing a reading at a private dinner party — the hyper-confident yet intimate delivery gives even the silliest bars a prestigious feel. The artist, who once rapped that with the pen he was “like Hemingway” on a deep cut with ScHoolboy Q, says there’s one quote from the author of A Farewell To Arms he particularly identifies with: “Courage is grace under pressure.”

“That philosophy is so perfect to me,” Roc says. “You know, being graceful when you’re under pressure. That’s me, because I know what it is like to be ignored. When I was coming up and starting this whole wave, a lot of New York artists didn’t show me no love to begin with. But I always stayed patient and kept my grace, even when people told me I should quit. Action Bronson is actually the one who calls me Hemingway… it sort of just stuck as a nickname.”

Beyond supplying the beats for most of his own songs, Roc has produced great albums for talented friends including Jay Worthy, Stove God Cooks, Grea8gawd, CRIMEAPPLE, and others. As a producer he prioritizes macabre, bass-heavy instrumentals, where screeching violins (the spooked out “Raw Deal“) and erudite drumless soul loops reflect a surrealist take on boom bap. There’s always plenty of psychedelic left turns in this music, such as the demonic groaning synths of “Wicked Days.” On albums like Mt. Marci, Behold A Dark Horse, and the Alchemist-produced The Elephant Man’s Bones, the resulting grooves take in samples that cover everything from power-pop to expressionist jazz and theme music from old B-movie horrors.

Roc raps like someone with their nose up, judging a vintage red wine contest in Southern France. He exudes a luxury sensibility and an innate displeasure at peon enemies who (to paraphrase the brilliantly odd song “The Sauce“) choose to carry themselves more like goldfish than Moby Dick. His unique sound and all the verbose rhyme schemes that come along with it have arguably been a pivotal influence on the stylings of peers including Action Bronson, Westside Gunn, Daringer, the Alchemist, Benny The Butcher, Mach-Hommy, Freddie Gibbs, Nicholas Craven, Larry June, and Your Old Droog. It’s difficult to think of a better rapper/producer.

When presented with the idea that he raps with his nose up, Roc says, “Look, we real snobs up North. No disrespect to anybody else’s culture, but here in New York, ni***s don’t want to see you flipping old cars; it’s more about having the finest modern luxuries!

“We drive new Mercedes Benzes; we wear fur coats from Louis Vuitton; rock fly jewelry; and we get custom clothes from Dapper Dan. We try to dress more like the Egyptian Pharaohs. Ni***s been getting custom gold fronts since I was a kid. I associate rapping with my nose up to Long Island itself; it’s a place where it’s all about being the flyest.”

New album Marciology is among this year’s very best, further evidence of this artist’s enormous impact on the rap game. Lead single “Gold Crossbow” carries a galvanizing pep-talk (“Got more style in my small toe than your whole torso”), while “True Love” sees Roc experiment with deep, dubbed-out reggae bass lines. Mostly created while doing dabs of highly THC-concentrate wax, the resulting songs wither away, giving the sensation of lucid dreaming while stoned out of your mind.

Highlight “Bebe’s Kid” discusses the need to only sleep on silk pillows, with Roc projecting the laidback ease of someone writing their hood memoirs from a luxury villa facing out to the ocean in the Amalfi Coast. Reversing the previous curse of a family name, he says, is a particular priority with Marciology. “As a musician, I’ve contributed to art and culture in ways that really changed things,” Roc says, now full of confidence. “It’s beautiful that my son can see his dad’s impact.” When you overcome a traumatic background, your family name can feel like a burden. So, has he finally changed the narrative? “I’ve done a lot with my family name, yes. Having a respected name is half the battle to success.”

To celebrate the release of Marciology, I spoke at length with Roc on everything from Long Island conspiracies to being a dad, surviving the crack era, and why he feels Black men will always be running in America. The following conversation has been lightly condensed for clarity.

What keeps a rapper and a producer like yourself still experimenting so much in their mid-40s?

ROC MARCIANO: I’d like to say when you work at a high creative level, it’s the Most High who is steering the ship. We’re just a vessel, you know? Some things you don’t have control over; you’re just showing up and God is blessing you with some great moments. You don’t set out to be groundbreaking. Rather, from actually putting in the work, those times end up happening naturally. It’s like going to practice: If you do it enough, you’re going to end up doing something great.

When other artists do the same shit over and over again, that’s just not fun to me. The fun is in the danger! What kid only climbs halfway up a tree? You want to get all the way to the fucking top, because that’s where the fun is, right? It doesn’t matter if you haven’t figured out how to get down… just go there. Like when I first started doing drumless beats, people were scratching their heads and saying: “Who’s gonna fuck with this?” If I fuck with a new sound, eventually a lot of people are gonna start fucking with it too, because I’m usually ahead of the curve.

I wanted to talk about this bar on Marciology‘s title track, where you say that rappers are “stressing over internet fame and we ain’t into those games.” Why is it so important to cut yourself off from all that? Because so many of your peers, I swear they are addicted to social media.

ROC MARCIANO: I’m really a grown man out here, so I don’t have any business running around the internet acting out like all the kids do. How I conduct myself is age-appropriate. You’ve seen how a lot of people ruin their careers from oversharing online, right? This internet shit is just too much, man… it’s just too much for the senses to handle! I don’t love nobody that much that i want to see them every fucking day, posting pictures of their breakfast. Like I love Michael Jackson, but I don’t want to hear him every day, either. Have some time for yourself, because I feel like when you go online with all your issues and your grievances, and you’re just crying online all the time: it just feels like, damn, you don’t have your own personal social life. You don’t have friends you can talk to. Go get your therapist.

There’s always been such a horror sensibility in your work. The strings on a song like “Riding Around” sound like a runaway ghost train, while on “Zig Zag Zig” you famously said, “Dracula bit me, I didn’t bleed.” Long Island is a pretty superstitious place, right? There’s all these urban legends of ancient American Indian ghosts lingering at Lake Ronkonkoma and it being this bottomless pit, while Plum Island is supposed to have the Montauk Project, which was an inspiration for Stranger Things. Would you say that this type of folklore ever comes out in your sound?

ROC MARCIANO: A lot of haunted shit happens in Long Island, for sure; we have the Amityville Horror house here too! The spooky haunted sound isn’t intentional though, it’s more like… I think that that’s just happening subconsciously. Because when you’re writing music more like a movie score, you’re trying to bring people into those dark places, to those emotional spaces, and looking for music and words that describe the weirder feelings. When you talk about Lake Ronkonkoma, it’s crazy because the indigenous names are still attached to a lot of the places like that in Long Island. And, I definitely feel that American Indian philosophy is in alignment with a lot of the things I feel spiritually and believe around Black people really being indigenous to all parts of the earth. If you hear American Indian sounds [in my music], then I am sure it’s a subconscious reflection of my surroundings.

On “Pray 4 Me” you once rapped, “Crack tore the fam apart, but it paid for my first apartment.” Growing up in the crack era taught you so much about hustling, while also ripping so many people away from you. Do you see it as both a gift and a curse?

ROC MARCIANO: Yeah, it definitely was a gift and a curse. On one level it was destroying families, but you also realize it’s an opportunity to change your financial situation for the better. Without having an actual nine to five, well, with crack you could actually live on your own and pay for your lifestyle. That was addictive for me! Especially at such a young age, where I didn’t enjoy school. I had to go through a lot to become the artist that I am today. With my writing, I’m speaking a lot of times from those places of experience.

Even when I was hustling, creativity was still a big part of my life. Expressing myself through creativity, whether it be fashion, music, or break dancing, was everything. When you grow up in the projects, you grow up so close to other people. All your friends live right next door. Some are underneath you, and they’re also parallel to you across the hall. So it feels like you’re always on top of people, you know? It means you notice the differences between you and other people a lot more than the average person does: and yes, I always knew I was special.

This idea of “forever being on the run.” Is that how it feels to be a Black man in America right now?

ROC MARCIANO: Being on the run? That’s real ’cause I’ve spent most of my career on the run. That’s why I didn’t go overseas to perform and things of that nature for such a long time, because I had stuff from my past that was still haunting me. There were cases I hadn’t turned myself in for and it meant I always had to have eyes in the back of my head. It’s all good now and I got my passport, but I still feel like I’m looking over my back, you know?

When you’re driving and there’s police behind you, even though you’re not doing shit, you still get paranoid they will pull you over. In my life, I don’t want for anything. It feels good to get up in the morning and be able to buy any fucking thing you want, you know what I’m saying? But they still see me in a sports car and assume there’s no way this brother should be able to afford that. If you’ve ever lived a criminal lifestyle then that’s always in the back of your mind, even when you move on to better things. You always think the police are going to fuck with you.

I became a dad last year. What’s the biggest thing being a father has taught you?

ROC MARCIANO: There’s no worse feeling than growing up and life smacks you in the face and you’re asking yourself like, man, why did nobody tell me about this? You know what I’m saying? So when you’re in your children’s lives, your job is to make sure you always pass the knowledge down and, you know, assist your children to be better than you ever were. Teach them how to be respectful. To look a man in his eyes when he’s speaking to you! To eat right. The children will grow up and eventually do what the fuck they want to do, but they’ll never be able to come to you and say: ‘yo, why you ain’t tell me this!’

I think your fans are still hoping for a collaborative project with Ka. Whenever you guys get together, the results are pretty special, like with “Sins Of The Father.” Could a full length collaborative album with Ka ever happen?

ROC MARCIANO: Marci and Ka? I think that will definitely happen, because we still talk about it! But our friendship comes before anything else. We’re both really serious about what we do and to make an album work, we need to give it our undivided attention, so time would have to stop, you know? We need the perfect beats. Everything has to be right. But yeah, I’m pretty sure we’ll get to that project with Ka in the future. If you think I’m a perfectionist though, he’s 10 times fussier.

I always sensed you secretly like to sing like Big on “Playa Hater.” Looking ahead, could an album with nothing but you singing ever be a possibility?

ROC MARCIANO: Why not? I would love to do that. But I want it to be honest as well. I’d have to sit down and collect production that feels like it is comfortable and fits me vocally to sing on. I’m looking forward to doing that at some point, for sure. I believe if you’re just trying to regurgitate yourself musically, that’s just plain boring. I didn’t sign up to this rap shit to bore myself to death.

And finally, I always wondered, did you really cut your thumbs from counting too much money…like you said on “Jungle Fever“? Did that actually happen in real life?

ROC MARCIANO: Old papercuts on the thumbs and stuff like that from counting cash? Hell yeah! I love that shit. It’s a good sign.

Joaquin Vargas

Marciology is out now on Pimpire Records/Marci Enterprises.

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