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How Roc Marciano Became King of the Rap Underground

For those with a deep knowledge of indie rap, the Hempstead, Long Island native Roc Marciano is basically the scene’s godfather. His solo discography, especially albums like Marcberg, Rosebudd’s Revenge, and Mt. Marci, are canonical exhibitions of storytelling and dense lyricism. And despite his career grappling with the music industry’s rigid structures, he’d found a way to create on his own terms, and by the looks of it, he’s reaping the benefits. “Fashion, film, more music. I might start a band,” he says. “I’m just having fun with it.” 

It’s a rare rainy day in Southern California when I meet him at the invite-only clothing store Gallery Dept. in Beverly Hills. He greets me at the door of the two-level shop sporting a shiny Art That Kills chain, which, in tandem with his equally gleaming watch, makes for subtle punctuation to his yellow hoodie and grey sweats. 

Roc embodies the best-case scenario for a rapper working independently. Weeks before the 10th anniversary of his sophomore album Reloaded, we sat down to talk about his long career, which has helped redefine possibilities for aspiring rappers. His direct-to-consumer sales model has given many artists a roadmap to a sustainable career outside the major label bubble.

As a rapper, Marciano’s style is imitable; he rhymes with urgency and magnetism that’s unmistakably New York like he’s got places to be and people to see, but he’s going to drop off some gems before he bounces. Whether it’s capsules like “tried to throw Grits on a pimp and missed,” or meme-worthy gems like “if we don’t see alike, you don’t see the light,” Roc stuffs his verses with rewindable material delivered in a distinctly off-kilter flow. 

Meanwhile, Roc’s sonic ingenuity has become ingrained in hip-hop production. When in-the-know listeners first heard the intro to Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, a drumless, twangy vocal loop, they immediately attributed it to him. He says he has mixed feelings about what’s become regarded as his signature approach. “I want it to be more popular and successful, but it’s just like, damn. [When] more people do something that you do, you want to do something else,” he says. “As long as the music is fire, that’s all that matters because that Drake intro is fire. If people love it, great.”

Born Rahkeim Meyer, Roc grew up in the Terrace Ave projects in Hempstead, Long Island, with his parents and older brother. “I just remember a lot of good times and fun times growing up like any other kid in the hood,” he says, leaning forward in his seat. “My moms was a stylish woman. My pops was a good fly dude. Getting fresh was always a part of my upbringing. We used to play in the streets back in the day. And then, of course, [with] the crack era hitting the scene, the fun got zapped out the hood, and shit just got more serious and intense.”

His parents separated when Roc was around seven, and his father got married and moved to nearby Uniondale. Roc eventually stepped into the streets, but he also had a budding love for hip-hop. His first raps were braggadocious battle rhymes sprinkled with consciousness from Five Percenter teachings which eventually captured the attention of producer Kerwin “Sleek” Young, who invited him to Public Enemy’s studio at 510 South Franklin Avenue. The then-teenager didn’t know how to produce yet, but he would tape record jazz and soul radio stations overnight, then suggest to producers at the studio how he wanted the beats to sound. 

At the same time his rap passion was developing, things were deteriorating at home. “My moms worked a lot when I was young. Drugs did a number on my family,” he recalls. “After a while, I realized that Hempstead might not be the best place for me. I’m living off of sandwiches and canned goods. I moved in with my dad cause my dad was actually doing good at the time. That’s when I got to go to a different school and meet other people outside my neighborhood.”

While at Uniondale High School, he linked up with Busta Rhymes’ brother, who put his older brother onto Roc’s talent. By the time he reached early adulthood, Roc was committed to rap: “I knew basketball wasn’t going to work after a while. With no crib and no stability, you ain’t going to be no god damn basketball star unless you like 6’10,” he reflects. He learned how to produce from a friend he rented a basement apartment from in the late Nineties. 

Roc says that Flipmode Squad was more of a “brainchild” when he first met Busta, but after the rapper became a solo star, they reacquainted, and Roc joined the crew as their sixth member. “The early days in Flipmode was a crash course in the music business. It was straight off the street into the music business,” he says. “I remember getting my first check; I felt like I was robbing a bank. It’s not like you’re turning in an album and getting money. It’s like, ‘y’all are signing me because I might have a demo.’ You getting a bag of money for potential.” Marciano enjoyed financial freedom and traveling the country with Busta, who could offer wisdom to the rapper as he was getting started. Eventually, however, Roc began to feel like he wasn’t fully flourishing as a collective member. 

“You just start to realize like, ‘You know what? I’m not doing my style,’” he says. “I [had developed] my own style and my own music sensibilities and preferences. Stuff that fit me, what I wanted to talk about, and what fit my voice. So when you come into the business, [those preferences] just fell to the wayside. So you got me with these new fresh ideas, but you also got these platinum-selling producers. So obviously, the business is going to go with the producers. So you just fall in line with what’s the business at the time.“

Eventually, Roc broke off from Flipmode and did his own thing. He linked with fellow Long Island rappers Dino Brave, Laku & Mic Raw and formed UN. Their UN or U Out album was initially supposed to be on Loud Records, but the label ended operations in 2002. They eventually took the record to Carson Daly’s 456 entertainment and dropped it in 2004. Roc says he “pretty much” executive produced the project, and it would go on to serve as an early glimpse of the sound that would come to dominate the rap underground. “Golden Grail” comprises a beguiling string loop with minimalist drums and understated bass notes. Of course, he was working creatively on his terms, but still, he says UN or U Out “just didn’t pop.” 

At that point, he had become frustrated by the industry. “It was still a gatekeeper thing going on…. ‘Oh, I got to go to somebody to get on.’ I was done with that part of it.” When asked if the industry jaded him, he says, “I wasn’t jaded, but I was definitely done with any middleman approaches to getting back into the game.” 

This was all before the internet simplified generating buzz without a label, so Roc left music behind and spent a period in the mid-2000s doing the activities that shapes many of his raps. “I lived in Philly for a while. I moved a lot of different places,” he says. “I caught some charges in between then. So I went back to my old life, just going back to what I knew,” he says. He’d occasionally think about getting back to music but didn’t fixate on it in the way he previously had. He even thought that his chance might have come and gone. “I didn’t think I’d do music anymore on a level to where I would get to where I’m at now,” he says. “I thought that maybe that was a little time I had. If I felt the bug to put out something new, then I might because I love it. But I wasn’t focused on being an artist at that time.”

During that period, one of Marciano’s close friends was murdered while they were hustling in Philadelphia, and shortly after, his house got raided — he learned someone had snitched on him. Yet, even in that turmoil, he saw a silver lining: “With all the shit we was doing, I knew [that for] what I ended up getting knocked for, I was lucky that it wasn’t deeper,” he says. “When I saw that I lucked up like that, I knew I had a bigger calling. So from that time, I didn’t even look back.” He says he didn’t spend any time in jail and turned himself in to face another “old drug charge” charge in 2020, but the case was so “flimsy” that it was quickly dismissed. 

By the late 2000s, piracy had ravaged the music industry. Album sales steadily declined, and label budgets dwindled. Artists clung to dance songs and ringtone-ready tracks to get by, which caused Nas to declare Hip-Hop Is Dead. But where many in the music industry saw destruction, Roc relished a chance to rebuild. “When the music business crumbled, a lot of people were going crazy pulling out their hair. I was like, ‘Yo, this is a good thing,’” he remembers. “All of these middlemen, we can get them out the way, get straight from the artist to the consumer, and the people who got money to invest. It was a fun time for me.” Rap blogs had popped up, working with iTunes to put all artists in one digital marketplace. Rap democratization was happening in favor of the artist, and Roc was poised to take advantage. 

Roc got back in touch with former Loud Records A&Rs Matty C and Scott Free, then signed a deal with Steve Rifkind’s SRC Records, where he began working on his Marcberg album. He was still in a dark place but says that the project was his “last ditch effort” with music. “I knew that if I didn’t figure out this pivotal time in my life, what would I be? I’d just be another cat on the corner or just working some odd job or something. You get to that point where you’re like, ‘Hold up. I got to bust a move. I got to decide where I’m going to take this talent.’” Even when he became a casualty of a rift between Free and Rifkind and got dropped from SRC, he wasn’t demoralized; he took Marcberg to Bill Sharp at Fat Beats, finished it there, and released it to critical acclaim in May of 2010. 

Then came Reloaded two years later. He crafted the album right after having his newborn son. “I still feel like that album is so ill because I had the most inspiration that you could possibly have. He’s in the walker while I’m listening to records and making beats,” Roc recalls. His well-regarded sophomore project was followed by his Pimpire Strikes Back mixtape and Marci Beaucoup in 2013. In just four years, he had made an immeasurable impact on rap, but the rave reviews didn’t equate to financial success. “You get the critical acclaim write-ups and stuff like that, but when you don’t make no money, you don’t feel it,” he says. “You’re like, ‘Yo. This is a struggle. This shit is hard.’ It’s like going through hell to come out right.” He clarifies, “I’m not saying I made no money at all, but it was like, “It’s not making sense. I got to figure out a way to cut more middlemen out.’” In 2016, Roc decided to put his Rosebudd’s Revenge album on his website, which he said made him “sneaker money.” He narrowed the model with Rosebudd’s Revenge 2, releasing it exclusively on his site for $30. He raved in 2018 that he made a return on the album’s investment within a day. 

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Roc Marciano has cemented his legacy, but he says there are more boundaries he’d like to push. “I want to do more singing. I love R&B. I want to flirt with more of that,” he says. “More live instrumentation, because we’re locked in this box [with people] thinking, ‘Okay, we just samplers,’ so I want to explore some of that stuff, have some fun with it.” In September, he dropped The Elephant Man’s Bones with Alchemist, which sees both artists pushing their creative bounds. The well-received album shows Roc telling his familiar tales over a suite of beats that range from the sinister “Rubber Hand Grip” to the experimental “The Horns of Abraxas.” The well-regarded, 14-track project posits that minimalism doesn’t equate to a lack of sonic ingenuity. 

After the interview, we stroll back toward the front of the shop, surrounded by everything from sweats and jeans to couches and dinner tables, all for sale. Once I’m outside,  I can see Roc standing in the middle of the space, ready to get back to business 

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