[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
The most cold-blooded and grimy New York rapper of the last decade lives by the Beverly Center. It's worlds removed from the drug-infested projects of his native Hempstead, Long Island, but neither geography nor climate can alter the grittiness of the music that Roc Marciano makes.
“Your past doesn't change because you're somewhere else,” Marciano tells me shortly after stepping out of the passenger seat of a late-model white Lexus. He's sneaker shopping at Sportie L.A. on Melrose, not far from his two-bedroom home/studio. “Moving can't change your life experiences. It's something permanently in you.”
It's an iron-skied Election Day, the chilliest it's been in months. Roc Marciano weather. His last album, 2010's Marcberg, spray-painted a wintry, bleak and brutal New York like few albums since Mobb Deep's Hell on Earth and The Genius' Liquid Swords. Listening to it in L.A., it feels like bulletproof fantasy. Listening to it in an East Coast blizzard, you hear it as doomsday prophecy.
Released on Fat Beats, Marcberg catapulted Marciano to connoisseur's choice status. Your average Wiz Khalifa fan may not know him, but underground heads revere him as one of the best rappers alive. He's a heavily sought-after cameo in the verse-for-hire world and has earned lavish praise from Questlove and Q-Tip. Q-Tip even contributes a beat to this month's Reloaded, Marciano's superb sophomore album for Decon, which he recorded mostly in L.A. He moved here from Queens two years ago to be closer to his son, who lives in the Bay Area.
“I love L.A. The weather's beautiful and I like living in the sun. New York will always be my home, but it's so different from what I grew up in,” Marciano says, accent still thick, Knicks fandom still die-hard.
Marciano talks how he raps: terse, tough and deceptively funny. He's muscular like an ex-athlete, a lightning defensive back or a point guard with slick handles. He dresses with similarly serrated edge: crisp white tee, silver chain, baggy khaki cargos, brown sneakers. You could write an entire article describing him through his lyrical one-liners: “The chain is Alaska/The fact that my kicks is suede became a factor.”
His biceps reveal tattoos of Arabic letters and the initials of his old crew, The UN — a reminder that Marciano's success arrived only after significant struggle. A late-arriving member to Busta Rhymes' Flipmode Squad, Marciano lost a solo deal with Elektra when Rhymes' 2000 work, Anarchy, didn't match the commercial success of his earlier efforts. Several years later, Marciano re-emerged, backed by The UN and the production of legendary boom-bap pioneer Pete Rock. Released on Carson Daly's short-lived 456 Entertainment, U.N. or U Out sold few copies, despite being later re-evaluated as an overlooked gem.
There were few appearances between 2005 and 2010. Marciano says he was mostly “doing regular shit … smoking weed, chilling with the homies.” Somewhere in the last decade and a half, there were stints hustling in Philadelphia, North Carolina and Atlanta. There also was a brief deal with Steve Rifkin's SRC label.
When Marciano finally returned to rap, he did so with a poisonous and pure vision, one absent of artistic compromise. He does to '90s New York rap what Dam-Funk does to the boogie funk of the early '80s: modernizes and furthers the evolution of a classic sound. He's an original in the same league as earlier legends from the tradition. He could live in Hong Kong and still bleed Hempstead.
“Stick to your guns,” Marciano says, settling on a pair of gray and turquoise, Australian-made sneakers. “Follow your vision through. Do shit your way. When you don't, you suffer in the long run.”
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