Ten years ago, the New York hip-hop scene was in a transitional period. Jay-Z and Nas were past their prime and relegated to making albums that only advanced their self-mythology; Fabolous’s bars seemed to get more hollow and unsophisticated by the Love & Hip Hop episode; and Harlem rapper Max B was sentenced to 75 years in prison on conspiracy charges. But Long Island’s Roc Marciano kept plugging away and upended all of it.
Originating in Hempstead, Marciano, or “Roc Marci” as fans in the know call him, got his start on Busta Rhymes’s Flipmode Squad — if you make YouTube or SoundCloud your main musical library, there are seeds of Roc all over underground East Coast rap records from the early aughts — before he broke out on his own to release menacing classic New York records like 2010’s Marcberg and 2012’s Reloaded. While other rappers from the area were creating new lanes by combining DNA from different cities, Roc was expanding on his New York vernacular. Rapping in a one-sentence staccato, he was subtle and intricate without diving into a word salad. And while other underground artists were unique in their business approach, Roc launched an entire subculture of subverting labels by selling his music straight from his website.
Roc is still reinventing himself. The Elephant Man’s Bones, his excellent Alchemist-produced new album, sees him continuing his reign, mapping out new subway routes and telling previously unheard stories of criminal warfare in the Giuliani and Dinkins eras. He spoke to Vulture over the phone to talk about the new record, what he wants to try next musically, and life with Flipmode Squad.
Your debut solo album dropped in 2010, but before that you have the U.N. album in 2004 as well as your work with Busta’s Flipmode Squad. How did that time split in the industry help you begin your solo career?
It gave me a good training ground. It gave me the confidence to go ahead and do what I do now.
What was it exactly about the system — and your setbacks and highlights in it — that allowed you to create your own unique business model and let people buy records directly from you.
Early on, with a lot of artists coming in and out where you don’t know the business well, you put out the projects and you don’t get what you should. So you learn a business model that helps you capitalize on yourself. It’s not about being more than anyone else but rather about just making sure you maximize you.
The production on your early features, like “The Heist,” was less minimalist than what you’re known for now as a solo artist. How did you get the idea to strip the drums away?
When you start, people are usually producing for you. So when you’re in the system, I didn’t get to do it much. When I went out on my own, I was like, Let me start doing this the way I want to do it. I’ve always thought that.
Your music also uses pretty subversive boom-bap production. You had samples of movie scenes on Reloaded but not famous ones; they were more of these B-list classics. Like the Gotti TV movie on “Two Zips.” That mirrored the vibe of your music.
That was on purpose. It is all related. Taking different styles, in music and movies, it is all the same. That’s hip-hop.
There’s also a dark comedy to your work, like you’re telling gloomy stories as if you’re a retired hustler from Hempstead. What did your hometown teach you?
Taught me everything. I still remember so much. You come from a place where people don’t have much. You come from the hustle. You have that poverty and pain in your mind, and I’m not far away from ever having to go back. Look at YSL.
Why was now the time to work with the Alchemist for a full-length project?
I felt that this was a good boxing match. I didn’t want to wait, wanted to do this now. It worked out perfectly; by the time my career and my patience became fortified, we both became legends.
The dynamic that the Alchemist and Prodigy have had on their past work felt like it would bode well for you since you and Prodigy have similar styles. What do you think of Alchemist’s work with him?
First off, P is a legend, but I never think of anyone else’s work when I do my own. I am only thinking about what I can do to increase my artistry. It’s never what happened in the past for me; it’s about my legacy and how we can increase.
It has been 12 years since you dropped Marcberg. What about that album are you most proud of?
My sound that I have. I always knew I was gonna bring that to the game. And it just so happened to be at a time where it was, like I said, a more shiny pop sound or whatever the case may be. And I’m just accomplished without needing that. So I just really wanted to make the best music I could make while being true to myself. And when hip-hop was in such a bad space, nobody was trying to fill that void. You know, a lot of people tried to catch a quick hit. I was obsessed. So I was looking at it, like, I know how my first come out. I wanted to create an album if you go in the war that was the mind I had when I was thinking that out.
What do you see yourself doing in the next ten years?
I want to continue with the artwork. I want to do soul, R&B, and different kinds of rap. I listen to everything, some jazz. I’m pushing boundaries. I want to constantly be in the state of discovery. We’re going to get into more shit. From Marcberg on, I always wanted to make music I want to hear.
This interview has been edited and condensed.