As I write this, Fat Beats, the legendary underground hip hop label and bi-coastal store, is closing its doors: The end of an era. So it’s a bit ironic that I’m reviewing an artist who not only defines this era (‘92-’96 underground hip hop), but stands to pretend like it never ended in the first place. Now, almost 15 years later Roc Marciano, the Hempstead, Long Island emcee, cuts a record akin to Jay-Z’s 1996 coming-of-age debut Reasonable Doubt, with hard knock beats beneath razor sharp street prose. This revivalist bent is hardly a sure bet in a genre that’s been proclaimed “dead,” rife with gimmicks like Auto-Tune and skinny jean-clad linguists. But Roc Marciano is not the kind of artist to capitalize on myopic trends. He typifies classic New York hip hop, employing rich ‘70s soul samples as the backdrop for his go-for-broke stanzas.
Roc used to roll with Busta Rhymes in the late ‘90s, as a member of Flipmode Squad, and had a few verses on their 1998 debut, The Imperial. Three years later, he was featured on Pete Rock’s PeteStrumentals project with his group The U.N. — a collective of rappers from Long Island. And in 2004, they dropped an under-promoted LP, UN or U Out, to little fanfare, though later critically acclaimed. Marcberg appears to be the reservoir into which shelved ideas from those early years are decanted; some of the Giuliani-era references in his rhymes particularly denote this. That this record was released now, and not in 1995, makes me think Roc actually was in the streets, preoccupied with making money, as opposed to laying verses in the studio. It’s only now that he is able to properly reflect on his formative years, with a singular vision and the means to do so.
Roc produced the entire LP himself, articulating the mood for Marcberg with Nixon-era noir soul loops, slinky guitar chops and crispy, compressed drums. He seems to find just the right samples and drum patterns to marry to his verses — this is where the rubber meets the road. And more often than not, his DIY beats hit. But the emphasis is hardly on the beats: Roc is a spitter, and a dexterous one at that. Fans of Wu-Tang —Raekwon, in particular — will appreciate Roc’s syllable workouts, especially the opening “It’s A Crime,” a song with four minutes of strait rapping sans chorus, and later the RZA facsimile “We Do It.” His double-time assault of syllables on the Smoked Sugar-sampling “Hide My Tears” is like a drink from the fire hose. Building intensity with each verse, he struggles to keep up with the meter toward the song’s climax. This phenomenon — packing each bar with a truckload of words and patterns, and mostly pulling it off — is a constant throughout Marcberg, and a lesser rapper might succumb to over-exertion.
If this record can be praised for anything, “keeping it real,” or whatever moral compass hip hop purists use, it’s the workmanship that went into it. Roc’s attention to his craft — be it rhyme schemes, cadence, breath control, flow and even beatmaking — is undeniable. Whether or not you want to hear rappers talking about private jets, the line has been drawn in the sand, and on the other side are cats like Roc who, in the end, seem adherent the streets: where hip hop was born. Marcberg is a block you’ll end up re-visiting again and again.