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Beat Construction: Roc Marciano

The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again we aim to illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction, an extension of our column in the magazine. For the latest installment we spoke to the Hempstead, NY rapper/producer Roc Marciano. His self-produced 2010 debut, Marcberg, artfully pared the classic New York boom bap template down to its rawest microscopic form. Roc is continuing to stretch that formula with the follow-up, Reloaded, which drops tomorrow on Decon.

How did you get into producing? I started with my boy Ox, he was a brother from Elmont. I had family in Elmont and I was visiting. I forget how old I was, definitely a teenager, but I used to go by his crib. He had a crew, they was older dudes. They took a liking to me and my style as an emcee and would let me come through. He had an [Akai] MPC60 and I would peep how he was sampling stuff and chopping stuff up and I pretty much learned from watching him. He explained to me how to count bars of a loop and stuff like that. I still didn't even know how to count bars of a rhyme, I could count the bars of a loop before I could count the bars of a rhyme. I actually didn't learn how to use the MPC60 manually [in the beginning], I would just bring sample ideas to the studio and direct producers how to do it. That's how a lot of my earliest beats came together. I would come to the studio with a loop and the drums I wanted to use and have them put the track together the way I envisioned it in my mind. So yeah I was producing like that at first and then my boy he showed me how to actually sample the beat myself and work the MP. I've been good since then.

You later worked closely with Pete Rock as a member of The UN. Did you pick up any tips from him? I would say he made me want to step my record game up because Pete Rock has all the damn records. Pete would make me want to go dig because he'd be playing incredible samples and loops. He's just such an expensive digger. Besides that he used an SP-1200 and I wasn't that interested in working with the SP because, to me, it's like a step backwards from the MPC, I didn't really care for using it. You had to chop the sample up too much for me. Nine times out of ten, I'm rocking with a loop. I'm not really the dude that dices samples up into different parts. That's Pete, Pete's a master at it.

Do you mostly sample from vinyl still? Yeah.

Where do you buy records these days? I order some records every once in a while online but mostly I go digging. Record stores, wherever. I got people who dig and they got a lot of ill stuff, they put stuff to the side for me and I'll go see them and buy records. I get em a little bit of everywhere.

What type of stuff are you usually looking for? What draws you to a particular record? The record's gotta be something that I can learn from, different rhythms and stuff like that. I like records that when you listen to them the first time you don't necessarily get it, you have to go back to it and listen to it again. Every time you listen you hear different things. I try to look for albums like that. Or you just buy a record because you like the sound, like, Wow I can hear me rhyming over this sound. Mainly it's the sound.

What's the strangest record you've ever found a beat on? I feel like you can find a beat on any genre of music, there's always an exception to the rule. Some people might say, "Aww I don't listen to country music" and then you'll find a break on a country record. So the strangest place I probably found a loop or something? Probably an instructional record, something that wasn't even necessarily about music. Like a Sesame Street record or a kids record or something like that.

One of the the things I like about your records is how you've carved out a really distinctive sound for yourself. Was that a conscientious goal? I always knew how I wanted my beats to sound. In the beginning when you're working with [outside] producers you have no choice but to pick from the beats that are given to you. So your music sounds like someone else's sound. I never wanted that, I wanted my music to sound the way I wanted it to sound. And if a producers gonna work with me I would like for them to bring something to the table that relates to what I'm doing to some degree. Not that they'd emulate what I'm doing, but they'll definitely be aware of it. I'm trying to bring music with my personality to the table.

When you have established guys like Q-Tip and Alchemist coming in do they instinctively know to adapt to that sound? They know me, they know what I'm looking for. But like I said I definitely don't want a person trying to make a Roc Marciano track. Let me hear everything and I'll pick something that I feel is going to add to what I'm doing. I don't have to prep them, we just sit down and we make sure we find it. Eventually we gon find it because these are great producers.

Are there other current producers you're checking for? Definitely Alchemist. All the guys I've been working with are tremendous producers. I always listen and see what they working on now. Besides that I like Madlib's production, I like his ear. But for the most part it's the dudes I've been working with, the dudes I know.

Are you inspired by a lot of music from outside of hip-hop? Hip-hop is the main objective but as far as making my music I'm listening to all kinds of music. I don't listen to hip-hop [for inspiration], I've listened to enough hip hop to know what I want to do with. My music comes from other styles: funk, rock, soul, fusion, reggae. I try to listen to a little bit of everything.

What's the process like when you're making tracks? Do you make a beat and write for it or do you get an idea for a song and make a beat around it? I start with the beat first, try to find some stuff that's interesting to me and that's where it starts from. I get my ideas from the music.

Do you still use the MPC-60? Nah, I rock on a 2500.

Are you mostly self contained in there? Mostly, yeah. Records and my MP. That's all I need and we good.

Could you see yourself moving into a computer environment the way a lot producers have been in recent years? I'm not against it, I might start adding on to what I'm doing. But I'm definitely gonna keep pushing with my MP, it's pretty much all I know. It does everything that I'm trying to do and I haven't really encountered any problems with it. I love it, it's like Buddy Miles and his drums. That's my instrument of choice.

Beat Construction: Roc Marciano