Remember when New York City was the center of the hip-hop universe? When rap videos weren’t populated by exotically beautiful women but by random dudes mean-mugging for the camera? Remember when rappers thought frequenting strip clubs was shameful, rather than something to rhyme about?
That world is still alive, thanks in part to Long Island MC Roc Marciano.
Marciano, a former Flipmode Squad member (yup, that’s Busta Rhymes’ clique), perfectly captures — or preserves — the spirit and feel of mid-’90s rap in all its dark, crime-ridden, luxury-soaked glory. The critically acclaimed rapper-producer performed at the Howard Theatre on Tuesday night, on a packed bill that included Sean Price, Buckshot and Thirstin Howl III, and showcased the symbiotic relationship between hip-hop culture and Ralph Lauren’s Polo clothing line.
When Marciano took the stage, opening with “Scarface [Expletive],” from his 2010 album “Marcberg,” his complex, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and the solemn, gritty production — plus all of the vintage Polo sweaters on display — made the event feel like the opening of a time capsule that was buried behind the Queensbridge Houses in 1995.
Still, it doesn’t seem quite right to call Marciano a throwback. What he really does is cherry-pick the best elements to come out of the genre over the past couple of decades and layer them on top of a solid boom-bap foundation. This strategy was on display Tuesday night. On “76,” from 2012’s haunting album “Reloaded,” the production was grimy but also contained a wispy element that made it feel fresh. On “Tek to a Mack,” what sounded like a siren — that most favored of ’90s rap sound effects — was softened until it became almost soothing.
And his lyrics are always a revelation, harkening back to when fans spent months, not minutes, trying to unravel lines and unveil hidden meanings. “As a dove flew out the glove of the magician, it was just as I predicted / Reality is pre-scripted, trees twisted / Autistic, gorgeous hit men escort the vixen / Porsches, imported liquid,” Marciano rapped on the Alchemist-produced “Flash Gordon.”
Maybe because the temperatures were in the teens, or that the city was still nursing its collective post-inauguration hangover, the crowd on Tuesday was microscopic. But Marciano still fiercely ripped through his set, performing more obscure tracks (“Hoard 90” from the “GreneBerg” EP, which Marciano created with Oh No and Alchemist, collectively known as Gangrene) as well as his better-known material, such as “Reloaded” favorite “Deeper.”
Although Marciano transported the crowd to an earlier time in hip-hop, the man had his limits. He drew the line at honoring the tradition of performing requests from audience members.
“I look like a jukebox?” he scoffed.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.