Marlon Craftdoesn't mind walking to his interviews -- especially this one at Billboard's Times Square office in New York, being that it was only a 10-minute stroll from his house. "You know I live right down the street, right?" he smirks before running a hand through his jumbled hair. "I pretty much got out of bed and came down here."
Craft, who resides in Hell's Kitchen, has been on a torrid run the last two months. In June, he released his debut album Funhouse Mirror with Same Plate/Sony Music, an album that showcases a judicious lyricist who isn't afraid of running up the score on his hapless enemies. From diving into the cracks of institutional racism on "Gang Shit" to paying homage to his parents on "Family," Craft's candor and wisdom have him poised to leap into the conversation for rap's most impressive rookie.
"I'm not a traditional dude -- I don't fit into any box like, 'He's the next this person,'" says Craft. "I think people are starting to understand it's a unique thing. It's going to be, 'This guy maybe reminds me of other routes, but this about to be the first Marlon Craft.'"
Shortly after the release of Funhouse Mirrors, Craft sold out his first headlining show at New York's S.O.B.'s, and last month, he earned rave reviews for his sweltering Sway in the Morning freestyle, where he daringly compared himself to Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Nas. Craft received no rebuttals from hungry Internet trolls regarding his audacious claim; instead, he was praised for his steely delivery.
Billboard spoke to Craft about Funhouse Mirror, Mac Miller's importance and his love/hate relationship with social media.
You’re coming off of a debut major-label project, headlining S.O.B.'s and more. How epic has this summer has been for you?
It’s been crazy, man, and I feel amazing. It’s like one of those weird moments where it’s like, stuff that you work for and visualize in front of you. This is stuff that I have dreamed about. It’s the energy in the air. I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve been putting in a lot of time. This was the plan. I stepped back for a while and was like, I gotta make this album and make it as good as I can make it. I have to make these videos and do this content. We are going to really stop gunslinging and step back for a minute and prepare and lay everything out. It’s been beautiful how a lot of shit is going according to plan. You feel it in the air. We’re right near the corner, we just have to turn that corner. It’s an exciting time, but I have that battery in my back where I have to turn that corner. I gotta get to that next spot.
Before releasing Funhouse Mirror, you weren’t signed, and released your project The Tunnel’s End without a label. What made you decide to go to Same Plate on a partnership deal after having previous success with no help?
Well, things cost money, like getting my band in the studio, getting musicians in the studio before I did the deal... before this album, everything I did I recorded from the corner of my bedroom. I was the engineer. It got to a point where I wanted to elevate the art. One of the big things that’s been real big for me] is this video that we did for the “Gang Shit” song. I always knew we could make something like that, but I wasn’t going to pay for it. So, budget for sure, but also being super outsiders.
You gotta be doing something right as far as breaking the down walls if Lala Anthony is posting the “Family” record on her Instagram. I’m sure you were surprised when you saw that.
That’s love, man. Shaun King hit me up on some, "I’m a fan of your music." I told him that I got something I think you’re going to fuck with coming out. Would you help me promote this? He shared the “Gang Shit” record and to having T.I.’s support], it’s just super validating. It feels amazing, because these are people that I look up to. I look up to their work, I look up to their voices. Seeing them put their arm around what I’m doing and be like, "I fuck with this," especially when it’s people like that that don’t have to do it. T.I., Shaun King and Killer Mike, they're not people that are working in the office and are like "I might be falling behind if I don’t get out in front of this." You know, that’s just straight-up genuine love. That feels incredible.
The “Gang Shit” video reminded me of something Joyner Lucas would do visually. Who would you say influenced you to go in that direction?
Joyner was definitely an influence. If you’re a rapper, the clap that “I’m Not Racist” made, if you weren't moved by that to step your art up, then I don’t know you’re doing -- just seeing the type of impact that a music video could have. I think I made “Gang Shit” in a post-“I’m Not Racist” world. I think that’s kind of the point of each other as artists, like, "All right, that inspired me. I see what we did there, how can we up the ante? How can I take this in a different direction?"
On “Gang Shit,” you present three different perspectives: a cop, a Klan member and a federal agent.
What’s funny is like, honestly, the way the idea for that song came to me is I was trying to meditate before going to the studio. You’re not supposed to be thinking about shit when you meditate, but I swear to God, I’m not a super-spiritual dude really, but] I’m trying to grow. That shit just popped into my head, bro. It was like three verses, and ... I thought it was the complete narrative. I felt like I didn’t want to equate the cop perspective with the KKK and put it into one thing. I felt like they’re nuanced and each deserved their own thing.
One is worse than the other, but they're both still heinous. I felt like it was the right amount. A lot of people were like, "Yo! We need to make another one with politicians as gang and this is a gang,” so it could’ve went on and on and on, but I felt like the point that I was trying to make was about institutionalized racism. For that point, those were just enough. Not too much, not too little.
At your S.O.B.’s show, you paid homage to Mac Miller, and you can hear his musicianship in your music in terms of the jazzy production. What did Mac Miller mean to you coming up in the game?
I was a big Mac fan and I wasn’t at first when KIDS came out. Everyone got into it. I thought it was kind of corny, and then it started with Macadelic or The Best Day Ever. I was kind off into Macadelic and Watching Movies with the Sound Off. He was just hard, he was just so dope. I just think he was a blueprint in a lot of ways. He’s really the only white rapper that got to a point where he was Mac and he wasn’t like, 'white rapper Mac.' People respected him], he respected the culture, and he used his platform to put on for a lot of people. He did things the right way. He worked hard for what he did. He was mega-talented.
“Gang Shit” was the first time I put out something and everything was paying attention to it. The first thought wasn’t about the aesthetic or the person rapping, it was just about the art. From that perspective, Mac was definitely a blueprint and an idol to me. From a musical perspective, he was someone that talked about anxiety and depression in their music. Mac touched on that. I related to it.
Swimming was my favorite album I was listening to. When he did the Tiny Desk thing, we were in the studio with my band, talking about how we all just watched it. And then we were in L.A. for a week to work on the album and that’s when we got the news that he passed. It was weird too, because I’m trying to get to this place where he was. I felt really connected to him during the making of the album. So I want to pay homage as much as I can. I had the band do a cover of the “Comeback to Earth” song on the Swimming album at the show. I can’t really sing it. Me and him have different octaves, but I thought that was cool. I felt like his music was so vulnerable. I wanted to do that as an homage, just to hold it down.
It’s weird because, before meeting you and hearing your music, I never took into account that you are a white rapper.
This is probably the first interview where I brought it up first. It’s more something that’s been undeniably characterized. Even some of the early virality of some of those freestyle videos. Like ‘Who is this?’ Like ‘Huh?’ The only reason I brought it up is because I feel like Mac is so authentic of an artist and me thinking about how to be in this space the right way, as a white dude in hip-hop. Thinking about who do I look to as an example. There’s a lot of examples of how to be in the space the wrong way.
You have a lyric on “Love Hate Interlude” where you rap, "I hate social media, but I love the attention." Can you talk about your relationship with social media?
I’m a very critical dude, but my mom said to me recently, "You’re really hard on everybody, but you’re the hardest on yourself." That’s kind of what that song was about. I know on an intellectual level this shit is just toxic. I feel like, legit symptoms of addiction for social media. I think we’re really to varying degrees addicted. I think the shit is going to come out more and more and get more problematic with kids. But it’s hard, you know? That little dopamine rush when you get the little notifications.
Now imagine, all of a sudden I have all these followers and I always have notifications. If I’m not doing nothing, I can just get that little dopamine real quick. Boom. That’s why I hate social media. I hate what it’s done to us, but I love attention. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for social media. It gave me a platform. There’s always that duality shit, but how do we police it? It’s getting crazy.
There was another line that you said on that same record, about how much you love New York.
"I hate the hate we require." The thing is, I love New York. It’s the best city in the world. It made me who I am. There’s so much culture. Even the New York that I know is kind of getting replaced by a lot of shit now, it’s still such an amazing, vibrant place and I miss it when I’m gone. When I’m back, it’s incredible. There’s this swag to New York I had to adjust to when I went to school. My attitude was like, "If I don’t know you, bro, fuck you." Then, I had to start checking myself, like, everyone’s being nice, like why am I being so standoffish?
I know that you have a strong affinity for hoops. If you could compare yourself to any NBA player, who would it be and why?
Damn. That’s a good-ass question. Kawhi Leonard].
Toronto Kawhi, or San Antonio Kawhi?
Toronto, because I think the level that I’m at, the level that I aspire in this shit is to be with people that I consider G.O.A.T.S. that are great. How can I be like people that idolize -- Kendrick, Cole, those types of people. I aspire to get into those conversations. That’s why I’m here. Kawhi has been getting in those conversations with LeBron and those people. He’s at that level. I think I do it with a lot less hoopla and a lot more efficiently. The way I move, I’m really about my music, I’m about this art. I’m about these fans in my DMs talking about, "You helped me through this. You saved my life with this." That’s what I care about. I’m not here for the extra shit.