Marlon Craft Will Never Surrender: 'You Don't Know a Rapper That Works Harder Than Me'

Marlon Craft
Matt Salacuse*

Marlon Craft

For Marlon Craft, there are more similarities than he might even realize between being a diehard New York Knicks fan and an independent rapper attempting to navigate the arduous maze to hip-hop's inner circle.

No matter how many times the Knicks -- who have won just one playoff series in 20 years -- or the music industry rips his heart out, his blind love and relentless dedication to his craft have him coming back for more.

With his third project of 2021, it's fitting HOMECOURT ADVANTAGE, Vol. 1 takes on a basketball patina. The Hell's Kitchen native unleashed his 12-track mixtape-themed effort on Tuesday (Sept. 21), showing off his boastful sample-flip raps with help from production savants Statik Selektah and Plain Pat.

The project is partly inspired by a conversation with radio legend Sway, who told the often solemn Craft to loosen up and have more fun with his artistry. The Hell's Kitchen native isn't done yet either, as he's promised another project before next February to showcase his complete rapping repertoire.

"Nobody will be able to say I didn’t earn this," the 28-year-old rap underdog says via Zoom, in a New York Knicks Nate Robinson No. 4 jersey. "You don’t know a rapper that works harder than me."

Dig into the rest of our interview with Marlon Craft as he dishes on calling himself the "rap game's Larry David," the toxic positivity he sees in music criticism, and his advice for rappers trying to run their own operation.

How did we get to this point leading into HOMECOURT ADVANTAGE, Vol. 1?

I always did these "Craftstyles" freestyles in the very early days, and a couple of those went viral, and people liked it. Even during the pandemic, I was doing them in my room and on my parents’ terrace. I felt like I was at a place where I knew the freestyles do well, but there’s real music under here. I wanted to prove the depth of the musicality and all that -- but I kind of felt like I’ve done enough, and give this freestyle kind of feel in a project that people have been wanting from me for years. 

It almost did become kind of a mixtape-themed album. This took place over the course of the last few months. I had the idea in May when I was putting the Space EP out. Some of the songs are older but a lot of them are new. I’m making new music now and I feel like I just went to rap camp. That pen game I harnessed, even more, is coming with me. 

The press conference spoofs with Allen Iverson, Russell Westbrook and LeBron were pretty cool as well. 

I just wanted to have fun. Music, for me, has been cathartic and very heavy. A lot of what I bring is heavy. I remember having a conversation with Sway after we dropped How We Intended and he was like, “I want you to have some fun, bro." So that was me running with it and showing a different side to me. Like people that know me, I’m just a city kid goofing around like I’m funny but s--t is serious. I wanted to demonstrate that, but let people know how I feel but couched in a little bit of humor. Because a lot of this s--t gets asked to me, but I put it in a way they could digest it. 

On the project opener, you say you’re the “rap game’s Larry David.” Break that down for me. 

I even have a song called “Larry David.” I just be feeling so seen watching Curbed. I’ve always been that guy in the friend group just calling it like it is, and being pegged as the cranky old man. For me, I always feel like I’m speaking the truth and it’s coming from a place of love and caring about society. If that makes me a cranky old man, so be it, and I’ll embrace that s--t. If everyone else is doing bulls--t getting accepted, then I’ll be that guy.

I’m in the same boat as far as calling things like it is, but then people say you’re being negative, while I’m just like, “I call it like I’m seeing it.”

I don’t think there’s much real honesty in the game today. Even about the quality of work, these all can’t be classics. There’s like a toxic positivity going around. Everybody wants to make money off of what’s popular, but I think people want to be involved with social media -- there’s so much FOMO with people being involved on a second-to-second basis, and it prevents them from sitting with things. We’re all kind of chasing the high of instant gratification. Even if it’s for your own validation, you’re chasing that feeling to be accepted, and that comes at a cost. 

I agree when it comes to everyone reacting quickly  --I think we saw that with Donda or CLB, and people rushing to Twitter calling it a classic within an hour. For me, even if I’m critiquing Drake, it’s because I have such a high standard for him. And then it feels like I’m the bad guy.

I feel you -- and I talk about Acid Rap about being one of the most influential projects on me as an artist, but the first three times I listened to it, I didn’t like it, because it was pushing me out of my comfort zone sonically. Then I finally got over the hump and I couldn’t put it down. So imagine if I’m jumping online in the first hour that it’s out. I know this is a tired conversation but it’s getting worse. 

On “Bozos” you talk about juggling having friends and fame. Can you speak to your relationships changing in your personal life while becoming more of a public figure?

I just think it’s really hard. I’m not Drake, but I think I have a certain level of fame and notoriety. When you get to that point, you want to have an image of [what] the people around you think you are -- but then you start to peel back the layers, and nobody’s checking in to see how you’re doing. I realized that my love language for the past six years of this grind has been, “Support my career.”

I’ve been so laser-focused in trying to make it that I didn’t second-guess anything. Anybody that showed some love I was like, “That’s the homie.” Then you get to a point where you’re looking around for who [is actually supporting you]. It’s like, “Yo man, I got a million songs about how sad I am and everyone’s supposed to be my bro -- and nobody’s been like, ‘Are you good?’”

Let’s talk about our beloved New York Knicks -- what are your expectations for the team this year?

I’m super-hyped. I grew up playing ball and I was always up in Harlem, and I almost went to Rice High School where Kemba [Walker] went. I actually met Kemba when we were doing the shadow day when I was in 8th grade, and he gave me a pound. They were like, “That was Kemba that just said what’s up to you.” I’ve been a Kemba fan forever, just being a New York kid -- so Kemba coming to the Knicks is a dream, beyond him being exactly what we needed. I think we’ve only improved since last season, and we’re starting to build a culture for the first time in a long time. 

Nobody has held the Knicks down more than me except for maybe Skyzoo, who has been doing this for a long time. I got a couple of Knicks songs pertaining to this s--t. They’ve broken my heart a lot, but I love the Knicks and I’m ready to get hurt again. 

Your “State of the Union” really cut through and made some waves the top of the year. How did you feel about the reaction as it arrived on the heels of the Capitol insurrection?

Maybe that’s the Larry David in me. I was taking all the stuff in conversations I was having and seeing in the world, and then put it into this piece. I had planned to drop it at the inauguration, but then everything happened at the Capitol. I turned it in the morning of the attacks. That’s always going to be part of my artistry, but with me it’s not a gimmick -- so I gotta feel it and be bursting at the seams to have to get it out. 

[Ari Melber] really gave that a platform -- and people in hip-hop weren’t giving that a platform, which is crazy, so I had to go to MSNBC. I say on “Halal,” “Your mom probably saw me on MSNBC/ But I’d rather have these conversations in the culture.”

Talk to me about running your own operation completely independently. It’s refreshing going straight through the artist rather than running around dealing with their managers and publicists to get in touch and set something up.

It definitely comes at a cost to me, because I’m exhausted. I need a break after this s--t at the rate that I’m going. I’ve been on this mission this year to show that I’ll drop four different projects from February to February of next year. It’s going to be undeniable for the people paying attention. Owning myself, my music and controlling my own schedule is worth it -- but I’m definitely looking to build out my own organization some more. This is not for the faint of heart. I spent a lot of time doing managerial or clerical work for a whole day. 

You gotta take it seriously, that can be the difference. Sharpen your interpersonal skills like my e-mail game was trash and now I’ve gotten better and know how to communicate better. They don’t tell you these things. My bars have gotten better, but my e-mail game slaps.