Photo Credit: Ant Blue Jr.
First Look Friday: Rapper Marcel Allen Feels No Pressure
We had an expansive conversation with March's First Look Friday artist, Marcel Allen. We spoke about the hip-hop era that influenced him and how he cultivated his sound. We also premiere a new track.
Marcel Allen has been creating music since he was seven years old. Originally from Freeport — a village in the town of Hempstead, Long Island — the 25-year-old rapper has fond memories of growing up as an only child less than two hours away from Manhattan.
Allen, who is 6’4’’, was an athlete and he played sports like football and baseball during his adolescent years. But his main focus was basketball. “I was getting invited to camps all top 100 in the state,” the rapper said during a Zoom conversation. “I went to basketball camp with Kyrie Irving. Everyone used to stop their games at the camp to watch him play. It was crazy.”
By the time Allen stopped playing basketball at Freeport High School he began tapping more into his creative side. He started exploring his passion for streetwear, art, photographer, sneakers, and, of course, music. “I got studio equipment and stuff like that," Allen said. "That whole time period gave me room to spread my wings.”
His earliest memories with music consisted of attending studio sessions with his father who was an aspiring rapper when Allen was a kid. Since his father was also a driver for G-Unit, he recalls listening to mixtapes early. These early brushes with the industry left an indelible mark on him.
As he grew older the blog era led him to discover internet darlings like Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, and Wale. During our conversation, he mentions he was largely inspired by this era of hip-hop due to the quality of the mixtapes and loosies rappers released back then. The distinct sound that led to the mainstream success of the aforementioned artists inspires the lyrically driven cuts he’s been releasing independently since 2018.
In the earliest stages of his career he realized he enjoyed recording music in Soho. The creative community there pushed him to continue exploring his sound. Through his traveling back and forth from Freeport, he’s been able to meet and cultivate relationships with multihyphenates including filmmaker Christian Jones and multimedia artist Ant Blue Jr.
Outside of rapping, Allen has a day job — which he calls his “10 to seven” — at Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital in Queens Village. Typically he’s working in the kitchen, but he also says there are times he ventures into another building to cook once a week. “You really learn a lot of people skills, dealing with the patients,” he said.
Allen has hopes of continuing to drop music at his own pace, rather than rushing. According to Allen, "Cool With You," which arrived in 2020, has been his biggest single so far. The track features a laidback beat and the artist tapping into his R&B side as he sings and raps interchangeably. His other singles like 2018’s “Mad at the World” and “Warlord” are equipped with a more guttural sound.
Right now, he’s preparing to release a full project. It will feature tracks he’s recorded over the last few years in collaboration with producers including Thelonious Martin, Jacob Rochester, and T. Wallace. Allen says “quality over quantity” is important to him as he moves into the next chapter of his career.
For our latest First Look Friday, we had an expansive conversation with Marcel Allen. We spoke about the hip-hop era that influenced him, how he cultivated his sound, and the details about his recording process.
We’re also premiering his new single, “Only One,” which you can listen to below.
What does a typical day look like for you?
[On a] normal day I'll wake up, get ready. I go to work. I might work for eight hours, whatever that is. I try to write. I try to be as creative as possible [then] I go to sleep. It's really a simple, boring, same thing everyday type of ordeal right now.
Who do you remember growing up listening to artist-wise?
When I was younger, I was heavy on G-Unit, you know, 50 Cent. My dad was a driver for them. I listened to all the mixtapes early. I was deeply rooted in that. Then as I got older, maybe seventh, eighth grade, that's when I started getting into the blog era type music. You know, Big Sean, Dom Kennedy, Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, all that type of stuff.
Then also I liked a lot of Southern music early on. A lot of people weren't too into Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame early on. I was just fully engulfed in that. Like, "Wow, music is great." You can listen to Nas. You can listen to Young Jeezy. You could listen to all these different people and just still be one person.
I feel like during that time, there was a divide. That was real pre-internet days, where I feel like people were really like, "If you're from New York, you listen to Nas and JAY-Z. If you're from down south, you listen to Ludacris and Lil Wayne." I feel like the beginning stages of the internet music era erased those lines where it's like, "Hey, man. I'm from New York and I like listening to Slim Dunkin."
How old were you when you realized you wanted to transition from a fan to making your own music?
It was real early on. I recorded my first song when I was seven. It was this contest thing. You had to take a song, pick a medium to talk about what you liked. I went to my dad. My dad used to take me to the studio with him. He used to make music, so I used to do that but then I came up to him. I'm like, "Yo, we've got to make this song about basketball, man. Let's do it." That was my introduction to making music and then I feel like really since then, I've always written songs.
That's really when I made the transition from I guess a fan to someone who makes music, but seriously making music, trying to really craft things for people to listen to, [I’ve been doing that] since I [was] 18.
Marcel Allen is preparing to release a full project in 2021. It will feature tracks he’s recorded over the last few years. Photo Credit: Ant Blue Jr.
Who do you think influences your sound?
I think I take a lot from a lot of different artists. I might like how certain artists structure their songs or I might like how this one flows on a song or I might like this one's wordplay. It's really hard to list, but I get influence from a lot of people. I just try to use it in my own way and think, "OK. What would this person do?" or, "How would I do it?" You know what I'm saying? Just try to piece everything together like that. I would say the most influence I would have is probably in that blog era of music. I was in high school, so it had the most influence on me, for sure.
How did you get your start cultivating your sound and your cadence? Did it just come naturally to you?
I think it was a mix of trial and error. When I was [in my] early teens, when I would go to the studio I would do things on my own and then listen to the engineer. They're way older than you, so they're like, "Nah, do it this way. Do it like that. Do it like that." Then after a certain amount of time of doing that, you're like, "I can just do what I want to do and how I sound and do whatever." I just think it's trial and error and time.
If you had to name your favorite rapper right now, who would that be?
I feel like it goes based on my mood. Young Thug. He's so versatile. I was listening to old Thug when I first heard him versus now. It's like, "Wow. He just keeps consistently getting better." He's actually becoming a better rapper. He has melodic stuff still, but he's not relying on it so much as he did in earlier projects. Also, he's introduced me to so many other good artists. It's like, "How can you not like Thug?" He gave us Lil Keed and Lil Gotit and so many others. He's [even] given us producers.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I take a lot of inspiration just from my daily feelings on things. I might be mad about something or upset about something, that would be inspiration. Just that environment alone is much different. I used to record in my house, but it's just not the same energy as if you were to go out into the city or be in a different recording environment. I think my main inspiration is definitely just from the feelings. Just things that I deal with and think about on a day-to-day basis is the way I try to tailor my music after.
How do you feel about the mixtape era that happened before SoundCloud blew up?
It's the most important era to me because I feel like it was the blueprint for so many mainstream things now. Because it was pre-streaming a lot of people don't even really know it existed, but it definitely laid the blueprint for a lot of artists. Even the independent push a lot of people are doing now. People like Curren$y [and] Nipsey Hussle. These are what these people were talking about then. It was just a really good time.
[We] had all these underground artists that were making such quality projects. I feel like not a lot of people even knew about prior until they hit mainstream success. J. Cole has amazing projects before he dropped his first Roc Nation album. The same with Wale or Big Sean or anybody. They have quality projects before they dropped their first album. I feel like that era was just very important. They were giving these things away for free.
Do you want your music to still have that timeless quality?
One hundred percent. I want to be able to make something that obviously you'll know when it's from and you can acknowledge what time period it is, but then also it's like, "Man, this is just good. I'm going to listen to it in 2028 and be like, “Damn, this is still hitting." That is a very important quality.
With this upcoming project when you first sent it over I heard a lot of smooth production and heavy drums, is that what you’d say is your sound?
I think that's one side of my sound. I feel like I'm very versatile because I also do make more R&B esque type music as well. The project that I'm working on, I feel like that's my foundation. That's what I started off doing. When people first met me in the creative world and I would play them [this type of] music. I feel like Roc Marciano [and Griselda] have made it cool again to be a rapper.
The last couple of years, it wasn't cool to be a rapper unless you were Kendrick Lamar. People were like, "This is boring. We can't turn up, bro." But now it's like, "OK. Yeah. We like to hear rap again, man." So it's cool that they've made it popular again. There was always people who never stopped liking that, but I do think that's my foundation sound. Then I also do like branching off into other realms of that too. That's definitely a foundation, for sure.
What was the recording and writing process like for it?
I'm usually a really slow writer. There's no pressure. [My producers Thelonious Martin and Jacob Rochester] send me beats [then] maybe a month or two later I'll send them three songs, four songs here and there. That's really how we worked so far. I still didn't even really finish yet to where I want it to be. It's been a cool process.
I like to take my time and really think about what I want to say. I like to make each line count or have some sort of meaning. Because of COVID[-19] and me having a regular job, it's not at the pace that I would want it to go ideally, but I'm still doing pretty good.
Outside of rapping, Marcel Allen has a day job — which he calls his “10 to seven” — at Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital in Queens Village. Photo Credit: Ant Blue Jr.
Are you hoping that the new music is going to attract new fans or are you just trying to stick with the people who are already listening to you?
I definitely want a mix of both. "Cool With You" is my most popular song. It sounds nothing like anything on the project. The new listeners that I did gain with that song, I want them immersed in my foundational sound. But also, I have a lot of people that like me for the rapping. I feel like I want a mix of both. I want people to like me for rapping. I want people to like me for more melodic stuff. I want all the fans, man. I’m not picky.