Bel Mondo: An Interview with Mondo Marcio

His stage name translates as “Rotten World” but lately, life for Mondo Marcio has been pretty sweet. One of Italy’s top rappers, the artist has for the last decade been helping give form to a highly misunderstood genre of music in his home country and selling loads of albums in the process. A once callow teenager taken in by the world of hip-hop, he has now blossomed into a fully assured individual who works steadily to reinvent the genre through a particularly Italian perspective. Six proper albums into his career, Mondo (whose real name is Gianmarco Marcello) has now cultivated a style that incorporates everything from electronica and R&B to orchestral pop and dancehall reggae into his rumbling, bass-saturated brand of hip-hop.

Born in Milan, the 26-year-old struggled with a difficult upbringing that saw his home-life in disarray and at the mercy of Social Services. With such an inauspicious start in life, the rapper was left to fend for himself, trying to keep afloat, rather unsuccessfully, with school and the troubles of a broken family life until inspiration finally hit. With courage and a burgeoning sense of curiosity, Mondo abandoned the everyday routines of teenage life for the more dangerous and exciting turns of the music world. Adopting a stage name that would reflect the youngster’s outlook on life, Mondo quickly worked his way up, spitting rhymes and cutting tracks, honing his craft until he could manage to put together a solid collection of work to bring to the masses. After releasing a demo, which he shopped around to a number of music execs at independent labels, the young Italian soon caught the attention of those in the growing circles of the hip-hop communities in Italy. A proper debut was released in 2006 and since then, the platinum-selling artist has been churning out albums that have further carved a niche in the thriving and vibrant scene of Italian hip-hop.

Mondo Marcio’s latest effort, 2012’s Cose Dell’Altro Mondo, stands as his most diverse collection of songs to date. Still using American hip-hop as a reference point, Mondo infuses the album with a disparate sense of style that pulls from the cold, clinical shuffles of drum ‘n’ bass and the ghostly atmospheres of dub-reggae to the soaring heights of cinematic pop. Elegantly poised between dirty, hard-hitting grooves and an urban sense of romance for pop-lush melodies, Cose Dell’Altro Mondo finds an interstitial home where serious hip-hop heads and pop-enthusiasts can meet. The darkness of Mondo’s impassioned lyrics detailing class struggles is often obscured by a keen pop sensibility; tracks like the ebullient synth-hop of “Senza Cuore” and the reggae-swing of the title-track suppress an almost erupting rage, held back by the deceptively feel-good rhythms. Elsewhere, Mondo ratchets up the menace and thuggish bravura as he explores hip-hop’s darker realms; the bass-shuddering beats of numbers like the terror-soaked “Fight Rap” and “Bang!”, an uncomfortable, industrial hip-hop grind, threaten to crush bones by the brute force of their sound waves alone.

If it weren’t for his laid-back, genial demeanor, it might be easy to dismiss the rapper’s approach as mere posturing. But Mondo’s interminable thirst for reconceptualizing a sidelined musical culture in his homeland has produced works that have crossed both social and stylistic boundaries. His music is at once a big-ticket commodity for the MTV market and a work of subversion and sublimation. As evidenced on the political-lambasting of “Conosci Il Tuo Nemico”, the rapper’s growing interest in politics now has his fanbase nodding their heads in time to the beats and in contemplation. For a young man who reportedly spent his early years wheeling and dealing, Mondo Marcio has indeed drawn an interesting arc in the story of his life. And while his moniker may bear the sentiment of a once embittered young man, he has certainly found a way to make his rotten world beautiful.

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First of all, for those of us outside of Italy who might not be familiar with you or your music, can you tell us how you started rapping and got into music and hip-hop?

I’ve always been more at ease using my pen or whatever to put out my feelings, or thoughts, rather than just talking about it. I’ve always been very much into writing and reading. Rap music is actually more than music to me, it’s a super powerful tool of communication, and that’s what I felt I needed. I really wanted to have an impact on the outside world — outside world being… everybody with two ears!

Your new album seems to explore a lot more elements than your previous work. There’s still an influence of American hip-hop, which has always been there in your music, but there are now influences of electronic music, cinematic balladry, and some lush R&B. It’s probably your most varied and eclectic work. Can you tell me what your frame of mind was when you went to make Cose Dell’Altro Mondo?

As simple as it may sound, my goal has always been to make music for everybody… to talk about matters that can actually influence an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old. So, growing up musically it was natural to me to try a 360 degrees approach. For example now I feel like 6-7 years ago I made music for people that were only my age, talking about growing up in a broken home, and such. Now my songs can really talk about real life situations that affect almost every age, but more than that I’m just glad to make music that anybody, possibly, can enjoy.

This new album is also your most “Italian” album. By that, I mean, the album doesn’t sound like American hip-hop made by an Italian, but there is something very Italian about its sound. It seems to embody a more Italian way of thinking and being, an Italian identity. This comes through very strongly on Cose Dell’Altro Mondo more than your other albums. What are some of your thoughts on this?

It’s about growing, and I mean that in every possible meaning of the word. It’s about becoming more conscious of the country that birthed me and try to put it in my records as well. It’s part of me now, and it always will be, even if my next 20 years are in China. I’ll always have that component in my blood. Italian people are so misunderstood. It’s easy to categorize, probably even necessary sometimes, but it really pisses me off when you feel they’re putting you in a box of stereotypes — that actually exist, by the way — but that are not even the smallest part of what this country has to offer.

Cose Dell’Altro Mondo is also your most visual album — the accompanying music videos have a very strong cinematic feel to them. “Senza Cuore (La Ballata di Johnny)” is like a clip from a Hollywood action film; “Troppo Lontano” is like a scene out of a road movie. Even without the music videos, the music on the album evokes very cinematic images. How did you conceive of the ideas for the videos?

I’m a movie junkie. Really. Way too many movies, I guess. I’m a fan of stories; I think stories have the abilities of making people feel at home, even when they’re not. It’s like somebody who’s been there, and has done that, telling you about it. You feel part of something. That’s rare in these days.

Cose Dell’Altro Mondo is a hip-hop album. But there is a certain approach to this album that feels it is coming from outside of hip-hop; there are so many elements and styles on this album that could carry it outside of the circles of hip-hop and crossover. Do you think Cose Dell’Altro Mondo could connect easily with those who do not normally listen to hip-hop?

Once again, that’s precisely my goal. To gain respect and credibility from, possibly, all audiences. My first influences are actually not rappers. They’re songwriters, like Giorgio Gaber, De Andre’, Lucio Battisti. They told real stories too. I was also very much into Pink Floyd, and other crazy records from the ’70s I stole from my uncle’s and mother’s collections at home.

There are also some rather political themes on the album; “Conosci il Tuo Nemico” makes a very strong political statement. What issues are you trying to explore in this song?

When I travel, it saddens me that my reputation, being from Italy, precedes me. That’s because of the 1% of the country, politicians. It’s all a huge con. Take Silvio Berlusconi, most famous one. The most wanted one, like Al Capone. But the other side it’s just the same thing. For example, we have many people that have lefty beliefs voting for so-called lefty politicians, but communism, even here, simply does not exist. It’s simply another way to trick people and keep their votes. Let me just give you an example. Here, a senior politician is paid almost as much as President Obama is. And we have hundreds of them. The leading class is old, and very Masonic in some sort of way. They just do not want progress and change, and equal opportunity. They need this 1% > 99% population situation. Over here they’re called “the casta” / “the ruling class”; it’s like the Feather Men all over again, only in the home of La Dolce Vita. Funny part is, actually not funny at all, Italians are often seen as sneaky and shady individuals, when it’s really the opposite: they put so much trust in the wrong people. Like Berlusconi, who stole and did all sorts of things, but actually got in his position with regular votes. People just chose to believe his fake promises.

The artwork for Cose Dell’Altro Mondo is absolutely fantastic. First of all, it really stands apart from the artwork on your other albums. Secondly, it also seems to signal a new direction that your music is taking — right away it tells the listener that something is different about this album. In a day and age where digital albums and MP3 samples are the norm, the album artwork for Cose Dell’Altro Mondo gives credence to the album format as an art. What did you want to express with the album artwork?

I wanted to make it feel as a painting, I mean the whole album. Like I’m painting a picture to let you see the world though MY eyes. The idea of the “Map of the Other World” comes from that. My favorite detail is the compass turned upside down, naturally, since it’s not our world we’re moving in. Sometimes you have to shake things up a little, or just look at them from another perspective to see what’s really going on.

Cose Dell’Altro Mondo explores two extremes; a tougher, machismo side full of swagger (songs like “Bang!”, etc.). And a softer, more contemplative side (songs like “Troppo Lontano”, etc.). In the past, many of your albums leaned heavier toward the machismo end of the spectrum. What led you to the softer, contemplative elements on this album?

I’ve always been like that. I’m actually very bi-polarish — luckily I don’t have the real thing — but I have mood swings pretty often. My music reflects that, also. I guess it helps for the listener to have a full image of the person that’s from the other side of the mic. Let you understand it’s a real person, not a brand or an actor. Who’s hyped seven days of the week?

You are one of the most notable rappers in Italy. You’ve been recording for about a decade now. Can you give some of your opinions on the hip-hop scene in Italy? Where do you think it is headed? How do you think it is changing?

I think it’s more mature now, rap musicians and the public as well. They just know more now. They’re more interested, they look for us more in the papers. We started popping up everywhere so hopefully they’re getting used to us. It’s actually a big thing. I mean, this is black music. It actually belongs to black people, it’s not ours. We’re making OUR version of it, but to make a genre like rap become big in the home of the “amore mio” songs, it’s really a big deal to me.

What is the general reception of your image and music in Italy? How do audiences and the public perceive you in Italy? You have a very loyal and devoted following that has loved and enjoyed your work for a very long time now. But there also seems to be some controversy surrounding you at times in the press. What do you make of the reception and attention toward you in Italy? What are your thoughts and ideas?

It amazes and humbles me so much the way my fans support me. It’s like they feel like we grew together. And in some sort of way we actually did so. My first official release was in 2003, and the crazy thing is that most of my fans are from that period. Many of them came later, but somehow felt a crucial need to go and check out my first works, so I basically don’t have no one-hit-fans, they’re really like family to me. As far as controversy, I just love it. I mean, honestly I despise false press, but you still can’t be so naive to say that people didn’t warn you. I mean, that’s the world you chose when you approach entertainment. It’s all bubbles. At the end, time is your best ally. If you keep popping up in the news described as something , chances are that after 100 articles that came out saying so and so about you, you really are that guy.

You’ve worked with a number of Italy’s top rappers. But are there some rappers outside of Italy you might like to work with?

I think Jay-Z is the GOAT of the Entertainment Industry. Having my own label, and my clothing line coming up soon, It is natural I’m really trying hard to be that guy. I love Nas also; he’s just the best as far as vocabulary and storytelling. To actually work on a song together, I’m thinking Action Bronson. Great voice, funny guy.

Many rappers make the jump from music to film and acting. Your music videos show a highly charismatic individual who is very comfortable in front of the camera expressing himself. Do you have any plans of a crossover into film? If not, are there any other creative avenues apart from music you would like to explore?

Actually it’s one of my regrets. I wanted to try studying as an actor. Actually got this far to take classes. But it just became too much. I need lots of time to make records, and I’m into many projects. I just wasn’t able to save time for that, and I don’t like that. I’m multitasker by nature and need.

What plans do you have for your next album? What sounds or influences are you currently experimenting with that you might like to use on your next album?

My goal is to expand, in all meanings. I want to talk to new audiences, get my message to them as well. I want to try new sounds. I really like James Blake right now. And the Weekend, they’re super good.