Longform

Magic's Kingdom: Phoenix Rapper MC Magic's Lucrative Brand

Marco Cardenas looks and acts like a media mogul. He walks with the confidence of a man backed by a multimillion-dollar contract, and he dresses the part, too:

Usually all white, from head to toe. "Cocaine white," he likes to call it. As head of local label Nastyboy Records, MC Magic has built a music empire recognized all over the American Southwest. Just don't call him a brown Diddy, or a West Coast Jay-Z.

He knows he's not there.

Valley of the Sun artists such as fun.'s Nate Ruess and bands like Jimmy Eat World and the Meat Puppets have made good on their potential by earning national acclaim, but few acts have managed to stay as relevant for as long as the Mexican-American rapper from Nogales, Sonora. He makes his mark in the rap game today with a carefully crafted brand bolstered by massive Internet presence and his radio show, Magic City, on Valley hip-hop station Power 98.3.

"It's an empire, but it is an empire that requires maintenance," Magic says in the same melodic lilt he uses in his songs. "This means continuing to be passionate and inspiring, continuing to put out great music so that the empire will grow. The fact that anyone else would see it the same way really is a compliment to me, because I'm not the braggadocious type."

Braggadocio and hip-hop are synonymous in the music world, but Magic is neither brash nor boastful. Contrary to the "fuck it all" image sometimes perpetuated in hip-hop culture, he's measured and thoughtful when he talks, his answers tailored as neatly as the day's outfit.

Instead of talking about money and power, he repeats words like love, passion, and inspiration as his primary motivators. He insists it is part of the image he's built that's more a reflection of his character than an online persona.

His brand of hip-hop always has been more Latin-lover-balladry than molly-popping club-banging, but after more than 20 years, it's still effective. Magic first flexed his suave musical dexterity with a sultry beat and a seductive hook in 1992's "Lost in Love." His target audience since has been hormone-raging 14-year-old girls.

Before Magic adopted the "MC" moniker, he was DJing in local circuits as Mr. Magic. During that era, a cat by the name of MC Hammer happened to be doing big things in music. Being a mic controller was the thing to be. It just so happened that the letters were also Magic's initials. So he ran with it.

"There was one point when I was releasing an album that a friend of mine told me, 'You got to drop the MC because it sounds too old school.' I thought to myself, if I drop it, the brand recognition will be like starting over. So it's okay that it dates me, because that's also the heritage that I've built."

Though hip-hop transcended color lines years ago, Magic's major achievement has been connecting with the coveted Hispanic market through his silky R&B stylings and Spanish-tinged verses. It was long before social-media sites were around, but even then he knew the importance of establishing a brand.

Another facet of his brand is his heritage: He champions all things AZ.

For example, Magic elects to conduct his primary New Times photo shoot on the steps of the Arizona State Capitol.

"I just thought, 'Let's go to Jan Brewer's house. Let's report live from the heat.' I think it goes without saying that I've always tried to shine positive light on Arizona.

"I go to other states and people say, 'Man, eff Arizona, dog! There are some racist people there.' That's because they see Brewer on CNN. They see Sheriff Joe Arpaio. They don't see the people who live in the 'hood. So I rep it because there are carnicerías, taquerías, and Ranch Markets, you know what I'm saying?"

His song "Lost in Love" went on to become a massive hit for Magic, garnering comparisons to LL Cool J's classic "I Need Love." The infamous lip-licker had dropped his own baby-making track five years earlier, but, surprisingly, it didn't play a big role in influencing Magic's song.

"I wanted to create my own lane, not only because my mind wanted to but because my heart wanted to," he says. "My inspiration for 'Lost in Love' was actually a song by Lighter Shade of Brown called 'Latin Active.' It had such an impact on me and my Latin community that I wanted to make a romantic version of it.

"That was one of my personal influences early on, but as far as my music, it's always been more R&B and love than, you know, the battle rap. Even though we do have some battle rap in our arsenal."

To drive home the point, he drops his voice an octave and growls out the hook to his 2006 hit "Ride It Out."

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Anthony Sandoval
Contact: Anthony Sandoval