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."
"But it was more the R&B and love songs that have always influenced me," he says. "Plus, I'm Latino, you know. You got to expect that."
About the same time he dropped the single, Magic laid the groundwork for his label, Nastyboy Records. He initially created the entity as a way to release his own music but eventually used it to propel his hip-hop group Nastyboy Klick, which later would become NB Ridaz.
"I was just like most frustrated artists," he says. "I went to record conventions and gave out packets to people, and they would look at me and say, 'Thanks, we'll listen to it, don't call us, we'll call you.' So I decided, forget it, I'll start my own label. I did some research on how to start a record company and I did."
His solo album, Don't Worry, debuted in 1995, and he released Tha Second Coming and NBRidaz.com with his hip-hop group before returning to his solo roots with 2006's Magic City. Although he's happy to work on his own again, Magic's always on the lookout for new talent. He regularly petitions for demo tapes and encourages submissions on his website and social media pages.
"I think the main ingredient I look for in a band is the same thing that I look for when I'm being entertained or listening to a new record or at the movies," he says. "I'm looking for someone that's so into their craft and art that it's inspiring to me. That is what makes people go crazy over a record. It's kind of like the 'Harlem Shake.' It's a novelty thing, but when you watch what somebody else did with their 'Harlem Shake' video, you're like, 'Okay, I want to do that, too.' That's the most important element an artist can have for me.
"That's how Mobfam came into the picture," he says. "Those three guys were inspirational to me because of how hard they wanted it — how much passion they were putting into their music."
Magic signed the South Phoenix brothers to a deal in late 2011 after some serious coercing from Mobfam's eldest member, T.S. He reached out to Magic over Twitter, bombarding him with track after track until he finally caught Magic's attention with the Valley anthem, "Rep Yo Flag." The track not only struck a chord with Magic's sense of Arizona pride but presented him with an opportunity to reach a different spectrum of the Latino demographic.
"Their growing up was not like my growing up," Magic says. "They talk about partying and smoking and doing all of that. That's where we're different, but at the same time, that's also a key element of our people."
Magic was born in the border town of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, and illegally immigrated to the United States at 5 years old. The arduous journey is a distant memory that's taken on mythical proportions.
Now 46, he says, "I'm not sure if it's a memory or if it was a story that they kept telling me over and over about the way that my father crossed us over. I think I remember him carrying me in his arms and running across the border; sort of dodging immigration."
His father, Claudio, came from a family of panaderos (bakers), but as Magic's family settled into American life, his father found work first as a shoeshine man and then as a fence-builder. His mother stayed home with Magic and his six sisters. When he was 8, his parents separated and Magic found himself once again in his homeland.
"Initially, when they broke up, I went with my dad," Magic says. "I remember crossing the border and jumping on a train to a city called Nacozari. We went on a passenger train, inside a proper caboose, on the way there. But on the way back, my dad ran out of money. So he and I had to ride in [a train's] coal buggy. I remember getting off of that train and it being loud, cold, and windy, and we were covered in ash.
"When we got to Nogales, he dropped me off at his brother's house, and I stayed with my aunt Elvira for something like two months," he says. "My mom [says] my dad returned to Phoenix and left me in Nogales. She [eventually] picked me up from my aunts. That was the last time I hung out with my dad for a long time."
After that, his mom, Lucia, became sole provider for the family, and he spent the remainder of his adolescence living in government housing projects across the Valley. She found work as a cook in Mexican restaurants.
"When I was in third grade, we moved into our first Section 8 home, over on 43rd Avenue and Southern," he says. "We lived in what was called Southern Meadows until I graduated from middle school. Our next public-housing move was to a double-story house with four bedrooms in Avondale. Officially, we [lived in what] were called the Garden Homes, but in the 'hood, they were known as the Dog Patch Projects. That's where I really started flourishing in music."
Magic was left to his own devices while his mom worked almost all the time. Having three older sisters meant not having to assume the authoritative male role in the house. When his older sisters weren't watching out for him, they were ordering him around.
"Since [my mother] was away so much, I had to raise myself in a lot of ways," he says. "But when it came to my music, all my sisters [said was], 'Turn that damn music down,' because I was heavy into music even at 10."
At 13, he was introduced to a drum machine, and he also saw something that would change the course of his life and career.
"I came out one day and I saw my neighbor beating the crap out of his wife," he says. "This older Mexican dude had a white wife, and every time he hit her, [there was] blood red. That traumatized me. I thought, 'That's what drugs do to people, that's what drinking Budweiser does to people. I want none of it.'"
At that moment, he decided he would live a clean lifestyle, which he's done since, avoiding his scene's late-night parties, alcohol, and drugs. Though he doesn't condone all that, he doesn't intend to turn a blind eye to it, either.
"Our people do party and smoke," he says. "I mean, have you ever been to a quinceañera where someone didn't get drunk? It's part of our culture, and [Mobfam] represents that other section of our culture that I don't care to really play around with."
At the end of the day, it's all about keeping it real; from his perch as an artist and an insider, he understands the natural evolution of hip-hop and the music industry. But society's infatuation with the fast life, and artists' infatuation with drug-laced lyrics — what he calls "hard-drug promoting" — still leaves Magic cold.
"That really bothers me because I have kids," he says. "Of course, music has always promoted drugs, don't get me wrong. But because I'm a parent and because I have children, some of those lyrics just don't sit too well.
"I heard someone on the radio station say music's in a real dark cloud right now. But it's a reflection of society, and if society didn't purchase it, download it, or play it a million times on YouTube, then it wouldn't be successful."
His hardcore stance against drug promotion would seem to conflict with his color of choice.
"One of the reasons that I rock 'cocaine white' so much is because my label once told me, 'You're a Mexican rapper; if you come to California, you can't wear red and you can't wear blue,'" referring to the colors' association with the black gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. "So I chose my color and it was white."
His manager is the one who dubbed it "cocaine white," but Magic readily adopted it for its shock value. "It grabs your attention, like when Britney Spears says, 'It's Britney, bitch.'"
But he attributes his continued relevance to rapping about love and relationships; for him, love is the "thread that holds everybody together." "Lost in Love" has staying power because new fans can always relate.
These days, Magic does a lot of his relating online. He's got about 90,000 Twitter followers, and he follows 20,000 more, many of whom regularly ask him for birthday wishes (frequently granted) or a shout-out or just a follow-back.
But he also maintains a close connection to fans he meets on the road. "I always fight to meet my fans," he says. "I've built them one at a time, so when I meet a fan, it's more like a family reunion."
Though he is grateful for the fan base he's cultivated and the success he has enjoyed, it hasn't translated to worldwide acclaim yet.
"If we're not growing, if we're staying in the same spot, then what are we doing?" Magic asks. "That's why my latest single, 'Eres Reina,' really is a step in a new direction for me. I'd like to get more mass appeal on an international level. I want to start doing shows in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
"I'm a vintage artist; I get inspiration from old songs," he says. "Any day of the week you can hear Jose Jose playing on my iPod, but I also really like pop music. I like what will.i. am is doing. It's popular, of course, but one of the reasons I like it is because I've done well all of this time here in the states, but what he does conquers other nations. What Pitbull has done conquers other nations. And I think that's what my next step should be."
To make that next jump in popularity, he knows he must make music that appeals to a mass audience. "Take 'Gangnam Style,' for instance. It's a one-hit wonder, but that guy made the Guinness Book of World Records [for most-liked YouTube video of all time]. He will never live up to that again, but he probably doesn't have to."
Magic's banking on his radio program helping to close the gap between his music and that international success. On weekday mornings from 6 to 10, he dishes on music and pop culture as host of Magic City Radio on Power 98.3 FM.
With Eli Fresh and DJ Class, he spins the hottest tracks and discusses everything from Rihanna and Chris Brown to Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne. He hopes the close proximity to the pop world will help translate to his own ascension.
"The radio show is one way to stay relevant," he says. "When it comes to social media, if that's your only way to stay relevant, you can get irritating. When you're constantly posting stuff, fans are going to eventually be like, 'All right, I'm going to un-follow you.'
"So we try not to become irritating, but still be persistent. There's a fine line between the two.
"And the radio show has presented another challenge for me, because I've had to learn how to operate a radio console, as opposed to an engineering board, and I've had to learn things like creative teasing. So the value of being in the public eye and knowing what tactics are used to maintain an audience — these are valuable things that I can use in my music. On top of that, they write me a check for it. You can't beat that."
It's been years since West Coast hip-hop had an entity that could compete with the likes of Jay Z or Lil Wayne's Young Money Entertainment. MC Magic sees the void, but he's not sure he wants to be the one to fill it.
"I think the biggest label that made noise in the West Coast was Death Row Records," he says, "but they were about a movement in an era where everyone wanted to be a gangster. 'Kill a mothafucka with my gat' sounded real good back then, and it inspired a lot of people to do that.
"My label was created to support me. So I don't see it like a Death Row at all. I see it more like a little gold mine that I'm leaving for my kids. In the end, you never know when you're going to go. My label's already set up; it's like clockwork. The checks just come in. That clockwork will be the treasure that I've left for my kids."
On top of all of his enterprising, Magic also works hard at his other passion, his relationship with his wife of 18 years, Lucy, his three sons, and his granddaughter, Zoe. His oldest son, Marco, has left the nest, so Lucy focuses on their two younger boys.
"I have a wonderful wife," he says. "Anytime I have a weekend off, my priority is to just be with the family, and we always have dinner together."
Although he's surrounded by adoring female followers, his wife takes it all in stride. "She takes a lot of pride in what I do, and she really knows I'm out there working for the family," he says. "We work as a team; it's a perfect situation."
He met Lucy at a swap meet on 27th Avenue when she was just 13 and he was 23.
"It was one of the first places where I sold my custom raps," he says. "I had no intentions of chasing this little girl, but she was just so beautiful. I left that swap meet and didn't see her again until she was 17. When I saw her again, I begged her to go out with me. She wouldn't for the longest time, but finally she said, 'I'm going to go out with you once just to get you off my back.'"
With his house in order and with checks continuing to roll in, Magic feels no need to party like a rock star. You may see him "all up in the music video, all on the records, dancing," as Death Row's Suge Knight once said, but you still won't catch him all up, as 50 cent rapped, "in da club."
He'd rather not disclose how many zeroes are on his average check or the level of his bank account, but he estimates that his brand is worth at least a million dollars.
Magic says, "I'm a low-key kind of guy. Every jock at the station has to work remotely sometimes. Whether they're hosting at the Pink Rhino, this nightclub, or that nightclub, I don't. If I did, it would send a different message about me.
"Maybe if one of my songs was to get to the next level — then we could probably play with that. But I don't aspire to be P. Diddy. I aspire to be MC Magic, and to inspire the people who've been following me."
MC Magic will keep chasing international fame. But his fans — 400,000 between Twitter and Facebook — can rest assured that however far he ventures into pop realms, he'll always come back to that one common thread.
After all, he reminds us again, "Love is the reason you were born, bro. Love is relevant forever."