By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Harlem's crack-slinging bad boy cleans up, puts New York rap back on the map
A$AP Rocky is tired.
In the back of a black van rolling down Houston Street, the 24-year-old Harlem rapper answers questions about his childhood, worldview, and art through tired, sagging eyes. He gives his head a violent shake to prevent himself from dozing off mid-sentence. After a moment, he pauses, re-focuses, and speaks: "Lemme ask you somethin'."
"How many more questions you got? Can I take a quick nap?" He pauses. "Don't be offended. We'll finish the interview at the hotel. I fell asleep when The New York Times was interviewing me, too."
Permission granted, he says thanks, curls up, and shuts his eyes. He has earned it. Rocky—birth name Rakim Mayers—has had an eventful 48 hours. His debut record, Long.Live.A$AP, came out the previous day, January 15. That evening, he performed two songs on the Late Show With David Letterman. Then, he hosted a release party for his record at an art gallery on Bowery that kept him up to 2 o'clock (or was it 3? Or 4? He can't really remember.) The next day: 10 a.m. photo shoot. Then another shoot and an afternoon appearance on BET's 106 & Park, and a meeting with Tommy Hilfiger in Soho about some "fashion shit." Then it's off to London on a late-night flight. His managers are really hoping he doesn't miss it. They seem worried. They probably should be.
Because let's be real, this dude has probably missed his share of flights. Over the past 18 months, a small whirlwind has slowly begun to whip around Rocky and his A$AP crew—a group of rappers, producers, and music-video directors—as they, with him at the forefront, have emerged as one of hip-hop's most influential collectives. The acronym stands for "Always Strive and Prosper," and at press time, all signs were pointing to Rocky hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200. That's some prospering. But the real story of Rocky's origin doesn't start with the rapper himself.
Rocky learned how to rap when he was eight, the same year his dad—who was "into the streets back then"—moved his family to Pennsylvania. His father went to jail for selling drugs when Rocky was 12, and his mother moved the family to North Carolina. Homeless, they ended up living in a shelter. Their luck never got better, and Rocky's mother moved the family back to New York. He remembers: "We wanted to struggle in a place that we knew."
Back in the city, Rocky's older brother Ricky was shot and killed in Harlem, about a block from where Rocky was born. Rocky was only 13 years old at the time. He looked up to his brother. His brother taught him how to rap. His brother sported the French braids Rocky is currently reviving. His brother's death crushed him. Soon enough, while bouncing around homeless shelters in the city with his mother, out of options and tired of grinding it out, Rocky got involved in the drug trade. He started selling weed, and by age 15 had graduated to selling crack in the Bronx. That was his life until early 2011, before he broke big, before he decided to take rap seriously.
Recently, tragedy struck again. A few weeks ago, Rocky's father passed away. But all the obstacles "just let me appreciate [success] even more," he says. "And now here we are, man."
The Hole, a gallery on Bowery, is painted all white. Walls. Floor. Ceiling. The release party of Long.Live.A$AP. Against one side of the room, a projection of the album cover—which features a black-and-white photo of Rocky looking down, braids dangling to the side of his face, wrapped in an American flag—flickers, flashing on and off like a dropped-out TiVo box. In another corner, two women stand, holding and waving matching black-and-white American flags, dressed in nothing but black panties and ninja-like headdresses with a slit for their eyes, the fabric barely covering their breasts.
The room is full of characters: a man with a Basquiat blowout, a woman in a see-through silk pantsuit. Seeing across the room, full of haze, is difficult. Blunts everywhere. Open bar. Contact high. Bleary eyes. A DJ cuts up a variety of A$AP Rocky songs—"Hell" into "Fashion Killa" into "Purple Swag" into "Goldie"—and before the turntables, members of the A$AP Mob mosh, slamming their bodies into one another. Rocky spits rhymes in the face of A$AP Ferg, the silver-toothed right hand man of the mob. A$AP Nast, Rocky's towering, chipped-toothed cousin and fellow MC, jumps in between the two. They all shove one another, screaming and laughing and bouncing to the massive, syrupy beats filling the room.
Later, amid the fog, sitting on a bench near the door, a sweaty Ferg talks about the admiration he has for Rocky and what he means not only to the mob, but also to him. He speaks like they're brothers.
"There's really no leader [of A$AP], but, really, there is a leader, and that's Rocky," Ferg says. "We all learn from Rocky. It's not so much hands-on what he teaches me, but I learn from him by observing. The way he moves. He's the perfect blueprint." Nast agrees. "Rocky always taught me to be myself," he says. "He's my big cousin, you know? That's something I never really recognized, but he just told me to be me. Look what being him got him."