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
Rocky as blueprint is apt. At the release party, Rocky very much is Rocky. His all-white outfit, echoing the "dress" he was accused of wearing on 106 & Park last year, is an oversized T-shirt and jeans with a snap-back cap; sometimes he's barely visible against the painted walls. Rolling through and posing for photos with anyone who asks, the rapper works the room. He shakes a few hands. He pinches a couple of asses.
Getting into this party isn't easy. Before the doors open, a mass of people flood the sidewalk, aggressively shouting at one another. A similar crush played out in early December when Rocky had a listening party of Long.Live. for a close group of friends, family, and journalists at Harlem's Black Star Music and Video. That night, a mass gathered out front, and Rocky stared down at the street through a window, posing for pictures as those outside held their iPhones up and snapped pictures of their local guy done good. True to his own tagline from several of his songs, he "be that pretty motherfucker."
At the release party, even the rapper Big K.R.I.T., who's featured on the record's "1 Train," has trouble with the list.
"This shit was super crazy," K.R.I.T. says later. "But I had to show love and support, man, because the homie reached out to me. [Rocky] saw what I was trying to do in music. And I saw how hard he worked to get to this point, so for him to ask me to be on the record, I jumped on it, and he took it back to, like, hip-hop cipher shit, and it was love."
A few years back, A$AP Mob member A$AP Yams took to the blogging website Tumblr—one with a user base predominately made up of young and trendsetting twentysomethings—and created his own called REALNIGGATUMBLR under the pseudonym "Eastside Steve." Yams, a founder of the A$AP crew, didn't let on that he and the Tumblr were associated with Rocky.
"We would pop a little on Tumblr, all these fashionable cool kids and shit," Rocky recalls, leaning back in the van. "Tumblr fucked with us and gravitated towards us."
Yams took inspiration from other popular Tumblrs. REALNIGGATUMBLR picked up steam. Rocky says people even offered to buy it from Yams. Instead he used it as a strategic tool to pump Rocky in the marketplace.
"He'd put old-school stuff on that, like old-school Dipset, old-school Roc-a-Fella, old-school Wu-Tang, old-school Pimp C, old-school DJ Screw shit—and then he'd mix, like, one Rocky song in there, and people would be like, man, who is this kid? This shit is kinda dope." Rocky laughs as he tells this story. "It got to a point where he stopped putting out music for a while, and he got people hitting him up, like: 'What happened to that Rocky kid? That "Houston Old Head" track is crazy. That "Been Around the World" track is crazy.' So by the time we dropped "Purple Swag," European kids was already waiting on me. That's when Tumblr went crazy."
The video for "Purple Swag" made Tumblr crazy in July 2011. The clip, which now has more than 18 million views on YouTube, is a blend of old- and new-school hip-hop. It features Rocky—sporting a T-shirt with "FUCK SWAG" written across the front—rhyming in Bone Thugs–esque fashion to a beat recalling Mike Jones's "Still Tippin'," sitting on his couch, smoking blunts, and drinking 40s. Sliced in are images of a blond girl with gold teeth lip-synching along to words you usually don't hear a blond girl say, and the video ends with Rocky biking through the streets of Harlem. Rocky became his own mash-up; the mash-up became his art.
About a month later, "Peso" hit, and that was it. The braggadocio went viral, making the rare transition from the blogosphere to the radio, and found itself a regular home on Hot 97. Rocky went on to release his mixtape Live.Long.A$AP to so much buzz it earned him a reported $3 million contract with Polo Grounds Music (a label under Sony/RCA). Pulling together influences from a variety of regional rap, Rocky's music inspired debate about what New York hip-hop could or should sound like in the coming decade. Rocky was all anybody could talk about. He publicly challenged rap culture's stance on homosexuality. He said he wanted to "fuck the shit out of Lana Del Rey." XXL moved to name him in its annual freshman issue, but in typical Rocky fashion, he didn't have time for the photo shoot. He went on to call the entire lineup—excepting Danny Brown—"corny as fuck."
In the greenroom at 106 & Park, a fruit plate sits on the counter in front of the mirror.
"They used to give us cookies," says A$AP Lou, Rocky's assistant/manager/everything-er (later, backstage, I'm mistaken for Lou and pitched a BET feature by an executive). Everybody laughs. Someone else chimes in from the purple couch, "That must be a sign of making it."