By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
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$AP], but, really, there is a leader, and that's Rocky," Ferg says. "We all learn from Rocky. It's not so much hands-on what he teaches me, but I learn from him by observing. The way he moves. He's the perfect blueprint." Nast agrees. "Rocky always taught me to be myself," he says. "He's my big cousin, you know? That's something I never really recognized, but he just told me to be me. Look what being him got him."
Rocky as blueprint is apt. At the release party, Rocky very much is Rocky. His all-white outfit, echoing the "dress" he was accused of wearing on 106 & Park last year, is an oversized T-shirt and jeans with a snap-back cap; sometimes he's barely visible against the painted walls. Rolling through and posing for photos with anyone who asks, the rapper works the room. He shakes a few hands. He pinches a couple of asses.
Getting into this party isn't easy. Before the doors open, a mass of people flood the sidewalk, aggressively shouting at one another. A similar crush played out in early December when Rocky had a listening party of Long.Live. for a close group of friends, family, and journalists at Harlem's Black Star Music and Video. That night, a mass gathered out front, and Rocky stared down at the street through a window, posing for pictures as those outside held their iPhones up and snapped pictures of their local guy done good. True to his own tagline from several of his songs, he "be that pretty motherfucker."
At the release party, even the rapper Big K.R.I.T., who's featured on the record's "1 Train," has trouble with the list.
"This shit was super crazy," K.R.I.T. says later. "But I had to show love and support, man, because the homie reached out to me. [Rocky] saw what I was trying to do in music. And I saw how hard he worked to get to this point, so for him to ask me to be on the record, I jumped on it, and he took it back to, like, hip-hop cipher shit, and it was love."
A few years back, A$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."
Rocky is adjusting his grill in the mirror. He sports an all-black outfit with the same white snap-back he wore to the previous night's release party. Producers rush in and prep him for the interview. He's the first musical guest since the set was redesigned. Be excited, they tell him. Be animated. Hit on all the guest spots on the record to illustrate its diversity: Kendrick Lamar, Florence Welch, Santigold, Skrillex, Danny Brown, Drake. Rocky's an expansive rapper. Bigger than New York. The producers want him to show it. Talk fashion. They're going to show him outfits from the BET Honors Red Carpet, and they want him to critique them. (Halle Berry is a hit. He would have "tossed some jewels" on Luke James's suit. He "can't get jiggy" with Lisa Leslie's dress.)
He's led backstage. As we wait, his "Fuckin' Problems" blasts over the sound system. Rocky stands stoically, listening to the rabid crowd rap along to every single lyric. The music fades, and Rocky heads out to meet the hosts. He spins and plops down on the couch, and the audience chants "A$AP, A$AP, A$AP" over and over. He leans back, throws his arms out, and flashes his grill.
From there, it's into the van for a ride downtown to meet Hilfiger—and a quick snooze en route. Once he's conscious again, we talk about the new record. Not wanting to say "the same shit" he did on the mixtape, he paid particular attention to the lyrics this time around. Then he emphasizes over and over again how he wants to do it all: make films, direct music videos, make music, explore fashion. He seems like he wants to control it all, but he also feels misunderstood.
"Everything. My outlook on life. I want everybody to get along, all generations. Fuck religion. Fuck color. Fuck all that shit," he says. "People don't understand that. If I had fear, I don't think I'd be this creative. I think motherfuckers just be on. I think most rappers be like that. That's why they don't make music worth listening to. I want to make sure people always feel like I'm giving them 100 percent."
That's what Rocky does. He sees what others can offer and how he can use their talent to accomplish his vision. Long.Live.A$AP features guest spots from artists all over the music spectrum. He is a twentysomething raised on the Internet, one who creates art unconfined by geography. His music might come from a certain location (in this case, Harlem), but it pulls roots from all over the country: Purple-juiced Houston beats, Bay Area arrogance, Atlanta flow, New York obstinacy. And then he mixes it all up again, pulling other styles from other influences and other regions.
"He's perfectly on the zeitgeist," says LA Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss. "He took all these ideas and put them in a way that's polished. It's a good product, and so is he. People say, 'Oh, it doesn't sound like New York rap.' But New York rap should not sound like it did in 1999."
Rocky, through his obsession with music and fashion and art, has become his own brand. And he knows it. And he's not shy about it. "I feel invincible," he says at one point.
We're getting out of the van now, and Rocky is on the way into the hotel to meet Tommy Hilfiger about that "fashion shit." Before he darts away, I ask him about success and fame and if he thought he'd get to a point like this. He smiles.
"I always hoped so," he says. "I always thought that if they got a load of me, they would fuck with me because I'm better than most of the cats in the game. All I want is my credit, man. I just want to be an icon."