A$AP Rocky: The New Harlem Renaissance

Once offered a staggering $3 million record deal with Sony/RCA after dropping only two singles, it was hard not to wonder how much of A$AP Rocky’s talent was artistry and how much was a marketable brand. With telegenic charisma and a closet full of designer names, the MC had practically been packaged to sell with the warning label “May Be Overhyped” found somewhere in the fine print. Fast forward past a critically acclaimed mixtape and a Billboard-charting debut, Rocky has singled himself out to be what labels have wanted for so long: an artist that thrives under pressure.

In just under two years he’s become a self-proclaimed savant in the fashion industry, brought chopped and screwed bits of Houston to his hometown of Harlem, made Clams Casino synonymous with electronic haze and not a New England dish, and built personal friendships with both Drake and Rihanna. All the while ensuring the chant “All Hail Lord Flacko” continued to roar as his following became colossal through records, tours, and mass appeal. But with epithetical ties to a certain influential golden age rapper and the title “Always Strive and Prosper” – which is worn proudly like the American flag he’s been so infamously draped in – could we really expect anything less of him?

A$AP is here by no means of luck. If you were to ask him, he’d attribute it to God’s grace backed by years of struggle and determination. And though he’s quick to humbly brag that he’s that “Pretty Mother Fucker”, he may forget to mention that he’s a managerial icon with a knack for new sounds and trends that define him as a resourceful tastemaker. Just a few weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of his debut album, Rocky tuned us into his thoughts about Harlem’s underground fashion scene, what really matters in hip-hop, and what he hopes to accomplish in the months to come – whether that’s in the studio or behind the Mob. A lot has changed for Lord Flacko, but rest assured he’s still a pretty boy on his hipster shit.

As an artist, a businessman, and a fashion icon, what are you most proud of thus far in your career?

When I first got into the game and into music initially, it was just me being creative. Over time I developed into a businessman and that aspect has been making sure A$AP Ferg is good, his album is situated, and the whole A$AP Mob is cool. That’s me on top of my business. But before I was a fashion icon, I was a fashionista. As far as me being that, it’s just a privilege to get recognition from my idols and to now consider them peers. Even with the people who influenced a lot of my career and my life growing up in Harlem – fashion played a big part in that. It’s just like, there’s no one thing that’s bigger than the other. Overall, it’s one big blessing and accomplishment, and I’m proud of that.

With “A$AP” (Always Strive And Prosper) as your crew moniker and lifestyle, what does that title mean to you now?

I’m still striving. I mean, I didn’t win any MTV or Grammy awards so I need those (laughs). We still striving, still searching for prosperity, and still riding our blessings and hoping. Your blessings will call and reach out if you put in work. Always have, always will.

Is the dynamic of the Mob still the same compared to when you formed back in the day?

I think it’s better now. Way more women and way more green, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of chicks right now and I think they enjoy it (laughs). We all still good.

What’s it like for you being seen as the “leader”? Was that ever the intention?

It wasn’t the intention because I didn’t start A$AP. I started A$AP “The Music Division” – that’s what I’m leader of. As far as the A$AP crew goes, I joined in 2007 about a year after it was already established. For me it was just getting down with a crew that represented fashion, streetwear, smoking, and hipster shit (laughs). So that’s what it was all about – it was just basically a platform and then I realized how many creative guys were in the crew – like Ferg was rapping and designing, and A$AP Nast was always into clothes and fashion. Back in Harlem, everybody’s into fashion. But to the degree that we are with high-end fashion? Everyone’s not like that. They’re all just into looking nice. So for us, we were into it so much that we would all go downtown to SoHo to chill and then bring it all back to Harlem. That’s what it was like from when I was 19, 20, and 21. That was it – and that was it for the Mob too.

In hip-hop, artists are quick to boast where they’re from. How important is it for an MC to rep their city?

I don’t think anywhere or anything matters anymore. None of that shit matters and I’m just being honest. The other big reason that makes me feel like that is because at the MTV Video Music Awards, my homie Macklemore did the whole gay rights thing – he took everything from rap and just changed it, and it doesn’t even matter, you know? If someone wants to represent their city, I mean, I encourage them. Get up, get out, and do something. I don’t care if you’re repping your city, my city, just rep something. I represent hip-hop. I represent culture.

You opened 2013 by releasing the long awaited Long.Live.A$AP. As it was the first hip-hop album of what turned out to be a very big year for the genre, do you feel like your record initially set the bar?

Fuck yeah. It leaked December 5th of 2012, and my album came out January 15th and we still had people who supported it, loved it, and listened to it. Even now, a year later, I’m still dropping videos from that God damn album. I feel like after it came out people wanted to be more artsy and make darker music. I pushed that, and I don’t mind cause I’m just like the silent type. I try to take the credit silently.

Now that the year is coming to a close, what has changed?

I’m a little more handsome now (laughs). Nothing’s really changed, I’m still here, still got plans to be here, still speaking with God.

So where do you go from here?

Wherever God takes me, man. I want to go to the top; I feel like there’s no limit. There’s only one place to go and that’s up. And let me tell you, I’m going to make everybody keep their eyes up. I promise you – the next time I drop, they’ll be looking up. I’m actually working on an instrumental album right now. It’ll be free though and it’ll have everything you need. Free videos and beats. Don’t worry, I got you (laughs).

Which artist, of any genre, are you looking out for in 2014?

Well, I like Cudi. A lot. He’s one of my favourites. I’m ready for some new Toro Y Moi too. I don’t know how to say his name, but I think his music is really good (laughs). I’ve been feeling a lot of MGMT and I’m happy about that album dropping. “Cool Song No. 2” and “Your Life is a Lie” – I could bump that hippie shit all day. I do want to hear some more Tame Impala and James Blake this year. I really fuck with that, their music tickles my fancy (laughs). I want hear some more from Kendrick and Drake too.

Those are some artists there that I don’t think people would have expected you to like.

Yeah they would, because I’m a fucking weirdo (laughs). It’s not that weird, it’s just not common to rap. The reason why I listen to James Blake is because nobody is out there making that music right now. It’s almost like emo mixed with ambient next-level shit. Like his voice is crazy. There’s a lot of artists I fuck with and the list goes on. I know I’m going to come across corny because none of them are really rappers, so it’s going to seem like I did this on purpose just to not to name rappers. But I don’t always listen to rap – I do fuck with Grimes.

At this point, do you feel like there’s anything more you need to do or accomplish to prove yourself as an artist?

Well, right now I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, but I love to stay creative. I feel like I’ve proven a lot. I’ve proven that NYC artists are still relevant and I’ve shown that I’m one of the most anticipated recording artists right now. If we talking about the greats of our generation, I’m mentioned. People argue that hip-hop has been dead since Biggie was in New York but that’s not true. I’ve shown that I’m not going to be around for just one or two years – I’m going on my third year in the game. Not only that, my protege has an album out already and I’m about to put out a tape with my whole Mob. I feel pressure-less. It’s effortless.

I feel like once I start giving a fuck about pressure and what people expect of me, then I’m just setting myself up for failure. The whole time I’ve had a creative mind going into this shit and I’ve let the music take me, and just as much as I’ve let anything that I’m passionate about take over me – like love and fashion. I’ve got this charismatic relationship with music – there’s a lot of chemistry to it – and for me it’s just like, if it gets to a point one day where the people stop listening, well then… that says that (laughs). With the grace of God, I hope there will never be a time where the people don’t want to listen to us. I hope they want to listen to us forever.

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