The Harlem rapper turned superstar talks about his issues with society, his thoughts on New York's new wave of rappers and how he hopes to change the world.
A$AP Rocky is a lot taller than me, so when he grabs me for a hug to say hello, I end up mumbling “it’s nice to meet you” into his hoodie. Retrospectively, I think this counts simultaneously as one of the coolest and least cool moments of my life so far.
It’s not the done thing in music journalism to admit to feeling starstruck when you meet someone, or to discuss the cool points (or lack thereof) involved in assignments – not in the actual articles, anyway. The thing about Rocky, though, is that his presence is the whole thing. Whether it’s the blasé “pretty motherfucker” presence of his light raps, the gold-teeth-flashing cockiness that he brings to his videos or the easy way he commands a room (so much so that you don’t even call him out when he calls you “babe” more times than you can typically stomach), it’s his confidence that’s the thing. It’s his confidence that made us sit up and pay attention to him back in the summer of 2011, and it’s what made his debut mixtape ‘Live.Love.A$AP’ such a powerful statement – a statement about being young and full of unrestrained potential energy and unabashed style.
No one is as wise to the fact that A$AP Rocky’s appeal rests in his enigmatic person as A$AP Rocky. It comes out especially in a weird semantic misstep we have over the word “character” – when I ask whether his lyrics are based on real experiences or whether he assumes a persona to perform, he says “I am my character”. To Rocky, “character” isn’t something assumed or performed – it’s just what he is.
On the morning we sit down to talk, it’s only been a few days since his debut full-length album ‘Long.Live.A$AP’ dropped. It’s had mixed reviews; the prevailing criticism has been that it feels patchy, full of moments that flash brilliantly like a gold tooth in a grin, but far from the unified vision that ‘Live.Love.A$AP’ promised. As we chat about the album, about his success so far and his ambitions for the future, this criticism plays on my mind, and as Rocky talks I feel like I’m getting a glimpse at the heart of it.
That is – Rocky, of course, knows he’s a character, an enigma. He makes plenty of statements about the changes he wants to make, to his “generation” and to “hip hop culture”, and he says that he wants to be a “lifestyle icon.” He’s still got all that unrealised potential energy, and he’s got the fearless confidence and boundless ambition to be as influential as Kanye (another “lifestyle icon” he cites). What’s missing right now is the stylistic focus that comes with a Kanye record – the statement has been refracted through a few different musical directions, but the fiery intent behind it is there. Rocky may have made an album that reaches down a few too many different paths, but it’s because his ambitions do too. It’s exciting to see.
“Fuck hype,” he tells me at one point, “you have proof now.” He’s right to disregard the bluster around him, the starstruck fawning he inspires in people like me. If Rocky had it his way, hype-stirrers wouldn’t be watching his every move, they’d be thinking long term – because that’s what he’s doing. He doesn’t care about your blog. He wants to lead a generation.
We meet in a West London hotel room on a morning when snow covers the ground, with assistant, publicist and photographer all listening in. For the first few minutes Rocky seems to be reeling off points that he’s repeated countless times before, but somewhere in the middle, round about where he starts freestyling, something breaks open, and from then the conversation – about society’s problems, about Mykki Blanco and the gay rap scene/non-scene, about slavery and discrimination – starts to flow fast.
How are you?
A$AP Rocky: I’m good, how you doin’ babe?
I’m good, how do you like London?
A$AP Rocky: I love it here. I want to live here.
Congratulations on the album!
A$AP Rocky: Thank you.
Do you read the press around it; have you read what people have been saying?
A$AP Rocky: I’ve been told what people have been saying.
Okay. And what do you make of it?
A$AP Rocky: What I think is that it’s beautiful, because this is all I really want and I want people to say nice things. I want people to hear the music and understand that this is the future of hip hop culture. I want them to understand that I’m here to change hip hop. I’ve changed hip hop within a year. Ever since I made Goldie, all the rappers wear gold, they don’t wanna wear diamonds. I made it cool to wear rips in your jeans, I made it cool to wear hats that say ‘Calm the Fuck Down’, I made it cool to wear braids again, gold teeth, you know. I made it cool to rap like [does a non-verbal imitation of a Peso -ish flow], that’s me who did that you know? Now I’m going to make it cool to express yourself and be who you are so they can stop following me all day, you know? Just be yourself. And I just want self expression to be the key to success or the pursuit of happiness.
So how do you feel the relationship between your image and your music works?
“I don’t want to go to jail, I don’t need to sell no drugs, I don’t need to kill nobody. I don’t need to rape no females, none of that. I’m not a criminal, and I don’t want them to get the wrong impression.” – A$AP Rocky
A$AP Rocky: Me? I don’t care, I don’t think about that shit. I don’t give a fuck, that’s the issue. I care to represent and have a little respect and dignity for myself, but for the most part I don’t really think about it too much, because then I would be trying to portray somebody, right? If I’m myself, you can never be upset if I make you upset because I am who I am. You can never be surprised. I don’t like surprises, you know? You’ll get what you get, and you know what you’re getting, when you get it from me.
I read something you said recently, that you think the media fabricates images of artists. What does authenticity mean to you and how do you try to keep that?
A$AP Rocky: I try to be as authentic and genuine as possible. I don’t want anyone to listen to A$AP and get the wrong impression, like we’re just thugs and we shoot and kill people all day, because I’m no gangster who shoots and kills people, I don’t do stuff like – I don’t have to do shit like that. That’s not what I do, as far as me, I don’t want to go to jail, I don’t need to sell no drugs, I don’t need to kill nobody. I don’t need to rape no females, none of that. I’m not a criminal, and I don’t want them to get the wrong impression – when I make songs like Angels, I’m either speaking in third person or I’m talking about my past when I speak about those kind of things, because the person I am now is nothing like that, as you can see.
That’s something I wanted to ask actually – how much you feel like you as a person go into your music and how much of it you would say is a character?
A$AP Rocky: I mean, 100% of it is me, because I am my character. There’s no like third person, there’s no third party. I don’t have an alter ego; I am who I am.
So what’s the writing process like for you?
A$AP Rocky: I don’t write.
You don’t write?
A$AP Rocky: Not if I don’t have to. I barely write, I might jot down a few words here and there, but I try not to – I don’t write. It’s more easy for me to just recite. I don’t talk about it in the media because I don’t – Jay Z and Lil’ Wayne claim to do that, so I don’t want to be cliche or whatever. [But] any of those rhymes, you know, any of them, I just recite them when I come up with them. That’s how it’s been since I was 8. I just think about the rhyme and recite it and recite it and – like, for instance, what’s your name again?
A$AP Rocky: Like… Aimee…pay me [laughs] I don’t know what else rhymes with Aimee, shit. Aimee, pay me, rainy…I just keep saying Aimee pay me rainy in the trainy, gave me brainy until I went insaney but she tried to claim me… I don’t know! You know, you just improvise after that, you just keep going. I don’t think it’s necessary to write everything because I can just recite it and memorise it that way.
Is there a lot of editing down that goes in between improvising it and the record?
A$AP Rocky: Sometimes, sometimes. It’s like each individual record has its own process, so the process of making it varies each time you’re doing a different song.
A$AP Rocky feat. Drake, Kendrick Lamar and 2 Chainz – Fuckin’ Problems
You had a lot of collaborators on the new record – how did you decide who you wanted to work with?
A$AP Rocky: For the most part, for me, I just really wanted to work with people that I felt were unique and eclectic, who I respected creatively. I didn’t want to work with artists who were just hot, else I would have had Rick Ross on my album, Lil’ Wayne and Kanye – I could easily do that. I gave y’all that already with the Fuckin’ Problems. I don’t have to keep doing that, because that’s not me. You want a cool song, you want a modern hip song, well here you go, but that’s not all me, I don’t make just Fuckin’ Problems songs all day. That’s a fun song, it’s good for what it’s worth. It’s a shame that that’s the song that’s about to go platinum, out of all the songs. What does that say about society?
What do you think it says about society?
A$AP Rocky: I think society likes ignorant shit. Am I wrong?
Probably not. Which song would you have preferred to go platinum? Is there one that’s particularly special to you?
A$AP Rocky: I mean, all of them, but maybe… I like Suddenly, I like Hell, LVL, that’s really good, Angels is good. What song I think should go platinum is Long.Live.A$AP. That’s really a good song, you know? People don’t think that that’s me singing, they think I used Auto-Tune – the video, the visuals I directed… I think creatively, everything about that song, that record, deserves awards. That’s just my opinion.
One thing I felt that came out in the album was that you were playing on the theme of contrasting the life you have now with the life you feel like you could have had.
A$AP Rocky: How do you figure?
Well, it’s there from the opening line, “I thought I’d probably die in prison”, and it feels like it’s really prevalent in the rest of the record.
A$AP Rocky: That’s dope. Good synopsis, good observation.
“I don’t try to portray myself to be just this bad macho guy, I’m really in a peaceful place in my life right now and that’s the way I’m planning on keeping it.” – A$AP Rocky
Is that something that you consciously wanted to talk about?
A$AP Rocky: I mean, I wasn’t a bad guy to the point where I was going to go to prison for killing everybody, but I just figured that the path I was going down was gonna have me going in and out. My dad, before he passed, been in and out of jail his whole life, and he was one of the goodest men I knew. Everybody in jail is not a bad person, we all know that. We all know that. Everybody’s not. All it is, is just, you know, it’s a business. And not all cops wanna give away tickets and arrest people but they have to. You know why? Because they’ve gotta meet a certain, you know, protocol. They gotta do certain things just to meet certain kind of expectations so they can get through the month without being fired or laid off by their boss, supervisor or captain. And inmates in jail who sell drugs or do things that’s against the law, I’m quite sure that their reasoning is just as good as the cops’ reasoning, it’s just a different kind of field of work. So it’s all about how you view society – I don’t try to portray myself to be just this bad macho guy, I’m really in a peaceful place in my life right now and that’s the way I’m planning on keeping it. Yeah man, I used to be involved in a lot of shit, you know, I’ve been to prison for like a week, never been in prison for more than that, so I’m not gonna sit here and claim that I’ve been a jailbird, none of that. Because that’s not even fun to me – you know what I mean, there’s no girls, no weed, no good food and no cartoons. No liquor, no nothin’. All it is is a bunch of dudes walking around grabbing their nuts and shit, that’s just weird, you know what I’m saying? So, keep me away from that shit.
What does success mean to you?
“I hate it, the hype around me. Don’t you notice that we waited until the hype died down, to give them something? … Fuck hype, you have proof now.” – A$AP Rocky
A$AP Rocky: Success is coming to London and seeing billboards bigger than houses and shit, of me. I’m just starting to feel successful, and I think that’s appropriate now, because I was just working on this. People rewarded me and awarded me with things and it’s not that I didn’t appreciate it I just felt that it was a little too early. I don’t believe in the hype of me. I hate it, the hype around me. Don’t you notice that we waited until the hype died down, to give them something? Fuck hype, you have proof now. There’s no reason to question any more if I’m capable of doing anything, ‘cause I just proved it to you. I don’t have a ghost writer, I don’t have a stylist, I don’t need no artist development, I’m a jiggly motherfucker and I was born that way and it’s time for you motherfuckers to see it. It’s time for the world to express who they are, be you, and don’t be ashamed of being you, that’s the issue.
Do you feel like a role model?
A$AP Rocky: Yeah, of course, of course. Come on man, I’m a fucking nappy-headed kid from Harlem and I’ve got the whole world wanting to dress like me including your favourite idols, you know what I’‘m saying? Of course I’m a role model. But I’m happy to be, I don’t wanna be one because I’m not perfect, but I do wanna inspire, that’s it. I just wanna inspire, you know, inspire kids to express themselves, that’s just my whole thing, man.
You have a very non-regional sound…
A$AP Rocky: [Cuts in] Let me ask you something. Hip hop originated in New York City in the late 1970s. Okay, so – if hip hop originated in New York City in the 1970s, can you please explain to me how there’s a Dizzee Rascal in London? You know why? Because everything is non-regional. It’s not just me, it’s everybody. Let’s just talk about hip hop, rappers in general. There would be no rappers in Texas if it wasn’t for New York. There would be no rappers in California, anywhere if it wasn’t for New York. So, for me to adapt to hip hop there’s obviously a problem with it because everyone should be able to adapt to it and get culture from hip hop, not just people from the States, or you shouldn’t just stick to a certain kind of sound because that’s what’s popular in your town. You go with what you like and what inspires you. So that’s the answer to your question, I feel like every rapper is a non-regional rapper, you can’t just stick to one region, you have to be inspired by all. I’m from there, so I feel like, not saying just that, not saying that because I’m from New York I have the right to, but I know the history of what I’m listening to, this ain’t no fucking made up shit. I was young listening to this shit, so that’s just like, it’s part of my culture, you know, that’s why my sound is like that, because I’ve been listening to these sounds since I was a child.
What I wanted to ask though was whether you feel connected to the new scene that’s coming out of there at the minute?
A$AP Rocky: Coming out of where?
A$AP Rocky: Am I connected to the scene that’s coming out of New York?
Whether you’re fan of any other artists…
A$AP Rocky: Do you know what’s going on in the world right now, baby? Babe, listen, we are the scene coming out of New York. Am I lying? Who else are you gonna talk about? Joey Bada$$? You know, or what, Flatbush Zombies? These are all people that are part of our conglomerate. Who else is coming up? … I’m trying to… I don’t know. All of them is under…they know me. I don’t know what to say. So…what was your initial question?
Well, I mean other artists I would think of would include Mykki Blanco…
A$AP Rocky: The gay rapper? Come on, sweetheart. I’m not against gay people, everybody knows that, but I don’t listen to Mykki Blanco. Out of all people, that’s who you say though [laughs]. I don’t know, I think he’s been rapping for like a year now so, what “scene” are you talking about? I don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s not a scene.
Publicist: I think she just means in terms of what’s getting rep here in the UK, because Mykki Blanco has been getting a lot of attention…that’s what they’re saying, that the music coming out of New York is so different now, do you feel a part of it?
A$AP Rocky: No, I don’t feel a part of that music.
Publicist: Yeah, see it’s so different over here…
A$AP Rocky: Can I say something? Because, when people heard me rap before, and being that I’m from New York and being that my sound is so, like you say, universal, it was like a lot of people were, you know, reluctant to be listeners. They didn’t want to listen to it, they didn’t want to accept it. I never listened to Mykki Blanco, but I know him. He’s this gay dude, he’s wild, he pops drugs and he be wilin’ with his shirt off in every party. So, I know who you’re talking about. So when you tell me things like Mykki Blanco and all that stuff, I don’t know what to say because it’s just like Azealia Banks, you know, she was on the scene, she emerged and everyone thought it was gonna be something, and now you hear this, you hear that. I don’t know how to judge other people, I can’t judge anybody because I’m an artist not a critic. As far as Mykki Blanco goes, I wish him the best of success, because he’s trying to do something, and just because he’s gay and you know, gay rap is not popular, does not mean it’s not gonna necessarily be good, so you know, if you enjoy listening to Mykki Blanco, good for you. I just never really heard it yet so I can’t really answer your question, because people in the States don’t listen to that at all. Like, at all. If it wasn’t for the UK, a lot of these artists would never, ever stand a chance. They didn’t like Azealia Banks. We grew up with Azealia Banks – before he was my assistant [points at his assistant], he – he can finish the sentence –
“We know [Azealia Banks], she knows us, everybody grew up together. We grew up with Teyana Taylor, she’s from Harlem; Harlem is small, really small. Me and Teyana used to be little boyfriends and girlfriends when we were like 15” – A$AP Rocky
Assistant: His last assistant’s name was A$AP A.B. and that was Azealia Banks’s boyfriend.
A$AP Rocky: Azealia Banks was his girlfriend, so you know we growing up together. We know her, she knows us, everybody grew up together. We grew up with Teyana Taylor, she’s from Harlem; Harlem is small, really small. Me and Teyana used to be little boyfriends and girlfriends when was like 15, I’m serious. And Azealia grew up with all of that, everybody grew up together, so it was like, when you go to the States, you don’t hear nothing. But me, being a travelling artist and coming over here and hearing “Oh my God, Azealia Banks, Azealia Banks, 212!”, I’m like, “oh, Azealia’s popular now? Okay…” And I thought it was a good song, so you know, with this Mykki Blanco thing, I’m always open to hearing it, but I don’t know what you’re talking about, he doesn’t have a New York scene. You’re wrong about that, he doesn’t have one. He maybe has a UK thing, but he doesn’t have a New York thing, because if you ask any New York person, any Yankee, ask them, they won’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, and then when you say “gay rapper” they’re gonna get close-minded and ignorant. “Aw, fuck that, what the fuck? Nah, nah, nah, fuck that shit.” You see, you’ve gotta kinda take baby steps telling them, so next time you meet a Yankee from the States, just be like [motions to zip mouth closed, laughs] because not all of them are open-minded like me. Seriously! I promise, they’re so ignorant over there sometimes, at times. I’m not shitting on my own country, man, I’m a Yankee.
I can see how my perspective on things seems quite disjointed to you, because I feel like we’re on the outside looking in over here, so it’s good to get that context.
A$AP Rocky: No doubt. I just wanna enlighten you. You learn something new every day, there’s a lot I could learn from you too – it’s all good.
What are your ambitions beyond music?
A$AP Rocky: I just wanna be a lifestyle icon. I wanna just, you know, stay creative. I wanna stay creative, innovative. For me it’s like this, right – if there was no Pharrell, where would hip hop be? If there was no Kanye, where would hip hop be? These are people that really changed hip-hop in their own way. It takes pioneers like them to make a difference. Now, fast-forward four years later, you have A$AP Rocky. What I can say is, it’s an honour to be given this position, because there are many artists who work as hard as I do to try to get to where I’m at, and they’re not as fortunate to get here, because nonetheless, it’s blessing, you know? You’ve gotta think about it, yeah I’m talented, of course, …really love my music. So, with that being said, I just really really wanna change the way my youth and my culture and my era, the way it thinks, the morals and stuff, I want them to know that we’re all one generation, man. And colour, sex, religion, ethnicity, none of that matters at this point yo. It’s just, I preach this shit so much I’m tired of saying it you know, it’s like, we’re all one generation, I just hate the racism, the discrimination, I fucking hate that shit yo. It’s fucking 2013, I feel like enough is enough, I feel like, man, by now, I feel like our generation, us and the kids younger than us to put our fucking forefathers and ancestors to shame, who were warring with each other over religion, and enslaving each other and stuff like that, you know? You learn knowledge everyday, I mean, I was just sitting with my manager, he’s like my big brother, Chace, yesterday, and you know, a lot of black people try to blame the European white man for slavery, but back then we enslaved ourselves. Kings had slaves building temples and pyramids and statues, stuff like that. Every culture had slavery – every culture, everyone. Even Mayans, all of them, everybody had slaves, you know? So I wanna put those motherfuckers to shame with this positive new shit that we’re doing. Put ‘em to shame, put ‘em to shame. Leave a good impression on the world, man, that’s just it. And I’m not saying I’m gonna do it through music but some way we gonna get it done. But we can’t do it alone. That’s it.