Baptized in the Gutter
Backstage at Drake's OVO Fest, Canada's biggest annual hip-hop concert, Atlanta's "it" rapper has just discovered he will have to share a modest dressing room with another opening act, A$AP Rocky, who has yet to arrive. It's early August, and neither budding star has yet to release an official solo album.
2 Chainz makes an unsuccessful appeal to one of his entourage to secure a space of his own. No dice.
Fast forward an hour. Both Rocky and Chainz have run through sets of their mixtape staples for the Toronto crowd, and when a reporter enters their joint dressing room backstage, elbow room is at a premium; the big-deal rap rookies roll far from solo, and the one-sofa room proves cramped and smoky. Too much posse.
"Hi, I'm A$AP Rocky," 2 Chainz teases. It's immediately clear that the artist formerly known as Tity Boi has found a new bosom buddy — or at least a fellow braid with whom he doesn't mind sharing tokes, jokes and monster singles.
A$AP Rocky — a 24-year-old who's survived and thrived after enduring more tragedy than most men twice his age — has that effect on people. Simultaneously ultra-flamboyant and so low-key he's almost asleep, Rocky immediately has a balancing effect, be it the tone of a room or the character of an album.
He didn't quit selling drugs and focus full-time on his craft until May 2011, and yet what seems like a rapid flip to famous is, in Rocky's mind, a long time coming.
"I always felt like I was ready, always did," A$AP says. "I was like, 'Why's it not happening, yo? Why's it not happening?' I couldn't understand." Ironically, Rocky's own carelessness was partially responsible for the postponement of the LP, originally slated for a September drop date.
"I produced a few tracks on the album, and me being a beginner, I used samples where I didn't know where I got the shits from and I didn't want to get sued," he explains.
There is, however, no expiry on good songs. Long.Live.A$AP, is here — and, in Rocky's opinion, "I got a classic, baby!" Long..Live bolted to number one on the Billboard charts, selling 139,000 copies in the U.S. during its first week, garnering favourable if not timeless reviews and flexing range in terms of tempo and depth. "Pain" gets DJ Screw'd to a Dimetapp lullaby's pace, while "Wild for the Night" snatches dubstepper Skrillex for a glowstick romp speed-bagged by Rocky's double-time couplets. The tired hedonism of "PMW" — whose "Pussy, money, weed/ All a nigga need" mantra could be more offensive for its laziness than its selfishness — gets offset by the crumbles of spiritual and social introspection on "Suddenly" and "Phoenix," tucked at the end of the full-length. Like a hard-knock Harlemite wearing ripped denim, A$AP's confidence permits him to pull off ensembles that shouldn't work.
He's a New Yorker drawing liberal musical influences from Ohio, Houston and California. A gully dude who prides himself on being pretty, he sounds equally at ease sharing tracks with artists as diverse as Schoolboy Q and Santigold. A do-it-yourself mixtape hero who has crossed over in ostentatious fashion: getting assassinated as John F. Kennedy in a Lana Del Rey video; playing grab-ass with Rihanna at a major televised awards show; turning down acting offers because his music plate is too full; and screaming to a No. 1 Billboard debut despite having his album leak online a full month prior to its Jan. 15 release.
So it's no great surprise that A$AP can go from being 2 Chainz's not-so-welcome dressing room mate to sharing laughs and hooking up with him for rap's first smash of 2013, "Fuckin' Problems," featuring Kendrick Lamar and co-produced by Toronto's Noah "40" Shebib and Drake (under the alias C. Papi) while on tour last summer.
"I had a studio bus, so I was working while traveling," explains 40. "Drake had this 2 Chainz vocal, and one of the lines was the 'I love bad bitches, that's my fuckin' problem.' Drake told me that that line should be a hook and to make a beat around it. So I cut the idea; Drake loved it. We wanted to put young guys on, so Rocky and Kendrick were the obvious choices."
"Problems" is a women-slaying party record created among a tour bus party full of women. "A$AP crew realized my bus was jumpin' and crashed the party," 40 continues. "We smoked that bus the fuck out and somehow I continued to work in the back room. I might've been working on the beat for 'Problems' at that exact moment. I like songs to have a story, and have a purpose. The way 'Problems' unfolded was very organic; it just sort of came together without trying too hard."
On the surface, things come easy for A$AP — a corner boy turned magazine cover-boy, multimillionaire, fashion icon and in-demand guest verse in his early 20s.
"Honestly, the biggest challenge for me was to be myself, because people wanted me to change in the beginning. I really just speak my mind and I tell them the truth. I don't put a filter on it," Rocky says. "Fuck that. I am who I am."
A$AP Rocky was born Rakim Mayers in Harlem — during hip-hop's greatest year (1988) and named after the greatest MC to ever pick up a microphone. No wonder the kid who spat his first rhyme at age 8 felt destined.
"Asia don't play with no games/ I smokes da weed and I am the shames." It's the only couplet Rocky remembers from that training-wheels recording session, encouraged by his older brother. "He rhymed as well. He's the first one who taught me how to rap, first time I tried," A$AP says. "I remember I did a tape recording with him. He was beating on the table, making a beat and recorded me just trying to rap and it worked out."
Five years later, Rocky's brother was murdered near his apartment in Harlem. The year prior, his father went to jail for dealing drugs.
In his youth, Rocky and his mother bounced around Manhattan shelters before moving to Elmwood Park, a New Jersey borough. Rocky would go sell drugs himself in the Bronx but has insisted in interviews that he never a tough guy or a murderer.
On an album that, for the most part, brilliantly favours style over substance, immediate gratification over something richer, "Phoenix" is a wonderful anomaly. Produced by Danger Mouse, it's also Rocky's proudest piece on Long.Live. There's poetry in its darkness, including a great line where A$AP confesses to being "baptized in the gutter."
He says he's not religious, but his relationship with God is bulletproof. "I'm just a God-fearing man. I'm more Christian than anything, but honestly I just have a relationship with God," Rocky says. "Ever since I was a kid I was close to Him, but when my brother died, God was all I had."
Rapping didn't become a serious pursuit for A$AP — which stands alternately for Always Strive And Prosper, Assassinating Snitches and Police, or Acronym Symbolizing Any Purpose — until age 17, and he didn't find his voice until 20.
Soaking in the sounds of local Harlem acts like DipSet, Big L and McGruff but complementing that with the woozy floss of Texas (UGK and Swishahouse), the recklessness of 2Pac and Wu-Tang Clan, and the welfare harmonies of Bone Thugs — frequently chopped and screwed down to a codeine haze — A$AP and his mob struck a nerve in all cities with the release of 2011's Live.Love.A$AP freebie.
Over the hypnotic beats of producers Clams Casino, Ty Beats and SpaceGhost Purrp (with whom Rocky has since fallen out), songs like "Purple Swag" and "Peso" instantly connected.
"I'm not sure which record I heard first, but my first reaction to him was very positive. I love anything that sounds different," 40 recalls. "Rocky has swag. Plain and simple, that sets him apart. He understands the youth and has an ear for the music he makes which has a unique feel."
Drake posted "Purple Swag," on his popular blog and reached out through a mutual friend, Surf Club's Chase N. Cashe, to invite A$AP on his Club Paradise tour.
A major-label bidding war ensued, and by October 2011, Rocky had signed a $3 million deal ($1.7 million for his solo efforts plus another $1.3 million for A$AP Worldwide) with Sony subsidiary Polo Grounds, which is distributed by RCA Records. He celebrated with a bottle of Cristal.
Rocky says the big budget helped him land big-time collaborations with Santigold, and Drake, big-sounding productions from Danger Mouse and Hit-Boy ("Niggas in Paris"). A major arena tour opening up for another famous co-worker, Rihanna, is set for this spring. "The label didn't get involved in my creativity," Rocky insists. "I got to work with a bunch of people I never imagined working with."
Following OVO Fest, the next time A$ap Rocky was in Toronto to perform, fans of the sold-out gig were greeted at the venue by flashing police cars and yellow tape. Rocky had blown up metaphorically; the fear was that he'd do so literally.
"Somebody called in a bomb threat, and we couldn't do the show." A$AP says he flew all the way to Canada to get stuck in his hotel. "I wanted to perform. You know how many bad-ass Toronto chicks was at that show? Shit was gonna be mad."
Ah, yes. The badass chicks — number one on his Pretty Flacko persona's list of 99 fuckin' problems and one of the most alluring trappings Lady Fame can bring.
"I've had a girl come up to me and try to give me a blowjob in public," A$AP says. "I said, 'No.' To be honest with you, she wasn't that attractive." He lets rip a laugh. "She wasn't no hooker. She had to be a fan; she addressed me as A$AP Rocky, for one. And she kept going on about how she wanted a hug and a picture. Then she started going off, 'I'm sucking your dick, I'm sucking your dick.' I'm like, "Oh, shit. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Be cool. Be cool.'"
Cool is how A$AP is taking fame. He may be amused by it, but he's not overwhelmed by it. "I take it with a grain of salt. A lot of people [around me' changed for the better; a lot of people changed for the worse. People who changed for the worse, they're no longer around. People who changed for the better, those motherfuckers are lovin' life right now. It's beautiful."
A$AP Mob — more friends than group members — have seen the world on the strength of Rocky's syrupy flow, and now the spoils of success are trickling their way. He must find value, especially with the losses his family has suffered, in surrounding himself with a deep crew of friends.
"It's not important. It just is what it is. That's how I roll. Those are my brothers, my family," Rocky says, as if not inviting them into his dressing room, no matter how cozy, would be unthinkable. "Germany, London, France, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Amsterdam, fuckin' everywhere. Beijing and shit. That's where it took me — took me to the top. God is good."
A$AP Yams manages the exploding A$AP brand. A$AP Ferg's own solo single, "Work," just saw wide release through Sony. And A$AP Bari, Rocky's best friend, was named #15 on Complex magazine's countdown of the 50 most stylish celebrities in New York.
"He was selling drugs and stopped selling drugs to get into fashion," Rocky beams. "He influences a lot of the shit you see Kanye and all them cats wear. He's about to get some stuff in stores, and it's about to go crazy. They're my brothers. A$AP all day."
FeaturesSep 09, 2014
CommonChicago State of Mind
Common's 10th album Nobody's Smiling focuses on the trials and tribulations of his hometown Chicago. Produced entirely by frequent collabora...
FeaturesAug 29, 2014
Hangout HandbookMy Saskatoon
In our annual Hangout Handbook, Exclaim! asks some of our favourite artists to discuss the hidden gems in their hometowns. Here, Factor (a.k...
FeaturesAug 29, 2014
Hangout HandbookEat Your Way Across Toronto
In our annual Hangout Handbook, Exclaim! asks some of our favourite artists what an ideal day in their hometown would entail. Here, Tre Miss...
FeaturesAug 25, 2014
A$AP MobLive. Long. Pro$per.
For the A$AP Mob, the words, "Always Strive and Prosper" are more than a cleverly construed phrase for the group's now unmistakeable dollar ...