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Ari Marcopoulos

Planet Rocky

We took a trip uptown with A$AP Rocky and his Mob to discover the secret to their Harlem State of Mind

Taken from the February 2012 issue of Dazed:

Harlem’s Always Strive And Prosper crew, led by “dat pretty motherfucker” A$AP Rocky, recently got evicted from their plush 20th-floor midtown party pad. They were accused of distracting the night watchmen with a string of sexy women and killing the old guy downstairs with second-hand ganja smoke. Rocky, the 24-year-old rap sensation behind “Peso”, 2011’s most striking hip hop anthem, was quick to point out that “smoke goes up, not down” and that it wasn’t his problem if people “can’t handle bitches coming in wearing trenchcoats with bikinis underneath”. The residents committee failed to acknowledge his argument. Petitions were signed, blunts were rolled, sizzurp was slurped, and finally, one cold New York morning, the “Raf Simons murderers” were forced to drift back uptown, with Rocky moving out to his mom’s place in New Jersey. 

Now without a central Manhattan HQ, the offices of Polo Grounds Music on West 30th Street have become the de facto assembly point. Owned by Bryan Leach, a man who for better or worse brought the world Lil Jon and Pitbull, the office is covered in platinum plaques, cardboard cut-outs of various crunkateers, and a plasma screen permanently tuned into BET. Industrialsized bottles of Bacardi, Patrón and Hennessy line the kitchen sideboard, and the only sign of food is a large bowl of lollipops. 

Several group members, all of whom affix A$AP in front of their rap names as a show of solidarity, mill around looking for things to do while they await the return of Rocky, who has been spreading his psychedelic blend of southern swagger and New York street talk on Drake’s Club Paradise tour. A$AP Ferg aka Fergenstein, a cuddly man whose penchant for mid 90s Versace glasses, Margiela sneakers and Hermès scarves knows no bounds, inspects the fridge’s supply of Corona. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the late soul-crooner Gerald Levert and is fast gaining a reputation to match. At one recent A$AP show a female fan rushed up to the stage and handed him a bunch of flowers as he performed his syrupy love ballad, “100 Million Roses”. A$AP Twelvy, the most traditional East Coast spitter in their number, likes to keep his own counsel. With gold grills lining his bottom teeth and a grey beanie with “Hennessy” emblazoned across it, there’s a whiff of the Wu-Tang about him. Leach, a huge man with mischief constantly flickering across his eyes, paces around the room, shadowboxing. “Rocky’s gonna be the new Kanye,” he explains after finishing his impromptu martial arts demo. “He’s gonna influence fashion and music. He’s not scared. He’s fearless, you can see it in his eyes. That’s what Kanye was, fearless. When Kanye first started he was lumped in with the new backpack era, the Mos Defs and the Talib Kwelis, but he knew what we know – it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” 

The former TVT Records A&R vicepresident first got involved with the A$AP movement last summer after being sent a link for Rocky’s “Purple Swag” video, a woozy tale about his love of drinking codeine-laced screw-juice and smoking high-grade purple Kush. After hunting him down, Leach was surprised to discover that Rocky wasn’t from Houston but was actually a fellow Harlemite. Born Rakim Mayers in 1987, the young MC had grown up around hustlers from day one, with his dad going to prison for selling drugs when he was 12. He got into the street pharmacy business too, peddling pills in the Bronx and living with his mom in a shelter before earning enough to move her out to the Garden State. Growing up rough himself, Leach felt an affinity with the “trill life” Rocky rapped about, particularly as he was doing it in a style that alternated between slowed-down, strung-out drawls and the triple-time rhyme style pioneered by southern luminaries like Pimp C and Three 6 Mafia. 

“When I found out he was from Harlem and doing southern shit I was like, ‘That’s how I made my whole career!’” the entrepreneur says animatedly. “I’m from Harlem, but I’ve signed nothing but southern shit, from Lil Jon to Pitbull and Jacki-O. It took me about three weeks to find him. He didn’t wanna sign with no labels, he wanted to be independent. So my biggest thing was making him understand that I understood exactly who he was, in more ways than he realised. He’s an outcast from Harlem who’s not doing the typical New York sound. He has all these southern influences and comes at the business from an independent state of mind. I was like, ‘I’ve done all that shit. I can help you.’” 

In fact, linking up with Leach proved more than just helpful – he made Rocky rich beyond his wildest dreams after negotiating a deal last October worth $3 million with Polo Grounds/ Columbia. A$AP Ty Beats, the shy, 18-year-old producer who created the braggadocious “Peso” beat from an old SOS Band sample, still finds it all hard to believe. “It’s crazy man,” he says. “I’m so fucking proud of myself and all of A$AP right now. ‘Peso’ is near two million views – I never dreamt I’d have two million views on a beat that I made or a video that I was a part of. This shit is amazing. It gives hope to everyone out there who don’t believe that things like this can happen."

In the hallway, A$AP Bari, one of the clique’s clothing designers, is having the huge anarchy symbol on the back of his custom A$AP Nike jacket photographed. “This jacket means a lot,” he says. “Right here you got the Public Enemy target because A$AP is a target right now. The anarchy symbol on the back means we’re wild. We’ve got our motto on the side because you’ve always gotta strive and prosper. It’s called the A$AP Worldwide Destroyer because we always cause destruction.” Also in the hallway is A$AP Nast, owner of the greatest studded Versace leather jacket in New York. Wearing a Black Scale cap emblazoned with the word “FUNERAL”, skinny jeans, a denim shirt and that jacket, he looks more like a skater punk than a hardcore rapper. 

“A$AP don’t dress like other people from Harlem,” Leach says, in between attempts to ring Rocky to find out where he is. “They’re more like SoHo kids. The internet is the new zip code and they reflect that. It’s a huge movement that includes all your Odd Futures, Kendrick Lamars, Drakes, all those other guys. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you wear any more. It’s about being true to yourself.” 

Leach finally gets through to the chosen one. He’s downtown, shopping at BAPE, and wants everyone to meet him there. It’s the news they’ve all been waiting for, the A$AP equivalent of the Bat signal lighting up Gotham’s sky. En route to Greene Street, A$AP Bari and A$AP Nast explain why they’re all so obsessed with making experimental fashion statements. “Some people can’t understand the schemes and the wild dress image,” says Nast, the glow from the streetlights reflecting off the hundreds of metal studs on his leather lapel. “People in New York might never have heard our music but they’ve definitely seen our fashion shit because we mob around town doing all kinds of crazy shit the hood ain’t ever seen. Most people in the hood are like, ‘Oh shit! What da fuck are you doing?!’” 

“You gotta understand, we just tryin’ to be different from niggas uptown,” Bari continues. “There’s a breed of fashion in Harlem: if you’re not fly, you’re nobody. Where we come from, fashion is key, whether it’s hood fashion or fashion period. People used to think we looked absurd, but now we the flyest motherfuckers out there.” 

“Twenty years from now or when I’m dead they gonna be on my dick because I’m so futuristic. It’s all good, as long as one day they know that I’m a pioneer” – A$AP Rocky

“Yeah, everybody in Harlem is gonna dress like this now,” Nast says in a machine-gun pitter-patter. “We’re experimenting and doing different shit with it. You’ll see a little bit of everything in our style – that’s our versatility. We don’t know nothing else. We only know fashion and music. And to be honest, to make it in the music industry these days you gotta have some type of style, because no one wants to look at you otherwise. Even if you got a rugged, dirty swag, you gotta have some type of style.”

Arriving at BAPE, Rocky is finishing up buying three pairs of sneakers. Dressed in his favourite Rick Owens t-shirt, an A$AP Worldwide Destroyer jacket and the same “FUNERAL” hat as Nast (the same cap he wore in the “Peso” clip), the group’s poster boy is in a bubbly mood. It’s been a while since the posse have been together en masse, and his joy at seeing his surrogate family is palpable. “Is this that Versace jacket?” he says looking at Nast’s leather. “That shit is nice, bro.” As he pays at the counter, Nast and Fergenstein kick off a spontaneous freestyle cypher in the middle of the shop, to the bemusement of a family of German tourists who have no idea who they are or why they’re shouting over someone else’s song. Rocky laughs and heads out of the shop to chat to Bari who suggests that they all go uptown to grab some food and swing by his grandmother’s apartment, as she hasn’t seen them since A$AP broke the internet. 

Rocky, Nast, Twelvy and A$AP Yams – the Puerto Rican member whose facial birthmark and 212 chest tattoo made him a blog celebrity thanks to his thugged-out cameos in “Peso” and “Purple Swag” – jump into a black Escalade chauffeured by an old boy who hands out cigars for the guys to dissect. Nast crushes up some weed and pours it into Rocky’s hands as a huge orange sun disappears behind the Queensboro Bridge. It takes the entire journey for him to roll up the blunt, to the amusement of the driver who boasts he could have done it quicker with one hand while still driving. 

Arriving in Harlem, they jump out at the Rucker Park basketball court for a group picture. One of the most famous street courts in B-ball history, it’s located opposite the notorious Polo Grounds project and was where players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dr J and Wilt Chamberlain honed their skills before becoming NBA legends. “When I was 16, I stopped playing basketball and was trashed after that,” Rocky laughs after lighting up his blunt at long last. “I ain’t even going to lie to you. I was wack as fuck. But I still talk shit like I’m dope. None of them A$AP niggas can beat me on the court though. Motherfuckers think they fly but they’re terrible too.” As if to prove a point, two of the gang throw bottles from the stands towards the hoop. Both miss by miles. Standing on the iconic green steps, they crowd together for a family portrait, blowing smoke and throwing various As and one-fingered salutes into the sub-zero night air. 

Ten minutes later, a dozen black Timberlands are trudging up a dark stairwell in the St. Nicholas projects on 116th Street. Opening the door at the end of the hallway a little old lady grins warmly at the face standing behind it. “Rocky!!!! The superstar! Look at ya!” He leans in and gives Bari’s granny a hug, beaming with pride as the flash bulbs pop off. Another excited female voice shrills out from inside the small apartment, “Is that Raawwwky? Dat pretty motherfucker?!?” Bari’s mom pulls him into the kitchen and gives him a big squeeze. “You’re holding it down, you’re really rocking it!” Rocky looks visibly buoyed up by the experience as they leave a few minutes later to satiate their munchies. “That’s what it’s all about,” he shouts at the top of his voice. “Love! It’s all about that love!” 

Unsurprisingly for a posse whose music pays homage to DJ Screw, UGK and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, they choose to grab some southern soul-food at Amy Ruth’s, a local restaurant whose dishes are named after celebrities who have gorged themselves there. Sitting down at a long table in a private room, A$AP Ferg observes that it looks like a re-enactment of the last supper, with their saviour holding court in the middle. But instead of calling Rocky Jesus, Ferg says that he looks more like “Denzel Washington with braids”, causing everyone to crease up. A few more anonymous A$AP members turn up and the table erupts into another spontaneous freestyle session, with Ty Beats banging out a rhythm on the sugar pot. 

“People in Harlem used to think we looked absurd, but now we the flyest motherfuckers out there” – A$AP Bari

“When I’m making music, it’s for the love of art,” Rocky says after the last lyric has vanished into the ether. “If you don’t like art you’re probably not gonna like what I do. I’m for the people who do artsy shit and don’t get the shine that they deserve. But 20 years from now or when I’m dead they gonna be on my dick because I’m so futuristic. It’s all good, as long as they know one day that I’m a pioneer. I’m paving the way for a long legacy.” It appears that part of the A$AP legacy plan is to practise pescetarianism, so no-one orders the Ludacris fried chicken or the President Barack Obama BBQ wings. Instead they go for the Doug E. Fresh catfish and salmon croquette options. 

“I was actually raised a couple of blocks down from here,” Rocky recalls. “We on 116th and Lennox. I was raised down that way, 116th and Morningside Avenue was the block I was born on. It’s the same shit you see in the movies  –  crackheads, crack dens, bad bitches, minxes, chinchillas, Rolls Royces, dice games, fat asses, more bad bitches. My music pays homage to all them and all the rappers that did this before me, even motherfuckers that had clown-ass one-hit-wonders that I hated, I got respect for them because they had to endure all the shit that I’m going through right now. And just because we’re from New York it doesn’t mean I can’t be influenced by Texan guys that sip purple drink, which I do, ride slow, which I do, go slugging, which I do, you know, talk about that trill shit. Everything that I’ve been through I put into words. I really do live this life. The trill shit. At the end of the day you’ve got to look at it like I had enough balls to say, ‘I’m from New York and I want to make this kind of music.’ I want to make what appeals to me and I sound good doing it like this, so fuck anybody else.”

At the end of the table Bryan Leach pours out generous glasses of Bacardi and Henny from two huge bottles he sneaked into the alcohol-free zone, possibly the ones from his office. Over dinner the mob clamour to hear Rocky’s new song “Pretty Flacko” and chat about the logistics of tomorrow’s video shoot for “Wassup”, the third single off his critically acclaimed free mixtape, Live.Love.ASAP. Conversation flows between dirt bikes, dirty pants, and trying to find out which one of them used to “beat off in the cupboard in the middle of the night” at their old apartment. No one owns up to it, but Bari blames Nast. 

“God sent me to entertain the world and inspire through music,” the man formerly known as Versace Rocky says after polishing off his plate of salmon and ordering another one to take out. “That’s just what I’m here to do, that’s my mission. I’m not doing it to say I need more fans. I was doing it out of fucking basement studios riding round Harlem having fun before all this. If you keep that, that’s what people love. At the end of the day man, I’m so fucking big-headed and full of myself that I’m going to enjoy myself no matter what. If I was listening to my music I’d be like, ‘I wanna be that A$AP, he’s dope as fuck. He’s a pretty motherfucker.’” 

As dinner finishes, Rocky starts lining up a few booty calls for later that evening and some final studio sessions for the A$AP Mob’s first group mixtape, LastCab2Harlem. Ironically, outside on 116th Street, their chauffeur is slouched in the passenger seat of his SUV, redeyed and slaphappy, but looking nothing like the designated driver. Rocky wisely chooses to hang around for a while longer. Sitting in a quiet corner of the restaurant away from his brethren, he swigs back another covert glass of Hennessy. “I feel that my success affects my brothers, my A$AP niggas, because it’s not directly happening to them, but it’s happening to them,” he says as Nast and Twelvy pull faces at him through the restaurant window. “This is more than a frat, this is like a cult. A$AP is my religion. I love those niggas man, I love them. They make me levelheaded, they make me sound. I feed off of their energy. You know, let’s have some fun, let’s be kids again – that’s all I wanna do. I’m in my youth and I don’t wanna grow up. All I got right now is my fucking bills and my work, that’s it. When you get older you get stressed, you get kids, marriages, mortgages and fucking prenups. I don’t want none of that shit. I’m just anxious to have fun and to make people into believers. And I believe now is my time to shine, brother. Come to the light.” 

The following day, Rocky is in video-star mode, inspecting a black Lamborghini that’s parked outside a mansion in leafy upstate New York. “I might have to get me one of these,” he says as he swaggers in front of the camera for the final scene of “Wassup”, a promo inspired by his favourite movies, from Belly and Enter the Dragon to, yes you guessed it, Scarface. So far they’ve shot a giant cocaine pentagram, bathed in a tub full of money, and tied a woman painted as a $100 bill to a diamond leash. Now, dressed in a silk tux jacket, Versace loafers, a Hermès scarf and a pair of Cartier specs, Rocky is doing his best to channel the ghetto-fabulous spirit of dirty-south idol Master P. Clams Casino’s haunting pitched-down beat blasts out from a pair of travel speakers as Rocky gets down to business. “Pretty nigga in some shit you never heard of / Only thing bigger than my ego is my mirror / Uh / Clothes getting weirder / Money get longer, pretty nigga pin your hairup...” After a few takes, the director asks why the hyperactive young rapper isn’t being more animated. Maybe the Rottweiler shackled to his arm is holding him back. “Nah, this is where I’m trying to be smooth. I’m trying to be cool,” he says before bursting out laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. “Well, I’m trying...” 

Follow Tim Noakes on Twitter: @TimNoakes

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