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ASAP Ferg
Photo by Jason Goodrich

Preaching the gospel of A$AP Ferg

How the Harlem rapper grew from the Trap Lord into the Hood Pope

On the cover of A$AP Ferg’s second album Always Strive and Prosper, the Harlem rapper is draped in white linen, falling into a dark body of water. The artwork, realised by designer Renell Medrano, carries captivating themes of baptism and rebirth. Ferg developed his creative senses through visual arts school and has always embraced the grittiness of his New York heritage in his music, style and attitude, but as his success grows, his focus now is to inspire and educate others by sharing these collected experiences. The new Ferg is familiar, but it’s an enlightened version of himself: a beaconing figure inviting his disciples into the most intimate corners of his kingdom.

“It represents a new me,” Ferg says when we sit down just before the kick-off of his album listening party in NYC’s SoHo adidas store. “I was Trap Lord, and I graduated to the Hood Pope because I travelled the world. I’m older, I’m wiser. Now I can come back to preach to my people.”

Part of Ferg’s storytelling capitalises on the importance of varied perspective. Included on the tracklist of Always Strive and Prosper are names from all walks of life, joined together under Ferg’s leadership. Think: Future and ScHoolboy Q, Chuck D and Missy Elliott, Lil Uzi Vert and Marty Baller, Ferg’s grandmother and the mother of the late A$AP Yams. As Ferg explains, all of these people have touched his artistic outlook in some shape or form. “I feel like, in a way, all of these voices, these people, these fabrics, make the cloth that I’m made of.”

And while he was simply paying homage to their influences by recruiting them for his project, Ferg is simultaneously marking a landmark in modern hip hop culture. He put OGs in the same rooms as the up-and-comers, he brought together his long-time colleagues to celebrate a shared passion for music, he put his dearest family members on songs with his heroes. While he’s not the first to tell his personal story through a varied perspective, in a genre that’s becoming increasingly cut-and-paste and welcoming of imitators, we need these moments of unexpected togetherness in rap. Without them, the culture not only becomes regurgitated and static, but we also lose sight of hip hop’s familial values.

And as the Hood Pope preaches his self-written gospels, taking us on the journey of his rebirth through the sonic and visual components of Always Strive and Prosper, he’s also planting his staff in an important cultural moment, proving the power of perspective in front of all of his successors.

Why did you decide to name this album after the original meaning of A$AP?

A$AP Ferg: I just felt like it was the right time for it. It was actually sparked by my grandfather, who said, ‘Grandson, come here. What does A$AP mean? As soon as possible?’ and I was like, ‘Damn! He doesn’t know what it means!’ So I told him, ‘It’s always strive and prosper.’ I had to name my album after that, since I realized that a lot of people don’t know what A$AP means.

I know your family played a big part in this record.

A$AP Ferg: Yeah, my grandmother’s on a song with Chuck D. That’s crazy.

Were you at all afraid to open up that personal part of your life to the world?

A$AP Ferg: No, it was done intentionally because I wanted my fans to know more of who I am. I would see them saying things like ‘Ferg is getting artsy now.’ What do you mean I’m getting artsy now? I’m a designer. I’ve been doing art way before music. I went to art school. I had to give them the story of my life, and that’s exactly what I did with this album.

“As long as I’m in New York and I’m bringing it, I’m bringing it to New York” — A$AP Ferg

Was there a definitive vision that you had in mind when you approached that storytelling?

A$AP Ferg: I just wanted to teach people. I’ve been doing a lot of research on Harlem Renaissance. My whole thing was to bring the pride back to New York. I was working on New York anthems and ways to bring energy back to New York because I think we lost a lot of that. Even having this conversation with you, I’m realizing that I am the energy. As long as I’m in New York and I’m bringing it, I’m bringing it to New York. I still live in Harlem, so it’s like I’m bringing that equity back to my town.  That was my mission at first, and then I started going in more of an open book direction, where I wanted the fans to know more about me.

Are you still in touch with the new rap scene in New York?

A$AP Ferg: Definitely, hell yeah! I got Marty Baller and Crystal Caines on my album. They’re on the come-up. I have Uzi Vert on there, Flatbush Zombies, Kirk Knight in the ‘Let It Bang’ video. I’m still showing love to the people who come after me and before me.

This album is pretty collaboration-heavy. Why did you choose to bring all those perspectives together?

A$AP Ferg: I feel like in a way, all of these voices, these people, these fabrics, makes the cloth that I’m made of. Missy Elliott, Chuck D, my grandma. They basically raised me. Missy let me know it’s okay to be different, innovative, and artistic. Chuck D let me know it’s alright to stand for something and have a voice. Those are two people that inspired me the most. Chris Brown is my colleague. Schoolboy Q is my brother. Family. All of these people brought something to my life, and I really wanted to have them involved in the album.

What was the inspiration behind the album art?

A$AP Ferg: The album cover and packaging is supposed to represent a new me: The Hood Pope. I was Trap Lord, and I graduated to the Hood Pope because I travelled the world. I’m older, I’m wiser. Now I can come back to preach to my people. I’m more conscious now. The first track on my album is called ‘Rebirth’, which is basically Trap Lord getting enlightened and turning into the Hood Pope. That’s basically what the artwork was inspired by – a baptism. A rebirth of me.

“Missy let me know it’s okay to be different, innovative, and artistic. Chuck D let me know it’s alright to stand for something and have a voice” — A$AP Ferg

It seems like you’re pretty aware of how you represent yourself visually. Why is that important to you?

A$AP Ferg: The visual identity represents you as a person. You can do so much visually. When Josephine Baker took her clothes off and you could see her bare breasts, visually that sticks out in our head. That was feminism. She represented a strong female who was proud of herself and proud of her body. We haven’t seen much like that. You could do a lot visually, so why not stand for something?

Do you think newer rappers are forgetting that?

A$AP Ferg: I think that it’s potent right now. I think it’s going back to how it was in the late 80s or early 90s, back when Basquiat or Andy Warhol or Keith Haring were hanging out and they were just free, living the bohemian lifestyle. Rich people hanging out with poor people. Doing the same drugs and eating the same food. I think it’s going back to that now. Everyone’s just sharing again. I love the fact that Kylie (Jenner) and all these people listen to my music, because I’m coming from somewhere totally different. They were born into money, and I wasn’t. But what music represents is unity, and I think that’s getting stronger. Forget the aesthetic: it’s how it makes us feel, how it brings us together.