As he celebrates his 32nd birthday, A$AP Rocky shares his thoughts on the creative process, meeting aliens, and making history
Words: Joseph Bullmore
Photography: Tomo Brejc
The first thing you see is the entourage. Eight or ten giant men, each with a minuscule towel in their hand to dab away the humidity of the Manhattan afternoon, bowling out of a succession of blacked-out Cadillac Escalades and peering purposefully up and down the street. Presently, a small group knocks politely on the open door frame of the Box nightclub, which we’ve commandeered for our shoot, and asks to be shown around. “We’re Rocky’s security detail,” one of them says, before bowing gallantly in introduction to a female food stylist. (When you’re this impressive, you don’t need to be anything but sweetness and light.)
One of the team tells us that Rocky was involved in a ruckus just six days before, when a man on a New York street broke through the phalanx of security guards and sliced the rapper’s cheek with a razor blade. This accounts, apparently, for today’s extra attention. “Rocky’s en route” one of the men says shortly: “20 minutes out.” If there was a buzz of anticipation among the sweltering booths before, it’s raised to a deafening hum now. But then Rocky walks through the door, and the first thing he says kills any tension in the flash of cherubic smile. “I haven’t slept man, but I gotta tell you — I’m really happy to be here.” By the end of the day, I believe him on both counts. With A$AP Rocky, even the small talk is worth recording.
First, the sleep. Like all those entrepreneurs and artists you read about who don’t have ordinary jobs or ordinary constitutions, Rocky doesn’t seem to need the eight hours deemed sensible by our circadian rhythms and the nine-to-five grind. The night before our interview the rapper and entrepreneur had appeared on The Jimmy Kimmel Show in Los Angeles, and had hopped on a redeye flight directly afterwards in order to make it back to New York in time for this shoot.
He hasn’t slept, but you wouldn’t know it. From the first, Rocky floats around on a cloud of charisma and natural energy (and other things, perhaps, but we might come to that later) and squeezes every pixel on the camera sensor for everything it’s worth. When I ask him how he’s feeling six hours later, as the shoot winds down, he says: “It’s been a long night, long day, long few years, man. But that’s the way I like it.”
You believe that within minutes of his arrival, as we roll into the first shot of the day. Rocky is kicking his way through a banquet of vintage champagne and lobster and pizza in a pair of Gucci sandals, pouncing to his own music on the red banquettes of the Box, and turning up the colour saturation in the room with a barrage of “Yo, that shit’s crazy!” as he spots the photos popping up on the camera monitor. If you could bottle it, you’d be a rich man, if the government didn’t ban it first — energy this infectious can’t come without side effects, surely.
Secondly, there’s the sheer enjoyment. Many people claim that they love what they do. But the difference with Rocky is that he only does what he loves. There’s no time for anything else. Not when, through his mysterious umbrella conglomerate AWGE or the musical collective A$AP Mob, he’s linked to more than 30 companies spanning five continents and industries from fashion to music to interior design to tech to journalism to film. “All my business endeavours, and all my musical endeavours, all my artistic endeavours — it all comes natural,” he tells me later on. “I’m a renaissance man. I just do my thing. It’s some gnarly radical shit, but we get this shit going.”
On turning thirty…
But there is another reason, I suspect, that Rocky wants to stick only to the essentials. Now entering his 32nd year, it’s clear age has been weighing on his mind for a while. “I’m an old man dude,” he says at one point. “When you’re 29 going on 30, you’re already 30. And once you’re 30…”
In many ways, Rocky didn’t think he’d even make it this far. “My whole time being 27, everyone was like, ‘you’re gonna be part of the 27 club’,” he said in an interview with Forbes in 2016. “I thought I was gonna die. That’s some real conceited shit to say, but I really thought I was special enough to end. I was kind of upset when I turned 28, like, ‘I’m supposed to be up there in heaven right now.’” In that light, the title of his debut studio album, released at 24 years of age in 2013, seems as much a hope as a declaration — Long. Live. A$AP.
“Sometimes I contemplate whether I should act differently when I get there,” he tells me, in a mirror-bulbed dressing room deep below the Box stage. “But then I think I’m just going to do me whatever. I’m not sure there’s much of a difference — 20 to 30, 30 to 40 — when you live a crazy lifestyle. You get accustomed to it, and it’s just the norm,” he says. “Obviously I wasn’t born privileged or with success in easy reach. So I had to develop into the man that I’ve become and the man that I’m becoming.”
“I REALLY THOUGHT I WAS SPECIAL ENOUGH TO END. I WAS KIND OF UPSET WHEN I TURNED 28…”
On social media…
Rocky’s early musical output was not particularly revolutionary, as even he admits. Of his debut in the rap world in 2011, he told the Guardian: “Coming in I was so braggadocious: gold, bitches, all that other shit.” But what set the rapper apart was his natural gift for marketing. It started, in many ways, on his birth certificate. Born Rakim Mayers on October 3rd, 1988, Rocky was named after Rakim, the paternal grandfather of hip hop and one of the earliest rappers to achieve mainstream success. (Rocky’s sister, Erika B. Mayers, is named after Rakim’s] collaborator, the DJ Eric B.)
The myth-making continued into Rocky’s teenage years. In the late noughties, a musical group called A$AP Mob, founded by the visionary A$AP Yams, began to use typical guerilla startup tactics to further their reach and broaden their influence. Yams, the main orchestrator of the Mob’s early success, was described as part “Malcolm Mclaren, part Irv Gotti, part Puerto Rican R Kelly” by music impresario Jeff Weiss. His power, exerted in a “nebulous fashion” according to a New York Times business profile, turned his disparate group of musical collaborators into a fully branded business. Individual rappers, once lost in a sea of Harlem pretenders, became united by the A$AP moniker which they stuck before their name or had tattooed on their forearms.
Every utterance of the word, which stood for a Googleesque Always Striving And Prospering, strengthened the brand. (Rocky remembers how, as a teenager, the crew would cry “A$AP” as they balled into bar fights in downtown Manhattan.) Like a startup accelerator that pulls divergent talent together, the whole became more than the sum of its parts. The group was also canny with its use of social media. Leveraging their cult following on Tumblr, Yams and Rocky propelled the rapper’s first breakout single, Purple Swag, into the offices of record executives at RCA. (Yams would often use “sneaky” tactics, Rocky says, like dropping his name into blog posts in the same breath as more established artists — other publications would then see the post and ask “Who is this kid A$AP Rocky?”) Just a few months later, in the summer of 2011, Rocky signed a $3 million deal with RCA.
On this point, Rocky takes a broader view. “Social media is different strokes for different folks,” he says. “It’s been like this for quite some time now. Everything repeats and comes full circle, it’s just different ways of getting it out there. What’s important is what you want to say,” he tells me. “And regardless of whether you think it comes out wack or lit, I don’t mind — I just want people to know that that is truly how I feel at that moment.”
When A$AP Yams died of a drug overdose in 2015 at the age of 26, Rocky took time out to assess A$AP Mob’s position. He decided that the group should continue to record in Yams’ memory and under his masterplan. “He left us notes on how he wanted it to be,” says Rocky, tracing the blueprint of a more expansive creative group that would take in different entrepreneurial talents and amplify the power of the A$AP brand. In a nod to the heady intents of the new set, the collective was to be named AWGE, widely thought to recall a business ‘organisation’. Not that Rocky would ever reveal such inner workings, of course.
“You know we can’t talk about that,” Rocky laughs, leaning backwards in the dressing room chair and shaking his head. “I can’t tell you about AWGE.” His silence plays up the mysterious omertà surrounding the collective, which has little visible presence beyond a 90s-inflected website. On it, a sparse ‘About’ page reads: “Rules — #1: Never reveal what AWGE means. #2: When in doubt always refer to rule #1.” The byline simply reads: “A creative agency founded by A$AP Rocky.” “Look, all I can say is that AWGE is lit, I can’t lie man. To a degree it’s a bit like the Factory,” Rocky says, referring to the creative collective of the 1960s and 1970s, fronted by Andy Warhol, that included Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Bowie, and Keith Haring among many others. “But it’s also like your typical garage band start up.”
AWGE is a conveyor belt of lucrative ideas. Under its banner Rocky and co have produced multi-million dollar collaborations with fashion houses GUESS and J.W Anderson, directed short films in partnership with Red Bull, created global art installations, launched a store-within-a-store in Selfridges, and produced music videos with YouTube hits numbering into the billions. In an age where we’re reminded, slightly sickeningly, that ‘Content is King’, AWGE is the castle.
“What I love about AWGE is that there are different genres of talent within it,” Rocky says. “I mean, sometimes I sit back, and maybe you can blame it on the weed and shit, but I think this generation will be the one that could discover extraterrestrial life. And, I’m gonna tell you, I’m not quite sure they read gentleman’s magazines,” he says, folding forward in a fit of giggles. “That’s the kind of level AWGE has got to be on.”
I ask him what he’d say if he did encounter aliens. “I would ask so many questions,” he says. “But if aliens want a definitive statement of human life, I’d just say take a look at me — I’m quite the motherfucker, I must say.”
“IF ALIENS WANT A DEFINITIVE STATEMENT OF HUMAN LIFE, I’D JUST SAY TAKE A LOOK AT ME”
On the creative process…
This is A$AP Rocky exactly as you’d hope to find him. Rapturous, free wheeling, honest; grinning slyly so you never know quite when he’s playing with you or not. It’s the same pose he strikes on TESTING, the cosmic, hallucinogenic, deeply unconventional album, released in 2018 and due to be followed up by All Smiles later this year, that marked the transition from twenty-something rapper to 30-year-old artist. In that creative process, Rocky tells me he microdosed on LSD under the laboratory conditions of a neuroscientist, specifically to produce the song Praise the Lord with British artist Skepta. “This scientist wanted to see the conditions of our brains when we were writing these song on LSD,” he tells me. “It was a wild new way to do things” — testing in every sense of the word.
How does the drug influence his songwriting? “You can’t cap your creative process with LSD,” he says. “Which is good and it’s not. With LSD, sometimes you’re creating and it sounds like everything is going good. And then when you sober up you realise it’s terrible. I’ve made a lot of bad songs on those creative trips, that will never, ever see the light of day,” he laughs. “But no doubt it just opens up your brain in a way that you never could without it.” (“Weed might be better, in general,” he says, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, as we record our interview, I spot a back issue of Gentleman’s Journal sitting on the side table, its cover bent in half down the middle, a line of luminous green crumbs lying in the fold. At other points, the underbelly of the Box is thick with white smoke.)
I tell Rocky that the practice of microdosing — taking miniscule amounts of LSD to open the creative faculties — is a not uncommon practice in Silicon Valley and Wall Street now. “That’s fucking amazing, that’s beautiful,” he says. “We were doing that shit first!”
“People need to be dynamic nowadays, and weird and different is in,” he says. “Kids understand that. That’s the new world, the new economy. Don’t be derivative.”
Before we go, I ask him if he has any advice for those young entrepreneurs. “I don’t know what to tell anybody out there because it’ll sound like some corny motivational shit. But all I can do is be me the most, and hope they do the same. I got a goofy side, I got a cool side, I got a handsome side, I got a nerdy side, I got a ghetto side, I got an elegant side, I got an eloquent side, I speak in ebonics…” he pauses.
“I GOT A GOOFY SIDE, I GOT A COOL SIDE, I GOT A HANDSOME SIDE, I GOT A NERDY SIDE, I GOT A GHETTO SIDE, I GOT AN ELEGANT SIDE, I GOT AN ELOQUENT SIDE”
“There’s so many factors that make me as a whole, but I’m not afraid to express all the parts that make me who I am. So, in other words, be your fucking self, and the rest is pretty easy.”