(as told to Slant News via Chris Thomas (6/24/15))
New York City has a pied piper’s effect on people living in cities and towns near and far, drawing in transplants who seek greener pastures, fatter wallets, a proper space to self-actualize, or a combination of the three.
This has been the case as far back as my memory stretches, but then again this comes from the vantage point of a Brooklyn-based writer, born and bred in Philadelphia.
I never experienced NYC during the 1990s and early aughts (Hip-Hop’s most popular period), so when I spoke with rapper A$AP Rocky – a Harlem native – he provided clarity for me on how this mass invasion of outsiders has changed “Uptown” as both he and native New Yorkers know it.
Of course, the ever-present G-word — gentrification — has spread beyond Uptown to other neighborhoods and boroughs throughout NYC over the last 15-20 years. The spirit of 1990s Harlem — a combination of early Hip Hop culture and urban, opulent drug dealer chic — created a sense of fun, “jigginess,” and flamboyant flair, all essential ingredients in the gumbo that is Rocky’s star persona. But in 2015, that has dissipated.
There’s a Whole Foods coming to 125th Street, for Christ’s sake.
With Harlem being near and dear to Rocky’s heart, one can understand why the A$AP Mob rapper was especially candid when discussing where he feels things went wrong and what’s to become of the neighborhood.
Rocky speaks with conviction, whether discussing Harlem or his second studio album, At.Long.Last.A$AP (newly released at the time of this interview). Especially since the latter — masterminded by himself, producer and multi instrumentalist Joe Fox, an executive producer core of the late A$AP Yams, Danger Mouse, and Juicy J — is the album he’s always wanted to create.
Confident by nature and admittedly arrogant to boot (Rocky was comfortable enough to ask my genuine thoughts on his latest opus), our conversation quickly deviated into whether or not he considers himself a superstar, if he ever gets tired of being asked about fashion, and how the spirit of Harlem has changed over the years.
Chris Thomas: To say that A$AP Rocky is fashion savvy is like saying that Nas is a talented lyricist. That said, do you ever get tired of being asked about fashion?
A$AP Rocky: I get tired of the same typical questions, but I don’t think I ever get tired of the subject of fashion. I can talk about that sh*t for no reason. I always like that sh*t, I’m gonna come clean.
Fabolous was my favorite rapper, because he was the flyest ni**a. I’m gonna come clean, when he didn’t let me get a picture and an autograph when I was 13, I was about to cry. I went home and ripped my [Fabolous] posters up, and that’s when Killa Cam became my ni**a because he was the flyest.
CT: Creating an album is a mentally, spiritually, and creatively draining process that sometimes doesn’t come out as planned. Is there anything about A.L.L.A. that you wish turned out differently?
A$AP Rocky: The only thing that kind of got me upset a little bit are the songs that I’m on singing. The songs that I’m featured on singing with Joe Fox, they think it’s him singing when it’s me. For instance, like “Holy Ghost,” that’s me with the choir voice going *sings* “Holy ghost, I’m on my knees.” Then “Fine Whine,” with Future and M.I.A., it’s Joe singing, “This love won’t last forever.” But [listeners] think it’s him singing *sings* “Slow, slow. Let me see you whine, slow, slow, aww yeah” when that’s me by myself. “LSD” is me by myself. Well, Jim Jonsin did some background vocals, I’m not going to lie.
I just feel like people overlook all of that. I don’t think people understand that A.L.L.A. was a complete album first, and then I said “You come and do this. You come and do that. And you come and do that.” It’s not like it developed with these guys. I was in a weird space, so I knew intentionally exactly what I needed [each person to do]. I feel like I might be discredited for a lot of [that work], because people don’t know the process. But if I don’t put in that work, no one else will.
CT: London was your headquarters while creating At.Long.Last.A$AP. Will recording on-location be a prerequisite when making an album from now on?
A$AP Rocky: I have to. I have to exclude myself. If I don’t, I’ll get distracted. I have to turn my phones off. That’s why when you see the beepers and sh*t… Why do you think now y’all don’t see me with my beeper anymore? I wasn’t trying to be trendy.
That’s what I get mistaken for; anything I do is trendy, so they’re like “Oh yea, he’s bringing beepers back.” F*ck that, I’m off that. But I get distracted, bro. I’m looking at my DMs. I’m looking at Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr, checking text messages. I need to be right there. Nothing else matters. Cut phones off. Beepers are for whoever needs to reach me if it’s an emergency or important. And if it’s really important, you’ll reach me on both.
CT: What do you think separates you from artists who are commonly associated with you?
A$AP Rocky: The problem is ni**as want that title. They’re not happy until they’re “The Man.” It’s all about being the man. I figured out how to be happy, bro. They ain’t got nothing on me.
I figured out that this [rap] sh*t is struggle, but I’m gonna make the best of this sh*t. I’m gonna keep f*cking b*tches, I’mma find out how to get studio time money. We’re gonna hop this train. We’re gonna finesse the engineer, and tell him “we got him next week.” Me and Yams, we used to do what we do, my ni**a. But at the end of the day, still and all, I’m still the same ni**a, because I been f*cking b*tches, I been thought I was that ni**a. I been thought that, even when I wasn’t. But who told me I wasn’t? You can’t tell me I wasn’t. You can’t tell me I’m not now.
CT: And justifiably so.
A$AP Rocky: These ni**as, that’s the mentality that they go reaching for. That’s just me. You feel me? And that should go for everybody. I don’t want to be “The Man,” I want to be “That Ni**a” in my own way. We’re all “That Ni**a.”
CT: You shared thoughts on how Harlem has changed while speaking with Red Bull Music Academy. Do you think the neighborhood will ever get back to what it was?
A$AP Rocky: Musically or as far as the neighborhood?
CT: Everything, from the music to the culture.
A$AP Rocky: Nah. Nope, because of gentrification. The reason why people lived in Harlem was because they didn’t have any place to go as African Americans in New York City. Blacks were either in Harlem or The Bronx. The Italians, Irish and all of them were in Brooklyn or The Bronx, but Harlem was Black city.
The issue is that throughout generations, we’ve been living in Harlem, but we’ve been living in poverty, so we’ve been there. We needed to find ways to entertain ourselves with [less], so we would have cookouts, 4th of July. We needed ways to figure out how to ball, so we’d get dirt bikes. We had the Harlem Renaissance, blues players, all that.
It’s a very legendary place, and that’s because of the struggle that was there and the people. It’s not the city, it’s the people, and together it creates this synergy. When you break that apart, you have one power, one variable without the other. It just doesn’t connect. It’s like Yin and Yang. So I don’t think it can ever be that way again.
That’s just like saying “do you think Hip Hop can be how it was in the 90s?” No, because those were real ni**as rapping. Well, most of them. Now, rappers are giving you “knick-knack patty whack” rhymes and it’s selling, so people think that that’s ok.
CT: Last question. Coming from Harlem, do you ever get jaded by your celebrity status?
A$AP Rocky: You want to know some sh*t? I know I’m famous. That’s the obvious. I feel famous, but I don’t feel like a celebrity, if that makes any sense to you. I don’t know if you can differentiate the two.
CT: Correct me if I’m wrong, to feel famous is to know your status, but to feel like a celebrity is to feel like you’re different from everyone else.
A$AP Rocky: Basically. I know I’m different, but not in a celebrity way. I know sh*t ain’t the same. I just know that the same way how sh*t is hyped today, it can all die down tomorrow and I’m gonna still have to be me. I’m not about to start acting different towards people because I have a few blessings. Without those blessings, I still have to be me deep down inside.
I think the best thing to do is to stay humble and be you regardless, because people are going to judge you no matter if you do right or wrong. So when you do wrong, stand strong by it [laughs].