Photos by @SHASIN_BU
It's a Saturday night in LA, and A$AP Ferg is holding court inside a back room at HVW8 Gallery, where he just powered through a battery of interviews to promote his signature new Adidas skate shoe. On the patio outside, the global brand is plying an invite-only crowd of camera-toting, selfie-taking “influencers” with free sneakers and an open bar. Inside, stage lights burst with glaring light as Ferg sits at a director’s fold-up chair in front of a backdrop plastered with Adidas logos, sporting a zip-up camo sweater and a colorful bandana around his head. I have eight minutes to ask questions.
At first Ferg doesn't bother to look up from his phone. But towards the end, I asked about “Tatted Angel,” a plaintive new song he posted on SoundCloud last week to whet fans’ appetites for his forthcoming second album, Always Strive and Prosper. And that’s when the humanity of Ferg really shows through.
“I was basically venting to Yams one night. I went through a really bad breakup with my ex, just going through a lot of stuff in my life. Experiencing milestones, like this Adidas shoe that I’m doing right now, but at the same time still trying to break out of the box in this marginalized space that I’m in,” he says. “Because I feel like a lot of artists, they don’t get the chance to break through. I experienced that. I feel like with this album, I finally broke through and peoples’ gon’ really receive the music and have the right perception about the music. That’s basically what the song is about. Just talking about all of the things I’ve been going through over the past year.”
There’s something wonderfully genuine about Ferg. For all his lines about luxury and style, he balances the glam with a dose of enthusiasm and introspection. That mix was very much on display at Ferg’s event that night—a promotional junket doubling as an art exhibition paying tribute to the rapper’s fallen best friend, A$AP Yams.
The corporate hype is in full effect as people mass at a table to collect their free Ferg shoes and post pictures to social media. The DJs served up a soundtrack of vintage and contemporary hip-hop, and of course it's inevitable (part of the contract, perhaps?) that they end up playing Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas.”
But inside the gallery there's a much more intimate exhibit of black-and-white photos by Ferg’s friend Brock Fetch. They were shot over several years, showing Yams and other members of the A$AP Mob hanging out and striking poses. Yams—who died of an accidental drug overdose last January—was a legendary figure, a brilliant manager and strategist who helped ferry A$AP Mob to fame and reportedly once used his college student loan to buy gold teeth. In one of the photos, he’s sitting with his friends on a sectional sofa, everyone working at their laptops. In another he’s gazing thoughtfully out a bus window.
On display in another room is a painting Ferg made after Yams’ death. Posted up for silent auction, the work—called "Tatted Angel"—isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it shows the world that Ferg and his Harlem cohorts had come from: an angular backdrop of New York City streets and buildings, a breakdown of inspirational A$AP-oriented phrases, and of course an illustration of Yams himself, hugging a globe and shooting beams of light out of his eyes.
“Everybody knew Yams for being a fun, happy person, but they never really knew until he passed away that he was a visionary. I really wanted to paint a painting showing how much vision he had,” says the 27-year-old Ferg, born Darold Ferguson, Jr., whose interest in fine art dates back to his education at an art and design high school in New York.
Ferg and Fetch's photo exhibition debuted earlier this month at Art Basel in Miami Beach. It was also the first-day launch of Ferg's shoe, and he says the whole A$AP Mob came out to Florida to show their love and support. The sneaker has apparently been a success so far: Ferg says it sold out on the Adidas website on the first day. He designed it himself, taking one the company's popular skate shoe models and adding stripes on the side, lyrics on the laces in his own handwriting, and a Trap Lord monogram inspired by classic Harlem designer Dapper Dan. Details of his painting of Yams are also inside the soles.
Now Ferg is out hitting different markets to raise publicity about the shoe. But he's also taken this opportunity to show his love for Yams, and show his fine art side. Back in high school he'd majored in fashion and minored in fine arts, and he cites modernist and neo-expressionist painters Francis Bacon, Salvador Dali, Picasso and Basquiat as inspiration.
"I could go on and on. It’s a lot of great artists out there," he says.
As the night goes on, the excitement swells. More people show up, and Ferg performs a few songs. Later, A$AP Rocky shows up and the two of them tour the gallery room, looking at all the photos of Yams while onlookers gush and cameras click away. Many of the influencers in attendance clearly didn’t pick up on the deeper significance of this sneaker showcase and photo exhibition. When Ferg gives a shout out to Yams on the mic during his brief performance, asking everybody to put their hands up in his memory, nearly everyone save for a handful of fans ignored him. It just didn't seem to be an A$AP Mob fan crowd. Indeed, a marketing event might seem like an odd time to celebrate a fallen friend. But for Ferg, it seems this isn’t just about selling more shoes or getting more hype on Twitter and Instagram. It's a marker of how far he’s come.
“Nobody from my block has ever had a shoe, or imagined that I would have a shoe,” he announces to the crowd before wading in to sign sneaker boxes and take selfies with fans.
Still, on his new song “Tatted Angel,” he says he’d give it all up to get his lost friend back. Over a slow beat with a bass-line that weighs heavy on the chest, he raps about having “survivor’s guilt” because of his success, and closes out with a sung hook where he wishes he was never famous: “Maybe Yams would be here still / With me / I swear this shit is killing me.”
“I’m not a sad person. But I am human, and I go through things like everybody else,” Ferg tells me during our interview. “For all of the blogs out there, they think we’re machines. They think that we don’t get hurt as artists. But we notice everything, all of them comments. I don’t care if you’re a 12-year-old kid that’s not showing your face. If you’re talking shit on a comment, that shit affects you, you know what I’m saying?
“So I just want people to know I’m human, yo,” he adds. “I go through shit just like ya’ll.”
Peter Holslin is a journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.