Photo by Brook Bobbins
A$AP Ferg is tucked in the back of the Crosby Bar at New York’s Crosby Hotel, and he’s feeling under the weather. He’s wearing an inside out sweatshirt with “PSYCHO” emblazoned on the front, made by his uncle (the “Psycho” on his latest album), along with Adidas track pants and a pair of his Trap Lord x Adi Ease kicks from his Adidas collection. A packed press schedule is stopping him from getting better, but he’s in good spirits eating poached salmon with quinoa and sweet potatoes, while sipping on a glass of Riesling. I casually recite Kanye West’s “beasting off the Riesling” line and Ferg perks up a bit. “Kanye’s so funny because I’m just hearing from madd different sources, like he must’ve been jamming the songs I put out ‘cause he went on Twitter and said he loves my album,” he says with a warm smile. “I heard from somebody that’s working with him in Germany that Kanye said I’m his favorite artist.” Despite being arguably at the top of his game, things like that still mean something to A$AP Ferg.
Born Darold Ferguson Jr., Ferg was raised on 143rd Street between Amsterdam and Broadway in Harlem’s Hamilton Heights (“Hungry Ham,” if you ask him). His father designed both the Bad Boy Records logo and Andre Harrell’s logo among others, which infused fashion into Ferg at a young age. His start-up clothing line Devoni Clothing had artists like Chris Brown and Swizz Beatz rocking his belts long before Ferg even touched a microphone. His ascension as part of A$AP Mob was swift—some may argue that it derived from a tight grip on Rocky’s coattails, though now Ferg has carved his own niche in the game.
A$AP Ferg is like a levelheaded Kanye West. He has huge dreams, and gets animated as he discusses his AGOLDE denim capsule collection with Citizens For All Humanity, designed after the jeans from his “Work” video. He wants to do more fashion and film, but hopes to reach a place where he can readily receive the capital to do it all (sound familiar?). He says the glitz and glamour of fame don’t faze him—and while he rocks his name on a diamond-encrusted ring that spans the length of four knuckles, he views it as a piece of art over a proof of purchase.
But there’s a self-awareness to A$AP Ferg that behooves him. His latest project Always Strive And Prosper is geared to be one of the best albums of 2016. The album boasts an A-list roster of collaborators including Chris Brown, Rick Ross, ScHoolboy Q, Chuck D, Missy Elliott, and French Montana. “I was almost done with this album and realized I had no features,” Ferg jokes, explaining most of the artists were either friends he came up with (a la ScHoolboy Q) or mentors (a la Rick Ross). His family is all over this album too. From the aforementioned Uncle Psycho to his mom and his grandmother. It’s a family affair, punctuated with in-depth glimpses into Ferg’s psyche. He’s a “trap lord,” sure, but above all he’s an artist who remains cautiously optimistic that people will keep fucking with his art. In order to really deliver his best effort, though, he had to toss some of that caution into the wind.
“I became a better artist when I stopped giving a fuck,” he says.
Noisey: Does Kanye West’s level of fame excite you or does it scare you?
A$AP Ferg: I don’t think about it. I used to think about it like, damn, Michael Jackson couldn’t go outside because he was loved by so many people and probably would get hounded if he went outside. I used to think about that, like I have to go outside, I have to be around people to get energy and to be inspired. I’m not one of those artists who sits in the house—you might see me in these Soho streets, these Harlem streets. You know, I’m in New Orleans, I’m walking in Baton Rouge; I’m out here. When I used to see DMX walk around in the hood with his dogs and he was just in Exit Wounds, I was just watching him on TV. I’m like that. I could be a huge artist, but I gotta be able to walk the streets. I used to think about it like damn would I not be able to walk the streets? You can kind of curate your life how you want it to be. I tell people not to trip when I’ll be around them. They’ll be like “FERG!” Trippin’ out. I’m like don’t trip, we can hang out. Whatever, it’s cool. Let’s walk and talk. Because you know, it makes my nerves go crazy. I’m a human being, let’s treat each other like humans. Let’s treat each other with respect. I’m not an alien; don’t treat me like I’m alienated.
Your career has really taken off rather quickly these last few years.
Yeah, me and my manager were talking about that. I’ll be stressing about certain looks I want to get, and I want to be who I am in my head already. I just want to make sure the perception is right, and I am projecting the right artist who I want to be. Sometimes it doesn’t happen quick enough for me. Really though, this is like my first album. You’ve gotta think about the level of production of the quality of artists I have on this album from the Missy’s to the Schoolboy Q’s to working with DJ Khalil and whoever knows music knows that he’s like a guru. I have a quality and well-put together album I feel. It’ll only get better, but I feel like I put my best into this album and it will honestly only get better. I feel like I’m on this next level with this new album. I feel like it’s still the same me, but creatively, yeah I feel like I’m on the next level.
Who are you in your head?
I feel like artists take time, sometimes eons, to really project who they are. That’s what makes a really great artist. Like Mark Rothko, he was huge because he was able to evoke emotion from abstract and minimal art. Rothko painted colors to evoke emotions. The Four Seasons, actually they wanted him to paint something for his restaurant. At the time, the dollar amount would’ve paid like four million dollars or something like that. He turned it down because he felt like they wanted it for the wrong reasons and doing interior decorations with his art, but really he wanted to change people’s lives with his art. He killed himself; he committed suicide. I guess he wasn’t satisfied with the world. His paintings are worth millions of dollars now. That’s kind of who I am. I want to evoke emotion. I could care less about the shiny stuff or the fluff. I want to make people tick. I forgot what the question was…
How do you see yourself in your head?
Oh right. I think what makes a great artist is the one who projects themselves exactly how they are in their heads. I don’t feel like I’ve mastered that yet. I think I’m still creating; I’m still developing. I think Drake mastered it. He could make you feel like he’s in a room talking to you. I feel like Kanye talks to the world like it’s just you and him. He mastered projecting himself; he’s unapologetic. I think DJ Khaled is projecting himself. DJ Khaled spent years and years and years to get to this point, I think people are finally getting it. Maybe it’s the time, but I think he’s mastered his thing, you know? I think I’m still experimenting and creating. Which is the funnest part about it. I’m still finding myself in this world. My voice. I think I’m definitely a motivational speaker at this point. I love to motivate people and inspire people. It’s one thing to be that person, but it’s another to put it into your music. That’s where I’m at now. I think with Trap Lord, the album, I gave the aesthetic: what felt nice, what looks nice, but it wasn’t really about the words. This album Always Strive and Prosper is about the words. It’s very important that I get people to understand the words that I’m saying.
You’re really open on this project.
Yeah, I’m very open on this album. It’s very important that they understand what I’m saying and what type of message I’m trying to put out to the people because there is a message in it. Just the title alone, Always Strive and Prosper, that’s the message throughout the whole album. Like the track with Missy, when people first hear it, it’s like a real dancey kind of different house record. But really, that’s just the artist I am. I was afraid for a long time when I was creating Trap Lord. With Trap Lord, I was confined. Trap Lord is like, “Damn I’m afraid to go over there because they might not understand it.” This album is like…I’m outside the box. I’m over there and I don’t care if you don’t understand it. This is the music I want to make. This is the true artist that I am. I’m bigger than just a trap song. I’m bigger than just a rap song. I’m an artist.
It also feels though like you’re making a concerted effort on this project to show how much you care about your family.
Definitely. I think it all starts with family. They planted the seed. I’m the seed; they’re the roots. So you have to be connected to your roots to grow taller and taller and taller and be the biggest strongest tree you can possibly become. I’m trying to create a tree, an empire that can provide for my family.
With Trap Lord you sounded so confident, like “yeah I’m the shit.” Here though, you sound more vulnerable and concerned about keeping your success.
I think right down to the name Trap Lord, it came from me trying to figure out who I was and my place in this music thing. I think Trap Lord was a character; it was a part of me that made it comfortable to go out there in front of millions of people and rap. It’s like the whole name change thing. If I’m just Ferg or Darold, I come out there like damn I don’t want them to see me. Trap Lord is like I got the glasses and the armor suit on like ready for war and ready to go crazy. That’s the persona that I created with Trap Lord. That’s why it’s got a more aggressive me. It gave me the strength to go out there and perform and deal with media and all of these things. It was an attitude. It was a part of me. Always Strive and Prosper is Darold Ferguson before the Trap Lord in me. You get a little bit of Trap Lord on the album—you get the "Hood Pope" on the album, which is like Trap Lord but more conscious. "Hood Pope" traveled the world and came back to preach to his people. But [with Always Strive and Prosper] you get Ferg, you get Darold before the music, having jobs and getting fired. I wanted to make myself human again, so people could understand where Trap Lord came from. Now it’s like we’re going back into history to understand the artist that you love. There’s a reason why you love these anthems: “Work,” “Shabba,” “New Level.” Now we go deeper into the story: Where does he come from? What type of cloth is he cut from? How can he make an anthem that still gets played around the world to this day that still breaks language barriers? Where does this kind of person come from? That’s what I get into with the album.
Can you pinpoint the moment though where you moved from Harlem to Hollywood? It felt like you randomly just started being friends with supermodels like Cara Delevingne.
That happened almost immediately. Harlem to Hollywood...you’ve gotta understand when I was just designing belts and Chris Brown was just a client...I wasn’t giving him free stuff. He was a client. Chris Brown and Swizz Beatz, them buying my belts and my clothing before I was rapping was the reason why my mother believed in my art just a little bit. My mother is a workingwoman. She’s like, go to college, finish school and get a job. A great career. I’m artistic, so when she started to see my art pan out and I started bringing in physical money for her to see, Chris Brown and Swizz Beatz were the reason why she believed in my art just a little bit because it was making me money.
How did your belts and clothing get to guys like Chris Brown?
Well, I never told Chris Brown this but I would hit their stylists up. For artists, whether it’s a stylist or a personal shopper, they have budgets for clothes. So his stylist is my homie, and I was like, "Yo if Chris Brown got a budget of $30,000 to go shopping, make sure I get at least $1000 out of that budget."
Ha! That’s so slick.
[laughs] BUT! He would know what he’s buying because he’d see the product. He’d know who’s making the belts because we’d met each other. And he took pictures for me to post on MySpace or whatever. I put his name on the inside to make it extra special and custom-made. But yeah I would hit the stylist up. How else would I get to the celebrities?
How do you handle young designers trying to hit you up with their clothes now?
It’s so funny because I question it. I’m gonna critique, because if you want to give a designer something it better be right. You better have thought about it for a real long time. If I was designing something for Ralph Lauren, I might have been designing it for a whole year or two before I even think about giving this man something of mine with my name on it. I want people to do the same thing with me. I could tell if you painted something in five minutes just to give me something. I could tell if you just ripped some holes in a shirt and claim that it’s your “vision,” when you did it in two seconds. And even if it took you two seconds to create it, just allow yourself to think about it a little bit longer after you did that. After you give it to me, that’s my first impression and that’s it. Is that the best impression you wanna give of yourself to me? I don’t think so. That’s why they better think hard before they give me paintings or clothing. You don’t even have to give me art; just say you like my music. Even if you never heard my music, just say, “Yo I heard you was in town and I wanna know more about you.” Just be real.
Do you give fans that level of access though?
Sometimes I catch fans who are on the surface who are only into the “Shabbas” and the “Works” or whatever. I feel like anybody could know that. That’s not making me feel special; that’s not making me feel you’re special. Know some of the b-sides, know some of the videos before I blew up.
So becoming a musician and having to hand out music for free, was it an adjustment not being compensated for your art?
It’s still compensation to me though because I could go out and perform those songs at my shows that I get paid for. I understand that it’s advertisement and it’s marketing. You’ve gotta give something to get something in this game.
What were the studio sessions like for this album?
These studio sessions were like jam studio sessions. I recorded most of my album in LA with DJ Khalil. I didn’t wanna bring no girls into my session, none of my homies. I wanted to get the best art out of him. Clams Casino would come sit down and record the whole session through the room, not through the computer, but through the room. So you hear us saying “Oh that’s hot!” and other voices in the back. He’s taking those sessions and looping them now, so we’re sampling ourselves at this point. Then when I came to New York, my family was around and I don’t get to see them that much, I would have my family come to the studio. Yams’ mom or my mom, like my mom was in the room with Skrillex. The juxtapositions were crazy. I just wanted her to vibe off the music because if my mother could love this album and my brother could love this album, then I’ve got a universal album.
You all do a lot for...
Yup, of Yams. And for his mom. You let her know she still has sons.
We are her sons. She tells us that all the time.
That’s a beautiful thing.
It’s a natural thing. I agree it would be bad if we didn’t do that, but it’s a natural thing for me to connect with his mom. It makes me understand more what kind of a person he was. I get to see his roots, as we continue to grow this empire the right way, because everything she can’t get tell her son she can tells us. She can give us some type of direction.
I feel like you and Rocky are the Jay Z and Kanye West of this space.
I felt that a long time ago. I pictured it. I always felt it. Even though Rocky is a couple days older than me, I feel like he is my big brother in this business, experience-wise. He had a house before me; he did a lot of things before me. He got his chance before me. He hit the world before me, so I’ve kind of studied him. I took the passenger’s seat as I was supposed to, and he was my blueprint. Everything I’d see him doing, I knew what to do and what not to do. I feel like Jay and Kanye were like that.
And much like Kanye, you’re letting fans in now.
Yeah, the mission was for everyone to get to know who Ferg was. My fans wouldn’t understand why I did certain things. Why did I do a song with Ariana Grande? Why are you doing this type of tour? Like, “Oh Ferg is getting artistic now on Instagram.” Ferg went to Art School! I went to the High School of Art & Design, guys! It’s cool, I’m gonna just create a project so you guys can explore that part of my life. That’s what I haven’t given my fans. Before I was so used to keeping everything enclosed because I wasn’t used to being a celebrity. I kind of just got thrown into this fire and was told to dance because I’m a great dancer [laughs]. I’m a great rapper; I sparkle. I’m a star. But I’m a designer and I’m an artist, and I’m not used to being in front of the camera. I was used to being private a lot of the time. You know, designers come out at the end of the show, wearing all black. They don’t care to be seen. So the fact that people want to see me, it changes the whole dynamic. Now I can’t be so private. The type of artist that I am, I’m not just the designer anymore. I’m the rapper; I’m the entertainer. I have to let people in.
Kathy Iandoli unfortunately doesn't have a $ in her name. Follow her on Twitter.