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Shopping for the Soul of A$AP Ferg

Interviews

By Eric Sundermann

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All photos by Jason Bergman. Click for High-Res.

Standing in a Y-3 store on Greene Street in Soho—the sole retail outpost for New York Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto—A$AP Ferg checks himself out in a corner made of mirrors. Head to toe, he's dressed in a lime green colored thing that kind of looks like a jumpsuit crossed with a trench coat crossed with some overalls, something he'll later refer to as "high-fashion shit." The attending clerk is certain he will like this look, touching and pulling on various strings and ties that dangle from lapels and straps. Ferg straightens the top half, shimmying up and down as he holds his head high in the reflection. Narrowing his eyes, he shakes his head and makes a cutting motion at his throat. No photos please. Ferg does not fuck with this.

This stop at Y-3 is the second on a list of four on this afternoon trip. Earlier, we swung by Oak; later, we'll spend time at Bape and Acne. It's the first time in months that Ferg's had time to do one of his favorite pastimes: shop. He's just returned from a tour with the A$AP Mob through Australia and New Zealand, and he's readying the release for his debut record, Trap Lord, out just over a month after this shopping date, and at the time, an album that was very far from finished.

"There is a lot left to do," he says, flipping through a rack of shirts with pricetags higher than my rent. "I want to change sound. I love it—and it is art. You can bend it, shift it, mold it, and make it yours. If I could work on this album forever I probably would, but I have to drop it. I have to put out what has been on my mind. Creating this album felt like a journey."

Ferg isn't exaggerating. Earlier in the day, I met with the 24-year-old in Harlem at his childhood home—well, sort of. We meet in the alley (the same one used to shoot the video for A$AP Rocky's "Peso") under the building in which he grew up. I say hello, and he immediately silences me. We have to be quiet, he says, somewhat nervously glancing up towards the building. He doesn't explicitly say why, but the urgency in his face makes me believe that this is a place where you do not want to draw attention to yourself. After some photos are quickly snapped, we hop in a parked Lincoln Navigator, jump on the West Side Highway, and head downtown.

In the backseat of that SUV, Ferg's hypeman Marty Baller, a short, skinny dude with two French braids on opposite sides of his head, sparks up a blunt. Ferg passes—he doesn't smoke weed ("I like to drink. Lots.")—and as we cruise, opens up to me about his childhood, growing up in that building, and dealing with the obstacles that come with being a young kid in the hood. In person, his voice is much deeper than his squealy flow. He speaks slowly and carefully, very much aware of his word choice.

Ferg, born Darold Ferguson, carries himself—in both his demeanor and in conversation—with a quiet, confident assurance, a character trait he's revealed slowly over the past two years in the public eye, but one he's had his entire life. Broad shouldered and built like a linebacker, he's often labeled as the lieutenant figure in the A$AP Mob, right hand man to A$AP Rocky—who he views as a brother. Even his rise to prominence can be viewed through the lens of Rocky, beginning with the sharp-witted verse Ferg delivered on the syrupy "Kissin' Pink," a stand-out track from LIVELOVEA$AP, Rocky's debut mixtape.

But Ferg is more than a verse, more than a lieutenant, more than another body to wild out and sip lean alongside Rocky in a music video. Only beginning to take rap seriously a couple years ago, Ferg was raised in a household focused on art. His father owned a boutique shop and printed shirts for Bad Boy Records, teaching Ferg about fashion and art. After his father passed away from kidney failure when Ferg was in his teens, he pursued fashion design before dropping out of college. He's since picked up the mic, but still focuses on creating in other ways, running a fashion label and keeping a studio full of his artwork in Harlem.

However, the culmination of who Ferg is—at least for now—is found on Trap Lord, a record that somehow manages to enter all orbits of the rap sphere. Like with his clothing, Ferg dresses himself in beats that best illustrate himself as an artist, and finds a way to slip perfectly into the right fit. The twisting soundscapes scrape slippery, slow-moving, lean-back-into-a-couch surfaces ("Hood Pope," "Cocaine Castle"), but then also pounce like fire on an unexpected listener ("Shabba," "Murder Something"). The record features guest spots from Onyx, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Waka Flocka Flame, and—yes—Rocky, showing that Ferg is confident enough in his ability to rap alongside both his heroes and contemporaries.

There's something else about Ferg, something almost intangible that pulls you into his presence. This man keenly understands what he's doing—not only as a rapper, but as an artist. He's delivering that, and the world is starting to take notice. Later in the day on our shopping trip, fellow A$AP Mob members Nast and Illy—who show up carrying big Styrofoam cups and a bottle of Sprite at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon—meet us at Acne. As we leave, Ferg clowns around with his friends, his hands full of shopping bags. Nast gives him a playful shove.

"Man, why you ain't call me when you have interviews?" Nast says. "You're startin' to be like Rocky."

What's your past year been like, transitioning from supporting Rocky to being center stage?
At first, it was different because, you know, you have to stand there on your feet with two grounds. You never know what happening. I was so used to just being around all of my brothers, being in the A$AP Mob. You get accustomed to using them as crutches, if I fuck up here or there. If you fuck up when you are solo, you fuck up and everybody knows that it is you who fucked it up. You don’t have to any crutches. The safety net is gone.

Talk to me about a moment in which that happened.
Performing. I had never performed 45-minute or hour sets without the Mob, and I had to do all that stuff myself. That can wear and tear on you—especially when you are not used to it. Jumping into it, it can be difficult at first. But you start to enjoy it more instead of just thinking about it as like a task. I started to enjoy it. I learned how to party with the people versus just performing. You go to Australia or you go to London, you want to jump in those crowds because you want to party with the people. You don’t want to just perform, because they want to touch you. They want you to get in. They want to feel your presence.

You wrote poetry as a kid, right?
I used to write poetry because in school. Every day we used to get these journals and we used to have to write in them and I used to just write in the form of poetry. Sometimes, the teacher used to stand in front of the class and read whatever we wrote in our journal. I wrote poetry so I recited my poetry because I knew it would have impressed the girls. And I would have made my classmates laugh.

Were you a class clown?
Nah, I was a smooth guy. I had the latest clothes. I had mad throwback jerseys. All the girls would come to my class just to see what I was wearing. Or see what I was doing for the day. I wasn’t the class clown though. I didn’t have to be a clown. I was funny though. I knew how to make the girls laugh.

Did you have a girlfriend?
I had plenty of girlfriends. I was a smooth type—I never used to just holler at the girls. My aunt—we were in the same grade and she was the class president—had everybody's numbers because that was one of her duties. So I would just circle all the girls who numbers I wanted, and I would just call them. I had these sleepovers where I would just call all the girls.

What would you say?
I would make her call them first, and then I would be like, "Tell her I like her." So she just used to get the girls for me. I was smooth, you know.

How would you describe yourself as a student in high school?
A getting by student. Like, I used to just copy and cheat off people. Studying was not my thing. I always used to study and just think about what was going on outside. My concentration would be all fucked up—same thing for college. College was the same shit. When I noticed college wasn’t good for me was when I kept cheating. I was like, "Why the fuck am I cheating in college? This is bad."

Tell me about the moment you had that realization.
I was cheating off this one girl—well, I was trying to cheat. I just kept tapping on her desk and she was like, “What you want?” And that blew my whole spot up. My teacher looked at me, her angry old ass, and I was like, damn, I know I’m about to fail this test, but somebody was looking out for me, because another girl gave me her test paper and I copied off of it. The other girl was  looking at me like, yo, how the fuck are you doing that? The girls are always different. Like, I had a Spanish girlfriend in junior high school and I took up Spanish. She helped me with all my Spanish.

Can you still speak Spanish?
Ah, no man. I never could. [Laughs.] I just had a Spanish girlfriend.

What was your relationship like with your family growing up?
I was mad close to my pops 'cause he taught me a lot about art and silk screening t-shirts. He was an artist himself so he and I had a natural connection. My mother was in the working class woman. She stayed at work nine to five and supported the household. My pops would buy me Coogis and expensive clothes Versace sweaters and shit. I was like him because I was into all of that stuff. You know how people say you are a momma's boy? I got hooked up to my pops more just being around.

What did your dad teach you about art specifically?
Well, he taught me how to paint on t-shirts, like paint t-shirts by hand with a paint brush and acrylic paints. Because back in the day, his t-shirts were really popular. I wanted him to teach me. And he taught me how to do it, which was dope. That's how I made money for a long time as a young guy. I would just paint custom t-shirts and just sell them for like 40 to 50 dollars in high school. That was one of my first hustles. I would charge people extra money to put their names on the sleeves and shit. Like, gimme 20 dollars extra and I'll do it. It was dope.

He also taught me the craft of silk screening. And when he started to get sick and was hooked up to dialysis because he had kidney failure, I had to be his arms and his hands. He wasn’t physically able to do it. He could do some of it but then he would just get tired, just wanting to lay down or something. I was just running around handling all of this stuff for him. This was early high school.

How old were you at the time?
I had to be like 14. Maybe 15.

How old were you when he passed away?
I was 17. That was three days before my 17th birthday.

How do you see yourself representing him?
I feel like parents always try and make their children better than them. Make the next generation better. I just feel like I am the better version of him. He has some big shoes to fill and I just want to be better than him so I always strived to be better than him. I always ask my grandma, like, "What age did my pops get his crib? What age did he get his car? What age did he do this?" Just so I can pass him. I just wanted to better than him. He always told me he wanted me to be better than him. I feel like I am doing the same thing he was doing as far as just putting art out there in the universe or just being creative. But just on a bigger level, I get to go mainstream. He probably would have loved to be on BET or have videos on MTV, but in his way,I am doing what he would want me to do. I'm continuing his past.

That has to make you feel proud.
Yeah, unconsciously. I am not really stressing on it, like I've got to continue the legacy. I am just being me. I am just doing me.

How long have you known Rocky?
We've known each other since we were like 13 or 12.

What has it been like growing up and gaining fame together?
Before Rocky blew up, I knew that he was going to be big. I told some of our friends back in the day that like our friend is going to be famous. Like, he is going to be one of the biggest artists ever. Some of my friends were like, are you serious, for real? And I was like nah, he is going to be big. He was just a different character. He had charisma and the person he was is interesting enough for people to want to wonder about him. He's a character I would want to see if I was a consumer or something like that. When he blew up I was like, whatever, I knew I was right.

Do you feel that way about yourself?
Yep, I do feel that way. But it is even worse with myself, because not only do I see it, but I go extra hard to make sure that I follow through with it. I am my worst critic. I will say things is wack and do it one hundred times. I do my vocals one thousand times. It might sound the same to people, but in my mind it has to be flawless.

How many times did you record the verse on "Kissin' Pink"?
I only did that once. But it was nerve-wracking doing "Kissin' Pink," because it was a new style and A$AP guys kept telling me, "Oh, people don’t want to hear you sing, they want to hear you rap." I was getting tired of that shit. So when you get to the studio, do you fold under that? Do you fold or do you transform and I was like, "Fuck that, that is how you make a difference." So I transformed. And I am transforming.

You switch your flow up a lot.
I get bored. I feel like my style is having no style, no specific style. That is style. It's just unorthodox. It is always just going to be different. It's like that Pokemon Ditto, 'cause he can just turn into anything. That is me. I’ll be Dido, if was a Pokemon.

Where you ever into Pokemon growing up?
I was definitely into the cards. I never played it though. But we used to make bean shooters.

What is a bean shooter?
A bean shooter is where you buy a quarter water juice, these little 25 cent juices. When you finish the juice, you cut the plastic with like a razor blade and then you cut the part where you drink from. And then you put a balloon over it and you buy a pack of beans or something that is hard and you put rocks in there, and you put it inside the bean shooter. Then you pull the balloon back and you pop it off. That is a bean shooter. But those shits hurt. They are just like pellets. We used to shoot people’s windows out and shit. We used to just laugh at people. We used to shoot bums in they booty. That shit was horrible, man. You'd shoot him in his stink ass.

What do you feel like growing up in New York and growing up in Harlem has done for you as an artist?
It taught me not to compromise. It taught me how to make something out of nothing. It taught me how to hustle. Because in Harlem, you have poor, you have middle class, and you have some people with money. And you get to see all of that stuff. You might find some movie stars, like Oprah or something, coming out of areas. But then you got uptown, where I’m from, where you might hear gunshots every day. And then you got Washington Heights that's middle class, with the doctors and lawyers. I got to see everything when I was growing up. I had all types of friends and I was getting into all types of stuff. So I guess that made me and built me into the person I am today.

What kind of stuff did you get into?
You get into street shit. You get into beefs. You know what I’m saying? You fucking hear gun shots every so often at cookouts. You get into neighborhood fights and you have to defend your little cousin who got his hat taken. And then you get a chance to have friends that you probably met at school or in high school that have parents that are doctors or lawyers. And they live a little bit different from you, and you get a chance to experience their lifestyle.

Your music videos are violent.
"Persian Wine" was the only video that I used guns in. I was against it at first but then I said if Stephen Spielberg wanted to shoot a movie and tell a story and the story has guns in it, he is not going to trade it for swords. He has to be truthful to the story. And the whole theme of ["Persian Wine"] was the terrorists taking. I didn’t want to short the story because I didn’t want to put guns it in, you know? It is not violent in meaning. My intent—I think it becomes violent when you have intentions. My intent was to just create art and create a visual and that was it. My intent wasn’t for kids to pick up guns and think it was cool, because I wasn’t flashing them in a cool way. If you watch even with the clothing I was dressed differently. I wasn’t wearing what I usually wear. I was wearing throws and shit that people wear overseas in the Middle East. I was telling a story.

But that might be misinterpreted.
Well it might be, but that is what these interviews are for. At the end of the day, it is a conversation piece. Everybody can say whether they like it or not, but once I explain myself there is no reason for you not to like it, because it is art.

You have so many outputs of art, fashion, and music. What is your overall goal?
I just want to put innovation out in the world. I want to tell kids to be innovative. I want kids to know innovation can be creativity. Kids need to know to do different things, and to not feel consumed to one thing. You know, I think hip-hop puts stigmas on a lot of people.

What do you mean?
Before the stigma was like, you can't sing and rap, before Missy or Drake made it poppin'. Now it is regular for a rapper to try and sing on a song. Another stigma is that you can’t really dress well or be into arts. Or really know what you are talking about being a rapper—you have to be ignorant. It is a stigma and it is a stereotype.

Now Jay Z releases an album all about art.
But it was kids way before Jay Z. Even Michael Jackson learned his moonwalk from a kid on the street. Jay Z has inspirations and muses that he looks at to inspire him, but he's not the only one who does that. The kids that are doing it first, they get crucified for it, for being like Jesus in the situation. They are being called the witch for being different. Their beliefs. Kids in their schools are being criticized for wanting to wear different shoes or wanting to wear different colors.

Did that happen to you growing up?
Yeah. It happened to all of A$AP. We was different. I mean, we was tough kids coming from our neighborhood, but people in our neighborhood didn’t get what we were doing or what we was trying to do. But that's because they were blind to the culture, and weren't willing to get into it. But we knew about that culture. We knew about the Village and SoHo and we knew about art and we knew about fashion. We were touched by it. We expressed ourselves with dressing and going to art galleries. And people in the neighborhood—they couldn’t really get with it. And with things that you can’t understand, you just doubt it automatically. It's like an old grandma. All she know is church, church, church. The moment you try to tell her something about another religion or something else, she wants to throw holy water on you, and wash a way all your sins. You have to be open-minded. Even if you go back to what you believe in, you have to have a broad mind so you can experience life. Life is not Harlem. Life is not just the hood.

What do you think caused you to seek out culture?
I was always a curious kid. I wanted to travel different places. I wondered why certain humans looked different. Being a curious kid leads me, and you never really know what you are searching for, but you are like a baby coming into the new world. You are fucking with everything. It is just like, "Oh, whoa, this thing is dope." This is like being a kid, and that is exactly what I’m doing in this music business.

Is there anything in your music about which you feel misunderstood?
Sometimes the visuals, but that's probably because where I am from. It doesn’t really give it a chance to just be art. Maybe if I was a kid coming from the suburbs, it would have a chance. Now that I’m a kid coming from Harlem, people are not used to seeing that kind of level of art direction or creativity.

How do you deal with that then?
I always have to explain myself.

Does it get annoying doing that?
No. Because there a lot of people that just don’t know. I don't expect everyone to know A$AP Ferg. I don’t expect everyone to know what I am doing or contributing to hip-hop. But soon they will know. And that is the goal. That is what becoming a bigger artist is all about—it's about how much people you can reach.

How does spiritualty or religion affect your art?
I am a strong believer in god. That is basically it. He is the reason I got here. And that is it. And I’m the lord of my trap—which is rap. 

 

Eric Sundermann is an Assistant Editor at Noisey. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy

Jason Bergman is a freelance photographer who lives in Brooklyn. He's on Twitter — @bergmanj

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