After his father went to jail and his brother was killed, the adolescent A$AP Rocky and his mother lived in New York homeless shelters while he sold crack to survive. Now he's equally at home in the ateliers of Paris as he is on the streets of Harlem. For Esquire, the rapper talks about the diminishing returns of orgies, tripping with Skepta and how he got so damn stylish.
We were cautioned about Rocky. That he might be tired or distracted at the end of the day, and I might get a half-hour out of him at best. But so far, things are going swimmingly. We’re at Milk Studios in West Hollywood, the two of us alone in this giant white cube of a room. The evening sun’s pouring through the skylight, as our voices echo off the walls, and his assistant Isabel comes by to say his weed won’t get here for an hour or so, but as luck would have it, I have a vape pen in my bag. So we’re all good.
Best of all, though, Rocky is talking about group sex. And that never happens in celebrity interviews. Even just among guys, orgies are a topic to work up to, you don’t just dive in. But Rocky likes talking about sex. He has rather a lot of it. So it wasn’t quite item one on the agenda, but it was close. We’ve only been sitting here six minutes or so.
I asked about his house, that’s how it started. He owns a mansion in Beverly Hills, on one of those picturesque boulevards that abut West Hollywood. "I interior-decorated the whole fucking thing," he says. "It’s all in the style of Tim Burton and Wes Anderson." He’s been a huge Burton fan since he saw The Nightmare Before Christmas when he was four.
Didn’t you design your own bed? I ask.
"Man, you did your research!"
I’ve never met anyone who designed their own bed before, let alone a famous rapper.
"YEAH MAN, LOT OF ORGIES.
I’VE PHOTOGRAPHED AND DOCUMENTED MANY OF THEM."
"I was going to sell ’em, too, but it cost like 60, 80 grand for the prototype, so you know the bed’s going to be 100. How many people want to buy a luxury car for a bed?"
What’s a 100-grand bed like?
"Fucking gigantic. But I need it because I have a lot of orgies at my house with some very close female companions."
It was the way he said it, like it was nothing. The way I’d say I have an extra pillow to stop me from snoring.
"Yeah man, lot of orgies. I’ve photographed and documented many of them. The women that I’m around are into that free-spirited shit like me. Usually guys are insecure with working, successful women, they can’t handle it when it’s on the other foot, you know? So they get with a guy like me — they know I don’t want to break their hearts or nothing. And why not? Let’s smoke some good weed in the teepee and have a fun time! Heh heh!"
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On the one hand, it’s not that startling, a rapper bragging about his sexual conquests. But Rocky’s not bragging, that’s the thing. He’s just telling it like it is. Letting me in, almost in passing, on this facet of his extraordinary life, this hidden scene in which neglected career women in fancy zip codes get rappers to bang them silly on $100,000 beds. Already, the world’s just a little more interesting than it was a few minutes ago.
Rocky’s never been shy about his prowess with women. He calls himself 'Pretty Flacko' and remarks upon his looks as often as Muhammad Ali once did. And, to be fair, the comment threads under his videos are mostly girls swooning over his big boyish smile. The ladies may have loved Cool J in the Eighties but they’re all about Rocky now, even if he says so himself. Which he does, and gets away with, on account of his fabled charisma, something that several others have remarked upon before me. And it’s true, the wattage is undeniable. Somehow he marries enormous self-confidence with vulnerability, a huge ego with a sense of personal irony.
I’m not sure what to say next. So I tell him, rather boringly, that he’s living the dream.
"But I was doing it when I was poor, though," Rocky says. "My first orgy was when I was in seventh grade. Thirteen years old. Yeah, I was at Booker T Washington [High School] in New York City. My dad had went to jail for drugs, so my mom moved us to a homeless shelter on 104th and Broadway. Our school was like three blocks away, and they used to let us out for lunch, for 45 minutes. The first time was in this apartment building. We took the elevator to the roof, and everybody put their coats on the ground. There were like five girls and ten guys, and we all just took turns. And hopefully you didn’t have a little dick because they’re going to tease you! At that time, I wasn’t the biggest guy, but come on, cut me some slack, I was in the seventh grade! Fucking bullies!" He cracks up laughing, and the chains around his neck start to jangle. "Nah man. I love those guys."
"THERE WAS ALL THESE KIDS HIGH OFF THEIR MINDS, HAVING SEX AND THROWING UP EVERYWHERE."
There are all sorts of rappers out there — gangsta rappers, mumble rappers, hardcore, trap and boom-bap rappers — but Rocky’s something else. The seventh-grade lothario began his rap career at 22, eight years ago. And in that time, he’s become a singular and fascinating presence in our pop cultural landscape. A psychedelic fashion rapper, maybe, if that were a category (it’s not).
Rocky’s the rapper who, more than anyone else, fused high fashion with streetwear. He’s doing it now, in his Gucci pants, Dior blazer and Reeboks. He’s equally at home at the Paris fashion shows as he is on a north London estate with Skepta, getting into the occasional brawl. He’s the rapper who drops acid like a hippie and stage-dives like a punk. Who lost his father and brother to prison and crime, but also live-streamed a performance art event from Sotheby’s in May, as part of the promotion for his third and latest album, Testing. He’s the rapper who did time at Rikers Island at 16, and then went on to speak at the Oxford Union Society.
There’s a theme: Rocky bridges worlds that seldom connect. From Skepta to Sotheby’s, Gucci to Under Armour, Oxford to the Bronx. And through it all, he’s the same Rocky, as charming as a prince. He describes it as being "dynamical", as in: "I think me being dynamical is based off just desire. The reason I connect with true artists is because we share compassion. Once you’re compassionate about some shit then all these stupid things are secondary, like money or success. Sometimes it’s just about creating something." (I think he means passionate rather than compassionate, but still, point taken.)
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Hip hop has always created hyphenates, it has the seed of voracious capitalism at its core. In the Nineties, we saw the likes of Russell Simmons, Sean Combs and Jay Z branch out from music to lifestyle products, a kind of conspicuous consumerism. Now, the mould is breaking again. It’s the age of the artist-hyphenate. Donald Glover leads the way — a rapper slash singer (Childish Gambino) slash comedian slash TV producer (Atlanta) slash actor (Star Wars). Boots Riley has emerged as a rapper (The Coup) slash movie director (Sorry to Bother You). And last year, Rocky joined their ranks when he launched his own creative agency called AWGE. It falls under the broader umbrella of the A$AP Mob, the Harlem collective which launched his own career. No one knows for sure what AWGE means, and that’s just how Rocky likes it. "It’s so hard to find mystique these days," he says. The concept, however, is simple: "We do creative shit but without that corporate process."
These are early days, but so far, AWGE has been fun to watch. Projects include directing videos for A$AP Mob and Tyler, the Creator ('Potato Salad' is a treat). It has signed some other rappers like Playboi Carti and Smooky MarGielaa and launched several original pop-up events — a New York bodega at Selfridges in London last year, and a record release party in LA called 'Midnight Rave' that was DJ’d by Virgil Abloh, the artistic director for menswear at Louis Vuitton.
Rocky waggles his feet in the air. "I designed these Reeboks for that party," he says. They read 'Midnight Rave' along the sides. "Bruh, there was all these kids high off their minds, having sex and throwing up everywhere. It was fucking amazing."
"I’M NOT ONE OF THOSE RAPPERS WHO GETS MONEY AND FUCKS IT UP."
Under AWGE, Rocky consults with fashion labels, though he says he can’t say who — "private consulting, you know" — and most recently, he designed a pair of sneakers available at Under Armour, a pair of which his personal stylist, Matt Henson, wears today. A brief debate ensues about whether black on white soles is superior to black on black, and while the consensus is white, Rocky disagrees. "White is easy. It’s harder to wear an all-black sneaker. You got to have a keen fashion sense and that’s the point."
A bunch of his "Awgies" are here today. They all wear matching rings that say 'AWGE' in diamonds. "That was inspired by Vice," Rocky says. "Vice showed me that there was a middle between making things in your garage and like, Google headquarters. It inspired me to do my own thing. And all the top guys there had a ring that said 'Vice'."
I was expecting a rap crew, I guess. The A$AP Mob, maybe, full of rowdy machismo. But the Awgies are as sweet as they sound. They play Velvet Underground on the sound system. They have perfect manners, they’re quiet and friendly, happy to chat. All day, they wait for Rocky, fiddling on their phones, and when he appears, they follow him from room to room. When the shoot ends, they go to every crew member and say thank you. I meet Kamil Abbas, an elfin Middle Eastern guy who helped design the Awgie ring, and Isabel, Rocky’s assistant, who looks like a young Goldie Hawn.
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A cameraman from Notting Hill, Dexter Navy, tells me how he became part of Rocky’s world: "I went to photograph him for i-D magazine years ago, and I just persuaded him to let me shoot a video." He’s since shot seven, and now they’re making a film together. "Me and Dex, we became brothers, honestly," Rocky says. "We just started living together. I like to live with my friends, it’s better for creative purposes."
Whatever this is, it’s not your average rap scene. And Rocky is far from your average rapper. "Statistically, a rapper’s career lasts two to four years," he says. "I’m three years past that mark. I’m not dependent on music or fashion or acting, they all come together. I’m not one of those rappers who gets money and fucks it up. All my money goes to developing some kind of product or invention, or it’s for music or film. Look at me, I’m not frivolous. I don’t buy clothes. I get them at my favourite price — free 99." He goes through his outfit, and says "free 99" at every item. But at his chains he stops.
"I do buy jewellery," he says, with a grin. "But then I tell myself, 'Hey, I’m a rapper!'"
"I WAS JUDGED BY OTHER BLACK MEN, AND THEY QUESTIONED MY MASCULINITY AND MY SEXUALITY."
Maybe you don’t know his music that well. It doesn’t matter. Rocky’s story alone is a thing to marvel at. It has that wonderful mythic quality that seems destined for a biopic one day: the boy from Harlem who was named after a rap legend, and then, despite many obstacles, became one himself.
He was born Rakim Mayers. He has an older sister, Erika B — you could say his parents were thinking of a master plan — but it was Harlem and they were poor. Though Rocky started rapping at nine, life quickly threw him off his game. When Rocky was 12, his father went to jail for drugs. And the next year, his older brother Ricky was shot and killed. His mother moved them from shelter to shelter, and Rocky strayed into trouble, selling crack in the Bronx. There’s still a scar on his cheek from where he was hit with a gun at 15. A year later, he did two weeks at Rikers Island where, by chance, he shared a cell with another rapper, Casanova. Afterwards, Rocky resolved to leave crime behind and give rapping a proper try.
"WHEN I GOT LOCKED UP, I HAD PRADA ON. THAT’S REAL TALK."
The roughness remains in him. He’s never been the kind of pretty boy who shrinks from a fight. There’s a YouTube clip of Rocky a few years ago, wading into the crowd to beat up a guy who was throwing bottles at the A$AP Mob on stage. And just the other week, he got into a scrape in New York. Someone had gone for one of his friends, so Rocky piled in. "I’m-a be honest with you, we took a beating that day," he says. "I been in London where people use pokers" — he stabs the air — "but in New York, it’s razor blades." He rubs his cheek. "“I have no business being this pretty anyway."
He was always fussy about clothes, even when he was broke. "When I got locked up, I had Prada on. That’s real talk," he says. "We used to share clothes, like poor kids, but it was nice shit — Prada, True Religion, Paper Denim jeans and shit. The ’hood dudes thought I was gay, but their girls loved it. Think about it, bruh. Their chains is down to here and their pants and do-rags."
He’s up and acting out this thuggish pastiche, grabbing at his crotch. "And then here we are, these little slim kids, with these pants, all preppy and shit. Girls are just moist! I’m telling you! Dudes is like, 'Who the fuck is these boarding-school-looking, fucking bitch-ass niggas?' Sometimes we fought them and won, sometimes we lost. They were older. But I didn’t play that shit. Matter of fact, it brought me closer to gay people because I understood their plight. I was judged by other black men, and they questioned my masculinity and my sexuality."
"I DON’T DO FASHION. I AM FASHION."
Things started to change when he joined A$AP Mob at 19, a Harlem collective of rappers, producers, directors and designers. The founding members went by Yams, Bari and Illz, but Rocky quickly emerged as their rising star. At 22, his hit single 'Peso' led to a mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP, which brought a $3m deal with RCA. Right away, he launched a label with Yams named A$AP Worldwide. He was off.
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"So then, all the ’hood dudes wanted to look like how I looked. And then it got to the point where I would come to the block with a gay friend, and it didn’t matter! We got older! One was gay, one was white, one was Asian. Most of us skated, or painted. I rapped. It doesn’t fucking matter! And once I could face those ’hood motherfuckers, I knew nobody could tell me anything. Because I made it out of that shit, man."
To some rappers, fashion can be little more than a brag: "look at all the shit I can afford". But not for Rocky. "I’m about the heritage of the brand, the designers, the significance," he says. He’s serious. You can hear it on songs like 'Fashion Killa' and the A$AP Mob track 'Raf' about Raf Simons, the Belgian designer, and now chief creative officer at Calvin Klein.
But when I ask what he plans to do in fashion from here on, he furrows his brow. The question doesn’t compute. Do you plan to work for a label, or start your own? I ask.
"Listen, bruh," he says, beckoning me in. "I really want to focus on music right now, that’s my main thing. But I’ve been secret consulting with brands for years. I’m responsible for so many trends. OK I’m-a tell you something. AWGE is the reason people are wearing Guess today. You see the striped Ts that they used to do? The monogram logo? I’m the reason Guess is throbbing hard right now.” He grins. “I mean honestly, I don’t even want to say it but..."
"I don’t do fashion. I am fashion."
"HONESTLY? I NEED TO DO MORE LSD."
You’d never tell from his smile, or the way he keeps cracking up laughing, but tragedy has shadowed Rocky. His brother was the first to die. And since then, there has been a major funeral before every one of his three albums. His father, when Rocky was 24, just prior to Long.Live.A$AP. In 2015, just before At.Long.Last.A$AP, his mentor and close friend A$AP Yams died of an accidental pharmaceutical drug overdose. Rocky appeared on the album cover bearing Yams’ purple birthmark on his face. And last year, months before Testing came out, the first record he’s made without Yams’ guiding hand, his sister Erika B died in the same fashion. Rocky turned 30 on 3 October.
When I bring up loss, his face falls and he grows quiet. The emotions seem close to the surface.
"It’s hard when you’re famous, because you don’t get to deal with it the same way. You don’t get to mourn, you just keep moving and pushing."
Has it changed him? He has to think.
"As of 2017, I’ve been holding grudges against loved ones who’ve hurt me, and I never was a grudge-holding kind of guy,” he says. "That’s like holding in hate, and I don’t think that’s right, because I could lose any one of those people today. Honestly? I need to do more LSD."
"LONDON'S HOME, MAN. I JUST FEEL THIS OVERWHELMING JOY AND ACCEPTANCE."
It’s fair to say that Rocky loves LSD. His psychedelic awakening is another way that he defies rapper convention. Acid wasn’t a thing growing up. So Rocky was always curious and a little wary. But as he came into the business, he was looking for inspiration, to change his sound, to have a fresh idea. And he’d heard that psychedelics might help.
He tried mushrooms at first, and that didn’t go well. He tells me a story about some brawl in a nightclub while under the influence, in which his then-girlfriend Iggy Azalea failed to beat up a girl who’d slapped him in the face. "In the end, A$AP Ferg’s girlfriend beat her up for me!"
Acid was altogether more profound. "Growing up, I felt like white people were threatened by my kind, and sometimes black people didn’t understand me, either. So I seen both sides. But when I took LSD, both of those worlds went like this." He interlaces his fingers and points to his heart. "It’s right here, bruh. I wasn’t mad at people for prejudging me anymore, black or white. It’s just us. As a minority, it helped me feel more like a human being."
I tell him that I’m a fellow traveller, and he looks delighted.
"Really, bruh! Wow! So you know how it brings us together. Like weed. Can I hit that vape again?"
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He recorded one of the singles from Testing while under the influence — 'Praise the Lord (Da Shine)' featuring Skepta. He was in London, one of his favourite cities.
"It’s home, man," he tells me. "The people get me, the music, the artists. I just feel this overwhelming joy and acceptance." He was at his usual London abode, the penthouse of a Mayfair hotel, the kind of place that stores his stuff when he’s away and then replaces it exactly where he left it. And Skepta brought a neuroscientist with him, from University College London, who had prepared doses of AL-LAD, an analogue of LSD that only lasts for four hours. They took their drugs in the form of gummy sweets, and tripped and rapped and recorded maybe the best single on the album, all while their scientist friend observed and took notes. It’s another of those Rocky stories, like the Beverly Hills orgies, that just makes the world a slightly more curious place.
"I’M KINDA CAUTIOUS ABOUT NEW PEOPLE IN MY LIFE RIGHT NOW."
"Dude we were blasted! Like tripping balls. I remember we had this strobe light that Dexter [Navy, his Awgie director] brought — he was there, he can tell you — and I had these jelly beans in my hand, but I was so high, they were like Jack and the Beanstalk, glowy and magical. So I was like 'Skep! Skep!' And he comes running like it’s an emergency. And I open up my hand and go, 'Skeppy, they’re changing colour!'" He cracks up laughing.
"And Skep’s like, 'Rock, man, you’re mad, bruv, you’re mad!'" Rocky finds this story absolutely hilarious.
He recently announced, with typical swagger, that his ability to function under the influence of LSD was a sign of genius, because Steve Jobs and Einstein had done the same thing. But then Twitter told him that the Einstein part wasn’t true — or there was no proof anyway. So now he’s gone off the idea.
"But the Steve Jobs part is true!" I tell him.
"Yeah, but it’s not as good if Einstein isn’t in there, you know what I mean?" He laughs. "If Nikola Tesla didn’t do it, then fuck it!"
"YOU KNOW WHAT? I THINK I’LL BE LONELY FOREVER, AND I’M OK WITH THAT."
So anyway, back to sex. Rocky is rumoured to have a tour coming up, starting in Australia and New Zealand then wending through North America, and if past is prologue, it’s going to get sweaty on that tour bus. He describes groupies as "animal cats" because "they’re feral, man, they’re wild, make no mistake, they’re the ones hunting you!" But this time, it feels different. His animal cat days may be numbered.
"Sex isn’t what it used to be anymore," he says. "Before, it was like, 'Can I do it with her?', and the chase was addictive. But now I know I can, so if I do it, it’s just an empty void. You become a guy who hits it and quits it. And I’m too old to be having random body counts. You feel me? And strange girls, I don’t know. I’m kinda cautious about new people in my life right now."
Is it the #MeToo thing?
"YEAH, I COULD SEE MYSELF WITH TWO GIRLFRIENDS. OR THREE."
"Yeah, thank God it hasn’t happened to me. You know why? Because I’m a gentleman. I wasn’t so much of a douche to girls where they would be like, 'Fuck that dude!' But even if they did, I feel like people wouldn’t believe them. I know that’s some narcissistic shit to say, but why would I do anything to a woman that she wouldn’t want done? The truth is, they attack me. Maybe it’s the fame or whatnot, but women fuck me."
He thinks. "And with strangers you gotta use a condom, you can’t kiss ’em. It’s not intimacy."
It sounds like you want a girlfriend.
"Yeah, I’ve had sporadic periods when I’ve been monogamous. I just need a girl who’s into girls sometimes. An open-minded chick or two. Yeah, I could see myself with two girlfriends. Or three. I had that before, but I’m talking consistent. And right now, any girl that I want, they’re all taken. The women I been with, they’re in love with other men, married to other men."
He seems forlorn about this. And for a brief, absurd moment I feel sorry for him. Poor Rocky.
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"You know what? I think I’ll be lonely forever, and I’m OK with that," he says. "Because guys who get all the pussy don’t get to see happiness with a family and shit like that. I’m telling you. Name one guy that was a magnificent player who just hung it up and started going out with some random girl?"
As we think about it, there’s a knock at the door. Rocky’s being summoned. We’ve been talking for over an hour, and it’s time; he’s a man in constant motion. Last night he was in Krakow, and before that London and Belgium. They did a couple of gigs along the way, to prep for the tour. Now he’s off to Antigua, for a kind of spa/bootcamp experience.
"Just studying and training and stuff," he says. "Personal things. Trying to evolve as a person. You know, eating the right foods and reading books. Self-discipline."
As we head to the door he says, "Hey man, this was a really great experience. You get it because you’re a trippy person." And it feels like an occasion. Like this wasn’t just some interview but a moment of genuine human connection. Even though the conversation was almost entirely one way. I think that may be the definition of charm.
Outside, he’s quickly surrounded by his Awgies, Isabel, Matt, Kamil and Dexter. Someone hands him a missile of a blunt and Isabel calls the car. They’re hungry. Rocky suggests Soho House, and everyone nods.
Then Rocky gets all excited. "Oh Dex! Tell him about AL-LAD! With the jelly beans!"
Dexter looks at him blankly. "No, I wasn’t there."
"Bruh, you remember! The jelly beans in my hand! Remember!"
Dexter shakes his head. "No, it wasn’t me."
And Rocky cracks up laughing. This too is absolutely hilarious. “Oh man! And I thought I was fucked up!”
Photographer’s assistants: JP Herrera; Jason Wang | Digital technician: Matt Coats | Fashion assistants: Breaunna Trask; Ellery Dern | Hair: Tasha Hayward | Barber: Chris Olivera | Grooming: Melissa Daniel | Production: Michael Power @ Flower Avenue
From: Esquire UK