None of us knew it at the time, but when the Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky swung through the eMusic offices last spring, accompanied by a good portion of his entourage, his major-label debut Long.Live.A$AP was nowhere near seeing the light of day. That day, it was slated for a July 4 release, and “Goldie,” Rocky’s glossy gold-plated lead single produced by Hit Boy (“Niggas in Paris”, “Clique”), had just hit radio. He was riding high on the buzz from his free mixtape LiveLoveA$AP, which had delivered on the promise of his tantalizing earliest songs. Those songs, accompanied by compelling, stylish low-budget clips, suggested a marketable phenomenon, but even then he was on his way to proving he was also a budding star.
It was early afternoon; he had just arrived from BET, and he was affable but drowsy, with extremely low eyelids suggesting some early-morning mood-lifting had taken place. He was circumspect about the album’s progress (“It’s about 75 percent done,” was all he would say) but lit up when the conversation strayed into rap and memories. Above everything else, Rocky is a music fan with exquisite taste, and our interview veered quickly into a series of rap-nerd rabbit holes. I could never have imagined that the interview would end with mutual giggling, trading of Diplomats trivia, and a rapturous, wordless listening session to David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul,” but end that way it did.
Who was your favorite rapper when you were seven years old?
Shit, back then it was probably the Wu-Tang Clan or Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. I can’t really remember. A year later, though, it was DMX. When I was eight, it was all about DMX. Eight was the same year I started listening to Rakim. My name’s Rakim; he’s my namesake. Growing up, my favorite movie was Juice, so my favorite Rakim song is still “Know the Ledge.”
How about your favorite DMX song?
I think “The Omen” was one of my favorites; that’s him featuring Marilyn Manson. That record was dope. That’s back when DMX was just in artist form; no one could dilute what he was doing. I like Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood as much as It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot; He put them both out in the same year and they both did great; I don’t think that could happen again. I associate that era with just a lot of dirt bikes and four-wheelers, from those videos.
When was the first time you spit a verse in front of a group of people?
I was nine years old. I was spitting this written rhyme I had.
Do you remember it?
I could try! Let’s see. [Thinking]: “It’s like a fatality/ Every nigga wanna battle me/ Cops never catch me, they always catch my shadow, see/ I’m like a faculty/ Step into my reality/ If we standing on the line than you in back of me.” [Everyone laughs]. It was wack. But I was nine!
But when I was 13? Ooh. 13, I was spitting. [Laughs.] Thirteen was when I first rapped over the “Grindin’” beat. It was the first time I ever recorded. How’d it go? “Now firmly be standin’/ [Mumble mumble] fan in/ The blood on his head looks like burgundy dandruff/ Words they be slanted…something something…Niggas beast, now money gone/ Popped like Sonny’s dome/ I could turn into a beast like Honeycomb/ My songs will have you laughing at cryin’ at the same time, like if you’d got popped in the funny bone/ Aim you, shame you/ leave more red on your body than The Game do…I’m also the nigga to rob you and say thank you.” That was dope for 13, come on! They was going pretty crazy for that.
When I was 14, Cam’ron and JR Writer were my favorite rappers. Cam’ron, JR Writer and Fabolous. They were at the top for me. I had this really dope rap that basically bit Diplomats’ style. How’d it go? Waitamminit, waitamminit. [Pause.] Oh! It went: “For Zeus’s sakes/ I let the deuce scrape/ Straight for this dude’s face/ ‘AIM’ like the toothpaste/ You’ll be a new case/ The D’s hate my Dro, cuz it stay sticky sorta like tape or glue paste…I got rubber bullets but they feel so real/ Shoot around with the heat like Shaquille O’Neal/ I used to didn’t like hoes, they used to be too mean/ Till they saw me with 100-pair Evizu jeans/ The cars, the high-top Pradas, pea-soup green/ Long hair, oh my god, he’s too clean…All these jealous niggas know not to play me, dick/ Cuz the right hook’ll leave you with a Jay-Z lip/ I drop 80 quick/ I drive a gravy Six/ I sell powder, not the type you change a baby with/Oh you think son hot?/ I’mma let the gun pop/ When you see my tennis shoes you gonna think the sun dropped/ Thug you done popped/ I get dumb guap/ The only time you get a brick is when you miss a jump shot…” [Laughs.] Ahhhhh man, I don’t know! That’s dope for 14, though! That was some Cam’ron/JR Writer flow right there. I was a fan at that time, I’m not gonna lie.
You and the A$AP crew did a Vice Magazine feature awhile ago where you posed in a bunch of classic album covers. There were some interesting non-rap choices in there that I wanted to ask you about.
We picked out the records, but they presented them to us. Some of them I knew as a kid, though. I ain’t too familiar with Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, for example — I’m going to check it out, though! And then Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours? Man, what I like about that shit is that it takes me into a David Bowie kind of mind state. The cover is so dope, because I didn’t get what the fuck they meant by it. What the fuck is this guy on his knees for, and why is this guy drinking out of an empty glass with a cane? I was like, “I don’t get it. I gotta do this one.”
You mentioned David Bowie. Do you have a favorite David Bowie record?
I got a few. In the ’70s, he was the fuckin’ man. You’ve got to have balls to walk around with a pink fucking lightning bolt on your face and shit, with a blond haircut. And he fucking married a black supermodel and shit; that wasn’t even a cool thing to do back then! That guy was just a fucking rock star. He did what the fuck he wanted. And then he did a song with John Lennon, and you don’t even know John Lennon’s on the fucking song. It’s just funky as fuck. And who the fuck can act as Andy Warhol? That guy’s a fucking legend.
If we lived in some alternate universe where you could easily clear the sample, what track what you rap over by David Bowie?
“Lady Grinning Soul.” This song is killer. This shit is melodic, it’s intimate. I fucked a bitch to this. It was intense; the lights were dark, and she was high. She was on coke, I was on weed. It was passionate, man.