- Photography by Mr Bruno Staub
- Styling by Mr Tony Cook, Junior Fashion Editor, MR PORTER
- Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher, Features Editor, MR PORTER
It's only a short distance from the tough streets of Harlem to the front row of a New York fashion week runway show, but it's a journey that very few rappers have made. A$AP Rocky, however, managed it even before the recent release of his No.1 debut album, Long.Live.A$AP. And his appearance at last month's Paris fashion week, dressed in clothes by British designer Shaun Samson, reinforced the impression that he has come a long way from a childhood that inspired the line on his album's title track, "I thought I'd probably die in prison".
On meeting A$AP it quickly becomes obvious that if any young rapper is going to transcend hip-hop's cultural ghetto it's him, despite the fact that the 24-year-old admitted to dealing drugs in the past. Lots of MCs enjoy enough success to make the leap, but few have the vision to grasp the opportunity. Yet the way A$AP explains it, it sounds deceptively simple: "I realised that the streets were my reality, and I wanted to make another home, so I started doing positive things. Some people have it in them to get out, and some people are content to stay in the hood. You'd be kind of stupid to get stuck in a bad predicament your whole life, but I feel blessed because I know where I came from and everything I've been through."
Because they can't say that I suck, they can't say that I'm not handsome, and they can't say that my lyrics are wack, they say that I'm gay because they don't have anything on me
That "everything" includes two family tragedies. The first was the death of his older brother, Ricky, "Killed about 10 years ago", according to A$AP. "He was a gang-banger, a Blood [member], and he got killed. I wanted to be like him but when he died on the streets I realised that the streets are not the place I wanted to make home," he remembers. His older brother didn't just inspire A$AP to escape the block; he gave him the tools to do so by introducing him to rap music. "My brother was a hip-hop fan, and when I was eight he made me rap for the first time - he was beating on the table to make a beat, I started rapping and he encouraged me to keep doing it."
Much more recently A$AP also lost his father. "My Dad passed at Christmas," he explains. "I'm just getting over it. I stayed in the house but I couldn't cry because I was so hurt. He caught pneumonia on a Friday and died on the Sunday, so it was unexpected, but at least he got to see me do this." His father was also a rap fan: A$AP's real name is Mr Rakim Mayers, his Christian name inspired by the 1980s rapper behind Paid in Full and "Eric B. is President".
Central to A$AP's success is that his take on rap music is Pan-American. Since it first emerged from the parks of New York's Bronx, hip-hop has always been rabidly territorial. In the 1980s rappers from the five New York boroughs battled over the culture's geographical origins, while in the 1990s a rivalry between the US east and west coasts cost the lives of rappers Biggie Smalls and Mr Tupac Shakur. A$AP is different, in that his taste, and his sound, cover the gamut of hip-hop culture. When asked about his influences he mentions Southern rappers Geto Boys and Three 6 Mafia, Midwesterners Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, LA's Dr Dre, and New York's Ruff Ryders label. No wonder his breakthrough song, "Purple Swag", with its woozy production, is so hard to geographically pin down. This could be the result of the way that the internet enables people to abandon tribal loyalties and take a pick-and-mix approach to music, or, as The New York Times recently suggested in a story about A$AP's friend and collaborator, A$AP Yams, the result of a rather considered approach to marketing. I'd tend towards the former given A$AP Rocky's ease with the once-heretical idea of a New York rapper enjoying music from the west coast and the "Dirty South". "I don't know if it was wrong [to enjoy music from all over America]," he says, "but I can say that my brother used to do it, so I adopted it."
His taste in clothes is also unusual given his profession. On the track "Peso", which he released in August 2011, A$AP declares that it's "Raf Simons, Rick Owens, usually what I'm dressed in". The line immediately suggests a sophisticated taste in style, something he reveals goes back to 2005. "At the age of eight I started getting into fashion, brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica and Ralph Lauren," he remembers. "But in 2005 I started wearing John Richmond jeans. I was into Prada and Dolce & Gabbana at the time and that's why I started to wear tight jeans, because I wanted to be a model. I started to do freelance work for Calvin Klein so I was slim and it just stuck."
I'm not your average rapper. For us to be thugs and admire high fashion is kind of odd, but people like it
A$AP arrives at the MR PORTER shoot wearing clothes by Jil Sander, Balenciaga and Junya Watanabe, but, again breaking the rap mould, says he has no plans to set up his own fashion brand. "I don't want to. It would be disrespectful to take my stardom and bully my way into the fashion industry, because I didn't go to [fashion] school to learn about design, sketching and fabrics. I just enjoy it; I'm a consumer." Given the macho nature of the hip-hop world I obliquely ask if A$AP's interest in fashion, and the cut of his jeans, have ever led people to call his masculinity into question. He responds bluntly: "People say I'm gay sometimes, but I have a lot of bitches so why would I care? It doesn't bother me at all. You know why they say that? Because they can't say that I suck, they can't say that I'm not handsome, and they can't say that my lyrics are wack, so they say that I'm gay because they don't have anything on me."
Another way A$AP sets himself apart is by eschewing the bling aesthetic. He admits to owning a nice watch, but that's it. "I have a Rolex, but no diamonds. Rappers wear diamonds to compensate for a lack of fashion sense. I don't even have pierced ears - I'm not into that, it's too much." No less extraordinary is his taste in cars. "I don't like new cars, I'm into vintage cars - there's a Jaguar E-Type in the 'Goldie' video." He believes his taste is part of the appeal of his crew, the A$AP Mob. "I'm not your average rapper. For us to be thugs and admire high fashion is kind of odd, but people like it."