A$AP Ferg: Harlem when it sizzles
Harlem. Six square New York miles that have offered a home to everyone from James Reese Europe to Big L; Duke Ellington to Super Fly’s Youngblood Priest. Today, this historic epicentre of black American culture counts Darold Ferguson Jr. as one of its brightest ambassadors. In his truest form he’s known as A$AP Ferg – his family name and loyalty to his mob melded into one single moniker.
Filing into the room behind A$AP Rocky around the time that pretty motherfucker was repping Harlem and thrilling the planet with his purple-tinted vision of Gotham, you’d be forgiven for assuming Ferg was destined to be just another rap sidekick. You know, the guy seen jumping on stage with his famous friend at shows but whose mixtapes are perennially ignored. But Ferg wasn’t going to be left stunting in the background, and early tracks like 40 Below and Persian Wine confirmed it. Here was a rapper who could mirror Biggie’s cadences, breathe hooks like they were air, and had an on-record presence that was undeniable.
In the light of his studio output since, it’s easy to see what Harlemites probably always knew: Ferg is one of the wildest, most innovative stars to swagger out of Uptown. Fusing boom-bap, trap, EDM, R&B and more into his own untamed concoction, he’s forged a discography that has its fair share of misses – which is why Ferg doesn’t have a classic record in his clutch of very good ones – but stays loyal to the theology that it’s better to take risks and lose than it is to play safe. And, like Rocky and the rest of A$AP Mob, everything he touches has the feeling of the ostentatiousness that’s inspired by his hometown.
© Noa Grayevsky
T-shirt: Banana Republic
“Harlem is basically, how would I say? Like a muse,” Ferg tells me. “You see the drug dealers, they dope boy fresh. You see the Spanish guys on Broadway and they’re wearing jeans or these fitted white t-shirts. You see all walks of life. You see the guy coming home in a suit from work – my stepdad, working in a library, coming home in the good suits that he had. All these different people drawing inspiration.”
According to Ferg, it comes back to one thing. “How can we stand out? Harlem is about standing out.” You can take that last statement and apply it to just about every era of the neighbourhood’s history. But Ferg didn’t grow up spying the zoot-suited cats of the 1940s. He came up during the era of The Diplomats, the modish crew that in their day produced some of New York’s most vivid music.
“Cam’ron, Jim Jones, the whole of Dipset was influential to me,” says Ferg. “They took style to another place. The way they rapped, the way their videos looked, they took all the nuances of Harlem and blew them up. They made them exaggerated in a very artful way. If Cam was going to wear a pink bandana, it’s like, ‘Why just wear a pink bandana when I can do the whole pink bandana outfit, with the pink Range Rover?’ We used to love that shit as kids. They were like characters.”
Ferg’s proclivities are similarly exaggerated. This is evident in not just his clothing but his taste for bombastic beats. In the past he’s given us songs like Hungry Ham, a Skrillex jam that saw Ferg boldly give in to the producer’s acidic beats. He even tempted Missy Elliott into the studio for the 2016 song Strive. (“First time we met, she was just marvelling at how much we were alike. I knew it would be that way because I studied her forever.”) The title track from new record Floor Seats samples Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up, a daring choice not just because of the original’s lasting infamy but its apparent unsuitability for a hip-hop song. Against the odds, Ferg pulls it off. Is he just naturally drawn to these crazy instrumentals?
“Yes, because that’s my personality,” Ferg affirms. “I’m big and over the top. I’ve always been a character so I try to express that through the music. And also, I’m just not into the normal trap beats that everybody raps off of. I’m always looking for something different.”
He continues, “I might go to China and pick up some samples over there, I might go to Brazil and pick up some capoeira music, or I might go to Australia and use the didgeridoo – instruments that we usually don’t want to hear in American music. That’s what I bring to the table as far as innovating hip-hop.”
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Tank top: Hanes
At just nine songs, Floor Seats is considerably shorter than his other high-profile projects but still runs the stylistic spectrum we’ve come to expect. Built on an unbending 80s-style synth loop, the track Butt Naked, featuring Rico Nasty, is influenced by stories Ferg has heard about Harlem. He drew inspiration from parties once thrown by a very young local magnate named Sean Combs, while also working in inspiration from Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell’s Miami booty bass, and experiences Ferg had out in LA recording the album.
“You see a lot of shermheads running around and shit, stripping because they’re high off drugs,” he says of his experience on the West Coast. “This song is basically a pack of drugs that’s laced, when you shoot it, that shit make you want to get butt naked.”
Floor Seats also has some smooth contemporary R&B cuts that warmly nod to the 90s. You can hear Jodeci, Blackstreet and 112 in the tracks Ride and Dreams, Fairytales, Fantasies. Ferg’s never going to be a powerhouse singer but, looking to Aaliyah for inspiration, Ride is a daring attempt to switch up his style by softly delivering his own tuneful vocals.
© Noa Grayevsky
Full Look (Both): Gucci by Dapper Dan
“At first it can be a little scary,” he says of singing R&B tunes. “But you do it and play it for friends and you see them smiling. Even if it’s a little funny at first, it’s still cool because you’re walking into a new character. I can’t say I sound like Aaliyah – it’s impossible – but emulating her, it’s automatically going to come out different, which is always dope in music.”
While Ferg has been pushing his new record, A$AP Rocky has been pushed in the news cycle. Rocky was arrested and subsequently found guilty of assault in Sweden, a situation that saw Kanye West lean on his connections to Donald Trump in an attempt to free his friend and collaborator. Trump’s Twitter feed brought a focus on the Rocky case, and for a minute there, it seemed like A$AP Mob might find themselves in the middle of an international incident. Rocky was subsequently released from jail prior to the verdict and will not be required to serve any further time. Ferg is reluctant to speak on the stress of the situation in too much detail.
“My thoughts on it are: Rocky is home and I’m glad he’s home. Back to regularly scheduled programming,” Ferg asserts. “He was locked up, that was a scary time for everybody, especially family and friends, but I knew he had to come home. When it comes to Rocky or any of my friends or family, propaganda, I’m completely tuned out of that.”
As for Ferg himself, he’s still that ambassador – for himself, for Harlem, for A$AP, for the romantics, and all the skeezers and weirdos who ever sought to test the boundaries of hip- hop. “It’s easy to lose your place in hip-hop because you feel like you’ve got to move and adjust,” he admits. But if there’s one thing Ferg has learned along the way, it’s this: “Don’t trip off of trying to fit in.”
Photography: Noa Grayevsky
Styling: Kwasi Kessie
Grooming: Remi Odunsi
Model casting director: Yanni Gough
Models: Solomon & Tyron @ MMG, Grant @ EMG NY, Blake & Jacobs @ Take 3, Ian @ Yanni Models, Aasim Ohlsson