Backstage at Terminal 5 in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, Darold Ferguson, Jr., a.k.a. A$AP Ferg, is chilling out before sound check. Tonight’s show will be sold out, just like last night’s. Hours ago he stood before a wall of high-def video monitors while the face of his late comrade A$AP Yams spoke to the crowd, articulating the vision that elevated him and a whole wave of hungry Harlemites to the highest echelons of the rap game.
Ferg’s new album, Always Strive and Prosper, is certainly the best work of his career—miles ahead of Trap Lord—and arguably the best A$AP album yet. Loaded with A-list features from Future to Chris Brown to Missy Elliott to ScHoolboy Q, the star of the show remains Ferg himself, serving witty, dense, brutally honest and musically diverse tracks. “I don’t know what else I’m gonna have to say after this,” he says. “This is my documentary to my life.” Before the album dropped I had a chance to listen to it in full and we chopped it up before the big show.
Your new song “Strive” features Missy Elliott. What did she say when you first hit her up?
I first met Missy with Timbaland, cause I was in Virginia working with Lex Luger and VERYRVRE. Lex Luger produced a track on my album called “Bang” that I got with ScHoolboy Q, which is about my uncle. And VERYRVRE produced a song called “Swipe Life” that I got with Rick Ross. So while I’m in the middle of my session with Lex Luger I get a call—actually my boy Roger Beats gets a call from Missy’s cousin Corey. And he tells him, “Yo, Timbaland wants Ferg to come to the studio to meet Missy.”
So I just went over to their studio, met up with Missy and Timbaland, and that was the first song I played for her. Thirty seconds into the song she’s like, “Cut it off!” Then she turns to Timbaland and she screams: “This is the type of music that I wanna make!” So they continue to tell me to play songs. I just wanted to play one song because I didn’t want to, like, overstay my welcome. But it’s like, “No! Play more!” So I played my album plus ideas that I have. She just loved the song so much that I sent it to her and she did her verse in no time.
I feel very pleased to have a Missy verse because you don’t hear too many features from her. The last person that I can remember is Pharrell and J. Cole, and those are two incredibly talented artists. To align myself with that sort of art and greatness is just amazing to me.
Missy’s very rare.
She’s our—R.I.P. to David Bowie, but she’s like the hip-hop David Bowie. Always pushing the genre forward to a new space, and very innovative.
You’re rapping better than on the last album. Your lyrics are more confessional, more raw and open. You’re putting everything on the page.
Yeah, I’m putting everything on the page because with Trap Lord, I felt I was giving you the aesthetics sonically and I was still beginning to know myself and who I was in hip-hop. Now I have a better understanding of who I am to hip-hop and what voids I need to fill.
I’m not making music to impress myself, or just my friends anymore. I’m making music to heal people. This one kid told me that my music helped him get through chemotherapy. That’s what changed my understanding of music, and just knowing that I can’t make music for myself. I have to make music to heal. Because words are powerful and I just want to watch how I use them, and I want to make an effect.
That’s heavy. That’s probably not why you got into rap in the first place. You weren’t thinking about helping people through illnesses and things like that.
The reason why I got into rap, it was just an opportunity for me, honestly. Just a job. But now it’s bigger than a job. Now I know I may have to spend extra amounts of money on my production, on my visuals just to get my point across, you know what I’m saying? Out of my own pocket. And that’s just what I have to do so my art can be potent.
You’re talking about Missy on there, songs with Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign; I have a song with my grandmother and Chuck D on there called “Beautiful People.” [When] you have music of this caliber, you can’t settle for anything less than what you have in your mind, of what you want to put out to the world. I want to go above and beyond for my art.
[Missy Elliott is] like the hip-hop David Bowie.
Tell me about your grandmother. I saw another interview that suggested she was kind of a neighborhood activist.
She’s not an activist, but she just always did a lot of things for the community. Growing up in Harlem, she worked at the community center for years. She taught dance class. She’s really someone that’s about the community and uplifting the people.
And that community is called “Hungry Ham?”
No, she did it for Harlem. But my neighborhood that I grew up in is called “Hungry Ham.”
Yeah, Hamilton Place.
On the album, you talk about that block, and your sense of responsibility to help the people there.
I said it on “New Level”: “I provide jobs for my whole block/I cannot stop now.” My whole theory is, you take three people out the hood, and you teach them what you know. And their responsibility is to take three people each out the hood. Next thing you know the hood is out the hood—if it goes as planned. That’s what I’ve been doing basically. Everybody that I travel the world [with], everybody that’s a part of my team are people that I grew up with, or just family members.
On “Tatted Angel” you’re saying, “Damn, I wish I wasn’t famous. I wish I could just disappear to Jamaica.” Why Jamaica?
I love Jamaica. It’s paradise to me. I feel like a lot of things this Western culture looks up to, Jamaica just see through all the bullshit. You know what I’m saying? I just feel like going there is… I’ve been there, on different occasions, vacationed there. It just feels like peace. It feels like home.
I remember when you dropped the “Shabba” record we talked about how your family’s Caribbean.
My family’s from Trinidad, and I got family in Jamaica as well.
So, are you good now? You’re in a better place?
Yeah, I’m straight. I wasn’t depressed or anything like that. I was just giving the world a piece of my mind. And if that’s a piece of my mind, imagine the rest of it! That’s just a portion of my thoughts.
With this album I wanted the people to know me as a person. ‘Cause I felt like a lot of times, I’ll put out art—they’ll see a picture or they’ll see a visual, or even hear a song and be like, “That’s not Ferg.”
But I be feeling like, “Damn, you don’t even know me then.” So I just want to put out music and art and get my fans to better know me as a person. Trap Lord just displayed a piece of who I am—a more aggressive side. They didn’t get the songs about girls, like “Love You,” the joint I got with Chris Brown and Ty Dolla Sign. They didn’t get “Open Letter,” which is about my girl. They didn’t get “World Is Mine” with Big Sean, which is about me being in the game. They didn’t get me talking about my neighborhood, where I come from. They didn’t get “Strive,” the different levels it took. “Working at Ben & Jerry’s it was scary/My life vision was blurry/‘You got talent? Why’s you here?’/I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, Plus I am getting a belly.’”
You know what I’m saying? They didn’t get Ferg working at Ben & Jerry’s. So I wanted to turn myself into a human being versus a celebrity. Take all of the glossy shit away and show them what it is to be me, in my shoes. My rags-to-riches story.
I remember being at the Trap Lord listening party, and Yams was going off, saying, “Everybody that doubted us, that thought there was no talent in the crew…”
You got a great memory. You got the memory of an elephant. [Laughs.]
It was unforgettable. He was like, “Y’all can kiss my ass!” And while he was speaking somebody was making noise and he was like, “I’m gonna have you kicked out.”
It was some girls.
Yeah, ’cause he felt, I think, vindicated.
He felt conviction when he was speaking. Because for him, it was like, “Damn. Both of my friends are successful now.”
One of the lines that jumped off me on “Tatted Angel” was you reflecting on the UK tour. What was it that you noticed or what was it that you felt at that time?
That was the last tour that I had with Yams. And you know, I’ve seen him fucked up a couple times. But that one I was just like, “Aight, I have a friend that has a problem.”
Was that after he had done the rehab?
Yeah… Well, I’m not sure if it was after or before. But I remember, like… That shit is nothing in the music industry. Everybody takes drugs. I’m not saying that it’s nothing, but I’m saying it’s kinda like we’re just used to seeing it. You don’t ever think somebody’s gonna die or overdose or get really fucked up off of it. You just kind of laugh it off, like, “Oh he’s fucked up.” But then I was like, “You can’t really laugh at this.”
As you say in the song, you feel like he’s still overseeing certain things.
I feel like Yams is in all of us. He really spearheaded the whole A$AP movement. He gave us direction. I feel like he came here and did what he had to do. As far as like, the reason… You know, everybody always look for a reason in life. And I feel like he left at a young age, but his reason was to change the world musically and put his friends on, and that’s what he did.
When I hear you talking about “Providing jobs for my block” it sounds like a page from his book.
So he put that spark in you?
I mean, that spark was embedded in me from my parents. I come from a household where everybody took care of one another. My father had a whole crew of people he took care of, and showed them different things. You know: designer for Bad Boy, and helping Phat Farm with their cologne. He showed a lot of people from Harlem and around the world that it’s possible. I learned that from my pops.
Another part of “Tatted Angel”—and a theme on the album—is your relationship with your girl. You were pretty real about some shit that had gone down. Is everything cool there?
Nah, we’re not together right now.
Wow. Are those songs about her still on the album?
I guess that means something, that you still stand behind those songs.
Yeah. I mean, it don’t change the story ’cause I broke up with her. It’s still the same story. The people still need to hear it.
“I got a girl/I ain’t never got no fucking condoms/If she call then that bitch would be pissed off.”
I say the truth on my records. Whether I’m with her or not with her, the world is gonna get the truth. So I sacrifice myself to put out great art.
Tell me about collaborating with Future.
Future’s dope. I love working with him. I haven’t been in the studio with him yet, but I feel like we would get 100 records done if we was in the studio together ’cause we just love to work. Future’s been a huge fan of mine since “Work.” He’s just been checkin’ out all my visuals. He always loved my aesthetic.
I don’t know of any other record from this city that could hang with Future on that energy level. ‘Cause you had that trap thing in you anyway. It’s a nice mix with you two on that record.
Yeah, I really couldn’t picture anybody else on it. And I feel like “New Level” is a good segue to the album. Because it just talks about me being on a new level, and just always striving and prospering throughout the song. And my ambitions and what I wanna accomplish, and where I came from…
“Used to be sleeping on itchy beds/Bed bugs in the motel.”
You know what I’m saying? I remember those sprinter rides. Going from motels to sleep in. And now to have my own studio bus with my own production team building productions. And I wear in-ears now. I use the same mic Drake uses and shit to sing his harmonies. [Laughs.] I’ve come a long way. In a way that’s just paying homage to the grind, the voyage with that song. I feel like anybody who’s ever strived to be anybody can relate to that song.
When you got on that “B Boy” record with Meek and Big Sean, your verse on that was so crazy. The wordplay is amazing.
Thanks. It’s so funny because everybody always stops me about that verse. Like I was in the studio with Puff and he was goin’ crazy over that verse. He was like, “Yo, I want you to do this song, and want you to go 20 times as hard as you went on that song.” And I was like, “Goddamn, what’s that gonna sound like?” ‘Cause I went hard on that song. Kendrick, he was goin’ crazy over that verse. He was like, “That’s when I knew you was on your shit, bro. I heard that verse I was like, ‘This boy Ferg is up to somethin’.” Even [for] Timbaland, that was like one of his favorite songs or verses of mine. That joint don’t got no hook on it.
But that’s Meek. He’s that street rapper, always.
Yeah, but that’s why I love him, he’s just so unorthodox.
When that record came out I thought Meek was gonna kill everything.
You know what’s so funny? He got violated for holding the fake gun from the video. I think he got violated because of that. He posted a picture from the video holding [it].
Oh he put it on Instagram?
Yeah. And I just knew that wasn’t a good idea. I didn’t even want to be in the picture. I was like, “No!” But it was a water gun. You can see in the video the girls spray us with the water gun.
I would love to see [Meek Mill and Drake] go back and forth.
What did you feel watching Meek go through all that madness last year?
And he’s still going through some bullshit. I just feel like, man, God just put us through things to make us stronger as a person.
I just had dinner with Meek with my uncle for his birthday in Philly. I couldn’t even bring him out ’cause he can’t perform in Philly. That just… I felt the hurt from that shit, and I know how bad he wanted to come out and represent. It’s only gonna make him stronger. And when he comes back and he hit everybody with the shit, he’s gonna know who was there. It’s only gonna make him a better person.
I’m still rooting for the Dream Chaser.
Man, I grew up on Meek Mill. It was a lot of Philly and Harlem rappers that used to go against each other. And I was a part of the whole battling circuit. So I used to battle different people around my hood. Meek, he was well-known—along with Ray Dollars and Kaboom, all of these rappers coming out of Philly. AR-Ab, all of them guys. I used to watch them on YouTube all the time.
So when he finally took battling to the next level and actually got signed and started making songs… Because that was always the thing: “Alright you can battle rap, but can you make songs?” So when he started making songs, and became poppin’, I felt like, “Yes! He proved everybody wrong.” So he broke a barrier with that.
I feel like Meek and Drake still haven’t actually battled yet. Meek’s fans have been waiting and he didn’t squeeze off anything yet.
I honestly think Meek got, like, serious shit goin’ on in his life. And you gotta really be in the space to do shit like that. I don’t understand, a person that comes from a battle background… I’m pretty sure Drake is surprised as well.
Yeah, Drake said that in the Fader interview. He was like, “Really? You don’t have music prepared?”
I don’t think he’s really in the space. If you just pay attention to his career and what’s going on on the inside, I don’t think that he’s in the space to create like that. That’s my personal opinion. I would love to see them go back and forth, like anybody in hip-hop. That was a great moment in hip-hop. I look forward to those moments.