Remember when hip-hop was all about guys rapping about their sneakers? It still is—at least on one level—in the world of A$AP Rocky, although the sneakers in question are more likely to be laceless Margielas. Of course, Rocky's music encompasses much more than that, but it's his intuitively reverent irreverence—toward hip-hop, toward fashion, toward most things that operate in an orthodox or circumscribed way—that has fueled his swift and sudden rise from fashion-obsessed mixtape hustler to idiosyncratic pop star. Within the last 18 months, he has signed a record deal worth a reported $3 million and recorded and released his proper debut, Long.Live.A$AP (Polo Grounds), which reached the top of the Billboard charts when it was released in January. He has also toured with Drake and Kendrick Lamar, co-directed a handful of his own videos, collaborated with Raf Simons, and was a near-ubiquitous presence at Fashion Week in New York City in February, even walking in a show for street label Hood by Air.
It's Rocky's skill as a culture mixmaster, though, that is most surprising. Like so many artists today, he is a polymorphous glob of disparate elements and influences. But in terms of what he picks and chooses to make a part of his particular glob, he's got a connoisseur's eye and a curator's soul. He operates with what seems like an almost innate awareness of what it means to refer to certain things or borrow or appropriate others that is more common to find in contemporary visual art than it is in hip-hop right now, the dope-haze that fills the frames of so many of his videos somehow both earthly and ephemeral. Consider the presentation: there are the retro braids and the gold teeth (yellow and rose gold, to be precise); then there are clothes—urban, urbane, graphic, and occasionally even gothy, a seamless mix of high fashion and streetwear and earnestness and irony perhaps best exemplified by the wool hat emblazoned with the words Comme Des Fuckdown that he wears in his video for "Goldie" (which features less smoke than most of his other videos, but a bunch of other things you can't show on MTV—among them, swearing, nudity, and, most sinfully, brand names). Then, of course, there is the music, which is equally all over the map: there are gangsta-style melodies, old-school NYC flows, and plodding Southern-style beats; lyrics peppered with the requisite references to drugs, sex, and cars, as well as people like Rick Owens, Helmut Lang, and Isabel Marant; and collaborators ranging from the obvious (2 Chainz, Clams Casino, Big K.R.I.T.) to the eclectic (Skrillex, Santigold, Florence Welch).
Designer Alexander Wang, who cast Rocky in a video for his Spring 2013 T line and was enjoying a quick break in Mexico after presenting his first collection for Balenciaga in Paris, caught up with the 24-year-old rapper by phone in New York, where Rocky was preparing to embark on a tour with Rihanna, which kicked off at the beginning of March and is set to run through early May.
ALEXANDER WANG: Where you at?
A$AP ROCKY: I'm in New York right now. I'm getting ready for this Rihanna tour.
WANG: When does it kick off?
WANG: Oh, so you're right on the cusp!
ROCKY: Hell, yeah! So how's this going? Are they recording us? Or is the interview just what you put down.
WANG: [laughs] No, I think they're recording us.
ROCKY: Oh, shit! [both laugh] By the way, congratulations on Balenciaga, dude—I just gotta hand it to you.
WANG: Thank you.
ROCKY: It makes me happy that you're doing that. How's it been for you so far?
WANG: You know, it's still so new to me, having this experience and having this journey kind of be the first chapter . . . The first chapter is done but it's going to take time to really develop what the next step will be. I've been given an opportunity to do something really different from what I do. It was difficult, but I realized that I had to take a dive at it and not focus on the fear. Of course, there are so many people who say you can't do it because you have a reputation for doing something really different, but I ignored all of that and just went in there, and it was an amazing experience. Everyone was so welcoming and supportive. I guess I just have to let the work speak for itself and let it go from there.
ROCKY: What do you feel has been the most complicated part of working now between Alexander Wang and Balenciaga? What's been most difficult?
WANG: I guess, the day, logistically speaking—just splitting the time. I've always been so much a part of every aspect of my company, but now, having to split my time has been a real learning curve in terms of detaching myself a bit and being able to work with a different mind-set. But other than that, I'm just enjoying it so much. There's such a buildup leading up to a show, and then a few days afterward, everybody goes on vacation and the office is empty and it's kind of this down moment. But this time it was an amazing feeling to be done with one show and then go directly to Paris and start working on to the next one.
ROCKY: I don't know the process behind the scenes that goes with being a fashion designer and doing a show, but I guess it's what it's like for any artist after a show or after wrapping up an album.
WANG: Well, we'll see how long the energy lasts. [laughs] Now I'm just staring at the water because I just flew into Mexico . . .
ROCKY: Oh, man . . .
WANG: I'm having an amazing wind-down.
ROCKY: That's amazing.
WANG: This past year has obviously been an incredible year for you too, in terms of your success and everything you've achieved. But at the same time, you've probably encountered a lot of difficulties and obstacles. How were you able to stay focused with everything that was going on?
ROCKY: Well, 2012 was probably the most historic year of my life. I got to work with you for the first time. I'm getting my respect as a video director. The fashion industry respects me and knows who I am. But then the album leaked. I also lost my dad over Christmas.
ROCKY: But in 2013, I've already had a number-one album, and here I am on the cover of Interview talking to my good friend Alex Wang, so it looks like this year is going to be a good one.
WANG: When I first found out about you, I was so amazed and intrigued because there was so much genuine interest in fashion there. I remember when we first met, you came to the showroom, and you knew so much about me. It's always nice to find that very authentic connection with someone who really knows what you're talking about, even though they're from a different world.
ROCKY: Well, I'm from New York—Upper Manhattan, Harlem—so fashion was a natural thing to me. It was just one of those things that helped me be an individual, because with fashion, you can stand out and you can make it your own. It's like an art that you can make into your own. So for me, fashion was about standing out as an individual—and it helped me get the attention that most people try to get with publicity stunts or by doing other crazy things. But I just let the attention come to me naturally, and I think some of that has to do with my fashion.
WANG: I know that you've talked before about wanting to "revolutionize" your generation. What do you mean by that—and what does it mean to you?
ROCKY: If I have an opportunity to say something positive, then I'm gonna take advantage of it, but there are two sides to that. It'd be politically correct for me to say something good for the kids when I have a chance—say something that's positive—just because it'll help my image. But I came up in a world that was just crazy—and it was hectic and kind of radical at the same time.
ASHION WAS A NATURAL THING TO ME. IT WAS JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS THAT HELPED ME BE AN INDIVIDUAL. —A$AP ROCKY
For me, growing up in Harlem and then migrating down to SoHo and the Lower East Side and chillin' down there and making that my stomping ground . . . That was a big thing, because I'm from Harlem, and downtown is more artsy and also more open-minded. So I got the best of both worlds. It was like being on the streets and then being in school at the same time, and I tried to keep my hands in everything just so I wasn't missing out on any fun. I just always wanted to be knowledgeable of my whereabouts, my surroundings, and what was going on with our generation. So now that I'm here and I've got a microphone in my hand and about 6,000 people watching me, I need to tell them how I feel. For instance, one big issue in hip-hop is the gay thing. It's 2013, and it's a shame that, to this day, that topic still gets people all excited. It's crazy. And it makes me upset that this topic even matters when it comes to hip-hop, because it makes it seem like everybody in hip-hop is small-minded or stupid—and that's not the case. We've got people like Jay-Z. We've got people like Kanye. We've got people like me. We're all prime examples of people who don't think like that. I treat everybody equal, and so I want to be sure that my listeners and my followers do the same if they're gonna represent me. And if I'm gonna represent them, then I also want to do it in a good way.
WANG: It's a very positive message that you're putting out there in your music and in breaking down those preconceptions that hip-hop gets stereotyped with a lot.
ROCKY: I also want people to see that I come from the ghetto—I come from the hood—and honestly, man, the mind-state there was kind of fucked up for a while. But now you see me—and other people like me—who are standing up and saying, "All right, the jig is up. It's not a joke. These are actual people we're talking about." It's same as with racism. There was a time when someone would get on a plane and request to move their seat just because the person sitting next to them was of a different ethnicity or religion or nationality. But I don't think my generation wants that. That's how it used to be. People are racist because parents and grandparents are embedding that kind of shit in their heads. But it's 2013. Time goes on. We've moved past that. Everybody should be able to enjoy their life, because you only live once. So I just want to get it all out there and be the best role model that I can be, if people want to put me in that kind of predicament. I mean, I didn't ask to be a role model, because I'm not perfect.
WANG: But it takes someone to knock down that wall for people to really take notice.
ROCKY: Honestly, man, I feel like most of my dreams have already come true. I remember the first time I found out I was coming to your office; I was so excited because I'd been trying to meet you for the longest time. What inspired me about you the most was that you're so young. It just showed me that young people can do it—that you can be young and run your own organization or your own corporation or your own business and be your own commodity. I just really appreciated that value in you. I admire it. It just goes to show that as young people, we can do whatever the fuck we want.
WANG: Well, thank you. I mean, you're quite young as well—and doing incredible things.
ROCKY: I'm trying.
FI HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO SAY SOMETHING POSITIVE, THEN I'M GONNA TAKEADVANTAGE OF IT. BUT I CAME UP IN A WORLD THAT WAS JUST CRAZY—AND IT WASHECTIC AND KIND OF RADICAL AT THE SAME TIME. —A$AP ROCKY
WANG: I wanted to ask you a musical question. You've been collaborating with a lot of great people lately. What makes you want to collaborate with someone?
ROCKY: The process of me collaborating with people like Skrillex and Florence [Welch] has been more organic than anything because I haven't wanted to do anything that people expect me to do. I really want to do the unexpected, and I think that's what I did when I executed Long.Live.A$AP. I wanted people to really see the message and that I'm an artist who not only has the capability of rapping, but of composing great music both for people of my generation and for people with different backgrounds. I wanted to appeal to people who've never really listened to hip-hop or really given it a chance before. I've also tried to incorporate all my favorite lifestyle things in the music. Of course, "Fashion Killa" is one of peoples' favorites because it just expresses how much I like fashion. I had to give you that very rare Alexander Wang shout-out on that track . . .
WANG: [laughs] Very much appreciated, thank you.
ROCKY: Even for the song "Suddenly"—not to get back on the racism thing and discrimination—but that's why I saved the line for the last track, [raps] "They try to blind our vision / But we all god's childrens and siblings / You my brother, you my kin / Fuck the color of your skin." I just want to touch on subjects that people aren't used to me touching on, because everybody's used to me talking about drugs and girls and liquor and swag and stuff like that. So I just wanted to touch on more serious stuff and really step out of my box.
WANG: It's funny because music has always been such a big inspiration and part of how I function. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with what I do. Some of the greatest movements in fashion have stemmed from music, if you think about punk or glam rock or grunge or hip-hop or whatever it may be. That's why I've always been kind of aligned with and inspired by musicians—especially up-and-coming new artists and musicians.
ROCKY: It's crazy you say that. I never would've thought that music was that big of an influence for you.
WANG: I always find musicians to be some of the most inspiring subjects because there's fashion and style and appearance involved. The look that musicians convey is part of their craft and how they put their stuff and their talent out into the world, whereas with actors or other people who are in the public, it's not as much about performance. Musicians utilize fashion in a very different way. I know that you're a big fan of the label Hood by Air, since you closed their show in New York. Tell me about that collaboration.
ROCKY: Hood by Air was a street brand that was trying to get off the ground for a while. It was just like tastemakers who used to be into it. It wasn't like a big deal yet. I was always into it because it reminded me of high-end fashion meets ghetto goth—you know, like a ghetto-gothic lifestyle. It just looks like that's what the hoodlums in Gotham City would be wearing. That's what I see when I look at Hood by Air: gothic hoodlums meets high fashion.
REPRESENT THE KIDS WHO COME FROM NOTHING BUT WHO UNDERSTAND IT ALL AND LOVE IT ALL. THE KIDS OF TOMORROW. . . WE ARE THE KIDS OF TOMORROW. —A$AP ROCKY
WANG: I know they've been around a while and have kind of a cult following, and I think that they have a very original point of view. But I think you brought some attention to that brand, so I cheer you on that because a lot of musicians or celebrities tend to always go for very safe brands that are, quote-unquote—
WANG: Established. And to have someone champion a brand or a vision that's still developing is a great thing.
ROCKY: Thanks, man. I appreciate that. Can I ask you a question?
ROCKY: What's your ultimate dream collaboration? Even if the person isn't alive.
WANG: Oh, god. You put me on the spot!
ROCKY: You know me. I ask the big questions. [both laugh]
WANG: I might have to get back to you on that, but it would probably have to do with something outside of fashion—probably in music. To do a really big collaboration with someone in music and have it come from a different angle . . . There are so many collaborations out there in fashion today—you know, those high-low collaborations—that I think for me to do another collaboration, it would have to be something really different. I don't know what that is yet, but hopefully, it will be something that inspires me.
ROCKY: So what are you looking forward to this year?
WANG: Oh, gosh. I always think that I'm gonna wake up the next day and it's all going to be gone. [laughs] I never imagine that things can get any better.
ROCK: Maybe that's your way of staying hungry. It's easy to become content with being comfortable, but you always grind harder just to go to where you want to go—to just keep your position if not get a better position.
WANG: Well, you kind of have to enjoy the moment but always realize that things can be gone tomorrow, so you have to be happy. You have to stay positive and appreciate the people around you that love you and support you. There's no other way to live.
ROCKY: That's dope. I feel like when people put pressure on you, then that's when it's just time to show off, man—just show off because you're the shit. At the end of the day, I'm young. I represent the kids who come from nothing but who understand it all and love it all. That's what I represent—those are the cool kids, you know, the kids of tomorrow, because who would've known that I'd be who I am today? We are the kids of tomorrow. And all of this is just another step. All you've got to do is show these motherfuckers that you're the shit, and now it's time to let it stink! Know what I'm sayin'?
WANG: That's a line in itself for a song.
ROCKY: That's a bar right there.
ALEXANDER WANG IS THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF HIS OWN NEW YORK-BASED EPONYMOUS LABEL. LAST YEAR, HE WAS ALSO NAMED CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF BALENCIAGA AND SHOWED HIS FIRST COLLECTION FOR THE HOUSE IN PARIS IN FEBRUARY.
E'VE GOT PEOPLE LIKE JAY-Z. WE'VE GOT PEOPLE LIKE KANYE. WE'VE GOT PEOPLE LIKE ME. WE'RE ALL PRIME EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE WHO DON'T THINK LIKE THAT. . . IT'S 2013. TIME GOES ON. WE'VE MOVED PAST THAT. —A$AP ROCKY