Art by NRK P3
Abe Beame just bought a Mac-11 from the thrift store.
If you’ve been following the Rappers of the Decade series from the beginning, you might have opened a tab this morning and been surprised to see someone who isn’t a household name. Instead, the final installment of this year-long series features Harlem’s own Darold D. Brown Jr., better known in the Tri-state area as A$AP Ferg. You may be at a loss as to how he made this all-star roster and why he has the distinction of closing out this project. And you’d be well within your rights. Fergenstein has no real business being included in a list of the best rappers of this long, strange decade. But this piece isn’t about Ferg — not really anyways — he’s a representative symbol.
In our first installment a year ago, I began by focusing on Soundcloud, discussing how rap music specifically, but all music in general, is slowly losing its sense of personhood and place. How it’s become a more solitary, atomized medium that has relocated to the internet, everywhere and nowhere. And now, in our conclusion, I will argue the opposite position. That no matter how far we venture from the origins of hip hop into this dystopian future, to a degree it will always be about where you’re from and where you’re at.
So this is a placeholder of sorts. We all have regional artists in our cities. Guys who get more love here than abroad, a few more spins on the I Heart Radio local station, emblematic artists who benefit from a little home cooking. If you’re from the South maybe it’s Lil Boosie, if you’re from L.A. maybe it’s Y.G., if you’re from the Midwest maybe it’s Lil Durk. I can’t say that for sure because I’m not from the South, or L.A., or the Midwest. I’m from New York, and here, the title that has belonged to guys like Fabolous, Papoose, Lloyd Banks and Big L in the past. It’s why I’ve spent more of this decade with A$AP Ferg than almost anyone else.
The story of the A$AP crew has some correlation to the story of rap in New York over the last ten years. Beginning around the turn of the century (but accelerating exponentially since 2010), the integrity and authenticity obsessed ethos and classical sound and structure of fundamental East Coast hip hop began to become irrelevant to rap, art and American life. It became part of the institution and lost its urgency. Great graff writers are now more likely to enter into partnerships with Uniqlo then get up on the Q line during a blizzard. The style and the mythos that had captivated rap enthusiasts faded, not just from the international community of diehards but even the city’s own children. A$AP showed the Tri-state a way forward, a reprieve from outright extinction in this new era.
They were a product of the internet, the brainchild of an odd genius architect who built their enthusiasm up from the grass roots of Tumblr. Yams was their Rza, a savvy marketer with immaculate taste, specifically for the syrup-drenched rap in Houston and the blowout double time rap of the Midwest. But the A$AP project isn’t immaculately curated regional rap karaoke, they blended styles and ideas with precise, caffeinated rapping and asshole wit to make something specific to their city. Think of it as post-modern New Yorkism.
A$AP Rocky was the first to storm the gates. Live.Love.A$AP dropped like a paradigm shifting bomb. A perfect 16 track mixtape that was ambitious as it was successful. On it, A$AP telegraphs their mission statement and house sound, a round rejection of classic east coast boom bap laced nostalgia that had been prevalent in the five boroughs at the time. A kid named after Rakim had little to no interest in aping the spirit of his music. But even that denial was a confirmation of sorts. After all, what could be more New York than inexplicably worldly resourceful kids who haven’t traveled much further from Harlem than the outer boroughs smoking Dutchies and vibing out to Lil Keke?
Ferg has a classic New York story, a quintessential hustler who was a respected neighborhood designer, then pivoted to music the way a street dude might pivot from hustling to credit card scams. He attended New York City’s High School of Art and Design, his father owned a boutique and designed the Bad Boy logo for another uptown kid. Ferg dabbled in design selling accessorized designer belts before picking up the mic. Fashion has been inextricable from the A$AP mob since their inception. Rocky is perhaps better known at this point in that world than music. In this too they’re carrying on tradition. Defiant, decadent, impeccable fashion has been woven into the fabric of their neighborhood dating back at least to the Renaissance.
Ferg doesn’t wear his New York on his sleeve and it could be easy for an outsider to confuse this with lost or muddled identity. There are few John Starks, Alpo Martinez, Garment District or Papaya Dog references and very little “Deadass B” patois. He seems to consciously be pushing his music towards universal and accessible to a national audience. But it’s there, a progressive iteration of the form presented subtly in his influences and stylistic flourishes. There aren’t many rappers Ferg’s age outside of New York who had the access or exposure to write a hook like “Shabba.”
Like many artists covered in this series, focusing on Ferg’s narrative work misses why he’s interesting. He’s a consummate stylist. His project has been unmooring New York from the frame of content it’s been attached to since the inception of the medium. He’s at his best swagging out, mixing his fastball with the junk in verse. Try as he might, regardless of beat selection, Ferg will never be a member of the Screwed Up Click. He can’t emulate that codeine soaked drawl and he doesn’t really try to. It’s an impressionistic, spiritual emulation. An interpretation of a vibe, how something feels, any number of cliches Marianne Williamson might regurgitate applied to a kid from Harlem making Houston adjacent trap music. His albums are mixtape-like pastiches that bounce wildly between tone, tempo and genre, and are very much a product of a kid raised on Kay Slay’s Diplomat Mixtapes and Whoo Kid’s work with G-Unit.
Ferg is a more diverse artist than he’s being represented on this mixtape. He’s versatile on his album work, frequently getting personal and confessional, discussing his family over beats that lean on soul samples and feel more of a piece with 90s album rap. In this, Ferg straddles regions and generations. He sounds comfortable with Cam’ron or Bone Thugs N Harmony or Ski Mask “The Slump God” or Maxo Kream.
When we first heard him on “Kissin Pink” he was an immediate presence, but doing something of a derivative breezy, sung rap Big Mo impression. By the time he dropped Trap Lord he sounded like a different artist, growling, ad-lib barking and hungry, fierce and bouncy on beat with a penchant for bar stool tossing hooks. Like a venn diagram where DMX and Young Jeezy overlap. This is the version of Ferg you’ll primarily enjoy on the mixtape below, the style that made him a staple of downtown and outer borough bars and clubs from 2-4 AM over the last decade, the time when the lights are turned low and the aggression is amped.
Nearly 10 years ago, when I was young, poor, unmarried and childless, I worked in a restaurant. It was the kind of staff that is almost too close, uncommonly tight. The type of place where you never need to ask who is going out after work, the only real question is where are we going tonight. During the Summer of 2013, the answer to that question was always a bar called the Flat. It was a hole in the wall in South Williamsburg off Broadway under the shadow of the elevated JMZ line. It was kind of a venue, kind of a bar. It was elegantly shitty, the kind of place you had to be brought to for the first time. A place where goons in their 30s born and raised in Bushwick would hot box a cramped rest room with white girl transplants who just got their BAs from Oberlin. The type of place that always felt a little dangerous, where anything could happen and often did. A classically New York establishment that was supposed to have been micro policed and gentrified out of the city by Giuliani (To be fair, it was too beautiful to stay. It closed after a few years and reopened as a fucking coffee shop but as long as this city stays above water there will always be a Flat somewhere for New York’s young and restless).
I bring up the Flat because it’s the type of place Ferg articulated perfectly in his music. That his vision of trap understood. The New York asshole grit of Ninjasonik and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire that the A$AP Mob fused with trap and lean and elevated. And you can read this piece and study the music but to really wrap your head around it there’s simply no substitution for being there. Ferg could pop up on a Spotify playlist anytime, but until you’re in a room when it’s throbbing like a migraine and everybody is bouncing off each other and a kid in a Twelvy t-shirt passes you a blunt at the perfect moment you’ll never understand what it means or why it matters. No amount of earbud time could have written this piece for me.
It was shaped by The Flat, Max Fish, Wreck Room, Bembe, the High-Line Ballroom, the Knitting Factory when it was in Tribeca, S.O.B.s and a million nameless Afters. From being on Orchard when some young dude pulls up in a foreign drop top blasting an I Can’t Feel My Face mixtape that drowns out the street noise and realizing it’s a thing, from feeling what it’s like the first time you’re in a bar that gets shut down by “Computers”, from being embedded on site as these movements emerge and evolve on a granular level. How you see and feel the same things these young artists with fake IDs were seeing and feeling as they grew up in the same streets and bars and venues and eventually connected the dots. Not surprisingly, during that Summer, nothing would blow the roof off The Flat like the anthems on Trap Lord.
When you listen to “Plain Jane” what you hear is “Tear Da Club Up” and some vaguely Project Pat adjacent cadences but what you feel are the effortlessly cool kids in expensively distressed skinnies who skate on stolen decks with gauges in their ears and grew up with eclectic taste, listening to Bowery hardcore and Memphis buck shit in equal measures. There’s an uptown glide to it, snippets of Quran delivered by NOI disciples on an Adam Clayton Powell Blvd corner, a trendy, fashion forward, stylized cool that isn’t as scratchy and raw as its ancestor.
But there’s also a distinct strain of punk rock to “Plain Jane”, a running from vandal squad, lines off a cracked toilet tank lid, tagged and scratch bombed shithole sweatbox quality to the aggression in the production and the hook. It’s ripping and running, gleefully laughing at you out the corner of a screw face as every old New Yorker and all the people who swore this city died in the 90s moved away and left us to have all the fun. It’s earned, a vibe and a moment experienced and made flesh. And it couldn’t have been made anywhere else.
A$AP Mob are the connective tissue between regional pioneers like Three 6 Mafia, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Chief Keef, and even regionally promiscuous but firmly New York rappers like Jay-Z and their next gen city offspring like the multitudes of Rowdy Rebels and Pop Smokes. This is how sound migrates and evolves, slowly as shading gradually fills into something easier to pin down and define. What starts with impressionistic influence gets dressed with regional accents and grace notes and it mutates into individual strains unique to their stem cells. In other words: intentionally or not, your environment inevitably shapes your art. Yams, Rocky and Ferg synthesized all these disparate threads that were floating in the ether here in New York at the outset of this decade and they consecrated a gorgeous, accessible logic that made sense of it all.
You might look at the progression of music and technology and how we now form habits and tastes and say someday soon, perhaps even today, the way we choose our favorite songs and the artists who make them will not be decided by our personal histories, our families, or something as random and circumstantial as geography, but by algorithms, math equations that can learn our tendencies and begin shaping them for us as we toggle between streaming services on our couches anywhere in the world.
And to you I’d say that I don’t who you are, where you live, where you’re from or what music you fuck with, but I can tell you definitively you were not in South Williamsburg in the Summer of 2013, when the “Work” remix played from every bar, club and yellow cab stereo to the point it seemed to rise from the sewer grates like steam, and every turn signal and cross walk on Hooper Street flashed in sync to its gritty stomp, and it covered every square inch of glass, steel, brick and concrete like wheat paste.
ROD: A$AP Ferg- Blood & Soil
- New Level (ft. Future) (Always Strive and Prosper 2016)
- Floor Seats (Floor Seats 2019)
- Kissin’ Pink (ft. A$AP Rocky) (Live.Love.A$AP 2011)
- Trap and a Dream (ft. Meek Mill) (Still Striving 2017)
- Shabba (ft. A$AP Rocky) (Trap Lord 2013)
- Our Streets (ft. DJ Premier) (Our Streets 2017)
- Don’t Mind (ft. Fabolous & French Montana) (Always Strive and Prosper 2016)
- Pull Up (ft. Powers Pleasant & Joey Bada$$) (Life is Beautiful 2019)
- Old English (ft. Salva, Young Thug & Freddie Gibbs) (Old English 2014)
- Plain Jane (Remix) (ft. Nicki Minaj) (2017)
- Pups (ft. A$AP Rocky) (Floor Seats 2019)
- 25 Lighters Freestyle (Screwed) (ft. A$AP Twelvy) (Live.Love.Purple 2012)
- Murda Blocc (ft. Maxo Kream) (Brandon Banks 2019)
- Pray (ft. Smokepurpp) (Bless Yo Trap 2018)
- Lit (ft. Octavian) (Endorphins 2019)
- Rubber Band Man (ft. Cam’ron) (Still Striving 2017)
- Work (Remix) (ft. A$AP Rocky, French Montana, Trinidad James & Schoolboy Q) (Trap Lord 2013)