A$AP Ferg: "Fuck all the accolades, I want to give you something new"
The Harlem rapper discusses making "unafraid music", giving back to his community and his new label, Sewer Sounds.
Photography Mario Sorrenti
This story originally appeared in i-D’s Out Of The Blue issue, no. 366, Winter 2021. With thanks to Tiffany & Co. Order your copy here.
A$AP Ferg considers himself to be the Bad Boy baby. Those who bore witness to 90s New York rap know exactly who the Bad Boy baby is: that illustration of a brattish infant with a sideways cap on his head, bursting out from the middle of Sean “Puffy” Combs’ label logo. In Ferg’s case, the claim is not entirely metaphorical. The logo was designed by his Dad, Darold Ferguson Sr. Almost three decades later and Ferg is preparing to unleash his own company, drawing strength from Sean Combs’ example.
“That really put the fire in me – to want to have my own establishment and be an entrepreneur,” says Ferg, on seeing himself as hip-hop’s most recognisable baby. “It’s only right for me to pick up on what my dad and Puff were doing back then, and how Puff’s leadership was with his whole family.”
Ferg’s label is called Sewer Sounds. Glance at its website and you’ll see the brand’s ethos summarised as, ‘an experimental sound that represents the underground world’. Sewer Sounds’ roster is made up of Antha Pantha, Leek, Tweek, and Hunter, all essentially unknowns (for now at least); a blank canvas for Ferg to investigate his strange sonic proclivities with. His undertaking is ambitious. He wants to change popular sounds in the way Kanye West did when he made 808s & Heartbreak.
“It’s just the music and collective of my dreams, something that I’ve always wanted to work on. ‘Unafraid music’ is what I like to call it,” Ferg says, speaking over Zoom – we’re joined by Antha Pantha too. “When you make hit records, as an artist, you get caught up in what people like and you stop challenging the fans. I really wanted to get back into a space where it’s like, fuck all the accolades and fuck all of the, ‘I went platinum one million times’ and make it fun again for myself, make it challenging for the listeners, give them something new to hear.”
Ferg, of course, is already part of a collective. A$AP Mob, the Harlem rap group that took the baton from The Diplomats and envisioned their Upper Manhattan neighbourhoods as an ostentatious, purple-tinted paradise dripping in swag. It’s been a decade now since ‘that pretty motherfucker’ A$AP Rocky led the crew into the mainstream, with a number of rappers identifiable by the A$AP in their name following closely behind him. When the Mob dropped their debut mixtape Lords Never Worry in 2012, it was Ferg who stood out, and he’s taking inspiration from that release by working on a compilation that will showcase all of the artists on Sewer Sounds.
“Those songs just went crazy,” says Ferg of Work and Persian Wine, to Lords Never Worry standouts he featured on. “We look at it in the same way. Whatever artists that come from Sewer Sounds and stand out on this compilation project, and those who the people call out to – ‘Yo, I need a project from so-and-so next’ – that’s how we’re kind of going about it now. Whoever wants it, they’re going to stand up for it.”
For Ferg, Sewer Sounds isn’t just a label. It’s a lifestyle, a character. The way he explains it, Ferg is more like an athletics coach than a label head. “We focus on working out. If you’re a part of my label, if you want to sign to Sewer Sounds, you’ve got to be prepared to work out every day. You’ve got to meditate. We’re eating healthy, we’re training like athletes. This is a sexy, artistic expression. That’s what Sewer Sounds is.”
The genre-hopping approach Ferg envisions has been displayed on his most recent solo releases, Floor Seats and Floor Seats II. The title track samples The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up, a tune you’d never dream of as being the base of a rap single – yet Ferg pulls it off. The buttery Ride is reminiscent of 90s R&B, while “Hectic”, featuring the aforementioned Diddy, rides a techno- adjacent beat. The ethos with Floor Seats came together after Ferg sat down with Timbaland – who’d go on to produce Hummer Limo – for advice.
“I want to be more fluid sonically. I want to be able to go wherever I want to go creatively. I don’t want there to be any restraints.”
“I was telling him I want my sound to transcend and I want to be more fluid sonically,” Ferg explains. “I don’t even know if that’s the right word, fluid, but I wanted to be able to go wherever I wanted to go creatively. I didn’t want there to be no restraints.” Whatever songs deemed not to have that level of creation didn’t make Floor Seats.
Floor Seats 2 dropped mid-pandemic – “Hectic” includes several references to it. And as the world was stuck in limbo, so was Antha Pantha, who Ferg intended to launch. “I started working on Antha’s record first and we kinda finished it,” Ferg explains. “But then Covid happened so I’m like, man, I don’t want to drop a new artist during Covid. I felt like it’s not a fair chance. She needs to be out there. I wanted the energy outside to match the music. It’s hard to put out a turn up song and then have no crowd to perform in front of.”
Sitting in on the Zoom call, Antha describes her musical background simply as singing in church: “But I always had the personality of a rapper and Ferg pulled that out of me more. I always played around with singing R&B but Ferg got me rapping. We actually have a song on my album, which was the first record we ever made together, called Knees and Elbows. I amazed myself. I just went super crazy with it and I’ve been rapping ever since. I don’t even think I know how to sing anymore.”
“Nah, don’t say that!” interjects Ferg. “I’m joking, I’m joking,” laughs Antha “You’re an incredible singer.” “I shocked myself,” she continues. “Every time I do a record I feel like I get better.”
Antha Pantha introduces her cat, who wanders into the background of the Zoom. “This is Batman.” She has a thing for felines. There’s the jungle cat influenced name, her look today is leopard print and, obviously, she’s a big fan of cats in the DC Universe. Antha’s hero is Eartha Kitt, one-time custodian of the Catwoman role. “I think she is just like the epitome of a sexy woman that don’t have to do too much. She’s just like” – leaning into an impression of Kitt in Boomerang – ‘Marcus, darling’.”
With work largely suspended in 2020, Ferg switched his focus from music to charity. In Harlem, he joined forces with Southern food joint Melba’s to provide meals for healthcare workers at the Harlem Hospital Center, where he was born. More recently, Ferg helped raise funds for the Bodega and Small Business Group, an organisation that helps support the New York convenience stores that provide so much of the city’s personality. For Ferg, it was about spotlighting what bodegas do for the locals. “There’s a lot of people that are broke from the neighbourhood who can’t afford to put food on the table, you gotta wait until the next week for your paycheck to come in to eat sometimes, and the bodega just be looking out for you. They looked out for me plenty of times over the years and I just wanted to give something back to them.”
But nothing epitomises Ferg’s connection to his roots like the ribbon cutting ceremony in October that reopened the Greg Marius Court in Holcombe Rucker Park. Ferg and artist Set Free Richardson redesigned one of Harlem’s most historic courts, adding a new scoreboard, backboards, rims and bleachers.
This blessed ground is particularly known for the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic tournament in the early 2000s, which saw NBA stars turn out for teams sometimes led by rappers, such as Jay-Z and Fat Joe. Ferg remembers the tournaments as giving local kids the chance to see their favourite players up close without having to pay. “All the celebrities would come out and it would be crazy, so much energy,” he says. With this development, the meaning of A$AP Ferg to Harlem (and vice versa) has been fully crystallised. “For me to design a court and have my name on a fence outside of that park,” he beams. “I can’t express enough gratitude for that.”
With thanks to Tiffany & Co.
Photography Mario Sorrenti
Fashion Alastair McKimm
Hair Bob Recine
Make-up Frank B at The Wall Group
Nail technician Honey at Exposure NY using CHANEL
Photography assistance Kotaro Kawashima and Javier Villegas
Digital technician Chad Meyer
Fashion assistance Madison Matusich, Milton Dixon III, Jermaine Daley and Casey Conrad
Tailor Martin Keehn
Hair assistance Kazuhide Katahira
Make-up assistance Elle Haein Kim
Production Katie Fash, Layla Néméjanki and Steve Sutton
Production assistance William Cipos
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING
All jewellery (worn throughout) Tiffany & Co.