Interview: A$AP Ferg on becoming the greatest and getting in trouble with his mom

The Concrete and Grass Festival headliner talks to Time Out

A$AP Ferg headlines Concrete and Grass Festival 2016 in Shanghai
The powers that be may have decided that they didn’t want Nelly getting hot in herre, but Concrete and Grass Festival still has a hip hop star on the bill – and this one’s very much on the rise. A$AP Ferg has had a huge year on the back of his Always Strive and Prosper album, which marries club-ready trap-influenced beats with some raw and personal rhymes.

Ahead of his appearance here in Shanghai, we caught up with him to talk touching nerves, tai chi and coming to China for the first time.

What goes through your head when somebody says there's an option to do a show in China?
I've never been to China, so I don’t know what to expect, but any time I get a chance to travel I’m always excited because I’m always interested in different cultures and seeing how people live, seeing how people receive my music around the world. I just want to see how China turn up, because I’ve turnt up in a bunch of different places around the world but never got a chance to turn up in China so I’m looking forward to it.

Is it somewhere you ever thought you'd come to?
Actually, I never thought as big as, you know, even travelling to China. It’s just really like a dream come true. It’s a dream that I never had but it’s a dream. I never even imagined that I would be travelling to China let alone performing there. It’s definitely a blessing.

A$AP Nast was out here a couple of months ago, have you spoken to him about it at all?
I haven’t spoken to him about it, but I’ve seen some pictures and it looked pretty dope.

You did a video for Astrid Andersen’s SS16 collection that featured you doing tai chi (watch below) and made other references to Chinese culture. Is that something which has interested you for a while?
Yeah, I really like watching kung fu movies. I love Bruce Lee and studying him. For the tai chi we had to take a class, we had a teacher to learn those moves. It was really interesting; they teach you how to breathe, how to make yourself really calm when you are stressed, and a lot of breathing exercises, and the powerful close range hits – all of that magical stuff.

Chinese culture is really, really magical. There’s a lot of remedies over there and it seems like people live for a long time out there and everybody’s into eating well. I mean, I haven’t been yet, but I don’t see too many fat Chinese people walking around in New York; it seems like they do pretty good with health and got a lot of remedies and things like that, so I’m already into the culture.

Have you kept up with the tai chi since then?
No, I haven’t stuck with it but it was pretty dope learning it.

How much does the fashion side of things occupy your time these days?
Lately, I would have to say about 20 percent of the time. Other 80 is just music and videos and business because I’ve been trying to do less fashion and more music, because I feel like designers want to be rap artists now. I feel like it’s the biggest medium to use right now. Pop singers want to be rap artists and everything comes back to rap.

I want to stick to my craft and really develop it. That’s my goal for right now. Who knows if next year I’ll do a collaboration with a fashion designer or whatever the case may be. Right now I just what to focus on the music. I’ve been working with a denim company, agolde, for a new collection with them. That should be coming out pretty soon, so I’ve been in the factories working with them, but besides that I’m just been doing music.

Given your background in design, does it make it easier to work with brands?
It does but it kind of don’t - let me explain that to you. It does make it easier because I understand how materials work and the different companies and different finishes and trims. I had experienced with silk screen and things so I know all the procedures and processes. So it makes it easier in that way with the knowledge I have, but it doesn’t make it easier because I am not a rapper that’s just going to join a clothing line and let everybody do the work for me. I’m very involved; so I’ll be looking at a T-shirt for three weeks, trying to figure out the right design to put on there.

Does it make it hard finding the right partners as well? Because it seems like a lot of brands often just want to put somebody’s name to something.
It doesn’t make it hard because I don’t really mess with anybody I don’t believe in. Anybody that just want to put my name on it and license my name or just want me to collab with them just because they gonna get a look. No. I’d rather work with somebody I love and respect. Like 7 For All Mankind. That comes from Citizens of Humanity. I grew up wearing Citizen jeans and grew up loving their jeans and the designers. I have a long history with them, I used to buy their stuff, and I was buying the brand. So for me to work with them is a blessing.

How has that shift been from being a designer and kind of being a little bit more behind the scenes to now being in the spotlight?
Well, even when I’m in the spotlight, I’m only in the spotlight for that time. I’m not trying to live like a rap star’s, superstar’s life like getting drunk every day and partying every day. I’m very low key. If I just hit the stage for an hour, that’s the only time that you’re going to see me, and I go, and I leave, and I go home and that’s it. I might watch a movie or read a book or something. I’m not trying to burn myself out.

Some artists talk about having a persona when they’re out on stage. Is that the case for you?
Nah that’s all me. It’s always been all me. I feel like I get to release a lot of energy and aggression that I don’t get to release on the daily. Throughout the day I’m very calm and chill, but when I get on stage, it’s like I get to release the other side of me that I don’t get the chance to release. It’s like therapy.

With Always Strive and Prosper, there’s some real personal moments on that record. Did you have any hesitations about putting some of that stuff out there?
There’s always hesitations because I’m talking about real stuff, real family, business and I even sometimes get called out by my mom and she will be like ‘Damn that touch a nerve, why would you write about that, why would you say something about that?’ I get family members like, sometimes it’s not even the mentioned family members that’s affected by it, it’s the loved ones that they deal with, that the thing. Because they know that I’m talking about this situation and it touch home base for everybody.

It’s a very touchy thing, but I told my mother and explain it to her that as long as I keep it real and make it an open conversation, and I am not singling out anybody then we should be alright. But I always get flagged or people just trying to comment at me with releasing music with stories about them. It’s very alive and very real coming from me.

When stuff like that blows up, does it give you pause for thought when it comes to writing new material?
No, because that’s what’s gonna make me the best. I feel like artists are really good when they’re able to express themselves, when you can talk about things that’s embarrassing about yourself and others. Those stories that people can connect to, that’s the thing that heal, and those words heal people so I’m going to keep it going. That’s what music is made for; it’s made to heal people.

One of the other things about this album is that you worked with a bunch of different producers and had a load of features on it. Was that the plan from the off, that you wanted to reach out and bring in a load of different people for it?
I mean there really was no plan; I was just trying to find the vibe. I worked with a lot of producers even before I worked with the ones that I finally got out on the album. I work with some of the best, most legendary producers and some of the songs didn’t even make the album. I feel like the songs that made it were the songs that I really connected to and the songs that I really love.

Who was the highlight from the people you worked with?
DJ Khalil, definitely. He's my favourite person in the world. He’s my mentor and he taught me a lot. He was the first person that I was able to jam out with with a variety of different musicians, two people and a keyboard, three people and a guitar. Me trying to play instruments and he’s like ‘take a shot at it’. Just really getting that vibe. Doing jam sessions and sample it out ourselves and then taking whatever we created, whatever art, anything – he just take it and loop whatever piece he thought was dope and we make a beat out of it and sample it out ourselves. That was a new way of doing things for me.

And now you’re now taking it out on the road.
It’s inspiring, I get the chance to experience all these different places. I didn’t used to like Europe when I first started traveling. I didn’t like the food and I didn’t understand it that much. I hardly left my hotel room. I guess it just took time for me to really like getting used to it. This time I went around when I did Europe and went to all these different spots. I got some days off. I got a chance to actually enjoy the land. I went to Paris. Went to London. I got out and enjoyed the culture.

Which makes a big difference to just seeing the inside of a hotel room.
A very big difference. Like I love Belgium. It looks like New York in the ’80s. All I’ve ever seen of New York in the ’80s was in pictures and videos. So for me to go to Belgium to see all the graffiti on the walls... It was classy and at the same time edgy. I loved it.

And now you’re coming to China. When you do a festival, do you approach it differently to if you’re doing a club show?
Oh very different, because I will perform songs at the festival that I won’t do for a club show. A club show is pretty fast; I’m only given probably about four songs. Even a venue show is different because the festival has bigger crowds of people. Usually at a festival it’s EDM, it’s country, it’s pop, so you can play all types of music. And I’m a fan of all types of music, so I get the chance to experiment a little bit more.