A$AP Rocky on acting in 'Dope', the joy of drugs, and why he doesn't care about racism

Hip-hop's brightest and brashest star talks to Kaleem Aftab

Kaleem Aftab
Monday 31 August 2015 16:51
Riding high: A$AP Rocky
Riding high: A$AP Rocky

A$AP Rocky is hip-hop's brightest star. His sophomore album At. Long. Last. A$AP topped charts worldwide, numbered 1 on iTunes and made him the top-ranked artist on Spotify. His collaboration with Rod Stewart on "Everyday" has been the hit song of the summer, with the rapper fêted by the American mainstream media, including a comedy spot with Stewart on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Now the 26–year-old rapper is making his acting debut in Dope.

Dope debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to much fanfare. It then became the only Sundance hit to play at the Cannes Film Festival, following the route taken last year by Whiplash. It's a tribute of sorts to 1990s urban comedies like Friday, but is told in the style of John Hughes and comes with a sting in the tail that is aimed squarely at racism in America.

It was by chance that Rocky came across the script. The rapper was helping his then-girlfriend Chanel Iman read her lines for Rick Famuyiwa's story about a trio of high-school geeks who adore 1990s hip-hop and after a series of mishaps start selling the popular drug "Molly".

"I came across the Dom character and I thought, I have to try out for this guy, he seems kind of ill," says Rocky. "One thing led to another and the next thing I know, I was on set, being handsome and shit."

A$AP Rocky plays drug dealer Dom in the comedydrama 'Dope'

The rapper does not lack for confidence. Within moments of our meeting, he starts bragging about his sexual exploits. It's the same posturing machismo that can be found in his songs ("I love bad bitches..."), but it's a salvo that seems to give a false account of the man who was born Rakim Mayer, named after the legendary hip-hop artist MC Rakim. Once you get through the bluster, and there is a lot of it, his wit and intelligence have room to shine. Indeed, it becomes hard not to be charmed by him.

His attitude to drugs is a case in point. He cannot wait to share how much he enjoys a puff of marijuana and there are plenty of clips online of Rocky with the A$AP Mob, rolling joints.

"I'm really stoned right now," he informs me. "Marijuana is beautiful and it brings people together. Just look at the 1960s, the hippie days and how it brings people together. Beautiful." He adds the caveat, "I think some drugs are harmful. Amy Winehouse was doing some hard drugs and that shit is not cool. I like magic mushrooms."

Rocky grew up in Harlem, New York. When he was eight years old his father was arrested for selling drugs and Rocky was moved from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, where his homeless family lived in a shelter, and then back to Harlem, where tragedy was just around the corner: his older brother, who Rocky says taught him how to rap, was shot and killed. To make ends meet, Rocky started selling weed and crack in the Bronx. "Most rappers sold drugs at some point and I hate to be so cliché, but that is the way that my story goes too," he says. In Dope, he plays Dom, the drug dealer but "Moving forward, I don't want to play any more roles playing a drug dealer, or a handsome guy."

In 2011 the rags turned to riches. He had become the lynchpin of A$AP Mob, a group of rappers, producers, directors and fashion designers based in Harlem, who carry the A$AP – Always Strive and Prosper – moniker. Rocky signed a $3m deal with Sony, of which $1.7m was earmarked for his solo albums and $1.3m for his company A$AP Worldwide.

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His debut mixtape Live. Long. A$AP contained the hits "Peso" and "Purple Swag", for which he co-directed the music video that has been watched 33 million times on YouTube. He also became a style icon. Unlike his contemporaries, he eschewed baggy clothing and loud labels, opting instead for fitted clothes and jackets, along with the occasional dress or kaftan. His new album contains references to Goyard, Cartier sunglasses, and Raf Simons, among others.

When we meet he is wearing a black T-shirt and black shorts that ride a little too high up his thigh. The look reveals a tattoo on his left leg of an anarchist emblem. He points to it as he talks about race and how it has affected his career. Although Dope has a strong message about racism, Rocky doesn't necessarily support the film's take on stereotyping.

"Race doesn't mean shit these days, especially for me. I'm a free spirit. I refuse to be held back, or marginalised or limited because of colour. Are you Arab?" he breaks off. "You're a minority, so you know how hard it can be. Ten years ago, my people were discriminated like yours. You know you guys [Muslims] are the new niggas. With that being said there are people who play into that and people who don't. I'm an anarchist, man, I don't care about colours and all that."

His definition of anarchism is rather egocentric, however. "It's a society amongst society, why not? I have my own lifestyle. I have a cult following. There are people who actually want to eat what I eat, dress how I dress... and they might even shit how I shit. That is a cult following. I encourage people to be entrepreneurs and be the best that they can be. I'm not stupid, I'm an anarchist."

Does he feel the need to be a role model or represent the downtrodden of society? "No, man," he spits, before adding, "I think I represent the Arab right now. I represent the Arab."

His other tattoos include one that says "Dare to Differ" and another of a cross. He was born Christian and says he believes in God but that he follows no religion, preferring to call himself spiritual. His new album has the acronym A.L.L.A, which he says is a reference to Allah.

Hip-hop stars have a long tradition of moving into acting. "I grew up with guys like the Dom character," says the director Rick Famuyiwa of his decision to cast Rocky. "There was a certain intelligence and charm that these guys would have. Rocky is so smart and such an intuitive actor that you sort of know unexpected casting would play into how I wanted Dom to be perceived. You want to initially think of him in some way, but as you get to know him he isn't quite what he seems."

And what is Rocky getting out of acting? "Man, experience. I know that sounds minimal and stupid but that is the truth. That's why I'm so happy I started off with an indie film that was so good."

'Dope' is released on Friday; A$AP Rocky is touring the UK in October

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