When A$AP Rocky's second studio album, At.Long.Last.A$AP, dropped in May, there was one question on everybody's search bars. Who is Joe Fox? Aside from a brief cameo at Rocky's Red Bull Music Academy lecture earlier this year, the British singer remains totally unknown; and yet, he featured on five tracks on the record, alongside Future, M.I.A., and Kanye West.
Fox's online footprint is small: he released a crowd-funded EP in 2013 (now removed from Spotify), and there's traces of old performances on Youtube. But it seems that before meeting Rocky, Fox's hustle was mostly offline—keeping things old-fashioned, just like his '60s-throwback psychedelic rock songs. During the aforementioned RBMA lecture, the rapper said that he and Fox first crossed paths in the middle of the night on the streets of Soho, London, when Joe was busking and selling CDs. It sounded almost too good to be true, so The FADER tracked down Joe Fox to hear the story of how he went from busking in the streets to bringing the soul of the '60s to Rocky's A.L.L.A. in his own words.
JOE FOX: When I was younger, we moved around a lot. My dad was not a very nice person, so my mum got away from him. I never got to meet him. My mum’s new boyfriend—my sister’s dad—was really violent, so my mum had no choice but to keep moving around England to get away from him. We stayed in these women’s refuges; one in the north of England, and a few dotted around. I was always moving around schools; I’d be at a school for about six weeks, and then we’d be gone.
We did get housed in one place, but then my mum would do crazy stuff. She’d bring back a rotating cast of strange characters and odd people. Once she brought back a guy from the town center who was homeless and let him live in our shed. Eventually, she wasn’t allowed to look after me. So I was in [institutional] care for a bit. For a while, when I was 12 or 13, I lived with family in east London. Then my mum was granted custody again, so I went back to her, and she’d been housed in Leeds somewhere. It’s been really good training for music. Everything changes all the time, and you can’t pin anything down.
I used to buy different guitars. I can’t remember the first guitar I had—I was a teenager; I started music quite late. I’d buy cheap guitars from charity shops, or just borrow guitars from friends. One of the first songs I heard, where I really fell in love with music—there’s no way of saying this without sounding corny—but when I hard “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks, it was like something else. When you’re young, a lot of things don’t make sense to you. When I heard [“Waterloo Sunset”], I was like, "Wow." I wanted to be inside the song. I wanted to be the people walking on Waterloo Bridge. I just wanted to be part of that world. I always had this ambition to be a singer-songwriter.
When I first picked up a guitar, I wrote a few really bad songs about dads who leave their kids. That never really leaves you, but when I was younger, it was a lot stronger. Now, I realise that that childhood kind of shaped me. So I’m quite happy.
I was with a girl [before I met Rocky], and I was very much in love. She told me to persevere with music. She was an arts student, so she introduced me to a lot of fine art and alternative things that I hadn’t really been aware of. We listened to the Velvet Underground, Tracy Chapman, Carole King. So I hadn’t really been listening to modern music. I knew the name A$AP Rocky, but when I met Rocky, I couldn’t put the name to a face.
The night we met, I had just sold three CDs to a group of Swedish girls. I sold three CDs for 15 quid, so I was very happy with myself. I kept going through Soho. I see Rocky, and a producer [we'd end up working] with on the album, and maybe one other guy, a studio guy. I did my usual routine. I said, “Do you guys want a CD?” Rocky said, “No, but play something.” I went, “Oh, okay,” and I played, and then, here I am. A lot of people think we’re making this up. A lot of people have come to Rocky and his management and said, “What’s the truth?” But that is the honest truth.
He liked [the song] a lot, and he said, “We’re going to Starbucks, come.” So I went. I just thought, fuck it. We just talked about music, and he told me that I sound like a lot of ‘60s artists. Then we went back to the studio and made some music, and it just snowballed from there. I had nowhere to live, so Rocky said, “You can stay in my hotel room, stay on the sofa or something.”
Sometimes, [Rocky] would play me something, and I’d react to it and write to it. Sometimes I’d just come to him and say, “Look, I’ve got this.” “Holy Ghost,” for instance, the first song: we did that with Danger Mouse, and I had that Holy Ghost, I’m on my knees hook. Rocky wrote the entire rap for that in one night. He just put it down. I think if things are meant to happen, then they just happen quite quickly and organically. It was never a struggle.
“Electric Body” was also done in a night. Schoolboy Q wrote his rap and put it down, Rocky wrote his rap and put it down, and then I just added that little hook and went to sleep. Schoolboy Q told me I had a “sample voice.” A lot of people have said that; when they say “sample,” they mean an old record. So it’s cool when people say that. When we were mixing the record, one engineer was even trying to Google the sample on “Max B.” He was googling the lyrics, trying to find out where the sample was from. It was like, “No, that’s Joe.”
When you do a session with Rocky, a lot of people will come through. It could be a world-famous fashion designer, or a grime MC. The first sessions were just like that. For this album, everything was done at night. Everything I’ve sung on this album was between the hours of 1am and 6am. When I was in L.A., I read in a magazine that Bob Dylan only worked at night.
We’re still making music, and we’re rehearsing for the tour, so we’re just kind of carrying on. Rocky’s advising me a lot...nothing’s changed, really. He’s a really down-to-earth, decent guy. It’s one thing to say someone’s good and see their potential. But to kind of let them live with you...This was the first time I really felt like a project was going to work out well, and the first time I really got excited by the music I was doing.
In New York and L.A., people came up to me, which is cool. It’s kind of insane: I was homeless a year ago, and now the album I’m on is number one. While I was doing Rocky’s album, if I wasn’t doing that, I'd be working on my own songs, trying to write the best songs I could. And fuck it—now I’m kind of in a position where I just feel like there’s an album that I want to make, that I’m going to make, because I just don’t really hear the music that I like. And I haven’t heard it for a while. I’ve been losing a lot of sleep making my own stuff. I'm totally obsessed. Songs literally have saved my life.