As a kid growing up in Harlem, rapper Marty Baller was already a star in the making—at least at his local block parties. “My mom always talks about how I would win all the dance contests,” he says. “I grew up in a church-going family, so I’d listen to a lot of gospel music and a lot of Electric Slide, Cha-Cha Slide type of stuff. ’80s and ’90s music. I’ve got an old soul, so everything my mother would play in the crib, I would dance around to it.” But all that musicality? It wasn’t necessarily genetic. “My mom thought she could sing, but she never really could,” he laughs.
The 26-year-old Baller played a few instruments, including drums, at church (“I wasn’t the best, so I stopped,” he admits) before finding his calling—making beats and rapping. Now he’s one of the youngest members of hip-hop crew A$AP Mob. It was almost inevitable, considering that he and A$AP Ferg grew up on the same block. “We went to the same junior high school and high school,” he says. “We’d hang out in the neighborhood all the time together at parties. When I was a sophomore in high school and he was a senior, we had a big dice game at lunch and I won about $1,000. We got the limo for his prom, and since I was only a sophomore, I wasn’t allowed to go. So I sat in the limo the whole time, waiting for the after party.”
He didn’t imagine making a career out of rap until a talk with Ferg about six years ago. “He gave me a vision,” says Baller. “He gave me some inspiration about all the things I could be doing with my time. I took my art seriously after that.” But as far as his creative output, Baller won’t be pigeonholed—in addition to his budding hip-hop career, he describes himself as “a freelance painter.” He’ll play a beat and “whatever comes to my mind at the moment, I’ll just let the paintbrush flow. It’s mostly abstract.” As for influences, he gravitates toward the greats. “Even though everybody says Basquiat, I’m really inspired by him because he was actually out here in the same streets and culture as me.”
Though he’s often on flights around the world, Baller’s still fundamentally connected to his NYC roots. “On days when I don’t have work or shows,” he says, “I’m just chilling in Harlem. I got family there, so I might stop and see my grandmother, then come home and record for the rest of the night. I don’t go out unless I have a gig; I’d rather make music.” But these days, he gets plenty of chances to take his work on the road, thanks to his touring schedule. Baller started rapping on stage when, years ago, Ferg took him to South by Southwest, where he did his first real concert. “The way people were reacting,” he says, “I’d never seen nothing like it. I had always just been a dancer behind the scenes.” Luckily, he didn’t find himself plagued by stage fright. “The first time on stage, I was comfortable,” he says. “Like I’d already known that was what I was supposed to be doing. I used to dance in music videos, like ‘Chicken Noodle Soup,’ so once I got on the stage, it felt normal already.”
Someday soon, Baller plans to headline his own tour. “It’s cool to drop music on the internet,” he says, “but when you go to people’s states and they see you in person, it makes them really, truly love your music. Plus, they want to see what you’re wearing.” But a life on tour isn’t close to all that he imagines for himself. “This year, I’m going to get a major deal; I see myself on a higher platform,” he says. “I feel like I’m going to level up and be this big star. I’m going to bring Justin Bieber to Harlem and get him a sandwich from the grocery store, stuff like that. I’m going to be that guy.”
Clearly, he’s no stranger to the power of positive thinking. “I’ve spoken so many things into existence,” he says. “Even me being where I’m at now—I just put it out in the world and it came back.”