From the radio to the video to the studio, Complex rolls with A$AP Rocky, A$AP Yams, and the whole A$AP Mob as they step through the portal to rap stardom.
Written by Rob Marriott (@Tafari)
Here he is, stepping out the hired car on this warm December day, the very model of a modern wavy nikka. Portrait of the artist as a young Trill MC, firmly in the grips of that ephemeral Internet fame, looking to turn it into potential fortune. Here he is pow-wowing with his handlers before going to see Angie of Hot 97’s Angie Martinez show, one of the well-established portals to rap stardom.
Rocky’s style is an amalgam of ’90s nostalgia and ’80s get-fresh redux. Maybe it’s the French braids, or his Uptown roots, or his deceptively simple spit, but it reads real Boom Bap: Old School: Essentialist.
We’ve seen it all before, but there are indications that something’s fresh in how Rakim Drayton slash A$AP Rocky, wears his new levels of distribution. He arrives at the Hot 97 building on Manhattan’s west side looking brand new: BAPE camouflage and a thick, tactile crème Timberland scarf. BAPEs on his feet to make the cipher complete. He’s wearing Black Scale, a label savvy enough to hook up with him before his fresh is maybe not so fresh. Maybe he’s the new math, the next step in the evolution of the NYMC. Maybe his alienhead flow and his crew are the new configuration looking to wrench Frank White’s dilapidated throne from its present owner. (Is it still Jay? SMH.)
A good part of his appeal is throwback. Something about this lanky cat recalls an Eighties-era Master of Ceremony—the street voodooists who rocked crowds at the Latin Quarter and the Rooftop—existing somewhere between fantasy and futurism. Rocky’s style is an amalgam of ’90s nostalgia and ’80s get-fresh redux. Maybe it’s the French braids, or his Uptown roots, or his deceptively simple spit, but it reads real Boom Bap: Old School: Essentialist.
Rocky’s pressing shoulders with the just-arriving members of the A$AP movement. “Lookityou,” says Chace Infinite, an A$AP booster who runs the clothing store Prohibit NYC, which served as the womb for A$AP’s combination of style and sonics. “Scarf lookin’ like a Brillo pad.” Rocky laughs, halfway between humble and dismissive. The move is faintly reminiscent of a young Mason Betha, when he still carried the Murder in his name. Rocky got Harlemite tendencies. Politic with him for any length of time and what becomes evident is that, despite the hype about his Southern-inflected sound, there is more Uptown influence in his style, demeanor and music than anything else.
The A$AP crew touch base with the head of Polo Grounds Music, Bryan Leach. The former head of urban A&R at TVT Records, Leach worked with Lil Jon and the Ying-Yang Twins before starting his own company, which is distributed by RCA/Sony and has handled publishing, management, marketing and promotions for Pitbull, Nina Sky, Yo Gotti, and Yung Joc. He discusses security procedures while the Sony people brief Rocky on Angie and the show. A$AP Rocky is high-school athlete cocky, and seems to pick up quick. Though still an Internet phenomenon, this is his graduation into that old-world distribution and all the money that comes with it.
A$AP Yams, the stocky Latino cat with the Kool-Aid mark across his right cheek in the “Peso” video, watches quietly from the side. He’s got a kinda gully Yoda thing to him. The purple mark below his right eye is balanced by a tatted cross below his left: a bit of subtle signifying psychological technology. “The cross on my face is sign of courage,” he says. “It means God is with me wherever I go.” A$AP Rocky and the mindstate he reps are in no small part Yams’ vision. Taking a page out of the Wu-Tang manual, he and Rocky formed A$AP Worldwide.
There’s a lot of grassroots movements poppin’ up all over the country—in the South, on the West coast. We right there with them. We gonna usher in the digital era, feel me?
“There’s a lot of grassroots movements poppin’ up all over the country—in the South, on the West coast,” Yams observes. “We right there with them. We gonna usher in the digital era, feel me?” Realizing blogs were supplanting mixtape DJs as the most vital means of spreading your word to the digital underground, YAMS started realniggatumblr in 2010 as a hardcore challenge to the reigning rap-blog narrative. The site spread like wildfire.
“Honestly, I started realniggatumblr to push Rocky out there,” says Yams. “It was always a hustle. It was slow at first, but once Rocky had some visuals, it immediately went viral. We went from 4,000 hits in a day to 100,000 hits in a week. Rocky’s video is at 4 million hits now and that’s all thanks to the Tumblr and word of mouth on the Internet.”
“People always wonder how they got that sound,” Chase says, nudging his head toward Yams. “That’s his palette.”
“Hell yeah,” says Rocky, overhearing the conversation. “That’s the guru.”
Throughout the ’90s Yams traveled throughout the South and felt the musical energy first-hand. Before that he was a strictly Nas/DMX type fan, but his exposure to Slim Thug and Swisha House changed his mind. “I pay homage to them all the time," he says. "I got a screwhead tat on my neck.” Yams brought the sounds of Three 6 Mafia, UGK, and DJ Screw back to his peoples in Harlem. It opened them up, widening their influences, resulting in a truly original sound and feel—and, now, a $3 million budget to develop Pretty Flacko and the rest of the crew.
The surest sign of success? Since the LIVELOVEA$AP mixtape dropped “we are starting to hear grumbles here and there,” Yams admits. “But older heads appreciate it. But to me it’s like there is no bad hip-hop. It’s just hip-hop. There’s all different veins to this.”
They head up. In the elevator to the radio station, Rocky’s manager Gino notices rusty knuckles. He hands Rocky some lotion—all part of the manager’s job. Cats have jokes. Rocky laughs it off. “Yooo, I didn’t have time…”
At the radio station, A$AP banters with Angie as if trying to charm a high school music teacher he’s feeling. She seems almost persuaded until he offers her the A$AP tag. Maybe too much. Angie demurs, sensing game. He explains that A$AP is not his individual name but his affiliation. Something like the “Darth” title in the Star Wars flicks. They talk about the fact that, yes, A$AP is named after the GOAT (I said it), Rakim Allah.
“Was this your father’s decision or your mother’s decision?” Angie queries.
“It was mutual.”
A$AP almost leaves before telling Angie another mythical if not apocryphal story: When he was still an infant, his Moms was holding him on the corner of 125th Street. Rakim rolled up in a jeep, idling at a light. Peeping her son’s namesake, she raced out into the street, almost killing both herself and the baby in a bid to get the God to sign little Rakim’s Pampers. She explained how the boy was named after him and Rakim obliged. Twice. She had him sign a fresh diaper for posterity. “The messed up thing is she had to use that one too,” A$AP says.
Angie laughs. “I love your mother!”
“I was destined to do this,” he concludes.
“I love your mother,” Angie repeats.
A$AP’s link with the God runs even deeper. Later that evening, he recounts the time when he copped his first cassette. “It was The 18th Letter. I bought that when I was eight going on nine. My brother told me to pick some music to buy. I was about to get the soundtrack to Mortal Kombat.” A$AP Ferg dies.
“I was big on the Sega Genesis and the Saturn,” Rocky continues. “I was about to buy that and he’s laughing at me. So I looked at the Rakim joint and they had the cassette joint with all of Rakim’s greatest hits on the one side for like five dollars. I heard ‘Know the Ledge’ and got stuck on it. Plus I loved the movie.”
Ferg remembers rhyming to it and starts to spit their custom lyrics. Rocky’s eyes light up. “Railroad Ugg shit/A$AP ain’t nothin to fuck with/Here’s the new swag for your clique to run with/I ain’t even goin’ hard/Just havin’ fun with it/Flow so sick some just can’t stomach/Time to build my juice back up... Oh, how that go?” He turns to A$AP Ferg and they go back and forth, trying to remember the four-year-old rhymes, imitating Ra’s cadence and rhythmic punctuation.
They had the cassette joint with all of Rakim’s greatest hits on the one side for like five dollars. I heard ‘Know the Ledge’ and got stuck on it. Plus I loved the movie [Juice].
After saying his goodbyes to Angie, Rocky does some drops and a video feature for the website. Next some meet-and-greets. Everything is very new and efficient and Rocky is acutely aware of what it all means. Some of the crew wear A$AP jackets that re-appropriate the anarchy symbol, more street voodoo for the age of the digital brand. Their movement is taking its first baby steps.
The crew piles into two cars and rolls to Quad Recording Studios in Times Square. Gino, the manager, takes the train, saying, “I’ll get there before you.” He helped A$AP Worldwide get their deal with Polo Grounds and then with Sony.
“I just wanted to make sure they have the team,” he says, sitting back on the R train. A ten-year vet of the industry who’s worked with Bad Boy, he’d given up on the music business until he came across A$AP. “You have to do things with passion,” he says. “If you do it for the check then you find that it was not worth the effort. I learned that working with Puff.”
A$AP Worldwide files into the downstairs lobby of Quad, hip-hop’s grassy knoll. Even now, Tupac Shakur haunts the place. As we wait for the elevator, A$AP Ferg and A$AP Twelvy go back and forth about each other’s breath.
“You got the Bilal breath.”
“Your breath smells like Keith Sweat after a concert, nigga.”
Upstairs in the lounge, more A$AP Crew trickle in. Eighteen-year-old Ty Beats, the producer of “Purple Swag” and “Pe$o,” looks like he just crawled out the womb. The creator of their signature sound is still barely out of high school. A$AP Ant is dressed extra-fresh, rockin’ the Jeremy Scott winged adidas. A$AP Rocky’s playing pool. The monitor on the wall is turned to 106 & Park and just as they’re about to flip the channel the dreamy visuals for “Peso” pop up the screen.
“I be that pretty _______.” The censors erase nearly half the song. No gunshot in the hook. No sex or violence. BET even bleeps out his reference to “neck.” Rocky looks up from the pool table and sees the TV. He stops and for a second, transfixed. First time on 106 & Park. Another portal open. “That’s trill right there,” he says, almost to himself. He turns back to the pool table. “Fuck! I’m losin’.”
Rocky looks up from the pool table and sees the TV. He stops and for a second, transfixed. First time on 106 & Park. Another portal open. 'That’s trill right there,' he says, almost to himself.
The team is hype. A$AP Ferg, laughing about some earlier incident, bangs finger guns with Twelvy. The consensus in the smoking room chatter is that the Lakers did Odom dirty. A$AP Nast, rocking the GENERAL cap, suggests an approach to Rocky on how to spit a certain verse—a kind of rhyme technician.
Ferg and Rocky start imitating rapper flows over an asymmetrical beat. A$AP does a pitch-perfect Wiz and Juve, Ferg interrupts with Ice Cube. Yams deliberates over which beats to choose for a chopped and screwed tape, NY style. Someone suggests Dr. Dre 's “Next Episode." Food is ordered. The whole crew are pescatarians—no red meat, no poultry, no pork. It’s part of the A$AP rules. No diamonds either. Strictly gold.
Asked whether he feels like a millionaire yet, Rocky shrugs. “Naw. We just some regular niggas. Look at us. We can’t feel like that till all my niggas get it.” Unity is part of their trope, hence the common A$AP title. It conveys a oneness. Yams: “That name best represents who we are,” YAMS explains. “We Always Strive and Prosper. Accumulate Status and Power. Always Stacking Always Paper-chasin’. But we in the hood so we tryna Assasinate Snitches And Police,” he adds with a smile. “And that’s it.”
Nast, Ferg and Rocky do some loose freestyles in the booth. After an unappealing veggie burger from the nearby deli, Rocky’s starting to show signs of the full-on day. And he’s got hours to go. In spite of all the crew love, it’s hard not to sense the fragility of the situation. A record contract is an opportunity that can quickly become a burden. Hype can turn to hate—or worse. Rocky disappears under his Pagille hoodie on the verge of a nap. “We don’t care about any of that other shit. We just do us.”