Jamel "ASAP Twelvyy" Phillips was, along with ASAP Yams, one of the founders of the ASAP Mob, the crew that's taken over its hometown of NYC, and much of the world as well. With the solo stardoms of ASAP Rocky and ASAP Ferg firmly established, it's Twelvyy's turn.
Twelvyy's brand-new album 12 paints a picture of his life growing up in Harlem and then in the Castle Hill (or "Castle Hell," as the opening song has it) section of the Bronx, finding his crew, and the triumphs and tragedies that occurred along the way—the most notable of the which is Yams' death in 2015. His loss permeates the album.
I sat down with Twelvyy, 28, at the Complex office to get an idea of how the album came to be—and what a certain cold-remedy-inspired viral hit had to do with anything.
The first thing I wanted to ask you is very serious. There was a period of time growing up where you were banned from listening to rap, so you listened to other stuff instead. So I wanted to know which song on the album was most influenced by the Backstreet Boys.
"Yea Yea Yea" is the only song that I put my rock and pop culture influences around. I could not listen to hip-hop for quite a long time.
So there was a lot of teen pop and whatever was on the radio and MTV.
Backstreet Boys, 'NSync. Man, I remember listening to All American Rejects, Alien Ant Farm, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, watching the Gorillaz on TV every day. I never was like, Yo, I’m about to listen to this rap album. I was like, Yo I’m about to listen to All American Rejects." I’m in the projects, I'm in Kingdome basketball games [in Harlem] listening to pop music while the hood is around me, and it just took me somewhere else.
It was Akinyele who got you in all that trouble?
Akinyele got me in trouble, yeah. I was young and my aunt just had another daughter. So she had two daughters and I’m the oldest one in the house. I’m around the house like, [sings] "Put it in your mouth" and she's like, "Put what? What are you talking about?" I’m like, "I don’t know," and I got my ass whooped. Shout out to Akinyele.
The original title of the album was 2127301090, which isn't actually a phone number—it had a longer explanation behind it. Why change the title? Were you worried about too many prank calls to the number?
Not the prank calls. I feel like it’s easier to present 12. If I got 2127301090 I gotta go through it, I gotta say it fast, I gotta break it down. I wanna break it down later. So right now I just get em to 12.
I’m in the projects listening to pop music while the hood is around me, and it just took me somewhere else.
And then you can get into the 10 percent this, 90 percent that.
The 10% loyal, 90% grimy. Loyal to what you’re loyal to, you’re not to what you not. 730, that’s the mindstate of our whole city. It’s crazy. We are very mental out here.
I know your rap name went through a couple incarnations. Did you ever have a rap name that wasn’t 212-related?
My first rap name was Mel Banks, inspired by Lloyd Banks. My screen name was melbanks11 and Yams' was PurpleCity. We were inspired by our favorite groups at that time—mine was G-Unit and bro's was Dipset. It went from Mel Banks to Mel Love. I went for Mel Love for a month and Yams was like...this was before Yams was Yams. Stevie was like, "I don’t know about that Mel Love—it ain’t gonna hit."
What else did I try? I just tried "Mel," period, and it didn’t work, so "212 Mel" stuck. I actually started a rap group with my bro. His name was 212 Matt. He don’t rap no more, but he used to rap when we was younger. We was just known as 212 together.
I’m in the middle right now of writing a big piece about Stack Bundles.
This is the greatest interview I’ve ever had already, bro. You’re doing a piece on Stack Bundles? Word.
What was it about him that grabbed you, out of all the mixtape rappers of that era?
My first experience with Stack Bundles was the "Y'all Cats Is Trash" video. It was the first Smack DVD video I’d ever seen of him. He had a white tee on, and everybody else had bandanas on they face, camo on—it was crazy.
It looked like one of those war visuals they used to show us. It was like somebody giving a message from Kuwait or something. It looked like he was live from war, rapping. I’m like, who is this? He was the first light-skinned cat I’d seen that aggressive, just talking his shit. I was like, I like this kid.
After "Y’all Niggas Is Trash," he freestyled on "Bad News," and "Bad News" was one of my favorite G-Unit songs. I'm a fan of Queens music, period. Stack Bundles rapped on it talking about rainbow colored diamonds all looking like Italian icey. I said, Italian icey? I’m not into jewelry, I ain’t got no money, [but] I know what Italian icey is. I like Italian icey. This guy’s fly as shit, man.
Then I went and bought the Rap’s Makeover CD myself. [The cover] was a press conference and he had Jay-Z there, Jadakiss, he had mad people there. I’m like, Yo, this kid is really crazy. It was nothing but great music. He didn’t have no trash music, and this was when a lot of people was getting put on and they was trash. They wasn't messing with Stack Bundles.
You were just winding up high school when he died, right?
I was about two weeks away from graduating. I had just gotten reinstated in school. I got kicked out of school, but my mother fought for me to stay in school. I think the day I came back to school, Yams was like, "Stack Bundles died." I’m on my way to school, crying. I was sick. That whole day I caused hell and almost got kicked out of school again.
I came back to school, Yams was like, 'Stack Bundles died.' I’m on my way to school, crying. I was sick. That whole day I caused hell.
Your cousin is [the producer] Buckwild. Did you know about his music and his crew Diggin In The Crates and all that growing up?
When I hit my teenage years. The early years, I didn’t know. My pop would run in and out, drop him off. I didn’t know until one day my pops brought me a bag full of throwback jerseys. I had one of the jerseys on in the "Hella Hoes" video—the Pistol Pete jersey.
Buckwild gave us wild throwback jerseys and shit like that. Remember the Biggie album with the Eminem "Dead Wrong" remix [the posthumous 1999 album Born Again]? He gave us that early. I ain’t gonna lie—he gave me mad Bad Boy music dumb early, the Lil Kim "No matter what people say," all these songs I heard before they even came out. I didn't know until recently.
He used to come give my pops exclusive music, just to listen to. That was my first experience with it. Then getting into the rap game, I still haven’t worked with him because I didn’t wanna make it seem like I was just using my cousin for his name or nothing like that.
It’s funny you mention Bad Boy because you have a line on the new record about how your nickname used to be Diddy. Why?
The first fight I had, I was dancing. I was in the Bronx, I had a fight with this kid, and I was dancing on him. My man Hommo the Great called me Diddy. It went from him calling me Diddy to everybody just being like, "Diddy, yo Diddy, what’s up." And it just stuck.
My whole Diddy lifestyle was a bad boy lifestyle. It was honestly a bad lifestyle. So when I wanted to break away from it, I just got into the Twelvyy.
Would you talk about Yams a little bit? When you first meet him, you’re 15 or 16, you don’t even rap, and you don’t live in Harlem. He says, "I want the best rapper in Harlem," and you’re like, "It’s me." What about him inspired you that much?
His whole internet profile was just the illest I’ve ever seen. It was like, Jim Jones here, it was Max B here, other up-and-coming rappers and artists. I remember he had videos of going to rap battles and stuff like that, so I felt like he was for real. I never seen anybody post, "I’m looking for somebody." So I was like, this is my shot. I hit him back like, I’m gonna make you a million, and it just carried on from there.
[I remember] us meeting on the day of the "Chicken Noodle Soup" video and not getting in and going to Kingdome.
The "Chicken Noodle Soup" video?
I forgot why, but Yams and Teyana [Taylor] used to be a part of some shit called Team N.E.R.D. Yams and Illz and Bari used to be a part of Team N.E.R.D. too.
So I don’t know what happened, but Teyana and Team N.E.R.D. and Yams and them had a falling out, and Yams had made the ASAP shit. I don’t think it was really called ASAP the day we met—it wasn’t really nothing. Big Haiti was the one that made the acronym ASAP: Always Strive and Prosper.
It all kind of just started from "Chicken Noodle Soup." Being inspired by "Chicken Noodle Soup," wanting to be a part of "Chicken Noodle Soup," wanting that to be our video shoot. I remember we got in fights, like, We got to go here, and we couldn’t get in. It was crazy.
I read an interview you did a while ago where you said this record’s been done for years. If I had heard your record in 2014 or 2015, how different would it be from what I heard just now?
It’s a few major elements that weren’t on there at that time, so I’m happy I took my time with it and got through another year of greatness. It wasn’t ready in 2015, 2016. Even if Yams said it was a classic then, there was just still a couple more pieces I had to tweak. Especially "Hop Out" and the skits, and then the outro is about Yams. A lot of the content of "EasTSideGhosT" and stuff like that is about Yams, and it just forced me to finish it. Not in the fashion I wanted to, but…
Since Yams was so much of the brains behind the whole group’s plans and strategy, what has it been like to finish and release an album without him?
It’s weird. It’s just weird. You just want your bro there, but he's not there. That’s about it. But I know he's shining. I know his energy isn’t in the physical form, so I know he still got us.
You open the record with "Castle Hell," about the Bronx. Why put that track first?
That was one of the first songs we recorded for the project. "Strapped" was second. So it kind of went in that order.
"Sunset Park" is another one of the earlier records, but we put it late [in the album order]. It’s a chronological order of my past few years: moving from Harlem to "Castle Hell" and then being "Strapped." I wasn’t strapped in Harlem. I had to go to the Bronx, get strapped, then come back to Harlem on some bullshit. Then "Diamonds," is like, pressure make diamonds. All the pressure and bullshit from the city forced us to become diamonds. The resolution, your last year being broke—it was like: I got these gems, these diamonds, now let me put this together and really make something of myself and excel. After that is "Yea Yea Yea."
I recorded "Yea Yea Yea" the day Muhammad Ali passed away. I was with Harry Fraud, we was in the studio. It’s a chronological order of my life and events that are shaping the world. Muhammad Ali is huge for all of us. He influenced everybody. He’s kind of flashy, but you see how Floyd Mayweather is influencing cultures beyond cultures? Muhammad Ali was the start of that, and I really feel for him.
What connection does your song "Yea Yea Yea (Maps)" have in your mind to the song "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?
This is my third or fourth song with Harry Fraud. One of our other songs is called "Trips," so I was like, let me just call this "Maps." Then I remembered the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made a song called "Maps." I was like, let me call it "Yea Yea Yea." It was weird how [the phrase "yeah yeah yeah"] happened in the hook. I was like, alright, we're just gonna call this "Yea Yea Yea (Maps)."
It’s funny that you mentioned "Trips" because you’re looking forward to the album in that song and you say you want it to be a classic for the people. Do you think you hit that?
Hell yeah. Facts.
You have that false start on "Strapped," which is funny. It reminded me of Just-Ice and KRS on "Going Way Back."
It’s Redman, "Tonight’s Da Night." So it’s me, Yams, and Rocky. [ASAP] P on the Boards already got the beat loaded up. I rap what I rap. Yams comes in there and says, "Nah, do this reference like here," and shows me the Redman shit. And then Flaco came and said his part right there. Because first it was just gonna go back, and Flaco was like, nah. It was like rap school. We was just going through the elements.
It was the same way we did "Trillmatic." I remember Method Man going through the studio. It was different type of energies coming through the studio—like real hip hop, real essence. "Sunset Park" and "Strapped" came out of those sessions.
There's that Hot Boys reference on "Strapped." Were you a big fan of them growing up?
"Hot boy, rolling with the juveniles," yes. They was the biggest things to us from the South. What we knew about the South was kind of vague. But when the Hot Boys came out, I was like, oh now these is fly. They got their bandanas, jewelry, big tees, and all that. I started listening to Hot Boys in 2001—2001 is when they let me listen to rap again, so I was listening to Ghetto Fabolous, I was listening to Ja Rule. Ja Rule is still one of my favorite artists of all time, no gas. Big Pun, Fat Joe, just everything, just going through it. Common, Brand Nubian. I was listening to everything once I got the chance to listen to music again.
What are some of the topics on the album that you found yourself coming back to when you were writing?
The everyday struggle. Staying authentic, staying raw, staying New York City. I love evolution, but I’ve seen with Rocky first coming out, or or Ferg, [people say,] "Yo, these cats don’t sound like New York." My whole mission was to be like, "Alright, you could say that these two don’t sound like the city—but yo, he sound like the city." That was one thing that was in my head too: sounding where I’m from or helping our sound grow.
At this moment we don’t have no sound. New York don’t really got a sound. A bunch of people be like, This is what New York City sound like, and it is not what New York City sound like at all. My pops is not listening to it, you not listening to it, Josh [Dick, Twelvyy's manager] is not listening to it. A lot of this stuff is not what New York City sound like. So I just try to have that with me with writing and making music—just a little taste of what New York City sound like.
You had that great phrase, "The evolution of hoodie rap."
Yams said that.
I saw on Twitter that watched the James Baldwin doc.
Yeah, I seen that this week. I Am Not Your Negro. It was powerful, man.
What grabbed you about it, to the point where you're actually having your fans write essays about it?
The ending, when he said: Ask a white person, why did they make the term up for negro? Do you feel better? It’s like saying somebody's the boogie man. Did you create that word in fear? If you create that word in fear, I’m not mad at you. I can’t be mad, because we all live in fear. And if you project something to be scary, people are gonna live in fear their whole lives until we see that, nah, this is not scary. A black person, a colored person, a nigger, a negro is not scary.
There’s no reason why you should be afraid of us. I’m not afraid of anybody. I love every and anybody no matter the color, creed, whatever, and I feel like we all should be like that. I have a multi-cultural fan base. So I like James Baldwin, y'all should check out James Baldwin too, get insight. I don’t really know what these kids is writing about, but every time I go on Twitter they just talking about some bullshit. So I’m gonna tweet, yo, go do some real shit. I have at least 50-100 essays since then.
That’s beautiful. That’s like, wow. You listening to me that much to go write a paper? Okay, so now what’s next? Go do a paper on Shawn. [Laughs.]
You’re doing this press run in the middle of somewhat of an awkward time for ASAP. One of your guys is in a bad situation. What is it like for you to be in the middle of this moment you’ve waited years for, and there’s this other bad thing happening at the same time?
Honestly, it’s unfortunate, because I know me and my brothers uphold women, humanity, anybody with the utmost respect, and it’s just so sad that that situation happened and it unfolded the way it unfolded.
You and Yams were literally the first members of the ASAP crew. What was it like for you to be third in line coming out? They brought out Rocky and Ferg as solo artists before you. Were you ever impatient?
When Ferg popped, I had this thing with the whole Mob—like, why couldn’t we all be presented?
I understand Flaco came out the gate. He the illest, his style changed the whole world, and it’s still changing. I just felt like we all could’ve just, boom, at the same time. It’s also the earth, it's the universe. Everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t meant for us to all come in at the same time. Right now is meant for me to come in, then it’s meant for Nast to come in, then it’s meant for Addie to come in. We're always gonna have something to look forward to no matter what.
I like that because it also gives me experience. I could find five of the illest kids right now and just chop it up with them—like, This is what you’re gonna do. Be patient. It might take some time, but I went through the trials and tribulations and I know what it takes to get to the top. It took me 10 years. It might take you 10 years, but fuck it, it’s worth it. This 10 year story got me thinking about my next project and my project after that.
What can we look forward to with Ferg’s album and Cozy Tapes Vol. 2?
Nothing but fire. All three projects don’t sound nothing alike. For the rest of the year, you guys have a lot of stuff to jam to and take and get your style from—you know how they like to do it. They like to take our stuff and dissect it and shit like that. This is the most ASAP music y’all ever got in your life to dissect and try to take and create a new ASAP, but it’s not happening.