It’s unthinkable that A$AP Yams is dead because no one seemed to celebrate life more. He popped bottles unconditionally with the zeal and brash swagger that can only come from Harlem. He was part Malcolm McLaren, part Irv Gotti, part Puerto Rican R. Kelly. He absorbed the 8-miles high “ballin” of Jim Jones and Max B, transferred it from the block to Tumblr and back. He even resurrected the word, “Jiggy.” For that alone, he deserves to strut past the pearly gates and be immediately presented with 72 shiny suits and Aaliyah. Ja Rule’s “Livin It Up” blasting.
I never knew him personally, but from the outside, he seemed like an asshole in the best sense of the word—the way that Kanye used it to pay tribute to himself and Dame Dash on “Get Em High.” Others joked about their personal brands, Yams turned savant-like gifts of good taste, social media savvy, and singular slang into overnight celebrity. He savagely talked shit, suffered no fools, and artfully pulled a multi-million dollar gambit on the rap industry. If you read RealNiggaTumblr, you already know. Plus, you got put up on obscure cuts from Messy Marv, Max B, and the Major Figgas. That was just the “M’s.”
In early 2012, I was slated to start a hip-hop column for Pitchfork. Before his role in A$AP Mob’s rise was well documented, the first edition intended to tell the story of the crew, centered around Yams’ role as the mastermind. For a variety of reasons, the article never ended up getting finished. So for the last three years, I’ve sat on one of the more extensive interviews that Eastside Stevie gave. In the wake of his untimely passing, I’m running it in full. Rest with Pesos to one of the waviest.
How did your first industry job with Dipset come about?
I started in 2005 and knew Karen Civil who worked with them. Juelz Santana had a store up in Harlem that sold all customized clothes and one day I talked to Karen in there and asked if she could help me get an internship. I was in the 10th grade.
She helped me get the unpaid internship. I dropped out of high school and ended up packing up Dipset mixtapes. I wasn’t making any money, so I’d steal a couple here and there and sell them to mixtape stores.
No one really wanted the interns to utilize their resources, but I did the exact opposite–hustling, eavesdropping on conversations, soaking up game. I watched Jim Jones closely as he went from being Cam’s right hand man to being an A&R at Warner — having his own company card and shit like that. Just watching them, I learned a lot about how to conduct business.
What sort of music did you listen to growing up?
I was a backpacker growing up, but on some good backpack shit — listening to Cage and shit like that. I first really got into Hip Hop in ’98, so I was listening to a lot of Cam’ron, DMX, Big Pun. If I found one artist that I liked, I needed to find all the materials — all the CDs. I really had to know if they were the shit or not. I was a student of the game, always listening.
Even at 12 years old, I was going back to hear Main Source’s Breaking Atoms. I was really on that kind of shit, Boot Camp Click, you know. 8th grade was my catch-up period. It was when I first head Illmatic, bought Raekwon’s first album, Wu’s first album. DJ Red Alert tapes. Park jams. I really grew up in it.
Did you have any family connected to the music?
Not really. Although one of my in-laws was Prospect from Terror Squad.
How did things change after Dipset broke up?
Everything changed. Dipset wasn’t just the voice of Harlem — they were the voice of New York for the longest time. G-Unit was really close-knit and didn’t really want to fuck with anybody. Then for a minute, it was just Jim Jones and Juelz.
Everyone that rapped in Harlem broke off from Dipset, on some Wu Tang Killa Bees shit. Even me, I came from a Dipset background, everyone was affiliated.
What did you learn from them that you applied to A$AP Mob?
You gotta get what you want out of any situation. You gotta be an asshole about it. You gotta utilize resources to the most of your ability. Sometimes a label might not wanna give you them. One time they tried to do that to Dipset and Cam took a fire extinguisher and started spraying everyone in the office. He was going off. And they got what they wanted.
But now in todays age, you can’t be street in those offices. There’s a lot more paperwork. You can’t be like 50 Cent and Cam smacking people in the Sony building and bragging about it.
Did you always go to school in Harlem?
I actually went to Junior High School on the Upper Westside. Everyone from Harlem went there. It was a real segregated school that occupied a couple floors of a building. I was on the worst one. The other kids had fancy Apple’s and Mac computers and we had IBM’s and shit.
Did you ever rap?
I used to rap in middle school, trying to be like Nas and extra-lyrical. My rap name was Sensei the Golden Child and I’d battle people. To this day, if you’re around us, even with me, I’ll be in the studio. Rocky will be playing a beat and I’ll be rapping some shit in my head, but that’s just natural.
Did you go to college at all?
I did try college for one semester at BMCC, but I took my student loan and got some gold teeth. I didn’t get no books.
Had you always wanted to be in the music business?
I’d been trying to since the 9th grade. Even then, I used to manage producers while I was in high school. My first album placement was getting one of those producers on Trae’s Restless. I got placements on miscellaneous Dipset albums and mixtapes — so even as a sophomore, I’d be walking around with industry money in my pocket.
How did your influence helped shape Rocky’s sound?
When I first met him, he sounded like Kid Cudi mixed with Lil Wayne. If I was a rapper, I’d be the illest motherfucker alive, swagging like a motherfucker. So I took all my inspirations that I wanted to see in a rapper and molded it into Rocky. All that shit was premeditated. A year ago , before all that shit happened, I was like Rocky, ‘you gotta listen to that Houston shit, this is the wave.’ He started listening to it and started naturally getting influenced by that shit.
He used to sound more like a stoner rapper and I was like not trying to hear that shit — not trying to hear about motherfuckers getting high and smoking doobies. I was trying to hear some trill shit and you can see the influence.
If you watch the “Get High” video, you can see the Kid Cudi influence. What I did was mold the new influences and market him on some brand new shit. I tell everyone before they make it: find your swag and your sound.
Once we had that down pat, it was a matter of trial and error for two years, until we felt comfortable putting some shit out. The way people approach the Internet, they tweet their music and spam you. That’s not the way to do it. You’ve got to package your product confidently.
How did the “Purple Swag” and “Peso” videos come about?
That was all Rocky’s doing. It sounds cliché, but everything in rap is a cliché. During that period, he really sat down and jotted down ideas. He was behind the person shooting, saying, ‘I want this that way.’
One thing that bothers me is that when “Peso” dropped, people were talking shit about how he was trying to sound Southern. “Peso” is what NYC rap is supposed to sound like in 2012. We’ve been so lost for so long, trying to keep up with the club shit. All them motherfuckers is drunk, they don’t give a fuck whose song it is. Bumping Chingy, doing the chicken on the dance floor, and they not gonna remember any of it when they wake up in the morning. “Peso” is new New York rap.
We never purposely try to sound like anything ever, even with the whole Houston thing — it was all natural. If you listen to Rocky’s music, it never follows certain song structure. It was so dope that the mix DJs actually picked up on it before we had a deal. I remember the first time we heard “Peso” coming out of a car. We were just chilling in Harlem and a car just rode past us bumping it. I think we were about to cry that day. A car in NYC was playing our shit — shit that Rocky recorded in a closet somewhere in Brooklyn.
How would you define new New York rap?
It’s not really progressive, but 2012 is the changing of the gods. It’s like when Nas came out and everyone’s rhyme style wasn’t simplistic anymore. Or ’98, when DMX came out and a whole new wave started. Then we didn’t have another golden year until 2012. Now we got Flatbush Zombies. I’ve known them personally for a long ass time and almost died at their crib once. We got Bronson, Mr. MFN eXquire. This is the new age for the new generation.
Before that, everyone was either trying to keep up with the clubs or sucking Jay’s dick. Everyone was trying to fall into line with someone else. There was no fresh movement besides Diplomats and G-Unit, and that was 8 years ago. None of these young motherfuckers could relate.
There was no voice for the youth in NYC. I like listening to Uncle Murda, but I doubt a 15 year-old kid who skateboards and looks at bitches on Tumblr does.
How did the whole mob come together?
ASAP Bari is kind of the one that brought everyone together. He was bothering me, ‘you gotta get this kid, he nice, you gotta talk to him.’ He knew I was doing the music thing. One day I met Rocky, but a fight broke out, and I couldn’t chop it up with him like that. I didn’t get to speak to him for another 6 to 7 months.
Then one day, he called me from Alabama (where he was going to school) and said, ‘I really wanna make this happen. What we gotta do to make this shit rocking.’ He flew back up here, and as soon as I met him, we automatically had natural chemistry. I knew what he needed to sound like and he knew how I worked. We just liked the same shit, which made it easier.
How did you end up hearing about him in the first place?He used to chill a lot on my block because he went to school two blocks away. He knew all the same people that I hung out with when I was 11 or 12, but we never had met before.
Did you already have the name ASAP at that point?
My homie Adi had come up with the name. It was originally a management company, but it sounded so authentic and genuine that we ran with it.
When I first met Rocky, he had about three tracks recorded and had barely gone into the studio before. He didn’t know how to work sometimes. It sounded like he was mumbling. He still needed to get everything together.
At that time, I was still managing producers — that’s where my money was coming from — that and other dirt hustles. I went from managing producers to the point where I was like, I want to turn A$AP into a legitimate record label, not just a rap crew record label, where it’s one star and everyone else falls in line. I aspire for it to be the next Def Jam, where we sign legitimate acts, where we really have talent and stand on our own — not just on Rocky. A lot of people still think I’m the weed carrier, but that’ll change.
How did you end up starting RNT?
I was bored one day. I thought Tumblr was gay at first. I thought it was some real emo shit. My bitch at the time had a tumblr, so I started one and that shit was addicting as fuck that shit and wavy. I was getting pussy off Tumblr. People started becoming fans of that shit, hitting me up and being like, you put me up on Max B. I eventually started using it to promote Rocky.
How did everything change when “Purple Swag” dropped?
That was the most annoying time. Everyone in the industry hates me. They were like, ‘Fuck Yams, why doesn’t he pick up his phone? Rocky needs more serious management.’
What happened was: I turned my phone off. Motherfuckers were bothering us. They were trying to give us the new artist deal, the $50-100,000 bullshit new artist deal. I was like, “I’m good, fuck that. Dickhead A&Rs are the most annoying people I ever met. I hate them.
The rap world would be a lot better if bloggers had more of a business mindset. Then when “Peso” dropped, that shit was the most insane shit. No one wanted to give us what we wanted and we had some crazy ass demands. The first thing we wanted was a label deal, our own imprint, nobody even know who the other A$AP artists were. They were like, ‘you want a imprint, what?’
What made you sign with Polo Grounds?
They had faith in us and put their minds and money behind us. It’s funny because Bryan Leach, the owner of Polo Grounds wanted to kill me because I was literally not picking up his phone call for two months. We’d met through a mutual friend, one of Rocky’s managers, and he introduced us to [Leach] and we got a feel for him.
He knows how to work records. He’s major, but knows how to be independent. People looked at us like we were crazy. They expected us to sign to Def Jam, but we went with who provided the best deal for us. He got us what we wanted.
Had they heard all of LiveLoveA$AP?
No, they heard a couple cuts without hearing the whole thing. The story that we pumped was: we got a brand new artist, young as fuck, from New York which is a dead market right now. There’s no way any of us can lose in a situation like that.
It was a very lucrative deal. But people that don’t know about the music industry automatically say, ‘How the fuck did you get three million?’
How did you get all those artists on the first mixtape?
I put Rocky onto Schoolboy Q. We would listen to Setbacks all day. And he really fucked with us off “Purple Swag.” That was love right there. If you just heard that one song, you could’ve taken that as gimmicky, but he didn’t.
But really, people fucked with me off the strength off the Tumblr. Clams fucked with me too from it. They started asking me about Rocky. We was just working off the love back then, no one had blown up or caught that wave. Clams was still preparing to drop his Tri Angle EP. He was only popular on Tumblr at the time.
How did the Drake tour come about?
Through two people — Chase n Cashe and a guy named Tom. He played one of them the “Purple Swag” record and the next day it was on OVO’s blog and after that, it went to a whole other level. It wasn’t just Tumblr anymore.
I have a genuine respect for Drake. People can say whatever the fuck they want, someone with that many #1 hits, for them to bring someone from the underground and pay respect to them, means they’re a student of the game. He has respect for all sub-genres.
What’s the immediate future look like?
The debut A$AP Rocky album, but we also might do a mixtape with DJ Clue too. We’re going to work all the artists in A$AP Mob — looking to sign and obtain new talent to add to the roster. But right now, it’s about molding our brand and our music.
What’s your ultimate goal?
I want A$AP Worldwide to be treated like a legitimate record label with actual artists on it and actual platinum plaques. Rocky is a fashion weirdo, so he’s going to work on his fashion shit and all that — probably even do a film company, put out some books and shit. We just do wanna do some wavy shit.
ZIP: RNT’s — Best of Major Figgas