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A Rational Conversation With ASAP Yams

Some of A$AP Mob at BET's 106 & Park Studios in July 2013. Standing, from left to right, ASAP Bari, ASAP Yams and ASAP Illz. In front, from left to right, ASAP Ferg, ASAP Twelvyy and ASAP Rocky.
John Ricard
Getty Images
Some of A$AP Mob at BET's 106 & Park Studios in July 2013. Standing, from left to right, ASAP Bari, ASAP Yams and ASAP Illz. In front, from left to right, ASAP Ferg, ASAP Twelvyy and ASAP Rocky.

On January 18, 2015, 26-year-old A$AP Yams was found dead. The cause of his death has not been disclosed. Born Steven Rodriguez, he was a key voice in shaping the sound of and discussion around modern hip-hop. Yams was neither an MC nor a producer, but instead provided vision and leadership for the A$AP Mob, a crew of young Harlem artists, and ran the company A$AP Worldwide along with the rapper A$AP Rocky. Though technically a behind the scenes figure, Yams was a very public presence, and is credited with bringing the open-minded and regionally agnostic approach to the New York crew, resulting in the solo success of A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg.

Last year I was working on an article about A$AP Mob'sL.O.R.D. album, which was to be released in collaboration with Polo Grounds and RCA Records.L.O.R.D. was supposed to be a posse album and showcase for A$AP Worldwide's artists, the type of record that was common in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but had become increasingly rare as major labels put out fewer and fewer hip-hop albums. The release date for the album continued to get pushed back throughout 2014, and in late September Yams stated on his Tumblr that the album had been cancelled.

The following is a portion of an interview with A$AP Yams from August of 2014 about theL.O.R.D. project. It's an indication of how his insights, directness and humor made him so beloved in the music community.

You've had this string of success, first with Rocky and now with Ferg, but instead of focusing on your next solo artist, you've decided to make this group album. What was behind the choice?

We decided to do the group project to keep branding the A$AP Worldwide entity and the A$AP Mob entity. We still don't get the props that we deserve as a legitimate record label, despite us releasing two debut albums from two new artists in a six months time span that were both top five albums on Billboard, which is a crying shame.

In what sense are you not getting the respect you deserve?

There's never any talk of A$AP Worldwide in the same vein as a Young Money or whoever it might be who is a prominent record label in urban music right now.

Why do you think you don't get that recognition?

It's really because we came up as a crew. When people see us, they think of us as a crew. Everybody signed to A$AP Worldwide are people that we grew up with, they are not people we held auditions for in a big office in the Sony building or whatever. They are people we've known since we were 11, 12 years old. We did start off as a crew, but we decided to launch as a business.

Was this always the plan, to do a couple solo albums and then a group thing, or are you guys adjusting as time goes on?

I wouldn't say it was always the plan, because the first A$AP Mob mixtape helped showcase Ferg as a talent on his own. That wasn't our intentions, but that's exactly what happened.

When you've got so many people who are all talented MCs on their own, I'm sure they all want to have their own solo projects and careers. How do you keep them focused on a group thing?

It's always going to be difficult because you've got six or seven different energies pulling at one time. It's not that easy to have that much energy in one room and have it be focused on one thing.

Do you try to get them in the same room together when you're recording or do you have them do their parts separately?

Sometimes it's separately, but most of the time all of us are in the same room regardless, whether we're working on solo music or we're working on group music. It's a family vibe every time you come to our sessions.

In terms of managing all these energies, how do you make sure all the guys in the crew get the shine that they deserve on an album? Is that on you or is that on them?

That's on me and the co-owner of A$AP Worldwide, A$AP Rocky. We want the best from everybody. I want everybody to outshine each other. I want the only competition in this rap game to be between them. If they're not giving their 100 — not even just me and Rocky — the whole crew is going to be like, "Yo, this isn't the one right here." And that's going to make the other one realize they've got to step it up. We are all our worst enemies in this competition in the game of rap.

Is it right that you recorded a lot of the album in L.A.?

We did record some of it in L.A., some of it in New York, just whatever best suits our energy at the time. Sometimes New York might get overwhelming and there's too much accessibility to us. While in L.A., we can drive two hours away somewhere in Studio City and just be alone with our thoughts.

When you guys are recording, are you like, "This song is for the group album" or "This song is for Rocky's follow-up" or "This song is for Nast's debut?" Do you go into the song knowing explicitly what it's for or do you evaluate it once it's done?

We like to take we've got and see what works, because sometimes — let's say Nast records a record that is so strong that we'll decide to put that energy towards Nast's project and keep the ball rolling. We have so much music that we could easily drop solo projects from everybody right now, but it's all timing.

How do you tell when the timing is right?

We dictate when the timing is right, because we're the artists. We should be able to dictate when the timing is right as opposed to getting caught up in what @xxa$apfanatic on Twitter is telling us.

How has it been negotiating between what you guys internally think your plan should be and the thoughts of the larger labels that you're working with and their networks of distribution? You've been switching from that mixtape model where you can put it on the street or the Internet whenever you feel is right to dealing with someone else's machinery.

It comes with its pros and cons, like anything. You have to sacrifice a couple things for the bigger picture. Of course independent artists can brag all they want about how they've dropped six projects in the past four months, but who the f--- is going to care? You're just over-saturating the Internet doing nothing; whereas we like to take our sweet time and treat it almost like it's movies. Not even to make that sound so cliché, but, yeah, the time and effort that we put into these projects is the same way we would do a movie. I study a lot of older releases and whatnot, and the best thing about those classic albums from the '90s and the early '00s was that they made events out of their projects. There were kids lining up around the corner for Get Rich or Die Trying. I know times have changed, but times haven't changed that much. You can still make an event out of whatever album you drop.

In the past, for a lot crew rap albums, there's so much on it that you can't take it all in. Are you dealing with that?

I don't deal with that because I follow the footsteps of the legendary artists that lay the foundation for us. I didn't see more than 10 tracks on Nas' first album. You can go back to the days of vinyl, when albums used to have eight tracks on them. With that comes repetition. People are going to want to listen to it all over again and all over again. That's a good project, you're never going to hear it and be like, "What the f---? I've got s--- to do. I don't have time for this s--- no more. I'm over this." You're never going to hear that.

When I spoke to A$AP Nast, he was talking about how this album has a real gritty New York feel. Do you agree with that? Is that the sound or is that just where his head is at?

It's not throwback. F--- the '90s. You can quote me on this, the '90s can suck my f---ing d---. That's how I feel. We get too caught up in that '90s bulls---. At the end of the day, the type of music that we make might have been popular in the '90s, but guess what, the 12-year-old kid named Willis in Utah doesn't know about Nas' It Was Written, so this is something completely new to this generation. It's f---ed up that everything, whether it's rap music or any type of music, that no matter what, there always has to be a label thrown on it. Oh, this is trap! Oh, this is West Coast ratchet music! It's either f---ing dope music or wack music, in my opinion. There are no f---ing genres. There are no f---ing subgenres. Let's leave that s--- alone already.

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Eric Ducker