THE STORY OF NEW YORK hip-hop’s 1990s championship years is in many ways the story of rapper-executive dream teams, pairings that shaped the sound of the city and, after that, the world. The Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy, Jay-Z and Damon Dash, Ja Rule and Irv Gotti — all of these partnerships made the behind-the-scenes swami as crucial a hip-hop figure as the rappers they helped mold.
But you won’t find Yams behind the mixing boards in a studio, or in a corner office at a record label laboring over marketing plans, or huddled with designers creating a fashion line. Just 24 years old, he exerts his pull in extremely nebulous fashion. ”Rocky’s like Luke Skywalker, and I’m Yoda,” Yams said, cackling a bit, one recent afternoon in the South Bronx office that serves as a hangout space for the ASAP crew and where Yams lingers when not at the neat apartment he’s long shared with his mother in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Rocky may be a natural star, one of the most charismatic figures in contemporary mainstream hip-hop and the one with the most expansive approach to his music. But his road to the top was paved with the help of Yams, who is a spirit guide, a muse, a curator of sonic ideas.
Much of what you hear in Rocky — a fully assimilated take on hip-hop styles from across the country and from across time periods — can be traced back to Yams, who spent his formative years studying the genre, then learning how to transmit his taste to others. Hip-hop has long been obsessed with fealty to a specific place and time, and Yams’s vision of the genre as an open house, not a fortress, qualifies as a radical one.
He’s happy, though, to exert pull in the shadows.
“He don’t want to be Puffy,” Rocky said, recalling Puff Daddy’s late-1990s turn from music executive to frontman. ”He’s the mastermind behind the scenes.”
OPEN TO AN OPEN HOUSE
Born to a Dominican mother and a Puerto Rican father, Yams, whose real name is Steven Rodriguez, grew up at the southern edge of Harlem, obsessed with hip-hop. By the time he was 11 he was spending all his free time either listening to the radio or searching for music online. “Even though I lived in the ‘hood, I was still on my Internety geek” stuff, he recalled, whether downloading obscure records off Napster or arguing in Yahoo chat rooms.
Other than that, little held his interest. After spending time in four different high schools, he dropped out but managed to secure an internship with Diplomats Records, home of Cam’ron and Juelz Santana, and he also, at the age of 16, managed a few producers, helping them sell their songs to rappers. To make extra money he’d sell mixtapes on the side or steal from the till of the downtown Starbucks where he worked. Sometimes, when his mother kicked him out of the house over one of his “shenanigans,” he’d sleep in Highbridge Park, in Washington Heights.
But Yams “always had a plan in his mind,” remembers Duke Da God, his Diplomats boss. At 17 he tattooed ASAP on his right arm; Yams had his eye on building a brand.
Yams met Rocky in 2008 through mutual friends, when Rocky was still getting his sea legs as a rapper. Yams saw him as possessing a blend of Kid Cudi’s melodic sense and Mase’s Harlem flash. Rocky also had long, straight hair, pulled into a ponytail. “The good ‘Player’s Ball’ swag, definitely ‘So Fresh, So Clean’ swag,” Yams snickered, referring to some early Outkast looks. Rocky was seeking “somebody who could actually kind of direct to get to where we need to go, and that’s what Yams was. He was like the director.”
That meant almost daily work in the studio: listening to records from all sorts of hip-hop scenes, trying out different rhyme patterns and melodies, seeing which sounded best on Rocky. Soon he was incorporating Houston’s woozy moods and the intricate double-time rhyme patterns of the Midwest. “Yams is the hip-hop encyclopedia,” Rocky said. “He’s no joke. That’s one person I can’t front on when it comes to music.” New York rap is typically hermetic, but they were not. For years New York was hip-hop’s center of innovation and its historical repository, so for a young rapper to look explicitly elsewhere for influence verged on heretical.
The sound they arrived at for Rocky after two years of work included DNA from all of those other places, a platonic ideal of deeply schooled hip-hop.
This is a thoroughly modern idea. The Internet has collapsed eras and places, and ASAP Yams spent most of his childhood downloading. That the first artist he molded would sound like the sum of his accumulated taste was no accident.
“We wanted to become big,” Yams said, “but we didn’t want to do it by hopping on somebody else’s wave. We wanted to come in the game with our own wave.”
By the beginning of 2011 Rocky had a batch of songs that were ready to go. Here again Yams had a plan. Since April 2010 he’d been running a Tumblr — the title is unprintable — which had become one of the most reliable hip-hop tastemaking sites on the Internet, trafficking in obscure gangster rap, scans from old hip-hop magazines, rare photos and all manner of insider jokes. It had a devoted following — it was historical, attitudinal and an alluring blend of street knowledge and nerd knowledge. “That’s what made” his Tumblr “special,” Yams said. “I really mixed both.”
The Tumblr was entertainment, a map of modern hip-hop taste, and, for Yams, also a strategic gambit, “a setup.” Using Tumblr, a blogging platform that allows easy sharing of content, was a conscious choice: “It’s like advertisement.” He was building a reputation as an online tastemaker, spotlighting up-and-coming artists and advocating for a taste level that would be receptive to Rocky’s sound when it was unleashed. “I kept my whole affiliation separate,” Yams said. “I was writing about Rocky like I ain’t know him.”
In April 2011 he posted “Purple Swag,” Rocky’s breakthrough song, a homage to Houston’s chopped-and-screwed music, to which Yams had heavily exposed Rocky. Within months Yams had gotten what he needed from the Internet: Rocky signed a major label contract and a distribution deal for ASAP Worldwide.
That success was a validation not just of Rocky’s skill, but also of Yams’s vision and his ability to infuse it both into Rocky’s music and also into the ears of hundreds of thousands of fans, all without playing so much as a note of music. Yams had built the rapper, and also the audience. All that was left was to convince the mainstream.
Or not. While working on “Long.Live.ASAP,” Yams observed as Rocky experimented with more mainstream sounds and producers, glossier songs that didn’t show off their influences as plainly. More often than not, the result was “not our type of thing,” Yams said.
“He would never have me doing something corny,” Rocky said
The album’s breakout single — which has an unprintable title, “Problems” for short — is an outlier in the Rocky ouevre. “If you listen to the album, there’s not really too many radio-friendly records on there,” Yams noted, “but I think the mainstream is going to change.”
MOGULDOM, OF A SORT
The day after Christmas, Yams was at Brooklyn Bowl, in Williamsburg, for the first concert of ASAP Ferg, the crew’s next-in-line rapper. He arrived early, sipped Hennessey and Coke and generally had the manner of a victorious politician, cracking jokes with a huge coterie of friends and taking pictures with fans.
On the way to Rocky’s breakthrough Yams himself has become something of a celebrity, thanks to cameos (at Rocky’s urging) in Rocky’s early videos, including “Purple Swag” and “Peso.” He has a distinctive look: short and stocky, heavily tattooed, with long hair that he wears loose or knotted into tight braids and with a large birthmark that sprawls across half of his right cheek. He hasn’t taken the train since September 2011. “I was hounded from like 59th Street to 168th Street,” he said with a sigh.
About 32,000 people follow Yams’s Twitter feed, which is one of the funniest in hip-hop, full of lowbrow surrealist gems. He’s a reliable generator of new slang — say, using “cozy” as a boast — and is also the crew cut-up, with a magnetic, cheeky charm. For comedy he still leaves the occasional comment on hip-hop blogs. He’s one of the people moving hip-hop culture forward in ineffable ways, who before the Internet might have been untraceable.
“They have a lot of value but to people outside the music industry you can’t place that value,” said Chace Johnson, one of Rocky’s managers.
What has become widely clear, though, is that he is Rocky’s “rudder,” said Bryan Leach, president of Polo Grounds Music and the man who signed Rocky. Rocky can be eccentric in his fashion, especially as compared with the hip-hop mainstream, preferring high fashion to merely expensive designers, and in some circles his flirtations with other cities’ sounds were read as carpetbagging.
For skeptics Yams is a valuable ambassador. “I play the diplomat,” he said. Whether that means reaching out to veteran and emerging artists in different cities or speaking on the phone with the widow of the influential Texas rapper Pimp C or dressing like he’s starring in a 1998 New York rap video, he is the solid center that anchors Rocky’s trips to the margins.
But success has brought stress on Yams’s preternaturally relaxed shoulders. He sees people hoping to sever his bond with Rocky, even as Rocky insists, “I don’t let nobody come between me and Yams.”
In this, as in all things, Yams is a student of history, and he’s trying to avoid the fates of teams like Jay-Z and Mr. Dash, who split at the height of their joint success. “Whatever they did to Jay and Dame, they already trying to do to us ‘cause they know what I’m capable of and they know what Rocky’s capable of.”
He also has his own demons to quell. His stories of crazy tour escapades — like the night at the Coachella music festival when, high on Xanax and syrup, he almost choked on his own vomit in his sleep — are legion and largely unprintable. On his left arm is a tattoo that reads, “Black Out” next to Xanax bars. “Yams has a penchant for living on the edge,” Mr. Johnson admitted. “Black Out Boyz is very real.”
Yams admitted: “I got to chill. It’s not a good look up there in the office. They’re not gonna have any faith.”
The solution? Keep finding and developing young stars. After Rocky new challenges await. He’ll be working with the extended ASAP crew — the rowdy sing-rapper Ferg, the New York classicist Twelvyy and the rest — and also creating Yamborghini Records, a side label to work with artists outside the ASAP umbrella, like Dash, Vince Staples, Aston Matthews and Joey Fatts. None of these artists are Rocky clones. Yams’s main inspiration in moguldom, he said, is Irv Gotti, who during his tenure at Def Jam helped guide Jay-Z, Ja Rule and DMX, three very different artists, all of whom became platinum stars.
“That’s how I’m branding myself,” Yams said, “so when labels see me, they already know off rip that I’m bringing a star into the building.”