On A$AP Yams as a Hip Hop Brand Innovator
My first real moment of properly noticing Yams from the point of view of a fan of A$AP Rocky was in the video/crew montage for the song Demons. I don’t know why it was that particular video exactly that drew my attention to his unique visage but it was. When I saw his birth-marked face close up in the Purple Swag video I must have subconsciously assumed he was part of an assortment of off-beat characters that Rocky kept around to create the alt-but-still-trill vibe that defined the A$AP brand but it became more apparent as we learned more and more about A$AP Mob that Yams was very much at the centre of it.
Funnily enough, the A$AP brand’s real USP is uttered by Rocky in between the waves of Clams Casino-enduced ambience on the song ‘Demons’ in the phrase ‘Hipster by heart but I can show you how the streets feel.’ This is the crux of the group’s appeal across their now global audience and part of the enduring legacy of Steven ‘A$AP Yams’ Rodriguez. In an interview with journalist Jeff Weiss Yams lays out how he ‘moulded’ Rocky and the whole Mob through building on his wide range of experiences which seem to constitute the NY Hip-Hop dream-CV including a stint as an unpaid intern for Dipset in 10th grade (that’s Year 11 for UK readers!) where he witnessed the infamous Harlemites grow from being local mixtape-heroes to crossover superstars and music industry power-brokers without ever losing that salt-of-the-Earth Harlem gumption. Yams maintained a decent foothold in Harlem’s industry hub and would manage a small roster of producers getting them placements on some of the lesser-known Diplomats projects.
Yams learned how to harness the power of social meda without ever taking it as being more than the platform for exposure that it is. Yams created the hype but never succumbed to believing it, which is summarised in an excerpt from an interview with NPR published posthumously where he stated that ‘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;’ This is a lesson that many of today’s ‘content marketers,’ ‘growth hackers’ and proponents of data-driven creativity would do well to learn about. This rush to the new and shiny tech/data/social/content approach that lacks evaluation of effectiveness and just serves to show consumers that your brand is doing the new, innovative cutting-edge thing is in the DNA of all weak branding and advertising creative executions. Of course A$AP Mob, just like Odd Future, Lil B, Danny Brown, Joey Badass, Flatbush Zombies etc. have the social media to at least partially thank for putting them on the map but Yams was never bamboozled by this and would always know when to think bigger.
The pivotal element of Yam’s early development which would shape the insights that he drew from New York Hip Hop’s floundering market was his ability to appreciate the scope of what Hip Hop had become. Yams has a varied palette when it came to personal taste and has cited a broad church of Influences including: Cage, Nas, Wu Tang, Dipset, Bootcamp Click, UGK, DJ Screw and Bone Thugs and Harmony- to name merely a few. Nurturing Rocky’s passion and drive and expanding his horizons musically by putting him on to Houston artists and encouraging him to ‘find your swag and your sound’ not only served to mold a completely new aesthetic template for New York but communicated (largely through the now taken-down ‘Real Nigga Tumblr’) to budding rappers that the invisible sonic borders that defined what rappers in their respective regions should sound like had been erased by the online community where music and art created by people of all different walks of life was accessible to anyone who wanted to find fresh inspiration.
This post-regionalism had surprisingly been largely unexplored before Yams had indentified it as a medium through which to sell Rocky and the rest of the A$AP movement. Taking elements of New York culture such as Street-wear, Art and the idea of the clearly-defined hip hop collective and merging them with the Houston aesthetic of chopped-and-screwed hedonism, the Tupac-esque West Coast braggadocio and the European concept of ‘High Fashion’ Yams’ vision was seemingly radical without telling people something that we didn’t already know. To kind of paraphrase 20th Century Philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes, great marketing only makes sense because they’re tapping in to an idea that is already held. We didn’t need telling that the internet has made the full variety of cultural content available to everyone with access to a computer/smartphone/tablet but the idea and the reality had not properly been capitalised on in the Hip Hop sphere before Yams built the brand that was to become A$AP.
My tribute is a few months late but fuck it- R.I.P. Yams, you elevated the art form in ways in which I don’t think have been truly appreciate yet.