Life After Death: Why A$AP Yams Matters

“Love your niggas that you rollin with. Love them. Cause it’s hard to see who care. So when you do get a chance to absorb some real live niggas around you that’s on some money shit and know how to go about business and got love, it’s gonna make your trip mo’ better...It’s all about having a family.” -Raekwon the Chef  

There has always been that sort of familial structure Raekwon speaks of behind some of the most successful entities in the rap game, hip hop families such as Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Death Row, and The Diplomats are representative of collectives that wield a longstanding cultural significance. A$AP mob is the newest addition to that list.

In the A$AP family, Steven “Yams” Rodriguez was the father.

He wasn’t a rapper. He wasn’t a DJ. He wasn’t a stylist. He wasn’t even an executive. He was hip hop’s spirit guide. A friend. A tastemaker. A$AP Yams was culture.

At the forefront of the A$AP movement was Rocky, but the masterminds in the foregrounds were Bari, Illz and A$AP Yams, the mob’s founding member who passed away January 18th of this year – an abrupt ending to a promising career.

We are over a week removed from Yams’ passing, but the cause of death has yet to be determined. It’s a cryptic ending to a success that was definitely certain. The A$AP collective took the hip hop world by storm these past few years. Crew members like Rocky and Ferg have gone on to sign multi-million dollar contracts with major labels, move hundreds of thousands of units of music, and tour the world. Their influence even transcends music – A$AP Rocky has appeared in Vogue magazine and is set to do Men’s Fashion Week in Paris soon. All of these accolades and merits are derivatives of the driving force behind the crew: Yams.

If you know the importance of rapper-executive dream teams throughout hip hop, then you know why A$AP Yams matters.

A$AP Yams was to A$AP Rocky what Punch is to Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment, or what Irv Gotti was to Ja Rule. The rise of young A&R, Puff Daddy paired with the Notorious B.I.G. is probably the most famous of the bunch. But the industry history dates further back. The late, great Dick Griffey, aka founder of SOLAR Records, aka the person who introduced Babyface, Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, TLC, and more to the world, aka the toughest record exec ever,chad a strategy of simply aligning himself with talent; people he knew were stars before they were stars. That Griffey gift is what Puffy, Dame, and Irv had. It’s what A$AP Yams had – the ability to recognize potential in  an artist, and then cultivate it.

Yams played an integral role in the success of rapper A$AP Rocky. His co-executive producing of Rocky’s long-awaited sophomore album scheduled for release this year is the least of his creative contributions. Yams was a collaborator, a friend, a spirit guide. Rocky’s expansive approach to hip hop – the high fashion aesthetic, mixed with southern rap stylings, and New York appeal – is a byproduct of Yams’ teachings. In an interview with The New York Times he’s quoted as saying, “Rocky’s like Luke Skywalker, and I’m Yoda.”

His parallels to older figures in the game, coupled with his paramount influence on nouveau hip hop’s current success are indicators that Yams stood as a composite figure of the past, the present, and the future. His persona embodies the essence of all three periods.

Yams knew the importance of studying  and that the key to being successful is making note of what the best-of-the-best did in the past, then figuring out a way to do it better.  At sixteen he was managing artists, acting as a liaison between producers and rappers. He sold mixtapes, landed an internship with Diplomat Records, and fortified early visions of building his own brand. At seventeen he tattooed the letters “ASAP” on his right arm.

In an interview with Yams, NY Times reporter Jon Caramanica stated, “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 explored every hip hop scene imaginable and developed his tastemaker palate. Yams incorporated a myriad of styles, subgenres, and flows from every region of the nation into his Rocky blueprint – shedding the hermetic nature of New York rap and inaugurating a holistic view of the genre.

While some pin the digital media proliferation as a destructive force to what hip hop essentialists refer to as “real hip hop,” A$AP Yams thrived off of it. Social media was the catalyst to his entire movement. Older fans can recall Yams’ “realniggatumblr” days, when he maintained a blog dedicated to showcasing up-and-coming  talent and promoting a taste of rap specific to the street/nerdy demographic. The appeal was similar to how Yams would spend his formative years downloading obscure rap tracks on Napster and engaging in heated debates on online chat rooms. He took the game to new heights, building an internet presence that would ultimately transform into an organic fanbase for the artists he would later promote. The strategy was simple yet genius. Yams created the content he wanted to see, and distributed it to an audience of members with hip hop palettes that he subliminally created for them.

Yams was a teacher and a student. He aspired for the success of exces like Damon Dash, but veered away from the threat of the tarnished relationships that usually come with the come-up. Yams took heed to the demise of Dame and Jay’s relationship and sought to take the Irv Gotti route instead: finding new artists to work with. As Irv guided rappers Ja Rule, Jay Z, and DMX, Yams sought to focus on Rocky, Ferg, Twelvyy, and Vince Staples. Yams successfully adhered to artist loyalty without limiting himself .

A$AP Yams was able to finagle the forces that the digital world placed on hip hop – the new forces that were set to replace old ones. “A&R” seems like a position that has long since been replaced by the internet facilitating the connection between the artist, the fan, and the industry. But Yams’ presence revitalized the idea that hip hop still needs A&R-type figures; critical intermediaries who put in the legwork, build industry relationships, and develop artists for the sake of the culture.

The need for relevant tastemakers and execs with their finger on the pulse of Hip Hop means as much as having new blood on the mic.

When I spoke to producer and writer Andre G, he made note of the burgeoning influence A$AP Yams was beginning to show. “I didn’t even realize how much of ‘new New York’ he brought to the forefront outside of A$AP” he says. The new generation of hip hop lacks the kind of archetype that Yams represented. His passing will either solidify the death of that, or inspire youngins to study careers throughout the game, including Yams’, and apply it to their own. Hopefully a new wave of tastemakers will surface and A$AP Yams’ cultural imprint will leave an indelible mark on hip hop.

But as far as the death of the young Yoda, Andre G. says, “I feel like the city lost something it didn’t know it had.”