Any great institution, whether physical or figurative, needs an architect. Often unsung in comparison to the awe that the finished product inspires, these visionaries don’t undertake this painstaking work for acclaim. They do it to fill a void.
Tasked with bringing a ragtag Harlem crew into the cultural sightline, the late Steven Rodriguez – or A$AP Yams, who died five years ago on January 18th – knew he had the necessary tools to build. And at the age of 17, he embarked on a path to self-determination by etching four polysemic letters on his arm – A$AP.
Adopting the moniker of “Yams,” the self-styled A&R learned the ropes under the wing of Diplomat Records’ Duke Da God and Mr “We Fly High” himself, Jim Jones. Enabling the young upstart to “stay around him and observe the whole scenery,” “Lil Newport” modeled himself after the Dipset exec and quickly got to work.
Founded alongside ASAP Illz and the since-disowned ASAP Bari, Yams – who harboured a near-encyclopaedic grasp of hip-hop – assembled a roster of talent from in and around Harlem. Before long, he’d place himself at the fulcrum of the career of producer Ty Beats, Nast, Ferg and his frontrunner, A$AP Rocky.
An enticing package of flow, swagger, and striking good looks, a student-teacher dynamic was quickly established, with A$AP Yams informing the New York Times that “Rocky’s like Luke Skywalker, and I’m Yoda.”
In Yams’ case, it wasn’t just his voluminous cultural knowledge that made him an asset, but a prophetic awareness of the commercial upside of social media. Operating from his “realn****atumblr,” his seemingly frivolous reposts of music and ’90s throwbacks were foliage which disguised a trap to underhandedly sell Pretty Flacko to his followers.
“He’d be like, ‘yo I like this kid from Harlem,'” Rocky relayed to Desus and Mero, “‘but I don’t know where he’s from, it might be Texas, it might be LA.’ He’d put that out there because he’s trying to make it seem like he didn’t know me like that. He’d be throwing up mad relevant shit and put me in the mix of it.”
Unknowingly providing a blueprint for how artists and record labels weaponize Instagram and Twitter today, Yams deployed Rocky’s early breakout tracks “Purple Swag” and “Peso” from a position that made Flacko seem befitting of the tastemakers from the outset.
In the view of the mob’s next breakout star A$AP Ferg, their origins were emblematic of his elevated mindset:
“You gotta think when A$AP Mob came into existence [there] was nothing like us out. Yams had the vision for all of that,” the Trap Lord said in 2017. “He was a kid like everybody else, but he was on a new level, and nobody was on it.”
Adamant NYC was a graveyard until “[July] 5th 2011” when “Purple Swag” dropped, A$AP Yams was so unwavering in his goals that he “wore the same outfit 2 years straight cuz all my money was embedded in this rap shit.” Seeing no benefit in “pouring ace of spades all over designer shoes,” Rocky pinpointed the key difference between Yams and many of hip-hop’s flashier moguls, claiming that “he don’t want to be Puffy. He’s the mastermind behind the scenes.”
As opposed to insularly focusing on the here-and-now, Rodriguez was armed with an inimitable knack for foresight. In the lead-up to Rocky unveiling his debut studio project, Rodriguez spoke of their refusal to conform to a more homogenized, chart-optimized sound. Rather than it being a hindrance, Yams chalked it up to a sign of things to come.
“If you listen to the album, there’s not really too many radio-friendly records on there,” Yams noted to Complex. “but I think the mainstream is going to change.”
Sure enough, six years later, Flacko held court on the red carpet at a pre-Grammy gala and discussed the result of that cultural progression – “hip-hop has transcended… now we are the pop genre.”
Far from an isolated incident, A$AP Yams had a habit of playing Nostrayamus. Amid declaring “Vince Staples = future legend” in 2012, Yams also dismantled the idea that Chance the Rapper was an industry plant as he’d “heard records before he’d even dropped.”
Although he rose to prominence after his passing, Lil Uzi Vert exhibited the raw materials that Yams sought in an artist. Speaking to Village Voice, the Pennsylvanian artist revealed that the Mob leader reached out way before the world caught wind:
“I never got to meet him in person, but he was the first person that hit me up. Yams knew about all the new music. Still to this day, he probably knows about stuff that people don’t know about. A genius.”
Intuition aside, Yams’ meticulous approach to brand extension ensured the mob weren’t left rudderless in the wake of his untimely death at 26. Where other crews may have faltered, Rocky and company were chaperoned from beyond via a “composition notebook.”
“It got plans of what he wanted to do for 2015,” explained Rocky, “and who he wanted to fuck with, what artists he was interested in.”
Complete with a cover image of Yams as an infant a la Ready To Die, 2016’s Cozy Tapes Vol. 1 is the fruit of that salvaged vision, bringing artists such as Uzi, Lil Yachty, MadeinTYO and Skepta into the A$AP orbit for the first time and solidifying them as rising stars in the process.
Declaring that “It’s either fucking dope music or wack music, there are no fucking genres” during an interview with NPR, Yams’ deconstructive approach to sound has been the ideological foundation behind everything from the promethazine-soaked, dirty south beats of Flacko’s early output to the freeform experimentalism that defined 2018’s Testing.
Even after his death, that outlook is channelled into Rocky’s shadowy AWGE collective and more specifically, through the clique’s leading force for deviation in Playboi Carti.
Rivaling Flacko in his ability to seize control of hip-hop’s narrative, the chain of events that Yams sparked afforded the Atlantan the ability to run roughshod over hip-hop and remake it in his image over his eponymous debut and 2018’s Die Lit. Ascribing meaning to the fact that “Yams had a birthmark too, so that makes me feel special”, if the leaks from the elusive and long-awaited Whole Lotta Red are to be believed, Carti will pay homage to the visionary on the fittingly subversive “RIP Yams.”
Memorialized in song by his inner circle on “Yamborghini High” and Ferg’s “Yammy Gang” that featured a poignant outro from his mother, Yams has also been commemorated within Future’s “Slave Master” on DS2 and vehemently defended against SpaceGhostPurrp’s disrespect by Denzel Curry, XXXTentacion, and Ski Mask The Slump God. Set to be honored with the fourth annual Yams Day at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, the communal spirit and star-studded list of performers this event yields is a heartfelt token of gratitude for all he set in motion within a crushingly finite timespan.
Hellbent on arriving “in the game with our own wave”, the impact of A$AP Yams far surpasses the successes he was on-hand to witness. While A$AP Mob’s core members have achieved varying levels of prescience, his keen mind and the expansive network he fostered has meant that today’s landscape is densely populated by those touched by his trailblazing presence.