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.
For ASAP Rocky, the Harlem rapper whose debut album, “Long.Live.ASAP” (Polo Grounds/RCA), just made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, that partner is ASAP Yams, his longtime friend, collaborator and co-owner of the ASAP Worldwide label.
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.”