As Rakim famously rapped in 1987, it’s not where you’re from, but where you’re at. In 2012, it’s appropriate that a rapper with the same name - Rakim Mayers, better known as A$AP Rocky - is proving his namesake correct.
The 23-year old Harlem native, who performs Monday night at the Middle East, is in the midst of one of the more remarkable come-ups in recent hip-hop history, which has already amassed a lengthy catalog of one-off hits born on the Internet.
Last July, Rocky dropped his first YouTube video, a low-budget clip for the song “Purple Swag.’’ Like much of his work, the track bears little resemblance to anything out of New York’s well-established hip-hop tradition; over a hypnotic, turtle-slow beat, the Harlem rapper pays tribute to the Houston scene that remains one of the dominant influences on his sound, with talk of sipping codeine syrup (known as “purple drink’’) and candy painted cars. “I’m Texas trill, Texas trill, but in N.Y. we spit it slow,’’ he raps in acknowledgment of his dual allegiances.
Six months and one acclaimed mixtape later, Rocky, speaking via phone from his hometown, looks back on his rapid ascent with bemused detachment. Of course, he admits, he couldn’t imagine that he’d be handpicked by the most popular rapper of the moment (Drake) to open for him on a 17-city arena tour beginning in February. And no, the backlash from critics and fellow artists who deride him for straying outside his New York roots didn’t surprise him, nor did it affect his confidence. (The record deal he struck with Sony/RCA in October, a solo and group deal reportedly worth $3 million, likely didn’t hurt his pride either). He takes it all in stride, but Rocky’s overnight success has helped make regionalism, once a fiercely defended tenant of hip-hop culture, a quickly fading memory.
“I feel like every region in every state has something that has some type of value or culture,’’ said Rocky of his holistic approach. “I want to take every value of every state and mash it into this one revolutionary type of artist, and that’s me and that’s what I’m doing.’’
Time will tell if Rocky’s body of work proves revolutionary, but in truth, he isn’t the first artist from hip-hop’s birthplace to embrace Southern and Midwestern sounds. The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 collaboration with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, “Notorious Thugs,’’ helped popularize their double-time flows among East Coast rappers, while Jay-Z’s appearance on the remix to Juvenile’s smash hit “Ha’’ in the late ’90s symbolized a growing mutual respect between the regions. Since then, as Southern artists dominated during the past decade, the exchange has continued to permeate across state lines; and now, an artist like Rocky is able to seamlessly integrate different styles organically, not by imitation.
“Peso,’’ his biggest hit to date and the centerpiece of his acclaimed (and, so far, only) mixtape “Live, Love, A$AP,’’ saw him progress beyond “Purple Swag,’’ incorporating the melodic phrasing and half-sung rhymes of Bone Thugs and Three 6 Mafia into his repertoire. Like those artists, Rocky uses a small handful of like-minded producers - Clams Casino, DJ Burn One, Beautiful Lou and crew member A$AP Ty Beats among them - to craft the celestial, stoned-out instrumentals that critics have dubbed “cloud rap.’’
“I’m a music child, I’m a music lover,’’ Rocky said of his tastes [translation: broad]. “I liked Clams [Casino] because he was melodic and ambient. I liked Burn One because it was smooth. They all had a different approach and feelings toward it, but for some reason it all came together. It felt natural hopping on those beats. Whatever I choose to do is organic to me. I can’t tell you now that I would never use a certain sound, but this is what’s working for me.’’
“I think the way he incorporates it, he makes it his own,’’ said Atlanta-based DJ/producer Burn One, who has two credits on “Live, Love, A$AP,’’ when asked about Rocky’s outside influences. “He doesn’t say he’s from Houston and not New York. It reminds me of a lot of [Harlem rapper] Cam’ron who’s always had that love from the South. I hear a lot of Memphis in his sound. He picks beats that really painted a picture of how he wanted to be portrayed as an artist.’’
Even as Rocky’s profile continued to grow thanks to support from online tastemakers like Pitchfork, nothing symbolized the loosening grip of New York’s diehard traditionalists than when the city’s biggest hip-hop station Hot97, the long-standing barometer for Big Apple hip-hop tastes, added “Peso’’ to their rotation in late summer. For a city whose aging rap legends still cast a shadow over each new generation of artists, it was a gesture that seemed to welcome a much-needed aesthetic evolution.
“It was shocking to me too because I didn’t have a deal yet and I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know nobody [at the station]. It was a natural thing, it was organic,’’ said Rocky. “I still don’t know too many people.’’
Expect that to change soon.Martín Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_el_caballero.