The 2011 mixtape, which finally hit streaming Friday in honor of its 10th anniversary, is at once a product of its era and rap’s present day, when regional distinctions matter less than ever
A$AP Rocky’s seminal debut mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP, turns 10 on Sunday, and after a decade of being confined to DatPiff streams and Zippyshare links, it’s finally arrived on Spotify and other DSPs. On this week’s episode of The Ringer Music Show, host Charles Holmes goes deep on the tape, speaking to Clams Casino, Fat Tony, and other Rocky collaborators. Below is an excerpt, which has been lightly edited.
Sixty thousand views. A decade ago, that’s all it took for a relatively unknown Harlem rapper to go viral on YouTube. If you were heavily online in 2011, there’s a good chance you vividly remember this moment. A white girl with gold grills stares at an unsuspecting audience. When she opens her mouth these words from a then-unknown rapper come tumbling out: “This is for my n—– getting high on the regular.”
From there, the world is introduced to a skinny regional polymath called A$AP Rocky, a narcoleptic beat crafted by a pint-sized producer named A$AP Ty Beats, a light-skin mastermind with an iconic birthmark called A$AP Yams, and a motley crew known as A$AP Mob.
Today, “Purple Swag” and the video that launched it into the stratosphere seem quaint. It’s a low-budget love letter to Tumblr culture that went viral at a time when internet virality in the music industry was still novel. But upon its release on October 31, 2011, Rocky’s 16-song mixtape felt like a culmination of a certain era of hip-hop. Rigid ideas of authenticity had been collapsing. Subgenres like “cloud rap” were popping up. But most importantly, rap regionalism was becoming less dogmatic. The idea that coming from a certain locale meant you were beholden to the aesthetics of that region meant less in this new landscape. For example, Drake, a former teen soap-opera star from Toronto, was making odes to Houston like “November 18th.” Tyler, the Creator, a kid from Ladera Heights, California, had his biggest moment thus far lampooning New York rap on his hit single “Yonkers.”
And then there was A$AP Rocky, who would become a lightning rod for all of this and more. Even in 2011, the concept of the New York rapper was a misguided ideal that bordered on a cliché. Never mind that Ja Rule and 50 Cent realized that melody, even if it was coming from two imperfect voices, was the quickest way to chart dominance. A decade ago, New York was still seen as hip-hop’s mecca, and Nas’s dense storytelling and Jay-Z’s cold and precise flow were still seen as creative heights to aspire to. But in the past 10 years, that’s changed. And this tape played no small role in that.
In many ways, Live.Love.A$AP was a right-place, right-time project that distilled an era when the internet and the music that came out of tinny laptop speakers were unrefined, unregulated, and unrelenting. And A$AP Rocky, like a sentient blog, took French braids, grills, Houston slang, high fashion, and a variety of microgenres and smashed them together with enough force to have hipsters across America lose their minds.
To understand Live.Love.A$AP, you have to understand Houston, and to understand the allure of Houston on the East Coast in the early 2010s, there’s no one better to talk to than Fat Tony. Like Rocky, Fat Tony was among a new generation of rappers experiencing how much the internet was changing everything through social media and a seemingly infinite number of blogs. Fat Tony hails from Houston’s Third Ward. As an up-and-coming rapper, he’s acutely aware of the ways his hometown was perceived by the rest of the country at the beginning of the 2010s. According to Tony, Houston rap can be divided into three distinct waves: the first with ’80s and ’90s Rap-A-Lot and other artists like Devin the Dude and the Convicts, the second with DJ Screw and his stylistic innovations, and the third with Swishahouse, Mike Jones, Paul Wall, and others.
That second era, the Screw era, informs the spiritual core of Live.Love.A$AP. The pitched-down vocals that became Rocky’s early calling card were directly influenced by Robert Earl Davis Jr., better known as DJ Screw. In the early ’90s, the Houston DJ popularized a production technique called “chopped and screwed,” in which you’d slow down the tempo of a record until everything from the vocals to the production sounded like it was being hauled through molasses. The most iconic example of this technique comes from the song “June 27th,” which takes the 1996 Kris Kross song “Da Streets Ain’t Right” and turns it into this.
With the success of Texas artists like Beyoncé, Travis Scott, and Megan Thee Stallion, chopped and screwed as a genre and production technique is now everywhere and respected in the broader pop landscape. But that wasn’t always the case.
In 2011, Fat Tony had just put out his first album. He was touring and spending a lot of time in Brooklyn. The first week he met A$AP Mob, they were basking in the glow of their internet hit “Purple Swag.” But it was their knowledge and adoration of this hometown that caught Tony off guard.
“That first session was a lot of drinking, smoking, talking about music,” Tony says. “We talk a lot about Houston rap music. That’s when I was getting blown away by how much knowledge they had about Screwed Up Click.”
Then it came time to mirror that knowledge on “Get Lit,” an homage not just to chopped and screwed music, but to the mixtapes that style birthed. Tony’s vocals on the song are a direct callback to the tapes that Rocky and Yams were referencing in the studio.
But what I wanted to know most was how Tony felt at the time that a rapper from Harlem was blowing up using a sound that was created right where he was born. To Tony’s point, only a few years prior, the entire music industry was fixated on Houston rap thanks to Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, and Slim Thug—until it wasn’t. And now that same sound was starting a similar frenzy, but this time it was being repurposed in New York City.
“This was during a time where there was still a lot of East Coast people who weren’t fucking with Southern music period,” Tony says. “They thought it was dumb. You feel me? So to see somebody who really embraced that shit. And not only that, because that song has a bit of Memphis influence on it too. It kind of felt like Yams’s blog. You feel me? It felt like all the different Houston, Memphis tapes that he would post about. So it didn’t feel weird or feel gimmicky to me.”
It’s at this point that we should probably rewind. To tell the story of Live.Love.A$AP, you have to tell the story of one man and one blog: A$AP Yams, the mastermind behind A$AP Mob and curator of one of the most influential Tumblrs on rap internet, and at a time when that was a major way artists were getting discovered and music was reaching new audiences.
To listen to the full episode, click here.
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