SW RESEARCH: The New York Yankees, the A$AP Mob, and New York City’s Necromantic Regionalism
New York’s consumers love attaching themselves to constructs larger than themselves. More than ever, those constructs are the corpses of cultures long gone.
🥽 *RESEARCH* 🥽
This past winter, the skate shop turned luxury streetwear conglomerate Supreme unveiled a series of oversized, excessively-patched New York Yankees-themed GORE-TEX puffer coats.1 I was, as per usual, one of several thousand similarly-gullible college undergrads who flocked to StockX, scoffed at egregious-albeit-not-surprising prices, then dejectedly returned to overdue assignments lurking in another tab. Though none of my fellow school wifi window-shoppers could likely afford the coats either, there’s a certain double-edged mystique in such retailing that keeps our demographic hooked on the ritual of pretending we can. The jackets are objectively pleasing visual objects — vibrant colorways, quasi-Dr-Evil tubular collars, strategically-placed Supreme insignias headed straight from the manufacturer to the 15 year-old Colorado hypebeast’s Christmas list — but even more so, the appeal perhaps is carried much further by its ethos than any patch or emblem can take it. Supreme’s marketing tactic is one that unashamedly hinges on its home state’s storied regionalism, threading a familiar line between cultural and athletic prowess: marry larger-than-life textiles to a larger-than-life franchise, it says, and you bear the inheritance of a larger-than-life legacy. You don’t wear Supreme Yankees merch because you skate and watch baseball. You do it because you get to embody a two-way endorsement — one where you hyper-visually endorse the culture, and the culture hyper-visually endorses you back.
“But for a culture whose entire braggadocio is based in exclusivized locality, as much as the worldwide web allows for a louder megaphone through which to declare supremacy, it is, again, just that — the worldwide web.”
It is in this way that Supreme’s GORE-TEX Yankees puffer coat is more or less a microcosm of the cultural hotbed that invented it. New York conceptually boils down to a collection of longstanding cultural emblems, reiterated so long as they latch back onto a conceivable notion of city-wide relevance. Whether it’s Nas serenading the “Suede Timbs on (his) feet” in one of Queensbridge’s most oft-referenced rap anthems, or outspoken “(You don’t got a) Big Black Puffa!?”-toting teenagers caricaturing territorial talking heads on TikTok, there exists a certain ubiquitous knowledge within the infrastructure that self-brewed culture must be valiantly preserved. As much as its upholders purport themselves to be doing so out of passion, though, the underlying impetus may not be so much applauding something that’s still active, but desperately slapping awake something that has already died. Every cultural callback, perhaps, is a jolt on the defibrillator. But rather than wake up the city — much like how Yankees puffer coats can make me pretend there’s money in my bank account — it might solely serve to grant mourners a reason to pretend it’s still alive.
The first image many saw of the A$AP Mob, then an upstart faction of foul-mouthed teenagers who smoked marijuana together in Harlem (before A$AP, the collective’s proposed name was “Piff Crew”), cashed in on this exact revivalist instinct. Their debut mixtape’s cover art was packed with gritty New York hubris — in a pseudo-Ramones black-and-white streetside portrait, the collective, all wearing customized button-up “A$AP MOB” baseball jerseys, brandished wooden bats, threw up lazy middle fingers, and shot menacing glares through the kinds of tough-guy ski masks frequented by corner-store criminals on CCTV footage. The strain of villainous baseball imagery exuded by the photo ran in direct conjunction with what had been, up to then, a similarly-staked New York athletic revival brewing well into the late aughts. Just three years prior, the cameras weren’t on the A$AP Mob, but a newly-christened World Champion New York Yankees Team that had just defeated the Philadelphia Phillies for their 27th chip. It was the grand comeback of a legion dubbed the “Evil Empire” in decades past, and not one bit of their return to arrogant, catch-me-if-you-can stature was lost on their followers: following the victory, fans had no trouble dropping hundreds of dollars apiece on strikingly mundane merch items. (“It’s a little pricey, but it’s worth it,” one fan told the New York Times.2 The fan had purchased a cap, a sweatshirt, and a T-shirt for $203.)
What complicates such triumph is that, a decade later, this brief era of nostalgic superiority is in the midst of an agonizingly-slow, drawn-out decay. On one front, despite a too-good-to-be-true PR opportunity named Rihanna, the A$AP Mob’s heyday has proven long deceased — their final collective record came out to mixed reception half a decade ago, and if any individual member is making headlines, chances are that the news is more court-related than music-related. The Yankees, too, have had quite their share of bad luck: in the ugliest (and longest) losing splotch in the franchise’s illustrious history, they haven’t been back to the World Series, let alone taken home a ring, since the 2000s.
“Regionality is much harder to pull off when your ‘region’ is the planet.”
Still, yet, both the A$AP Mob’s out-of-reach heyday, and the 27 rotting championship banners hanging over Yankee Stadium, have one thing in common besides gold-encrusted failure: valiant fandoms that preach their respective gospels, even despite the (very public) deaths of their Gods. Maddening as it is, it points a sure finger to the familiar pop-cultural trope that consumers love attaching themselves to much larger constructs. But more than ever, especially in an increasingly internet-centric era, those constructs may just be the carcasses of cultures long gone.
As much as Supreme may want to appeal to its New York City stomping grounds with an oversized GORE-TEX Yankees coat, it isn’t like the online store stops being accessible on the George Washington Bridge. Regionalism is only regionalism when it’s regional. But for a culture whose entire braggadocio is based in exclusivized locality, as much as the worldwide web allows for a louder megaphone through which to declare supremacy, it is, again, just that — the worldwide web.
Regionality is much harder to pull off when your “region” is the planet.
The first time a scrawny 12 year-old me felt that I could place myself within a musical lineage, Nas’ 1994 debut Illmatic was playing from a grainy 40-minute long YouTube bootleg on my Nokia touchscreen. My New York hip-hop origin story mirrors that of countless other adolescents who, whether currently slandering mumble rappers behind barbecue grills, or eagerly busting dusty Timberlands out of parents’ closets on snow days, first identified themselves as loci on a larger cultural timeline at the command of Nas’ gravelly inflection. Though his wider ethos is primarily staked in being a spokesperson for his fabled Queens hometown, his debut album served to preach a more canonical strain of New York supremacy — in lead single “NY State of Mind,” he famously characterized the city as “the fuckin’ dungeons of rap, where fake niggas don’t make it back” — hot on the tails of a cross-country battle for cultural credence between his Eastern headquarters and Tupac’s California.
“The pride was crazy,” one of Nas’ longtime confidants says of MC Shan’s “The Bridge” in the rapper’s 2014 documentary Time is Illmatic. “We (the Queensbridge housing projects) had an anthem. It was on the radio. People knew, Yeah, I’m from Queenbridge.”3
Once on wax, Queensbridge regionalism had potential to evolve into Queens regionalism, which could then morph into New York pride, which went on to graduate into a larger East Coast rallying cry. New York rap’s primitive roots were widely staked in similar micro-macro conveyor belts, with initially hyper-local acts like the Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z growing up to lug their respective creeds beyond their own blocks, and into the ears of multitudes who could pick and choose identities to latch on to in the music — whether it be a specific borough, the entirety of New York, or a new brand of swagger they would someday seek to emulate themselves.
“New York was New York not only because it was establishing its own playing field, but perhaps even more so because it was also drawing the foul lines.”
Perceptibly, what made the New York hip-hop 90s different, and also muddles the stringent regional narrative its era produced in context of today, is the lack of an internet to make the movement an immediate landmark rather than a slow-burning generational storyline. Both Nas’ Illmatic, MC Shan’s “The Bridge,” and the hundreds of other rap records that populated New York’s initial claim to sonic fame, purported themselves more as chapters in a lengthier saga, than one-offs intent on obsoleting what had already been established. Compare that to the A$AP Mob’s early mission, and what would become the future of New York regionalism is bluntly put into perspective: “(A$AP) Yams and I used to sit up at night on the phone, strategizing how we would single-handedly come in and take over this rap shit, on some young shit,” frontman A$AP Rocky said in a Noisey documentary released the same year as Nas’. “We knew we didn’t want to be under nobody. We didn’t want to be nobody’s protégé. We didn’t need no co-sign. We said we gon’ come in this shit our way, and (…) hold it down on some A$AP shit.”4
Two years after Illmatic’s release, the Yankees would win the first of four World Series titles in an eight-year span, harkening back to age-old golden days remembered solely by the grandparents of kids who were now beginning to stuff closets with their own New York baseball caps and puffer jackets. This run, in tandem with a still-unfurling hip-hop renaissance neck-and-neck with the West Coast’s efforts, lived as a re-assertion of sorts that New York could still very well be the cultural capital of the world. In large part, the grand authority granting the narrative its credence existed because it was drilled into the ears of the globe over the better part of a decade. The New-York-versus-everyone antagonism that marked that period — sometimes to a fatal extent — was forged from the kind of heavy-handed hostility spewed by rappers on mixtapes that felt more like global PSAs than label-baiting earworms. The literal competition of a sport like baseball, and New York’s over-the-top dominion in it, didn’t do much to ease many nerves across borders, either. The internet is inherently a collaborative medium, and so right in line with what foundational ethos sets its stage, something like a TikTok about New York is likely more apt to invite consumers into the culture than repel them from it. With music and baseball as a dual means of asserting this same creed to the world, on the other hand, 20th Century New York’s brash icons made outsiders less inspired to participate in the East Coast capital’s culture, and more inspired to foster their own distinct ones to compete. New York was New York not only because it was establishing its own playing field, but perhaps even more so because it was also drawing the foul lines. Anything not in play wasn’t New York. And if it wasn’t New York, it was an enemy.
One afternoon in May of 2018, A$AP Rocky sat encased in a Plexiglass box on the fourth floor of Sotheby’s — a British-founded American multinational art corporation headquartered in New York City — while a sea of sullen, monotonously-dressed press members looked on in confused intrigue. Over the hour and thirty-three minutes that ensued, the rapper was doused in gallons of milk, interrogated, submersed in body-length containers of freezing water, force-fed by attractive women in medical garb, and poked by onlookers through holes in the structure, all the while donning a high-visibility orange jumpsuit gifted to him by Calvin Klein. The stunt was an intricately-programmed performance art piece dubbed “Lab Rat,”5 curated as part of an ongoing collaboration with the hosting institution, and broadcasted live on Youtube to thousands of viewers. Moreover and most significantly, it was the culminating piece of promotion put forth for TESTING, the long-awaited third studio album he was slated to release five days after the event.
TESTING, he often asserted via interviews and social media alike, was a concept record rooted in experimentation; it was his debut expedition into sonic territory uncharted by not only him, but a majority of those who also bore his gritty, East-Coast hip-hop ethos. In one clip from AWGE DVD Volume 3 — just one installation in a series of impressively-edited montage videos put out by Rocky’s mysterious creative network — he sat on a toilet bowl, months removed from the album’s release, slapping a woman’s buttocks while boasting about his expensive pants. “I’m letting y’all niggas know something right now — catch my Needles by the way, you know what I mean — I’m letting y’all niggas know something right now: I’m shitting on y’all niggas the whole rest of the 2018,” he said through a comical deep-voice filter, as an oft-teased but never-released snippet hammered away in the background. “I’ve been testing a lot of sounds, I’ve been testing a lot of Prada, I’ve been testing a lot of shit, you feel me? So get with me, nigga.”
It was around this time that I, a still-scrawny high school freshman, followed A$AP Rocky on Instagram. His feed then, which I’ve memorized from weeks of obsessively scrolling through it on bus rides home, exuded the exact cryptic layeredness he sought to achieve with the accompanying project as a whole: subjects of uncaptioned images included mangled crash test dummies, prison garb-clad children with smiley faces dyed into their buzzcuts, and esoteric, grainy references to highly-dangerous radioactive activity. Neither I, nor any of my fellow 15 year-olds blindly commenting caution sign emojis and dollar sign-laden special character combos, knew exactly what he was getting at — and if TESTING is any proof, he probably didn’t know himself — but the fun in it operated on the same strain that would make us scoff at GORE-TEX puffer coats on StockX years later: much like how we enjoy pretending we can afford overpriced Yankees memorabilia, A$AP Rocky’s Instagram was an opportunity to enjoy pretending we were on a cultural wave we had nothing to do with. Ever the brainchildren of our digital era, we preferred to ventriloquize the end product, rather than brave the process of legitimate self-reinvention. A$AP Rocky was no different: though he sought to rebrand himself as an introspective artistic savant of the Frank Ocean tradition, with any iteration of his public face you looked at, it was fairly obvious that he was still the ass-slapping, foul-mouthed swag-rapper sitting on his toilet-shaped high horse with his designer pants to his ankles.
“For a nascent internet era searching for protagonists to rally behind, theirs was the ideal formula.”
Guided by this brand of aesthetic-over-everything spirit, the A$AP Mob writ large championed such image-based tactics on a much larger cultural scale. And it was in this very perversity that their influence existed: rather than enter New York hip-hop with the intent to bring fans along with you on your rags-to-riches narrative arc, you now had to come into the game already fly. As much as they were good rappers, much of the A$AP Mob’s expansion was stunted by their affinity for big-name designer clothes and the ritzy lifestyles they entailed — a touch that made them easy darlings for high-end magazines, big-time brands, and the powerful namesakes of said brands themselves. (Since before his debut mixtape, A$AP Rocky has been close friends with Moschino’s Jeremy Scott).
For a nascent internet era searching for protagonists to rally behind, theirs was the ideal formula. The web was equally helpful on A$AP Mob’s side of things, too: as much as they were heir apparents to a long-stagnant New York hip-hop lineage, much of their raps were derivative of Houston and Memphis-born deep cuts sourced from years of scouring DatPiff and Limewire for sounds beyond their state lines. In an odd callback to what 90s baggage they inherited, the A$AP Mob, much like their predecessors, would beef with another upstart California collective led by an immature teenager named Tyler, the Creator — except that this time, rather than firearms and diss tracks, the weapons of warfare were profane tweets and snarky Tumblr posts.
Visually, the A$AP Mob were filling in all the boxes necessary for reclaiming New York’s rugged rap legacy. In terms of everything else, yet — influence, reach, fashion, et cetera — they were, oppositely, everywhere but their stomping grounds. One of the most useful images in analyzing the A$AP Mob as a product of the internet is not from any fashion editorial shoot, nor Instagram post, but their very logo: a globe of meridians, sandwiched by “A$AP WORLDWIDE” in all caps.
The A$AP Mob’s triumph and crutch were the same exact thing: yes, they were taking New York everywhere. But when it started being everywhere, that may have been when it stopped being New York.
Decades removed from both the 20th and 21st Centuries’ attempts at New York revolutions, the city remains more a post-apocalypse of old cultural debris than a hotbed of new things. And for what it looks like, this is likely the way it is doomed to remain for a lengthy period. It isn’t a New York-centric curse, as much as it is a microcosm of a larger pop cultural trend at play: culture more or less operates in circles, where no matter how long a mainstay enjoys a run at the top of the Ferris wheel, there comes a point where they have to do their due diligence and, occupied in the meantime with memories of glory days past, wait their turn for sovereignty again. The thing about New York is that it’s so used to being at the pinnacle — whether that be in athletics, music, or both at the same time — that having to wait in line for glory feels like a purging of its identity. It’s the reason why a team like the Yankees can never rebuild; tickets aren’t sold in Manhattan by the promise of a better future, but by the spectacle of a present spent in the bright lights. And, much like the team’s home state at-large, no concoction of big names could reverse the physics of the cycle: several former league MVP signings and big-name pitching phenom additions later, the trophy case remains untouched since 2009.
The last perceivable inkling of a New York hip-hop revival came with Pop Smoke, the Brooklyn rapper known for his I-just-smoked-50-cigarettes growl and New York-ification of UK drill music. After Pop Smoke was murdered in California — of all states — in early 2020, it seemed that every New York MC had suddenly become a drill rapper in his vein. There was a hopeful sonic sensibility, not too far removed from those championed by Nas and the A$AP Mob, that saw a new legion of city youth invent regional dances, get arrested for raving, and land profiles in major publications after setting out to recreate the sounds booming out of speakers on their blocks.
“You no longer need to be there in order to be there.”
Yet, predictable as it is unfortunate, the movement died on two fronts: for one, the industry milked Pop Smoke’s death via a series of underwhelming posthumous releases (“Where will we draw the ethical line?” Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre lamented in a 3.8 review of the latest one6)… and perhaps more effectively, at the end of the day, it just got boring. The impetus wasn’t the creation of something new. It was the desperate revival of something that had already flatlined. And no matter how hard it tried to slap it awake, the movement ended up dying in the same casket as its motivation.
The most recent music-related trace of A$AP Rocky in New York came this past winter, with a surprise pop-up shop set to correspond with the re-digitization of his debut mixtape. Watching a YouTube video about it from my dorm room in Nashville, Yankees cap perched on my head, I felt just as New York as anyone on my screen.
And I probably was. It’s the very thing that makes 21st Century New York City, the swagged-out regionality of the A$AP Mob, and their many fellow cultural carcasses just as dead as they are alive: you no longer need to be there in order to be there.