Portrait of YL by Ramon ‘1000WORD$’ Lazo
Portrait of YL by Ramon ‘1000WORD$’ Lazo By Courtesy of Ramon '1000WORD$' Lazo

Artist Profile: YL Represents NYC with Effortless Swag

Rapper YL is breathing life into the New York underground with his vintage fashion sense and effortless, throwback-inspired raps.
By Ryan S. Kim

Rapper YL is breathing life into the New York underground with his vintage fashion sense and effortless, throwback-inspired raps. Born and raised in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, YL blends Golden Era sounds, ’90s street style, and contemporary drill to create something entirely new. The result is a sound that distinctly represents the aesthetics of New York City life. In recent years, the Chelsea rapper has become a leading name in the world of ’90s-inspired NYC fashion bringing the look into a new generation. In 2021, he was tapped to appear in ad campaigns for two prominent NYC-based luxury streetwear releases: Awake x New Era and New Balance x Aimé Leon Dore.

Last month, YL headlined a packed show at Elsewhere in Brooklyn with longtime collaborator Starker. “It's amazing because it was in my city,” YL said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “I know how it is when you’re from out of state they sometimes appreciate you in a different way.”

YL was first introduced to hip-hop by his older brother who played him ’90s legends like The Diplomats and Jay-Z. As he developed his own taste, YL took a liking to Nas, Jadakiss, and early Eminem before becoming an MC himself. The rapper began making music with a group of friends at the end of high school. “Just being around the energy of seeing my homie make a song was crazy,” YL said. “I just felt like that was the illest thing.”

After high school, YL began to seriously hone his rapping chops and lay the foundation for his label collective, RRR — an acronym for “Real Recognize Real.” RRR has been affiliated with YL’s brand for over a decade and is the moniker assigned to the rapper’s collaborative partnerships with rapper Starker and producers Zoomo and Noface.

Around 2012, YL met Starker at a basement party in Queens. Connecting again through mutual friends, the pair started to make music and went on to release their first full length collaboration 2015’s “Lo.Ceasar.” YL shared that his collaborative partnership with Starker has been easy and natural since the beginning.

In Nov. of last year, YL, Starker, and Zoomo independently released “RRR: The Album,” a posse project that demonstrates the trio’s undeniable chemistry.

“RRR was probably already a thing like 10 years ago when it was just homie shit,” YL said. “As time progressed, I felt like my heart became super involved in it. Then, I met Starker, who I felt like was a real missing piece for me.”

“We were already working on ‘Lo.Ceasar’ like the first couple times that we linked up,” YL added. “By the third time we were chilling, we was already making joints. We would just record at my crib all summer.”

Zoomo entered the picture in 2018 after YL connected with the North Carolina producer on Instagram. The beatmaker quickly became one of YL’s go-to producers and the musical backbone of RRR. For the last couple years, production from Zoomo and guest verses from Starker have been baked into YL’s music-making formula. Zoomo makes sample-based boom bap beats that support YL’s straightforward delivery while contrasting with Starker’s rambunctious flow. “It just felt like when I was making music with Starks we never spoke about what we were writing about,” the rapper said. “It just came together perfectly all the time. Even with Zoomo, he was just playing the type of beats that were like where I was trying to take my music.”

One of YL’s greatest strengths is his versatility. Over the last year, he has expanded his wheelhouse of collaborators to include Filipino singer-songwriter EYEDRESS and Jersey Club-inspired producers Subjxct 5 and Tony Seltzer. The rapper’s Nov. 2021 project, “Soda Club,” features production from Subjxct 5 and Seltzer that blends throwback sample-based beats with the high energy of modern drill. It’s a formula that has recently been taken mainstream through Lil Uzi Vert’s 2022 single “Just Wanna Rock.”

The diversity of the rapper’s discography makes it hard to categorize YL into any single genre. “I like to call it ‘slice of life,’” YL said. “That's on whatever beat that I choose to get on, I feel like the context or the content is always me. I love to rap. I like making all kinds of music. I would get bored if I had to rap on a loop beat everyday for the rest of my life.”

With his next full length project, “Don’t Feed the Pigeons,” YL plans to blend the sounds he’s been working with over the last few years: sample-based loops and Jersey Club. It is a project that the rapper claims will simultaneously satisfy his diehard fans and earn him new listeners.

“It's really one of those albums where there's something for everybody,” YL said. “I'm not trying to be like any other artists… I'm trying to make something that can only be identified as some YL shit.”

—Staff writer Ryan S. Kim can be reached at ryan.kim@thecrimson.com.