NYC being the birthplace of rap will forever make it among the most difficult places to succeed in the field. For every rapper trying to make something happen in your suburban home town there are ten rappers trying to hand you their mixtape in Times Square. Many will ride a wave to make a name for themselves and to keep their rent payments steady, and while that is a respectable hustle, it is something else entirely to carve out a lane all your own in this city. YL has been one of the few rappers out of NYC in recent memory, and the only from Chelsea maybe ever, to do that for himself. Born and raised off 8th Ave YL has been grinding since high school, making a name for himself with his breezy, effortless cadence and for his steady supply of bars. His sound is indebted to his golden age NYC forefathers but is updated with a modern devil-may-care attitude only YL could provide. He started getting hyped back in 2016 on the back of several great tapes produced entirely by Roper Williams. While YL sounds nice over any beat he sounds his most comfortable over Roper’s. The NJ duo will chop up a smooth sample which YL glides right over with his buttery flow, a time-tested recipe for rap excellence. Their formula that has only gotten more successful as the years go on, as both YL and Roper get better at their craft in their own right, steel sharpens steel.
Lately YL has started to see the fruits of his labor. His music has been on rotation on NYC’s premier hip hop station, Hot 97, for the better part of the year. With each release he reaches more ears, converts more listeners to fans, and gains the respect of more of his peers and elders. Last Friday YL dropped his Alone Time LP. While the album couldn’t be more aptly named given our current situation, it got its title long before YL knew COVID was on the horizon. It is actually in reference to YL’s appreciation of his times of solitude. It’s about how when you are buoyed by a thousand different external factors trying to affect your decision making in some capacity, you need the time to sit with your own thoughts and reflect on what is true to you. YL was kind enough to take the time to answer some of our questions via email about this new album, being the only one to do it from Chelsea, and how he is dealing with our government mandated alone time. Much love to GSC’s resident therapist Josh “HYD” Ramos for helping put these questions together.
GSC: This new album is called ALONE TIME which could not be better timed with our COVID situation, though that doesn’t seem to be the reasoning behind the title. Where did the album name come from?
YL: Word, it was definitely a title I had come up with way before this whole lock down. I have a lot of random album titles in my phone that I go back to and that one felt right at the moment. It sort of represents the introverted part of myself that enjoys being inside and not dealing with anybody. I love my friends and family but at the same time I really cherish my solitude. The title just reminds me of me in front of my desk with a beat on loop, smoking and not saying a word.
GSC: It was lowkey an incredible flex to open up “Science Class” with a yawn, not too many rappers could pull that off. What’s the secret to your effortlessness?
YL: Forreal, I just be doing what feels good. More recently than ever the music is just flowing out of me without running into walls. I feel mad seasoned in the sense that I know exactly how I want my shit to sound and how to achieve it. I try to work with a vision in mind. if the words don’t come to me right away I just step away from it now.
GSC: You were born and raised in Chelsea, NY which is relatively unique for a rapper. What does it mean to you to come from Chelsea within the NYC rap scene? Are there any other artists that hail from downtown Manhattan you looked up to or identify with?
YL: That’s the home base. I like knowing I’m the only one out of Chelsea doing the music thing. People don’t identify that neighborhood with rap. I can’t really say there’s any specific rappers out of the downtown area I was looking up to like that. I think Wiki fire.
GSC: NYC is in a particularly interesting point in its rap history. There doesn’t seem to be a dominant sound and there are a number of different scenes that are flourishing, from the Brooklyn Drill scene, to Bodega Bamz and the Hispanic rap wave, all the way to the SLUMs-adjacent lofi rap scene headed by guys like MIKE and Medhane. Where do you see yourself in the greater landscape of NYC rap? Are you in your own lane entirely? Or is that just an antiquated way to look at the city?
YL: I’m in whatever lane ya wanna put me in. At the end of the day the music is what it is. I like to think amongst all of the different scenes going on I’m still doing me and contributing to the game which is most important. If I feel like I’m representing the city correctly, I’m gucci.
GSC: Are there any NYC artists you’d love to work with that you haven’t had the chance to yet? Who is your favorite artist from NYC? Who is the most underrated? Finally, who is the biggest icon from NYC that people don’t talk about enough?
YL: Fasho. I wanna work with dudes you mentioned like MIKE & Medhane, Remy Banks, Homeboy Sandman, Cormega. Probably a bunch more if I go in. No funny shit I’m my favorite artist right now lol. There’s mad dudes underrated in NYC, I’d say most of the homies like Starker, Mid, Theravada, Ba Pace, Rob Chambers, Fastlife. That’s another list that could go on for a minute. And for the last one Imma go with John Leguizamo.
GSC: You have a track named for “Village Vanguard”, the famous 7th Ave Jazz Club. Do you spend a lot of time at the Vanguard? What are your favorite spots in the city?
YL: It’s funny I’ve actually never even been to the The Village Vanguard. I came up with that line in the song off the top of my head and decided that’s the track name. I think it’s dope imagery when you hear the song. As far as spots, I like popping up in A1 Records, hitting Cheeky’s for a chicken sandwich, and grabbing a drink at Beverly’s if I’m on my hipster shit.
GSC: Where do you stand in the crowded NYC sports landscape?
YL: I’m not even fully tapped in with the teams out my city anymore. I went to my first Knicks game in a long time last month so I’d say I’m definitely still rocking with the Knicks.
GSC: What is it like hearing yourself on Hot 97?
YL: Surreal. Hearing yourself on the radio is one thing but hearing it on a station I literally grew up bumping is wild as hell. I was in my room playing it live from their website geeked up. I’m glad I can say that happened and can’t nothing really take that away. I’m tryna get more joints on there though so hopefully more to come.
GSC: You shout out RRR many times on the album. That’s in reference to Regularrr correct? Is Regularrr still active?
YL: Regularrr is just RRR now and definitely still active. Every album me, Starker, Mid or Zoomo drops has the RRR logo stamped on it. I try to shout it out as often as I can so it sticks in peoples head and they make the connection.
GSC: I loved your new video for “been gone” in Central Park. You have worked on almost all of your videos with Derek Balarezo. How did that relationship start? What is your creative process when it comes to your videos?
YL: Ay I appreciate that. That’s my real deal older brother so I guess it started at birth. The process is nothing major, it’s just me and Derek listening to a song and throwing ideas around out loud. He is a photographer first and foremost so he understands a good shot. His taste in video and mine are sort of similar so a lot of the time we’ll have the same vision. Sometimes I’ll have one general idea and he’s able to complete it and take it further. We can both be as honest as we want which is a big blessing. A lot of trust involved.
GSC: How do you keep up with fashion trends being in NYC? How much does staying fitted matter to you and how does it play into your music? Any favorite stores?
YL: Personally, I’ve never been a dude to go ride a trend. If you know me you know I’ve been dressing the same way forever. If anything my taste palette has expanded with time but I’ve always been a “I like what I like” kind of guy. I believe that if you look good you feel good. Life is better when you got some fly shit on. When you hear me talking about what I’m wearing in my raps it’s because I’m trying to paint that picture. I like being the same dude that’s in the music. eBay the only store I’m on right now.
GSC: How has your style and image developed as your career has progressed?
YL: My image has just become more defined. You could see my silhouette now and already know that’s YL. The music videos definitely help in that way.
GSC: How do you measure success?
YL: Success is happiness. Success is money. Success is health. As long as I can do what I do and not have to work a regular job again I’d consider myself a success. If my family and friends proud, that’s success.
GSC: You close “Tally” going, “shout out Roper Williams, my brothers… both of them.” You have a strong history with Roper. In fact, all your releases except this one and That Was Then are entirely produced by the duo. How has their work together evolved over the years? Similarly, how has your work with them evolved?
YL: Big facts, they might as well be blood. It’s so ill to see them getting all these placements on different albums, independent and major label. I know how hard they work so anytime I see them catch a W I feel like I’m winning too. They’ve expanded their sound so much since our first album, they beasts. Me and Roper just started getting back in our groove before quarantine as far as thinking of a new project. Still an effortless process but maybe even more so now because they know exactly what I like. They know my voice and are able to give real input and suggestions. As I get better as an artist and they get better as producers the music is obviously just better. Straight like that.
GSC: On this LP you have tracks produced by Roper Williams and Brainorchestra who both hail from New Jersey. You’ve had success working with Jersey artists for some time, and there are a good crop of lyrically minded rappers from Jersey like Brainorchestra and Pootie who are on the come up. What is in the water in Jersey? Any chance you move across the Hudson River and camp up in Jersey City? Why have you always worked so well with artists from there?
YL: Them dudes in Jersey are hungry, simply put. They be going harder than some NY dudes and I feel it’s because they might feel overlooked since it’s so close to the city. I don’t even think it was a conscious decision to work with so many Jersey cats, it all started with Roper really. I’m very comfortable in Jersey, I’ve been making these trips there since high school. Anyone I’ve met on some music shit out there always shows love and it be genuine. Jersey got a lot of style and they own set of legends too. Shouts to Revenxnt, Grimm Doza & Fatboi Sharif.
GSC: You’ve changed artist names before. You were Thee YL, now YL. Why the switch up and what does YL mean or stand for?
YL: You really tapped in lol. It was just easier to say as just YL. It looked cleaner and keep it a buck there’s no acronym behind it.
GSC: You put out a good amount of music, even exclusives. Last summer GSC’s very own resident therapist slid in your DM’s to get the ‘5/5’ EP. What’s the thought process behind what gets a wider audience and what stays exclusive for fans reaching out for more?
YL: On the real that was a spontaneous idea that I thought about earlier that day. I have so much music that just sits in my laptop that’s dope but I know there’s no place for them on any current albums so I just said fuck it, secret EP. It was also kind of a social experiment to see who my go hard fans are. It was all good material just without a home.
GSC: BABYMAN was recorded at XL Records and friendofafriend was released through I Should Care Records. Any connection to these labels? Are you interested in being signed or do you prefer the independent route?
YL: I’m not affiliated with any record labels right now, it’s all off the muscle. I’m not dying to get signed but I’ll definitely entertain the idea if I feel it’s gonna help put me in a better situation and showcase my vision to a broader audience. I wouldn’t want no five year deal or three album deal though. I’m good with doing a one off and keeping it moving.
GSC: How have you been keeping sane this quarantine? Have you been getting that alone time? Any content recommendations for the people?
YL: With a half ounce and a WWE Network subscription. It’s been a nice break from society but I’m ready to walk around again. I was just watching Deep Impact so go watch that.
Check out YL on twitter, insta, Spotify, and Apple Music. Thanks to Vivian Luxx for the photography.