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lil yachty is the red-headed rapper creating a new kind of hip-hop sound

Meet the 18-year-old Atlanta native who crafted a banger out of the 'Rugrats' theme and remained on his feet throughout Yeezy’s entire Season 3 presentation.

Emily Manning

Lil Yachty has his Gmail address listed in his Instagram bio. That fact alone isn't too remarkable, but as admirers can attest, he's actually checking his inbox. The young rapper often Facetimes with his fans, or plays video games with them. "Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, games with big parties," Yachty tells me while sitting on my couch, my PlayStation 1 sadly out of commission. "You have to stay connected with people, I feel like that's the key."

It seems wrong to call Yachty's continued accessibility in the midst of his rapid rise a commitment to his admirers. For him, it's just natural. Yachty is 18 -- a member of a generation marked by boundless creativity and unparalleled connectivity. He grew up in Atlanta, a region renowned for breeding rap's most individualistic iconoclasts, from legends including OutKast and Gucci Mane to today's most boundary-breaking weirdos like ILOVEMAKONNEN and Young Thug. Though Yachty's output enshrines a similarly strong sense of self as his Hotlanta predecessors, his sound is truly all his own.

"I don't really know how to describe how I got into music -- it kind of just happened. I never expected to be a rapper." Yachty explains. "I was surrounded by a bunch of friends who made music, and at the time, I thought they were good. They used to tell me I was really bad, but it ended being up the opposite." One of his earliest efforts, "1Night," has racked up over 11 million plays since it first hit Soundcloud six months ago. Just over two minutes long, the track is perhaps the most immediate exemplifier of Yachty's infectious appeal. His half-sung verses arrive in a gravelly falsetto that can scale high notes, but Yachty couches these lilts in low swings, creating a sleepy sort of bounce that's not unlike the ocean rocking a boat.

It's a fitting metaphor, considering Yachty's affinity for all things maritime, including his covetable collection of vintage Nautica. "I started getting pieces from different thrift stores, then shopping online at places like Etsy. It's gotten to the point where fans send stuff to me and bring it to shows," says Yachty. One fan -- "I guess he's still a fan, but we've become really tight" -- even sends the rapper rare finds sourced for his online vintage store. "His packages have the craziest stuff -- all types of pieces. That's where I got this sweater," Yachty explains of the knit plaid loosely knotted at his neck.

In keeping with the oceanic theme, his crew of collaborators -- a clutch of young producers that make frequent appearances on his SoundCloud page -- is called the Sailing Team. Chief among them is Burberry Perry, the lightning-quick architect crafting Yachty's most buoyant beats. "Me and Perry live together, so our creative process is on the spot. Just the other day, he made a beat and went to take a shower. When he got out of the shower, he had the melody and the hook, so it was ready to go," explains Yachty. "I'll be driving and he'll be in the passenger -- he'll just be making beats and I'll be singing along as he does it. It's spontaneous."

Though the pair's process is born of improvisation, there was one project Yachty had been contemplating for some time. Recently, he and Perry cooked up "All Times," a rough-and-tumble riff on the Rugrats theme song. "I've been wanting to do that specific part since I was like, five. I always rapped over that beat as a kid," says Yachty. Mark Mothersbaugh's cheerfully woozy opener proved the perfect playground for Yachty's strong point of view and off-kilter inflection -- aspects that are sure to be represented on the unsigned rapper's forthcoming debut mixtape, an effort he describes as, "a mixture of both rap and mellow songs." Day by day, Yachty is challenging himself to branch out. Hours after we speak, he released new material produced with WEDIDIT dark lords Shlohmo and D33J.

Yachty's inclination for experimentation, daringness to be different, and -- yeah -- those bright red braids, earned him a place in another rapper's ultimate statement of artistic ambition: Kanye West's Yeezy Season 3. For hours, Yachty stood atop Vanessa Beecroft's hulking podium in the middle of Madison Square Garden alongside the creative who invited him to participate, Ian Connor. While Connor and Young Thug followed those now-notorious rules and took a seat mid presentation, Yachty remarkably remained on his feet throughout the entire presentation. "I don't know who I thought I was," he says with a small smile. "I thought I was somebody special."

This is what makes Yachty a representative of his generation's revolutionary potential. His speech is emboldened but grounded. The music he makes with friends is often born of playful studio sessions, but he's focused on his work: "It's good to bring everyone together sometimes, it's fun, but if I do it every time, the work will never get done," he explains. He poses confidently for portraits, but that Nautica sweater masks a ketchup stain that matches his bright red hair. He also wants to make it clear that he doesn't drink or smoke.

We speak just hours before his headlining performance at The Players' Ball, a raucous gathering at Webster Hall staged Tuesday night. "It'll be fun, as always. But I can't really tell you what I expect because my first thought is always that I hope people will show up. Every single time!" he confesses. "Sometimes it gets extremely packed, which excites me, but my first thought is always that I hope people come." For the record, it sold out. 

Credits


Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen