Interview: Lil Uzi Vert on the Inspiration of A$AP Yams, Don Cannon, and the Guy That Named Him Lil Uzi
If you’ve been paying attention, you understand that hip-hop is getting straight up spacey. The mothership is still in Atlanta, where Young Thug, Playboi Carti, and Lil’ Yachty are still beaming down infectious, oddball tracks on a regular basis. But other cities are starting to come into orbit, and in Philadelphia Lil Uzi Vert is sitting in his city’s cockpit. He’ll be landing that wavy ship in Chicago at the end of July when he performs at the #FourLoko After Party on Friday, July 29, an epic combination that should provide some of the wildest moments of the festival weekend. The @FourLoko event will also feature Metro Boomin and O.T. Genasis.
Born Symere Woods, Uzi came up in North Philadelphia devouring a library of Gen-Y hip hop: A$AP Mob, Ying Yang Twinz, Pharrell, Philly-based crew State Property. That wide-ranging appetite served Uzi well; he’s found success in marrying woozy, extraterrestrial rhythm and a hyperactive flow — a trademark that earned Uzi his weaponized pseudonym. “One day I was rapping and this dude comes up and says, ‘You rap fast man, like a little machine gun, like a...like a little Uzi,’” he told VIBE. “I said ‘Yeah, Lil Uzi, that’s fire.’ and to this day that guy probably doesn’t even know he gave me [my name].”
Speed alone wasn’t going to win Uzi fans, though. Plenty of guys can spit like an M16 and never make it past selling a few hundred mixtapes, but Uzi found a home in the ethereal world of “post-internet rap” where artists like Young Thug were going platinum with lines like “Take the boys to school, swagonometry / I'm bleeding bad, like a bumblebee.” The growing affinity for abstract, style-agnostic flows has put bold individuality on a pedestal and opened a wide door for someone like Uzi to walk through, and the 21-year-old has made the most out of the opportunity by just being himself. “I stopped thinking, I just go out and everything is in the moment,” he told VIBE, “I just stop thinking and start moving, you just gotta be you.”
Even though Uzi has made his name riding a particularly modern wave, he was discovered the old-fashioned way. Producer and mixtape guru Don Cannon “was driving through Philly and they were playing one of my older songs on the radio. ‘U.Z.I.’ I think,” Uzi reveals. “Cannon called into Power 99 and they told him who I was. It was crazy to me, it didn’t make sense.” Uzi signed to Cannon and DJ Drama’s Atlantic imprint Generation Now where he released LUV is Rage and Lil’ Uzi Vert vs. the World, a mixtape that launched him into mainstream consciousness on the back of the synthy-laced trap single “Money Longer.”
“Money Longer” is how most people know Uzi, and embodies that spaced out, foggy musicality that made him Internet-famous in the first place. That style — as well as that initial success — can be traced back to the late tastemaker A$AP Yams. “He was the first A$AP member I ever spoke to, he was a real genius with it,” he says, “I started sitting back and looking at how he was putting things together and making everything move...Just him being him.” He never met the A$AP Mob founder in person, but Yams had faith that Uzi would make it big and one was of the first to champion the Philly native online.
Yams was only part of the sonic equation, though, since Uzi was also grabbing records from bands like Paramore and artists like Marilyn Manson, sounds that didn’t have a lot of resonance in rough North Philly neighborhoods. Citing those bands as influences isn’t exactly what you’d expect from an MC with co-signs from A$AP Ferg and Wiz Khalifa, but that particular strain of alt-rock was formative for Uzi. As he told SPIN back in April, “The type of music I make, it’s not just straight-up rapping. There’s emotion in it. That’s why people feel each song differently. I get all my vibes from rock music, you know? All my melodies and all that.”
You put Uzi in a box at your own peril. Fierce, bold individuality is something central to who Uzi is as a person and as an artist. He is always himself, always at ease with what he’s wearing, who he’s speaking to, what he’s doing. “I’ll be in North Philly with pink hair because, at the end of the day, me and you are doing the same thing,” he told VIBE, “We live in the same place, ain’t nothing different but our clothes. You don’t have to go crazy, you just gotta be you.” That isn’t a surprising line to hear from an artist, but Uzi spikes the sentiment with a rare sincerity: “If you’re you, it doesn’t matter if you’re the most boring person in the world someone will like you. You’re not trying to be anyone else.”