Just days after a surprise modeling appearance in Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 show, the 18-year-old rapper Lil Yachty is back home in Atlanta, getting his hair outfitted with red beads, as is his trademark. The barbers in the salon call him by his first name, Miles, and know him well enough to chide his recent success. “I’m bootlegging your tracks,” jokes a barber. “Got that Yachty mixtape for $5!” Yachty laughs, enjoying a rare moment to relax between a series of studio sessions. “Oh, Miles,” the barber continues. “I don’t know how it happened, don’t care. But I’m proud of you, boy. You scared me for a minute, but I’m proud of you.”
After, Yachty heads to Quality Control studios, headquarters to the label of the same name—home to Migos, Jose Guapo, OG Maco, and a handful of others. Yachty is unsigned, but he’s been using the facility thanks to Coach K, one of Quality Control’s two founders and a storied veteran of the Atlanta rap scene, having managed both Jeezy and Gucci Mane in their primes. Coach, who Yachty calls “Unc,” has been managing Yachty, too, for the past few weeks. But he’s known the young rapper since he was just a toddler thanks to a long-term friendship with his father, a photographer. It’s funny, at the same time Coach's ears-to-the-streets DJ friends were hyping Yachty up, his father was hitting Coach up for guidance about the kid's rapidly materializing career.
“I can’t rap with him here,” says Yachty, when his father shows up hoping to take some photographs, potentially to be used for his son’s mixtape cover. His dad dresses like he could be in his early 20s, dangling his camera around his neck. Though seemingly well-adjusted to Yachty’s social circle, he soon decides to get out of way, ceding the crowded studio to the young crew.
These are Yachty’s friends—producers, rappers, and usually both, collectively known as Sailing Team. There’s Burberry Perry, the producer Yachty calls his “left hand,” and K$upreme, the rapper Yachty calls his “right.”
K$upreme, for his part, is very excited to have gotten a hold of a Chief Keef-produced beat, a heavy-footed, pounding track that sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place on Keef’s Back From the Dead 2 mixtape. After murmuring a potential flow and gathering some opinions from fellow Sailing Team member Digital Nas, K$upreme freestyles what he’ll tentatively call the “Young Flexing Nigga Theme Song,” which becomes complete upon the addition of a Yachty verse.
This situation, all of his friends in one room making music and talking shit—this was Yachty’s dream.
Less than a year ago, he was still in high school, “cheating on tests and not fucking bitches,” he says. After graduating, he spent the summer in New York with the goal of establishing relationships with those who could help push his music. He lived with a friend who told him to stay as long as he wanted, and began to go out and try to meet the right people—young socialites with an influence. “I scheduled this shit out,” he admits. “I knew I had to reach the people with the following, and the groupies and shit. I had to get to them. The kids look up to those people. That was the first step.” But by the end of the summer he was quickly going broke. “I started getting scared as fuck,” he says.
His bright red hair (which he was reluctant to change) precluded the possibility of a normal job, so he tried college in Alabama. After two months, he dropped out. At this point, he and Burberry Perry had already made the song “1 Night,” Yachty’s first and biggest hit, sitting at 10 million SoundCloud plays hit today but still climbing. Held together by a characteristically cheerful Perry beat, the song is really a simple ballad about staying up all night with girls, made unique by Yachty’s nasal, high-pitched singing voice, which even he says sounds like “a fucking cartoon character.” Its play count owes something to a viral comedy video in which the songs makes an appearance, but Yachty doesn’t give that all the credit.
“Ian started the whole cult following,” says Yachty, referring to Ian Connor, a young stylist and internet personality he met in New York. It was Ian’s hand in the model selection process for Yeezy Season 3 that landed Yachty onstage at Madison Square Garden, with Ian on one side and Young Thug on the other. “It hurted” is about as much as Yachty will say about the experience. While models were encouraged to sit down when they felt tired, he stood tall through the whole thing, his stark hair paired with a matching solid red Yeezy sweatshirt making him perhaps the most distinguishable figure in the whole stadium.
Immediately after, Yachty was on a plane to Los Angeles. Burberry Perry was supposed to come along, but “this dickhead missed his flight,” scolds Yachty. “That would have been a great trip for him,” he continues, giving Perry an admonishing look. (Beyond “1 Night,” Perry has produced a number of Yachty’s underground hits, most recently “All Times,” a short jingle in which Yachty raps about always having the chopper on him—over a re-creation of the theme to the show Rugrats. Today, they’re working on a track that samples from Jurassic Park.) In Los Angeles, Yachty took some business meetings, but more exciting for him was the chance to meet his idol, Soulja Boy, with whom he already has released a song and started work on PBM2, a proposed sequel the now-classic 2010 mixtape from Soulja and Lil B, Pretty Boy Millionaires.
Back in Atlanta, now, Yachty and his friends finish up in the studio and head to The Masquerade, where they’ll all perform as part of a showcase of underground Atlanta talent hosted by iLoveMakonnen’s producer Danny Wolf. The furniture in the green room appears to be permanently flattened and embedded with cigarette smoke from shows past. No one wants to sit down, so they set their sights on food.
Yachty suggests pepperoni pizza, which, according to all of his close friends, is the only thing he actually eats—that, and Thin Mints, the Girl Scout cookie. Someone else suggests sub sandwiches, which Yachty immediately vetoes, jokingly announcing, “Subs are for substitute niggas.”
Everything seems to be branded for Yachty, from his diet, to the red beads, to the nautical theme that permeates his entire persona. He wears almost exclusively vintage Nautica; his signature ad-lib is the self-referential “Lil Boat!” He’d actually wanted to pick up a sailor’s suit for tonight’s show at a thrift store, had time permitted. Add it all up, and his attention to consistency in these little details seems to reach even beyond the scope of say, Chief Keef’s iconic Gucci goggles, or Soulja Boy’s penchant for Bapestas. It’s as if, at 18, Yachty has absorbed their influence and distilled it, writing a secret set of rules that runs alongside his joyful, seemingly boundless music. It almost seems calculated, but when I ask him to explain he responds simply, and with a smile: “I’m just fire.”