“[A$AP Yams] knew where we wanted to take it, he knew the vision we had — we shared the same vision. Before I met Yams, I had work ethic, I had the talent, I had the vision, but I had no plan. Yams gave me a plan. Yams told me, ‘Yo Bamz, this is how you gonna do it, this is what you gonna drop, this is what you gonna say, this how you gonna move, this is who you gonna meet.’ Yams gave me a whole plan, and to this day we still use that plan.”
Bodega Bamz looks ahead at the blank movie theater screen. The lights are dim, but I can still see his eyes glisten as he speaks about the late A$AP Yams, the A$AP Mob co-founder and his mentor. Now 30 years old, Bodega Bamz, born Nathaniel De La Rosa, is full of pride and loyalty. He’s banked his career on those characteristics.
I meet Bamz at Theatre 80 St. Marks, where The Streets Owe Me — his acting, producing, and screenwriting debut — is premiering. Sandwiched between a bar and residential buildings, the theater is dark and inherently dramatic, and has a long history as a Lower East Side landmark and revival theater. I walk inside with Bamz and we sink into the red-velvet movie seats. Some of his Tanboys comrades, like his manager and engineer Ohla, are sitting in a group, talking. The screen flickers on and off.
“Everything forward from now on is just [Yams’] creation. He was the Frankenstein; he pointed me to the fucking water well. It was up to me to bring that water — he ain’t gonna bring the water for me, he’s gonna point me to the well. Like, ‘Yo Bamz, the well was right there, but it’s up to [you] to go get the water.’ And that’s exactly what Yams did for me. I had everything else…but I had no plan. He was the eyes; he drew a blueprint for me. And that’s what happened. Shout out to my brother-man. Love him and miss him.”
Bodega Bamz was rapping before he met A$AP Yams, but cites Yams as the one who gave him the push to success. Both are from Harlem and both are half–Puerto Rican and half-Dominican, aspects of their backgrounds that solidified their bond. Bamz was born on 119th Street and Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem, moving up and down between 119th Street and 122nd Street as he grew up. His mother is Puerto Rican, his father is Dominican, and Bamz represents two cultures that are, on the whole, fairly similar, yet still seem to clash.
“Both [cultures] want to be superior to the other, and we’re almost identical. Dominicans want to be number one and Puerto Ricans want to be number one. Dominicans always got something to say about Puerto Ricans; Puerto Ricans always got something to say about Dominicans. The food…is not too different, but if you have [Puerto Rican] food and Dominican food, you can tell the difference. The Spanish is slightly different as well, because Dominicans talk extra fast. Puerto Ricans, their Spanish is more slangy…It’s a lot of differences, but nothing too crazy. It’s still the same people, still the same culture.”
Bamz’s cultural background inevitably became the foundation for his rap career. He grew up in a religious household — Christianity is huge in both his Caribbean cultures — and was involved in music in church and wrote poetry on his own. When he saw rap become popular, he thought he would try it out. He began rapping around the age of fourteen, but didn’t start taking it seriously until his early twenties. Things didn’t start clicking for him until he was twenty-six, which is when he met Yams, in 2011.
“It was really like an eleven-year journey,” he recalls. “I didn’t wake up one day and want to be a rapper because it was cool. I started off terrible, had to get better, had to get more comfortable, had to get more confident. It was a long-ass road.”
The meaning behind his MC name is twofold and takes a deeper look into a bodega than one would expect. Bamz compares his music to a bodega: Just like how you can find everything you need in a bodega — the bare necessities — that’s how he looks at his music. He gives you a full array of emotions. To take you even further into his mentality, the second part of his MC name is an acronym for By Any Means.
“By any means I’m going to succeed, by any means I’m going to prosper, by any means I’m going to support my family, by any means I’m going to make it out of the ‘hood and make something out of myself,” he says.
During those eleven years, Bamz created the Tanboys movement in the hopes that it would push Latinos to the forefront of hip-hop and that Latinos would become proud of themselves and their culture. Bamz was tired of being ashamed of his culture — a feeling he had growing up — and doesn’t want others to be ashamed of being Latino.
“We wanted something that people could be a part of. We wanted a movement that people could relate to, because we also know that in our culture there’s a lot of people that are voiceless…Tanboys is like the muscle, Tanboys is like Bodega Bamz’s muscle, it’s the movement, it’s the stampede behind Bodega Bamz’s music. I feel like people are getting more courageous and their heart is beating more stronger because they’ve seen somebody grab his balls named Bodega Bamz, who said, ‘Fuck it. I’m not going to be what you want me to be, I’m going to be straight Latino.’ ”
And here is where Bodega Bamz’s debut album, Sidewalk Exec, comes into play. Rather than tell the story of the corner hustler, of the kingpin, the album tells the story of the connect, who is usually Latino. Sidewalk Exec is a look into Bamz’s life as the connect, the person who supplies the corner hustler and kingpin. “We never had that in the rap game — we never had the point of view of a connect, of a Latino,” he says.
But if Bamz weren’t rapping, he’d be acting. He actually wanted to be an actor before a rapper; as a kid, he took part in his school and church dramas. Now he’s given himself the chance to act with his movie The Streets Owe Me, a short about a man who’s been in and out of prison his whole life and who works with his brother in his uncle’s bodega while trying to turn his life around. Though they’re trying to get out of the lifestyle, the brothers run into trouble with money, murder, and revenge. The whole story is also centered around the bodega.
Bamz’s hope is that people won’t view his music and movie as one entity, but separate bodies of work. He wants the movie to bubble on its own, and to show a different side of him. But regardless, the plot of the film is indeed intertwined with his music and life. Bamz knows people who are still out in the streets, who are trying to look for a way out. There’s always truth to his work.
The Spanish Harlem rapper dedicates his success to A$AP Yams. Things started happening for Bamz the moment that Yams got into Bamz’s corner. People started taking Bamz seriously because Yams had influence. Yams was Bamz’s brother, and a huge part of the Tanboys movement. The two had an unbreakable bond.
“When I DM’d [Yams on Twitter], he said, ‘Yo, I always loved your shit, always been a fan. Anything you need from me.’ I’m like damn, this man don’t owe me nothing. For him to tell me, ‘Anything you need, I got you,’ that meant a lot to me. Because my struggle, to get where I’m at right now, it was so tough. I had to struggle so much, from people not believing, from people not tryna help when I’m asking for help. That’s why every time he was around me, I made sure I always let him know I’m thankful, I always tell him I loved him. I always gave him a hug because I wanted him to know that I was so thankful and so humbled by him doing that.”
Bodega Bamz will celebrate the release of Sidewalk Exec Tuesday, April 14, at SOB’s. Find tickets here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 13, 2015