Polo Grounds Founder Bryan Leach Calls A$AP Rocky’s Debut Leak a Gift and Curse

Back in 2011, as A$AP Rocky was becoming the most buzzed about rap newbie around, labels were scrambling to sign him. Of course, only one could come out on top. And when RCA inked the Harlem native, it was thanks to veteran music executive Bryan Leach, who’s the founder of Polo Grounds Music, which is distributed by RCA. Tomorrow, the man responsible for breaking artists like the Yin Yang Twins and Lil Jon will enjoy the release day of LongLiveA$AP, Rocky’s major label debut. As he eyes that day, more than a year in the making, Leach talks to XXL about his relationship with Rocky, the album’s multiple pushbacks, why “Goldie” didn’t sniff the success of “Fuckin’ Problems,” how he handled the project leaking a month in advance and more. —Adam Fleischer

XXL: What’s the last year and a half been like since you signed Rocky? How has your relationship grown and how have you seen him grow?
Bryan Leach:
I’ve seen him grow in so many ways personally and professionally, but the key with this was really just allowing things to form naturally. The first thing was getting LiveLoveA$AP out, and making sure that that body of work was as good as it could be. It’s really been about making sure we make moves for the right reasons. It’s kind of old-school artist development. And fulfilling certain promises I made him when we first signed, certain things that were important to him in even making the decision to sign. We had to make sure that we did those exact things.

What’s an example?
Rocky is an old school artist. Old school artists don’t sign to labels; they sign to people. Once of his things he said to me was, If you can promise me that you’ll be as hands-on as you are now always, then we might be able to do something. It was important for me to be really hands-on and making sure that nothing got thrown to some big department or some big group of so-called experts, or shit like that. One of the other things that was important to him was to make sure that everything we did, we did for the right reasons. That was it. Everything from making the record, all the different pushbacks, the fact that we gave so much shit away free, and that we super-served his core audience. All of those things were intentional, strategic, and planned. And risky. But that was really the only way to approach it.

In terms of the pushbacks, one time, he said it was coming out on Halloween. And that was a Wednesday. Were there actually plans for it to come out that day?
The significance of that was that we dropped LiveLoveA$AP on Halloween. That’s why we really wanted to make it happen. But unlike a lot of artists, you can’t let the marketing, or some billing, dictate when you put your shit out. So that was what our goal was—we tried hard to work towards it, but it just didn’t feel right, so we changed the date again.

Were you surprised at all that “Goldie” didn’t pick up more?
I was and I wasn’t. I was because I thought that, even if you play the instrumental, there’s no way you can’t rock to that. If you a real A$AP Rocky fan, and you think about it, that was the first real record that he did that had any tempo to it. In terms of having a record that could work in the clubs, and work with hip-hop purists, we felt that that record did a good job of balancing that out. But I felt like, some things, people just aren’t ready. Some things are about the timing. So I was surprised, but I wasn’t surprised, because I think people are fed so much generic shit nowadays that it’s not easy to get them to focus on something that’s real.

It kind of worked in the opposite way with “Fuckin’ Problems,” because that was a record where some people may have thought we cheated. Getting a bunch of superstar artists on it, getting a big producer to produce it, follow kind of what you might think is predictable. But we were okay with that because it was natural. He has a personal relationship with Drake; Drake was a big part of his career, even from the beginning, prior to even signing. Kendrick Lamar and him, same thing; TDE and A$AP have their own relationship. And they were all part of Drake’s Club Paradise Tour. We felt comfortable putting out that record, but sometimes people need to have things more easily digestible before they can really see it for what it is. Every artist went through that.

So now do you think you’ll get that radio support moving forward?
I hope we do. But it’s the same thing we felt before: This is a project that’s always been about the artist, not about the records. I can legitimately say that I hope they support it, but if they don’t, then fuck ’em. The fans have spoken. He sold out three tours before he had a radio single. He sold merch at premium prices before he’s had a radio single. What does commercial mean? It means that you appeal to the masses. He’s done things that show that he has that appeal. I give all the credit to his base. His base supported him in ways that are encouraging to new artists. I hope people pay attention to that. There’s nothing wrong with serving your base.

How much were you involved in the recording process of the album?
It was a 100% team effort. It starts with Rocky and it ends with Rocky; this is his baby. My biggest job was making Rocky comfortable with taking some steps outside of his comfort zone. It could be getting with producers like Hit-Boy, which I helped set up, where you had an artist that thought the way that he thought in terms of respecting a core audience, but also had a broader sounds and a cleaner sound. We played a team effort. Whether it was [co-manager] Geno [Sims]  hooking him up with Danger Mouse. Where it was ASAP Yams making sure that he stayed on top of who the new, hungry cats was. Whether it was me pushing him to work with Jim Jonsin, who helped do “LongLiveA$AP.” It about finding that balance between Rocky’s world and other people’s worlds.

From both a business and personal standpoint, how did you guys handle the leak?
From a business standpoint, we tried to control it as much as we could, and also pay attention to the signs. From a personal standpoint, it was a gift and a curse. I was disappointed that it leaked so early, and I was concerned about whether that would affect us.

And from the response?
I think the word of mouth was great. I think people appreciated the body of work. I’m glad that what leaked was not super rough demos and shit like that. A lot of the comments have been, “I downloaded it; I’m still buying it.” Again, that speaks to Rocky’s core. They don’t want no bootleg shit. They want the real deal. It’s like, “Yeah, I download shit for free. But I also buy what I like.” Nevertheless, leaking a month away from the release during the holiday period, it definitely was scary.

So has that colored your expectations at all sales wise?
Nah, I still have faith. That’s not just shit-taking. I think this is a new world. This is the new way that shit works. Even if it never leaked I would have had to cross my fingers on January 15. Maybe I’ll cross two fingers instead of one.