Everything you need to know about Ty Dolla $ign can be found in the video for "My Cabana," off his hedonistic mixtape, Beach House.
The song blends Zedd's remix of Skrillex and The Doors' "Breakin' A Sweat" with the horns of Mint Condition's "Breakin My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)." (Ty swears the titular similarity between the two songs is a coincidence.) At once a narcotic dose of seamy atmosphere and a tightly written singalong; an embrace of druggy trends and a cheeky salute to R&B history; a disrespectful male fantasy and a wail of ennui, "My Cabana" and its internal contradictions are bound together by Ty's ear for melody. It's a song of immediate gratification. But even as he plays to our our basest desires, Ty is no cynic. He isn't empty hedonist, either. Instead, he finds the art in ignorance: tapping into the emotions that compel us to escape, to act more stupidly.
In the video, Ty appears drugged, hazy, half-lidded, and wavering in the bleary light, dreadlocks draped down his back, mouthing the song's blunt-force words as if by accident. "White girls love to do coke," he intones, cold and neutral. "Black girls always wanna smoke. Asian hoes like to drink sake. My Spanish bitch wanna pop a molly." And later: "I hate bitches wearing fake nails/Dumb bitches think I can't tell." It couldn't be more misogynistic, absurdist, packed with cartoonish stereotypes. And then suddenly, at the song's chorus, the numbness falls away, and you feel something, deep inside of you. A heartfelt cry from the depths of your soul. And right at that moment, you also realize you're feeling all of this over a question that might not be very deep:
How many hoooooooooooooes?
It's easy to draw comparisons between Ty and The Weeknd, who previously cornered the market on debauched R&B. But where singer Abel Tesfaye’s approach had a torpid, navel-gazing ache, Ty is a funny, cocky Lothario. There’s an unabashed eroticism to Ty’s songs, and by being irreverently bawdy—in the grand tradition of singers like R. Kelly and T-Pain—he makes R&B’s self-serious present seem square or pretentious by comparison.
Between releasing Beach House (it dropped October 1, 2012, sounding every second like summer), its follow-up Beach House 2, and last month's Beach House EP, Ty returned to New York City numerous times. He conducted interviews, performed at the Knitting Factory and SOB's, and kicked it with old friends still living in the city. (He first lived here in the mid-2000s.) But most of all, the L.A. native spends his time back east in the studio.
His time in New York is spent sharing stories with NY friends, reminiscing about the times they used to rent $50 limousines to scoop women from the club to the hotel.
And when Ty Dolla $ign is in the studio, it becomes apparent how misleading his on-record image as a drugged-out party rap hedonist really is. Not that he hasn't lived the life; he's spent the last decade L-I-V-I-N with the best of them. But as a craftsman, Ty is a perfectionist; as a music fan, Ty is an obsessive. His time in New York is spent sharing stories with old friends, reminiscing about the times they used to rent $50 limousines to scoop women from the club to the hotel. But once he gets to the studio, as his friends get bent on cognac, Ty sticks with weed so that he can focus on the process. If he's not recording, he's sharing unreleased tracks, or putting people on to his favorite music of the moment. A voracious listener, he stays up on a diverse range of genres and artists.
His hard work has paid off. He's still not a household name, but he seems closer to the verge than ever before. His DJ Mustard-produced single "Paranoid" is still ringing in clubs; his latest, the Wiz Khalifa-assisted "Or Nah," seems set to follow suit. Beach House 2 was written up in the New York Times, and Ty is collaborating with a growing cadre of stars; he wrote Chris Brown's "Loyal," and recently contributed background vocals for the Jennifer Lopez's DJ Mustard-produced "Girls." A multi-instrumentalist triple-threat who can write hooks, sing, and produce beats, Ty has his fingerprints on numerous tracks by both friends and associates. His label, Atlantic, seems to treat him as a go-to songwriter, unloading a bevy of its catalog artists onto Beach House 2 (Kid Ink, B.o.B.) and giving Ty work on songs by B.o.B. (he has a writing credit on "HeadBand") and Alley Boy ("R.N.G.M.")
Ty is very much the maestro of his own sound, and is heavily involved in the production of his own records. Still, his is a collaborative art, with ideas and lyrics thrown out by homies in the studio, beats from his "D.R.U.G.S." ("Dirty Rotten Underground Sound") production crew emailed from across the country, instrumentalists' work chopped and recombined. (The lyrics to the hook from his first hit—YG's 2009 smash "Toot It and Boot It"—were coined by his friend, Nano. Ty was responsible, though, for the melody.) Many of the songs on Ty's records that he didn't directly produce, he had a hand in anyway.
It's the creation of the core Beach House sound that has enabled Ty to become a solo star, a development he credits to the advice of Def Jam's Karen Kwak. "'If you could give me just one sound, that would be the shit,'" he says, paraphrasing her loosely. "I took that advice and made the Beach House shit." By orienting himself as "of" but "apart" from the ratchet sound being churned out by frequent collaborator DJ Mustard, Ty became a center of aesthetic gravity in his own right, balancing his blurry, druggy textures and epicurean lyrics with crisp musicianship and strong songwriting. It's also enabled him to experiment further, pushing away from (then returning to) that sound as he's moved forward, each record a new star that signals a broader shape to the Beach House constellation.
It's not the only thing he's learned during his time in the industry. Since the success of "Toot It and Boot It," he's been working as a songwriter and producer behind the scenes to considerable success. But Ty's roots on the inside run deeper, pre-dating that early hit. Despite all those connections, though, it's been as much of a slow grind as it might be for an artist on the outside.
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When Ty performs an abbreviated set at SOB's in New York City to celebrate the release of his Beach House EP, he's accompanied on stage by his father, clad in matching black shades and acting as trumpet player and hype man. Ty's story starts with Mr. Tyrone Griffin, with whom Ty shares more than a name. The senior Ty spent years in the music industry. He's often been credited for his work with funk band Lakeside (you know them). But he also has credits as an engineer, trumpet player, keyboardist, and background vocalist, for a variety of jazz and R&B stars, from Teena Marie to the Brothers Johnson.
His son was raised in South Central, Los Angeles (although they would move frequently, from the San Fernando Valley to Baldwin Hills to Beverly Hills and back to L.A. again), immersed in music. Following in his father's footsteps, he became a multi-instrumentalist, and played bass in a wedding band as a teenager. One of their gigs was the wedding of Jay Z manager Jay Brown; Jay Z was in attendance, although Ty didn't meet him.
He downplays it now, but his life was also tied up in the streets. Kicked out of the house by his mom, Ty became a member of the West Side Rollin' 20s Bloods. But even then, music was still foremost on his mind. His homie Big B let him put up a studio in his home, where they would work on music daily.
After a very brief dalliance as a Subway sandwich artist, he was signed to Virgin, which led to credits as a composer on the soundtracks to Queen Latifah's film The Cookout and Laurence Fishburne's Biker Boyz. In the mid 2000s, he moved to New York City, and lived in Flatbush and Brownsville. He hung around at Sony studios, working on beats for G-Unit (nothing was ever placed). He also spent a lot of time exploring the New York nightlife. "We used to go out every night, fuck with a new girl every night," he says with a slight grin.
By 2006, he had joined a circle of musicians that included Taz Arnold of Sa-Ra Creative Partners, who took him on Kanye West's Touch the Sky tour. ("You always hear the fun stories," Ty says, "but once you do it, you know how serious it is. You gotta be on time and everything. It's like a real job.") He also formed a group with a New York-based singer named Kory. They went by Ty and Kory, and sang R&B over J Dilla-like beats. Snatched up by Venus Brown's Buddah Brown Entertainment, a venture with will.i.am and Justin Timberlake, the duo released a mixtape but remained in label limbo until internal tension led to a breakup.
Unexpectedly, the streets created a way out from Ty's industry stasis. Big B—whose home he'd used as a studio when he was younger—introduced him to a young rapper named YG. "He said, 'Yo I got this kid from Compton, I want you to fuck with him.'" B played Ty early YG tracks like "Pussy Killer." "At first, I was like, 'What the fuck!'" Ty says. "That style of rapping, he was hella lazy, he wasn’t saying his words, he wasn’t on beat." B also insisted Ty place YG on a throwaway beat Ty had put together. Ty described it as "the wackest song I had." But "Toot It and Boot It" became a runaway smash, and proved key to YG's subsequent signing to Def Jam Records. (YG's major label debut comes out later this year.)
"Toot It and Boot It" was also an important record musically. He calls it the first "ratchet" anthem—the word DJ Mustard coined to describe the party-rap beat style he brought to massive chart success with “Rack City” in 2011. “We’ve been doing that sound since ‘07. We wanted something that wasn’t so…jerk?” he says, referring to the style of dance-oriented teen rap that popped off in mid-2000s Los Angeles. “Something more ‘G.’ [Ratchet] is all the same drum pattern as ‘Toot it and Boot it.’ A blend of some West Coast shit with some down south snap music, but sped up.”
In the wake of that record's success, Ty and his friends formed the nexus of the D.R.U.G.S. production team. Working with Ty and rappers like Joe Moses and Ty's cousin TeeCee 4800, the group was a blend of musicians and producers who would work on all parts of the production: Chordz, G. Casso, Nate, Buddha, Fuego, James Koo, DJ Mustard, and DJ Dahi. D.R.U.G.S. would be responsible for the bulk of the first Beach House tape. And—although Ty prefers not to discuss it—the team was also behind Iggy Azalea's 2011 debut mixtape, Ignorant Art. (She would sign to T.I.'s Grand Hustle label for her 2012 follow-up, TrapGold, and leave Ty and D.R.U.G.S. behind.) DJs Mustard and Dahi, of course, made names for themselves as solo beatmakers as well.
But just as momentum seemed to be building for Ty, his ascent was undercut by tragedy. G. Casso, his friend and a talented keyboardist in his own right, was killed suddenly, a victim of an ongoing gang conflict in Carson, California. Although he, like Ty, was a gangbanger as a teenager, by the time of his murder, music had become his focus. To Ty, Casso's death seemed so senseless, and stopped Ty's career cold. His songwriting took a turn for the melancholy, and, uninterested in releasing that material to the world, he took an extended break before finally releasing Beach House in fall 2012.