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.
Shortly after the release of the first Beach House tape, in late 2012, Ty visits New York. He invites an old friend from his New York days, a rapper who goes by the name of Kareless, to kick it with him in the studio while he records some new material. Kareless and his homie B quickly drain the last of the Remy Martin from Styrofoam cups, and soon break out to the liquor store, while Ty rolls a joint and talks about the latest music he's been fucking with: "A lotta old shit. There’s this station called KROQ I listen to in LA a lot, they play hella rock shit. Then this other station called KCRW, and they play hella eclectic shit, just weird shit."
His taste in new music is similarly unexpected: "I was banging Future for awhile but I finally got tired of it. I tell you right now what I’ve been listening to. I always write this shit down. I don’t really wanna give people my secrets though, bro." He isn't being very serious; every trip he makes to New York, he's eager to share his most recent YouTube discoveries. This time, it's the stoned, textured instrumentals of Baths (he plays "Animals" on the studio computer) and Jai Paul ("Jasmine").
Ty first met Kareless shortly after Kareless got out of jail—the first time. It was 2003, and Kareless had spent time behind bars, he says, on an attempted murder charge. He'd been living at home just a few weeks, when his mom—who worked for the New York MTA—overheard a man talking on the phone about music and struggling to buy a MetroCard at the same time. The man went by the name Etcetera, and he ran a music label. Kareless' mom mentioned that her son was a rapper, and got Etcetera's phone number, promising him that Kareless could really spit. Through Etcetera, Kareless met Ty and Kory. Etcetera, though, soon fell out with the crew, for reasons that sound like the plot of a Ty Dolla $ign song.
Ty and Kareless, however, stayed friends. In the mid-2000s, when Ty and Kory's career was starting to take off, Kareless became a part of their extended crew, along with another rapper who went by Princess. Shortly after Buddah Brown Entertainment signed Ty and Kory, Kareless went back to jail on a weapons charge. "Nigga had the gun in a shoebox like an asshole," jokes Ty. "We was at the Super Bowl that year talkin’ to this nigga on the phone, 'nigga, we at the Super Bowl, goin up!'" But Ty and Kory didn't last all that long, either. "Kory was fuckin' [Princess], so it was destined to be over," Ty says.
Kareless and B return to the studio, and proceed to get hammered on the couch. Meanwhile Ty splits his time between reworking other people's songs (his least favorite part of the job, he admits) and working on his own material. He's detail-oriented, testing out each particular drum sound to hear which works best, removing sections of a beat that sound particularly dated, and recording and re-recording vocal tracks. He'll be in the studio until well after three in the morning.
While recording his vocals, he stands silhouetted behind the glass of the recording booth, running his hand up and down the piano. When singing, he repeats each line, directing the engineer in between each take, overdubbing, trying a lyric six, seven, or eight times. His friends, nodding along to the beat, joke and clown on the couch while Ty ignores them. He returns from the booth after about a half an hour to listen to the track played back.
He sets up a loop for a collaboration with Kareless. It has an eerie, percussive quality that makes it sound like an unreleased track from Meek Mill's Dreams & Nightmares. Ty and Kareless take turns trading off improvised verses. Kareless raps about selling drugs; Ty sing-raps about sex. They form basic rhyme patterns first, mumbling nonsense, slowly filling in the space. On Ty's turn, he mumbles for a bar, then raps: "hmm hmmm hmmm, then I hit a corner." He repeats this a few times, until the eureka moment: "I skeeted all on her, then I hit a corner!" He is triumphant. He retreats again to the studio to record the next few bars, adding a "skrrrt!" adlib to the background at the appropriate time.
There is an honesty at the heart of Ty's music. On record, Ty is a character calloused to love, emotionless and bluntly misogynist. But the actual sounds Ty employs against these words—from the swirling textures and substantial emotional undercurrents of the production to the narcotized qualities of his yearning, evocative vocals—directly contradict his untouchable swagger. The friction between the two grants his music a uniquely compelling realism.
It could be about remembering the pure physical sensation, or about the risk of pregnancy. But let's be real: it's about catching feelings.
That's not to say that it excuses the misogyny, and popular music is already teeming with hurt men. But something is at stake here, whatever Ty's on-record protestations to the contrary. This is most clear in Beach House's climactic moment, the semi-hidden track "Forbidden Fruit." Over plaintive, pillow-y atmosphere and muscular guitars, Ty slurs dreamily, "That pussy sooo good." Then, at the key moment: "I wish I never hit it raw." At once, a tangle of contradictions: realness, absurdity, eroticism. Then, after a beat, the bass kicks in, and it could pull a tear from your eye. This song isn't really pimp-ish at all—although Ty maintains plausible deniability. It's ambiguous: it could be about remembering the pure physical sensation, or about the risk of pregnancy. But let's be real: it's about catching feelings (and whose feelings, exactly?). The song's composition gives it real dimension, the implication that consequences must follow the fantasy.
One of the tracks he works on that night in the studio has a shimmering beat and a seductive melody: "If I buy one bottle then she fuckin' me/if I buy two bottles then she fuck for free...." But Ty isn't feeling the hook. "I was kind of iffy about it, because every time I play it in front of a room full of bitches, they always turn their nose up, like 'What the fuck? What you mean?' It's just..." He pauses to think. "I say disrespectful shit, but it's the shit that they want to hear. I don't know if they want to hear that. But maybe I'm trippin'. Because I didn't like fuckin' 'Toot It and Boot It.' And that shit blew up."
At this point, prior to the release of "Paranoid," "Toot It and Boot It" still loomed large over Ty's music. He tries to explain his initial distaste for the song that kickstarted his career. "I knew everybody liked it, but it was just like...I knew I was way more than just making some shit like that. I wanted my first time coming out to be some amazing shit." But he maintains a zen-like perseverance and a loyalty to the people he came up with.
Everything happens at the perfect time, man. You may not realize it. But now I do.
"Everything happens at the perfect time, man. You may not realize it. But now I do. The reason why people are so successful is because they are really hard workers and they really do good shit. Before I was wondering why the will.i.am shit [Ty and Kory] wasn't popping. That's because we weren't popping, we weren't out here. Coming from that, having hella bread and shit. Then going back to the hood, fuckin' with YG. Just seeing that come-up was like, damn. Them niggas was really like lil' ass niggas. Now YG got the Panamera."
He returns to the song about plying women with bottles of liquor. "Kinda corny. Don't know if I would feel like I'm swagging singing it. You feel me?" He pauses, then shrugs: "Aww fuck it. I am Mr. Toot it and Boot It."
By the next time he's in New York the song's been trashed altogether.
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Ty sat in a studio in New York prior to the release of Beach House 2, playing fresh tracks for an audience that included Kareless and legendary record exec Kevin Liles. Most of the songs Ty played remain unreleased to this day, a vision of things to come; perhaps they will appear on Ty's debut album, which he promises will arrive this year. One song, with a hook about getting wasted, was driven by a sunny strummed guitar that sounded more country than R&B. It seemed very frat-party friendly. A second is a more straightforward West Coast hip-hop track, a cinematic beat in the 2001 vein that Ty threatens will include a verse from Kendrick Lamar. Another track—which sounded incredible, it must be said, although studio monitors are notoriously generous to on-one-listen experience—shifted into a four-on-the-floor EDM beat, with epic synthesizer sweeps. Although some might be put off by such blatant crossover moves, an advantage of Ty's approach is that even the songs aiming for the pop jugular still sound a part of his world.
The attempt to re-release "My Cabana" as a single with Young Jeezy didn't connect; in order to get official release, the beat needs to be recreated without the Zedd sample, since The Doors denied clearance.
But while his unreleased work sounds promising—Ty formulates an attack plan inspired by Flo Rida, floating a series of singles and letting the people decide—Beach House 2, which came out soon after, didn't quite live up to its predecessor. There was enough energy in it to keep Ty's momentum going. But some of the best tracks he'd recorded around this time ended up on other artists' projects, without promotion, like Alley Boy's "R.N.G.M." The attempt to re-release "My Cabana" as a single with Young Jeezy didn't connect; in order to get official release, the beat needs to be recreated without the Zedd sample, since The Doors denied clearance. Without it, the magic simply wasn't there.
After Ty played through his newest material, Kevin Liles took him aside, while the music blared from the monitors, out of range of anyone's hearing. Once he departed, Ty implied that Liles thought he should rein in some of his lyrics' less refined aspects. Without being asked about his answer, Ty brushed off the possibility.
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The other week, a few days after the release of the Beach House EP and his abbreviated headlining performance at SOB's, Ty played videos and new songs for a group of writers in a studio in Times Square.
Despite being only 7 tracks long—including both the familiar "Paranoid" and "Paranoid (Remix)"—Beach House EP shows an admirable slice of Ty's breadth, even if it still feels like he's pulling quite a few punches to conserve his energy. Ty's adventurousness is on display, at least in miniature. The second half of the multi-part "Work" transforms into a tense workout for Twista, while "Never Be the Same" angles for the kind of pathos Ty channelled so effectively on the first Beach House's closer, "Time." One minute, a track will including a Nate Howard spoken word piece; the next, a titanic Young Chop beat. Bed spring sound effects, followed by a tasteful violin solo.
The diversity of Ty's taste is apparent in his favorite songwriters. Although he's situated in R&B and hip-hop, he is, at his core, a pop songwriter. He admires Esther Dean, whose "top line" singing is responsible for a huge proportion of the Top 40 hits in the United States. He mentions James Fauntleroy, who's collaborated heavily with Justin Timberlake. He's a huge fan of Sia, who's been working with Jennifer Lopez. He likes Hit Boy, too, and has known him since high school music class. One of his favorite songs at the moment is Beyonce's "Drunk In Love," written by new industry golden child Detail. "I heard that on the radio," he says, "And I just wanted to get to the studio."
One song he'd played before—a tribute to Los Angeles—now includes an incredible verse from Kendrick Lamar. Another track, with Akon, has a perfect summertime melody, and sounds like a potential smash.
With the success of "Paranoid"—the song's now spent nine weeks in the Hot 100—Ty's fully shaken the shadow of "Toot It and Boot It." As usual, he shares some unreleased tracks. One song he'd played before—a tribute to Los Angeles—now includes an incredible verse from Kendrick Lamar. Another track, with Akon, has a perfect summertime melody, and sounds like a potential smash.
But as always, the industry throws as many obstacles at him as it provides outlets. This time, it's the "Or Nah" video with Wiz, which hasn't lived up to his expectations. It's a standard industry video, with Ty and Wiz performing into the camera, surrounded by women.
In comparison to his own disappointing video, he points to FKA Twigs' tour de force music video "Papi Pacify." Even as he's playing it for the remaining members of the press, he's completely caught up, as if seeing it for the first time. "I need to meet her," he says, enraptured.
He also plays extended sections of Australian producer Ta-ku's Songs To Break Up To, an album he's been obsessed with lately. He draws attention to its textures, the way the percussion snaps, the way its sounds resonate in space. He jokes about how while other folks have sex to his music, he fucks to the sounds of Ta-ku. "These are just songs," he says, gesturing at a laptop packed with unreleased Ty Dolla $ign tracks recorded over the past few years. Ta-ku, though, is what music should be: "To be real. To be completely real. You know? I don't know if anybody cares about that. But I do."
Even as Ty derides his own music, as if he feels chained to traditional song structures, his is an art poised between extremes. Rather than making some final decision and following a particular impulse—traditionalism or experimentalism, maturity or juvenilia, pop or hip-hop—what animates Ty’s music is that he’s suspended resolution. He wants to be experimental, but he wants to be popular; he aims for edgy, ‘ignorant’ lyrics, but desires respectability. He has the raw feel of his underground, gangster roots, but listens with regularity to KROQ. As a musician, he seeks the admiration of artists in Los Angeles’ alt-R&B scene, knows members of Sa-Ra Creative Partners and hangs with Thundercat. At the same time, he’s drawn to the appeal of commercial R&B, not because he necessarily wants to make a lot of money—although one doubts he would turn it down—but because of how he conceives of his audience: female-dominated, rather than the "weirdos" (his word) drawn to the shows of many of his art-ier peers.
He is a populist who respects his craft. This willingness to play with his audience's expectations ultimately makes for his most interesting music. It's not his substantial skills as a musician that makes his art work, nor is it his willingness to aim for crowd-pleasing immediacy; instead, it's both at once, in tension, the battle within him. Let's hope one never wins out.
As if to prove the point, five minutes later everyone in the room—and most of all, Tyrone "Dolla $ign" Griffin—snap their heads and bounce around the studio, caught up in unconscious motion sparked by the undeniable energies of Tommy Lee Sparta's "Vibes Inna Dis," Kevin Gates' "Don't Know," and Young Thug's "Danny Glover." As Ty rapped along to lyrics about money tall like two midgets, the weed smoke unfurled, the studio a cocoon of possibility.