From Dilla beats to Dolla $igns…

When you first hear the “ratchet” sound of Tyrone Griffin Jr., better known as Ty Dolla $ign, you’re likely to make all the wrong kind of assumptions about him.

Whether your first contact comes from hearing his breakout single ‘Paranoid’, or ‘Loyal’, the song he penned for Chris Brown, or his well-received mixtapes such as his ‘Beach House’ series, his turnt-up club bangers full of ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’ cast aspersions of some arrogant womaniser full of ego and with expensive taste.

In reality, he is polite and down-to-earth, and you’re a lot more likely to catch him in a dirty pair of Vans than some obscure high fashion label – although we can’t speak on the womanising.

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Ty Dolla $ign, ‘Paranoid’

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Music is in his blood: his father was a member of the ’70s funk band Lakeside – he now plays in Ty’s live band – and his uncle played with The Isley Brothers. His childhood memories include Rick James calling by his house and meeting Earth, Wind & Fire.

A revelation in the story of Ty Dolla $ign occurred when he heard two songs: Slum Village’s J Dilla-produced ‘Forth And Back’ and ‘Players’. He recalls his excitement when he first discovered the Dilla-produced tracks; he soon purchased the rap group’s ‘Fantastic Vol. 2’, and a hunger for more led him into the rest of Dilla’s back catalogue.

“I just started reading up on him, like all the songs that I ever liked, old Tribe Called Quest shit, the old Pharcyde shit, the old Janet Jackson, Joni Mitchell with Q-Tip on it; these are all the songs I really love and I never really paid attention to producers or who did what, then I found out Dilla is the man.” He attributes Dilla’s influence as his motivation to produce: “I started collecting vinyl because he did, and then here I am today.”

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After ‘Beach House’, all of the other singers started coming raw, too. We started that shit…

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Despite such a strong foundation in hip-hop, Ty never attempted to rap. Instead, he began to explore his ability to sing as well as pursuing production in a quest to be like his idol.

“I put melody into everything and I like hip-hop beats, so I put them together and created something new.” With an affinity for hip-hop production and subject matter linked more closely with mainstream rap than R&B, Ty often finds himself being mistaken for a rapper in interviews. This doesn’t bother him, however – he’s grateful for the cross-pollination between rap and R&B fans that his niche allows.

The R&B genre has seen a shift over the past few years. The trend for glossed-over, pop chart-ready love songs has been replaced with a ruthless honesty. Ty believes the change comes down to a relationship of his.

“I think what happened was I was with this girl and I got caught cheating on her, and she stayed with me and then later on she cheated on me, and then we broke up and I became the raw-ass n*gga that I am,” he says, matter-of-factly. “And I made that ‘Beach House’ mixtape (in 2012). And then after ‘Beach House’, all of the other singers started coming raw, too. We started that shit.”

His solo breakthrough came with the DJ Mustard-produced ‘Paranoid’. The song’s original incarnation featured frequent collaborator Joe Moses and appeared on Mustard’s ‘Ketchup’ mixtape in 2013, and later on ‘Beach House 2’, before Moses was replaced with Atlantic label-mate B.o.B for the song’s commercial release of September 2013.

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Ty Dolla $ign, ‘Or Nah’

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Its success has been slow-burning, but ‘Paranoid’ is certified gold and has racked up over 25 million plays on YouTube to date, undoubtedly taking Ty’s career to the next level and increasing anticipation for his debut album, ‘Free TC’, due for release in early 2015.

He has also been gaining notoriety for his shows, which are far from what springs to mind when thinking of an R&B concert. The night before we speak he performs at London’s XOYO in support of his ‘Beach House’ EP and the freshly released ‘$ign Language’ mixtape, surprising the crowd by making his entrance in a balaclava. Throughout his time in (pre-solo-career collaboration) Ty & Kory, he found it easier to share recordings of his vocals than perform live – but now he feels confident with the whole package, and is starting to enjoy his sets.

“They’re the funnest times that I have in my life, and everybody that comes to the shows has fun as well,” he says enthusiastically of his performances. “It’s just a big ass party, a big ass club – some people compare it to like a rock show because I just f*cking get crazy.”

While he’s undoubtedly been having fun touring, Ty looks forward to returning to his LA home. He intends to spend a day smoking and skating, and then will get straight back into recording songs for his album. The songs usually start life in his living room, doors open, with a view of the Hollywood sign, and then he ends up finishing them in the studio because, as he puts it, “they keep booking me studio time”. He intends to stop that upon his return and keep the creative process at home where he is comfortable.

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Any time I do any music and then people love it and are singing to it or partying to it or f*cking to it, it feels good…

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“It’s getting ridiculous,” he says. “I’m not getting time to do me! Every time I’m recording there is all of these A&Rs, publicists and mother*ckers in the studio, so I’m not able to just say what I want to say, because everybody is looking at me; it’s more of a performance rather than being in the studio. I like how I learned – always at the crib or my grandmother’s crib, just on my computer and my mic and my set-up or whatever.”

He finds recording alone to be more productive, explaining: “Even when I got to big studios, like last night out here in London, I had the big room and I put all the girls in the vocal booth and it was just me in the control room and I did my thing.” ‘Free TC’ will show that there is more to Ty Dolla $ign than party songs with rap features, and he tells us only to expect one or two of those this time around.

Despite such a lengthy and varied come-up, it feels like Ty hasn’t even begun yet. Echoing the slow rise of ‘Paranoid’, he is remaining level-headed and taking his time. In fact, he was supposed to have released an album this year, but since he didn’t feel he had a strong enough fanbase yet, instead opted to issue an EP and mixtape, rescheduling the LP proper for next year.

He remains humble and thankful when asked about his successful year, adding: “It feels good, man. Any time I do any music and then people love it and are singing to it or partying to it or f*cking to it, it feels good. It feels like a reward, man.”

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Chris Rhodes

Ty Dolla $ign online

This interview is taken from issue 99 of Clash magazine, available now

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