Noisey

Ty Dolla $ign Is America's Greatest Hope

The LA singer has the best gig in music, and he's on a campaign to prove it.

by Kyle Kramer
Sep 12 2016, 1:13pm

If there is an ideal life to be led on this crazy, contradiction-filled planet of ours, it probably looks something like Ty Dolla $ign's. Not so much in the obvious ways you might gather from his music—which, to be fair, is a world of uninterrupted hedonism filled with enormous blunts and girls lining up for elaborate sex—but rather in the way he carries himself. Ty is relaxed and friendly, engaged with the people around him and in the way he acts as a musician. He'll earnestly debate the best places to get a burrito with you because he genuinely cares about both your opinion and where to get a good burrito. He'll ask for new music recommendations because he's actually interested in finding out about new music. Where some artists seem born for the stage and interested in doing whatever might get them there, Ty's greatest interest—not to discount the aforementioned weed and girls—is the craft itself. If he happens to score a few hits in the process, that's great, but they're just a byproduct of the greater cause of music. Ty Dolla $ign is like an extremely successful version of your stoner uncle who plays the bass, and that guy is definitely having a great time.

Of course, Ty Dolla $ign does make hits, including, most notably and recently, his feature on Fifth Harmony's "Work from Home," a 2016 smash that shot to number four on the Billboard Hot 100. It also recently captured a VMA for Best Collaboration, which I point out because Ty took the stage shirtless in a lace jacket to accept the award. Ty also has popped up on a not inconsiderable number of the past year's soon-to-be classic albums, from Kanye West's The Life of Pablo to two Jeremih projects to Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book. He toured with Future earlier this year. You get the sense that these fellow studio geniuses appreciate having him around. Ty has a sixth sense for curation in his own right, and last year's excellent album Free TC found him pulling in talents that ranged from Jagged Edge to Rae Sremmurd to his incarcerated brother TC.

Now, Ty is gearing up to release his new album, Campaign, on September 23. A riff on the current presidential campaign in the absolute loosest sense, it encourages voting along with the same kind of louche, debauched behavior that has music has focused on since his breakout mixtape, Beach House. Ty's music is a constant refinement of these themes, a portrait of a world that imagines sleazy club hookups as a realm for high art. 

"The guy who's singing about stuff as vulgar as I'm singing—I feel like I started that wave a bit," Ty observed on recent visit to the VICE office.

Yet where Free TC took an organic approach full of acoustic guitars and lush orchestration to tackle these topics, staking itself out as a statement piece, Campaign sounds more contemporary, pared down for ultimate turn up potential if equally avant-garde. Early hits like "Zaddy" and the title track, which features Future, streamline his gorgeously appointed space age panoramas into lightspeed club bangers. His daughter, who is 11, prefers Campaign to its predecessor, Ty noted. He's hoping to win a few more partisans, too.

"It's my campaign," he explained. "I'm trying to let everybody know to believe in me. A lot of these other motherfuckers are copy cats, and I'm the originator, so believe in the $ign. And it just happens to be the presidential election right now, so we're all campaigning—but vote for the Dolla $ign."

Noisey: What excites you right now musically?
Ty Dolla $ign: New sounds excite me. It's finding new shit—not like "yo, this is the last number one, let's make something like that." I feel like that's what a lot of people do and where they go wrong, and this goes from music to fashion to everything. Everyone is accepting biting right now. When I was coming up if you copied somebody or wore something fake you wouldn't be able to go to school the next day.

I respect that you seem most interested as an artist in challenging yourself. You've happened to score some big hits along the way, but it feels like you're more interested in making stuff that's going to be satisfying for you.
Yeah, and I'm always trying to impress my pops and all my older homies that taught me this music shit. You might hear a little bit of that, too. Like, wow, why does he have this big orchestra? Because I'm trying to make pops and them be like, "oh, that's dope."

What do you think other artists are looking for from you when they work with you?
Just a slap. Every artist is looking for an alley-oop when they call on other artists. For me, I use other artists as instruments. If I hear a piano melody and come up with a song where I want a live bass on there, it's like, "let me hit up Thundercat." Or this song is slapping, it's got the energy, let me hit up Future. It's an instrument thing. Like let me call up Jagged Edge. Most people aren't thinking about Jagged Edge, but for me it's like all voices are all different instruments. I can use a Strat or a Gibson: yeah it's all a guitar, but it's different vibes.

I imagine you're kind of a geek for different instruments and studio stuff.
Stupid geek! YG saved my life: He's the one that took me up out of the studio rat lifestyle. I could be happy just producing and experimenting with sounds fucking with different gear, but he was the one that showed me, "nah, you need to come play this for the people and perform it and get out here. You don't want to listen to this shit, just yourself and the homies the rest of your life." So that was cool. Shout out to YG.

Most people aren't thinking about Jagged Edge, but for me it's like all voices are all different instruments.

When you listen to music, are there sounds you hear and want to re-create?
Yeah, especially when it comes to older shit. I'll be listening to some Hendrix or The Doors: They use mad organs, and I'm like, "yo, I want my organ to sound like that." Or an old Phil Collins song. You just have to listen to shit and fuck around, and I like doing it. More so with the older shit. I don't want to copy anything current.

Do you feel pressure about that when, say, somebody comes to you and asks you to be on a song?
It's no pressure. The good thing about me is I can go do a track with Mustard or go do a track with Zaytoven or do a track with—fucking, if I meet him—John Mayer. You saw what I did with Babyface. Or hop on a song with Fifth Harmony and still do me. I'm blessed to be genreless.

What's it like having that song, "Work from Home," out?
Everybody loves that song. It was a blessing to be thrown that alley-oop. My homie Chris Anokute hit me up and was like, "yo, I want you to hop on my new group's song." And I was like, "yo, that's my daughter's favorite group! Of course." I just wanted to have a song in my daughter's playlist that wasn't too crazy like the usual Ty Dolla $ign. So it worked out, and it just  happened to be a smash. It went number one.

Does your daughter keep you in touch with what the kids are listening to?
Before it was like my little homies, and now those niggas are 21 and 25. Those niggas are old now! So she's 11, and she knows what's up her. Her cousins all have iPhones, and they listen to her shit. And I'm starting to find out about all the new shit. It's crazy.

Can you explain a bit about the idea of Campaign?
The intro is the homie Nate Howard and will.i.am just going off the top of what they think about the campaign and what's going on in the world. Shout out to will.i.am: He's been one of my good friends for a long time. And shout out to Nate Howard: He's the one always on every intro to all of my projects. They just give their opinion of what's going on, and they're just encouraging people to vote because it's very important at this time, as you can see. My opinion personally is: Would you rather have the liar or the racist? You definitely need to pick one. I'm encouraging all my listeners to go vote and shit. Nobody paid me to say that.

The next one after that is "Dolla," and right after that speech "Dolla" is perfect to me because I'm just telling you everything about Dolla and why you should vote for me. I'm doing this and that, and it's a great life, and I'm blessed. "Campaign" is the next one with me and Future, that's like the hottest song out right now.

What was it like working with Future?
We actually did that song on the bus on tour, the Purple Reign tour. He came on the bus, and we knocked out a couple back to back, freestyling off the top of the head, no takes. Didn't change one thing, just straight up. And I did the beat and everything, and people fuck with it!

What was that tour like?
Some true rockstar shit.

Who are some of the other collaborators on here?
"Zaddy" is produced by my homie Jahaan Sweet. He does a lot of Kehlani's music, and he's one of the most talented guys I've met. I went to a Kehlani concert, and I saw him onstage playing keys, and I could just tell by the chords and everything he was playing like, "yo, I'm about to fuck with this dude." We just collabed on a couple beats, but on this one I was damn near already done with the project. It was like four in the morning. I had been recording some other shit with the homie Pooh Bear. Then I walk in his room at four in the morning, and he plays this beat. I just freestyled the whole shit.

Zaddy, that term has been spreading a lot recently. Didn't it come from Zayn Malik fans originally?
I don't know where it came from; all I know is she kept on calling me zaddy, so I made a song about it.

All I know is she kept on calling me zaddy, so I made a song about it.

"My Song" is another one. That's with me and my new favorite artist, 24 Hours. You'll hear from him really soon. One of the sickest people I've heard from in a long time. He's definitely got the sauce. He's this guy from Japan, and he's sick as fuck. We've been working on a lot of shit together.

You're doing this tour called Schools Not Prisons, right?
Schools Not Prisons, yeah. It's not actually my tour; it's a tour I'm involved in. They asked me to join in. What we're going to do is go talk to the kids and go into the prisons and spread the word. There's fucking one UC public university built in California the last 20 years, but there were 15 to 20 prisons built. It's like why the fuck are we spending money on fucking prisons when we can spend money on education? Then maybe we wouldn't have so many fucking criminals, idiots.

What kind of reactions have you got both off the last album, the documentary you did, and just kind of making mass incarceration a centerpiece of your message as an artist?
People love it; they appreciate it. I walk in the building, and people say thank you. And I say thank you to them for being down and spreading it. You see I'm not all jeweled up and trying to be this big fucking rap guy. I'm just going to keep on doing what I do, trying to have fun with the music and trying to change the world.

Obviously it's had a personal resonance with you for a long time, but has it been interesting to see the prison system become part of this national conversation?

It's really crazy because when Free TC came out there was shit happening. There was already the Trayvon Martin shit, but shit's been going on for years. It's just now you get to actually see it right on your fucking phone. This is not just only in America; it's all over. You saw that shit happen in France. Motherfuckers are wilding right now. I think we all need to come together, keep on talking about it, and shit will change. Everybody is going to awaken, and we're all going to love, it's that time. I'm on my fucking Marvin Gaye shit right now.

You sing about love and lust all the time. What's the meaning of love?
Just being there no matter what, being able to be in the same room no matter what's going on, being able to give each other a hug and encourage each other and stay loyal to each other. That's love. 

Matt Seger is a photographer and shooter at VICE. Follow him on Instagram.

Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.