If you were to picture who sits at the center of the ecosystem that is popular music, you might pick a superstar like Beyoncé or Drake, or an all-encompassing commercial force like Taylor Swift. Or maybe you would go with a next-gen, genre-blurring pop star like Post Malone or Khalid, or stream-queen Billie Eilish, or Lil Nas X, who turned the great cultural currency of our time (memes) into the biggest single in history. The person who you probably would not think of is the one artist who nonetheless may be the single connection point between genres ranging from pop to underground, Western to global, old to new: 34-year-old Ty Dolla $ign.
He’s the only artist who, in 2019 alone, has collaborated with both bottle-service behemoths The Chainsmokers and R&B enigma serpentwithfeet, as well as stand-up comedian-turned-rap-radio staple Lil Duval, British girl group stalwarts Little Mix, Korean singing competition winner KATIE, and two up-and-coming artists (Ari Lennox and Omen) on J. Cole’s Dreamville label. You can rifle back through just the last five years and begin criss-crossing genres and the globe through Ty Dolla $ign’s collaborations alone: Christina Aguilera, Diddy, Charli XCX, Lil Durk, Zara Larsson, E-40, Nicky Jam, Lecrae. The list goes on and on.
But the appeal of Ty Dolla $ign—born Tyrone Griffin Jr.—to his fellow artists isn’t simply that he will say one of the single most important words in pop music: “yes.” Like Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne before him, and Young Thug and 21 Savage after him, Ty had his moment as crossover feature artist du jour. But he long ago transcended that important but fleeting role in the industry machine, instead working his way into the very upper crust of musical collaboration. In 2015, he was one of the architects of “FourFiveSeconds,” the unholy but historic team-up of Kanye West, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney.
Ty has since become a close confidant of West, music’s collaborator-in-chief, appearing all over Kanye’s most recent album, Ye, as well as on material off the upcoming Yandhi; the only new song debuted by West at the Coachella rendition of his “Sunday Service” performance series was a track called “Water,” on which Ty appears. Or consider Drake’s most recent album, Scorpion, which featured just four credited guests: Michael Jackson, Jay-Z, Static Major, and Ty—which is also to say: the biggest pop star of all time, the biggest rapper of all time, a beloved R&B songwriting legend, and a guy who once did a song with Bhad Bhabie.
So it might be a surprise to hear Ty describe his forthcoming, and still untitled, new album in terms more normally reserved for an artist who is sick of the pomp and circumstance of the pop charts. “I wasn’t focused on, like, ‘Oh, let’s go make a fuckin’ generic-ass hit, you know, 97 bpms-plus, get the club going,” he says one July evening on the roof of a Hollywood seafood restaurant, where he orders mountains of fish to go along with steak seared at the table and free food brought over by the place’s owners. “I just wanted to give people some good music to listen to—something that sounds different from everybody else’s shit.”
These are wonderfully sanguine quotes, utopian even. What artist doesn’t want to just make some good music? Ty, then, has landed himself in an enviable position: a major-label hitmaker who doesn’t really care if his album has a hit. “It ain’t easy being a sex symbol, but somebody’s gotta do it,” he cracks when asked about this paradox, and though we all can sympathize, it is not the most enlightening answer on how to create popular music without the pressure of it achieving popularity. As nice as it sounds, his label, Atlantic Records, does need its artists to make hit singles, whether or not the musicians originally set out to do so.
“Honestly, that was never really a conversation,” Brian Dackowski, SVP of marketing at Atlantic Records and Ty’s product manager, says when asked if Ty and the label were on the same page about “hits” going into the recording process. “He played the album for everybody front to back, and we just believe it’s an incredible body of work. We never came to the conclusion that there’s no singles. We’re in a streaming world where so many records are popping up out of nowhere that you wouldn’t think were radio smashes.”
Nonetheless, Dackowski will not disabuse you of the notion that Ty is having his cake and eating it, too, making pop songs for other artists while burrowing deep into his own psyche with his own work.
“It definitely helps that he’s out there constantly working and keeping himself relevant in the marketplace,” Dackowski says. “It’s definitely a plus for us. It gives him the time to really work on his craft.”
It is in this dichotomy, between his collaborations and his albums, that makes Ty Dolla $ign one of the most interesting artists in contemporary music. It is good, one could argue, that he is not striving for solo hits, considering that his biggest solo single, “Paranoid,” was his first, just one member of a gang of minimalist classics produced by a then-nascent DJ Mustard that rose up the charts in 2013. Since then, despite favors returned by rappers such as Lil Wayne and J. Cole, songs headlined by Ty himself have not made such waves, even as streaming has pushed rap—and to a lesser extent, R&B—back into the nexus of pop culture. Instead, his albums (2015’s Free TC and 2017’s Beach House 3) exist on the margins as curatorial and idiosyncratic marvels, showcasing an artist who has omnivorous taste, yes, but more importantly, the skill to condense his ever-expanding world into 60 or so digestible minutes of music that, true to his words, sounds like nobody else’s shit.
This is apparent, and perhaps never more so, on his new album, a record that feels like it was made by an artist with history at his fingertips. It was also made by an artist who was sober. “I stopped smoking weed. That was cool, to just completely just clear my head and write songs,” Ty says. “Before I would just go straight in the booth and freestyle everything and sometimes on this one, I wrote shit on my phone or on a piece of paper, tried to map it out harder.”
There is a tentatively planned single with Kanye West, “Ego Death,” that expands on “Fade,” West’s homage to Chicago house music that Ty wrote, along with Post Malone and about a dozen others, for The Life of Pablo. There are moments of old-school L.A. boom-bap and tributes to Memphis rap, including a verse from the perpetually impeccable Project Pat. But the album’s bedrock is densely layered and immaculately produced live-instrument R&B—played and arranged by Ty along with compatriots such as Thundercat, serpentwithfeet, and a host of others—which acts as the thread binding the album, and his music more generally, from the present to the past.
“A Big Brother to Me”
The night before he explains his current thinking over dinner, Ty is putting finishing touches on the album with a man who goes by Mr. Talkbox. True to his name, Mr. Talkbox is known for spinning gold from a long plastic tube connected to a keyboard; you know his voice, or a version of it anyway, as the robotic wailing that opens Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic.” Talkbox’s contributions to Ty’s new album are fairly minor—some harmonizing here, some accenting there—but he is helpful in explaining the je ne sais quoi of the man who he has flown to Los Angeles to see.
On this subdued weeknight in a relatively empty recording studio, the two partake in the painstaking work of recording an album, laying down dozens of takes and, along with an engineer, poring over the walls of waveform bricks that are the foundation of modern music. This is the type of interaction between hired gun and public star that happens routinely across studios in Los Angeles, but Ty and Talkbox quickly find that their connection runs deeper. They spend some time chatting about their mutual acquaintances in the overlapping worlds of the Black church, gospel, rap, and R&B; it is not uncommon for session players in this world to hold down day jobs directing—or playing in—church bands, and Talkbox converses with the energy of a person excited to be in the studio with someone who understands his roots.
One collaborator who was not in the studio that night, but whose music is rooted in a similar place, is the Baltimore-born serpentwithfeet, who appears on a number of songs on Ty’s new album. His 2018 debut, soil, deconstructs gospel music until it’s just his voice soaring over shards and scraps of sound; holy music for city-dwelling sinners. It is not unusual, of course, for buzzy indie artists to be upstreamed into the world of major label music, but the relationship between Ty and serpent goes far beyond that, and illustrates the ways in which Ty is far from a surface-level curator who attracts a diverse array of collaborators simply because it makes him look good.
As both of them tell it, Ty and serpent—born Josiah Wise, he goes colloquially by the abbreviation of his stage name—first began conversing a few years ago on Instagram after Ty saw a video serpent posted of himself playing some music. This year, serpent relocated to L.A., where he had few friends; Ty, he says, became not just a collaborator but also a confidant and mentor.
“When I moved to L.A., he became like a big brother to me,” serpent says. “I mean, like, really inviting me to the studio often. I spent time with him and got to be part of his world, which was incredibly generous and kind of him.”
These initial sessions not only led to songs that will appear on Ty’s forthcoming record, but also “Receipts,” a sparse, arresting new serpent song featuring Ty that is foregrounded in their mutual and cultural appreciation of multiple generations of Black music: gospel like the Williams Sisters; art-damaged pop like Terence Trent D’Arby; and honeyed, ‘90s R&B like Brandy. Still, working together could have been awkward; their music individually shares similar influences, but comes out very different. Serpent has also traditionally recorded like an indie musician, far from the star-studded professional studios of L.A. But he credits Ty with a personal and professional interest in helping him feel comfortable creating in a foreign and pressurized environment.
“It’s just a really exciting friendship because I have never once, not even a little bit, felt like I’m here to shrink, or, like, maybe I’m too weird?” he says of recording with Ty. “You know, I would consider myself weird. But I have never been made to feel like I didn’t belong in the space, or the conversation. Never.”
When asked why Ty remains so popular among a vast swath of his peers—even as newer artists step into the spotlight—several of Ty’s most famous collaborators key in on his curiosity not just as a person, but as a musician.
“Ty is one of the most versatile artists we have ever met. There isn’t something he can’t play or sing,” says Alex Pall of The Chainsmokers, who worked with Ty on the group’s recent single “Do You Mean.” “He’s truly a fan of every genre, which has led to an open-mindedness when it comes to collaborating. It never feels like he wasn’t just meant to be exactly where he performs on every song.”
Post Malone, who scored the second No. 1 hit of his career along with Ty on 2018’s hypnotic “Psycho,” echoes that sentiment, explaining: “He’s not stuck in one genre or style. He likes everything. I’m like that, too. He can talk about everything from rap to alternative, all that shit.”
DJ Mustard, who has worked with Ty for about a decade (when asked the first thing he remembers about Ty, Mustard says “his dirty dreads!”), credits Ty not just for his “range of talents” but for guiding him towards producing in the first place.
“He’s always played every instrument, always sang,” Mustard says. “He is actually the one who taught me to produce, really gave me my first beat pack. I remember telling him if he gave me all his sounds, I’d come back a better producer than him, and that’s how I went from DJ to everything I am now.”
The sort of respect that Ty commands from other artists—the kind that leads you to work with, and be slotted next to, some of the most titanic figures in music history—is rooted in his childhood. His father, Tyrone Griffin Sr., played in the ‘80s funk band Lakeside, and it was as a small child that Ty taught himself how to play music while tagging along with his dad as he toured with Jermaine Jackson. As Ty grew up in L.A., he was exposed to music such as Bad Brains and Sublime, but it was in attempting to mimic the production of some rap and R&B greats that he realized how important instrumentation was to the music he loved.
“I’d have to figure out what sounds I wanted to hear, how they were done, how they were created, how serious these people were about their instruments and their craft,” Ty says when talking about his early days tapping out beats on an MPC. “My favorite producers—Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Babyface, Timbaland, Pharrell—all the sounds that they were using, when I would try to find these sounds on the keyboard, I couldn’t find them, and I was stuck. Then I realized that you gotta pick up a real guitar, you gotta pick up a good bass.”
He has carried this ethos through his music consistently: Free TC, his major label debut, is a lush and radiant record with appearances from people including Jagged Edge and Babyface. But Ty is doubling down on his new album, which sidesteps contemporary pop’s fixations on amateurism and empty space by using sheets of richly textured vocals and instrumentation to construct a new world around the listener. Ty says he never waffled from his mission to make a record that sounds like this, but was reminded by Kanye to not stray from the path.
“I had a meeting one time with Kanye and played him the album,” Ty reveals. “He was like, ‘Bro, nah. You need to do what you do. Add more bass, add more drums, add more … the real shit, that’s what no one else is doing.’ That conversation definitely inspired me and made me go back and go crazy with the live instruments.”
His goal, ultimately, is a lofty one. “Every time you hear a record come on, you’re gonna know it’s me, automatic, just off of how it sounds,” he says. “Just like what Timbaland’s done, Dr. Dre’s done, Metro Boomin. All the greatest.”
Ty has achieved that already with his voice, which artfully conveys the quavering power of classic soul vocalists through the slippery, digitized tones of today’s singer-rapper hybrids. He may not be the most memorable lyricist, but his vocals are an indelible sonic fingerprint. Nonetheless, he’s a producer first and carries that identity with him even as his fame as a singer has exploded. To this day, he says, he still prefers to record his vocals on his own because that’s how he did it when he was just a kid making music on his dad’s computer. “I always wanted to be a producer,” he says. “Even now it feels weird a little bit being an artist.”
Through the breadth and quality of his collaborations alone, Ty’s legacy is already, to some degree, cemented. But you can feel him aching for a slightly different place in history, next to the maestros of the rap and R&B he grew up idolizing, the auteurs whose work will be spoken about for decades. Whether Ty gets there remains to be seen, but there will be few records released this year that synthesize the past, the present, and perhaps even the future, as well as this one.
Gotta Put in Work
After consuming a large quantity of seafood and steak at dinner, Ty departs to pick up serpent and then heads to Staples Center, where Khalid is closing out the second night of two sold-out shows. During his encore, Khalid brings out Ty and 6LACK for a rendition of their single “OTW,” a performance that, for Ty, lasts all of a few minutes. The show ends quickly thereafter, and there is a celebratory electricity in the air. Khalid had just packed the biggest arena in L.A. to the gills for the second straight night, and the partying of his crew echoes across the halls deep underneath Staples.
It seems like a great night to be a celebrity. Ty chats briefly with 2 Chainz, who was a special guest earlier in the show, as well as Diddy, who appears to be chaperoning his daughters and her friends to the show. Ty is getting dapped up by every arena security guard, who either know him from his various appearances here—or at least pretend like they do. He is in his hometown, and has collaborated with every famous person here; the glory of fame is just waiting to be soaked up.
But as the crowd filters out of the arena, Ty instead follows them, strolling past the drinks flowing in VIP, and out into the L.A. night, with just serpent and a few handlers at his heels. The studio beckons.