Seek The Truth And Stop Guessing: Ty Dolla $ign Interviewed

Seek The Truth And Stop Guessing: Ty Dolla $ign Interviewed

“It’s been tough for me, man. I lost a lot of fucking people this year...”

Ty Dolla $ign is one of hip-hop’s undeniable extroverts – but his stunning success is shot through with a sense of loss, and triumph over adversity. A bold, defiant voice, he’s changing definitions, and preparing himself for a fresh evolution.

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It starts – as it always does – with family. Taking a step back and looking to those closest to him for guidance, Ty Dolla $ign is pursuing his truth, no matter the cost. - Like a great athlete, Ty Dolla $ign (born Tyrone Griffin, Jr.) seems to emerge from every off-season, every bit of downtime with a new skill–not that he’s ever off the radar for long. He began his career giving West Coast street rap a varnish of mainstream appeal, then started making sex songs that sound like gospel, and eventually brought his selfless collaboration philosophy, production chops, and instrumental skill to the world of A-list pop.

So what’s the latest addition to Ty’s toolbox? Making records that even his older relatives can love.

“It’s definitely the evolution of Ty. My aunt at Thanksgiving told me, ‘You know what, man? Your music has changed. I can actually listen to it now. Before, I used to be like, what did he just say?!’”

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He’s still the lustful, velvet-voiced charmer who wrote ‘Horses In The Stable’ and ‘Or Nah’, but the 38 year old is the father of a teenager, and, as a Black man in America, his life has been marked with loss and the lengthy shadow of systemic racism. 2020’s ‘Featuring Ty Dolla $ign’ has some of his headiest, most mature songs, including ‘Your Turn’ which looks at love not as something fixed and permanent, but a part of the birth, death, rebirth cycle (“Nobody is truly yours, it's just your turn,” he sings). He stresses the importance of growth, both artistically and personally, but insists that when it comes to musical inspiration the process remains ineffable even after all these years.

“It’s God, man. Straight up, it just comes out of the sky,” he says.

Sometimes, you can hear Ty coasting through a song – ‘Freak’ and ‘Double R’ off the new album are adequate, disposable playlist filler–but the special ones are apparent right from the outset. On ‘Universe’, his voice intertwines with Kehlani’s as they capture the feeling of the stars aligning for you. ‘By Yourself’ is a tribute to independent Black women over a soulful Mustard beat, and it features a standout verse from Jhené Aiko. You can hear how engaged Ty is on both tracks – the rasp in his voice is more present, his vocal runs are crisper–and he reminds us that beyond just getting his creative ideas from the heavens, his voice sounds like it belongs up there, too.

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In the pop culture conscience, he embodies a kind of effortless, sunglasses-at-night cool that suggests success was predestined from the moment a nine-year-old Ty decided he would make a career in music. In the video for Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Hot Girl Summer’, Ty is perched atop a lifeguard chair, draped in diamonds and surrounded by women. To casual listeners, he probably seems like that person all the time, but anyone who has paid close attention to his story knows that it’s informed by loss and adversity, the kind that is common in the Black community–even among those with Grammy nominations and No. 1 singles.

And like so many of us, those hardships have compounded in 2020.

“It’s been tough for me, man. I lost a lot of fucking people this year, including my grandmother and a lot of people who meant a lot to me,” he says. “Plus the COVID shit going on, having the first time in years where I’m really in the crib.”

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The most public struggle in Ty’s life has been his brother's incarceration. Jabreal Muhammad, best known as a talented musician in his own right under the name Big TC, is serving a life sentence for a murder that he, Ty, and their legal team maintain he did not commit. Ty named his debut album ‘Free TC’, and has spoken about his brother’s case regularly in the media. Through poignant clips of their phone conversations and ‘Free TC’s heart-wrenching centrepiece ‘Miracle / Wherever’, he brought his family’s pain to the ears of millions. 

For a time, Ty stopped talking about TC in his music, saying in 2017 that his brother got excessive attention and unwarranted scrutiny as a result. But that’s changed with ‘Featuring Ty Dolla $ign’. The album opens with TC emphasizing Ty’s one-man band skill set (“You been doin' music as long as you could talk and walk. You work with other artists, but you really don't even need to,” he says). It also features another interlude update, ‘It’s Still Free TC’, where TC is able to provide an update on the status of his appeal in his own words.

“It’s always good to keep the faith and know that God will come through. I’m super grateful for our new team that we’ve put together, everybody’s been giving their time, energy and love to his case,” Ty elaborates. “We will come through.”

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Ty has talked about racial injustice and police misconduct in his music for years, including on he and TC’s powerful collaboration ‘No Justice’. In each verse, the brothers narrate vivid, unsettling scenes. TC sings about the fear many Black people feel when being pulled over by law enforcement, and Ty sings about the kind of poorly executed police raid that resulted in the death of Breonna Taylor.

He’s continued to address these issues in some of his recent music. “Cops still killin' n***as in real life,” Ty sings on the hook of the otherwise triumphant ‘Real Life’.  

One heated night in Los Angeles at the height of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Ty, his longtime collaborator Ant Clemons, and Skrillex made a stirring track together to show their support for people taking to the streets. Ty, clearly shaken by the death of George Floyd, addresses both systemic violence and the secondary problem of people choosing not to speak up about it.

“I know you see it / My people dying in the streets / They ain't breathing / I know you heard about it / You know the issues, but the problems you ain't speaking,” Ty laments. The record also incorporates the words of Nia Miranda, an activist who rose to fame after confronting two white women who defaced a Starbucks under the guise of supporting Black Lives Matter.

“Me and Skrillex were on FaceTime and he was saying how he felt. His studio was right in downtown L.A., where you walk out there and see how fucked up the streets were and how people just went crazy during the time,” Ty says. “You felt the pain, you saw the pain. He made that beat and he sent it to me and I was like, ‘I feel it too.’ I’d been driving around L.A. for years, and, just bringing up TC again, they done terrorized my family [too].”

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When you think about what Ty’s been through growing up in L.A.’s South Central area – and what he’s still going through – it makes sense why he sometimes treats a regular conversation like it’s an award show acceptance speech. He’s constantly offering thanks and praise, whether to his collaborators, his fans, his brother’s legal team or, increasingly, to himself as tongue-in-cheek bit during the ‘Featuring Ty Dolla $ign’ press run.

“Shoutout to that boy Ty Dolla $ign for taking time to invest into himself. He’s always hooking everybody up with the vibes,” he says with a laugh. “Now he’s zoned in, so I love it.”

On ‘Real Life’, after bragging about his success–specifically working with both Beyonce and JAY-Z on ‘BOSS’–Ty makes sure to clarify that none of his success came quickly. He wasn’t suddenly a star after he and YG’s ‘Toot It And Boot It’ hit the charts in 2010; what followed was a lengthy mixtape run that helped Ty to both expand his fanbase beyond the West Coast and slowly prove he could do much more than ratchet radio pop rap.

“Perseverance is everything. If I don’t persevere, if I don’t fucking work, if I don’t go crazy, then nothing is gonna fucking happen. You don’t think I went through shit? Everybody goes through shit,” Ty says, indignation creeping into his voice for the first time during our conversation. “Look at my brother. My brother’s been down for years on some shit that he didn’t do. There are people in there that he tells me about, they’ve been down for decades longer than him for something that they didn’t do.”

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Ty found his way to the top of the industry not because he could do one single thing unbelievably well, but because he’s figured out how to find his niche in any situation. 2 Chainz wants him to sing backup vocals over a Hall and Oats sample? Turns out he can go for that. Multi-instrumentalist wunderkind Jacob Collier asks for his help on a shapeshifting, avant-garde R&B track? Sure thing. SZA needs him to crank up the autotune and help out on her comeback single? Just tell him what key it’s in.

“To add on to the perseverance point, because that’s one thing that will get you to where you gotta go, and being humble is another.” he says. “When that ego dies, [you’ll realise] your ego is not your best friend.”

By the time you’re reading this, chances are a new song Ty worked on will be dominating charts and playlists. Perhaps it’ll even be one of the infectious tracks from ‘Featuring Ty Dolla $ign’. He gives off the impression that he genuinely doesn’t care about what capacity he’s involved in making the music, as long as one of his many tools is put to good use.  

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It’s often said about athletes that “the best ability is availability,” but for Ty Dolla $ign to get as far as he has, not only as a musician but as a Black man in America, his greatest gift is malleability. As many artists grow more established, they seem to become more rigid in what their music sounds like, who they’ll work with, and how they portray themselves, but Ty’s first priority seems to still be the song itself. - It’s why when he names the artist he’s most hoping to work with, it feels like a forgone conclusion that he’ll find a way to make it happen.

“Stevie Wonder’s next, so if you hear about this, if anyone that knows him reads this, let him know,” Ty says. “I wanna do a song with Stevie Wonder.”

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Words: Grant Rindner
Photography: Meg Myfanwy Young
Fashion: Michael Comrie
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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