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I Am My Brother's Keeper

Ty Dolla $ign's debut album "Free TC" draws on his deep musical roots while cementing a future that puts family first, and women a close second.

Words By Daniel Schwartz

Photography By Elijah Dominique


A chill bro sesh is in full effect in Ty Dolla $ign’s New York City hotel room, and Ty is the only person whose eyes aren’t glued to some sort of screen. While members of his entourage and management team idly scroll through their phones or watch the football game on TV, Ty stands tall atop his IO HAWK hoverboard and rolls around aimlessly in the space between his bed and dresser, a joint in one hand, a bottle of Jameson in the other. He wears a stylish navy raincoat. In the past year he has slimmed down from 230 pounds to a svelte 180, inspired by the crowd’s reaction when Trey Songz took off his shirt at the Fillmore in DC last October. His eyes are droopy-lidded, a translucent olive-green. A small cross dangles from his left ear, and his rope-like Medusa braids, a source of much his allure, fall easily down his back and sway to and fro as he traces an infinity symbol in the carpet with his hoverboard.

Ty is displeased with the size of his “itty bitty suite.” It has a balcony (a “calcony,” he calls it) and an unobstructed view of the Hudson River, but it is true, other than that it is just a regular hotel room. “How am I gonna bring 15 bitches back here?” he wonders aloud. It’s a joke. Or is it? He pondered a similar question on his Skrillex-sampling 2012 single “My Cabana.” How many girls can I fit in my cabana? How many, hoooooo-oooes? He has built his career largely on these sorts of blunt portrayals of his sexual conquests, Dionysian lifestyle, and distrust of hoes, packaged without fail in dulcet melody.

It is a Sunday night three weeks before the release of Ty’s debut album Free TC. A cable network has flown him out to New York from LA to guest­ star in a new pilot, and the film crew is currently one floor up setting up a party scene on the roof.

Ty swirls a jar of cashews, powers up the portable speakers sitting on his dresser, and puts on Bad Brains, an old punk rock band that he likes to play in his dressing room before his shows. Suddenly, a frenzied typhoon of thrashing drums and psychedelic guitar blasts forth from the little, powerful speaker, and for a moment it feels like we have teleported to Wayne Campbell’s basement.

The purposefully lo-fi sound of Bad Brains has awakened Ty’s inner beast. I got my super potion. Cashews and cookies become missiles directed at the heads of unsuspecting football-watchers, and aftershave samples become rocks side-armed out the ‘calcony’ door, over the cliff and into the abyss. He rolls in circles, leans back, pumps his arms in an enthusiastic air bass, and sings along to the music in a facetious, birdlike squawk. “DON’T BOTHER ME!!”

At this moment, Bad Brains, Jameson, and Ty Dolla $ign are one. Ty is nearly ready -- for the party scene on the roof, and for the long night of debauchery that lies ahead.

"Ever since I got my deal with Atlantic, I knew I was going to do the album Free TC. I wanted it to be perfect."

Ty has spent much of 2015 burnishing his reputation as the most prolific and sought-after feature artist in R&B and hip hop. Since the release of Kanye West’s “Only One,” on which he contributed background vocals, at the end of 2014, he has sung a guest hook or verse on approximately 40 records, which means a new Ty Dolla $ign song is dropping every week -- evidence of his ability to adapt his melodious, raspy tenor to any sonic environment. His powers of camouflage are so immense that it is sometimes easy to forget that his two biggest hits to date, “Paranoid” and “Or Nah,” are Ty Dolla $ign records. Each song spawned a star-studded single on account of its success, and in both cases the production of DJ Mustard, formulaic and club-friendly, casts a long shadow indeed.

In some ways Ty carries the torch of the late, great Nate Dogg, who, despite having released three solo albums, is mostly remembered for his guest appearances on such G-funk classics as Warren G’s “Regulate” and Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode.” Even when he was alive, Nate Dogg had the mystique of a folk legend, a wandering wise man privy to the ways of the funk who would materialize to sing a fire hook when summoned. Ty Dolla $ign inherited much from the Nate Dogg tradition -- strong LA roots, the blue bandana he frequently keeps tied across his forehead, his immaculate elocution, and knack for catchy melodies. But where Nate Dogg gave us rider music that evoked a sense of timelessness, Ty’s music evokes a sense of the now.

Free TC is dedicated to Ty’s younger brother Gabreal “TC” Griffin, who was convicted of a 2004 gang-related murder and is currently doing 67 years-to-life. Ty is convinced of his innocence and plans to put his own royalties from the album towards lawyer fees in an attempt to reduce or overturn TC’s sentence. Beyond that, Free TC is an effort to give a voice to prisoners and raise awareness about mass incarceration in the United States, which disproportionately affects black males. (The national incarceration rate has risen 408% since 1978.) The album cover features a photo of Ty in a prison visitation room as shown from TC’s perspective. Ty, eyes lowered, holds the phone receiver to his ear with one hand and raises the other to the safety glass, revealing the tattoo inked on his knuckles: FREE TC.

“Ever since I got my deal with Atlantic [in 2012], I knew I was going to do the album Free TC,” he said earlier on Sunday, as he dined at his favorite NYC Chinese restaurant. “Finally it’s done, it’s perfect, I wanted it to be perfect. I put out an EP, mixtapes. But with the album, I wanted to give people a reason to spend their money. I feel like I did. It sounds good.”

He paused, and a broad grin spread across his face. “It definitely sounds better than a lot of these other niggas’ shit.”

Tyrone Griffin, Jr. was born in 1985 in South Central Los Angeles, the eldest child of a real estate agent mother and musician father. He displayed an active musical imagination as a toddler, when he would plink away at his dad’s guitar and Casio keyboard. Pops was an audio engineer, keyboardist, and trumpeter who spent many years as a member of the funk band Lakeside. Once he was old enough, Ty attended his dad’s studio sessions, where he got a chance to meet everyone from Rick James to Tupac Shakur. He learned to play bass from Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson of the legendary Brothers Johnson, with whom his dad briefly toured. Ty played bass in church, but didn’t sing. “I didn’t really want people to know I could sing at that time,” he says.

Proficient at bass, keys, drums, and guitar, Ty got his start making beats via the incredibly tedious process of recording sounds from one cassette player to another, until he’d constructed a loop. He produced his first full track with Troy Johnson, Thunder Thumbs’ nephew, around the time he lost his virginity at the tender age of 11. He continued to hone his production craft throughout high school, emulating J Dilla and other high-concept hip hop producers and singing over his own beats. After spending 2007 out in New York “going to G Unit’s sessions, just trying to get somebody to listen to my shit” with limited success, he returned to LA and formed the promising but short-lived R&B duo Ty & Kory. A handful of tracks from their Raw and Bangin Mixtape, Vol. 2 have survived, preserved in digital amber on YouTube and on their MySpace page.

There is an obvious Dilla influence in the music of Ty & Kory, which is characterized by its floral soundscapes, jazzy harmonies, & off-kilter drum grooves. One might describe their sound as that of a hornier Musiq Soulchild. Their voices recede to the middle ground almost to the point that they sound like samples, and the songs sound like instrumentals -- dope instrumentals.

However dope, Ty & Kory bore little resemblance to the song that ultimately put Ty on the map: “Toot It & Boot It.” Ty produced the beat and wrote the hook in five minutes, which gave it an appealing simplicity and certain authority that Ty & Kory lacked. The minimalist bassline and drums brought Ty’s lechery to the fore. I met her at the club / I said wassup / I took her to the crib / and you know I fucked. “Toot it and boot it” is the same as “hit it and quit it” but less calculated, more casual. It is the essence of of the sexual contract written into all of Ty’s music, in which sex is presented as a purely physical interaction, devoid of pretense or even meaning, simply an end unto itself. Ty ended up giving “Toot It & Boot It” to YG, who had an opportunity to sing a deal with Def Jam, and the song went on to become a radio smash in LA. He collected his $5,000 and got ‘DOLLA $IGN’ tattooed on his neck.

Free TC came together in piecemeal fashion over the course of three years. Ty worked wherever he went, cranking out track after track and setting aside the ones he deemed worthy of the album. Songs were conceived in such varied locations as NYC, Philly, his Hollywood apartment, Benny Blanco’s crib in Hollywood Hills, and the makeshift studio in the back of his tour bus. “I like just working at all times,” he said. “I don’t stop. I’m a weirdo.”

“For this album I just wanted to work with all the best of the best,” he explained. “You know, most people would just go get the features that everyone else gets, I’m like ‘nah, man, I need the bosses.’” Collectively, the bosses who appear on the album offer a snapshot of how Ty looks at himself musically. Among those who appear on the album and might be classified as ‘bosses’ are Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Thundercat, Benjamin Wright. Wiz Khalifa, Future, Metro Boomin, and a murderer’s row of R&B legends – R Kelly, Jagged Edge, Babyface, & Brandy.

Ty’s go-to violinist is a lanky, white, recent USC grad named Peter Lee Johnson. He plays so evocatively that Ty once said he plays the violin like he plays “his bitch pussy.” Despite his fondness for Peter Lee’s style, Ty spent $60 thousand of his own money to bring in Benjamin Wright, otherwise known as the man responsible for the strings on Michael Jackson’s 1979 album Off the Wall. Ty and TC used to go over to Wright’s house when they were children, until they got banned for staging an overly lewd fake talk show in front of Wright’s kids. “I didn’t really know who he was [at the time],” said Ty. “He was just one of my dad’s friends.” Wright’s lush string arrangements, played by a 19-string orchestra, appear on six songs on Free TC. They have the effect of a Californian sunset, spreading a sentimental warmth to all corners of Ty’s sonic universe.

Despite the substantial number of bosses who appear on Free TC, the album’s finest moment is without a doubt “Miracle,” which features vocals from TC himself, as well as his cellmate D-Loc. TC has sporadic cell phone access (“I don’t know how it happens” says Ty) and is able to upload video recordings to YouTube. Sure enough, “Miracle” is up there, available for all to watch. TC wears a backwards hat and a scraggly beard and sits in his cell with D-Loc at his side. He clearly has inherited the same musical gifts as his brother, his unadorned, wistful voice giving his sweet melody the feeling of a spiritual. With the emotional undercurrent of Wright’s strings, gospel-esque background vocals, and Tyrone Sr.’s trumpet, “Miracle” is nothing short of sensational. “We just took it straight off [YouTube], and put it in the Pro Tools and played around it. No metronome, no tempo, all live,” Ty said proudly. “I be low-key tearing up when I be hearing that shit, I ain’t gonna lie.”

Ty appended phone conversations between himself and TC to the end of several songs on Free TC, similar to the interludes on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city. The GKMC interludes serve as a meta-dialogue between a teenage Kendrick, out at night with his posse “on the mission for bad bitches and trouble,” and his parents. Consequently, the importance of unconditional familial love emerges as the connecting thread that runs through GKMC. The interludes are what give the album its true meaning, and they make it more gripping as it unfolds as a whole, rather than as a series of individual tracks.

The interludes on Free TC have a nearly identical effect. They don’t interact with the songs the same way as they do in GKMC, and and they lack the cinematic quality of GKMC’s interludes -- the phone conversations are menial in nature -- yet they make TC the most important voice on the album, after Ty, and offer insight into their radically different living circumstances. At one point, TC tells Ty that the entire prison is on lockdown. “Ain’t shower in a week. No food. We got muscles though.”

Part of the reason these interludes are so important is they provide a sort of temporal context, a lens through which to examine Ty Dolla $ign’s music, which tends to exist almost entirely in the present tense. He seldom reflects on the past or looks to the future. The concept of delayed gratification is foreign. The world is a garden of earthly delights, an opportunity to revel in physical pleasures and explore what the Jamaicans refer to as irie. His hoverboard, for which he seems to have a genuine affection, serves an apt metaphor for the way he seems to glide through life in a weed-induced haze. Indeed, Ty is constantly shoring up his supply of joints, whether that means rolling up a handful himself while he eats a chicken salad and softly hums “Jugg” by Fetty Wap, or else delegating the task to a member of his entourage. Every time he shakes your hand, he uses three fingers, because the other two grip a lighter.

His music is both sex-obsessed and sex-positive, and treats women more or less as another drug to be consumed. The female body is both a club and a temple to be objectified and worshiped at turns. On Beach House 2 he sings, “Fuck her from the back ’cause love is blind” on one song, and “She get that wet, sea world, And I dive in that pussy like Shamu, girl” on the next. Whether or not his lyrics are an accurate reflection of his actual views towards women, he clearly enjoys bachelorhood, which has been ongoing since his last committed and faithful relationship ended in 2010. The separation between love and lust appears absolute. His emotional attachment to women begins and ends with his mother, grandmother and daughter, depictions of whom he has tattooed on his right arm.

Ty’s mother serves as a member of his business management team, “because I don’t trust them motherfuckers,” he cackled. He still pays regular visits to his grandmother’s house, where he has recorded music and even brought girls in the past. “My grandmother is a super funny lady,” he said. “And her sense of humor is just like mine, like we just say whatever the fuck at any time. Some people are just too serious. I’m more just like, it’s all good.”

No matter how much his grandmother understands him, or how much his mother loves him, Ty’s single favorite person on the planet is his 10-year-daughter, Jailynn. When the topic turned to her at lunch, he launched into a long-winded explanation of all their favorite places to go together, most importantly GlowZone, a giant glow-in-the-dark dome apparently filled with all that is good in life, and SkyZone, a warehouse covered wall-to-wall with trampolines. “We play basketball, soccer, whatever she wants to do. She plays instruments. She’s incredible.”

Family is the thing Ty preserves and protects. He keeps his circle tight, and it is clear that he is still mourning the incarceration of TC, the great tragedy of life. “Have you ever had a family member die?” he said in a September interview with Noisey. “It’s basically that. He’s basically dead. It’s like hell, almost. A living hell. Luckily, you can reach out and you can go see him, but it’s like, he’s basically dead. It’s like if a family member dies. I want him back, man.”

Attempts to interview TC remotely for this story fell short, but Ty’s management team was able to relay the following message from TC, on how he stays upbeat after having been locked up for so long:

“I stay focused on getting out practicing good conduct and character and preparing for the best of this life and the next. The music keeps me going! I have faith I'll be home soon. #FreeTC.”

"My grandmother is a super funny lady. And her sense of humor is just like mine, like we just say whatever the fuck at any time. Some people are just too serious."

Ty has a show on Monday night at the Highline Ballroom, a clubby venue on the westside of Manhattan. The crowd is split evenly along racial and gender lines, and nearly everyone looks 27 years old or younger. Ty’s DJ, Dre Sinatra, warms up the crowd with what feels like exclusively Drake. Finally Ty nonchalantly wanders out on stage, smiling serenely and holding his customary joint and Jameson. He wears his navy raincoat and his dreads are tied back, with one strategically loose from the bunch, draped over his left shoulder. He places his Jameson on the DJ table, which he will return to three times over the course of the show, and turns to face the crowd, nodding and puffing on his J.

His sense of arrangements is evident in the way he manages the energy in the room over the course of the show. He seems more drunk, more lit, more Bad Brains as the show progresses. Fifteen minutes in, his jacket is off and his short sleeve polo is unbuttoned down the middle. Then — he brings out TeeCee 4800, then Makonnen, then A$AP Ferg. Ferg is simply rabid and he crowd-surfs for the entirety of “Work (Remix)." Coogi down to the socks like I’m Biggie, poppa! Ty carefully refrains from losing his shit until turn-up anthem “Blase” comes on, at which point he rips his shirt off, unties his dreads, and leaps into the crowd, a process he repeats until he gets the reaction he desires. “Stop acting like fucking pussies!!!!!!” he yells. He makes the plunge for the third time, and the crowd roars with delight.

With two songs left, Ty invites ten attractive young ladies up on stage. Tonight is not special; he pulls this trick at all of his shows. They sway rapturously behind him like back-up dancers as he serenades the crowd with "Saved," his newest club smash. Tryna get saved, she wanna get saved, I ain’t gonna save her. The show ends and Ty grabs his Jameson and disappears off stage, his ten new friends in tow. There is no encore.

 
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I Am My Brother's Keeper

Ty Dolla $ign's debut album "Free TC" draws on his deep musical roots while cementing a future that puts family first, and women a close second.

Words By Daniel Schwartz

Photography By Elijah Dominique


A chill bro sesh is in full effect in Ty Dolla $ign’s New York City hotel room, and Ty is the only person whose eyes aren’t glued to some sort of screen. While members of his entourage and management team idly scroll through their phones or watch the football game on TV, Ty stands tall atop his IO HAWK hoverboard and rolls around aimlessly in the space between his bed and dresser, a joint in one hand, a bottle of Jameson in the other. He wears a stylish navy raincoat. In the past year he has slimmed down from 230 pounds to a svelte 180, inspired by the crowd’s reaction when Trey Songz took off his shirt at the Fillmore in DC last October. His eyes are droopy-lidded, a translucent olive-green. A small cross dangles from his left ear, and his rope-like Medusa braids, a source of much his allure, fall easily down his back and sway to and fro as he traces an infinity symbol in the carpet with his hoverboard.

Ty is displeased with the size of his “itty bitty suite.” It has a balcony (a “calcony,” he calls it) and an unobstructed view of the Hudson River, but it is true, other than that it is just a regular hotel room. “How am I gonna bring 15 bitches back here?” he wonders aloud. It’s a joke. Or is it? He pondered a similar question on his Skrillex-sampling 2012 single “My Cabana.” How many girls can I fit in my cabana? How many, hoooooo-oooes? He has built his career largely on these sorts of blunt portrayals of his sexual conquests, Dionysian lifestyle, and distrust of hoes, packaged without fail in dulcet melody.

It is a Sunday night three weeks before the release of Ty’s debut album Free TC. A cable network has flown him out to New York from LA to guest­ star in a new pilot, and the film crew is currently one floor up setting up a party scene on the roof.

Ty swirls a jar of cashews, powers up the portable speakers sitting on his dresser, and puts on Bad Brains, an old punk rock band that he likes to play in his dressing room before his shows. Suddenly, a frenzied typhoon of thrashing drums and psychedelic guitar blasts forth from the little, powerful speaker, and for a moment it feels like we have teleported to Wayne Campbell’s basement.

The purposefully lo-fi sound of Bad Brains has awakened Ty’s inner beast. I got my super potion. Cashews and cookies become missiles directed at the heads of unsuspecting football-watchers, and aftershave samples become rocks side-armed out the ‘calcony’ door, over the cliff and into the abyss. He rolls in circles, leans back, pumps his arms in an enthusiastic air bass, and sings along to the music in a facetious, birdlike squawk. “DON’T BOTHER ME!!”

At this moment, Bad Brains, Jameson, and Ty Dolla $ign are one. Ty is nearly ready -- for the party scene on the roof, and for the long night of debauchery that lies ahead.

"Ever since I got my deal with Atlantic, I knew I was going to do the album Free TC. I wanted it to be perfect."

Ty has spent much of 2015 burnishing his reputation as the most prolific and sought-after feature artist in R&B and hip hop. Since the release of Kanye West’s “Only One,” on which he contributed background vocals, at the end of 2014, he has sung a guest hook or verse on approximately 40 records, which means a new Ty Dolla $ign song is dropping every week -- evidence of his ability to adapt his melodious, raspy tenor to any sonic environment. His powers of camouflage are so immense that it is sometimes easy to forget that his two biggest hits to date, “Paranoid” and “Or Nah,” are Ty Dolla $ign records. Each song spawned a star-studded single on account of its success, and in both cases the production of DJ Mustard, formulaic and club-friendly, casts a long shadow indeed.

In some ways Ty carries the torch of the late, great Nate Dogg, who, despite having released three solo albums, is mostly remembered for his guest appearances on such G-funk classics as Warren G’s “Regulate” and Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode.” Even when he was alive, Nate Dogg had the mystique of a folk legend, a wandering wise man privy to the ways of the funk who would materialize to sing a fire hook when summoned. Ty Dolla $ign inherited much from the Nate Dogg tradition -- strong LA roots, the blue bandana he frequently keeps tied across his forehead, his immaculate elocution, and knack for catchy melodies. But where Nate Dogg gave us rider music that evoked a sense of timelessness, Ty’s music evokes a sense of the now.

Free TC is dedicated to Ty’s younger brother Gabreal “TC” Griffin, who was convicted of a 2004 gang-related murder and is currently doing 67 years-to-life. Ty is convinced of his innocence and plans to put his own royalties from the album towards lawyer fees in an attempt to reduce or overturn TC’s sentence. Beyond that, Free TC is an effort to give a voice to prisoners and raise awareness about mass incarceration in the United States, which disproportionately affects black males. (The national incarceration rate has risen 408% since 1978.) The album cover features a photo of Ty in a prison visitation room as shown from TC’s perspective. Ty, eyes lowered, holds the phone receiver to his ear with one hand and raises the other to the safety glass, revealing the tattoo inked on his knuckles: FREE TC.

“Ever since I got my deal with Atlantic [in 2012], I knew I was going to do the album Free TC,” he said earlier on Sunday, as he dined at his favorite NYC Chinese restaurant. “Finally it’s done, it’s perfect, I wanted it to be perfect. I put out an EP, mixtapes. But with the album, I wanted to give people a reason to spend their money. I feel like I did. It sounds good.”

He paused, and a broad grin spread across his face. “It definitely sounds better than a lot of these other niggas’ shit.”

Tyrone Griffin, Jr. was born in 1985 in South Central Los Angeles, the eldest child of a real estate agent mother and musician father. He displayed an active musical imagination as a toddler, when he would plink away at his dad’s guitar and Casio keyboard. Pops was an audio engineer, keyboardist, and trumpeter who spent many years as a member of the funk band Lakeside. Once he was old enough, Ty attended his dad’s studio sessions, where he got a chance to meet everyone from Rick James to Tupac Shakur. He learned to play bass from Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson of the legendary Brothers Johnson, with whom his dad briefly toured. Ty played bass in church, but didn’t sing. “I didn’t really want people to know I could sing at that time,” he says.

Proficient at bass, keys, drums, and guitar, Ty got his start making beats via the incredibly tedious process of recording sounds from one cassette player to another, until he’d constructed a loop. He produced his first full track with Troy Johnson, Thunder Thumbs’ nephew, around the time he lost his virginity at the tender age of 11. He continued to hone his production craft throughout high school, emulating J Dilla and other high-concept hip hop producers and singing over his own beats. After spending 2007 out in New York “going to G Unit’s sessions, just trying to get somebody to listen to my shit” with limited success, he returned to LA and formed the promising but short-lived R&B duo Ty & Kory. A handful of tracks from their Raw and Bangin Mixtape, Vol. 2 have survived, preserved in digital amber on YouTube and on their MySpace page.

There is an obvious Dilla influence in the music of Ty & Kory, which is characterized by its floral soundscapes, jazzy harmonies, & off-kilter drum grooves. One might describe their sound as that of a hornier Musiq Soulchild. Their voices recede to the middle ground almost to the point that they sound like samples, and the songs sound like instrumentals -- dope instrumentals.

However dope, Ty & Kory bore little resemblance to the song that ultimately put Ty on the map: “Toot It & Boot It.” Ty produced the beat and wrote the hook in five minutes, which gave it an appealing simplicity and certain authority that Ty & Kory lacked. The minimalist bassline and drums brought Ty’s lechery to the fore. I met her at the club / I said wassup / I took her to the crib / and you know I fucked. “Toot it and boot it” is the same as “hit it and quit it” but less calculated, more casual. It is the essence of of the sexual contract written into all of Ty’s music, in which sex is presented as a purely physical interaction, devoid of pretense or even meaning, simply an end unto itself. Ty ended up giving “Toot It & Boot It” to YG, who had an opportunity to sing a deal with Def Jam, and the song went on to become a radio smash in LA. He collected his $5,000 and got ‘DOLLA $IGN’ tattooed on his neck.

Free TC came together in piecemeal fashion over the course of three years. Ty worked wherever he went, cranking out track after track and setting aside the ones he deemed worthy of the album. Songs were conceived in such varied locations as NYC, Philly, his Hollywood apartment, Benny Blanco’s crib in Hollywood Hills, and the makeshift studio in the back of his tour bus. “I like just working at all times,” he said. “I don’t stop. I’m a weirdo.”

“For this album I just wanted to work with all the best of the best,” he explained. “You know, most people would just go get the features that everyone else gets, I’m like ‘nah, man, I need the bosses.’” Collectively, the bosses who appear on the album offer a snapshot of how Ty looks at himself musically. Among those who appear on the album and might be classified as ‘bosses’ are Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Thundercat, Benjamin Wright. Wiz Khalifa, Future, Metro Boomin, and a murderer’s row of R&B legends – R Kelly, Jagged Edge, Babyface, & Brandy.

Ty’s go-to violinist is a lanky, white, recent USC grad named Peter Lee Johnson. He plays so evocatively that Ty once said he plays the violin like he plays “his bitch pussy.” Despite his fondness for Peter Lee’s style, Ty spent $60 thousand of his own money to bring in Benjamin Wright, otherwise known as the man responsible for the strings on Michael Jackson’s 1979 album Off the Wall. Ty and TC used to go over to Wright’s house when they were children, until they got banned for staging an overly lewd fake talk show in front of Wright’s kids. “I didn’t really know who he was [at the time],” said Ty. “He was just one of my dad’s friends.” Wright’s lush string arrangements, played by a 19-string orchestra, appear on six songs on Free TC. They have the effect of a Californian sunset, spreading a sentimental warmth to all corners of Ty’s sonic universe.

Despite the substantial number of bosses who appear on Free TC, the album’s finest moment is without a doubt “Miracle,” which features vocals from TC himself, as well as his cellmate D-Loc. TC has sporadic cell phone access (“I don’t know how it happens” says Ty) and is able to upload video recordings to YouTube. Sure enough, “Miracle” is up there, available for all to watch. TC wears a backwards hat and a scraggly beard and sits in his cell with D-Loc at his side. He clearly has inherited the same musical gifts as his brother, his unadorned, wistful voice giving his sweet melody the feeling of a spiritual. With the emotional undercurrent of Wright’s strings, gospel-esque background vocals, and Tyrone Sr.’s trumpet, “Miracle” is nothing short of sensational. “We just took it straight off [YouTube], and put it in the Pro Tools and played around it. No metronome, no tempo, all live,” Ty said proudly. “I be low-key tearing up when I be hearing that shit, I ain’t gonna lie.”

Ty appended phone conversations between himself and TC to the end of several songs on Free TC, similar to the interludes on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city. The GKMC interludes serve as a meta-dialogue between a teenage Kendrick, out at night with his posse “on the mission for bad bitches and trouble,” and his parents. Consequently, the importance of unconditional familial love emerges as the connecting thread that runs through GKMC. The interludes are what give the album its true meaning, and they make it more gripping as it unfolds as a whole, rather than as a series of individual tracks.

The interludes on Free TC have a nearly identical effect. They don’t interact with the songs the same way as they do in GKMC, and and they lack the cinematic quality of GKMC’s interludes -- the phone conversations are menial in nature -- yet they make TC the most important voice on the album, after Ty, and offer insight into their radically different living circumstances. At one point, TC tells Ty that the entire prison is on lockdown. “Ain’t shower in a week. No food. We got muscles though.”

Part of the reason these interludes are so important is they provide a sort of temporal context, a lens through which to examine Ty Dolla $ign’s music, which tends to exist almost entirely in the present tense. He seldom reflects on the past or looks to the future. The concept of delayed gratification is foreign. The world is a garden of earthly delights, an opportunity to revel in physical pleasures and explore what the Jamaicans refer to as irie. His hoverboard, for which he seems to have a genuine affection, serves an apt metaphor for the way he seems to glide through life in a weed-induced haze. Indeed, Ty is constantly shoring up his supply of joints, whether that means rolling up a handful himself while he eats a chicken salad and softly hums “Jugg” by Fetty Wap, or else delegating the task to a member of his entourage. Every time he shakes your hand, he uses three fingers, because the other two grip a lighter.

His music is both sex-obsessed and sex-positive, and treats women more or less as another drug to be consumed. The female body is both a club and a temple to be objectified and worshiped at turns. On Beach House 2 he sings, “Fuck her from the back ’cause love is blind” on one song, and “She get that wet, sea world, And I dive in that pussy like Shamu, girl” on the next. Whether or not his lyrics are an accurate reflection of his actual views towards women, he clearly enjoys bachelorhood, which has been ongoing since his last committed and faithful relationship ended in 2010. The separation between love and lust appears absolute. His emotional attachment to women begins and ends with his mother, grandmother and daughter, depictions of whom he has tattooed on his right arm.

Ty’s mother serves as a member of his business management team, “because I don’t trust them motherfuckers,” he cackled. He still pays regular visits to his grandmother’s house, where he has recorded music and even brought girls in the past. “My grandmother is a super funny lady,” he said. “And her sense of humor is just like mine, like we just say whatever the fuck at any time. Some people are just too serious. I’m more just like, it’s all good.”

No matter how much his grandmother understands him, or how much his mother loves him, Ty’s single favorite person on the planet is his 10-year-daughter, Jailynn. When the topic turned to her at lunch, he launched into a long-winded explanation of all their favorite places to go together, most importantly GlowZone, a giant glow-in-the-dark dome apparently filled with all that is good in life, and SkyZone, a warehouse covered wall-to-wall with trampolines. “We play basketball, soccer, whatever she wants to do. She plays instruments. She’s incredible.”

Family is the thing Ty preserves and protects. He keeps his circle tight, and it is clear that he is still mourning the incarceration of TC, the great tragedy of life. “Have you ever had a family member die?” he said in a September interview with Noisey. “It’s basically that. He’s basically dead. It’s like hell, almost. A living hell. Luckily, you can reach out and you can go see him, but it’s like, he’s basically dead. It’s like if a family member dies. I want him back, man.”

Attempts to interview TC remotely for this story fell short, but Ty’s management team was able to relay the following message from TC, on how he stays upbeat after having been locked up for so long:

“I stay focused on getting out practicing good conduct and character and preparing for the best of this life and the next. The music keeps me going! I have faith I'll be home soon. #FreeTC.”

"My grandmother is a super funny lady. And her sense of humor is just like mine, like we just say whatever the fuck at any time. Some people are just too serious."

Ty has a show on Monday night at the Highline Ballroom, a clubby venue on the westside of Manhattan. The crowd is split evenly along racial and gender lines, and nearly everyone looks 27 years old or younger. Ty’s DJ, Dre Sinatra, warms up the crowd with what feels like exclusively Drake. Finally Ty nonchalantly wanders out on stage, smiling serenely and holding his customary joint and Jameson. He wears his navy raincoat and his dreads are tied back, with one strategically loose from the bunch, draped over his left shoulder. He places his Jameson on the DJ table, which he will return to three times over the course of the show, and turns to face the crowd, nodding and puffing on his J.

His sense of arrangements is evident in the way he manages the energy in the room over the course of the show. He seems more drunk, more lit, more Bad Brains as the show progresses. Fifteen minutes in, his jacket is off and his short sleeve polo is unbuttoned down the middle. Then — he brings out TeeCee 4800, then Makonnen, then A$AP Ferg. Ferg is simply rabid and he crowd-surfs for the entirety of “Work (Remix)." Coogi down to the socks like I’m Biggie, poppa! Ty carefully refrains from losing his shit until turn-up anthem “Blase” comes on, at which point he rips his shirt off, unties his dreads, and leaps into the crowd, a process he repeats until he gets the reaction he desires. “Stop acting like fucking pussies!!!!!!” he yells. He makes the plunge for the third time, and the crowd roars with delight.

With two songs left, Ty invites ten attractive young ladies up on stage. Tonight is not special; he pulls this trick at all of his shows. They sway rapturously behind him like back-up dancers as he serenades the crowd with "Saved," his newest club smash. Tryna get saved, she wanna get saved, I ain’t gonna save her. The show ends and Ty grabs his Jameson and disappears off stage, his ten new friends in tow. There is no encore.

 
CLOSE
👾LORD PIŁŁS THE MIGHTY👾

No homo but nigga got some nice eyes

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Joefaulk
Joefaulk
May 9, 2017

Ty one of the greatest

 
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Playboy X
Playboy X
Nov 23, 2015

nice cover story

 
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Ja7th
Ja7th
Nov 14, 2015

Ty Dolla Sign>Fetty Wap

 
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Your Mom's Pussy
Your Mom's Pussy
Nov 14, 2015

Wow this is great Hnhh. We need more of this!

 
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Sizzurp
Sizzurp
Nov 13, 2015

I hope they will do the same shit with Wiz Khalifa & Rolling Papers 2 !

 
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Kevin Hart Tha Joker

this is sick. the transitions are nice and everything.

 
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threephone
threephone
Nov 13, 2015

And this is why I resort to HNHH... very DOPE segment

 
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Caffeine
Caffeine
Nov 13, 2015

Dope!

 
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KLAY THOMPSON WITH THE SHOT

Y'ALL SAID "Coogi down to my sock like I'm big poppa!" NIGGA WTF IS COOGI? FUCKIN COOGI MAN, IDK ABOUT THIS ONE...

 
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Oedipus Flex
Oedipus Flex
Nov 13, 2015

Well written, lots of content, and pretty cool design. Good job hnhh

 
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Kenny McCormick
Kenny McCormick
Nov 13, 2015

Good story !

 
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👾LORD PIŁŁS THE MIGHTY👾

Ty Dolla's album is incredible.. Although Kendrick was on it it will really damage his sales FrFr because Kendrick is a disease to humanity

 
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Mike De Leon
ADMIN
Mike De Leon
Nov 13, 2015

What did you guys think of our Ty Dolla $ign cover story?

 
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👾LORD PIŁŁS THE MIGHTY👾

No homo but nigga got some nice eyes

  1
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Rose Lilah
ADMIN
Rose Lilah
Nov 13, 2015

@👾LORD PIŁŁS THE MIGHTY👾 for reals

 
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Nkenge
Nkenge
Nov 13, 2015

it's money. took a little long to scroll through over all - a lot of swipes per inch. but it's money.

 
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DevinnTheDude

yo this is pretty dope! you guys should do this more often when rappers drop highly anticipated albums.... next up Drake, Wayne, Yeezy, etc.

 
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👾LORD PIŁŁS THE MIGHTY👾

Mike you guys should start a forum ASAP .. Us HNHH community would really want a forum

 
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Rose Lilah
ADMIN
Rose Lilah
Nov 13, 2015

@Nkenge $$$$$ and thanks for the feedback.

 
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HoldTheL

@Rose Lilah please block these weirdo trolls from the website, it's become a joke now

 
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shootersheriphotography

Absolutely brilliant!! thank-you so much the photography and effects were incredible very well done!

 
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