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It's 2 in the afternoon, and the hottest young rapper in Los Angeles is down in Miami, still awake after a marathon studio session that lasted through the night. "When I started rapping, it was local. I'd put music on MySpace, and people on the street used to sing the songs to me," he recalls. "They started playing my songs at the local clubs and parties in high school, and then it went to the 18-and-over clubs, and I was performing all through the city." It's clear that he's about to crash, but the exhaustion in his voice only adds to the impression that his swift rise still feels like a dream. "Finally, we hit Hollywood, and then I was going to San Diego doing shows. It just kept spreading."
The heavily tatted 22-year-old has since gone national—recording in Miami, signing a deal with Def Jam, releasing two much-downloaded mixtapes. Up next: headlining his first New York City show.
Back in 2009, when he was still a heavily tatted teenager, YG first turned heads with "Toot It and Boot It," a shrugging ode to loving and leaving that reached its Hot 100 peak well more than a year after people on the street first sang it back to him. The song's rise coincided with a time in which YG was in and out of jail, but when he came home for good, he found a handful of offers waiting at his doorstep. "I met with [Def Jam vice president] Max Gousse, and I told him to come to a show at this club in Hollywood," he says. "I had that motherfucker poppin'."
That club, as well as clubs across the city, were poppin' with what has come to be known as ratchet music, sparse party rap identifiable for its often menacing synths and a frequently used set of handclap and "whoop" samples. From the beginning, the sound was associated with YG and his main producer, DJ Mustard. Although Ty$, the man behind "Toot It," taught Mustard the basics of building beats and giving him this core set of samples, Mustard turned ratchet music into something faster, leaner, and meaner.
As it happened, the sound reached its largest audience not with YG but his heavily tatted friend Tyga, whose Mustard-produced "Rack City" is currently in its 29th week on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. "Mustard made 'Rack City' in my room," YG explains, showing not even a trace of bitterness, "He told me the beat was for me, but I was like, 'Hey, look, send it to Tyga.'"
Tyga's success—and the subsequent success of songs like Drake's Mustard-influenced "The Motto"—has led some to champion minimalism as the new maximalism and West Coast ratchet music as the successor to the booming Atlanta trap beats most commonly associated with Lex Luger and Waka Flocka Flame. But in the pluralist world of contemporary hip-hop, "Rack City" crossed over less as a replacement than an alternative, with artists like Tyga scoring hits produced by both Mustard and Luger, and Ty$ affiliate Joe Moses releasing ratchet music from Flocka's Brick Squad West label.
While the ratchet sound is explicitly regional, one development from the city that produced jerk and the state that is home to young beatmakers like Young L and League of Starz (whose "function music" is something like ratchet's crosstown cousin), the music crosses both geographic and generic borders. The title of YG's latest mixtape, 4Hunnid Degreez, alludes to an album by New Orleans rapper Juvenile, and that tape's "Take Everything From Her" is based around a line from the his "Set It Off." Other songs incorporate thick bass textures that bring to mind the 1980s incarnations of electro and freestyle; the hook on "Eat the Pussy," the same song that samples notes from bounce's fundamental "Triggaman" beat, is sung through a vocoder. On The Real 4Fingaz, YG raps over Bronx anthem "It's So Hard."
For Ty$'s, this omnivorous approach to music is the product of a large record collection ("I probably have 10 to 20 thousand records," he tells me) and a father who played in the funk band Lakeside, who had a minor crossover hit with "Fantastic Voyage" in 1981 ("I would come out, and guys like Rick James would be there in my living room"). The "Toot It and Boot It" beat, for instance, goes deep into that library and back even further than Lakeside, slowing down the opening piano lick from the Association's deep psych-folk cut "Songs in the Wind."
Considering the differences between his two most prominent producers, YG explains that "Ty's beats are more musical, and then Mustard's beats are more hood, more simple. [Ty's] shit still bangs, but its more serious. Mustard is just like, have fun with it." Out of jail, touring the country, and getting ever closer to making his own "Rack City," Mustard's approach seems to be the one YG takes as well.
YG headlines SOB's on May 30.