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Photography by Alex Aristei

Mustard Power

DJ Mustard’s sparse beats are lighting up the world’s charts and redefining modern hip-hop and RnB club culture. Meet the 24-year-old at the centre of a sonic revolution

It’s 7pm on a Friday night and DJ Mustard, the producer of Tyga’s “Rack City”, T.I’s “No Mediocre” and YG’s “My Nigga”, is fast asleep on a sofa inside Hollywood’s Record Plant recording studio. Every so often, he lunges for his iPhone and blearily checks his texts with one half-closed eye, before dropping off again. A label rep from Roc Nation sits a few feet away tapping out a flurry of emails, while his engineer lurks by a huge 48-track mixing console waiting for his boss to wake up and crank out another hit. Twenty minutes later, the man born Dijon McFarlane finally prises himself off the beige coach, stretches and then sits straight down at his laptop. Rubbing his eyes, he takes a deep blast from a Dank Tank – a liquid cannabis oil e-vaporizer that contains the equivalent of an ounce of kush. Exhaling a lungful of vape smoke, he confesses that it’s rare to catch him sleeping on the job. “Have you heard the radio out here?” he laughs. “That’s the joys of no sleep. I stay up all night, all day; I don’t need to be going to a club. I’m in the club right now – somebody’s playing my record. You know why? ‘Cos I’m in here.”

It’s not a classic case of hip-hop hyperbole either – his sound really is inescapable. You can’t go anywhere in LA without hearing his trademark “Mustard on the beat, hoe!” drop erupting from anything connected to a speaker. The 24-year-old’s distinctive productions – a sparse mix of trap bass, cascading hand claps, haunting synth melodies and nostalgic 90s dance references – has prompted Timbaland, DJ Drama and Lil Jon to crown him the new King of the Beats. And the craziest part of it all is that he’s only seriously been producing since 2010. Yet somehow he’s still managing to keep his Jordans on the ground. “I’m not caught up in it all… I think it just hasn’t hit me yet,” he says in a soft voice, looking up from the glare of his MacBook. “Well, it hit me the other day when I was at this big house I’m looking to buy. There was a painting on the ceiling and I was like, ‘This is cray’. I was just tripping. I never thought I’d be in a position to buy that type of stuff. I’ve lived in an apartment my whole life; I never stayed in a house.”

The mansion, situated deep in the Kardashian stronghold of Calabasas, may only be 30 miles away from his old South Central stomping grounds, but it might as well be in a different world. Growing up around Crenshaw Blvd, he had to deal with the strife life on a daily basis. “A lot of my friends have died. I could count on my hands the amount of friends that I have left from my neighbourhood. But I can’t count on my hands the ones that are dead or in jail,” he says, looking at his heavily tattooed fingers. “It’s normal, people always dying… you get used to it. My cousin went to jail and I was like, I don’t wanna spend my life in jail. So I just started DJing and that was my out. You ever heard the saying that you either play ball or you gangbang? I didn’t do either. I did music and it worked.”

"You ever heard the saying that you either play ball or you gangbang? I didn’t do either. I did music and it worked" – DJ Mustard

A natural born selector, he’s been obsessed with the art of mixing ever since his Uncle, DJ Tee, left him to cover his set at a local house party. Mustard was only 11 years old but he killed it, mixing up Earth, Wind & Fire and Maze hits. By the time he got to High School, he was the go-to guy for LA school dances and Sweet 16 birthday parties. Spinning from the hood to the Hills, he learned what elements it took to get any crowd hyped up – namely high-energy club hits and thugged-out anthems by the likes of Lil Jon, Mannie Fresh and Dr. Dre. “I’ve always had an ear for rocking a party,” he says. “Just knowing what people like. I didn’t know nothing about production, I just knew music and I knew what songs were gonna be the hot songs.”

Meeting Compton-based rapper YG in 2008, his focus began to shift from playing other people’s beats to making his own. Co-founding the label Pushaz Ink together, the pair released a slew of street mixtapes, including The Real 4 Fingerz, 4 Hunnid Degreez and Just Re’d Up 1 and 2. In March this year YG dropped his debut album, My Krazy Life, featuring eight Mustard beats. An instant classic, it included “My Nigga”, a track that – along with its remix featuring Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne – has been viewed over 130 million times on YouTube. For many of today’s hip–hop fans, YG and Mustard are the modern equivalent of Snoop and Dre, the new figureheads of the West Coast. “I was producing at my mum’s house and in YG’s bedroom. I also lived in his garage at points ‘cos I was doing a lot of shows with him,” Mustard remembers. “I got my first Reason program for free from a bootlegger, then when I had enough money I bought the real programme and just started making beats every day. YG didn’t have beats that fit him like that. So when we created a sound together it took off. Well, it took off for other people first – Tyga’s ‘Rack City’ was the sound we created, so after that crossed over our sound started to blow up.”

When Tyga’s ode to Las Vegas dropped in December 2011, Mustard was still living with his mum. Within two months “Rack City” had hit the Billboard Top 10 and went on to be certified double platinum. After that, his days of making beats at his mum’s crib were over. “When I got that (six figure) cheque I was like, ‘I can get this much money?! I get all this? What?!’” he laughs at the memory. “I had never seen that much money. At that time I had no manager or no business manager, so all that money was mine, no percentage taken. I stopped DJing for a year and produced all day every day.”

Mustard’s spent the intervening years perfecting his chops, making banger after banger including Young Jeezy’s “R.I.P”, B.o.B’s “Headband”, 2 Chainz’s “I’m Different”, Trey Songz’s “Na Na”, Kid Ink’s “Show Me”, Will.I.Am and Miley’s “Feelin’ Myself”, Ty Dolla Sign’s "Paranoid”, and Tinashe’s “2 On”. Although his sound has become synonymous with the ratchet movement thanks to its stripped-back beats, sexually provocative, and often-violent lyrical content, Mustard is eager to distance himself from the term. “The ratchet sound, we didn’t come up with that, that’s just a word (Louisiana rapper) Lil Boosie made up and we just took it and ran with. When we came out, they just labelled us ‘ratchet music’ cos we said ratchet a lot. Ratchet means that’s it’s ghetto, but I would just call the music we’re making just good music.”

As with any phenomenon, his sound has a polarising effect – none more so than 370 miles away in The Bay Area. Leaders of the hyphy scene – a similarly bottom heavy, sparse musical movement pioneered by E-40, Keak da Sneak and the late Mac Dre – are less than enamoured with Mustard’s swift rise to the top. Earlier this year, veteran Oakland MC Mistah F.A.B walked up to the producer at the after party for the KMEL Summer Jam and slapped him square in the face, accusing Mustard of sampling and ripping off their sound without paying lip service. Chaos ensued, with the Pushaz Ink entourage implementing some swift SoCal justice. “Everybody gets into disagreements, we’re grown men so… y’know,” he says, pausing for reflection. “I can take a punch any day, but a slap? That ain’t never going to happen. Ain’t nobody gonna slap me. That’s just too much. So that’s what the whole thing was over. Nobody got robbed or anything."

If that wasn’t enough drama to contend with, every time Mustard looks at his iPhone (which he does constantly) he has to deal with Twitter trolls desperate to defame his golden touch. “Yeah, I get a lot of tweets like, ‘I can make that, it’s whack’,” he sits back and laughs. “All right, make that shit then! Simplicity is key. It’s like a puzzle – if it’s big pieces of the puzzle you’re gonna get it done faster, but if it’s all these tiny pieces nobody’s gonna understand that. It works for some people but not me. All those sounds, it’s just annoying. When Drake sings it makes everybody feel like they can sing. Not saying he’s a bad singer – he’s a good singer – but it just makes everybody feel like, ‘If Drake can sing, I can sing too.’ My beats do the same thing.”

"When Drake sings it makes everybody feel like they can sing. Not saying he’s a bad singer – he’s a good singer – but it just makes everybody feel like, ‘If Drake can sing, I can sing too.’ My beats do the same thing” – DJ Mustard

His formula is so distinctive that pop producers are taking his staple sounds – most noticeably his minimal drum programming and ubiquitous “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” chants he embeds into nearly every song – and sprinkling them over their own tracks. Iggy Azalea’s massive hit “Fancy”, produced by London-based production trio The Invisible Men, is perhaps the most blatant. To date it has sold 3 million copies. “I can’t be mad at what she’s doing out there. Wanna copy my sound? That’s cool. I know Iggy, she’s dope. I like her song too, so I can’t like hate on it or say she’s wrong or whatever. I can’t keep getting annoyed every time someone gets a record. It used to really bother me but now I’m like fuck that shit. It would make me go crazy, so I just stopped caring about it. If I started making music like Timbaland everyday, I’m only gonna win probably once or twice before he switches up his style and does something else then I’m gonna be like ‘damn, what am I gonna do now?’ Now that everybody is catching on to my sounds, they’re just doing it. That’s cool, but you can’t keep winning with somebody else’s style.”

As Mustard takes another hit from the vape pen, an assistant enters the studio and tells him that fabled musical impresario LA Reid is next door and wants to hear a track that the producer’s been working on for one of his artists. He raises his sizable frame off his chair and walks into the next studio, saying he’ll back in a few minutes. His bodyguard closes the glass door behind him. Half an hour later Mustard is back, feeling vibey. He refuses to confirm whether the beat he just played for Reid is for Justin Bieber or not, but it definitely sounded like a twerked-out cover version of Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine”. For an artist who has made his name by referencing nostalgic dance acts like Robin S and Snap, it's surprising to hear him revisit such a famous a soul staple. But for Mustard, everything is fair game as long as it makes people want to shake their tail feathers. Two days earlier, for example, he was on stage at Denver’s Red Rocks amphitheatre supporting Skrillex. The experience is still sinking in. “Why can’t I go and play my records at a Skrillex concert? Why wouldn’t they wanna party to my music? And they do! I just don’t think that anybody was able to break down that boundary before. But I’m still like, ‘I did that?!’. When you play one of your songs to 10,000 people and they sing back every word, it feels crazy! It’s an adrenaline rush. Fame is a drug. I don’t think I’m addicted to it but I like this lifestyle though; I definitely wouldn’t wanna change it.”

"When you play one of your songs to 10,000 people and they sing back every word, it feels crazy! It’s an adrenaline rush. Fame is a drug” – DJ Mustard

The studio clock is ticking and Mustard’s on a deadline to finish his debut artist album, 10 Summers. Like Swizz Beatz, Dr Dre, Kanye West and Jermaine Dupri before him, he’s taking the plunge and stepping from behind the boards into the limelight – although, unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t pertain to have any dreams of being an MC. He does, however, have quite an enviable guest list, with Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, Big Sean, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa and his Pu$herz Ink family all grabbing significant air time on the 12-track record. “I see a lot of people come and go,” he ruminates. “That’s why I called my album 10 Summers because I wanna be in this position for no less than 10 summers. I see people come with one hit song and you never hear from them again. That’s not what I wanna be. I wanna be here for the next 10 summers… When I’m at home I feel weird, like, ‘Fuck, I need to practice today’. I feel like there’s always somebody out there working harder. I can’t let them out work me, I gotta be here everyday. You can’t be successful and not do shit.”

It’s now 11pm and Mustard’s got to get back on the grind. Mixing up a large Clint Eastwood (grenadine and root beer), he blazes up the Dank Tank once more and starts punching out an 808 rhythm on his Akai MPC 2500. It’s crazy to think that the sounds that came out of this machine are currently soundtracking a million Friday nights across the globe. Does he ever think about the wider social impact of what he creates in this room? “Yeah, it’s cool,” Mustard says, before adding mischievously. “But I get to listen to the music that nobody has yet.”

Listen to Tanner’s 120 minute Mustard megamix below and also check out our pop quiz with Ty Dolla $ign