“I’m Always Gonna Try Something New, Then Watch Everybody Else Scramble” — An Interview with Ty Dolla Sign

Paul Thompson interviews LA's #1,2,3,4 & 5 lothario about his forthcoming album, 'Free TC,' his wrongly incarcerated brother, his favorite West Coast hip-hop albums, working with Madlib, & More.
By    October 22, 2015


Earlier this month, Ty Dolla Sign rolled out the tracklist for his major label debut, Free TC, named for his incarcerated brother. That in and of itself is a normal part of the media cycle for any release, but the Los Angeles singer, songwriter, and producer wanted to do it a little differently. So instead of a label-issued press release, Ty broke down each song on a phone call with his TC, who’s currently serving a life sentence for a murder both brothers insist he didn’t commit. The call’s available on his Soundcloud, and it hits you about how you’d expect: it’s heart wrenching to hear siblings talk about their lives through a partition. And yet at every opportunity, Ty widens the lens, citing the countless other families who are in the same situation.

The other spheres Ty occupies are starkly different. In the last half-decade, he’s become one of the most in-demand voices in clubs, at radio and in high-priced studio sessions. But the hits he scored for himself and others at first brought only push-backs and extended stays in label purgatory. With Free TC’s street date finally less than a month away, I talked with Ty about that wait, his working relationship with YG, and trying to get Madlib to text him back. — Paul Thompson

It’s been a long time coming, but the album’s almost here.

Ty$: Man, I’m honored, I’m excited, I’m hyped, all those words. [laughs]

How old are the oldest songs that made the final cut?

Ty$: Some are a couple months old, but some I started about a year ago, you know. And I just took all the best songs I had in my library, I updated them, then I made a cohesive project. My shit is perfect, bro. I’m super happy about it. I know I’m coming out the same day as Justin Bieber and One Direction and Jeezy and Logic, but I already know my shit is good.

What’s the ideal setting to hear it for the first time?

Ty$: Wherever you can listen to a full project—I know a lot of people are busy as fuck just like I am, you know, so maybe you put it on when you work out. Maybe you put it on while you’re driving to work or some shit, or maybe when you’re catching a ride back home. But it’s one of those records where you have to listen to it start to finish.

For those who don’t know, why is the album called Free TC?

Ty$: Basically, I called it Free TC because my brother named TC is locked up for nothing, you know. He got caught up in a situation and they gave him life in prison. What I’m trying to do is just raise awareness for the whole injustice system. The mass incarceration in this country is on my people, so that’s what it is.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your brother?

Ty$: The most important thing I’ve learned is that just because you’re locked away, you’re still a human. There’s more people just like him. I think what we tend to do…when people get locked away, we forget about them. And that’s what they want: they want us to forget about them. And I won’t let that happen. I won’t let the people forget about him either. Just like I’m dope at music, my brother is too. And he deserves a chance out here as well.

Your father was a musician. [Ed.- Ty’s father was a member of the funk band Lakeside, who had a #1 hit in 1980 with “Fantastic Voyage.”] What role did music play in your childhood?

Ty$: I definitely always wanted to be into it—to be a star, and all that shit. I didn’t really want to sing in front of people, though, so that was a big problem. So I learned how to play instruments: I played bass in church, I learned how to play keys, I learned how to play guitar, I learned how to play drums. Then I just started making beats. After that, I started making songs. I started playing them for people at the house, for whoever was coming through. Next thing you know, the big homie Big B, who was managing YG at the time, brought YG through. We did “Toot It and Boot It”—that was the third song we ever did. We went out and started performing it at clubs, parties, premieres. It took off.

I was going to say—you’re a fixture in L.A. hip-hop. What’re your favorite L.A. rap records?

Ty$: All Eyez On Me by 2Pac, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Ice Cube’s Amerikkkaz Most Wanted, WC’s old shit, everything. Dogg Pound Dogg Food, I could for hours. [laughs] DJ Quik’s Safe + Sound, I could keep on going. Xzibit, too—he’s one of my favorite rappers. Oh, Tha Alkaholiks! Gotta mention Tha Alkaholiks. Madlib.

You’re a Madlib fan?

Ty$: Hell, yeah. I tried [to work with him], man. I got his number, talked to him, we set a date. Then he just went blank on me. I’m gonna text him when we get off the phone just to see if he responds. I heard he’s just one of those guys where you gotta catch him, you know?

Who else do you still want to work with?

Ty$: I want to work with Hiatus Kaiyote out of Australia. I want to work with Jay Z and Beyonce. I want to work with Meshell Ndegeocello. I want to work with [FKA] Twigs. Just all the dopest people. I’ve worked with Erykah Badu before, but I want to work with her again.

Have you ever watched someone in the studio and said, ‘They’re a better writer than I am’?

Ty$: I wouldn’t say a better songwriter, but I would say faster with lyrics: this dude Lupe Fiasco walked in the booth…man, first of all, he gave me the idea for the hook on the song we did called “Next To It,” where if you put a cigarette, a basketball, even a bucket car, if you put a badass female next to it, it’s gonna be sellable, you feel me? So he was like, ‘Let’s make a song called ‘Next To It.’’ So I came with the hook, then he goes in the booth and does all three verses right off the top of the head, freestyled. And every single bar was something incredible. I went in the studio with Chance the Rapper, and he did the same thing. Something with those Chicago boys. [laughs]

I would’ve expected Lupe to scrutinize his bars a lot more.

Ty$: He’s intricate, but he can do it straight off the top of the head. And that’s the first time I’d seen that shit. And then he still wanted to go back and correct shit, but it was there already. He had it.

Free TC was held up for a long time. YG spent a long time at Def Jam before his album [last year’s My Krazy Life] came out. How did it feel to watch that unfold?

Ty$: It was super satisfying. The West Coast is back, officially. I feel like we made the West Coast popular among the whole rest of the world, at least more recently. It felt so good to actually come through. And YG’s album is a classic. You gotta hear the second one.

Are you working on it with him?

Ty$: Yup, Still Krazy. I was just with him last night.

What are you better at now than you were a year ago?

Ty$: I get better every day in my vocal ability. I’m doper with lyrics, I’m doper in keyboard playing, I’m doper at everything. Because I keep on doing it constantly—I feel like anything you do in life constantly, you get better. They say practice makes perfect, but I don’t believe that. I feel like practice makes permanent. It’s just in you. It’s like if you work out, then you stop working out, when you start again you have that muscle memory. It’s in you, you got it.

How do you see yourself changing before the next album comes out?

Ty$: I’m never gonna change to fit in. I’m always gonna try to do something new, then watch everybody else scramble to fit into that.

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