In this weekly feature, we’re profiling the unsung heroes of hip hop music: the producers. These musicians, responsible for creating beats, sampling and collaborating with MCs, slave away behind the scene while rappers get most (if not all) of the credit. With Behind The Boards, we’re looking to shine the spotlight on the best producers in the game.
In a world filled with annoying, repetitive DJ tags (Funkmaster Flex and Don Cannon, we're looking at you), "Mustard on the beat, ho!" is king. It's short, sweet and it has gradually become one of the most recognizable DJ tags in modern rap music, gracing songs by Tyga, 2 Chainz, Young Jeezy, and Ty Dolla $ign that all carry a similar, bass-driven sound. The man behind this tag and distinctive sound is Dijon McFarlane, professionally known as DJ Mustard. In less than four years as an active producer, the L.A. native has crafted smash singles, signed to Jay Z's Roc Nation label and been credited for creating an entire new genre of West Coast rap. Follow DJ Mustard's rise to the top in this latest edition of "Behind The Boards."
From DJ Tee to YG
McFarlane, who grew up in the infamous "Jungle" section of Los Angeles, was first introduced to DJing by his uncle, who spun in L.A. clubs under the name DJ Tee. When McFarlane was 11, his uncle abruptly gave him the reigns at a family party, letting him try out DJing for the first time. "I didn’t know what I was doing," Mustard told The Fader in 2012, "I just did what had watched him do." Either he was a very attentive kid, or his uncle gave him good pointers, but whatever the case, young McFarlane began spinning at local clubs soon thereafter. He still DJs semi-frequently these days, but after graduating high school, he transitioned to music production, working with his longtime pal YG.
Teaming up with the MC for his 2010 mixtape The Real 4 Fingaz, Mustard got his first production credit on the song "Glowin," which also features frequent Mustard collaborator Ty Dolla $ign, then known simply as Ty$. Listen to that track below.
Today, "Glowin" sounds pretty uncharacteristic for DJ Mustard. His usually-crisp sonics are woozier, leading to the track's more dreamy vibe. Unlike most future DJ Mustard tracks, "Glowin" doesn't seem club-ready and didn't contain the "Mustard on the beat, ho" tag, instead sounding like the work of a producer still trying to find his comfort zone. His past experiences DJing had taught him how to make people dance, and that privileged knowledge would soon inform his production work.
Searching for a Signature Sound, and Finding it in Rack City
In 2011, Mustard became more prolific in the L.A. scene, producing tracks for Ty Dolla $ign and Tyga, as well as YG. On the follow up to The Real 4 Fingaz, Just Re'd Up, YG and Mustard united for seven tracks, including one that became the source of that now-omnipresent tag. "I'm Good" was the track, and you can listen to it below.
Beyond YG's declaration that Mustard, indeed, was "on the beat," "I'm Good" contains other elements that would become Mustard's calling cards. There's the slightly eerie, echoey synth plinks (which he later updated for RiFF RAFF's "How to be the Man"), the use of multiple 808 bass drum tones, the distant "heys" in the background, and the handclaps used in lieu of snares. Oh, those handclaps. All of these short-lasting sound effects combine to form a tastefully minimal composition that allows rappers luxurious space in which to craft their flows, and almost demands head-nodding. Building upon the existing templates of L.A.'s jerkin' movement and the Bay Area's time-honored tradition of hyphy, Mustard had created "ratchet music," a style that has since ruled the clubs and radio on the West Coast. When asked about the genre, Mustard said:
"With this ratchet music I’m trying to create my own sound. I want to make this to where it can’t leave, this is something that everybody’s gonna get used to. Like how everybody got used to Lil Jon or [Dr.] Luke. I don’t want it to be something that comes and goes, I want it to be something that’s here forever like a real culture."
Several months before Juicy J's "Bandz a Make Her Dance" would popularize the term, ratchet was crystallized in the song "Rack City" by Tyga. This time, Mustard's beat went deep, focusing on the low end and swapping out claps for snaps. Take a listen to Mustard's first big hit below.
Breaking the top ten of the Hot 100, Rap and R&B Billboard charts, "Rack City" was an international phenomenon in early 2012 (even clubs in the Czech Republic, where I was studying at the time, were playing it). Its bass sound, provided both by a synth and Mustard's standard 808s, was impeccably mastered, rendered thunderous by even the smallest pair of speakers. In a bass-obsessed genre like hip hop, the sound instantly became a commodity. Mustard soon received requests from higher-profile artists, and by August 2012, he was telling The Fader:
"Everything sounds like 'Rack City' right now and that’s perfectly fine with me. As long as they doing what I’m doing it means I’m doing something right. I can say I was the first with it, can’t nobody take that from me."
Mustard had become the guy to imitate if you wanted your song to be played in clubs, but two years later, there's still no one making ratchet music whose attention to sonic detail is as nuanced as Mustard's.
Ketchup and Roc Nation: Mustard's Whirlwind 2013
After closing out 2012 with a pair of hits for 2 Chainz and Young Jeezy, respectively, Mustard was primed for big things in 2013, and he did not disappoint. Breaking into the top 20 of Billboard's R&B chart six separate times as a producer in 2013, Mustard had made enough money to float a solo mixtape, a rarity for someone who had been producing for less than three years. The cheekily-titled Ketchup dropped on June 3rd, featuring contributions from YG, Ty Dolla $ign, Casey Veggies, Dom Kennedy and (amazingly) hyphy legend E-40. With Mustard already getting complaints about the alleged sameness of all of his music, Ketchup proved that his sound didn't strain when stretched across a 17 song project, benefitting from its varied guest list and a veritable cornucopia of ear candy. Here's a personal favorite from that tape, closer "Midnight Run."
This track's notable for its mimicry of DJ Quik's more antiquated 808 sound that defined L.A. hip hop 20 years earlier. This old-school vibe pervades the many verses of "Midnight Run," but its chorus throws in a baroque string loop that's more recognizably Mustard, with similar sounds later popping up on "2 On," a song he produced for Tinashe. With this, among others on Ketchup, Mustard showed awareness of his place in the legacy of West Coast rap, simultaneously looking back fondly on the past and moving his music into more futuristic territory.
Nearing the close of the year, Mustard got his biggest co-sign yet (on will.i.am and Miley Cyrus' raunch-fest "Feelin' Myself") and helped Ty Dolla $ign finally get the commercial smash he deserved (the undeniably catchy "Paranoid"). On November 18th, Mustard announced that he had signed to Jay Z's Roc Nation label without ever meeting or speaking to Jay, which is apparently an unprecedented move for the label. By the end of his third year as a full-time producer, Mustard was so in demand that Jay Z felt comfortable investing millions of dollars in someone he had never met. Now that's an accompli$hment.
2014 and Beyond
Less than a quarter of the way through 2014, Mustard is already looking like he'll have another big year. After producing another smash hit for YG ("My Nigga") and three tracks on Ty Dolla $ign's Beach House EP, he turned up in an unlikely place, Rick Ross' soulful "Sanctified," from the recently-released Mastermind. Co-producing the song with Kanye West, Mustard certainly stepped out of his comfort zone for a slower-paced, more dramatic song. Listen to it below.
Though it didn't appear on "Sanctified," "Mustard on the beat, ho" will be a staple on hip hop radio for years to come, bulldozing its competitors and heralding the arrival of new ratchet anthems.