Look At Me Now
They have been bubbling on the West Coast for a minute, but YG and DJ Mustard are now getting some mainstream hip-hop love.

Words Jeff Weiss

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the December/January 2014 issue of XXL Magazine.

This story starts in 2009. That was the first summer that YG really owned it, except he wasn't there to see it. The Compton native spent most of that season locked up for a parole violation, stemming from a previous charge of residential burglary. But even by the time YG swapped blood red for an orange L.A. County Jail jumpsuit, he was already so large that his cellmate had YG’s record “Pussy Killer” as his ringtone.

Four years is a generation in hip-hop. That’s the time frame of Biggie Smalls’ entire recording career. It’s the span between when 50 Cent dropped Get Rich Or Die Trying and when he lost his winner-take-all battle with Kanye West. It’s also how long that YG has reigned as one of the most popular street rappers in L.A.

Unlike many regional rap stars, the intricately tattooed Tree Top Piru has expanded his territory from the hood to homes across America. Four years after first signing to Def Jam, the 23-year-old’s latest single, “My Nigga” (with Jeezy and Rich Homie Quan), is his biggest yet, hitting No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The beat comes from a fellow 23-year-old raised in South Central and the Westside of L.A. named DJ Mustard. Over the last 24 months, Mustard transformed himself from YG’s old DJ into one of the most sought-after hit beat-makers in hip-hop and R&B, supplying smashes for Tyga (“Rack City”), 2 Chainz (“I’m Different”) and Jeezy (“R.I.P.”). The minimal snaps, sinister funk synths and 808 claps that he initially tailored to YG’s West Coast bounce pioneered the widely mimicked “ratchet” subgenre. “When we started, they weren’t playing any L.A. music in the clubs,” Mustard says by phone. He’s in Los Angeles at the moment but is preparing for a trip to New York to do press and seal his contract with Roc Nation. Their goal is to turn him into a next-generation reincarnation of Lil Jon—a producer as an album artist, breaking local talent nationwide. “Before us, no one was doing any L.A. type of record. Aside from Dom Kennedy and Nipsey Hu$$le, most people from out here were rapping like they were Southern.”

The “us” refers to Mustard and YG, but also to the close-knit, loosely organized Pu$haz Ink crew that the two cofounded in 2008. Its third breakout star includes the multi-instrumentalist producer, singer and hook king Ty Dolla $ign, whose house, underground hip-hop and R&B influences furnished them with an eclectic tint. “We brought a whole new sound and swag,” YG says by phone from New York, amidst a brief break from some East Coast tour dates. For the last 18 months, he’s been on the road almost nonstop both solo and with Tyga, Mac Miller and Yo Gotti. “The beats are simple, and that works for an artist like me. I’m a rapper not a singer. I’m a storyteller…a preacher. I don’t want to make people think too much.”

When you think too much, you don’t dance. And YG was instrumental in nullifying Westside Connection’s adage that “gangsta’s don’t dance, they boogie.” Shortly after YG’s first songs hit Myspace, they became canvasses for YouTube jerk videos shot by teens enraptured by the L.A. dance craze of 2008-09.

The earliest jerkin’ clips usually featured skinny-jeaned swarms turning up to hyphy or snap music. But YG was one of the first to make NC-17 street rap with its own L.A. swing. His lyrical terrain rarely extends beyond oral sex, ratchet women or anthems about the set. But out West, it reintroduced the idea that being hard and having fun weren’t mutually exclusive. “Everyone in L.A. loves Kendrick Lamar, but he doesn’t get much play in the clubs,” says DJ A-Tron, one of the city’s most popular function DJs. “For the last few years, no one can touch Mustard and YG. They helped spark a generational shift. Everywhere I go, people want to hear the new ratchet shit. And if you want to get really hot, you need a Mustard beat.”

The roots of “ratchet” trace back to Shreveport, La., where it was originally neighborhood slang for “ghetto.” It first left “Ratchet City” around 2004, when the group Lava House recruited Baton Rouge’s Lil Boosie for the “Do Tha Ratchet Remix.” The twerk-inciting anthem eventually made its way out to L.A., where Mustard spun at underground club nights and Sweet 16s, high school homecomings and quinceañeras. His set lists were geared almost exclusively toward Cash Money and Trill Entertainment, snap and crunk from Atlanta, and E-40 cuts produced by Lil Jon.

The genesis of L.A.’s ratchet splinter sect starts with YG’s first radio hit, 2010’s “Toot It And Boot It.” Produced and penned by the virtuosic crooner Ty Dolla $ign, the duo’s ode to “hitting it and splitting it” ushered in a new sound—one that blended Southern rap and jerkin’ music with flourishes of house, soul and G-Funk. “We recorded ‘Toot It And Boot It’ during our first session together,” Ty Dolla $ign remembers. “When we played it out at a party that weekend, the entire crowd sang the hook and did a little dance to go with it. From that day, I joined YG’s Pu$haz Ink. They already had it going, and when we kept doing more records, it grew and grew.”