When YG arrives 45 minutes late to his recording session in Burbank, he saunters in like a famous rapper — not one who was, until recently, recording in his room at his mama's house. His thin, tall frame is swallowed by camouflage shorts belted around his thighs. Out of the neck of a baggy white T-shirt that reads “4 Hunnid,” tattoos climb like kudzu, stopping just short of his jawline. He offers no apology for being tardy, just his sleepy smile, which is, actually, enough.
Before long, however, he slips on the mask of a hardened rapper. “I'm out here thuggin' right now,” the 22-year-old says, a practiced dullness in his voice. Originally from Compton, he moved to Granada Hills a few months ago, he imparts.
A friend interjects: “Yeah, out here thuggin' in these Granada Hills streets.” The room, including YG, collapses into laughter.
For the last three years, YG — whose name stands for “Young Gangsta” — has been transitioning into the mainstream. Along with his DJ, who goes by Mustard, they're known for a style of hip-hop called ratchet, irresistibly bouncy party music you'll often hear streaming out of cars and clubs in L.A. (Other California artists, including Tyga, Ty$ and LoveRance, are making it as well.)
The sound on YG's latest mixtape, 4Hunnid Degreez, is characterized by simple, twinkly melodies, hand claps, finger snaps and bellowing bass that rattles your chest. DJ Mustard, meanwhile, has become perhaps ratchet's signature producer. Last year, he helped thrust the style into the public's consciousness by co-writing and producing Tyga's massive hit “Rack City.”
The subgenre's lyrics largely concern clubs and oral sex. Song titles including “I Like Head” and “Do It With My Tongue” may sound puerile but are actually refreshing in a discipline that has not traditionally celebrated pleasuring women. YG's delivery, meanwhile, is loose, like he's tipsy. He drops consonants at the end of words and swerves from one sentence to another.
In a city whose hip-hop reputation was built on gangsta rap, YG is doing something fairly removed. Despite the fact that he really does gangbang, he is not making gangsta rap. Truth be told, both he and Mustard believe the time for that type of hip-hop has passed.
“Tired of the gangbanging shit in L.A. Shit gets old,” Mustard says in his quiet drawl as he reclines on a couch. Whereas YG's body resembles a praying mantis, Mustard is roly-poly with caramel skin and heavy-lidded eyes. “I don't wanna hear that no more. I just like people to have fun.”
Like so many African-American families, ratchet migrated to California from the South, and in the mid to late aughts the style was closely associated with Shreveport, La. The city's most popular rapper, Hurricane Chris, had hits with the songs “A Bay Bay” and “Halle Berry (She's Fine),” and the music focused on getting people to loosen up and party.
“ 'Ratchet' is another word for ghetto,” Mustard explains. “They label my beats ratchet, but I just made 'em cause I know they're gonna go in the clubs.”
Now that it's come to L.A., ratchet is making big gains, even among white kids. A Day-Glo–clad party promoter named Adam Weiss throws popular dance parties here, specializing in the grimiest ratchet he can get his hands on.
YG was born Kennan Jackson in 1990. His father went to jail for a few years when YG was a teenager, and though he'd been gangbanging on the sly so his dad wouldn't find out, YG now began doing so in earnest.
He played football and basketball and ran track, but his grades were suffering and he spent a lot of time hanging out with his clique. “I [still] ain't stopped!” he says. “I'm from where I'm from. You just can't stop. You don't stop. When you grow up out here, everybody's a gang member.”
He didn't have a background as a rapper, but when a member of another crew posted a diss song about him on MySpace, YG quickly put together a response tune of his own. It came naturally to him, and soon his songs were getting airtime at high school parties.
Mustard began spinning YG before they'd even met. “Everybody in L.A. knows his music,” Mustard says. “They always knew.”
Things really began to pop with 2009's “Pussy Killa,” YG's ode to oral sex in his signature bedroom mumble. It blew up in the streets and strip clubs due partly to the jittery beat courtesy of Jayhawk, a rising star producer on the jerkin' dance scene. Though it didn't crack the Billboard charts, it received more than a million MySpace plays. He and some friends had started a collective called Pushaz Inc the year before, and had begun performing shows and building street buzz for their brand.
YG's career threatened to stall in early 2009 when he was arrested for a residential burglary. Before going to jail, however, he shot a video for a song that was gaining popularity, “Toot It & Boot It” — a crass but catchy tutorial about one-night stands — and recorded a track called “Free YG.” He sought to build momentum while behind bars and, sure enough, record labels soon asked for meetings with him.
Mustard reached out as well, and they collaborated for what would be YG's first mixtape, 4 Fingaz, a modest success locally. When YG got out of jail, he performed his first show in Hollywood, playing for a Def Jam executive. A week later, he was in New York meeting with L.A. Reid, then the CEO and chairman of the label.
Though he's been signed to Def Jam for almost three years now, YG still hasn't released a debut album. Even given the dilatory pace of the music industry, that's a bit curious. Regarding the delay, Island Def Jam Music Group's Max Gousse, who signed YG, says, “It was always our strategy to allow YG to develop organically and solidify his base. You really can't put a time line on it. All the Power 106 mixer support and his mixtapes helped him become one of the hottest acts in L.A. The timing is now right.”
YG himself is unperturbed — or, if he is bothered, he doesn't let on. Instead, he prefers to focus on his first headlining tour, now under way, which takes him up and down the West Coast and into Texas.
Back at the studio, he drops ice cubes and pours Champagne into a glass, then asks the engineer to play his latest radio single, “Pop It,” which samples rapper Khia's 2002 hit “My Neck, My Back.”
It would seem to be a prime example of ratchet, but neither YG nor Mustard terms it that.
“That's what the fans call it,” YG says, adding: “I like to have fun, that's what my music be about. Females, money, alcohol, weed, the club, the streets, L.A. lifestyle. Young L.A.”
When he puts it like that, it would seem to have much in common with gangsta rap, actually. But there's a difference, he insists: “I didn't have that sad type lifestyle.”
Indeed, gangsta rappers long claimed to report on what life in the 'hood was really like. Perhaps the 'hood is a little more lighthearted these days?
“People ask why I rap about [those subjects], but I'm 22 years old,” YG continues. “What else am I supposed to rap about?”