It’s an endless cycle: A new sound bubbles in the underground. Soon, there’s enough enthusiasm to catapult a signature artist onto the charts. Eventually, the shadowy figures who run the record industry take notice, and before long, what was once underground is sucked above the surface and into the pop machine.
In the early ’10s, ratchet was associated with L.A. rappers like YG and Ty Dolla $ign, as well as the man who masterminded the tracks, a native of South Central barely out of high school named Dijon McFarlane. You may know him as DJ Mustard. Already a veteran of the local party scene (he landed his first DJ gig at age 11, after substituting for his uncle), McFarlane was influenced by Lil Boosie’s mid-aughts Southern club hit “Do tha Ratchet.” (Atlanta producer Mike Will Made It also picked up the ratchet torch around the same time.)
As Mustard rose to prominence in 2012 with Tyga’s “Rack City” — a monster summer jam that topped the R&B/hip-hop chart and peaked at no. 7 on Billboard’s Hot 100 — his records had an instantly identifiable sound. Simple keyboard hook, midrange BPM, chant-friendly chorus; stir, shake, and repeat. It was designed to appeal to men and women equally at house parties, mixing soft with hard, sexiness with menace, all in the single-minded interest of a good time.
“I create my music so you can go to the club and have fun,” McFarlane explained to L.A. Weekly’s Jeff Weiss in 2012. “There’s too many girls in the club for niggas to be banging and shit.” Mustard’s productions were sleek, even graceful, with a somewhat robotic feel that seemed like the future even as it leaned on the past, recalling the simplicity of ’80s old-schoolers, ’90s G-funk, and ’00s crunk.
Flash forward to early 2014, and three DJ Mustard tracks — YG’s “My Hitta,” Ty Dolla $ign’s “Paranoid,” and Kid Ink’s “Show Me” — are firmly entrenched in the R&B/hip-hop top 20, and surging into the top 20 on the Hot 100 chart. Even if those songs don’t sound familiar (though you’ve probably heard them if you’ve been anywhere near pop radio in the past few months), there’s a very good chance you’ll encounter music the 23-year-old McFarlane helped create in the near future. Because this is DJ Mustard’s moment to be fully absorbed into the perpetually ravenous pop mainstream.
No less a signifier of that mainstream than Billboard magazine declared last week that McFarlane’s version of ratchet is “an early candidate for the sound of 2014.” Clearly, pop heavyweights have him on their radar — Rihanna, Drake, Usher, and Jennifer Lopez are among the artists who have tapped him for beats. Kanye West recently summoned McFarlane to his Santa Barbara studio for a collaboration — “I’ve been a fan of his for a minute,” McFarlane coolly related to Billboard — that resulted in the song “Sanctified” for Rick Ross’s forthcoming record, Mastermind.
Mustard is also a primary contributor to My Krazy Life, the Def Jam debut by his longtime partner YG, due out a few weeks after Mastermind on March 18. And then there’s Mustard’s own debut EP due this spring on Roc Nation, Ketchup 2, a sequel to his acclaimed 2013 mixtape Ketchup, which contained an early version of “My Hitta” (originally titled “My Nigga”). Assuming that at least a couple of those pop-star gigs gain traction beyond the “rumored involvement” phase, that’s a whole lot of DJ Mustard music set to flood the market in the months ahead.
It’s no secret why DJ Mustard’s records have infiltrated the radio. They command attention without breaking a sweat. While Mustard’s vibe is often associated with strip clubs — “Rack City” is like the “Free Bird” of ’00s strip-club jams — it’s also cruising music. DJ Mustard songs sound fantastic coming out of car speakers, whether they belong to you or somebody else. I visited Georgia last week, and while driving around the Athens area, I repeatedly heard “My Hitta” slinking out of multiple passenger-side windows.
The surest indicator that ratchet has gone pop is that it’s already showing signs of wear from overuse. All the qualities of the DJ Mustard sound — namely its sparse, no-fuss directness — can also be tough to take in large doses. It’s a whole lot of the same thing, with minimal variation. McFarlane seemed to recognize this back in 2012, when he was still basking in the glow of his first big success with “Rack City.”
“I don’t want to be known for only making ratchet music,” he told L.A. Weekly’s Weiss. “It’s a formula and it’ll be used up soon enough and I’ll move on to different ingredients and use them for the next ten years.”
It remains to be seen whether Mustard has the ability to reinvent himself. But hopefully he’s plotting something great — the record industry is already forging his familiar sonic fingerprint on a lot of wannabe hits.