on the record

“You Had 400 Fucking Songs?”: Justin Timberlake Interviews Ty Dolla $ign

By
Photography Kevin Amato
Stylist Anastasia Walker

Published November 12, 2020

Sweater by Amiri. Pants by Dickies. Jewelry Ty’s Own.

“I’ve been blessed with the gift of collaborating,” wrote Ty Dolla $ign on an Instagram post last month. “Not every artist can collaborate with another artist and have the final product be something incredible.” For any other artist, that might come off as a weird flex, but okay. For Ty Dolla $ign, it’s basic science. This year, like the five years before it, the musician born Tyrone William Griffin Jr. was everywhere, singing the hooks on SZA’s comeback single “Hit Different” and on Megan Thee Stallion’s instant-classic “Hot Girl Summer,” while also jumping on tracks with Nicki Minaj, serpentwithfeet, Juicy J, and Skrillex. Whether you know it or not, the Los Angeles native has been the voice of hip-hop and R&B for the last five years, while also releasing two albums of his own. Behind the scenes, he’s somehow managed to be even more prolific, writing and producing songs for Kanye West, Ariana Grande, Post Malone, and just about anyone else with a platinum record. He is, above all else, a creature of the studio. 

On his third album, the cheekily titled Featuring Ty Dolla $ign, many of those artists return the favor. Over the course of 25 tracks, everyone from FKA twigs to Kid Cudi to Future seamlessly enter Ty’s universe and contribute to what amounts to a sweeping encapsulation of what pop music is and can be in our current moment. A short while ago, Ty Dolla $ign found himself once again in the studio, this time alongside Justin Timberlake, where the two artists took a break from making music to discuss the mystery of doing just that. 

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JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: I don’t think people know that I’ve known you since the Ty and Kory days, which is crazy.

TY DOLLA $IGN: I wish I had those videos of us freestyling and shit. JT can rap, y’all.

TIMBERLAKE: [Laughs] Nah man. Can you tell the readers about our Kory connection?

DOLLA $IGN: I think it was 2004 when I went to New York and met up with my homeboy at the time. He introduced me to this dude named Kory, who was at his apartment in Brooklyn somewhere, and I walked in and he was recording, making songs. I thought his voice was dope. He reminded me of Raphael Saadiq. He was like, “Yo, just play me shit.” I ended up doing some joints with him, and then we lost contact. And then I ended up going to the Sundance Film Festival where I saw him again, so we met up with their other homeboy Parker at the time, who is now one of my best friends. And he had a studio at his crib, so me and Kory recorded what ended up being a tape. And somehow this dude Venus [Brown] heard about us, and he brought us in the studio with you and Will.I.Am, and we ended up doing another tape, and I got features from big artists, and fucking drops from JT and Will. And then I remember we were in London at some point, and you told me you weren’t going to work with Venus no more. And then after that, me and Kory were trying to like do songs, but he was like, “Yo, if this shit don’t work, I’m going to have to move on.”

TIMBERLAKE: Kory said that?

DOLLA $IGN: Yeah. He had life to go do. And I’m like, alright. So he ended up doing what he did. And I linked up with YG and Mustard through my big homie Big B, and we started making songs. And then from there, full circle. Now we’re back in the studio.

TIMBERLAKE: That was right before “Sexy Back.”

DOLLA $IGN: You were telling me you were about to drop it. And I was like, “This shit is hard.”

TIMBERLAKE: Your dad was in the band Lakeside. Was anybody else in your family musical?

DOLLA $IGN: Just yesterday my mom sent me this picture of her grandfather that I never got to meet on her mom’s side. And his name was Milton Roby, a guitarist and a singer who had it popping back in the day.

TIMBERLAKE: I try to tell people, I’m like, “Nah, Ty’s nice on instruments.” Do you feel like that came from your dad?

DOLLA $IGN: For sure. It came from seeing him do it, and more so from making beats. At first, I just had an MPC and an Ensoniq TS-10. And back then I’d be listening to all types of fly shit. I remember hearing this one song called “Indo Smoke” [by Mista Grimm featuring Warren G and Nate Dogg], where it had the bass, and I was trying to find a good sound on the keyboard to do that, but I couldn’t really get it. So I had to pick up the bass guitar and learn how to play that shit. I picked up basically everything except horns. I couldn’t fuck with that shit.

TIMBERLAKE: I always tell people, I learned how to play because I just wanted to write songs. I wasn’t classically trained or anything. What’s that saying? “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

DOLLA $IGN: Exactly.

TIMBERLAKE: Where did name Ty Dolla $ign come from?

DOLLA $IGN: Well, my name is Ty.

TIMBERLAKE: [Laughs] I’m aware of that, but for the people reading this, that’s probably valid information.

DOLLA $IGN: [Laughs] So, I was making music with YG and our homeboy Ace, and he would always call me Dolla Sign, because I was the one from the crew with the chains and the nice cars and the nice house. This is after working with Venus and y’all. That’s how I was able to get that dough at the time. And then that shit just started running out, and then [the YG song] “Toot It or Boot It,” came out, and then we were back up.

TIMBERLAKE: Wow. I’m a cinephile, so when I get a vibe from a song, I automatically think of a character in a movie that I want to play when I sing on a beat. Is there a difference between Ty and Ty Dolla $ign?

DOLLA $IGN: I for sure see it like that. I’m not like one of those guys where motherfuckers be like every lyric you say has got to be your life or whatever, because not only do I make songs for myself, but I make songs for other people. It’s about hearing the beat and trying to imagine that whoever hears this, how am I going to make them feel like this is them?

TIMBERLAKE: That’s what I always said about a song like “Sexy Back.” The reason I ran my voice through a guitar amp was because I didn’t want to be recognizable as me. I wanted whoever was singing the song—guys, girls, whoever—to feel like they were whoever that was on the track.

DOLLA $IGN: For sure. You definitely did it with that one.

TIMBERLAKE: Thank you, man. For the last two days we’ve been writing together, and we’ve been trying to get it happening for a while. And now that our schedules are worked out, I’m glad it happened when it did, because I feel like we’re writing some really good shit. Do you feel like, for instance if it’s Ye, or it’s this artist or that artist, that your style changes to where you want it to fit for them? Or do you try not to overthink it.

DOLLA $IGN: I try not to overthink it.

TIMBERLAKE: The only person I feel like I had to overthink it on was with Beyoncé, because she’s like the greatest singer ever, so you’re like, “Ah, I can’t write now. I can’t write any mediocre melodies.” When you write for other people versus yourself, is it like, “What do I want to hear this artist do?”

DOLLA $IGN: I try to, but sometimes I get lost when I do that. So it’s more so, whatever the beat is that we’re listening to, or whether we start with just piano or guitar or whatever, I’m trying to figure out how I can be the greatest instrument on top of whatever we’re listening to.

TIMBERLAKE: Right. How many songs are on the new record?

DOLLA $IGN: As of today? There’s 19.

TIMBERLAKE: I love “Ego Death,” by the way.

DOLLA $IGN: I appreciate it. We’ve worked on that one since 2018.

TIMBERLAKE: You took your time with it. That’s one of those ones where when you came up with the bassline, you’re like, “Okay, I can’t come in halfway on this.”

DOLLA $IGN: I sampled that bassline. I was at a party and it was this girl DJ playing this shit, and I’m like, “Yo, what the fuck is that?” And she’s like “The Soul Track” by Mythology. You can’t find it on Spotify, YouTube, none of that. But I found it and sampled it. Luckily my people were able to get in touch with them to clear the sample. That bassline was everything.

TIMBERLAKE: I try to tell people that as a songwriter, the best thing you can be is a listener. Because I feel like there’s songs everywhere. If somebody says something, a phrase maybe, I’m like, “Oh, that could be a song,” and “Ego Death” seems like that to me. It’s not typical content for a dance record, which is dope. What’s the story behind it? Who said it?

DOLLA $IGN: I don’t remember. I was at that party, I heard the bassline, and I was probably listening to someone else’s conversation, and they said “ego death.” That night I went home, and started working on the beat and the vocal and came up with the hook. After that, Ye called me to Chicago to work on what at the time was called Yandhi. We were just working on hella songs and I’m like, “Y’all, I got something to play you. I think you’d be hard as fuck on this shit. But this is for my shit, though.” He’s like, “Alright, fo sho.” So I played it and he was already vibing to it. And then after my verse, it’s this other sample of him that I got off of Instagram, when he was venting and talking shit. He thought that shit was funny as hell and got up, ran out the room, came back in and grabbed like a stage mic and just started freestyling and going in.

TIMBERLAKE: How does FKA twigs end up on it?

DOLLA $IGN: I’ve known twigs since back in Venus days. I didn’t remember her. I guess she used to be around. And then I saw her at a party and I was like, “Yo, you’re twigs!” She’s like, “Yo, you’re Ty.” I was like, “We should do a song. I love your music. I love your videos. That shit is next level.” So when I went to London, I played it for her. She loved it. And she just came up with the idea and that was that.

TIMBERLAKE: With music, I’m fascinated with the bloodline of it. Like how the genes get passed down. We’re all basically writing the songs of our childhood musical heroes. It’s just that we record them and then they become ours. But we’re all influenced by something.

DOLLA $IGN: When I was a child, I listened to everything. From house music, to rock ‘n roll, to hip-hop, to R&B.

TIMBERLAKE: Over the last 72 hours, we’ve gotten to know each other and work together. People who are not musical will be like, “What was Ty like?” And I’m like, “He was cool, but I can’t explain to you what musicians do.” Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people outside of this. It’s like, “So you just started writing something?” Yeah, we just started writing something. You know what I mean?

DOLLA $IGN: Yeah.

TIMBERLAKE: For me, when something like that happens, I know I’m going to end up collaborating with that person way beyond those few sessions. I said to you really quickly, “Watch, we’re going to end up with like seven or eight songs, and we could just put them out whenever we want to put them out.”

DOLLA $IGN: For sure.

TIMBERLAKE: I feel like I just patted us on the back way too much by that comment, but do you get the same vibe when you work with other people? What do you think is the key to a good collab?

DOLLA $IGN: It’s the energy, the attitude, and the vibe. Like, even though you’re you, you’re super humble and we just had a musical bond. Like, you’re dope as fuck. And I’m not trying to say I’m dope as fuck, but I’m dope, too.

TIMBERLAKE: I’ll say it.

DOLLA $IGN: Thanks, brother. You played some shit, and I just hopped right in. There’s been sessions though, for sure, of me going in with the artist that is super dope, but then you work with them, and it’s like, damn, it wasn’t like that.

TIMBERLAKE: I definitely know what you mean. So who’s on the new album?

DOLLA $IGN: I thought you were about to be like, “So who were the artists you’re talking about?”

TIMBERLAKE: [Laughs] No, I’m not going to put you on blast. We can talk about that after this is over.

DOLLA $IGN: On the album, I got just the homies, man. My homie James, who was DJ Mustard’s engineer. But then he stopped working with Mustard and I’m like, “Yo, come fuck with me.” We ended up making hella beats together. All my guys, we got together, started cooking up a whole bunch of songs, and then after I had like a hundred songs—

TIMBERLAKE: You’re choosing from a hundred songs?

DOLLA $IGN: How many was it?

[DOLLA $IGN’S ENGINEER]: It was like four.

DOLLA $IGN: 104?

FAI: No, like 400.

TIMBERLAKE: You had 400 fucking songs? To narrow down to 19? Are some of them unfinished?

DOLLA $IGN: Yeah.

TIMBERLAKE: Like, you got a verse and a hook.

DOLLA $IGN: Yeah. I saw your process and it was dope to me how you’re like, “Nah, can we finish?”

TIMBERLAKE: [Laughs] That was funny. We played something new and you were like, “Okay, I’m going in!” And I was like, “No, no, no, no. Wait.” That’s because for me, having a family, I have to make the time to come here and work. So when I go back, I’d much rather leave with five songs than 15 ideas. But sometimes you need that time to breathe for a second and go, “Do I really love this?”

DOLLA $IGN: For me, I’ll think something’s it when we first record it, and the next day or the next week, I’ll be like, “I don’t like this line or I don’t like that part.”

TIMBERLAKE: I’m a big believer in taking time after you’ve finished a song to, like I said, give it the whip test. Give it the house test. Now that we’re in this pandemic, one of them is cut off the list, but there’s only three places where people listen to music, in my opinion. One is the car, one is the house, and one is a live setting.

DOLLA $IGN: A function.

TIMBERLAKE: Whether it be a bar or a club or a show, and now those are pretty much removed from that list. Do you feel like music’s going to change in the pandemic because there is no turn up?

DOLLA $IGN: I think it has changed. And it definitely changed me.

TIMBERLAKE: How did it change for you? For me, I felt so grateful to be in a safe place. But I feel like for the first time, I’ve stopped and gone, “Wow, I work a lot.” It’s nice to just be a dad or it’s nice to have two weeks in front of you where you’re like, “I’m not sure what I might do.”

DOLLA $IGN: It feels like when you were a kid.

TIMBERLAKE: I’ve talked to other people during the pandemic, and I think people appreciate their family more.

DOLLA $IGN: Yeah. It was dope to be around family and just to be at the house and chill. At first, I had to get used to it because I’m so used to just being places. It was the first time I actually got to learn about my house.

TIMBERLAKE: Like, “Oh, that’s what that is!”

DOLLA $IGN: Just vibe out. And cook.

TIMBERLAKE: Yeah, we did so much cooking.

DOLLA $IGN: And the lines at the store. The store was like the new club. There was one morning I got turned away and I couldn’t get into the motherfucking grocery store!

TIMBERLAKE: [Laughs] You were not on the list. Do you feel like your writing has changed? For whatever reason, my songwriting since the pandemic has been a lot more thoughtful, because I’m more thoughtful.

DOLLA $IGN: For sure. A lot more thoughtful. And for me, I already had the album done I thought, like what, two or three times? But it made me want to change a lot of it. Because it didn’t matter no more.

TIMBERLAKE: I don’t even have to hear what you removed and what you added to know exactly what you mean by that.

DOLLA $IGN: Yeah. So it’s been fun for sure. It’s definitely a masterpiece, and I’m proud of it.

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Photography Assistant: Jahlil Swan