Summer is an exciting time for hip hop. Just like the movies, summer is the time for blockbusters and commercial juggernauts to arise from their slumber. Hip hop was born on a hot summer days in block parties, and the best summer jams are those that channel that spirit. It’s meant to be played outside, at BBQs, blasting out of cars, canvassing whole areas in its ubiquity. But a beautiful part of the genre is how intensely its tied to the seasons. Music from the summer sounds distinctly different from the more introspective, somber winter albums. My favorite example about the difference between the two is a RZA tidbit. During the great Wu-Tang run in the mid 90’s, RZA said that he produced Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx with the summer in mind and GZA’s Liquid Swordz for winter. Even the album hint hints at the seasonal vibe. For a more modern example, think of the difference between the two mega albums of 2011: Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch The Throne and Drake’s Take Care. One was world conquering, the other timid and insular.
The other exciting part about summer is the competitive edge. Summer is where the major labels flex their muscle and the stars compare commercial value. This year, J. Cole moved his release date to the same day as Kanye to see who can get more sales. When Rick Ross took over the game, he used his MMG imprint to have a major release every month of summer so he would be on radio constantly. Summer is where Jay-Z ascended to the throne, destroying Mobb Deep on the Summer Jam screen and threatening to do the same with Nas. This summer looks like it’s going to be an exciting one and we’ve only just started. But right now my favorite storyline is the revival of Cali and the ratchet sound. The summer is California’s birthright, in L.A. it’s summer the whole year. There’s no better place for sunny party music. Enter DJ Mustard, twerking, and a reborn west coast.
You probably know L.A. producer DJ Mustard from mega hits “Rack City” and “I’m Different.” His beats are marked by the infectious “mustard on da beat HO,” and he’s slowly becoming the sound of the summer. His productions all have a type of restraint that infuses them with energy; he’s learned to do more with less. They sometimes seem stupid simple, just a series of piano notes, but goddamn they’re catchy. He’s a master at layering his beats without overshadowing the essential part. You can’t not dance to it. One would expect such similar sounds to have a short shelf life, but Mustard has proven to have remarkable staying power. His beats are so spacious that rappers can weave in and out of the notes. Creative rappers (see: 2 Chainz) can turn the beat inside out. It can turn up or ride out. Like Lex Luger and Clams Casino before him, Mustard has such a distinct style that it’s spawned many imitators but none that match him. Young Jeezy reached out and scored his first relevant hit in ages (and made the west coast homage explicit when he put Kendrick on the remix). But DJ Mustard’s beats sound most at home in California with west coast rappers acting totally ratchet and shooting shit.
DJ Mustard’s new mixtape Ketchup is proof of this new sounds durability and one of the best releases of the year. It rounds out his sound, adding new areas of focus and showcasing a cadre of unknown L.A. talent. But most importantly, it bangs. It’s good for all occasions. Driving to get some boba, put on Ketchup. Seeing a girl, put on Ketchup. Need to start a party, put on Ketchup. Every song has the ability to be a hit single if it was cleaned up for the radio. But it’s not, it’s ratchet and it’s beautiful. It’s four on the floor music. Your shoulders will move, your head will nod, and you will make bad decisions that are actually good decisions because you’re young and you get to do these things.
Ketchup has surprising range. Mustard is able to find coherency out of a staple sound and a revolving cast of artists who understand that sound and what it should be used for. YG is the Snoop to Mustard’s Dre, and pops up all over the tape. Other friends drop by. Joe Moses, Ty Dolla $ign, Tee Flii, all have cameos, along with some heavy hitters E-40, Dom Kennedy, and Nipsey Hussle. Being able to find continuity with this many names is no easy task, and Mustard excels at providing an album length statement rather than a hodgepodge of singles. He flips the script at times. Cocc Pistol Cree completely inverts the dick swinging fun that all the guys are having on her “Ladykilla,” and the beat of 2Pac’s “Ambitions Az A Ridah” is flipped on “Straight Ryder” for singer Candice to display some girl power. In other places, Mustard’s spread provides just as good a foundation for R&B as it does for twerking anthems.
Ketchup is in the top 5 so far for this year. DJ Mustard is leading the way for the MVP (Most Valuable Producer) award. It stays in car rotation and on every song I marvel how he’s able to create such innate melody with minimal effort. Take “Stupid Dumb.” It might be my favorite beat on the tape, and two nobodies, Bounce and Dorrough, actually body the beat (In Colorado but I’m drinking Arizona…green tea…with A BAD BITCH)! And it all starts with this little piano line that had me hooked from the first second. It didn’t even need the snares to kick in.
This is the sound of the West Coast now. Most of the radio is imitating what Mustard is doing and the best of them are putting their own spin on it, like the HBK Gang in the Bay Area or Problem down in L.A. These sparse synths punctuated by claps is becoming the norm and I couldn’t be happier. Originally I was gonna include a whole write up of the rest of the scene but that would take too long, so instead I’ll leave you with the top 5 records of the year in this style. They’re all free, so links are given. Do yourself a favor and start your summer off right with these.
- DJ Mustard – Ketchup
- Kool John – Peace, Love, & Schmoplife
- Problem – The Separation
- Iamsu! and Problem – Million Dollar Afro (Best album title of the year!)
- YG – Just Re’d Up 2