It’s been 15 minutes, and Mustard is still waiting to see if his Spotify digital billboard will pop back up on the big screen outside the Billboard office. It’s a balmy Friday morning and the super-producer is celebrating the June 28 release of what he considers to be his debut album, Perfect Ten. For him, catching this moment means everything, especially since it’s happening in the heart of New York City: Times Square.
“Do you see it yet?” he yells. A member of his team replies, “I think I do. Come through.” As he scurries to the window with rabbit-like speed, he peers over, and quickly darts his eyes towards the sign. Disappointed by the outcome, a dejected Mustard lets out a long sigh, signaling his frustration: “Damn it! That’s the fourth time, I’ve seen this Drake billboard.” Laughter ensues, and even Mustard can’t help but crack a smile.
If you’re Dijon McFarlane, it’s hard not to smile these days. After watching his protege, Ella Mai, zoom to crossover success with her sweet-sounding top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Boo’d Up” last year, she continued to flourish with the aid of Mustard, delivering a Platinum-certified album and a Grammy for best R&B song. On the rap side, McFarlane also flexed his dominance, doling out club bangers for YG (including the star-studded “Big Bank” and the saucy “Go Loko”), while teaming up with 03 Greedo for their collaborative project Summer in the Projects last April.
With wins coming from every angle, it was only right for Mustard to focus his attention on himself, and release his own All-Star affair Perfect Ten this past June. Not only does he receive noteworthy assists from marquee stars such as Migos, Meek Mill, Future, and Young Thug, he also linked back up with his fallen friend in Nipsey Hussle for their soothing outro.
“That was the last song we did,” Mustard tells Billboard. “It was like two months before he died. It always takes him a long time to do verses. Anybody gon’ tell you that. I don’t know what made us kind of connect that night.” As fate would have it, that would be their last collaboration, before his untimely demise last March, where he shot and killed outside of his Marathon Clothing store.
Though the loss continues to pain Mustard, he admits he’s in a comfortable space in his life — though he craves more. “I strive for generational success, generational wealth for my kids and their kids,” he says. “And just like making sure my family’s taken care of because it ain’t over. I’m not so rich that I could stop right now. I’m only 29. I got a long way to go: more houses and more fuckin’ investments.”
Below, Mustard speaks to Billboard about his new album, the difference between producing and beat making, what makes NAV a special artist, his last encounter with Nipsey Hussle and the genius of Kanye West.
How would you compare Mustard from 2014’s10 Summers to Perfect Ten as far as your headspace as a man and as a producer?
I think that was a mixtape and this is an album, so I think this is my first album ever. That’s how I look at all this stuff. I see it as my first album because I’m on my own label, all my business is in the right path and owned by me and right at this point. I would say — and I hate when people say this — that this is my best work ever. The reason why I say that is because I took my time with every song. Before, I was young and I was doing whatever, like, “Oh, this sounds fire” or “This ratchet. Let’s do it” or whatever. Those “Surface” drums took me at least… I had that song before Ella’s album was done. I never did the drums.
So you were just sitting on it.
I’ve got a couple of Ella’s songs that I keep for myself, so it’s like, when I drop my album, this is my song that I love. I got some songs like that and this is one of them. I switched [“Surface”] last minute because it felt good, and Ty [Dolla $ign] had sent back the verse and I didn’t have Ty on the album at all. I was like, “I need to have Ty on my album.” He sent back an amazing verse, and I called Ella and was like, “Ty sent me an amazing-ass verse.” I sent it to her and she said, “You right.” That forced me to have to do the drums, because there were no drums when Ty did his part… It took me all that time plus two days in the studio to figure out the drums.
That’s the gift and curse of being a perfectionist. Despite it taking you that long, that song came out as a banger.
That’s where Mary J. Blige “All Night Long” and so many other songs’ inspiration came from. Me personally, I don’t like doing songs that are remakes or interpolations that can’t compete with the old song, so I won’t even touch it, and I don’t really like doing sampled songs and stuff like that. But when I do, I want to make sure I give it my best.
In the beginning of “Ballin’,” I think I heard a sample. What was it?
It’s “Get It Together” by 702.
A lot of producers would get lost in the sample, but you gave it a whole different spin.
With what people are doing now, you listen to the radio and you have all these guys who are calling themselves producers and they’ll take what’s old and put a rapper on it. It’s like the same beat. You didn’t do anything. You just gave them this beat and put some drums on top of what the older generation did and said, “Oh. this is a hit.” I don’t really give credit to stuff like that. If you get a hit out of it, more power to you, but I can’t just do that. It’s kind of disrespectful in my opinion.
Why do you think Kanye was so big to us? We were talking about “Through the Wire” today. Look what he did to that song. There’s so many samples and chops and how he did it was what made him Kanye.
But there was a point where with Kanye, a lot of critics used to say, “He’s just a sample-heavy producer.”
It’s so hard to do that, to put those samples together. I bought the keyboard that he got because I love Kanye and what he does production-wise. That shit ain’t easy. Chopping up samples and putting them together. That’s talent. Even for me, that’s hard to piece it together. People gon’ say what they wanna say, but I personally think that when you get a song you just — it’s like a remix and you just putting new words on it. To me, that’s not production and it’s not pushing our culture forward.
I remember Timbo did an interview with HOT 97, and he was speaking about producers versus beatmakers. And he was saying how like he feels this new generation of producers are moreso beat makers because they’re not taking their time to craft a song together. What’s your thoughts on that, since you’re a young veteran yourself at this point?
I think he’s right. You got certain dudes that’s really producing, [and that’s] like a disservice to us. People that’s really taking the time and spending two days on the record. You got people like Metro [Boomin] that’s going crazy, switching the 808 patterns three and four times in one song. I pay attention to that. Some people know people really don’t pay attention to like that. I pay attention to that because I’m producer and I like to hear where he’s going with it. I feel like he got best drums in the game to me. Then, you got like Southside going crazy as well.
But then there’s certain people that just, like I said, grab an old song, put a beat on top of put some drums on top of the kick and the snap and saying, “Now I produce. I’m better than all these guys.” It’s crazy.
Jermaine Dupri put out a tweet recently where he said he felt like everybody’s using the same artist now on records. The first thing that came to mind is like how a lot of producers are taking on that artist tag, so you might see a Murda Beatz say “I’m gonna get Migos on this” while you see other producers like you or Khaled grab them for your own records. How do you specifically try to separate yourself from the pack of producers using the same artists?
I don’t think about shit like that. I fuck with who fucks with me. If you don’t, that’s okay. I’ll be all right. There’s only so many rappers. There’s only so many producers that actually have successful artists or even can break artists. That’s not an easy task, to break an artist. I’ma use whoever I like. I think it’s been like that, though. Even back when they were doing it. I mean, he was bringing up his own artists as well.
So errrybody gonna use the same artists on they single and expect for it to be big ? —-??
— Jermaine Dupri (@jermainedupri) June 28, 2019
With Ella, I remember last year I spoke to you and you said she’s one of the greatest artists of our time. So with that being said, at what point did you know that she was going to be a star in her early career?
With Ella, I just believed in it from the gate. I always had a vision of what I what I would do, but I didn’t know it was gonna be like this. I didn’t know how big it could go, but I just believed in her. She’s super talented, and I just knew the way I needed to maneuver with her music and I knew we didn’t have a lot of that music [in the mainstream right now] — just like I knew when I came in the game that we didn’t have 90 BPM records. I’m like, I’m gonna just do that, and that’s what I know the most, so I’m gonna just go to that.
I want to get back to the album and why you titled it Perfect Ten. I saw when you were talking with Apple Music, you explained the importance of the title.
The meaning behind it is like my life. Me and a couple of my friends were talking about it, and one of the homies was like, “You should call it Perfect Ten.” We were all in circles and I was like, “Y’all just did this? I just did that. I just paid my house off.” Not on some bragging shit, but just telling my friends y’all gotta start [making moves]. Like, I just paid my house off, and I’m the youngest. You gotta get to that. With that, they were like, I should name my album Perfect Ten — because it’s like, you got all the cars, the jewelry, the house, you got your sister a house, you got an artist, you won a Grammy, this is probably the best year of your life. At first I was iffy, but then, it made sense.
If everything is everything is so perfect, how do you maintain your creative juices and your competitive streak knowing that you have it all?
That’s the thing. It’s not perfect. This isn’t the most perfect position I could ever be in. At this moment, right now, I’m making this album and it feels like my life is perfect. Sometimes, I wake up like something’s gonna go wrong, because it’s going too good. You buy one piece of jewelry and it’s like, “Damn, what else I gotta get?” It’s a continuous rat race. All the time, there’s something new to get.
I find it crazy because you did the 03 Greedo project this year and you were working with Ella last year on her debut album. How did you manage to squeeze out and flush out those 10 reocrds knowing you had multiple projects in your hands?
I was just doing multiple projects. I did the YG stuff, I did a lot of Tyga’s stuff. I just was working and at one point while I was doing YG’s shit, I was just in another room working on my album. I will go from room to room, and I went over there to drop “Go Loko” off, Quavo was doing “100 Bands” over here, Future’s there and I’m knocking on his door. I was just being persistent with everybody like, “Yo, I need this and I need this.” And it just came together.
Speaking of Future, him and Roddy Ricch are the only two on the album with solo tracks. What made you decide to give Future and Roddy their own their own tracks?
Well Future, we were in the studio and we just did the whole song. He did whole song in front of me. It took maybe an hour. I just stood there. I pulled up some beats and he was like, “I’m gonna do this one.” but he end up doing [“Interstate 10”]. At first, I thought “Interstate 10” was gonna be my intro, but then, I was like, I can’t have “Interstate 10” be my intro because I feel like it needed to be in the middle of the album. I wanted my intro to be just super energetic. With Future, the reason why he got his own track is because he did it and I was like, “I’m not putting anybody else on the song.” I like it like this, I’m sure people will like it and respect just a DJ Mustard and Future track. With Roddy, it’s the same thing. He just did it.
“Ballin’” is probably top three on the whole album for me.
That’s what Kanye said. He was like, “This is — this is your best one!” I played him the whole album and he liked it and he was like, “That Roddy one?”
Which collaboration surprised you the most and which was your favorite to put together?
I like “Baguettes In The Face” because me and NAV were just vibing in the studio to it. It was our creation. I was telling Cash like, “Yo, I gotta get NAV on this. I like NAV and I like his music.” I wanted to be the first guy to get NAV on an uptempo beat because I’ve never heard him on one. I played him some shit that he usually does and he was like, “Bro, I need to do something that’s like your stuff.” So I pulled up the beat and he’s like, “I’m gonna try it.” He tried it and it was fire. I sent it to Carti and I sent it to A Boogie and they sent it right back. Super easy.
A lot of people, when they see NAV, they’re not too crazy about his artistry, but what is it about him to you that is dope?
His voice. NAV’s voice is incredible to me. I just think he’s hard. “Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.” Like he can get in the pocket. Everybody got their own pockets — like, Quavo was a guy that can get in the pocket and say, “Give me the beat and I’ll ride it like a jetski.” What made you say that? I have no idea why you why you said that. But a NAV is the same way, and I think that for me I just want a different sound on my beats.
My usual is to go to our West Coast artists and do our west coast thing all the time. I wanted to do that this time but I had 10 songs I want to get a West Coast artists that you never heard like a Roddy or 1TakeJay that’s coming up and he ain’t the biggest artist in the world yet. He deserved it and he killed it. I brought him in the studio and was like, “This is what I want you to do.” He came back like, “I wrote it” and he did it. I was like, “Perfect.” It was easy.
Do you keep it 100 with artists in the studio? Like have you ever told someone when his or her verse was not good?
I tell YG that all the time. Whenever he does some bullshit, I’m like, “You gotta re-do this.” And if it’s not good enough and we’re not that close, then I just let you do what you do. It just won’t make my project. Normally, the guys that I deal with, I don’t really have those type of problems. They’re usually are cool with me friend-wise, to where it’s like I can tell them that. I wouldn’t tell somebody necessarily new in the studio like, “This is horrible.” I don’t tell my friends that. I just be like, “I think you should re-do your verse. It could be better. Just go harder than what it is. I’ve heard better verses from you.”
They be coolin’. They gon’ tell me if I do some bullshit. Sometimes, YG would coach me into making some shit that I wouldn’t have made, and it turns out good so he starts to believe he’s a producer.
Was “Go Loko” like that?
Hell no! I brought that and I told them n—as they needed to do it. But like “BPT,” which is one of me and YG’s most iconic songs, is grungy as shit. I hated that beat, and YG was like, “Bro, you are tripping. This shit is fire.” But I just did the beat and I just left and came back and he did the song and it was fire. Even “Big Bank.” I’m like, “It’s missing something, bro. It’s missing something.” I think about like people gon’ say. He’s like, “No, just leave it like this.”
Speaking of past collaborations, you and Nipsey cooked up a bunch of records together. What makes the outro so special to you and so unique from past collaborations to you two had?
That was the last song we did. It was like two months before he died. It always takes him a long time to do verses. Anybody gon’ tell you that. I don’t know what made us kind of connect that night. I posted something on my Instagram and I was like, “Public service announcement: has anyone seen Nip? Tell him I’m looking for him.” We had already been talking before that, but we just couldn’t get in the studio. And it’s always like that with me and him. It’s like, “Yo. Come on. I need you on my album.”
Before this, my first album, we came to the studio in Vegas and he knocked out two songs one night and I was just like, “Oh my god, I never seen you like this.” But this time, I posted the video like, “Where you at?” and he was like, “I’m finna come right now.” This song was for a thing. I don’t remember if it was for a collab project that we were doing, but it was like, “I want you to produce my next thing. My next whatever, I want one of my albums to be produced by you.”
In the video, he’s saying — whatever you want me to do, just put up the beat. I’m gonna do it. Put your producer hat on and you tell me what you think I should do. In the video, that was a song that we did and I had the “I’m a survivor” [lift]. That was like the theme to that Instagram clip. I don’t know why we did that. It was just random. So when he passed, I was like, this was the last song. It was another beat that he told me to do that I did. He just never rapped on it. So when he did that song, I’m like, “Damn, I don’t have a second verse. I gotta have my boy and I don’t have a second verse.” And I was just like, “What would he like?” I just put interviews as verses. I used interviews that I thought were the craziest or most tight shit or the type of shit that I thought would be good.