It's Friday night and the corner of Rivington and Ludlow Streets in New York's Lower East Side is teeming with post-college kids in button-downs, micro-miniskirts and Greek life enthusiasm. The line to get into the lounge at the trendy Hotel on Rivington increases by the minute, but unbeknownst to anyone inside, the man responsible for much of its music is next door at a nondescript Japanese restaurant.
"I always liked the club, so that was my main focus," DJ Mustard says. "That's what meant the most to me and why my music is the way it is now."
In recent years, no one has defined the sound of hip-hop more than this man, Dijon McFarlane, the 24-year-old Los Angeles producer whose minimal, club-tailored beats have made him one of the genre's most in-demand producers. Stay at a party or turn on any hip-hop radio station for more than 15 minutes and you'll probably hear one of his tracks – or one that sounds just like them.
"His sound is genius," says Ebro Darden, morning show host on New York hip-hop radio station Hot 97. "He uses already familiar ideas and sonics from Nineties club/dance/hip-hop but applies new hip-hop sensibilities. He's defined the current hit music sound to an extent. Almost every hit song either sounds like he did it, or he actually did it. He's unstoppable."
Breaking out nationally with Tyga's 2011 hit "Rack City," Mustard has built his career on handclaps, finger snaps and simple synth lines that draw equally from the manic shouts of Lil Jon and the G-funk of Dr. Dre.
En route from the restaurant to the 1,500-capacity Webster Hall — where Mustard will perform later that night — the producer boils down his style to two words: "simple and unique."
"There's not too much to it," he adds when pressed. "I'm big on simplicity. I'm not too much on all the extra instruments." This simplicity can be heard on everything from 2 Chainz' "I'm Different" and YG's "My Nigga" to Kid Ink's "Show Me" and Trey Songz' "Na Na" to Mustard's recently released debut solo album 10 Summers.
Growing up in the "family business of DJing," an 11-year-old Mustard would join his cousin, brother and uncle to watch his family DJ various parties. When his uncle was forced to miss a gig, Mustard filled in, spinning funk and soul classics like Frankie Beverly and Maze's "Before I Let Go." "It was an accident," recalls the producer-DJ. "He had to go home and was like, 'Yo, I want you to play songs that you think that they might like while I go to the house.' Afterwards, the person who hired us goes, 'Your nephew is really talented' and called my mom to tell her how amazing I was."
Sweet 16s and house parties would follow, with Mustard picking up all the gigs his uncle was too busy to take himself. When his friend, rapper YG, needed some beats, Mustard learned the MPC at age 18 while "basically living" with the rapper, who had a studio in his apartment. Underground hits like "I'm Good" and "Bitches Ain't Shit" would follow, and by the time "Rack City" was released in December of 2011, Mustard abandoned his initial dream of being a DJ Drama-esque mixtape king.
"When I got my first check from 'Rack City,' I was like, 'Damn, I can make this much money making beats?'" says the producer. "When you accomplish getting that money that you was hoping for, though, it became as much about the craft of it and going back into hobby mode. But the first time I heard myself on the radio was 'Rack City,' and we were dancing in the streets."
Armed with a MPC 2500 and music production programs Fruity Loops and Reason, Mustard enlisted Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Big Sean, YG, Young Jeezy and Ty Dolla $ign for 10 Summers, an album that channels Mustard's love for dark music into club-friendly tracks.
The synth lines to songs like "No Reason" ("Some hood shit") and "Giuseppee" (intended for a Kanye West verse but "he was kinda busy") could double as the soundtrack for a Dario Argento horror flick. "Dark music always works in a club," says Mustard, wiping his eyes just below his "10 Summers" face tattoo. "We starting to have more fun now. 10 Summers is me painting my picture of what the West Coast looks like right now. Kendrick was a good kid in a mad city. YG had his crazy life. Now it's my turn."
In 2014, DJ Mustard is hip-hop writ large, even if it's as much the producer's influence as his actual production. When "Fancy," the Iggy Azalea smash produced by the Invisible Men and the Arcade, was released, YG called out its minimal synth lines and repeated background "Heys," claiming the song ripped off DJ Mustard's sound. I ask Mustard if he's flattered by the emulation or if it's a case of "get your own shit."
"It's flattering and get your own shit!" says the producer, right before beginning his set. "You can't complain about everybody that steals your sound. You'll be fighting for years trying to figure out how to make people not steal it. But I think it's true [what YG said]. I don't care. But I'm happy for them. I'm glad they got a hit out of it, at least." An hour later, Mustard will play "Fancy" to rapturous applause.
At this point, DJ Mustard can decide his own future, and the producer hopes to balance more solo albums with the demand from other artists. Though his hip-hop domination looks unchallenged ("Don't Panic," his recent track for French Montana, has already begun climbing the urban radio chart), the producer is looking to expand outside the genre. Earlier this year, Justin Bieber posted a brief clip of himself dancing to a DJ Mustard beat, but Mustard says he still hasn't heard the finished song and is just an "outsider looking in." Earlier this week, Bieber (under the name Bizzle) appeared on R&B singer Khalil's Mustard-produced track "Time for Bed." Rihanna has also enlisted him for up to five songs on her next album. "It's nothing that you ever heard me do," Mustard says cryptically, declining to give details.
Still, being one of the biggest hip-hop producers in the world seems to affect other people more than the man himself. "Pressure?" he says, looking at me quizzically. "I let everybody else think about that. I just get money and make beats and have fun. It's no pressure. I don't feel it at all."