“I can be pretty blunt”, admits veteran US hip-hop producer Mike Dean. He’s talking specifically, in this instance, about how he deals with label A&Rs who try to interfere in his process – but for good measure he also proves the point several times during his interview with MBW.
The question, ‘Are there any artists you’d love to work with?’, for instance, is usually the cue for writers and producers to get themselves into a tizzy as they mentally flick through a wish list of superstars, worrying about who they might leave out as much as who they should put in. Dean simply says, “Not really”.
His answer isn’t, however, down to a lack of imagination or ambition – he’s shown plenty of both in a career that goes back to the nineties. It’s more to do with the fact that he’s already worked with a lot of legends (including Kanye West, Madonna and Beyoncé and, more recently, Travis Scott), and might also be connected to the fact that he has just put out 4:20, the first album under his own name (released on April 20th, see) on his own label, M.W.A., via Platoon.
Dean started out as a musician, most famously playing keyboards (live and on record) for Selena, one of the most influential Mexican-American artists of all time. In the studio, he watched and learned. Soon, he had quit playing in bands and was making beats, mixing, mastering, engineering and, eventually, producing at the forefront of the Dirty South sound, with artists like Geto Boys and the group’s breakout solo star, Scarface.
It was whilst working on Scarface’s 2002 album, The Fix, that he first met a hot young (post-Blueprint/pre-car crash) producer/aspirant rapper called Kanye West. That meeting led to a collaborative relationship fuelled by mutual respect that has already thrown up some of the most innovative albums in recent musical history, and which continues to this day.
More recently he found the same Platinum-coated chemistry with Travis Scott (he has more production and writing credits on 2018’s Astroworld than anyone other than Scott himself).
Here, as the second guest in MBW’s new World’s Greatest Producers series (kicked off by Nile Rodgers), he talks about winning the trust of visionary artists, how the role of a producer has changed and how not to get ripped off…
What does a producer do?
I think a producer kind of takes the artist’s idea and makes it as much as it can be. He makes an artist’s dream of what they can sound like come alive.
How much of it do you see as a technical job, related to the process of recording, and how much is in the realm of emotions, or psyche?
I think it’s more psychological than technical, for sure. Sometimes it’s about getting artists to do stuff that they might not feel entirely comfortable doing.
How do you go about that – I guess it’s all about your relationship with the artist?
Yeah, I think so, plus it helps that I’ve been doing it so long that the artists I work with trust me now, they’re happy to follow my lead.
How do you think the role of the producer has changed during your time in the businesses – and, alongside that, how the level of recognition given to producers has changed?
Oh, a lot. Thirty years ago a producer was someone who sat on the coach and directed the recording process, nowadays producers are much more hands on, a lot of times they make a lot of the music, write a lot of the music.
Hip-hop seems to have been at the forefront of that change, why do you think that is?
I think hip-hop is probably the genre where producers are most hands on, in the studio, and since all the other genres are incorporating hip-hop, it’s kind of become the way of everything by default.
What’s the record your proudest of having worked on?
That’s a really hard question. Like, back in the nineties, Smile, by Scarface and 2Pac [1997, No. 12 in the US]; in the 2000s, probably Stronger by Kanye [2007, No. 1 in the US and UK, from the album, Graduation (also No. 1 in the US and UK) and the first Kanye record on which Dean was credited as a producer, having previously contributed to the mixing on The College Dropout and Late Registration]; and in the 2010s it would have to be something with Travis Scott – Stop Trying To Be God, I think [from 2018’s Astroworld, another US No.1].
Which record has been the biggest challenge to produce?
Kanye records are always difficult technically, because he asks you to jump through a lot of crazy hoops.
Is that something you enjoy?
It’s really cool, yeah. It’s good to break down barriers. Travis and Kanye are both like that, they push you and get the best out of you.
How did you get to meet Kanye and what was it like working with him on those early records when he was still shaping his sound and his persona?
I met him through the records I mixed for Scarface, on his album The Fix , which Kanye produced, and I had a little production on a couple of tracks as well. We actually never met personally during that process, but when he was working on his first mix tape he reached out to me.
What was it like working on those early Kanye records – and what was he like back then?
He was pretty much the same, he knew what he wanted. Every time I offered to produce, he was like, ‘No, I’m a producer, I do all the music, you’re just gonna mix it’. But over the years he slowly became very collaborative.
Why do you think that was?
I think you just build trust over time.
Is it a very different job, producing Kanye, because of his track record as a producer and the singularity of his vision? How do you ensure that you are actually the producer?
I’m really hard-headed. If he doesn’t like something I bring in, I’ll keep pushing it and pushing it because I think it needs to be there. We’ll switch things back in and out of tracks between us over a couple of weeks; I can be pretty determined. I win the odd battle.
“It’s complicated, and delicate; you can’t push people too hard, you know.”
But it’s complicated, and delicate; you can’t push people too hard, you know. Like Madonna, it took a while to get her trust – and now she trusts me so much she won’t do a concert without me checking her sound and making sure everything’s perfect in every city she plays [Dean wrote and produced several tracks on Madonna’s 2015 album, Rebel Heart, and was Sound Designer on the subsequent tour].
It helps to be a good psychologist, I think.
How did you come to work with Travis Scott?
My friend [and fellow producer] Anthony Kilhoffer was listening to his music and he convinced me to check it out. And from there I kind of helped him develop his sound, and he helped me develop some things too, he’s a very visionary artist. I think we both pushed each other. He’s on a Kanye sort of level. He’s studied all the greats, learned something from all of them and brought his own thing to the table as well.
What would your advice be to a young producer just starting out?
Learn as much as you can about the business, as much as you do about the technical stuff. A lot of times new producers are sometimes blind to the business side, and they get screwed over pretty good because they’re just thinking about the music.
Do you speak from bitter experience?
Oh yeah, from experience.
Where for you does production end and A&R begin? And what makes a good A&R person for you?
[Laughs] Hmmmm, interesting. I think a bad A&R person is someone who gets too involved – just let the artist be the artist, you know.
Does that happen to you much or are you a level now where that doesn’t happen to you?
It’s kind of 50/50, depends who the artist is. I tend to steer away from the ones that annoy me. Plus, I can be pretty blunt.
You’ve just put out your own album, 4:20, on your own M.W.A. label. what prompted that move and why have you done it through Platoon?
Well, Platoon because they have a really good track record supporting indie artists and indie labels.
I’ve wanted to put out an album forever, but I’m always busy working on someone else’s project. But when the world went into quarantine, things slowed down, and I started doing live streams, like 14 days on Instagram; I recorded all of them and that turned into my album.
Is this something you’ll continue in parallel with your production career?
Yeah, definitely. I might even ramp the production down slightly and do more of my own music.
What’s next on the production side?
I’ll be working on Travis Scott’s next record soon, and I’m doing some stuff with Kanye – just the regulars, you know.
Are there any artists you’d particularly like to produce that you haven’t worked with yet?
Not really [laughs]. I’ve pretty much worked with everybody.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the industry?
I think just generally I’d want the business side to be a bit more transparent and a bit more above board.
MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series is supported by Hipgnosis Songs Fund. Traded on the London Stock Exchange, Hipgnosis was established to maximise the value of music… while also proving that value to institutional investors. Music Business Worldwide