Producer of the Year: Mike Dean Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Shaping Hip-Hop

on December 18, 2018, 10:30am

All the media in this article are songs Dean contributed to in 2018, a small sampling of the writer and producer’s eclectic and game-changing work behind the scenes.

Mike Dean might just outlast all of us. The veteran producer has survived countless trends and changes in taste. In fact, he’s been one of the innovators of those movements. A native of Houston, Dean got his start as a young man playing keyboards for Selena, one of the most influential Mexican-American music artists of all time. Soon he moved into hip-hop, producing for Scarface, UGK, and many more. Dean’s beats helped define the Dirty South sound of the early ‘90s. Since then, he’s worked with Kanye West many times, first as a mixer on College Dropout and Late Registration, then as a producer or co-executive producer on everything that followed. He’s said that he and West are “like a band.”

Dean has been a hidden hand behind some of the most vibrant musical movements of the last two decades, and 2018 was one of his most accomplished years yet. Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD achieved widespread acclaim for the ambition and originality of its beats. Dean was a big part of that success, producing three tracks and co-producing many more. Perhaps even more impressive was his work on the Jackson Hole series: five albums released in five weeks, linked by their short length but musically distinct, all co-executive produced with Kanye West. Pusha T’s Daytona was one of the best hip-hop albums of the year, and all of ye, Kids See Ghosts, NASIR, and K.T.S.E. were interesting and worthy of critical discussion.

In conversation, Dean has a voice like crushed gravel. He talks about his musical family. “My mom and dad had old records I used to go through, old jazz records,” he says. “My brother and sister both played. My sister played piano, my brother played saxophone. It made me want to do it.”

But when he was starting out, he was aiming for a slightly different career. “I always wanted to be a musician. I was a keyboard player, multi-instrumental musician. I always wanted to be an artist, a keyboard artist. I was in a band before that. I was in rock bands and shit.”

Becoming a producer, he says, happened in a “less planned way. You know we recorded with Selena. I started learning what producing was. At some point, I quit the rest of the bands and just started playing piano bars and making beats,” he recalls. “That was when I started getting into hip-hop, all that shit.”

The way he makes music is similarly unplanned. “I just start playing things and shit happens,” he explains. “I don’t really hear it in my head or anything. I might have half an idea of what it might become. I don’t hear it until it comes out of my goddamn fingers, you know?”

His workdays are unstructured. “My routine is pretty laid-back. If I’m on a deadline, it’s like, work the whole time you’re awake. And if I’m not, it’s pretty laid-back. I’ll wake up, hang out for hours, smoke weed, build up to working.” That all changes if he’s on a deadline. Then it’s “16, 18 hours a day. But it’s not all solid work, you know? It’s smoking weed, listening to music. Smoking weed is half the day, probably.”

Dean is a master of the little details of a song: the mix, the balance, the subtle shading that makes music pop. He’s a producer in the classical sense, even as the term “producer” comes to mean more and less than it used to.

“The producer used to be the person that put together the music before computers, put together the musicians, figured out who’s going to play what, did arrangements, all that: Execute the whole record,” he explains. “Now, a producer can be a loose term. Is it somebody that makes the beat and hands it off and never hears the song until it’s on iTunes? They call that a producer, but it’s not really a producer; that’s making a beat. That’s not producing the whole album.”

Dean doesn’t just work with his own beats. He’s good with other people’s beats, too. “I’m the one that’s usually taking people’s stuff that’s half done and working on it. I’m kind of the finisher. I get a lot of people that are upset because I changed something of theirs. But it’s a collaborative thing, and it’s up to the artists how it comes out.”

During our conversation, “collaboration” was one of his most-used words. That’s how he talks about Travis Scott and Kanye West, calling them “the kings of collaboration” and singling out Kanye as someone who “works out how to work with people.” It’s clear how important collaboration is to Dean. “Everybody’s not going to like your ideas. Can you accept that and move on and keep working with them? Some producers will make a part and fall in love with it. If you change it, they get their feelings hurt. You can’t be like that. You can’t be in your feelings and be a collaborative producer.”

For the people who work with Kanye West, being a good collaborator means checking Twitter. That was the case with the Jackson Hole series of albums. Dean had been working with Kanye “doing all these albums for different artists” but without a clear timeline or end date. “One day, I woke up, I checked my Twitter, and I saw we were doing five albums in five weeks.” remembers Dean. “We just had to go in and work our asses off, doing 20-hour days.”

Dean’s got a big personality. When I ask him how he got through 20-hour days, he says, “Smoke a lot of weed,” and when I ask him if he had any goals for the project, he shouted, “History!” and laughed.

We ended our conversation with the adjustments he has made throughout his long career. He thought it was most pronounced in the mixing. Today, songs are “a lot more musical, a lot more bright. I was talking about this the other day, talking about the older producers from the ’90s and how they complain about how the new stuff sounds. You know, I could still make beats like I did in the ’90s,” he explains. “I don’t believe in sticking to your own era. You should always progress with the times. I could make beats like I did for the old records, but it would sound funny now, sound really dull and really muddy. You got to keep up with the times, the devices that are coming out. You got to mix for iPhones, iPads, laptop speakers.”

The key to making it work, he says, is starting with a live instrument. “It makes it more authentic than something made completely on a computer. There’s nothing like a real piano. No fake piano will sound like a real piano. It has an emotion to it when you play it. It vibrates, it makes you feel things, as opposed to a keyboard that plugs into a computer. Same thing with old analog synths,” he continues. “Find something that’s really vibrating as opposed to coming from speakers on a computer.”

It takes a great deal of skill to make a laptop speaker sound like a vibrating piano string, but certainly that’s not the only reason Dean has managed to stay relevant across so many musical paradigms. Before he went, I asked him again how he manages to keep things sounding fresh. He thinks it might have something to do with his unstructured work day and the importance he places on spontaneity.

“I try to do shit differently all the time,” he says. “I start from scratch every time.”

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