Mike Dean reflects on jam sessions with Scarface, becoming a Twitch streamer, and the moment Kanye West’s “Hold My Liquor” was born.
He’s been at the center of countless classic movements. Early in his career, Dean became the in-house engineer at Rap-A-Lot Records, where he developed creative chemistry with the legendary Scarface. Through their friendship — and the many albums made along the way — Dean found himself on Kanye West‘s radar after impressing Ye with his mix on “Guess Who’s Back.” What followed was a whirlwind ascent into a new era of production, fueled by vintage synthesizers and potent marijuana.
To go in-depth on Dean’s storied history would take far more than a few paragraphs. Instead, take a second to check out a transcription of our recent conversation –unconventionally scored by the faint sound of a beat-in-the-making– recorded shortly after the release of his recent instrumental album 4:22.
As per, the interview is edited for length and clarity.
Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images
HNHH: How you doing?
Mike Dean: Good, man.
That’s the home studio setup right there?
Nice. I like the blue lights.
Thank you. That’s my favorite color for lights.
I know you’re a busy man — what are you working on right now?
A bunch of stuff. Today I’m working with this kid named AJ Mitchell, a pop singer. Lot of shit in the chamber. The regular artists coming back around for another round you know.
Are you mixing, mastering, doing production?
Production for him. I’m executive producing the album. It’s been like six months you know.
Dope. Taking it back for a second. Can you walk me through the Texas landscape and how you first started getting into hip-hop?
Yeah. I started working with these rappers called the Def Squad in a small town where I’m from in Texas. They’re like my first exposure to producing hip hop. Before that I was into funk, you know P-funk with all the synthesizers and shit. Those guys exposed me to turntablism, scratching, sampling. When I started doing that, it was when The Geto Boys were first starting to bubble up. I’d hired the Geto Boys engineer to mix our album and then I met him. A year later he referred me to be the in-house engineer at Rap-A-Lot.
You were playing synths beforehand?
Yeah, I’ve been playing synths since I was fourteen.
Was it a big jump going from that style of music to how the Geto Boys were working?
Yeah, it was more sample-based when I first started. The first thing I ever played was keyboards and guitar for Big Mello. People started hearing around town that at the label I played instruments and shit. They started hiring me to take away the sample or else to build on the sample, you know. That’s kind of where my career started in producing.
I know that the Geto Boys are often credited with spearheading the Horrorcore movement in hip-hop to an extent. What was your reaction to hearing lyrics like that?
Oh, I thought it was great. It was kind of entertaining, funny. The first album I worked on for Rap A Lot was Bushwick Bill, the horrorcore king. Ganksta N-I-P was writing a lot of that stuff. He was a good friend, he still is. He’s a crazy rapper.
You also connected with Scarface and became a pretty trusted collaborator of his, contributing to a lot of classic albums. What about his artistry and lyricism really connected with you?
I mean his lyrics were immaculate. He always had something good to say and still does. He still does, I just talked to him the other day. He inspired me a lot cause he was like a producer. He played the keys and guitar. All his uncles and shit played so he grew up playing instruments. We’d push each other making beats because he’d play the guitar, then I’d try, and vice versa.
“[Scarface] always had something good to say and still does. He still does, I just talked to him the other day. He inspired me a lot cause he was like a producer. He played the keys and guitar. All his uncles and shit played so he grew up playing instruments. We’d push each other making beats because he’d play the guitar, then I’d try, and vice versa.”
You guys ever jam together with a full band setup?
Yeah. I’d be on the keyboard, he’d be on guitar, bass. We’d take turns on the drum machine.
That’s cool. Scarface producing — I didn’t know that.
He’s really good.
I wanted to ask about Scarface’s The Fix specifically. What was your experience like working on that one and later seeing the response? It got five mics in The Source when it dropped. Was that a meaningful project for you?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve got a few albums with five mics, it’s kind of cool. [Laughs] That album was whenever Scarface was president of Def Jam South. He spent a lot of time in New York running the label. That’s when he started working with Jay-Z more. That’s where he met Kanye West — that’s where Kanye actually learned about me. He heard “Guess Who’s Back” and was like “who mixed that?” Then he sent his people out to find me. That’s when I started mixing for him.
Marc Piasecki/Getty Images. Pusha T, Big Sean, D’Banj, & Mike Dean circa 2012.
What was your reaction to first hearing those Kanye beats that he was doing for the Roc-a-Fella era?
They were fire. Chopping the samples, the MPCs, old-school. Dilla-inspired, No-ID-inspired.
Who would you say are some of your favorite producers from that era, aside from Ye?
Dilla, No-ID, Just Blaze, me.
Nah, for sure though. That was a great era though I really looked back on the late 90s, early 2000s as being kind of a special time. At least for me. That’s kind of when I was growing up, discovering new artists and seeing the game unfold. I actually had The College Dropout on CD.
Right. Yeah, I mixed a few songs on there. Basically inspired the sound for the mixing.
Which songs did you work on for that album? Were you at the studio with Ye at the time?
At first, he’d come to my house in Texas and mix. Then I started meeting up with him out in LA, New York. I’m not sure what I worked on. I worked on “Jesus Walks,” I don’t think I got credit for that. “Workout Plan.” I mastered “Through the Wire”.
“At first, [Kanye would] come to my house in Texas and mix. Then I started meeting up with him out in LA, New York. I’m not sure what I worked on. I worked on “Jesus Walks,” I don’t think I got credit for that. “Workout Plan.” I mastered “Through the Wire.””
It seems a lot of people credit Dark Twisted Fantasy as being Ye’s magnum opus. I was just wondering, do you agree with that assessment and if not, do you feel there’s an album that might deserve more praise?
I mean Yeezus, obviously. Yeezus is the most underrated album for him. One of my favorites really.
Yeah, I imagine you worked pretty heavily on that one. I think there’s a lot of your signatures on there.
Exactly, I worked on every song on that album.
Do you have a song on there that you favor?
“Hold My Liquor” for sure. That’s the one I kind of produced on my own. Had the most to do with, you know.
Who’s idea was it to pair Chief Keef with Justin Vernon?
It was my idea to put Justin Vernon on there. There’s a Memory Moog, it’s a really rare synthesizer. We kept going in. And every day when I get there I would just start playing chords on the Memory Moog to set a vibe. By the third day that Vernon came around, and I was still playing those chords and he just started “I can hold my liquor” cause we were all drinking champagne, smoking weed. He just turned it into a fucking song. It was fucking amazing.
“It was my idea to put Justin Vernon on there. There’s a Memory Moog, it’s a really rare synthesizer. We kept going in. And every day when I get there I would just start playing chords on the Memory Moog to set a vibe. By the third day that Vernon came around, and I was still playing those chords and he just started “I can’t hold my liquor” cause we were all drinking champagne, smoking weed. He just turned it into a fucking song. It was fucking amazing.”
That solo is incredible too.
Yeah? Thank you.
LISTEN: Kanye West ft. Chief Keef & Justin Vernon – Hold My Liquor
How do you feel about the way guitar is being used in hip-hop production these days?
Recently, people have been really bringing it back. Like Omer [Fedi]. Omer’s been killing it on the guitars. We actually produced the last Iann Dior track together. I’m glad they’re bringing guitar back. It’s a little pop for me, but…
Do you have a favorite guitarist of all time?
Probably Stevie Ray Vaughn for all work he did with Bowie.
Are you big fan of Bowie?
Yeah, that prog-rock shit. I really get a lot of inspiration from that genre.
It shows your solo work. I was listening to 4:22, it’s that sort of music you can get lost in — it takes you on a journey.
The whole album — besides four of the tracks I put together that you can tell were obviously produced — the rest is just a live stream on Twitch.
Oh shit. You were making the album on stream?
Track 25, “Challenger” you know that one?
Before I would start my stream, every ten minutes I would drop a four-on-the-floor kick drum for three minutes, break for five minutes, and just hit record. When that kick came in, I’d sequence the bass line live on the stream. I didn’t overdub, I didn’t fix anything, it’s just a straight-up stream. I was doing that stream and I had a million views on the stream. I was tripping. I made two hours of music that sounded like finished music, it was great. People work for a year to make that much music and I just made it in two hours. It kinda trips me out sometimes.
I guess you’re enjoying the Twitch streamer life?
Yeah, definitely. It’s a new addiction.
How many times a day are you asked about Travis Scott‘s release dates and secret intel?
Not much lately. I’ve been kinda chilling.
I know you guys have been in the studio working on some stuff. Can you walk me through your response to seeing how AstroWorld was received when it first dropped in 2018?
Everybody just really gravitated to it and showed loved. Everybody just shit their pants. I said ‘you are going to shit your pants.’ I wasn’t lying.
I guess you anticipated that response when you were putting together the album. Did you always know that “Sicko Mode” was going to go on to be a record-breaking hit single?
Not really. You never know until it really drops you know. But once we got the Drake vocals in we were like “yeah this is gonna be good.” Like DJ Khaled jumping in the pool on Instagram.
He’s never found a pool he won’t jump in.
The Cardi B vocals came in.
The last-minute album update. I imagine you know a thing or two about that.
Oh Christ, yeah. I mixed the Megan The Stallion vocals you know. On [Khaled’s] album. That was a super emergency.
The Surgical Summer rollout too.
Yeah, it’s always crazy working on Kanye’s stuff. Even after it’s out we keep updating.
It becomes a living art piece.
Yeah, Exactly. That’s what I’m doing with my album. I’m about to do a deluxe on my album.
Adding new content or revisiting old ones?
I don’t know yet. We’ll figure it out.
Before we wrap, I have to ask — I know you worked with the DPG and the late Nate Dogg. How did that come together and what was it like?
Nate Dogg and Daz and Kurupt were all good friends of mine. You know we all worked together in my era. Daz and Kurupt used to stay in my apartment a lot. Nate Dogg would pull up all the time and do vocals. Family affairs, it was dope.
The way that they moved in the studio, how was it different from the Geto Boys? Were there any similarities or differences in the process?
They were a lot faster writers, you know. I think the Geto Boys really thought about what they were writing. Those guys kinda just plowed across shit. I actually gotta get going, my session is about to get started.
Cool. Enjoy your session, and thanks for taking the time!
Thanks everybody for tuning in to HotNewHipHop.