Mike Dean (center) backstage during the European leg of the Watch The Throne tour last year.
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Mike Dean (center) backstage during the European leg of the Watch The Throne tour last year.
Courtesy of the artist
Producer and engineer Mike Dean has worked with everyone from Kurupt to Devin the Dude, Selena to Z-Ro, Young Jeezy to UGK. In the early 1990s, he helped create the sound of Rap-A-Lot Records and the bones of Dirty South rap.
In 2002, while working on Scarface's The Fix, he mixed a song produced by Kanye West and performed by Scarface, Jay-Z and Beanie Seigel, called "Guess Who's Back." Kanye liked his mix so much, he asked Dean to work on his solo debut, College Dropout. Over the past 10 years, Dean and Kanye have worked together more and more, until they've reached the point where, Dean says, "Me and Kanye are like a band."
Dean spoke to Microphone Check hosts Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley about playing onstage with Kanye, the best song in the world and his piano teacher, Jane Ambuhl from Lake Jackson, Texas.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: You've worked with a lot of notable hip-hop artists. Geto Boys, Mike Jones, UGK — just to name a couple. It's a pleasure to have you up here.
MIKE DEAN: Thank you.
MUHAMMAD: You've worked with — at least from a New Yorker's perspective — from the side of hip-hop that is massive, that I think really had to fight hard to get theirs. Where you from?
DEAN: From Houston area. I'm from the country country, really.
MUHAMMAD: You know what I'm sayin'? The people need to know this because that's — you were born in the South, 1965. What was the background like? What was your childhood like?
DEAN: I was a DOW Chemical baby. My dad designed chemical plants for DOW Chemical. And he died when I was a kid, so I was like — I always said I would never work in chemical plants or do any of that kind of s—-. So I got into music.
MUHAMMAD: Was music always something that carried away from that? That had to be a difficult situation.
DEAN: Yeah. Music and motorcycles was my thing when I was a kid.
MUHAMMAD: When you say —were you repairing motorcycles? What were you doing?
DEAN: I raced motocross; I raced for Suzuki when I was a kid.
MUHAMMAD: You got into music at what age?
DEAN: I started playing piano when I was like eight years old
MUHAMMAD: What kind, classical?
DEAN: Yeah, classical. Straight.
MUHAMMAD: Did you have a teacher?
DEAN: Yeah, I had the same teacher, Ms. Ambuhl, for 18 years, something like that.
DEAN: Not 18 years — like 15. I kept going to her even when I was like 20, yeah.
MUHAMMAD: So you were dedicated. Was music always part of your life plan?
DEAN: Yeah. My sister played piano, my brother played sax, so it was like they all inspired me to play music .
MUHAMMAD: You play together?
DEAN: No, we never played together much; always did our own thing.
MUHAMMAD: What were some of your musical heroes from early age?
DEAN: Early age, like Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, like old rock s—-. All the old prog-rock stuff.
KELLEY: What'd you play with your teacher?
DEAN: We played all like Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart — just standard stuff. It's cool. I played bassoon in orchestra also. That was my main instrument for like 10, 12 years.
MUHAMMAD: Yo, you're ridiculously talented. It's no wonder. I mean just, everything that you've done and actually seeing you live a couple of times. Just to hear those sorts of things ... So, you're listening to Black Sabbath, probably Vangelis, all that Deep Purple, right? How'd you get into hip-hop? What was the first hip-hop track you heard?
MUHAMMAD: I was like, really? They time travelin'?
DEAN: It was a group called Def Squad. This is like 1989? It was just a local group in Freeport, Texas, like by Houston, and I met the guy in a music store where I bought equipment at. And he said, "Oh, you can play that?" I had a drum machine and s—-. So we went and made my first hip-hop song. It's whenever all the New York hip-hop was popping off.
I was all into P-Funk back then, you know, funk music. I was friends with George [Clinton], back since I was 16 or something?
MUHAMMAD: How'd that happen?
DEAN: I met Mike Hampton — the guitar player, you know, the guy with the diaper? I met Mike Hampton when I was like, 16. He liked me a lot, started bringing me around. When Bernie Worrell left, I was supposed to play keyboards for him, but I was making $300 bucks more a week than they offered me, playing for Selena. So I stayed with Selena.
KELLEY: You played with Selena? What?
MUHAMMAD: I'm scratching my head right now.
DEAN: I made her first record, and I taught her how to sing in tune, gave her more musical taste than her family could possibly have.
KELLEY: That's crazy.
MUHAMMAD: That is crazy.
KELLEY: I had that album on a tape.
DEAN: Like when she'd be singing and she'd sing flat, I'd hit a note on my keyboard real loud on stage to be like, "OK ... ding ding ding." I worked with her since she was like 8 until she was 13.
Me and her dad had a big falling out and I split. They wouldn't let her sing English music and I was like y'all are wasting her.
MUHAMMAD: So you're friends with George Clinton at the age of 16 — you've seen, and done, a lot obviously then.
DEAN: First time I smelled cocaine burning. I was like, "What the f—- is that? What are they doing in the bathroom?" I was like 16. I didn't smoke weed, I didn't do anything; I was straight.
MUHAMMAD: I was just curious — a lot of people who get into music can look back on a moment and know — this specific event happened and you knew you were going to make music and that was going to be it, the end.
DEAN: I was like, 10 years old.
MUHAMMAD: What happened?
DEAN: I just used to watch — remember those old variety shows? Like Sonny and Cher? My favorite was Captain and Tennille. Remember that s—-? The dude with this little keyboard? That inspired me to want do that s—-. I watched and be like, "That looks a lot better than working in the chemical plant." Looks like a cool way to make a living, you know?
MUHAMMAD: What was the first thing that you did that solidified that moment?
DEAN: Probably when I started with Selena. I graduated from high school, I took off with her like the day I graduated — went on the road touring, made her first song on the radio.
MUHAMMAD: What did that feel like?
DEAN: Oh, it was great. Back then — I mean, it's so small now looking back on it, but it was a big thing back then.
MUHAMMAD: When you made your first hip-hop song, was it something that you were mimicking or was it something ...
DEAN: Yeah, we were just listening to the old Rick Rubin s—-. Trying to make s—- like that without an 808. We didn't know what an 808 was. We didn't use drum machines for a long time, it was all samplers. We just put sounds in there. You know N.O. Joe? He produced all the Geto Boys stuff with me, and he was the first guy that came to Houston with a drum machine, had a MPC. We were all like, whoa. Before that, we made everything with just a sampler and one keyboard.
MUHAMMAD: At that point then were you trying to establish your own sound in terms of repping Houston?
DEAN: I always try to be different than everything. Trying to put a lot of classical influences — you can hear that on all the old Rap-A-Lot stuff, a lot of classical piano and chords like that.
MUHAMMAD: What was your favorite project from Rap-A-Lot?
DEAN: Back then? Probably Untouchable, Scarface. That was the biggest record and probably the best record. Yeah.
KELLEY: What's it like to work with Scarface?
DEAN: It's cool. He's a real talented, psychotic guy. He's still probably one of my favorite rappers: Him, Kanye and Jay, Kurupt.
DEAN: Yeah. We was there when they recorded it, then after Pac died, we re-made the beat again, 'cause the beat was kind of crap that they rapped on. 'Cause Pac would rap on anything. He wanted to get his lyrics out before he got killed. He knew he was dying, he was kind of going for it, trying to record as much as possible. So he didn't get lost in the minutiae of beats. That's why you hear him rapping all over all kinds of crap.
MUHAMMAD: I love Scarface. He's such a musical ...
DEAN: Yeah, he plays all the instruments. I'm about to get with him and work with him this summer.
MUHAMMAD: That's awesome.
DEAN: Nice guy.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, very nice.
DEAN: He came up to New York a couple months ago. We went out to dinner, hung out a few times. Good to see the guy.
DEAN: That's one of my favorites. I kept him out of jail with that song, actually.
KELLEY: What do you mean?
DEAN: It's a true story, the song. He called me and said, "Man, this b—— broke in my house and took my chains and took her kids and took all this s—-. I'mma to kill that b——." I was like, "Man, come over to my house, let's make a song about that b——." He came over and we hung out. We smoked some weed and drank some syrup and made "I Hate You, B——."
KELLEY: And then he went to jail for something else.
DEAN: Yeah, for slapping somebody. Saw him knock out a Guitar Center salesman one time. The day he got out of prison, I took him over to Guitar Center to get some s—-. The dude said he didn't like his last album and he was like "pow!"
KELLEY: He said he didn't like his last album? Why would he do that?
DEAN: I don't know. He got the s—- slapped out of him. It was really crazy.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, 'cause you wouldn't think that somebody would really just put their hands on you for saying ...
KELLEY: It's still so rude!
MUHAMMAD: I'm just saying.
DEAN: Z-Ro and — you know Trae the Truth? Those guys will knock — they'll f—- you up. Ask anybody in Houston.
MUHAMMAD: So we know that you're a therapist. And we know who to send people to when they really got some emotions — some serious emotions they carrying. To keep 'em out of jail we call you up. Make a little ...
KELLEY: Get it out in the studio.
DEAN: You see how Kanye gets it out in the studio. It's like his therapist is the studio.
MUHAMMAD: It sure is, and we love that's he's so vulnerable and allows it.
DEAN: Well, that's what makes it great. "I Am a God" is a great song.
MUHAMMAD: I walked away — that song was on my head the rest of the night.
DEAN: It's that s—- I put in it. It sounds just like, it's like an alarm going in your f—-ing head.
KELLEY: Whose idea was that?
DEAN: Mine. I mean, me and Kanye worked on that track since last year. It started off with him and Daft Punk, and I ended up co-producing the thing — so it's me, him and Daft Punk producing. But there's not much to talk about. It's just an awesome f—-ing song. It's got an 808 and keyboards and just real loud.
I'm making a good showing on the album, though. Probably more production than I've ever done on a Kanye album, or on Watch The Throne. It's good.
DEAN: Yeah, that was a process. She didn't just go into the booth and rap that s—-, you know? They wrote it together. She was rapping, he would listen to her for a while, be like, "Nah, that's not good. Come back." I wasn't there for those sessions, I just heard about 'em. I came in two months into that album.
MUHAMMAD: What was the hardest song to mix off that album, sonically?
DEAN: "Power." "Power" was our "Stronger" of that album. "Stronger" was the hardest song off Graduation; we had like, 14 different people mix it, literally. Each person did 20 mixes on the song. Finally put three different people's mixes together to make it be the one.
"Power" was the same way. I mixed that song for a month, then we sent it off to like, three other people. I think Manny [Marroquin] ended up mixing it. It's like, I mix the song, I get it up to a certain point, and then I send the session to another mixer. And then they just carry it on from there.
MUHAMMAD: So do you obsess over sound for hours and hours and hours?
DEAN: Not like I used to. I'm more fast now.
MUHAMMAD: Do you set up templates and stuff like that?
DEAN: I start fresh every time. When we work on a song recording, we work on the mixes as we're making it. So it's like 95% there. When we pass it off to the mixer, they just have to tweak it, make it a little better.
MUHAMMAD: I like to do a one-word association, 'cause you work with a lot of people.
DEAN: So I just say one word?
MUHAMMAD: One word. We can go into it if you want, if you feel it. Let me just mention a few names: Bushwick Bill.
DEAN: He's the one who — I think — brought the South music more to the forefront. He kind of was the predecessor for all trap music that's out now. The way he used to program his drums.
MUHAMMAD: What do you most miss about him?
DEAN: Just hangin' out and partying with him, really.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, you party. I know you party. I seen you a couple times, man, just backstage.
DEAN: We went hard. We had fun. I quit partying after he died.
MUHAMMAD: That's what's up.
DEAN: It was kind of a wake-up call.
MUHAMMAD: It's important for people to know that.
DEAN: We did more partying than we did music. We were just really good friends. I did "Pocket Full of Stones" with him when he was like 15, 16 something like that. So I knew him for a long time.
MUHAMMAD: Willie D.
DEAN: Crazy. No, Willie D? Militant. Bust your ass, for real.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I can see that. He even has that tone in his voice, too.
DEAN: Yeah, he's serious.
DEAN: The homie. That's one of my best friends. Or he was — we were best friends back in the '90s.
DEAN: Alcohol. Speaking of Yukmouth and E-40 and B-Legit — it was when we were making — what album was that? Lunitik Muzik? We spent four days in the studio with them making one song 'cause they kept getting too f—-ed up. We used to play this game hit it for five, hold it for 10 — you hit the weed for five seconds, hold it for 10. That was B-Legit's s—-.
MUHAMMAD: Have you always made your best music just — nice?
DEAN: Yeah, I'm always in the zone.
MUHAMMAD: Kanye West.
MUHAMMAD: OK, I'mma leave it. 'Cause you've touched on a lot of important records.
DEAN: We were really anti-hip-hop back then.
DEAN: I was.
MUHAMMAD: In what way?
DEAN: I wasn't into hip-hop music at all.
MUHAMMAD: When you say anti-hip-hop ...
DEAN: They started off as hip-hop. You know what I mean — coming up here, getting their songs from Rick Rubin and all that. We tried not to be like hip-hop, we tried to be different. Call it rap, I guess. Gangster rap music, really. It's just funny that I'm so deep in hip-hop now.
MUHAMMAD: Considering where you began?
DEAN: Yeah. East coast, West coast, South — nobody really got along back then. We were all competitors.
MUHAMMAD: When you think of your work — you're woven into the fabric of hip-hop — being anti-hip-hop [back then], do you look at yourself now as you are hip-hop?
DEAN: Yeah. It was kind of a juvenile thing to think "anti-hip-hop," really.
MUHAMMAD: OK. Just want to make sure you didn't go far off the deep end, 'cause you're the blueprint for hip-hop, for a lot of — and people are studying you. And especially with Kanye, you're part of the most important pieces of art, at least for the past two decades.
DEAN: Yeah, he definitely revived my career.
MUHAMMAD: When you think of that — if you're ever in a quiet space, I don't know how much quiet time you get — but do you really look at the fact that you've contributed to historical pieces that's gonna go on [for] maybe a couple hundred years? What do you think about that?
DEAN: I want to be remembered like Beethoven and Mozart — make stuff that's going to matter in a few hundred years, not just some disposable radio s—-.
I think I was the one of the first people that really started playing a lot of live instruments on rap stuff. Before that, it was all samples. I've always been anti-sample. I've never put a sample in a song myself. I always cover up samples and elaborate on samples. I always try to be original.
KELLEY: OK. 'Cause Kanye used to sample a lot.
DEAN: Yeah, it's the same thing as the hip-hop thing. I've turned into a sample fixer, elaborator. Sometimes we'll put a sample in something and build on it, so much that we take the sample away. And it turns into something else.
MUHAMMAD: That's important for the legacy of the children, putting the children through college. I don't know if you have kids.
DEAN: No, but I'm working on a retirement fund, though. Working on having some kids soon.
MUHAMMAD: Instead of putting the money into the people's pockets who you sampled ...
DEAN: Yeah, I've been sampled.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, well, you like those checks, too.
DEAN: It's awesome. Like Ashanti, "Baby." I woke up one morning to go to 7-11 and heard this on the radio. I'm like, "Awesome." Never knew it was going to happen until it was on the radio.
We're talking about making an album one day just of instrumentals for people to sample. Me and Kanye talked about that a couple years ago; just making music to be sampled, basically. Have hundreds of samples per song that people can snip away from.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I can see that. Is there anyone that you were a fan of, and worked with them because you heard their music?
DEAN: Yeah, King Tee was one. I loved that funky piano song, do you remember that?
DEAN: What? Like a funky piano? Oh my god, it's like the best song in the world. Oh my god. You never heard funky piano?
MUHAMMAD: Considering your approach to music has always been to not sample, how has technology changed your approach to production?
DEAN: It's made it a lot easier to manipulate samples and stuff. Like with Ableton we can just lock two different beats together kind of mindlessly.
MUHAMMAD: What is your DAW for preference in recording?
DEAN: Recording, Pro Tools. And then, for making beats — Ableton. Making beats, playing keyboard parts and stuff like that.
MUHAMMAD: I know a lot of kids are getting into Ableton.
DEAN: Fruity Loops also, actually.
MUHAMMAD: You a Fruity Loops dude? How are you a Fruity Loops ...
DEAN: You gotta do everything.
KELLEY: You prefigured everything about trap.
DEAN: Yeah, I can make authentic, just straight-up trap s—-. Sounds just like all that other crap s—-.
MUHAMMAD: Has your work method changed through the years or is it the same?
DEAN: It's about the same. I mean, every time we go into the studio we figure out new ways to do s—-, though. Pushing boundaries.
MUHAMMAD: I heard you set up a studio in New York. Is that true?
MUHAMMAD: You did? Why? Why New York City? There's a lot of places you could have gone.
DEAN: It's the place to be, as far as music.
MUHAMMAD: Why? What's happening in New York City?
DEAN: 'Cause you can be a 10-minute cab ride away from any meeting you want to pull; instead of having to go somewhere. There's so much recording going on here. Although, all the young rappers have kind of went west now.
MUHAMMAD: That's why I asked the question because you could have gone to LA.
DEAN: I've done LA in the '90s, though. Me and Scarface were in LA from '95-'98. Just staying out there. It's where we recorded all those albums at.
MUHAMMAD: Do you feel that there's an energy in New York City, hip-hop wise?
DEAN: Oh yeah. There's always s—- going on.
MUHAMMAD: Dope, so you're doing a compilation?
DEAN: I don't know if it's gonna be a compilation — just more my album.
MUHAMMAD: Talk about that a little bit.
DEAN: I don't want to be typical and do a compilation. I kind of just want to do — I have this MWA, you familiar with that? That's what I call myself when I DJ clubs: Mexican Wrestling Association.
MUHAMMAD: How'd you come up with that?
DEAN: I was in a meeting with Atlantic Records about doing my album, and I was talking about wearing a Mexican wrestling mask. And they thought I said Mexican Wrestling Association. So we just adopted that name because I was mumbling.
MUHAMMAD: So are you going to be doing cha-cha type backing tracks?
DEAN: No, no polkas, no cumbias. I'm doing a lot of Euro-dance stuff. It's kind of a strange adventure for me; I like it.
MUHAMMAD: You've had a long career. What do you think is your greatest highlight so far?
DEAN:Yeezus. I mean, before that — just the whole Kanye thing. It's gotten bigger than any of us probably ever thought it would. I think he always knew it was going to be like that, since he was a little kid apparently.
MUHAMMAD: What is it like working with — he's such an icon. He's such, obviously, a person who thinks a lot, who takes a lot of risk, who's vulnerable. How do you support someone like that?
DEAN: Just support him. Support all his — anything that he asks you to do that you think might be crazy, or nuts, as far as production, usually works out pretty good. He comes with crazy ideas all the time. I'm like, "OK." And then I just do it and it usually works out.
MUHAMMAD: Did you guys ever have a head-butting moment?
DEAN: Oh, yeah. Every day. Every day, I bring parts for every song, stuff I work on. Maybe one out of ten things will stick. It's a lot of turn-downs before stuff gets accepted.
MUHAMMAD: What would you tell those up-and-coming kids who's just getting into ...
DEAN: Just read the music business books, to start with. Just business of music. And really start trying to understand publishing and points and business of the music. I didn't care about that s—- for 15 years. That's why I'm not like, a billionaire. If I would have known about that s—- when I started, I would be seriously having some Jay-Z money.
MUHAMMAD: Well, that's important for people to know. I mean, you don't know that, and you don't hear that when you're starting out. You don't know. You're just excited that people are interested in your work and they want to carry you and make your dreams come true. And then you find out. Maybe eight, 10 years later you're like, "What is going on?" Sometimes, it's too late to do anything about it. You've had a blessed run.
DEAN: Yeah, 'cause I learned a lot of stuff on my first run. When I did the second thing with Kanye, I made sure all my business was good.
MUHAMMAD: With all of the success that you've had, is there a motto that you live by or words that you live by?
DEAN: Just never accept no as an answer to any task or requirement that you ask somebody to do. Push people to do s—-. Does that make sense?
DEAN: It's like a rule with Kanye. Never say no. If he says — people, like a lot of our tour managers or producers, they'll be like, "Oh, we can't get this big wall for you for Coachella." And he's like, "OK. You're fired. I'll get someone that can get me that wall."
That's why our s—- is always so epic. He pushes boundaries. Remember at Coachella when he came out on that lift? It was the lift Michael Jackson used on his last tour. Anyways, he was like, "I want that lift." And two people got fired because they couldn't get it. But he finally got that lift.
MUHAMMAD: What is life for you outside of music? What do you do for fun?
DEAN: Not much, really. Ride bikes around New York, bicycle.
MUHAMMAD: So you're a for real New Yorker for now.
DEAN: Trying. I met my girlfriend, Louise, up here.
MUHAMMAD: Let's see if you're a real New Yorker. Which burough do you live in?
MUHAMMAD: Come on. You gotta come over to Brooklyn, man. There's a lot of us in Brooklyn.
DEAN: We're looking at a building over there right now. I'm thinking about — me and my neighbor, Neil Grayson. He's a artist, local artist. We're going to try to buy a building, turn it into an art thing.
MUHAMMAD: That would be awesome. What gets you excited musically?
DEAN: Musically? A new piano. I just got a piano a couple weeks ago.
MUHAMMAD: What type of piano?
DEAN: A Kawai, a seven-foot grand for my house. It's nice.
KELLEY: Do you play every day?
DEAN: Yeah. I bought the same piano my piano teacher had, a 1971 Kawai.
MUHAMMAD: Has your piano teacher seen your success?
DEAN: She died a long time ago, like fifteen years ago?
MUHAMMAD: Before things ...
DEAN: I was a little bit successful.
MUHAMMAD: Did she ever see any of it?
DEAN: I think so. I wish. She put a lot time into me.
MUHAMMAD: Do you ever feel, in Kanye's brilliance and controversy, is there anything from it that you ever feel is attached to you?
DEAN: Me and Kanye are like a band. That's what he says. He wants me and him to be like a band, just work together for good. That's why I started playing live with him. 'Cause it was frustrating seeing his other bands and stuff.
MUHAMMAD: How is that? You're, like, the music director? So you're doing that and recording?
DEAN: Yeah, stripped the band down, fired the drummer. Stripped it down to just two keyboard players, and I play guitar, and then Mano DJs.
MUHAMMAD: Is that demanding, does that kill the whole aspect of production for you? 'Cause being the music director for the largest ...
DEAN: It's a simple job. That's why I keep it simple. The DJ just uses Serato. He starts the songs, and we play. It's so simple. It's not like having to program a whole show into Pro Tools and all that s—-. We just pick what songs we want to play on the spot. Like 10 minutes before we go on stage, we pick the songs, go up and play them.
MUHAMMAD: So you definitely have that rock and roll approach.
DEAN: Yes, it's all rock and roll. Loud guitars — that's my favorite part of playing live, is guitars. You get to be a rockstar for a few minutes.
KELLEY: Do you have any say in your outfit on stage?
DEAN: No. Lately, we've been wearing the little hoods and masks. When we do a white show, it's the desert mask thing. And that's just a T-shirt we rip apart and put around our head. Kanye — they put all their time into Kanye's garb.
MUHAMMAD: Are you ever going to do anything that's kind of like a throwback to your Rap-A-Lot days?
DEAN: I got some music actually about to come out that's like old stuff.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah? On who?
DEAN: Freddie Gibbs.
MUHAMMAD: Oh, word?
DEAN: And Big K.R.I.T. I'm trying to throw them back to the Rap-A-Lot sound. Big K.R.I.T., we got a song called "Love The Southside," he's gonna put, like, everybody in the South on it, make like an eight-minute song.
MUHAMMAD: Is that for your project or is that for their project?
DEAN: For theirs. Yeah, I'll probably executive produce Freddie Gibbs, more than likely. We were hanging out last night again. Got a cool song about selling dope. Yeah, he's awesome. Says he's got a song about his mama knows he's selling dope. It's really good.
MUHAMMAD: So then what's next for you?
DEAN:Yeezus album, Yeezus tour, I guess. That's going to go down, obviously, sometime this year. Watch The Throne 2 — that's not started yet, but we're starting to set tracks aside, I think.
MUHAMMAD: Well, Mike Dean, thank you for passing through Microphone Check.