Whether you’re a casual hip-hop fan or dedicated music production geek, it’s likely you’ve heard of Mike Dean, one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in the music industry. He’s worked with the likes of Kanye West, Kid Cudi, 2Pac, Travis Scott, Jay Z, and many more.
All that’s well and good, but how did Mike get to where he is today? Perhaps more crucially, how will his legacy be remembered as he passes the engineering torch on to the next generation? Let’s take a deep dive into the fascinating career of Mike Dean, from small-time beatmaker to legendary producer. Strap in, folks.
If you’ve ever found yourself fully immersed in a Kanye West or Travis Scott project, or appreciated some intense synth work on a hip-hop record, you should be familiar with Mike Dean, the legendary instrumentalist and producer who helped shape the modern landscape of popular music.
Not only is he credited with producing and mixing a hefty chunk of Mr West’s discography, he’s also worked alongside Rick Rubin on experimental projects for Def Jam that broke new ground for the use of synths within hip-hop instrumentals. Dean would eventually be regarded as the ‘Synth God’ by Complex, no less.
It’s high time we gave Mike the proper shoutout he deserves, not only for playing a significant part in defining the Houston sound that would later find mainstream attention but also for influencing a fresh generation of artists through a mix of old and new school sounds that embrace an eclectic and open-minded approach to beat creation.
Ever wondered how Mike managed to make it in the music business and where he got his first big break? His story is one of perseverance, ingenuity, and enduring love of his craft. Here’s everything you need to know about his story. Who knows, you may be inspired to make that big leap into music mixing yourself.
Building up a foundation from day one.
Though Mike is perhaps best known for his prolific work with top, mainstream artists within the last twenty years, he has been an expert instrumentalist and industry name for much longer. In fact, he spent most of the 1990s working with artistic heavyweights such as Dr. Dre, Jay Z, and Tupac.
He first started out playing for local bands and jamming with Parliament Funkadelic, a large collective of musicians that are still active today and are cited as major influences on funk, post-punk, hip-hop, and post-disco. From there, Dean met American singer-songwriter Selena, who he would work with as musical director and producer for a number of years. Eventually, though, Dean began to think of himself as his own brand and wanted to work more independently, rather than relying on big musical ensembles that were often unreliable.
This led him to produce for hip-hop artists and approach projects more loosely, a move that would offer more choice and movement between acts. After mixing for small artists in Houston for a number of years, Mike was given a job by J. Prince to produce for Bushwick Bill, his first chance to mix for a mainstream hip-hop label.
He’d later help develop a production style now known as the Dirty South sound throughout the 1990s, with most of his prolific beats from this era being created for artists at Rap-A-Lot Records.
Check out one of his first real breakthrough tracks, ‘Ghetto Dope’ by 5th Ward Boyz below, which incorporated a blend of G-funk grooves and East Coast drums as part of the Houston sound. This sonic style would continue to develop throughout the decade, with Mike having a hugely influential hand in its rise to popularity.
Other notable tracks from the nineties that built on these ideas include ‘Secrets of the Hidden Temple’ by Blac Monks, as well as ‘The Untouchable’ by Scarface. You can hear Dean’s style begin to reach outside of Houston and extend to the West Coast by the early noughties, too. It was this broadening appeal that would eventually lead to Dean and West becoming acquainted.
Collaborating with Kanye West and Travis Scott.
Mike would go on to meet Kanye West in 2002 via Scarface’s album The Fix. In an interview with independent YouTube music reviewer Anthony Fantano, Dean says he ‘caught Kanye’s ear’ through his mixing of ‘Guess Who’s Back’, the fourth track on the album.
From there, West would routinely fly out to see Mike to work with him for one or two days a week, though his time was limited, even before the release of College Dropout in 2004. As Dean puts it, ‘he was a real diva even back then’.
West’s early noughties work was ground-breaking in its use of chopped and screwed samples and is credited with popularising chipmunk soul and conscious rap, two subgenres that were in stark contrast to the already established, mainstream bling artists of that time. When describing the process in the Fantano interview, Dean says they were ‘trying to put a Southern spin on the New York shit’, an ethos that moved through the nineties into the new century.
This was done primarily by slowing the BPM of tracks down a notch from the usual norm, reducing them to around 70. Mike has previously explained that he and his collaborators were ‘on codeine and weed, we didn’t want to make intense stuff’.
This approach has continued to permeate through Dean’s work even today, and Travis Scott’s latest records have been heavily sculpted by his production. His 2020 single, ‘Highest In The Room’, is notable for its synths, which Dean is a big fan of and experiments with regularly.
In fact, he’s noted before that he ‘turns up the synths a little bit louder every year’ and defines the current trap psychedelic scene as ‘slower, wobbly, with lots of loops’. To that end, ‘Highest In The Room's' closing moments feature synths that continue to get louder and more sonically dominant, a production technique that Dean shows off in his 2021 album, 4:22.
Dissecting Mike’s greatest body of work.
Mike Dean’s most impressive, versatile, and diverse work can arguably be found on Kanye West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Filled with grandiose instrumentation and focused on maximalist sound design, Mike consistently weaves together seemingly disjointed textures and tones to create an excellent and compelling project. Speaking to Our Generation Music, Mike was asked if he knew he was working on one of the best albums of all time. His response? ‘Yeah’.
One standout, in particular, is the sixth track on the album, ‘Devil In A New Dress’, which features Rick Ross and was co-produced by Dean.
Using several samples from ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ by Smokey Robinson, the track’s looping melodies are stitched together from entirely separate sections of the original Robinson song. What really elevates it to the next level, however, is Dean’s guitar solo that comes in toward the beginning of the latter half, just before Rick Ross’ legendary verse.
Ingenious innovations like this are peppered throughout Dean’s discography. Another example is from 2013s Yeezus – an album heavily produced by Dean and Rubin – where guitar strings can be heard within the instrumental for ‘Hold My Liquor’.
This track features guest vocals from Justin Vernon and Chief Keef, but Dean’s atmospheric, spacey guitar toward the end is the standout moment that preludes the psychedelic, slowed aesthetic of later records such as 2018s Astroworld by Travis Scott. Couple this jittery guitar instrumental with some trademark synths and you have a Dean classic.
It’s worth mentioning here that Mike also plays live instruments and mixes on the fly when performing alongside West as a keyboardist and guitarist. Here’s a clip where he mixes up the synths on The Life Of Pablo’s ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1’, showing impressive versatility and improv skills.
An amazing knack for crafting compelling instrumentals.
Dean’s compelling production continues to dominate popular culture, even in 2021. He was recently the topic of Twitter conversation for his contributions to West’s latest project, Donda.
There were rumours that he was being cooped up in the Mercedes Benz stadium for weeks at a time, with fans asking him to ‘send a sign if you’re being held against your will’. Most of it was in good fun, but there was a faint thread of genuine worry.
The fact that such a large fan base of predominantly Gen Zedders and young teens are aware of Mike and are legitimately invested in his wellbeing should serve as a testament to his legacy and cultural achievements.
The merging of older G-funk sounds with a new-age approach that incorporates harsh electronic and synth sounds is arguably Mike’s greatest standout as a producer. He embraces and champions those original, golden-era aesthetics without compromising or pandering to nostalgia, while also incorporating fresh and unexpected elements of electronica and guitar.
His craft and work are always forward-thinking, progressive, and experimental. He remains a force to be reckoned with and shows no sign of slowing down. Expect him to appear on many more chart-topping and industry-defining albums for the foreseeable future, though the predictability of his top artists such as West is harder to determine. Hip-hop is nothing but surprising, after all.
To hear more from the man himself check him out below on the Needle Drop Podcast.