One of Texas' pioneer producers talks his loyalty to Rap-A-Lot, mixing Kanye West's albums, why the south is boring him, and how Dr. Dre owes him five figures.
Producers often earn kudos for inventiveness of their beats, but any music head knows that with the wrong mixing and mastering—the process of working with the sound levels of different elements of a song before it’s released—even the best songs can be rendered useless.
Before becoming a go-to producer, Southern legend Mike Dean earned his chops by mixing and mastering for Rap-A-Lot Records, helping shape Houston’s signature whip-ready sound with pioneers like Scarface, Geto Boys and Devin the Dude. But work with seminal west coast artists like Tha Dogg Pound and Seagram, mixing on Kanye West’s most important solo records, and impending material with a new crew from Brooklyn called Hip-Hop Howl! prove that Dean’s sound expertise oversteps time regional boundaries. In an interview with HipHopDX Producer’s Corner, Dean recounts nuggets from his extensive discography, speaks on the importance of loyalty, and gives a couple tips on testing sounds before they hit the streets.
Mike Dean: I’m working on Scarface’s album, mixing some pop/R&B stuff and shit like that. Working on a song with Drake right now, too.
HipHopDX: How is Scarface’s album sounding?
Mike Dean: It’s sounding good. We just scored a feature from John Legend on there. I hooked him up with John, making shit happen. I don’t know what’s up with the album or a release date or anything, we’re just working on a few songs right now. For the last few albums, I haven’t had much on his albums because we haven’t been in the studio together. He’ll do music somewhere else and bring it to me, because I’m off doing shit with Kanye [West] or Common.
DX: What takes up more time, your production or engineering?
Mike Dean: Probably about equal. If I’m in a creative phase, I’ll do more tracks. But if I’m on a technical kick, I’ll do more mixing. Either way, there’s always something going on.
DX: One of the best album cuts of the last decade was Scarface and Nas’ “In Between Us” , from The Fix. Could you please talk about how that song was created from top to bottom.
Mike Dean: We were in Atlanta working. Me and Scarface and Tanya Herron were there, and Lofey was there co-producing. I started the keyboard progression, and ‘Face came in and did some drums, I think he did the bass on it. 'Face wrote the hook, and Tanya performed it with all the crazy vocals. Nas was there, too. It came out pretty fast actually, about an hour and a half or two hours.
DX: Do you think it would’ve been a single if it weren’t for label politics going on around that time?
Mike Dean: Definitely. [I] wish it would’ve been! [Laughs] Hopefully somebody else samples it and makes a good R&B song out of it.
DX: All the emcees sounded so vulnerable, something traditional of 'Face, but not of Nas. What do you think brought that out of him?
Mike Dean: Scarface did. Scarface did the first verse, and Nas heard that and had to follow that. Nas actually re-did his verse, I just thought about that. Three months later, he changed it because he had some people he was feuding with at the time. I think he was shooting caps at Jay-Z; I don’t know if it was Jay-Z, but it was somebody. So he changed the verse up.
DX: Like Duro and Young Guru, you're arguably one of the most recognized engineers in Rap history. Tell us about your transition from mixing to production, and what it took to get both J. Prince and the artists you were working with to recognize your amazing talent as a general behind the boards?
Mike Dean: It was a gradual transition. I started out playing guitar and bass on peoples’ records that I was mixing, and it eventually turned out to where I was doing everything on the record except the drum programming. At that point, I was given the chance to produce stuff I started doing my own drum programming and collecting drum sounds, and that’s what took me into producing. Plus, engineering for good producers for all those years, I picked up on shit from everybody.
DX: Is there anybody that you learned from that left a serious mark on you?
Mike Dean: John Bido, he did all the Geto Boys stuff. I worked with him for years and years, and he taught me a whole lot of shit. He taught me how to make beats, and he made me want to be a producer.
DX: You are one of the few active guys in Hip Hop that can tell us about Seagram. His albums today sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay in a way that ensures he was way ahead of his time. What do you think made him special as an emcee, and how do you remember those sessions and handling his music?
Mike Dean: Seagram is just a real-ass emcee. He raps about shit he did, and some shit he did, he didn’t rap about. I fucked with him, he was always really cool. We worked in his studio a lot doing pre-production on his album. I met him in L.A., Tone Capone hooked me up with him. He came back to Houston for us to do pre-production on his album Souls On Ice. He came to the studio one night, we were mixing. He had gotten his first big check from Virgin Records, his first big, legit money he made. He left to fly home to the Bay, and he got killed that fucking night, it’s crazy. [2Pac] came through and was listening to it; 'Pac was going to get on Seagram’s album, and then he got fucking murdered two weeks after that.
DX: On a related note, from Seagram to C-Bo to 3 x Krazy, you've worked almost as much with Northern California acts as you have with Texas acts. That was a critical market to Rap-A-Lot's success in the '90s. Why were you guys so drawn to Bay rappers, and how did your job transition on the work you did with those guys?
Mike Dean: Probably me starting to work with Tone Capone. I met him when I was doing the Untouchables album from ’96, I brought him in to help me produced that. In return, I did 3X Krazy’s album, Keak Da Sneak and all them. I like Northern California shit, and all west coast music pretty much. I kind of like that better than southern music. I like working with Daz [Dillinger], Kurupt, Seagram and all those guys. They make that hardcore shit, instead of rapping about the same shit over and over like rides, chains and grills and shit.
The south has gotten stagnant to me. Well let me not say that, but they need to step up their game down here a little bit. That’s why I fuck with the east coast, and a lot of Hip Hop shit. I like fucking with all types of music instead of getting bored.
DX: Usually, people who say the south needs to step up aren’t from the south, or they don’t work there. So it’s weird to hear you say that.
Mike Dean: People like Slim Thug and ‘Face are always spitting dope shit. I’m just talking about a lot of the hits that came from down here, and the singles and bullshit. I’m working with a bunch of guys from Brooklyn right now. We’re going to South By Southwest all together. HipHopHowl.com, it’s just a bunch of emcees doing their thing.
DX: How do you decide who you want to work with? You work with big names like Kanye, then smaller names like Hip Hop Howl!.
Mike Dean: I just go with the flow of what I feel at the time. It also depends on peoples’ budgets; I’ve got to make a living. [Laughs] With the guys from Brooklyn, it’d be a good look for me to sell records in New York again. With these up-and-coming cats from Brooklyn, one of them might pop up and be a big artist.
DX: Ganksta-Nip is another artist often overlooked in the mainstream media. Tell us, how was he compared to the persona we heard on these records?
Mike Dean: Totally the opposite. He’s just real calm. I think he had split personalities. Outside of the booth, he was real softspoken and very proper. But when he got in the booth, he was a psycho maniac. I saw him about a year ago, he’s still crazy and still rapping about the same shit.
DX: Yeah, that was my next question. How much are you in touch with many of the former Rap-A-Lot acts today?
Mike Dean: 3-2, from The Convicts, called me yesterday. They’ve been getting in touch with me for the past couple of months, thinking about doing something with those guys and keep ‘em straight. [Smit D of Facemob] was locked up for a long time and he just got out, I’ve been working with him some. Devin [the Dude is] not on Rap-A-Lot anymore, but he just came over the other day to do a song for Tanya’s album.
DX: A while ago, Devin the Dude talked about doing a Country album. Have you guys gotten started on that?
Mike Dean: [Laughs] Yeah, I saw that last night. That’s unbelievable. We did this hook on [Just Tryin' Ta Live], on one song ["R & B (Reefer & Beer)" [that had a Country feel]. We’re going to do a song with Willie Nelson. In this Houston music magazine, I was quoted best Hip Hop producer for ’09, and they said I had a Country Western background. But when I was a teenager, I played with Dancehall bands and Mexican bands and Country bands.
DX: Kanye West worked on some projects with you early in his career. With his budgets and stardom, he went you to mix some of his best work. Did he ever tell you what it was about your mixing that appealed to him so much?
Mike Dean: He said they were the best mixes he’d ever had. I mixed “Guess Who’s Back” from The Fix, and he really liked the mix on that, so he hit me up for his first record. He actually came to my house, and we did the first three or four mixes here before he had budgets for a big studio somewhere.
I mixed four or five records from College Dropout, but I think only two of them made it. The rest were mixtapes, like “Keep the Receipt,” the song with [Ol' Dirty Bastard]. I mastered “Through The Wire,” I mixed the “Two Words” song with Mos Def and Freeway. For [Late Registration], I pretty much did all the singles except for “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” I didn’t do the final mix on that. For the third album, Graduation, I think I did eight or nine mixes and co-produced on “Stronger” , “Good Life” ,“Barry Bonds” , and “Drunk and Hot Girls.”
DX: Also, you reportedly worked on King Tee's tragically shelved Tha Kingdom Come LP on Aftermath. Talk to us also about the technical dialog Mike Dean and Dr. Dre share, as two pioneers of major trends in Rap.
Mike Dean: I didn’t see Dre much. When we were in the studio, I just did a couple beats…Dre was in the next room over working on 2001. But they never even paid me for that shit. Dre still owes me $12,000 or $24,000. I think I was charging $12,000 a beat back then. [Laughs] I saw Dre in a club probably a year after that, and I’m like, “Y’all took my money!” And he’s like, “Come to the office we’ll take care of it.” I got the chick that hooked it up to get me my reels back... That was a freebie. [Laughs] I didn’t even know it came out until I saw the discography on AllMusic.com. [Moe Beats Records] dropped it or something, it didn’t come out on Aftermath.
DX: Texas Rap, particularly "slab music" sounds so good in cars, when you listen to so many albums from UGK, Scarface or even Z-Ro. As the producer of so many records, do you test your work in the car? Are there certain routines you can test the durability of a record?
Mike Dean: Sometimes, but not as much as I used to. It used to be a necessity, but now I’ve got speakers in my house that are better than my car. I’ve got four 18’s and four 15’s in the small room that I mix at. There are crazy overdone subs in the studio to sound like it does in cars or the clubs. I used to have stereo contests and shit, I’m a Bass nut. But it used to be a necessity, especially when you go to different studios.
Now, I listen to it on the speakers from the laptop. That’s the equivalent of listening to it on a small speaker or on a TV back in the day, just to see what it would sound like. I’d say about 50% of people who listen to music listen to it on laptop speakers, iPhones. So you have to mix it for how they’ll hear it, too. Not everyone has big ass speakers. I used to mix everything in mono back in the day, ‘cause I’m like, “When are people going to be up on speakers?”
DX: Tell us about the loyalty and family environment that's kept you so close to Rap-A-Lot and J. Prince. Is that a missing element in Hip Hop today?
Mike Dean: Yeah, people don’t stay where they start at. That’s a lot of peoples’ demise, jumping cliques and shit. People fall during that, whether that’s the reason or that’s a coincidence. Rap-A-Lot gave me my first opportunity to work on my first real records back in the day, so why would I not continue to work with them? They pay me, shit.
Rap-A-Lot’s good for a paycheck every month; we’ve always got something going on. It was slow last year, I think they’re switching their distribution to a different label right now. I was just on the phone with J last night talking about that shit. We’re getting ready for the next Rap-A-Lot run. We’ve got Rap-A-Lot anniversary projects we’re working on, where all the big artists are remaking Rap-A-Lot songs. Three 6 Mafia did [Scarface’s] “Balls And My Word,” Ja Rule did “Snow,” we’ve got Redman doing “Mary Jane.” We’ve got people redoing the beats over. It’s going to be a really good album. Then Bun B’s album has 40-50 songs done, I heard.
DX: I interviewed Bun B a while ago, and I pointed out how his solo albums usually have tons of guest appearances. He said he wasn’t a solo artist by nature because he’s used to recording with Pimp C. On his new stuff, does he have guest appearances or does he have solo material?
Mike Dean: He has more solo stuff on this one. He’s always in the studio a lot, probably for six months every day [straight]. So he’s just doing bookoo songs. For about three weeks, I worked in the next studio over from him working on beats. I’m not sure what was used yet.
DX: Although the marketing and promotion methods have always been independent, how do you feel the Rap-A-Lot catalog stacks up against those of Death Row, Cash Money or even Tommy Boy? So many of those releases were so groundbreaking for their lyrics and production, which you played a huge role in...
Mike Dean: Well, one big difference is that we are still making records that make a difference in industry. We are the ones to follow in this shit. Controversy has always pushed our performers, and i always try to make the music classic. Combined, that's historical. It just comes naturally for me - don't follow the trends, and it's always better. You'll never see me doing a Bounce record or a "Whatever's hot in Dallas now" record. [Laughs] We don't have dances in Houston! Leave that to the Cowboys [footballl team] in Dallas.
Look out for Rap-A-Lot's 25th Anniversary CD and a load of Best Of's and Greatest Hits coming this year. I remastered the whole catalog so it's up to today's mastering levels, so everyone can re-experience the Rap-A-Lot era and prepare for our new artists' albums coming soon.
DX: What was it like to revisit those records? Did you realize anything new in those songs that you didn't remember or notice from before? Did they seem even more timeless when you were revisiting them?
Mike Dean: It was actually fun. It was an eye opener, really. You never really see your mass of work like that, and it's rare to get to re-master my own records. I get see how my mixing and mastering ability has progressed, along with Scarface, Bido, etc.
DX: So did you hear any of those old mixes and get pissed like "Damn, I could've had this bumpin' even more when I put it out!"
Mike Dean: Most definitely. On "Let Me Roll," the hat was so loud in the mix. It was one of the first that me and 'Face did alone.