Producer/engineer extraordinaire Mike Dean has worked with Tupac and Rap-A_Lot’s best. But he’s perhaps best known for having worked on every Kanye West album (save 808 & Heartbreaks–the only Kanye album not to win a Grammy). Currently in New York to work on “a few projects,” we talked to Dean about Ye’s creative process and Yeezus (on which Dean produced my personal faves “Guilt Trip” and “Hold My Liquor”).
How’d you get into music initially?
I started playing saxophone and then piano when I was a kid. I was about 8 or 10 years old and I had a piano teacher for ten years. I switched to playing bassoon in orchestras. When I was done with highschool I got a job playing for Selena.
Wait. What? The Spanish singer? What was that like?
It was cool we would tour around Texas mostly. We’d hit the west coast too. We were from the same small town in Texas.
So how’d you go from Selena to Scarface?
Well I had a falling out with Selena’s dad so for a while I played for a band called Mazz. A lot of concerts and festival type shit. After a while I was playing at piano bars. I got tired of that band life. It seemed like every time something was going well someone would fuck it up. So from there I started producing a couple of local Houston groups. Rap-A-Lot heard about me. They put me on staff and trained me to engineer. I was just a musician before 1992, but they taught me engineering after that.
Which do you prefer, mixing or producing?
When you don’t feel like doing one you usually feel like doing the other. It’s a different side of the brain thing, you know? Like right brain, left brain so I’m pretty good at switching back and forth or doing it at the same time. Like I can play guitar and track myself and be mixing all at the same time.
So how’d you go from Rap-A-Lot to working with Hov and Ye?
When I first worked with Jay back in 1996 for the Rhyme & Reason soundtrack. They filmed me and Jay-Z for the movie while we were working on it, but the song never got used because it didn’t get approved by Rap-A-Lot.
How did Kanye come into the fold?
I mixed “Guess Who’s Back?” for Scarface which Kanye produced. They were really happy with the results. After that I think Plain Pat reached out for me to work with Kanye for his first album.
Since then you’ve worked on every Kanye album ? Was it the chemistry? The challenge?
Yeah, we had good chemistry, but I also liked how he was trying to make music. It was way advanced so it was a huge change. I thought it was dope that that’s the way he heard music in his head, you know, violins and the Harlem Boys’ Choir and all that.
What do you think of Kanye’ progression from album to album?
It’s dope. I like to see what he’s going to come up with next. Like, I used to joke with him after his first project because it was such a big deal artisitically and technologically that I used to tease him like,” So what are you gonna do next?”
“How you gonna outdo yourself now, Kanye?”
Yeah exactly. And he’s done it 7 times!
After observing him in the studio after all these years, do you think progression comes naturally or does he push for it?
Something pushes him, I think something pushes him from inside. I don’t know what it is. Scarface was like that too, but Kanye pushes all these different genres so it’s just crazy.
What do you think you bring to the table that makes you valuable to Kanye’s creative process?
It’s probably a couple of things. Some producers and engineers see sounds as colors. I don’t. I see a graph, a frequency graph with notes. I think that’s why I’m good at adding to other people’s tracks. Also, I don’t fall in love with my ideas. If I play something for Kanye and he doesn’t like it, I’m like “Well how about this? Or this?” I keep playing him stuff until he hears something he likes.
Is it hard to get Kanye to feel your ideas? Is he too strongly opinionated?
No. Kanye listens to opinions. He takes everything into account and then if he doesn’t like it, fuck it.
So tell me about working on Watch The Throne.
It was great. It started off as a side project sort of, like a six song EP then it turned into what you hear today on the album.
What are some things you feel you’ve improved upon since working with Ye?
My timing has gotten really good from touring and performing live with Kanye. It’s crazy accurate now. I can’t mess up if he’s going into one of his rants and I’m playing behind him.
What do you think of his rants?
They’re awesome. It’s fuel for songs.