Mike Dean is hip-hop’s closer: the guy you call when it’s time to get your album across the finish line — or give it a much-needed kick in the ass. “That’s what usually happens. People come with the record done but just need a little more sauce on top. That’s what I’m good at,” says the 53-year-old producer and engineer, blunt in hand (he typically has a blunt in hand).
While you may not have heard Dean’s name before, you have heard his sound: specifically the effusive, chest-rattling synthesizer riffs on this year’s biggest albums. His 2018 credit list alone makes him sort of a rap/pop Forrest Gump. There’s Migos’ Culture II, Christina Aguilera’s Liberation, Nas’ Nasir, Travis Scott’s Astroworld, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Everything Is Love, Kanye West’s Ye, and Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. — and that’s just through August.
“It’s been crazy,” says Dean of his jam-packed schedule. He’s currently sitting in his Los Angeles-based studio, a room stacked with vintage keyboards and synths, colorful luchadora masks, and speakers the size of small jet engines. Dean’s frantic pace culminated with this summer’s G.O.O.D. Music extravaganza, the five-week stretch when he helped drop an album a week for Kanye’s record label — a schedule Dean initially found out about when Kanye tweeted it. “I was like, that’s a lot of work,” says Dean, who has been collaborating with Yeezy since College Dropout. “But I’m used to it. I might have a few panics, you know, but it’s all got to keep moving.”
Indeed it does. The night of Ye’s release, Dean was finishing the album until the last minute before booking it to a field where West debuted the record over livestream. “I was literally making revisions that Kanye asked for right before we got in his car,” says Dean. “We always get s— done, so I was not worried.” There was a small hitch when he arrived, though. Dean’s phone, which was being used to play the album at the party, had only 12 percent battery left. “They were like, ‘Play it again.’ I was like, ‘Uh…” Thankfully, the phone didn’t die, and Dean and Team G.O.O.D. went on to release the rest of the catalog as planned.
In addition to production, Dean also mixes and masters music, a skill he honed back in the 1990s in his hometown of Houston, working with local Rap-A-Lot Records legends the Geto Boys and Pimp C, among others. Those early relationships make Dean akin to neutral territory in 2018. Example: He worked on Pusha-T’s album and the track “What Would Meek Do?”, which reignited the recent diss war between the Virginia-bred rapper and Drake. Meanwhile, Drake is a mentee of Dean’s old buddy, Rap-A-Lot Records founder James Prince. Considering the number of disparate crews and artists he’s worked with over the years, has Dean ever been brought in as an intermediary for brewing rap beefs? “Occasionally,” he says, though declines to elaborate, adding, “I don’t care. I’m impartial. I’m not a gangster. I’m a musician.”
Dean’s Texas roots are also what led him to work with rapper fellow Houstonian Travis Scott, whose chart-topping Astroworld Dean executive-produced. “I played his first shows — it was like South by Southwest for 20 people, and I had to force him to go on stage,” says Dean on how far Scott has come in his career, from his early intimate performances to the raucous balls-to-the-wall concerts he puts on now. “He was from Houston, and Houston needed something. It’s especially nice because he pays homage [to the city].”
Dean began having conversations with Scott about Astroworld around two years ago. The final version, which dropped in August and promptly hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, includes prog rock-ish codas and mini-suites you don’t typically find on rap records. “Travis is really good at that,” says Dean, about rearranging songs in unique ways, like the uptempo, three-part “Sicko Mode” featuring Drake. “All the guys I work with are very good at it, finding the two-part songs, like we did on [Kanye’s] ‘Devil in a New Dress.’”
In addition to its chart-topping status, a personal Astroworld highlight for Dean was getting to work with Stevie Wonder, whose harmonica solo punctuates single “Stop Trying to Be God.” “It was awesome. He’s a genius,” says Dean, adding that Wonder entered the smoke-filled studio with his usual sense of humor. “[Wonder] exclaimed, in the midst of weed smoke, ‘I can see!’”
So what’s next for Dean himself? Whatever it is, he’s not saying much (he was mum on a possible Rick Rubin/Kanye/Chance the Rapper collab he teased on Instagram). For now, he’s just happy about what he’s already accomplished in 2018, in particular the rapid-fire release schedule of this past summer. “Nobody’s ever [released] that much music in a month, I don’t think,” he says. After it was over, Dean recovered with an IV bag full of vitamins. “I had, like, four over a week,” he adds. “It helped.” Considering his recent output, he may want to keep some in reserve.