Beat Construction: Mike Dean

The legendary Houston producer/engineer talks tour production, Selena, and working with Kanye West.

Beat Construction: Mike Dean

The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again, we illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction. This week, we spoke to the legendary Mike Dean, Houston's in-house sound specialist turned Kanye West's right hand. As a central producer for The Geto Boys, Dean helped pioneer the southern hip-hop sound that still dominates the genre, and has worked on eclectic, forward-leaning releases from The Weeknd, Kid Cudi, and West. Between sessions remastering Madonna stems for an upcoming tour, Dean answered questions about his early work and the sounds that keep him young.

You’ve been a close collaborator of Kanye West and Scarface for much of their careers. Can you talk about how their 2002 collaboration, “Guess Who’s Back,” came together? Did you work on that record?

I wasn’t actually around when they were making the records. I was in Houston; they made that stuff in New York. Scarface brought them down for me to mix, so I mixed them at Rap A Lot studios in Houston. Mixed part of it in my house. I was just mixing stuff for Scarface. That’s the point when Kanye wanted to reach out to me—when the mix came out, and he heard it. I thought the track was crazy, groundbreaking stuff. I definitely made it knock really hard.

That was one of the first times when the East Coast and the South were crossing over like that. Kanye was bridging a lot of artists and sounds.

Definitely. Nowadays, there isn't much definition to these tracks anymore; everything’s kind of blending together. [Houston] didn’t really care about New York, because we were selling records in our region. So we didn’t really care who liked us. Even if New York didn’t like our stuff, Chicago always loved it, and the Midwest and the West Coast.

Who did you want to sound like when you were first starting out? Who were you sampling?

The Rick Rubin stuff, Run DMC—all that stuff. But more influenced by other music too, like Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, rock music—stuff like that. I’m not a big sampler myself; that basically started [when I was] working with Kanye. It’s more him—he brings the samples in. I played in a lot of Blues bands [in Houston]. I used to play in biker bars, different places like that. A lot of trap music doesn’t have any samples at all; it’s all keyboard shit. There’s no samples in “3500.”

You produced on Selena's earliest material, before she was recording in English. Dumb question: did you speak Spanish? How was it communicating with her family?

I don’t really like talking about that too much—about her dad and shit. I was trying to get them to record English stuff, in the beginning. They wanted to be traditional, you know. It was basically on some racist shit, really. I was white, and working in a Latin industry—there’s a balance. [Behind the scenes, there was] fighting, competition within the number-one band in the country. I was long gone before she started recording in English, but I talked to her occasionally—that’s what I had been trying to do the whole time I was there. ["Ya Se Va"]—that’s the first record I had on the radio and stuff. So I definitely learned a lot. I learned to get publishing on songs after that. It was just work-for-hire shit. Back then, you didn’t have the internet to learn to do this. You had to go to conventions and shit to meet people.

What are you working on these days?

I'm working on Madonna's tour right now, helping her put her show together. It's cool: taking old songs and making the old stuff match the new stuff. I try to use all the same sounds I use on music now. Drums. Replace bass lines with 808s. Trap snares, hi-hats—all that shit. It's kind of cool. We're working on "Holiday" right now.

What's the most important part of translating songs for performance?

With Kanye, we don't do that much. We just add stuff on top of the tracks—add new stuff. It's different every day, depending on how you feel; there's nothing written in stone with how we play. Madonna's more locked in with all her performances, but she has surprises every night—a big giant production.

For about the last five, six years I've been playing with Kanye, touring. It's been interesting. Definitely makes you understand how to produce, understand the crowd. Definitely helps with your studio shit. What works.

Since Graduation, Kanye's been making albums to take on the road. How much do you bridge what happens in the studio and what happens on stage?

Definitely when I'm playing parts, I'm thinking, This will be great to play live. That's about it: we're really still just making the albums. Just making shit that works live better. You grow more, you learn more.

You've been working with Travis Scott on his new album. I get the sense that he's kind of a wild child in the studio. What's an average session with him like?

Been doing a few things on there. He's a crazy one. He's cool, though. We probably just smoke a lot of weed and work on music, basically—no big deal. Lately, he's been sending me stuff, and then he'll come by and check it out when it's done. I've been doing a lot of work by myself: it takes a long time to vibe when you're working. I don't really know who's doing what: it's him, Metro Boomin, Zaytoven. They've worked on stuff, and then I finish it up. I don't want to gas him too much [laughs]; he's already gassed up enough.

Coming from your era of The Geto Boys and UGK, do you feel a kinship with younger southern producers like Metro and Zaytoven?

That's a good question. Yeah, they're just the youth, you know—the next movement and shit. I'm always going to stick with the youth. But I really mostly work by myself, stay at home. I'm pretty boring.

You really do stay at home. You hosted a Boiler Room concert in your apartment a few years back. How was it in there the morning after?

Not too bad; we got it cleaned up quick. They didn't do too much damage.

Beat Construction: Mike Dean