The first time I met Mike Dean, I opened the door to his home studio and was greeted by the smell of marijuana and the sounds of Travis Scott's "90210," which Dean was mixing for the then-upcoming BET Awards. I was there to introduce myself and pitch a story to him about weed. I shook his hand. "It's an honor to meet you," I said.
I meant it. Mike Dean may be the most consistent behind-the-scenes hero in hip-hop over the past two decades—even Kanye has gone out of his way to say so. Born on a bayou near Houston, the record producer, songwriter, mixer, and multi-instrumentalist started out as Selena's musical director in the 80s (he made her first record and "taught how her how to sing in tune") before moving on to help pioneer 90s Houston hip-hop sound, working alongside virtually every iconic rapper from the city: Scarface, Geto Boys, UGK, Mike Jones, Z-Ro, Devin the Dude, and more.
In the 2000s, he became an instrumental Kanye West collaborator, starting by mixing The College Dropout and Late Registration. He made significant contributions to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch The Throne, and Yeezus. Scroll through the credits of rap classics and you'll often see "Dean" scattered throughout. His fingerprints are everywhere. This year alone, he's had credits on Yeezy's new music, as well as Travis Scott's Rodeo, A$AP Rocky's At.Long.Last.A$AP, the Weeknd's Beauty Behind the Madness, Big Sean's Dark Sky Paradise, and several others.
Dean is a bona fide hip-hop legend even if you don't know his name, but he's also got hip-hop insider gold status as a next-next-level weed smoker. Coming out of the Houston camp, in which "Swishas and dosha" were like pen and ink, this should come as no surprise. Urban legends exist about Dean and Snoop Dogg going head-to-head in a blunt cheefing competition and that he once owned a bird that was trained to retrieve blunts. Some even say that he's the biggest smoker in rap. But, like many stoner stories, the facts are a bit hazy. I wanted to know more about the prolific producer's weed lifestyle. So, after our first meet up where I pitched him this story about his weed enthusiasm, he agreed to let me hang with him a couple times over the course of a week to smoke powerful blunts and talk hip-hop mythology.
Mike's crib is a spacious loft on the penthouse floor of an apartment building. A mat reading "The Deanagans," in reference to his girlfriend, Louise Donegan, an English artist and model, sits outside the door. I visited him in the early afternoon. A heavenly light streamed into his crib from the window. On a shelf lay a zoo of expensive-looking glass instruments for smoking weed. Packs of Swisher Sweets were stacked on a table.
After re-introducing myself, we sat down on a comfy sofa in his room. Rather than waste his time, I thought I'd get straight to the point with an easy question: How much weed does the man smoke in a given day? Answering in a gruff Houston accent he replied casually, "At least a quarter a day when I'm not working"—meaning 7 grams, or roughly $100-120. "When I am working, I smoke more, usually it 's like ten blunts a day. I just came off some trips and my tolerance got kicked down… by not smoking good enough weed. Not smoking enough weed." Dean had been in Israel performing with Kanye West.
Dean has a medical marijuana card, but I wondered how he was able to access bud whenever he traveled. "Fans always bring stuff to smoke," he told me. "There are fans everywhere, so it's easy. What's harder is [finding] Swisher Sweets because you can't get them overseas. If I go out of town, I'll take, like, a hundred of them with me—the 20-packs. One hundred will last me about a week."
I took a nugget of weed out of my backpack and presented it to him. It was the strongest weed I'd had in a while, so I was curious to hear Dean's thoughts.
"What strain is this?" he asked. I had no idea. He held it under his nose. " Sativa," he said, and then handed it back to me. "The closest I'll get to sativa is Gelato." He produced several jars filled with marijuana. He opened one and handed it to me. The smell of it hit my nostrils with the force of a open-palm smack. "You want to do a weed story?" He said. "I'll get you really stoned."
Today, he informed me, we'd be smoking two blunts filled with OG Kush, a hybrid indica-sativa strain. He'd coat one with Hardcore shatter and the other with Jetfuel shatter. Shatter is marijuana concentrate, also known as dabs. "I only smoke blunts and dabs these days," Dean said.
The THC concentration of dabs is around 80 percent, as opposed to regular weed, which is usually around 20 percent. One hit of dabs can wreck even the most veteran smoker. Hardcore is sold by a West Coast dispensary called West Coast Cure. The owner is a friend of Dean's.
Mike began to break down the weed as his dog cuddled up next to him. He didn't use a grinder. I wondered if this had to do with his Houston origins considering grinders are largely absent in Southern gangsta rap videos. "Grinders make the weed not smoke as good," he said. "Makes it too fine. I don't think [other people] use them either." He applied a thick coating of Hardcore shatter to the Swisher, equivalent to many dab hits, layered the weed on top of it, and rolled up the blunt.
Dean grabbed a blowtorch. He held it up to the Swisher and lit the tip. A thick cloud of smoke shot out. He pulled several times, and then handed me the blunt.
It went down smooth. I could immediately feel the effects, but it was the type of high that felt more like soaring through clouds than wading through mud. It was a high derived from bud one could only find in Los Angeles. "Orange County," my host said. "That's where all the good weed is. The farther up north you go, the worse the weed gets."
Dean, as someone who's been in hip-hop since the very beginning, has a bird's eye view of weed trends, both geographically and culturally. I asked how weed consumption in hip-hop had changed over the years. "I've seen weed quality change," he replied. "A lot of rappers started taking pills and shit now, so they don't smoke as much as they used to. Not me."
The first time Dean smoked, he was 13. He wouldn't smoke again until 27, when he was working with Odd Squad, Devin the Dude's group. "I started smoking around them while working on their album [ Fadanuf Fa Erybody!!]. Just too much weed talk."
Dean has a low-key temperament, but his resume belies a drive that has produced one of the most star-studded catalogs in music history. A drive that, one can imagine, produces anxiety. "I'm kind of a high-key person, so it keeps me kind of normal," he said about marijuana, adding that its usage was both medicinal and creative.
Once the Odd Squad reintroduced the producer to the green, "I pretty much smoked every day after that," Dean said. "I smoked joints first… The first person I saw smoking blunts was Bushwick Bill [of the Geto Boys]. He didn't smoke Swishers, he smoked Phillies—the big ones. But they were smoking Mexican weed [back then], so we had to smoke a ton of it to get high."
Dean started smoking blunts around the time he was working with Yukmouth, a Bay Area rapper who had come to Houston to work on his album Thugulation. "I never went back to joints," he said. It would take a bit for him—and the rest of Houston—to come around to "Swisher Sweets," a brand of cigarillo used as blunt wraps, that are a now-iconic part of Houston's hip-hop and drug culture, referenced in innumerable songs. The rap label Swishahouse was the first to really emphasize Swisher blunts above all else, Dean said, for obvious reasons.
Lean is another iconic facet of Houston hip-hop, and is often paired with Swishers. The combination was a major influence on the slurred chopped 'n' screwed style pioneered by DJ Screw. Back then, Dean said, "We used to rub lean on our Swisher Sweets and smoke 'em like that. Makes it bubble."
I asked Dean if he still drinks lean. "No,"he said. "Just when [I] get sick. Codeine, you can't do it all the time. I mean people die from that shit." He added the last sentence with a more forceful tone than anything previously. Both DJ Screw and Pimp C, who Dean met when he was a 15-year-old, overdosed and died from the drug.
Around 1995, Dean went out to LA to take the next step in his music career, where he says weed was much more accessible. Los Angeles had the biggest weed scene out of any other city he'd been to, including New York and Atlanta. "After I went out there, I never really went back to Houston to work much… like what's the point?" He said, referencing the weed. This was stoner humor, visible only in his eyes and the corners of his mouth.
Dean went on to work with a new generation of artists in LA. I asked him who smoked the most out there on the West Coast. He thought for a second. "Daz [Dillinger], Kurupt, Snoop Dogg, of course. Rest of the Dogg Pound. The Outlawz smoked a lot," he said. The Outlawz were Tupac's group, who Dean worked with as well.
"The first day I ever met Tupac, he gave me a half-ounce of weed. Just handed it to me," he remembered. "When we hung out, it was just working on music, smoking, and him writing lyrics [because] he was in the zone. Lot of discussion about current events and shit like that. But that's every rap session. People sit there and talk shit about what's going on in the world and get inspired to write songs."
Dean said weed-smoking is a near-constant source of inspiration at rap sessions. I asked him about any stand-out memories. He mentioned the recording sessions for Kid Cudi's "Marijuana," which Dean contributed a guitar solo to. "That was in Hawaii," he said. "During the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions. I had my own room at the studio. I was upstairs, Kanye was downstairs." "That was probably a 100 blunt day," he said. "All of us, Plain Pat, Emile, Cudi, Anthony Kilhoffer was there." While there was a lot of smoking during those sessions, Kanye refrained. "Kanye and Jay don't smoke, at least not in the studio," Dean said. "They're the only two that don't. Everyone else does," he said, chuckling.
Having grown up an acolyte of Lil Wayne's growl, I've always wondered how blunts impact the voices of hip-hop musicians. I figured Dean, as a sort of weed overlord watching rappers come and go, would be in a prime position to speak on this. "[It] just makes your voice sound cooler," he said. "Like Travis wouldn't sound the same if he didn't smoke so much. Travis smokes constantly—all day."
"It's a pain in the ass working with people who smoke as much as you, because they want to smoke all your weed. That's why I have a girlfriend who doesn't smoke weed," he said, his deadpan resurfacing.
His girlfriend, Louise Donegan, had come in during our conversation, and was sitting across the room. "Just say no, kids!" She said. "Just say ' mo!" Mike replied. "Just say 'mo!"
At this point, we were halfway through the second blunt. I told Mike that I had heard he was the top weed smoker in the game. "That's what they say?" He said, grinning. "I'll challenge anyone," he said. "I can hit more dabs and smoke more blunts than anybody, probably."
So was he then, to be blunt (no pun intended), the biggest smoker in hip-hop? He paused. "One of the top," he said. I know Wiz smokes a lot. Snoop, B-Real [of Cypress Hill], Travis smokes like crazy. I would say top five for sure." He zeroed in on B-Real and Snoop. "I'd say us three are the OGs of the weed smoking game."
But Dean has years on his competition. He's about 15 years older than both B-Real and Snoop. Considering his age, he may have smoked the most blunts out of anyone in hip-hop. When I told him my deduction, he shrugged his shoulders and grinned.
I brought up the story floating around the internet that Dean and Snoop had engaged in a smoke-off. Dean clarified for me. "I've hung out with Snoop a few times, and we'll sit there and go at it. We'll roll up eight blunts each. I'll give him a few of mine, he'll give me a few of his, and we'll just smoke and not pass and see who lasts longer. I'll get pretty stoned by the end," he said. "It's not like there's a winner. I just hang on. Vibe out, work on music."
What of the stories about the "weed bird"? Mike laughed. "I had the bird years ago. It was just a bird, it would fly around and grab your blunts, cigarettes. You'd have to chase him around the house to get them back."
Want more weed stories? Read 'Stoners Explain Why They Prefer Crappy Weed'
After finishing the second blunt and chilling for a bit with Dean in his home studio, I left his apartment and went back out into the real world. I was incredibly stoned. Coming down from a high like that always sucks. Plus I had a ton of schoolwork to do. I ended up smoking three more blunts that day just to stay on that level. But they failed to get me there. Dean, like Moses, had shown me a promised land, via a burning bush.
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