If you know Mike Dean, then you know Mike Dean. The 55 year-old Texan instrumentalist (not the English football referee!) has produced on every Kanye West record since 2007 album Graduation and picked up credits for Frank Ocean's Blonde and Endless projects, and several records by 2 Chainz. The list goes on: Travis Scott, Beyonce, Yung Lean, Kid Cudi, Madonna, UGK. It's a lot.
Like most of us in Covid-19 lockdown, the Grammy-winning producer has had a wealth of free time. For him, that's meant space to experiment, smoke weed – and, ultimately, release an album. Titled 4:20, it is as psychedelic as one might expect from a record named after the international clock time for smoking weed, full of interstellar synths and galactic riffs. Recorded over several days worth of Instagram Live sessions and pieced up into 28 tracks, it's probably the first weed adjacent project that's been pulled off in lockdown that doesn't involve a pizza or fashioning a Jesus spliff.
I Zoomed up Mike for a chat about that album, with the intention of chatting more generally about the artists he's worked with over the decades, going back to his early years with the likes of 90s rapper Scarface. Instead, it was a mostly lightly stoned conversation with an interruption in the middle – long live video call interviews! Here we go.
VICE: I see you’re smoking – do you wake and bake?
Mike Dean: Yeah, definitely. This is my second joint of the day.
How many do you usually get through?
I dunno. Eight to 12.
It’s fitting for the album. It sounds mad trippy. What was the intention going in?
Something real pure and simple. Well, not very simple [laughs]. Instead of using multiple oscillators on the synths… on the two moogs I was playing the bass and the leads on I used one oscillator. It was a purer sound wave.
Had you gone into the studio with an idea of where you wanted the record to sit, genre wise?
It was just off the cuff. Every day I’d go in for five minutes and pull up a live stream, tweet my sounds, figure out what tempo I was going to go at that day, maybe come up with a riff, maybe play around with the riff or go in cold.
It’s come out well for something off the cuff.
It’s pretty cool. Everything except for the three shorter songs have production and drums and it’s all live. There’s no overdubs. No post-production.
What were you smoking on while making it?
Uh, Jet Fuel, Biscotti.
I’ve never tried Jet Fuel but we get Biscotti here in the UK. Do you find different strains help with recording and writing different music?
Jet Fuel is good all round creatively. It doesn’t make you too tired. It’s a mood stabiliser weed.
Of everyone you’ve worked with previously, who has been the most 4/20 friendly?
Uhmmmm. Devin the Dude? 2 Chainz. Travis [Scott] smokes a lot.
Who rolls the best blunts?
Probably me? Nah, I quit smoking blunts about three months ago now.
Let’s dive into your discography. The breadth of artists you’ve worked with spans decades now. What’s your technique for getting into the heads of the acts you produce for and nailing what it is they want to create?
You have to listen a lot. You have to understand what the artist wants but also push them into what you think it should be also. You’ve got to keep your head focused on what they want though.
So it’s about following their vision and nudging it along? Have there ever been moments where you’ve had to step in?
There are moments. It’s probably 50/50. There are moments I’m pushing for something I like, but the artist may not like, so I’ll push for that.
Can you think of an example where you’ve pushed and it’s worked out?
Not really with Travis. He normally goes with anything. Kanye, though....
[What I assume to be an email notification sounds and Mike trails off… staring into the depths of his laptop screen. There’s a long and awkward pause]. You were saying?
[Keyboard sounds]. Sorry, I’ve got an email.
[more keyboard sounds]. Sorry. This is rude.
[A minute passes]
You were saying Travis is ok to go with everything, but Kanye isn’t?
Yeah. A lot of time Kanye has his mind set on stuff and I’ll be pushing an idea back at him. “Good Life” was a good example [of when pushing back worked]. You know how the chorus goes to different chords and it’s a whole different thing? Before I worked on the song it was just the verse part looped over and over with the chorus and nothing really changing. I was calling him for a week or two, we were switching it back and forth – and I finally won on that. It came out as a classic.
Yeah. “Good Life” is still one of my early morning tunes. How has your and Kanye’s relationship changed over the years? You worked on Jesus Is King and Jesus Is Born. Was that maybe out of your comfort zone?
Nah, it doesn’t matter. It’s a good idea for an album too, mixing in the choir. It’s a nice body to his music. He’s gotten more delicate too [laughs]. He delegates stuff. I don’t know where he’s at right now, I haven’t seen him since the Jesus Is King album. I’m interested to see where he’s at.
You’re planning to put out a collab album after this one right? Who is gonna be involved? What’s it gonna sound like?
It’s gonna be the greatest thing ever. Just imagine all the artists I’ve worked with and them all pulled together on an album. Me and Travis. [Kid] Cudi. Sheck Wes. He’s actually really interested in getting into stuff on 4:20, which is cool. I’m thinking about doing a deluxe situation, getting people to sing and rap on three or four songs. It’ll give the album more life, more attention, you know.
That could be sick.
I’m thinking to put Abel [The Weeknd] on something.
Will there be something that ties all the artists together? What are you looking for?
I like to put people in together to have them in together, you know what I mean? Then I’d like to have people that haven’t been together in a while. I’d love to see Jay Z and Kanye on a song, if that’s possible. That would be cool.
Obviously, you’re not going to be on the road for ages, but are there any moments that stand out from the past? You were on tour with both Kanye and Travis for a big portion of their career so far.
Kanye I played every show from 2010 up until the whole Sunday Service thing he started. I would play keyboard and guitar and the last six years DJing. It’s just fun. Travis I pop up in LA and New York, Houston – whenever he does a big Coachella set or something like that.
What moment stands out from those shows?
Glastonbury was sick, with Kanye. Travis at Coachella was awesome. Another one is Hackney Festival [BBC Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend] with Jay Z and Kanye. I broke my toe the night before that. It was the last night of the Watch The Throne tour and I landed on my foot and broke my big toe [laughs]. It happened at the airport. We were jumping across a ditch and landing on the edge of a concrete.
Damn. I’ll leave the interview there. Thanks Mike.
4:20 is out now via Platoon.