Photo by Max Hliva, courtesy of Mike WiLL Made-It
Right now, above all, Mike WiLL Made-It seems excited. If the obvious dream of any producer is to make it to pop's big leagues, to work with people like Rihanna and Miley Cyrus, to rack up hit singles, the dream of a producer who has done those things—that is, Mike WiLL—is just to keep doing cool shit. To not, I infer, become the kind of person who just rides out their good fortune of having made it into the music industry's inner sanctum.
One could be forgiven for assuming this kind of coasting is what Mike WiLL has been doing for the last year or so, though. After two years of scoring basically all of rap and pop radio, he was scarce in 2014, and the charts belonged instead to Los Angeles's DJ Mustard. But Mike WiLL wasn't throwing up bricks: He executive produced Future's excellent album Honest, and he helped launch two of the year's most celebrated new artists, iLoveMakonnen and Rae Sremmurd, into the mainstream. Mike WiLL pulled the former out of obscurity, producing songs like “Wishing You Well” for him and connecting him to the broader Atlanta music scene, while he signed the latter to his label and coached them into the enviable position of having their first two singles, “No Type” and “No Flex Zone,” both land in the top 40. He contributed to two of the year's most anticipated rap albums, Lil Wayne's Tha Carter V and Nicki Minaj's The Pinkprint. Oh, and there's new Miley Cyrus music in the works (six songs are done so far). She's recording at home over the beats he sends her, and it sounds crazy: He plays me a couple songs off his phone, and it's like country Lana Del Rey backed by a choir, except it's Miley pouring her heart out.
Mike WiLL's ear is still as sharp as ever—maybe sharper—and he continues to be a magnet for the weird, the emotionally raw, and the unrelentingly risk-taking while figuring out how to make those things intersect with his pop instincts. As it recedes from being such a hot-button cultural issue, Mike WiLL's artistic partnership with Miley Cyrus increasingly feels like one of the most fortuitous, perfectly timed musical collisions of the last few years: Mike WiLL went from A-list hip-hop producer to A-list producer period, and Miley found the perfect collaborator to help her establish a distinctive lane for herself just as she risked becoming a Disney-star-gone-bad punchline. This ability to fit pop music into the world of his production is Mike WiLL's talent, though, and it's something we discussed when he stopped by the VICE offices last week. Where it leads him—and us, the listeners—next will be worth watching.
For now, though, Mike WiLL's focus is a mixtape of original songs with some of the collaborators that helped him become someone worth paying attention to in the first place. Due December 15, Ransom is Mike WiLLl's first full-length project of entirely original material, and it features contributions from artists like Future, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, and Chief Keef. It's not intended to skew pop in any sense; tracks with hot artists like Chance the Rapper, Jeremih, and Tinashe were cut in favor of keeping a unified, street-oriented feel to the project and making sure it was something people would listen to front-to-back in their cars. That may come across as a conservative move, but where Mike WiLL's enthusiasm leads, people's attention tends to follow.
With a producer tape like this, I think the assumption might be that these are somehow lesser tracks that artists didn’t want. Like DJ Mustard put out an album this year while he had all these hits on the radio, and people were just like “oh, that’s cool,” but it didn’t really get the same traction as those songs. Are you worried about getting overlooked at all?
Nah. I feel like when I came in the game, I was more focused on like, “yo how many times can I get on the radio?” Juicy J told me something when I first started. He was like “man, yo, as long as you keep a song in the top ten on the urban charts, you’ll never go broke. As soon as one song going down, you need to have another song coming up.” So I went and put like seven in the top ten. Like fuck this, I’m not trying to go broke. And then like right after that, I had 13 songs in the top 100 or some weird number.
I had that shit last year, and it was like, this year, we got two songs from Rae Sremmurd, period. Both of them shits went top 40. That was enough if I was chasing radio. I feel like Rae Sremmurd is just a whole new sound culturally. People don’t understand, but they learn to understand. The melody choice is different and everything. So that was enough as far as chasing radio on the radio side. Ransom is more of a mixtape. It’s not really just catered to the radio and stuff like that.
How do you find new talent like Makonnen and Rae Sremmurd?
I feel like I’m cut from the same cloth as them. Four years ago—that raw talent of trying to get seen, trying to get heard, trying to get people on my beats, trying to get out here and work— I was like that raw talent. Rae Sremmurd, when I first saw them, they were in a basement rapping their ass off. The beat is going, one of them is just rapping so hard he’s jumping up and down almost hitting his head on the ceiling fan, and his brother is there ad libbing with him, and then he jumped in and started rapping. And as soon as the beat goes off they’re quiet and humble, and they listen to everything.
When I saw them, I saw the hunger, in that basement working everyday. They weren’t going to clubs. They weren’t fucking with girls. They were recording every single day. We started working and were staying at my crib, living and working in the basement. They worked sun up sun down or whatever. Whenever they get to the house they’re looking for the studio. And so they were cut from that cloth because that’s how we are. I love being in the studio.
I found Makonnen on YouTube, and I just heard his voice. His shit was super raw. Just in the basement. People would ask me like “why the fuck are you fucking with this dude? He’s weird. He’s got on a mask.” And I was like “this dude is like a rock star to me.”
We’re the same age. We’re both Aries and shit. We were talking, and he was like “damn I didn’t even know you were 25. I always heard Mike WiLL Made-It, but I thought that was some 38-year-old legend.” He came to the studio, and he was making up words to songs and shit, and I was just like yo, bro, you’re dope as fuck. I’m a fan. I can hear past this raw shit because I used to record on this shit and all my shit used to sound fucked up, but I knew that it was a hit in my head. I see what you’re trying to do. You don’t have a dime in your pocket, and you don’t have a studio, and you’re making this shit? This shit is hard as fuck.
My whole direction with Makonnen was alternative shit. That’s where we never really saw eye to eye. I saw him like a new Prince. He was like, “I like that kind of music and see myself doing that type of stuff too, but that shit is farfetched.” He was like “man, I’ve got to drop right now. I’ve got to feed the streets.” I was like “no, bro, you feed the streets to get here, in my fucking kitchen. You’re here. Please do not get into that mind frame of feeding the streets. You could be making a hundred thousand dollars a show.” That was my vision. We just had two different views.
With the Miley album, everyone talks about how you came in and gave her this hip-hop sound. But I would imagine that working on like a huge pop album like that, you probably learned a lot, too. Did that change the way you think about music?
I understood it like that, but I never really had the outlet. The only outlets I ever had were Future or Gucci or 2 Chainz. I was in Atlanta. What pop stars are from Atlanta? Me and Future were trying to do shit like that with “Turn On The Lights,” with “Neva End.” One thing Jimmy Iovine told me when I first met him in 2012, he was like “Mike, you really have the capability to be like Dr. Dre and Puff and Timbaland and Pharrell—they made hip-hop music pop. You need to do that.” I was coming from straight mixtape shit. I didn’t know Top 40. Top 40 was impossible to me at this point. A platinum record was impossible to me. But then when “No Lie” went top 40 I was like “oh, my sound really can cross over.”
So that was my goal: How do I make pop music urban? And how do we get rid of pop music? Because really there’s no sound in pop music. That fist pump or dubstep sound, that’s not just pop music. That was just the sound that was popular at the time. I was like, how do I make my sound popular? They put me in with Rihanna. We came up with “Pour It Up,” and then that was another one that went on all the charts.
I was like, “what’s really going to do it is I’ve got to get with another pop artist.” I did “We Can’t Stop” for Rihanna, but it never worked. Every time I would play We Can’t Stop I was like “this is the new Party in the USA.” I was like OK if I keep saying this is the new Party in the USA, why don’t I go to the girl who did “Party in the USA?” I didn’t know what Miley Cyrus was doing at the time.
The next week, I was at RCA, playing some records. I didn’t even know that was Miley’s label. They heard “We Can’t Stop” and were like “these melodies, this whole shit is crazy. This would work for Miley Cyrus.” And I was like look at my phone! I just told my manager the same thing! We knocked out “We Can’t Stop,” and at first she was trying to sound like the demo I was like “don’t sound like the demo. Keep that country twang. You’re from Nashville.” She kept it all the way her, and she killed “We Can’t Stop.”
“We Can’t Stop” took a big turn for pop culture. That made Madonna start putting in grills. That made all the pop chicks start putting in grills. All the pop records, they were either ballads or extra fist pump-y. Now people weren’t scared to do mid-tempo records. And “23” put a real turn on it because now you’ve got Katy Perry doing “Dark Horse” with Juicy J. You never heard Katy Perry do a fucking song with Juicy J. You know? Or do a record with the bounce. That shit is dope as fuck, seeing that. It made everything Jimmy Iovine ever told me make sense. You can make your sound go pop. It just took time for me to see it.
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