If you’re a hip-hop fan it’s almost impossible not to know the name Mike Dean, as his sound is woven so deeply into the last quarter century of music. A low-key legend who prefers to let his music do the talking, Dean’s back catalog boasts Dirty South pioneers Scarface of the Geto Boys, UGK (Underground Kingz), Tha Dogg Pound, and Tech N9ne, along with Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z, and Travis Scott. Since 2004 he’s been the right-hand man in the studio, as well as on tour, with Kanye West. Sitting down with us, Dean hits rewind and takes readers on a rare tour back through the creation of some of his greatest hits.
courtesy of Moog
You were something of a musical prodigy growing up.
My sister and brother both played music; they both played saxophone and my sister played piano. My mother is an art teacher, and I think I was 8 or 9 when I started playing piano and saxophone.
Were there any instructors who played a special role in mentoring your musical development?
My piano teacher, Jane Ambuhl, was important in my musical development. I took piano lessons with her and she didn’t let me play by ear for years. [laughs] She wanted me to read music. My whole technique of playing came from her. She taught me how to hold my hands right, and I also took lots of music theory classes. She took me to the Music Teachers’ National Association competition each year, which I always won.
Are there any other musical styles, outside of rap, that were an influence on shaping your chops as a player growing up?
As a teenager I listened to classic rock like Pink Floyd, Bad Company, and Black Sabbath, but not really R&B so much. My first band, Freight, was in the ninth grade, and we played classic rock and Southern rock, like 38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd. To date all my bass parts are like old Cream; Jack Bruce.
How did you first discover sound recording?
When I was in my second or third band, they had a Tascam 4-track reel-to-reel and that was my first experience recording and overdubbing.
You got your start playing guitar for the Latin pop star Selena.
I’d known since I was a kid that I was going into music professionally. Once I started playing, that’s all I wanted. When I graduated high school in 1983 I had a scholarship to Eastman School of Music in Rochester and Berklee College of Music in Boston, but I had an offer to go out on the road playing for Selena that was too hard to turn down.
Touring with Selena at 18 must have been like a college education in and of itself.
It was all new to me. I learned a lot of new chords, and learned a lot of chord progressions. It’s a little different the way Mexican musicians interpret music. I played with her for three or four years, and I was really into that Latin music scene for a while; the Afro-Cuban and Cuban-style music.
When you left Selena’s band, what was your studio rig like?
I was 23 or 24, at that point, and had a couple of drum machines. My first was a Sequential Circuits DrumTraks and the Alesis HR-16. My first recording machine was the Commodore 64 [computer]. It changed my life because I could do eight tracks, which was a big deal back then.
Rap-A-Lot Records was your first gig as a sound engineer and in-house session musician. How did you first get your foot in that door?
Peter Reardon [owner of Shadow Hills Industries] was the Geto Boys and Rap-A-Lot’s in-house engineer, and I hired him to mix the Odd Squad [Fadanuf Fa Erybody] album. He told [Rap-A-Lot’s founder] James Prince about me. James put me on a weekly salary and in the studio to learn.
You worked closely with N.O. Joe, and the sound you two created together with Scarface took him to # 1 with The World is Yours album in 1993.
N.O. Joe came into Rap-A-Lot about that same time, and he was working with Scarface while I was working with [producer] John Bido. In my sessions with Joe, I was the engineer and he was the producer. He saw that I played a few instruments and started having me play on records; not as a producer, but just as a player. That led up to me starting to produce. Joe was the first one to show me how to play an [Akai] MPC, a sampling drum machine – all the drum machines before that had preset sounds.
How was the landscape different from producing hip-hop records today?
First and foremost, there wasn’t any sample clearance back then! [laughs] You could sample anything you wanted. There were no rules. We would change sounds up just enough to make it “legal” so James Prince didn’t have to pay the clearance fees.
Scarface is listed as a co-producer on his seminal album The Diary. Did he bring something to the table, on the production side?
Face played a big role in developing the sound of the album. Back then he dabbled in keyboards and guitar, because all his uncles played. He could D.J. and scratch, and he had a very credible musical sensibility. We were way different from one another in the way we played, and that helped us create some really unique music. Marley Marl was the one who taught me and Scarface tricks with sampling, as well as how to make [Roland TR-]808s work right. He showed up at the studio in Houston and stayed a few days, which was cool.
You and N.O. Joe explored the concept of recording and then sampling your own original musical performances, versus sampling previously recorded records. What was your studio setup back then?
I used either an Ensoniq EPS keyboard or the Ensoniq ASR-10 for sampling. We played through that with the guitar, and used the effects on the guitars, like adding the echoes. I used a Korg M3 synth as my go-to electric piano. My keyboard playing style on that album came from jazz band in high school playing a lot of Chick Corea, as well as mixing it all up together with chords I learned from Selena’s family. All of that meshed into that style.
You are part of that rare club of hip-hop producers who got a chance to work with Tupac Shakur, recording one of his final singles, “Smile” – a duet with Scarface. What it was like to be in the studio recording 2Pac?
We were in the studio with Pac the day they did that. They originally laid that song down to another beat, which was kind of wack. After he died, I got the a cappella vocals back, re-did the music, played all the keys on it, and Tone Capone did the drums. Musically that track is all the Korg Trinity. That album [Scarface’s The Untouchable] is Korg Trinity heavy, but we had a lot of gear: 10 or 15 keyboards in the studio, ARPs, you name it. The Korg had just come out, as had Pro Tools, which I used when I recorded “Smile,” editing Pac’s vocals. I like it because you can produce a lot faster. I’ve always worked digitally. Even way back when we were recording Geto Boys, it was all recorded digitally.
You’ve got an impressive catalog as a mixer: Scarface’s The Fix, Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Snoop Dogg’s Doggumentary, and Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail among countless others.
When I first started mixing at Rap-A-Lot, back in 92, I did early records for the label like Player’s Choice by Too Much Trouble and 5th Ward Boyz’ Ghetto Dope and Gangsta Funk. By the mid-1990s, I’d mixed Scarface’s The Untouchable album and then the Geto Boys’ Da Good Da Bad & Da Ugly. Then I mixed Scarface’s The Fix. When I’m mixing, I start out with drums. For me, it’s all about kick, snare, and vocals; everything else is just extra bullshit. That used to be my philosophy, and it still is. You’ve got to understand the relationship between notes and frequencies, because every note is a frequency and every octave is double that frequency. If you understand that, and you can see that in music then, when you’re producing, you can make sure its harmonically correct.
Your collaboration with Kanye West has been going strong for over a decade now. You graduated from mixing to becoming a co-producer, as well as performing multiple instruments on his records, including the hit “Stronger.”
I played the synthesizers on “Stronger,” and I used the same equipment in the studio that I used live. It’s awesome working with Kanye, especially with samples, because he takes sounds I would never think to sample and chops it up like nobody would ever chop it up, which is really cool.
What gets you most excited about making records these days?
It’s new gear and new software. Digging through new sounds and making new sounds. I use Ableton [Live] for making music. I’ve got Moog Voyagers, a Roland Juno 106, and the [Korg] Triton in my studio now, and I also use every piece of software I can get my hands on. I like to record with either a [Neumann] U67 or a Sony C800G vocal mic.
Your sound is imprinted on so many hits. Do you have any favorites?
I’d probably say all of them. I really like “Smile,” [Kanye’s] “Good Life,” and “Stronger.” I think that was the sound of an era.
Any advice you’d share with those young producers who grew up on your sound?
First and foremost, I always treat every session like a normal day. You have to keep your feet on the ground. No one respects you if you’re starstruck.