The 89th Academy Awards
Mike Will Made It: The Billboard Cover Story
How the man behind Kanye West's "Mercy" and Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop" became the hottest producer in the Game
PatchWerk Recording Studios is housed in a light gray concrete bunker tucked behind a busy McDonald's on a tight corner on Atlanta's Westside. On a hot Friday in early June, Mike Williams, who produces under the moniker Mike Will Made It and is known to pretty much everyone as simply Mike Will, is behind the wheel of his silver BMW X6 on the street outside PatchWerk, indulging in a quick nostalgia trip.
"That's where it all got started for me, over there," he says, pointing to the studio. Will, 24, is wearing a red "Diamond Homegrown" shirt, long camouflage shorts, black Pumas and a gold chain. He was 16 when he began hanging around PatchWerk, working with the rapper Blaze, crafting beats and trying to force his way into the music business. One night, he saw his opening when Gucci Mane-who at the time was a successful Atlanta street rapper with some significant underground hits to his name ("Icy," "Freaky Gurl")-dropped by PatchWerk to record.
"Gucci was upstairs, so I went and gave him a beat CD," Will says. Gucci listened and offered him $1,000 cash on the spot for one of the beats. "I was like, 'Man, you've got to holler at my people,'" Will says with a laugh. "I didn't even have no people. He was like, 'I like you. You're a little player.'"
Will's bravado ended up bungling that particular deal, but he and Gucci stayed in touch. Eventually, they got in the studio together and recorded 20 songs in three days-"All mixtape joints," Will says-which led to work for him with other rising Atlanta rappers, including 2 Chainz (then known as Tity Boi), Future, Waka Flocka Flame and Rocko. In those days, Will says, it was common for him to leave nearby 11th Street Studios, where he was working with Future, to come to PatchWerk to work with Gucci, then stop by another area studio, Hot Beats, to work with Rocko, and then maybe go to the Southside of town where 2 Chainz was recording.
"We used to be out here all night," he says. "I might end up going home at four or five in the morning. There were no days off. I wasn't out here playing."
On the surface, much has changed for Will since his days as a hungry, tireless up-and-comer. Today, he's a marquee producer sporting a resume stocked with hits, including Future's "Turn On the Lights"; Kanye West's "Mercy"; 2 Chainz' "No Lie" featuring Drake; Rihanna's "Pour It Up"; Lil Wayne, Drake and Future's "Love Me"; and, most recently, Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop." Collectively, these six songs have sold 9.3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But his inner hustle remains the same.
This is an important moment for Will. His recent work with Cyrus is indicative of the difficult transition he's making from gritty mixtape producer to versatile pop songsmith. Besides the upcoming Carey sessions, he produced one track for Jay Z's "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail" and is working on the upcoming album from Jamie Foxx. Already his ubiquity on the Billboard charts during the past year has put him on the precipice of joining an elite club of brand-name producers like Timbaland, Pharrell, Diplo and Dr. Luke whose work can often overshadow that of the artists they collaborate with.
Whether Will can continue his ascent will depend a lot on what happens in the next year or so. His production team is growing and he's now working on signing songwriters, A&R reps and artists to EarDrummers, turning it from a boutique production company into a full-fledged record label. In May, he released an EP of jazz-tinged instrumental tracks called #FuckVerses, and on Aug. 26 he'll release "23" featuring Cyrus, Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J (see story, page 26), the first single from his debut album, Est. in 1989 Pt. 3 (The Album). Like any business expansion, the trick will be for Will to pull all this off without losing sight of what got him this far in the first place.
"I'm always that dude that's looking for the next thing," he says. "I've just got to keep a balanced head and stay focused."
THIS IS AN EXCERPT: BUY THIS ISSUE FOR MORE ON WILL'S EARLY DAYS OF MIXTAPES AND WORK WITH DJ DRAMA
Will's first hit came in 2011, on Meek Mill's high-energy "Tupac Back" (featuring Rick Ross), which reached No. 31 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 21 on the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart and has sold 176,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The more he worked, the more Will realized he wanted to be what he calls "a real producer," not simply a guy hunched over his laptop making beats and then sending them out.
"I started bringing some weird, different beats, and rappers were just like, 'What the hell is this? You got something else?'" he recalls. "I realized they can't really rap on that because it's not sounding like nobody else's [material]." When he brought Future the beat for "Ain't No Way Around It," the rapper wasn't interested. "I played him that beat 10 times. Every day I went into the studio like, 'This beat is it!,' and he was like, 'Nah, I don't like it.' Finally, it was two in the morning and he was like, 'Bro, you got some beats?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I got that same beat. I'm telling you, put some melody on it. It's going to be crazy.'"
Will finally wore Future down, but it still took the rapper several months to finish the track. Once he did, "Ain't No Way Around It" turned into a breakout song for Future. Their next single together, the moody "Turn On the Lights," peaked at No. 2 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100. (It has sold 686,000 copies.) Shortly thereafter, Will scored his first No. 1 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs with 2 Chainz' "No Lie" (1.4 million copies sold). He says several other important singles, like Jeezy's "Way Too Gone" and Yo Gotti's "Cases," only happened after he displayed similar stubbornness. It's a quality that hasn't gone unnoticed.
Sean Garrett, who has written and produced songs for Usher, Chris Brown, Britney Spears and others, first connected with Will on that Brandy song and later collaborated with him on several songs for Cyrus' album. "A lot of these things he's doing now we spoke about a year-and-a-half ago," he says. "He always talked about being a great producer all across the board, not just one area. His vision was so much wider than what people expected from him. He didn't want to be in a box."
Will's work on Cyrus' upcoming album looks likely to be the one that breaks him out of that box for good. He had the idea for "We Can't Stop" and initially considered it for Rihanna, but once Cyrus heard it, she jumped on it. "I was in the middle of a bar when they played it for me," she says. "I got up and started dancing with the headphones on because I was so into it."
Will wasn't that familiar with Cyrus' music-though growing up in Georgia, he knew her father Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy-Breaky Heart," all too well-and approached the session with few preconceived notions.
NEXT PAGE: 'ME AND MILEY JUST CLICKED'
"Me and Miley just clicked," he says. "She has good ideas. She's real creative. Her whole thing is she's getting older so her sound is evolving, but she doesn't want to reach too far. 'We Can't Stop' has so many different vibes to it. She sounds country; the beat has these live, knocking drums; and then it has these pop melodies. It's a feel-good record."
Will and Cyrus were so happy with "We Can't Stop" that they worked together on nine more tracks, eight of which will appear on her album. As she puts it, although the two seem like strange bedfellows, they found they had a lot in common.
"He's been making beats since he was 16," Cyrus says. "Maybe it was on a different scale-he was with Gucci and I was with Disney-but we were both working, doing what we got to do, when we were young. Now, because we've been successful enough, we can make whatever we want. So I think him and I are at the same place in our life now: He's trying to break into my world a little bit, and I'm going into his world a little bit."
At this point, Will doesn't have a singular, signature sound that listeners can identify as soon as they hear it, but that's hardly a knock against him. In fact, as fellow Atlanta native Reid points out, it's what has allowed him to hop, skip and jump from underground rap to pop and back.
"Whenever anyone can move from mixtapes to R&B to mainstream pop, it has to do with how they've grown up and the music they've been exposed to," Reid says. "If you grow up in Atlanta, dancing matters. Strip clubs really are a part of Atlanta culture. Pop radio is real. R&B radio is real. He's tasted a little bit of everything Southern music has to offer so he has a very special sound. It feels a little bit hip-hop, a little bit R&B and a little bit ratchet."
Will also has a clever musical marketing hook: Every one of his productions is tagged in the first 30 seconds with a voice intoning, "Mike Will made it." It's the equivalent of having a catchy advertising jingle embedded into all his work.
"People know his name," Reid says. "I have a 10-year-old son who knows Mike Will Made It. He doesn't know who the guy is, but he knows that if it says that at the front of the record that it's a good record."