'Lemonade' Producer Mike Dean Gives the Behind-the-Scenes Scoop on Beyoncé's Opus
Mike Dean's music bona fides range from touring as a musical director for late singer Selena, producing and recording with Tupac and being a go-to Kanye West collaborator (he's worked with West from his demo to The Life of Pablo). Recently, the Houston native played a part in writing and producing Lemonade, Beyoncé’s recent opus.
Billboard caught up with the Houston native in his TriBeCa apartment in lower Manhattan. In between rolling up Swishers and playing unreleased Desiigner songs from his home studio, Dean discussed behind-the-scenes details about his Lemonade sessions with Beyoncé (which were two years in the making) and how he stays on the cutting edge of music.
You wrote and produced “Love Drought” with Beyoncé on Lemonade. What were those sessions like?
We were in the studio together. Just writing sessions. Lotta producers, lotta singers. We'd just have them all collaborate. “Love Drought” was one of the songs that we made. I was just lucky enough for it to make the album. It didn’t change from the day we recorded it. It’s been the same for a couple years. I can’t really talk about that stuff though.
How do you and Beyoncé decide what made the cut with so many people in the room?
It just depends on what the whole crowd likes, I think -- what moves people. The studio is kind of like a focus group. It’s like a constant focus group, 24 hours a day. When you’re not in the studio you’re always texting or talking about it.
It’s been a kind of a whirlwind these past several months, starting with Travis Scott's album.
Yeah, it’s been crazy. [Rodeo] was the first time I ever executive produced, which is pretty dope. We’re about to do the same thing on his new album. Think we’ll start up as soon as he finishes up the tour with Rihanna. Anthony Kilhoffer (Kanye’s engineer) first brought Travis around. He discovered [Travis] on Twitter. Then I started working with him shortly after that. Travis used to hit me and Anthony on Twitter everyday for like two years back in like 2010, 2011. We kind of ignored him and then…
Then you’re executive producing his album.
Yeah. I love how it came out. The sound, the mixing, the mastering… I hadn’t mixed and mastered a whole album in a long time so that was pretty cool because that’s how I feel an album should sound.
How is it transitioning from that type of principle role to working with Yeezy where you’re adding your piece to a bigger mosaic?
I mean Travis is kind of like that now so he has a lot of people do a lot of stuff on the track but I had the final mix and master say. With Kanye, yeah, it’s more of a group effort all the way till the end. Towards the end of the album, when we started having all the people coming by it got pretty crazy. Me and Plain Pat had our own room in the back of the studio. We kind of stayed back there while all the action was going on. There’s not a specific creative process with Kanye. It’s kind of different every time.
You told me around the time that Yeezus came out that the reason you’re consistently present on Kanye’s albums is if Kanye doesn’t like a song or idea, you’ve got twelve more. Is that still your approach?
Yeah it’s the same. It’ll always be the same with him, I think. It takes real patience and real… what does [Kanye] say? Kung fu skills [laughs]. I have more insight than most people that work with him but you never know. It changes day to day.
We spent a couple of weeks in L.A. just working on songs for him. “The Frequency” came out of that. We’ve got a good part of an album started. He’s rapping again, which is really dope. Back to his essence. We both had birthdays in the studio last month and we were both together on both birthdays, so it was a cool time. He would just jump on the mic and make a song in like five minutes.
Do you see yourself executive producing more now that you got a taste for it?
Yeah, I’m supposed to be doing Sky Ferreira’s album, which is kind of a scheduling nightmare. I’m doing Travis’ album, I’m executive producing Desiigner’s album…
How is it working with Desiigner?
He’s a lot more of an artist than you think he is. He’s not just some Future knockoff. He talks like that -- he sounds like he’s got Auto-Tune on his voice in real life. He talks like Future raps, which is weird.
It’s crazy he’s from Brooklyn.
I don’t know where he got his music influence. Just like that old shit that I had, the shit with A$AP Rocky and Yams and all that shit. Like Yams said they grew up on that music on the Internet. Me and Plain Pat were talking about Desiigner. To older people, listening to music is like soul music or old rock music. To Desiigner though [what’s out now] is all the music he knows.
What’s up with that artwork on your SoundCloud?
It’s for the song I made at Moog. It’s called “Grand Faucon,” which is French for big hawk or falcon. The whole time I was mixing the record this art was sitting here so when I finished it I figured I’d use that for the artwork. My girlfriend Louise Donegan made it. It’s kind of the reason I put the record on SoundCloud, to help her with her upcoming art show.
How do you always manage to stay not just relevant but on the cutting edge?
Working with Kanye -- he keeps me up on all the brand-new shit that’s out. Plain Pat’s always on top of shit. They’ll tell me something is cool and I’ll study it. Sometimes I’ll go work with the producers who made the shit. Got to learn their tricks. Like I’m on Fruity Loops right now. I bought a PC, plug-ins. Now I’m making music the way 16, 17 year olds are making it. Which is the sound of the radio right now. Either join them or get run over by them.
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 14 issue of Billboard.