Hip-Hop Hitmaker Mike Will Made It on Miley, Beyonce and His 'Raw and Real' Music
"I do it all, man. I produce, I do my own wardrobe and my own ironing, too!” Mike Will Made It, the hottest producer in hip-hop, is on set at Studio Space in Atlanta, carefully pressing a $1,000 red-and-black-striped Vetements jersey as he prepares to film a cameo for Gucci Mane’s “At Least a M” video. With the Mike Will-produced track blasting over the speakers and the pungent odor of high-grade marijuana choking the air, the soundstage -esembles some sort of Felliniesque hip-hop fever dream: Against a graffitied backdrop, Will mugs for the camera, juggling a half-dozen cellphones; a chalkboard off to one side reads “I Will Not Use Spotify in Class,” Bart Simpson-style; fellow Atlanta music icons Usher and Young Thug mill about, filming a video of their own on a neighboring soundstage. No one seems to bat an eye as a live zebra wends its way through the set. With his 6-foot-2 frame, gold-rimmed Cartier glasses, black beanie cap and that striped, now-wrinkle-free shirt, Will is hard to miss.
“You look like Where’s Waldo in that thing,” cracks someone in his entourage, which includes Atlanta rapper Jace and -various managers.
“That’s exactly the look I was going for,” replies Will, grinning.
Like Waldo, Will seems to be everywhere if you look hard enough. In five years, the 27-year-old producer has gone from creating Future’s hit single “Turn On the Lights” in his mother’s Marietta, Ga., basement, to hand-delivering “Formation” to Beyoncé, a song that ended up eclipsing even the Denver Broncos’ performance at Super Bowl 50 in February. He helped turn Miley Cyrus from Disney Princess to transgressive diva. And most recently, he was the main creative force behind Everybody Looking, producing nine of 12 tracks on the long-awaited Mane album that dropped July 22.
The dueling attractions of pop and hip-hop have preoccupied Will since he was known as Michael Len Williams II, growing up in a middle-class home filled with both 2Pac and Whitney Houston. By 14, he was making beats, which he sold for $100 a pop while he worked bagging groceries at a local Kroger. By the time he had sold one to Mane, the reigning king of Atlanta trap, the then-17-year-old’s fee had risen to four figures. Soon he was working with Kanye West, Rihanna and Jay Z, and by 2013 he had been given his own record label courtesy of former Interscope Records CEO Jimmy Iovine. “When I find someone who’s really good,” says Iovine of Will, “I try to sign them right away. They’re few and far between.”
But this year, with Mane getting out of prison after three years behind bars, Will went back to the guy who gave him his break, using a prison texting system to send the rapper in-depth descriptions of the beats he created for the comeback. Mane supplied the words.
“Gucci’s a different guy now: focused, sobered up. You’re getting his point of view all the way,” says Will. “We wanted this album to be like a mixtape. It’s hard as f—, it’s intense, it’s top-tier trap.”
When they first started working together in 2006, Will and Mane knocked out 20 tracks in three days, one of which inspired Mane to exclaim, “Mike Will made it, Gucci Mane slayed it!” Just like that, the producer had a new name. “I’ve known him since I was 17 years old,” says Will. “If a verse is just OK or his flow could be better, I’m going to be real. If it’s a banger, I’m going to let him know that, too.”
Speaking of bangers, most pop fans first heard the producer’s name at the top of Cyrus’ 2013 hit “We Can’t Stop,” off her critical breakthrough, Bangerz. As her life became grist for the Hollywood gossip mill, it wasn’t long before the ingenue and producer were romantically linked. Today, it’s clear Will’s appreciation is solely platonic. After the video shoot, as he settles behind the wheel of his $150,000 cream-colored Mercedes-Benz S63, Will and his buddy Skeet start discussing the difference between pop and hip-hop.
“All I hear is ‘Yo, that shit you’re making ain’t hip-hop,’ ” says Will, irked. “People told me that Miley’s ‘23’ wasn’t hip-hop. Let me tell you, she went in and owned that track. She smoked more weed in one week than most rappers I know. That song was not some far-fetched thing she had to reach for. She was ill as hell. When people question me about whether something is hip-hop, I ask them, ‘Does it sound hard? Does it hit home? Is it raw and real?’ If it is, I did my job. And you can call it whatever you want.”
Jace, who released his Jace Tape mixtape earlier this year, offers insights into Will’s process: “Mike has a very laissez-faire vibe in the studio. He never comes at you like, ‘I’m a big hitmaker and it’s got to sound like this.’ Unlike a lot of people in hip-hop, Mike doesn’t have that wall around himself -- he can connect with you. That’s why everybody in the world wants to work with him right now.”
Will’s role in Beyoncé’s “Formation” also has contributed to his demand. The producer recalls a 2014 career-altering car trip he took with Swae Lee, one half of the duo Rae Sremmurd, which is signed to Will’s Ear Drummer label. On the drive from Los Angeles to Coachella, Will played Lee a beat that his staff producer and former classmate A Pluss had created, and Lee started freestyling. The word “formation” came out of his mouth. Two years later, Beyoncé stopped the Super Bowl with her performance of the anthem.
“She went out there and empowered her people,” says Will. “She’s telling our people to be proud of our wide nostrils -- something Michael Jackson was so ashamed of, he changed his face. She used ‘Formation’ to make people feel confident. That’s the best history to be a part of.”
As Atlanta’s 55-story Bank of America skyscraper looms on the horizon, and the smoke of a freshly rolled blunt fills the air, Will reflects on life as a black man in America. Sure, he says, he “definitely” has been racially profiled. But rather than resent those who assume the worst when they see him in a luxury car, “I just feel sorry for them,” he says. “It’s like not being able to operate an iPhone in 2016. ‘You’re still looking at color? Are you a caveman?’ ”
For now, Will wants to expand his brand to include film production and content creation. There also is Ransom 2, his long-awaited mixtape that he hopes to drop by the end of the year. Contemplating his future, Will relates a conversation he had with Iovine in 2013 at the Floyd Mayweather-Robert Guerrero fight in Las Vegas. As 13 of his tracks played over the MGM Grand Garden Arena’s PA system, Will realized he unofficially had created the fight’s playlist. Iovine turned to him and said, “You’re the only young producer out there making hip-hop pop.” Will recalls arguing with the music mogul, advocating that hip-hop could never be pop. “Jimmy told me, ‘Oh, yeah? 2Pac, Diddy and Kanye all did it. ‘Pop’ is just short for ‘popular.’ They just played 13 of your songs during a boxing match! Quit f—ing around and do your own thing,’ ” recalls Will, adding, “That’s how you change the game.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 6 issue of Billboard.