Wherever Mike Dean is positioned in a room, no matter how big or small, he wields all the power.
You might not have spotted the top-tier hip-hop producer and multi-instrumentalist at the top of Atlanta’s 71,000-person-capacity Mercedes-Benz Stadium two months ago, but he was there, playing the music Kanye West presented to the world during the listening parties for his record-breaking Billboard 200 No. 1 album Donda. At the end of August, it was still hard to make out his cloaked figure amid the thick haze — a combination of machine-generated fog and clouds of THC smoke Dean himself produces — and blinding multi-colored strobe lights, while he was center stage at Los Angeles’ 780-person-capacity Echoplex.
Dean, 56, hosted two sold-out concerts at the L.A. venue on Aug. 21 and 22, improvising synths and performing songs from both of his instrumental albums, 2020’s 4:20 and 2021’s 4:22. The mega-producer also released the 21-track ECHOPLEX (Live 2021) visual album, directed and produced by Jonathan Josell and executive produced by Dean, John McGuire and Eric Gorleski, exclusively on Apple Music Sept. 3 — while the standard, audio-only project is available on all digital and streaming platforms. For the casual listener, it feels like living inside the outro of a Kanye or Travis Scott song for an entire hour and a half.
Those two artists’ discographies, which include a combined 13 Billboard 200 No. 1 albums that Dean contributed his Midas touch to — plus his work with legendary musicians such as 2Pac, Selena Quintanilla, Madonna, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and The Weeknd — have cemented Dean as one of the best producers of the 21st century. Dean, also known by his legion of devoted followers as the “Synth God,” is a household name just like the acts he works closely with.
“I hate when interviews start with ‘Kanye West producer Mike Dean,'” he tells Billboard over Zoom from his California home studio, its setup bearing similar resemblance to his Echoplex shows, where the synths revolve around the one who breathes life into them. “I’m Mike Dean.”
A man subject to many Donda memes, Dean has seen them all about West calling him in the middle of his second Atlanta listening event (which Dean confirmed was because of a mixing mistake, in a since-deleted tweet) as well as Dean allegedly being held hostage at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium until the long-awaited album was finished. He’s had the last laugh. Now, the six-time Grammy-winning producer is getting back to work.
He’s currently splitting his days between working with Don Toliver on his highly anticipated sophomore album, the follow-up to his 2020 debut LP Heaven or Hell, and with Christine and the Queens on her third album, which will be released in early 2022. Singer Rahim accompanied Dean on stage at both of his Echoplex shows and is featured on the live visual album track “RAHIM LIVES.” The other two albums he’s working on belong to 070 Shake and Scott. He has a method to his madness that’s less structured and more instinctual, much like his improvisation.
Billboard caught up with Dean about his work ethic, ideal collaborators and source of energy during his and other artists’ live performances.
Take me through a day in the life of Mike Dean.
Kind of smoke weed and just look through my hard drive of s–t I’ve got to do, and decide what I’m gonna work on every day. I don’t really have much of a schedule, I just kind of write s–t down and try to split my time up between technical s–t, updating computers, and learning new s–t. Creating and mixing, kind of three different jobs in a way.
You’re working on Don Toliver, Christine and the Queens, Travis Scott and 070 Shake’s upcoming albums. How are you managing all of those projects?
Very carefully. [Laughs.] I kind of bounce people around as much as possible, you know? I’ve got people that are moving schedules around for me now — like Shake and Don Toliver both had to move their release dates because of Kanye. And Christine and the Queens actually had to wait about six weeks to work. Just have to be patient, I guess.
I’m really excited for those to come out, especially since Shake, Don and Tame Impala were my top artists from last year.
I need to get with Tame Impala.
If you and Kevin Parker were in the same room together, I feel like it would just explode.
We’ve been on stage together, it’s fun. It was on SNL with Travis.
I remember that – it was amazing. But have you and Kevin been in the studio together?
No, it’s always like mailing in stuff.
With the Donda stadium events, it felt like Kanye toured an unfinished album, and each time the album was presented, it was being delivered like a rough draft. The crowd gave their reactions like revisions, and then a new one was presented until the final product was presented. Have you ever approached music, especially for another artist, so influenced by others’ reactions?
It’s kind of how I did my live stuff. My live streams I was doing on Twitch, kind of getting input from people from that. They kind of influenced how my 4:22 album came out.
For Donda, that rollout strategy certainly paid off since the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. You also landed in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 Producers chart as well as the Songwriter/Producer tallies in the Rap, R&B/Hip-Hop, Christian and Gospel genre charts. Do you feel like those rankings better position you as the “Synth God” as fans have come to know you by?
I don’t really give a f–k [Laughs]. Not too much. Especially the Christian/Gospel, I don’t even know how the album landed there. I guess ’cause there’s no cursing?
You talked about how your Twitch livestreams influenced how you made your last album. When you were improvising at the Echoplex, are the fan reactions at the show coming to mind? Are you still feeding off them, or are you mostly doing it for yourself?
Kinda both. I mean I was watching people, but I wasn’t.
At the Donda events, you were just DJing from up top. But I saw you posted a video from Rolling Loud Miami this year of you and Travis on stage improvising the end of “90210.” When you have those moments with him, are you feeding off his energy? Are the synths and guitars powering you? What is giving you life in that moment?
Kinda both. We just kinda feed off each other. It’s like a symbiotic relationship.
I’m excited for Travis’ new album because you two create magic together and on stage, you guys have so much chemistry.
Yeah, it’s gonna be dope. I’m not sure when it’s gonna be, but soon.
Do you have an order for the albums you’re going to work on, or do you tackle them all in bits and pieces?
After Donda, I spent my days and nights with Christine and Don Toliver. I’ll have like six hours in the morning with one and six hours in the evening with one. Whoever seemed to like the mornings better, I’d give them the mornings. Not mornings, but noon…. I usually like to work in the afternoons and the evenings. I don’t like to work too late — like, I don’t like to work past midnight. Unless I have a crazy deadline, then I’ll work till it’s done.
Out of the albums you’re currently working on, do you know which album will come out first?
Christine will be early next year sometime. Probably Don Toliver first, and then Shake, and then Christine. I have to get Ski Mask [the Slump God] in here, I’m about to work with him.
Have you two worked together before?
No. Met him at the release party. I know Tariq [Cherif], his manager that runs Rolling Loud. He’s been hitting me up to work with Ski Mask for a minute.
Who are some artists you’ve never worked with before that you’d love to get in the studio with?
I think Bobby Shmurda might be coming up. That’d be cool. I mean, The Weeknd, we’re gonna work soon…. We’ve worked together a lot. I’m the one who brought him into the Fifty Shades of Grey situation.
Yes, for “Where You Belong” — that song is underrated as hell.
That was the first song he did for the movie. They came back and did “Earned It.” Yeah, I introduced him to that whole situation. It was pretty cool.
I was listening to “Way Too Big” off Burna Boy’s 2020 album Twice as Tall and when I heard the outro, I was like, “I know that’s a Mike Dean outro right here.” How did you get to working with an Afrobeats artist like Burna?
Diddy actually hit me up and asked me to do it. It was pretty cool.
Are there other genres you’d be willing to explore in terms of your production? Would you do more Afrobeats, or Latin?
Probably both really. I mean, they’re both kind of interesting. [It’s] good to get into something different, you know? Just to keep stuff from getting boring doing hip-hop all the time.
What do you want people to remember you as?
The best producer ever. [Laughs] I don’t know, just a really great composer/synthesizer guy. The Synth God.