Since his start in the ’90s, heavyweight producer Mike Dean has deftly found a way to grow with the times. After establishing his career by working with Texas brethren Scarface, UGK, and Devin the Dude, Dean then forged relationships with the likes of Kanye West, Jay Z, and Beyonce in the 2000s.
Since West’s debut album College Dropout in 2004, Dean has played a vital role in crafting albums for West. In 2011, he was pivotal in the creation of Kanye and Jay Z’s 2011 opus Watch the Throne. For the All-Star producer, laying his fingerprints on notable projects like these not only bolstered his resume, but his connections.
Last year, he proved to be a workhorse in the studio, contributing to hit albums like Beyonce’s Lemonade, West’s Life of Pablo, Frank Ocean’s Endless, Travis Scott‘s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, Ty Dolla Sign‘s Campaign, and Kid Cudi‘s Passion, Pain, and Demon Slayin’.
With over 25 years of experience under his belt, Dean has now ventured on his own and launched his new record label M.W.A. This year, he also signed one of Houston’s budding rap stars in Dice Soho. Together, the tandem created their first offering “Goin Up” featuring Rae Sremmurd‘s Slim Jxmmi.
Billboard spoke with Dean to discuss his new label M.W.A., how he linked up with Dice Soho, his favorite Kanye projects to have worked on, the rise of Travis Scott, and more.
What made you decide that now would be the best time to unveil your new record label M.W.A.?
Mike Dean: Just a lot of new young artists that’s been asking to get down with me and have me work on their projects and help them get deals. I figured I’d start a label and sign some new acts. Seems like a good time to start it. I got a studio out here [in Los Angeles] and I’m able to meet a lot of new artists.
What’s the significance of the name M.W.A.?
That’s just what I call myself when I DJ. Mexican Wrestling Association. It’s something that I’ve done with the merch, so I just figured I’d keep the name going.
You signed Dice Soho as your first artist to M.W.A. How did that decision come about?
One of my homies Gustavo Guerra brought him to me. I think he’s gonna be the next wave out of Houston. I picked him up. Dice has a nice swag.
How did the first studio session with Dice go?
The first session we did was the “Goin Up” song… I was like, “Oh, okay. This guy has something.” He came out and we smoked a few blunts in the studio. I made the beat on the spot. Then he wrote his sh-t as I made the beat. It actually started out as a different song. We changed the hook. We thought it needed flavor.
Why did you guys add Slim Jxmmi to the mix for “Goin’ Up?”
[Rae Sremmurd] is the wave right now. Plus, he’s family. I’ve known him since those guys started. Mike Will introduced me to those guys a long time ago.
What kind of skill-set are you looking for from artists seeking to join M.W.A.?
Just good songwriters that know how to deliver it right. Something new. Something new in rap, or singing, or whatever.
Are you trying to keep the emphasis on hip-hop, or are you willing to jump different genres?
We’ll start with some hip-hop stuff. We’ll do some pop things, as I start getting some more producers.
You worked on Frank Ocean’s project Endless. Which project of his did you enjoy more as a fan last year, Blonde or Endless?
I’d probably say Blonde. Blonde was more experimental, I think. Sonically, it had a weird and strange vibe. I just thought it sounded better.
You’ve had your hands on Desiigner’s debut mixtape New English and produced “Tiimmy Turner.” How would you describe his evolution as an artist now from when he first started with G.O.O.D. Music?
Well, he’s still finding himself. He’s experimenting with different sounds. I don’t wanna comment on him too much, because he’s still young. I got a lot of dope stuff for his album. It should be fire.
You’ve worked with Kanye West all throughout your career, dating back to College Dropout. If you could pick your favorite three albums that you were able to be a part of, which ones would you choose and why?
Hmmm. Probably College Dropout, because it was so groundbreaking. Probably Yeezus because I had my hands on it a lot. I helped shape that sound. Then, probably Life of Pablo just because it’s dope as f–k. [Laughs.] I liked that album and the tour was crazy.
Last year, Travis Scott earned himself a No. 1 album with Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. Why do you think a lot of people in music are finally gravitating to him musically now?
It just takes a while for something to resonate, I think. He’s definitely doing it. He took his performance at Coachella to another level. He’s doing his own headlining arena tours.
You contributed on a lot of projects in 2016 including Beyonce’s Lemonade, Kanye’s Life of Pablo, Frank Ocean’s Endless, and Travis Scott’s BITTSM. Any favorites?
All of them. [Laughs.] It’s hard to pick one. I’d say Travis and Kanye probably. I thought Beyonce too. I thought hers was good.
For M.W.A., if there were three artists you could sign right now over to your label. Which three would you choose and why?
I don’t wanna say that yet. [Laughs] It’s top secret. We’re still in negotiations. I’m looking at some people. One group from Brooklyn. I’m looking at some people from Cali, somebody from Atlanta. I just want to spread it out.
Where are you hoping that M.W.A. will be one year from now?
I hope to have three or four artists on the roster with a couple of producers and just make some dope s–t.