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In the Studio With ‘Synth God’ Mike Dean

today10/06/2023

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“I just need to make one edit. Could we start talking while I do it?” Mike Dean asks, lowering himself into a leather office chair in his Los Angeles home studio.

He swivels his seat to face a widescreen monitor and scrolls through scores of waveforms in his Pro Tools session, searching for the right spot to doctor. It’s a song from Diddy’s just-released The Love Album: Off the Grid called “Another One of Me” (featuring The Weeknd, French Montana and 21 Savage), and mere days before its Sept. 15 release, Dean has been tasked with crafting a slightly cleaner version of 21’s verse.

Despite the clear urgency of the work, Dean appears unfazed, steady. “It’s OK. I like to do eight things at a time,” he explains while he rotates among vocal editing, answering questions, FaceTiming a manager and ripping from his bong. This is not the first time the writer, producer and engineer has performed last-minute miracles for an A-lister’s song — and it certainly won’t be the last.

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Dean’s stoicism and keen editing ear are among the many reasons he has been hip-hop’s most in-demand collaborator for decades, often skillfully guiding the genre’s most temperamental and perfectionistic talents — from Kanye West to Travis Scott to Jay-Z — to complete their best work.

He recalls the February 2016 evening when West played his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, for fans at Madison Square Garden in New York. With a packed house of nearly 20,000 at the arena and 20 million tuned in at home through a livestream, West shared a sampling of its tracks, including now essential hits like “Famous” and “Ultralight Beam.” As on the six West albums that had preceded it, Dean was a trusted collaborator in creating Pablo. Fans waited well past the event’s scheduled start time, but few could have guessed the reason for the delay: Almost none of the songs were done.

“It was crazy,” recalls Dean as he clicks over to his camera roll on the monitor, searching back to the photos he took that night. “We had 16 songs unfinished. I think we finished something like four songs, gave them to Kanye, and he went down there and played that shit in front of 20,000 people.

“Then I finished some more and rushed from the studio. We had to jump out of the cab about 10 blocks before the arena because the traffic was so bad,” he continues, still searching for that specific night on his camera roll, casually whisking his cursor past other culture-defining moments in the process: The Weeknd’s headlining Coachella set, West’s Yeezus-era Saturday Night Live performance and many raucous Scott shows. “I ran to MSG, fought to get to the basement and then to the floor and gave him the memory stick.”

Finally, Dean locates one of the pictures of that night. In it, West stands in the center of the frame in a red long-sleeve shirt and black baseball cap, arms lifted above his head. Under the halo of a white spotlight, he appears to be leading a religious rite rather than a listening party. Dean stands to West’s right sporting a flat bill hat from MWA, his label, and a slick black windbreaker. Despite the preceding chaos, Dean’s countenance betrays no signs of alarm. “I’m calm, really,” he says with a shrug, zooming in on himself in the background. “I’ll put a memory stick in a computer in front of thousands of people.”

His most prolific relationship of all is with West, whom the Texas born-and-bred producer-engineer met when he was still living in Houston circa 2002. In the preceding years, Dean had become a local legend, defining the sound of the Dirty South by producing, writing and mixing records for Geto Boys and Scarface and touring with acts like Selena.

“Kanye first came to my house when he was working on his mixtape, songs like ‘Through the Wire.’ I remember he had on a backpack and tight pants,” he says with a laugh. “You know, people in Texas don’t wear tight pants.”

Though West has now cycled through dozens — if not hundreds — of other creative collaborators throughout his career, Dean has been his singular through line. He has been with the artist from mixing parts of The College Dropout (2004) to producing much of Donda 2 (2022). He says the key to fostering such long-term relationships with artists, including West, is to not “try to follow them too much” and “stand up for what [I think] is right” for a song. “You let them do their thing but steer them in the right direction,” he says, though he admits “that gets harder, though, as they get bigger and bigger.” (Dean declined to comment about the current status of his creative relationship with West.)

Don Toliver, who worked on his 2020 hit “After Party” with Dean, says he loves collaborating with the producer because he is “the ultimate badass at mixing and mastering. If Tony Montana from Scarface worked in the music industry, he would be Mike Dean, deep into his craft and bringing that essence and vibe to the music as well.”

But Dean’s best-known strength is his penchant for synthesizers. From where he sits in his studio, these analog instruments cocoon him, stacked in columns up and down all four walls of the room. He points out a few of his favorites: a Memory Moog from 1978, the latest Prophet from Dave Smith Instruments. Then Dean gestures across the room to a clunky keyboard with colorful knobs and buttons and wood grain siding. “That’s the one Michael [Jackson] played ‘Billie Jean’ on. That’s the most important synth in the room,” he says, beaming. Of course, he has other favorites in storage — in his two garages, his other studio or his Texas house.

In recent years, some Dean acolytes have dubbed him “The Synth God.” “Every year, I turn the synths up a couple dBs [decibels],” he jokes. “On [West’s 2005] Late Registration, the synths were really tucked in, but since then it has just gotten louder and louder.”

While many of his contemporaries add so-called “producer tags” — audio identifiers on tracks where they stake their claim — Dean mostly shies away from that. “My sound is usually my tag,” he says matter-of-factly. It’s a claim that’s evident on records that feature what has become known as a Mike Dean Outro — a 30-second- to minute-long ending devoted to Dean’s transcendent synth work; one of the best-known examples is on Scott’s 2019 single “Highest in the Room.” Of the 59 total producer credits and 106 songwriter credits Dean has amassed on the Billboard Hot 100, “Highest in the Room” is one of his few No. 1s (along with Scott’s Drake-featuring “Sicko Mode” and Kid Cudi collaboration “The Scotts”). “That’s when the outro really went viral,” he says, though that was far from its first iteration. He has been doing these characteristic endings since West’s “Stronger” in 2007. “I just always jam on songs as much as possible… But [the outros are] becoming almost cliché to me now,” he says.

Savvy rap fans have known about Dean since the 2000s — or earlier, if they followed Houston hip-hop — but the producer, 58, has intentionally increased his visibility in recent years. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Dean started to see himself as more of an artist in his own right. He began a series of solo albums, released annually every April since 2020, each titled 4:20, 4:21, 4:22 and, most recently, 4:23.

He also started livestreaming as he played around on his synths, building avant garde instrumentals from scratch as teenagers frantically sent goat and fire emojis in the chat. The videos let Dean be more transparent with his process, and they amassed a following quickly, even among his famous friends like The Weeknd — who texted Dean, “You should open for me on tour.” Soon he was performing with the singer in stadiums around the world. To keep up with his other musical commitments, Dean worked out of a 10-foot-by-10-foot makeshift studio, designed for the back of his tour bus.

“It wasn’t too hard to work out of there, really,” he explains. “I did Travis’ second album in the back of a bus once. Plenty of my songs have been made like that.” It was during that time on the road, he says, that he created much of the songs and score for The Idol, the dark HBO drama co-created by The Weeknd and Euphoria producer Sam Levinson. The show was widely panned and ultimately canceled; one of its highlights, however, was Dean’s scoring work and soundtrack. Apart from co-writing the score for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, The Idol was Dean’s first major gig as composer, and his synth mastery laid the perfect morose undertone for the action onscreen.

Dean himself was also written into the show, playing “Mike Dean,” and furthering his mystique. In his first scene, he arrived in a matte black Tesla, emerging from the car’s butterfly doors in a fog of smoke, bong in tow — a meme-worthy entrance caricaturing his real-life demeanor and pot habit. It was Levinson’s idea: “I was first approached about Euphoria season two,” Dean says, which ultimately did not happen. “Then they asked me if I wanted to do music for The Idol, and when I met Sam, he asked me, ‘Well, do you want to be in the show, too?’ I guess he thought I was funny.”

But moving forward, Dean says TV and film work isn’t a priority: “I’d work on some select projects but not too much. I’m looking more at being an artist and putting out my own music and touring than anything else right now.” And as usual, he’s dutifully at work behind the scenes on the year’s biggest records. In 2023, he has already lent his expertise to Scott’s Utopia, the Idol soundtrack and Metro Boomin’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse soundtrack. And because Dean is never entirely predictable, he also worked on Paranoia, Angels, True Love by Christine and the Queens.

“I don’t work much,” he insists. “I just smoke weed and f–king hang out and make music — it’s not work.” He swiftly turns his head to look back at the monitor, refocusing. “Sorry,” he says. “I actually need to get to editing this.”

This story will appear in the Oct. 7, 2023, issue of Billboard.

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