Mike Dean has made a name for himself as one of hip-hop’s top producers, having worked on seminal records by the likes of Kanye West (“College Dropout,” “Late Registration,” “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”), Travis Scott (“Astroworld”), Beyonce (“Lemonade”), Pusha T (“Daytona”) and dozens more. His work as an ace arranger and engineer, in addition to a songwriter, has earned him multiple Grammy nominations, and after years of playing a mostly behind-the-scenes role, the Texas native is stepping out with a succession of his own projects.
Last year, Dean released his first solo album, “4:20,” which featured 28 tracks of instrumental music. Over Christmas, a TV adaptation of the project, “Mike Dean Presents,” was launched on the Fox Soul network. A production of Audio Up, home to such podcasts as Dennis Quaid’s “The Dennissance,” Machine Gun Kelly’s “Halloween in Hell” and Michael Cohen’s “Mea Culpa,” the four-hour loop — dubbed “The Chill Mix” — is music you can vibe to.
Dean’s love of instrumental albums goes back to his formative years as an aspiring musician. “I’d listen to Jeff Beck, Chick Corea, Frank Zappa,” says Dean, adding to his list, “the era of soul disco records that didn’t have verses, but just had hooks.”
No doubt the hip-hop heavy has a treasure trove of unused music — he’s been at it since the late ’80s — but when it comes to deciding the destination of such tracks, he goes on “a feel” of where they belong. Says Dean: “I don’t usually blindly make tracks and give them to artists.”
But his sound is in high-demand, having consistently put hits on the board for the better part of two decades, and especially in recent years. To wit: he’s credited on songs by Selena Gomez, Madonna, Pop Smoke and Kid Cudi. “I get busy producing other people’s tracks and it’s something I’m trying to get away from,” he says. “I need to worry about my projects for a change. I’m not getting any younger and want to make sure I put out enough of my own music and leave what I want to leave.”
It’s one reason why Dean has partnered with Beatclub, a soon-to-launch marketplace for top beats and loops where licensing and terms are negotiated per use. He envisions something along the lines of 30% royalty interest for use of a Mike Dean loop. “It’s gonna be cool as a spot you can buy and sell drum sounds, samples for your synth, loops and there’s a publishing part that’s being built into it — like a one-stop shop,” says Dean. “It’s not something I would think of doing but I want to try and make it easier for people to access my tracks.”
Of the many analog synths Dean owns, he has long been partial to Moog, going back to his earliest gigs as a work-for-hire musician. Surprisingly, his first-ever recording experience was with late Tejano star Selena Quintanilla. Dean was a touring member of her band for several years in the early- to mid-1980s, an unlikely history revealed last month when Dean posted a clip of himself performing with the singer and Los Dinos on a 1982 television performance — his wild hair and the Moog logo on his keyboard in full view even in grainy YouTube clips.
How did Abraham Quintanilla, the family patriarch and and manager, come to hire Dean? Through a local music store outside of Houston where the owner, named Clyde, was helping the cash-strapped Quintanillas and got to know Dean as a teenager. “I got my first synthesizer there and he used to get me gigs — playing in country bands, little hundred-dollar-a-night hustles,” Dean recalls. “Clyde had loaned Selena a PA system for tour and he said to me: ‘You should meet this guy that I helped.’ He sent me over to audition and I gave it a go. I like Tejano music because it has these jazzy chords, a little Cuban-type stuff and cumbias.”
Along with a guitarist friend, he got the job and confesses, “We played the most complicated shit ever on top of it. As you can see in the video for ‘La Tracalera,’ we were just shredding.”
At 18, he hit the road with Selena y Los Dinos, giving up an opportunity to fill in for Bernie Worrell in Parliament-Funkadelic “[because] the Selena gig paid $200 more a week.” Over the months and years, Dean add, “I’d help her develop a better sense of pitch. If she sang out of tune, I’d hit the note on the synthesizer. (Quintanilla was in her early teens at the time.)
He also joined her in the studio, helping arrange songs and learning the craft of recording for himself.
Dean says he hasn’t watched the Netflix series, finding it a difficult time to revisit. Of his own exit from the band, he recounts: “Me and her dad didn’t see eye-to-eye on some things. We played a lot of English stuff — [Donna Summer’s] “She Works Hard for the Money,” [Rick James’] “Super Freak” — and she killed those songs. I was, like, ‘She needs to perform English music.’ And he said, ‘Nah, I want to stick with the traditional.’ So I bounced after a while. Like, fuck this.”
Asked if he recognized her star power from the jump, and whether that same X factor existed upon linking with Travis Scott, Dean answers: “Both of them, definitely. It’s something I can feel when I meet people. It’s an aura or a presence. I can tell right away if they’ve got it or not.”
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