Mike Dean is best known as a secret weapon. The Houston-born producer’s credits are bedecked with mythical artists: he taught Selena how to sing in the 80s, shaped the sound of Scarface and the Geto Boys in the 90s, has worked on every Kanye West album, and, since then, has spent the last decade collaborating with Beyoncé, Madonna, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and Travis Scott.
In recent years, Dean’s production work has become a calling card, something fans know to look for — his guitar solo on Kanye West’s “Devil in a New Dress” was one of the highlights of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and his outro on Travis Scott’s “Highest in the Room” was a viral moment in itself. Dean has been content to stay out of the spotlight until now: “I’ve been working on other people’s music for so long and not really paying attention to my own,” he says. Since quarantining, though, Dean composed the bulk of his debut album, which was released on 4/20 — Dean is, famously, one of the most prodigious weed enthusiasts in hip-hop — and called 4:20.
“This is going to be like the outros you’ve heard me do on Kanye or Travis’s stuff, but the long form of it,” Dean says. The instrumental album strikes from left field. There are no beats, no adherence to pop structure; instead, it’s a sprawling, psychedelic symphony. Dean is a synthesizer virtuoso, and through his keys, monsters rise from the deep, icicles rain from the sky, and major chords shine like sunlight. 4:20 is one long musical adventure, and is squarely aimed at an audience that is very, very high — Dean’s advice to listeners is to “just imagine an hour-and-a-half Pink Floyd instrumental.”
Mike Dean, quarantining in Houston, spoke about 4:20, how the pandemic led to its release, and the influence of classical music and progressive rock on his debut.
You’ve had a remarkable career as a producer, mixer, engineer, and musician. This is the first solo album you’ve ever put out. Why now?
It’s just time. I’ve been working on other people’s music for so long and not really paying attention to my own. Since we’re all quarantined, I had 3 songs I wanted to put out as an EP, but I was making so much extra music on my Instagram Live streams that I just said “fuck it” and decided to make an hour-and-a-half album.
How did the Instagram Live sessions begin?
One day during the quarantine, I tweeted ‘Should I do some Instagram Live streams playing the synths?’ and I got a good response. So I followed through with it. My girlfriend, Louise Donegan, shot the sessions and helped get the lighting to look good. Every day at 8:30 pm, I would just jam on the synths for 30 minutes. I’d answer a few questions, bullshit with my girlfriend.
I did the Instagram Live streams 14 days in a row. After the first 5 days, I was like ‘This is pretty cool.’ And I ended up having 7 or 8 hours of extra music.
They were all freestyled. The only thing planned was I’d go into the studio before and figure out what sound I was going to use, the tempo, and that was it. Toward the end of each session, I would use more [sounds]… a kick drum would come in after 15 minutes. A snare after 18 minutes. Stuff like that. Nothing preconceived. There’s no overdubs at all, no preprogrammed tracks, everything is all truly live.
How did you refine those sessions into an album?
The jams were between 18 and 22 minutes long. I picked 4 days of the sessions; I think it was days 5, 8, 9, and 12. Those just felt right—they went together well. And between those 4 sessions I put the shorter 3 tracks I already had. I opened for Gessafelstein in December and I had prepped the 3 tracks for that. I actually made all those in one four-hour session. Those are more traditional [songs] with drums.
So I had the 4 longer tracks and the 3 shorter ones. I then chopped the whole thing into 28 pieces so it was easier to navigate. The album’s really 7 tracks. But it’s 28 parts, if that makes sense. I put them into movements, like classical music — symphony-type stuff.
Having 28 tracks and movements isn’t traditional for a modern album. Did classical music influence the album in other ways?
Oh yeah, my whole career has been influenced by it. By classical, and jazz, and gospel. I do a lot of weird random key changes in the album, stuff that only classical music usually does: switching from major to minor keys, back and forth, happy to sad. It’s real moody. I almost called the album Confinement, but decided to roll with 4:20.
Why did you decide to go with 4:20?
I didn’t really decide. [My girlfriend] Louise turned into the creative director of the whole thing—she was working on the artwork from a photo I had taken. We flipped it upside down and she put the 4:20 graphics on it and did the layout. That’s where the title comes from.
You’re known as one of hip-hop’s biggest stoners. Did you happen to smoke more weed for this album?
No more than usual [Laughs]. I quit all blunts and cigarettes two months ago. I still smoke weed, just smoke papers now.
Why did you quit smoking blunts?
I just don’t want to die. Plus I knew coronavirus was coming, and cigarettes make you more susceptible to it.
With the 4:20 concept, there’s obviously a lot of people who are going to smoke and listen to the album.
Yeah. You can vibe out and meditate to the music. Lose yourself in it. Play it when you’re on the running machine, chill out…just imagine an hour-and-a-half Pink Floyd instrumental.
The last part of the album turns into a complete rave. It goes from 120 beats-per-minute to 210 beats-per-minute—like smoking fast, making heads explode at a rave type shit. That’s how the album ends.
Speaking of Pink Floyd, what else influenced this album?
Whatever came into my head. It’s all freestyling. I tried to make the synthesizers sound really basic. Synthesizers have different oscillators—think of an oscillator as a singer’s voice, it makes one tone. A lot of synths are 2 or 3 oscillators mixed together. On most of the album I only used one oscillator on each synth. I’m always trying to use the most, I figured I’d try to use the least. So it sounds like the way old-school video games did. [The project] is kind of inspired by 80s video games.
“Guess the quarantine worked out good for me.”
I’m trying to be like the new Philip Glass or Keith Emerson. Minimalist composer stuff versus proggresive rock on the keyboards. Like Rick Wakeman from [the band] Yes. All the old keyboard heroes from the 70s. Trying to bring that back, you know?
Was there anyone — a ‘Mike Dean’ — helping you with this album?
Nobody touched it. I did everything myself. No assistance, no nothing, just me. It’s like a Prince project—“written, conceived, directed by Prince.” [My] credits would read like that. I didn’t do any post-production. I went in and fixed 2 wrong notes in the whole thing. I could have overdubbed more sounds or added drums, but I chose to keep it all live. So I could go to a venue, set up some synthesizers, and do the same thing again.
I think it’s interesting how the album is going to sound so different from traditional hip-hop or the other music that people associate you with.
But it’s kind of the same way I’ve done everything. Whenever I do those outros for Travis or Kanye or Kid Cudi, it’s always just me freestyling over the top of somebody’s beat. But I didn’t really have time to make it go somewhere.
This is going to be like the outros you’ve heard me do on Kanye or [Travis Scott’s] “Highest in the Room,” the breakdowns, the beat switches on Astroworld. All that kind of stuff, but the 20-minute versions of them. And they all run together as one big, long piece.
What does it feel like to come forward with your own vision as a solo artist?
It’s great. You’re always nervous when you release something new that people aren’t used to. You want to see how it gets accepted. It’s definitely a lot of work. I just hope the whole world accepts it and likes it as much as I do. I think that it’s going to be very heavily sampled by producers, hopefully very heavily synced by films and trailers. I hope it lends itself to the soundtrack to the new Tron movie or something like that.
That’s actually why I wanted to start putting out instrumentals. To have a palette of music that people could pull for films and stuff without me having to pitch them.
Do you plan on releasing more solo projects in the future?
Yeah. I’m thinking about doing one a month, or one every two months, for a while.
I’d been planning for a couple years to release an instrumental album and a hip-hop & pop compilation album of the artists I work with, but I’ve been so busy doing other people’s records that I never got a chance to. Guess the quarantine worked out good for me.
Mike Dean is performing on Instagram Live at 8:30 pm PST every night until April 26.