March 16, 2017

Miguelito has J. Prince on speed dial. 

The study of history has always fascinated me. Who played that guitar solo? Why is the drum programming different on the third track? Does this part of the composition flourish because of the mastering or was it there before? Questions like these keep me buried in screens and headphones. Lately my tunnels all seem to end with me staring at one person’s resume: Mike Dean. I first became aware of Dean through his work with Kanye in the 2000s. At the time, I didn’t understand the scope of his work, but the diversity of his accomplishments is shocking–teaching Selena to sing, pioneering the sound of the South with other Rap-A-Lot OGs, and arranging the music of world-class cellists are just the beginning.

I’ve spent the last month slowly combing my way through Dean’s work to come up with a list of albums that capture the nuances of his legacy. I chose the records not for their commercial success, or for their significance in the credited artist’s corpus, but for what they reveal about Dean’s contributions to hip-hop production and sound engineering. Naturally, this list skews toward albums in which he had creative input for the entire process. It’s difficult to avoid omitting important work with someone so prolific, but I’ve done my best to note his peaks.

Ghetto Dope, 5th Ward Boyz

Ghetto Dope wasn’t the first record Dean produced with Rap-A-Lot Records, but it’s the first signal he’d left a mark on the scene. He said in an NPR interview that he and the rest of the people involved in crafting Houston’s rap in the early 1990s wanted to distinguish their sound from other regions. It’s easy to see how this attitude informed their creative output. Dean and co. injected Ghetto Dope with a swagger that matched the G-funk out West and drums that knocked like they came from New York, while avoiding the carnal sin of direct imitation. They took the high points of those movements and peppered them with relatable Southern grit, which brought legitimacy and humor to the music. The sound wasn’t as far removed from other regional sounds as Southern rap is today, but it started bubbling the pot that would lead to trap solidifying a place in pop culture.

For example, I can hear the guitar solo that opens Ghetto Dope echo today in songs like Migos “What the Price” and Future’s “I Thank You”. Dean is fond of incorporating guitar solos, but he also laid the foundation for the hypnotic keys of someone like Shawty Redd by placing hazy synth chords throughout the album. They weren’t as abrasive as his synth work would become (i.e.- Yeezus), but they added depth. The noisy backdrop on “Blood, Sweat & Glory” and the gentle hum on “Same Ole” are my two favorites from this album. I’m not sure which instruments are direct products of Dean himself, since he produced this album alongside N.O. Joe and others. Deciphering the music of that time and figuring out which producer created a specific sound is as hazy a venture as the music they produced. Dean certainly had creative input in everything though since he engineered, mixed, and mastered this album. Even if he didn’t make it, he still chose to highlight it in the mix. This holistic approach to music making is a testament to the breadth of his skill and he would keep developing these talents throughout his career.

Wegonefunkwichamind, Big Mello

5th Ward might be the most well known neighborhood to Houston outsiders, but Hiram Clarke was also a launching pad for influential rap. Big Mello hailed from that area and his second album, Wegonefunkwichamind, is often overlooked when people discuss early Southern rap. Mike Dean mastered and mixed it and played many of the instruments we hear throughout, some of which show a clear path to today’s hip-hop. Nowadays Dean’s name is associated with synthesizers—for good reason—and these Mello cuts show us his early experimenting. I picture Dean as an alchemist, tweaking effects and inputs until he’s produced gold with his bare hands. And much of the synth work on Wegonefunkwichamind has the sheen of precious metal.

The melody is so deep and noisy it sounds like bass at times. He’s not monolithic with his mixing of synths though; there’s a clear range of sound. He’s less hostile on “Southside” and prefers to blend his keys with subdued riffs. It’s fitting a song that lays the foundation for soundscapes of producers like the 808 Mafia would bear the same name as their leader. Queue up “Danny Glover” immediately after “Southside” and the influence is glaring. Dean wasn’t the originator of using synthesizers to add emotional layers to songs, but he pioneered translating that formula into gritty rap music.

Secrets of the Hidden Temple, Blac Monks

Any day you get to revisit the work of Mr. 3-2 is a pleasure. He, along with Da and Awol, had the right attitude to complement the sounds Dean was exploring. Horror is a common theme in Houston rap, and Secrets of the Hidden Temple is a particularly dark moment. The opening melody is in a key that would make John Carpenter shiver. This—and other moments (“1995”)—gives the Blac Monks space to dive into the darkest corners of the human psyche. They were watching hip-hop evolve and tried to incorporate new techniques when they needed to add emphasis. Some of the vocals are pitched in the style of DJ Screw and the engineering reflects the explosion of G-funk a few years earlier.

The dark elements explored here are given adequate balance though. It’s not all doom and gloom. The title track is laid back and should be played on a relaxing Sunday afternoon. “Who Will Bell the Cat” has a positive “island” feel to it as well. Showing the polarities of human emotion in the sound is more realistic than only highlighting one side. It reflects the complex interplay of our desires, fears, dreams, and impulses. Dean has found his stride at this point and is improving his ability to facilitate a rapper’s vision.

Fadanuf Fa Erybody, Odd Squad

I can’t recall a time when Fadanuf Fa Erybody didn’t make me smile. It’s groovy, grimy, and soulful without being nauseously corny. More so than his other early work, this Odd Squad release shows Dean flexing his drum machine skills. “Da Squad” is a head-knocker that warrants a spin if you have a sunny drive ahead of you. Even songs that don’t explicitly credit him have traces of his flair and developing relationship with the drums. The crispness of the kicks and snares on “Can’t See It” reminds me of October walks in Chicago. It’s biting and invasive, but not too much that you want to draw back.

Dean’s increasingly complex drum programming didn’t come at the expense of his funk influences. “Fa Sho” is just as fitting on an Odd Squad album as it would be on a lost tape from Parliament Funkadelic. “Fa Sho” highlights the groovy-grimy combination I noted earlier. At its most base level, it’s a song about fucking. But it’s not just that. It’s an authentic education in social relationships. The kind of lesson you get told by your uncle who’s really seen some shit. This relatability is part of the draw. The sounds are familiar if you were raised around funk and soul music, like I was, and the scenarios they produce reflect actual experience, if you’re willing to be honest. Most people wouldn’t put it in these terms, but if you take inventory of your memories I’m confident you’ll find a time where you were tempted to put your selfish desires over other’s emotions. I’m not saying that Dean and Odd Squad are moral knights fighting a crusade, nor do I want them to be. Mike Dean was able to inspire nuanced examination through his instrumentals though and that is the shining moment of this album.

The Untouchable, Scarface

Listening to an artist’s full discography is an illuminating venture. Patterns that were once indistinguishable start to form edges and take shape. The Untouchable was one of those moments in this listening because it stands at the intersection of two periods of hip-hop. 1997 was a complicated year. Pac and Big are both dead, Outkast was in between their two best releases (don’t @ me), and Scarface, along with others, had cemented a grimy new sub-genre of hip-hop. The lyrical “golden” age was still present in Scarface’s work, but was giving way to the sound popularized by groups like Three Six Mafia. Digital equipment was becoming the primary way to produce sound instead of live instruments.

The Untouchable sits at this crossroads because Dean synthesized—I couldn’t resist—the best parts of both worlds to create natural sonic diversity. He was using the Wurlitzer piano at the time and you can hear the classic sound on “Mary Jane” and “Smile”. Incorporating that instrument paved the way for producers like Zaytoven and his theatrical chords. At the same time he’s clearly grounded in the blues that informed his bayou upbringing, using deep-fried riffs on “Money Makes the World Go Round” and “For Real”. Dean also toys with the vocals on this album. It sounds like he’s using a vocoder to emphasize certain deliveries, an endeavor that would reach its climax in his recent work with Frank Ocean. According to the man himself, The Untouchable was one of his favorite albums to work on and that gives its mixture of sounds even more meaning.  

Dillinger & Young Gotti, DPG

By the early 2000s, Dean had stretched his influence outside the borders of Houston to prominent artists on the West coast.  His work with Daz and Kurupt on their 2001 album is a case study in sound colonization. For the decade prior, Mike Dean was developing the Dirty South sound, building on earlier hip-hop production while making that style unique. From this point forward, he starts bringing that sound to other regions and merging it with their developed styles. It’s a natural impulse. If you’d started a dope trend like that, you’d want to bring your sonic gospel to others. Dillinger and Young Gotti combines the production wisdom of Daz Dillinger and Mike Dean, which adds up to a funky-ass album.

At different points it explores the nihilistic and the carefree. Moving from the pensive chords of “Work Dat Pussy” to the pop melody on “Party at My House” doesn’t make sense initially, but both songs serve their purpose.  Overall, it’s a fun record that makes heavy use of live instruments and continues to intertwine synthesizers and hip-hop music. If you weren’t paying attention you might confuse the chords on “Coastin” for the Kill Bill siren that introduces the next banger-of-the-month. In this case at least, colonization had a positive effect on the culture.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West

There’s almost a decade between Dillinger & Young Gotti and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. While Dean was still producing and mixing for artists like UGK, Mike Jones, Z-Ro, and Geto Boys, he didn’t have creative control for entire albums like he had in the nineties. Enter ‘Ye. Kanye’s fifth album was his most Dean-filled to date and it’s evident in the composition.

He picks up more arrangement credits on MBDTF than on earlier albums. This could be because he wasn’t specifically credited in the past and Kanye is more specific about the minutia of his sound, but I think it’s more likely Dean dipped into his classical background to complement ‘Ye’s vision. Everyone’s heard “All of the Lights” and it’s a beautiful cello arrangement, but “So Appalled” is quintessential Dean. It’s ominous and dark, timbres he became familiar with playing the bassoon in school. MBDTF also takes Dean back to his roots as a pianist and we see his range on the keys. From the somber twinkling on “Dark Fantasy” to the spastic chords on “Hell of a Life”, Dean uses his proficiency on the keys to add to Kanye’s vibe. He still sprinkles some blues when he can though. His bass slapping on “Devil in a New Dress” adds even more soul to the Smokey Robinson sample. His contributions on this album are analogous to his career as a whole: they’re vital to the sound, but not always obvious.

Yeezus, Kanye West

I didn’t want to include two albums by the same artist for this list. I thought that would be the best approach since I wanted to highlight the range of Dean’s contributions. Sometimes you have to let the music tell its own story though. It became clear that Yeezus needed to be on this list after I heard Dean speaking with Dave Pensado about the album. He noted they were eliminating elements that couldn’t be “turned up loud” and it’s glaringly obvious when you listen to Yeezus after any of the previous albums on this list. If there was a threshold for volume before 2013, Yeezus broke through it, looped back, and started marching toward it again. The 808 kicks and snares pull the listener into a gothic space where Kanye airs out his grievances. Dean mixed the rest of the instruments to match too. “Blood on the Leaves” for instance matches the sample and chords to the drums, making a different element of the song assault your ears at any moment.

The loudness makes it Kanye’s least accessible work, but accelerating past earlier sonic limits allowed us to experience the thump that defines much of trap today. As I get deeper into his music, I’m realizing Mike Dean is the hydra of hip-hop: he creates new sub-genres by “slicing off” limiting standards. For Yeezus, he cut off the head telling him loudness should stop at this level and, while some take issue with the way that played out on the album, we should all be grateful on behalf of our speakers.

Rodeo, Travis Scott

Travis Scott’s music is polarizing. For some, he opened the door to enjoying trap music by toeing the line between psychotic and psychedelic, while to others he comes off as nothing more than a “sentient Tumblr account”. Even if you take issue with Travis’ content, it’s hard not to like the music on Rodeo. For me, the second track, “Oh My Dis Side”, is all the best parts of Rodeo distilled into one song. First Dean pulls you in with a simple guitar riff. It’s one of many found on the album (“Piss on Your Grave”, “Pornography”), but it’s by far the most exotic. It prepares you for travel into the twisted world of Travis’ mind.

Clearly Dean carried his “loudness” mentality over from Yeezus when he mixed this one. The drums maintain a steady cadence, yet meet you with more force than most dance music. The snares in particular ring in your ears for a few minutes afterwards. The “Oh My” half of the track quickly fades into a melodic Autotune duet between Travis and Quavo. “Dis Side” was his most complex vocal work at the time and he succeeded in accenting both artists’ vocals while keeping them distinct. That’s no easy task when you add racks of filters and plug-ins. Dean carries their voices with his piano, completing his trifecta of contribution: vocals, keys, and guitar. I’m willing to debate the merits of Travis’ content—most of which I’m a fan—but Dean’s work speaks for itself.

Blonde, Frank Ocean

It’s important to remember that we can’t quantify the value of an artist’s contribution based solely on album credits. Mike Dean was only credited with mastering Blonde—he mastered Endless as well—making it his least-credited album on the list. Still, it’s important to note in his catalogue for multiple reasons. Blonde’s blend of pop, R&B, blues, and trap mirrors Dean’s entire career. He’s dabbled in these genres, influenced them, and used genre-defining sounds to influence other types of music. He may not have played any of the instruments on Blonde, but he had a sense for what needed to be accentuated and when. And, with an understanding of his own work, you can hear his personal tweaks.

From the moment “Nikes” opens the album, it’s noticeably his loudest work since Yeezus. The hi-hats and claps stick with you and linger in your head like a nagging doubt you can’t shake. He’s able to cause the same effect with the vocal layering and effects sprinkled throughout Blonde, which is more difficult than we might think. You have to possess an innate sense for what conveys the emotion of a lyric to navigate the forest of delays, reverbs, vocoders, Autotunes, and whatever else is altering these vocals. The singer’s voice is usually the focus of the mix, but it’s not a hard rule. They take a backseat when necessary, usually to highlight a particular instrument. As you might expect, Dean shows preference to keyboards and solemn guitar solos (“Solo (Reprise)”, “Self-Control”). Blonde was a gorgeous album and I wish Dean had more creative influence on it. As the mastering engineer, he polished an album that could have been schizophrenic; the natural result of its influences. It didn’t though and part of it is because of Dean’s comprehensive understanding of sound.

Dean’s work is imbued with a Zen-like mentality: do it and see what sounds good. That’s frustrating to hear for those of us that can’t translate synapses into sound, but it’s a joy to experience. Being around people like that lets you realize how mysterious inspiration is, and the creation that results. In the same way an enlightened person draws students even in their ignorance, Mike Dean continues to keep us around for his journeys to new levels of sonic reality.