You might not know the name Mike Free, but you should. The 22-year-old Los Angeles native has spent the last few years working alongside DJ Mustard helping him craft hits like Tyga's "Rack City," YG's "My Nigga," and 2 Chainz' "I'm Different." Only problem is, according to him, he hasn't gotten proper credit or compensation for his work and is now suing Mustard. Despite that setback, he's managed to notch some production credits under the name Mikely Adam and is looking to start his own production company called 4th Quarter. Meanwhile, he's recently been producing for rappers like Future, Nipsey Hussle, and Lil Boosie so you may learn his name sooner than later. We caught up with Mike at his studio in North Hollywood to talk about how he helped define Mustard's sound, why he decided to sue Mustard, and how he just wants the credit he deserves.
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
How did you first meet DJ Mustard?
Mustard used to DJ at like my pep rallies and stuff. I used to date his [friend], and she put the bug in his ear like, “Fuck with him. He’s tight.” One day he called me over while he was DJing a pep rally like, “You make beats?” I was like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “Ah shit. Where you stay at?” I used to live right down the street from him so he was like come through. I hit him up the same night, lowkey snuck out of my apartment while my mom was sleeping, and walked to Mustard’s house.
I was in 11th grade then, he was out of school. This is like 2011. We was going in all night from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. I didn’t even go to school the next day. I pretended I woke up at 7 a.m., once my mom left, I went right back in the house and went to sleep. [I worked with him] every night for a cool two years until I went to college.
I wanted to [work with him] because you never know what could happen. When I was a sophomore in high school and YG started coming out with the jerk stuff, I was telling all my friends, “Look at what he’s doing. He’s next.” He had the image with the tattoos, he brought a new image to the West Coast. Mustard had just got cool with YG and they did their mixtape. I pictured the West Coast coming back when I seen that. I wanted to be a part of it.
What did you guys make at that time?
We did beats like YG's “Heartbeat” and other mixtape tracks for like TeeCee4800. We started on tracks for YG, but they never really got finished. I went to school, and that’s when Mustard stayed at YG’s house, and they created Just Re’d Up and “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” which made the streets go crazy. From there Mustard had hit me like, “Send me some shit. Niggas is hitting me up, Beyonce, everybody.” I was like, “Oh shit, fasho.”
So I’m sending him like five to 10 beats every single night that I’m making in my dorm. I’d be done at 6 in the morning and I’d have to go to class at 9 that morning. I was digging it because we ended up doing shit like Problem’s “T.O.,” a Soulja Boy song for a mixtape, we did Tyga’s “Rack City.”
When making beats like “Rack City,” were you getting paid for them?
Pretty much they were all mixtape tracks, mixtape tracks you don’t really get paid for. I already understood how the mixtape game went so I was ready to get on the albums. We didn’t get album placements until I got 2 Chainz’ “I’m Different,” I did the keys for that. Well, the Tyga “Rack City” one, of course—that one is going through some legal issues right now. It was a misunderstanding, but that’s getting sorted out now and hopefully everything works out.
I got YG and Mustard to perform at my school in Hampton for our Springfest. We was at the hotel room, and I was playing Mustard all my new beats. He was like, “Bro I think we got one with 2 Chainz,” and I was like, “What?!” At the time I don’t think Mustard really knew how big Chainz really was because he wasn’t in the South like that. I was in the South, and I knew 2 Chainz was the biggest rapper at that time, and he was one of my favorite rappers. It was for his first album, so I’m like, “Yeah, I’m with that.” I got my percentage on it, but it was a little bit of shaky stuff in that too as far as credit. That’s being worked out also.
What was your assumption of what was going to happen in terms of credit and payment?
See, well, it was early in me and Mustard’s success. So I was like, I don’t want to mess up what we got going now over some bullshit like money. Money ain’t shit, friendship is much more important than money. We had a great partnership going and I knew what was coming. I knew that we was going to do that YG album, I knew that we was going to do that single. I knew that it was all coming and I was just like I can’t mess that up.
You saw the big picture.
Yeah. So, I’m going to stay down, stay loyal, everything is going to work itself out. We did YG’s “My Nigga,” Ty Dolla $ign’s “Paranoid,” Kid Ink’s “Show Me,” T-Pain’s “Up Down.” We did a lot of records. I [worked on all of] 10 Summers, I got it tatted on me. I love that album, I loved working on that album.
You mentioned you did the keys on “I’m Different.” How did the collaboration process work?
I started it with the keys. I did some drums originally to it, Mustard took out the drums and placed his drums in it. It was dope because he added a real groove to it. Together we make really sensible beats.
“Or Nah” is probably my favorite beat we’ve ever done because it made a lot of sense. From the bed squeaks to the bass line that I did to the keys that I played to the sub bass line that Mustard added in there. It was real sensible to how he added his part in there. James, who mixes Mustard’s stuff, he played a key part also because his mix of every single sound is defining. James’ engineering skill is just off the wall. James makes all those beats [what they are].
So through all those songs you mentioned what kind of credit were you getting?
I was getting producer credit on a couple of the songs. But some songs are missed out because we were doing so many. Mind you, we did like 60 songs this year. Out of those, 27 of them became singles. There were so many deals going on at the same time. One time I had seven deal memos come to me in one day. It was a whole lot going on.
Let’s just back track here a bit. When you dropped out of college what did you do?
I dropped out because of “I’m Different.” I was just like, “Well I’m wasting time and money in college. I’m going to stop partying every night and head to the studio.” So I was going to Paramount Studios with Mustard at that time. We was cooking beats. So many beats that haven’t even come out yet, like we got songs with Jeremih, songs with Lil Wayne.
We was cooking beats. So many beats that haven’t even come out yet, like we got songs with Jeremih, songs with Lil Wayne.
Eventually he ended up giving me my own little room in like the studio booth. I had my own little desk in there, two little top speakers, and I was doing like 20 ideas a night. Some were full out beats with drums and claps, some were half beats, some were just instruments.
I would take it out to him and he had his MPC plugged up, and be like, “Take that out. Take that out. Put that back in. Do the drums boom, boom, boom.” Then we’d be done. We had a good workflow going, dishing out 50 beats a week. It was 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every single night from June 2013 to June 2014, before he went on tour. I might have took like three days off between all that time. Half the time I was working there from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., the other time I was working at my friend's garage from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Some days I’d get like 25-30 ideas going.
How did you guys shop the beats?
Well, Mustard had the “Mustard on the beat ho!” and I felt like that shopped it enough. That was the brand. During the time the brand was getting bigger, I felt like it was my duty to get better at producing. I only got better as the brand got better. The brand was definitely shopping the beats.
You know you mentioned all those deals—who was working all that?
The deals were after the songs were done, though. We’ll complete a song then they’ll send a deal like, “Yo! They like the song, they want to buy it.” Mustard sent packs out to every artist pretty much. Whether it was the DJ, their artist, their producer, whoever it was he got. He sent it out to everybody.
When we were working on YG's [album], that was more so like their choosing what they want on it, who they want on it, what beat they wanted. I even did my own cut on YG’s album, “Meet the Flockers.” We went to Atlanta and he’s like, “I need one just like ‘My Nigga,' bro.” When I played him the bass line to “Meet the Flockers,” he was just like, “Go back to that.” I was kind of confused, like, “You like this one? Out of all the other shit, this is the one you choose?” Then he was like, “That shit hard, blood.”
I put like the whistles in it and all that shit, then we was like, “Throw some drums on that.” So I put some drums on it and then he just went inside the booth and said, “Flockers.” Then Mustard was like, “That shit hard.” Mustard took the “flockers,” chopped it up, added the “Meet the flockers...” Then started chopping it up into turntables and it became, “Meet the motherfucking flockers.”
You said you were working with Mustard in his studio from June until June, and then he went on tour. So what did you do at that point?
I’m signed to Song's Publishing. So at that time they came in and said, “We want to get you into some sessions with writers and stuff so we could get some songs going.” They did a good job putting me in with some good talent, they got me some good placements that’s coming out in 2015. Oh, then the Mustard Camp, of course.
What was Mustard Camp?
While Mustard was on tour, Roc Nation was like, “We need the album.” Omar, who was Mustard’s A&R, was like, “Yo, bro would you be down to come to a camp so we could finish 10 Summers? We got to have it done by July.” So I came in and worked with tight ass writers like Kevin McCall, Yung Berg, Corporal—who is a dope producer for Ne-Yo—just a bunch of people. It was at Windmark Studios in Santa Monica, and we had it for like a whole week. We just was cooking. I ended up doing like eight or 10 of the songs on there.
If Mustard was on tour, did you guys make records and send it to him, and then he would pick and choose?
Yeah. Like, “Yeah, I like this one. We’re going to use this one. I’m going to fuck with it when I get back.” When he got back he did post-production with Terrence Martin.
Who have you been working with recently?
I worked with Boosie in Atlanta. I got work with Future that’s coming out. I produced a lot of songs on E-40’s last album. I did some work with some people I can’t really mention right now, because they want to keep it real secret. Then there’s YG’s Blame It on the Streets, I produced the title track. I produced like six songs on Jay 305’s upcoming project. He’s signed with Interscope now. I got songs with Nipsey Hussle coming out, too.
Are you going to get a drop? Producers all got drops these days, that’s the Mustard brand, like you said.
See, I don’t really want a drop. I want to start a brand, a company named 4th Quarter Entertainment. So I might actually do a 4th Quarter drop. But the best producers didn’t have drops: Pharrell, Kanye, Dr. Dre, Swizz Beats, Timbaland. They should know off top when they hear your beat like, “Oh, yeah, that’s Timbaland; that’s a Kanye beat for sure.” Your sound should define you.
Speaking of sound, the common criticism of Mustard is that his beats are the same three keys. What do you think of that?
I feel there’s a lot of people saturating the sound by trying to imitate it, but it’s cool though. That’s good that everybody wants to make shit like us. I like being simple, I don’t want to over-think anything. Some beats are overthought. Not all of my beats are three keys, some of them are two, some of them are five. I got different instruments, but we got to start a sound that you know. That you be like, “Oh, man, that’s a Mustard beat.” As long as you know what it is.
As far as the legal stuff with “Rack City” and some of the early songs you guys did, how did you approach that conversation?
At first I didn’t really want to to do it, but I had no choice after being put into a position where I was released from my production agreement. I was like dang. I felt like I was back to ground zero. I’m like, “Well, if I’m going to be at ground zero then I’m going to have to get what’s owed to me, and what’s fairly owed to me is my credit.”
People Mustard has credited get work. Like DJ Dahi and Key Wane on “IDFWU,” they get work of that. That’s just being honest. If my name isn’t on there how can I get work? Who is going to know that Mike Free started “IDFWU”? I started it. Without me that beat would have never been thought of. I started the bass line and the keys, Mustard added the drums, Kanye brought in the sample, and then Dahi and Key Wane did the second-half of the beat when it changes up after E-40’s verse. So they getting work with all these big rappers and stuff and I can’t work. That was like my main issue.
Why did you get released from your production deal?
While I was working on my beats for E-40, YG, and all those other people, I didn't have enough time to do the 20 beats a night with Mustard. That didn’t stop me from doing 10 beats, I still did a solid job. But he was like, “Man, we slacking.” It was just a big conversation. At the end of the conversation it ended with me being released. It was the same day I had my son! October 15th. And that’s when Mustard won the Producer of the Year at the BET Awards.
I just had my child and I’m like, “Wow. These beats are platinum records.” Some of the beats might have been real simple three keys or whatever, but I really put my life into those beats. People don’t understand how you feeling at the time you did that. When I did “I’m Different” I was mad. I was broke in my homie’s apartment, smoking up a bunch of weed that I couldn’t sell. A lot of emotion goes into my music. I feel strongly about it, and I feel like I should get what I deserve as far as credit and compensation.
The later credits you ended up getting, were you fairly compensated for those?
For most of the later records, [I was] compensated and credited correctly. That’s why I know it may have been a misunderstanding, so I just want to get that solved and figured out and out the way. So I can move on with 4th Quarter and maybe even continue to work with Mustard. If that presents itself, I’m definitely down.
Hopefully one day everything will be cool and maybe we could work together because [Mustard's] like my big brother.
When was the last time you spoke to Mustard?
We had a few conversations, they never ended up with us working together again, but that’s cool. Hopefully one day everything will be cool and maybe we could work together because that’s like my big brother. I look up to Mustard. He inspires me, and I hope he understands that. Everything is going to work itself out, though. Hopefully, I get my fair share of what I feel like I deserve. We can hopefully work together again. I feel like together we’re unstoppable.
What do you envision 4th Quarter being?
I want it to be a new generation of a label. Right now, writers and producers are running the industry—mainly writers. I present most people their songs with writers. Hooks is done. Verses already done. They just go in and lay it. I want a team that can do that so they can pretty much multiply what I do. And I want to make sure they all get correctly compensated and treated fairly. We’re all human beings. We all deserve fair treatment.