Interview: Mike WiLL Made-It Talks Starting Ear Drummers, Inspiring Kanye West, and Educating Rae Sremmurd

The 25-year-old super-producer is aiming high.

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Complex Original

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For Mike WiLL Made-It, the future doesn’t involve his producer tag permeating the Top 100. He’s already done that. At 25, he’s turning his focus to building a dynasty: Ear Drummers. That dynasty put its first official stamp on Rae Sremmurd, the duo that went from negligible exposure in small-town Mississippi to two gold singles and a successful debut album within a year. It wasn’t a fluke. Mike invests and develops from the ground up. If all goes as planned, he will nurture a wave of new artists in the same way, from 0 to 100.

We sat down with Mike to discuss, among other things, how he learned to identify Mozart, how he inspired a pair of Kanye’s sweatpants, and how Jimmy Iovine encouraged him to start his own label at a Floyd Mayweather boxing match.

Alex Russell is a writer living in New York City. Follow him @alexrussellglo.

Tell me about starting Ear Drummers.

Jimmy Iovine has been telling me since 2012 that I needed to start my own label with my own artists. This was when he first met me and “Bandz a Make Her Dance” was first taking off. Back then I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. Then one day Jimmy and I were watching this Floyd Mayweather match at his house and they played like 10 of my records during the fight. Jimmy looked at me and was like, “All of these tracks could be coming off of your label.” Jimmy is like family, and he’s taught me a lot about running a label and different things like that. He was like, “You need to start a label and start putting out music. You understand what’s hot and what’s not. You turned me into a believer on Miley Cyrus. You turned me into a believer on Future. I’d never heard Future’s music, but now I love Future. You keep bringing me all of this music, but you could be doing that on your own label.”

I wanted to find raw talent and help build it from scratch. I wanted to build from rags to riches. That’s the way Ear Drummers did it. We took over the music industry from my mom’s basement. That’s why my first album is going to be called Made It Out the Basement. When we came in the game, music wasn’t selling. A super-producer that I looked up to told me that there were no more super-producers. Everyone told me that records weren’t selling anymore and producers weren’t what they used to be. Artists weren’t even letting producers in the studio. They were like, “No, you send me the beats.”

I kind of kicked that door down and made the super-producer cool again. From there, records just started going platinum like a motherfucker. Now it’s possible for somebody like Metro Boomin or DJ Mustard, all those tight young cats that are coming up. Now people respect them. Artists are more willing to let producers in the studio. Now it’s like, “Yo, come in the studio. I want to get in the studio with Metro Boomin. I want to get in with DJ Mustard. I want to get in with Mike WiLL Made-It.”

In the future, do you see yourself moving toward more of a Jimmy Iovine type of position?

Oh, hell yeah. Definitely. That’s why I have my own production company. Every producer that’s signed to me has platinum plaques. Every producer that I started with has a platinum plaque. Soon, they’ll be where I’m at right now. I’m already slowly but surely trying to step out of the way and focus on putting artists out. I’m only 25 years old so hanging up my jersey this early feels like it would be a disservice to myself. God has blessed me with something. One day, I do see myself being like Jimmy Iovine. I’m trying to build an empire. You can scroll through my iTunes and I’ve got everything. I’ve got Ace Hood, Alt-J, Annie Lennox, Arctic Monkeys, Beanie Sigel, the Beatles, Beth Hart, Big Sean, Bob Dylan, Bon Iver, Chief Keef, Coldplay, the Flaming Lips, Mariah Carey, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, OutKast, Pet Shop Boys, Peter Gabriel, the Smiths, and the list goes on from there. I listen to everything.

When I first started hanging with Rae Sremmurd, I put my whole iTunes on their phone. They didn’t know who Bob Dylan or any of those people were.

So, when I put out my label, I don’t want it to be just straight hip-hop. That’s where I came from. I’ve had pop beats for years. The eight songs that I’ve got on Miley’s album are beats that I’ve had for years. We made some of those beats out of one speaker.

I went to Georgia State and studied the history of music. Our teacher used to play music in class and make us identify classical composers. Like, “Oh, this is Bach.” Or, “Oh, this is Mozart.” I used to get frustrated because I didn’t know how the fuck I was supposed to tell the difference between Bach and Mozart. I remember my professor made me name my five favorite rappers and he was like, “You can tell the difference when they come on a track right?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “OK, then you can tell the difference between these musicians too. Study.” From there, I just studied that shit. I went to school in Marietta, Georgia. I was leaving school and going to the studio with Gucci, you know. Atlanta is an urban culture, but I’m seasoned all the way around. With Ear Drummer Records, it’s not just rap music.

I don’t want to just have a rap label. I want to have a whole label. I want to have a whole dynasty. Rae Sremmurd isn’t just a rap group. These guys are superstars. They can do whatever the fuck they want to do. They can do pop music. Swae Lee is already writing for Fergie. He’s already been in the studio working on shit for Beyonce. He’s been working on shit for all types of motherfuckers. When I first started Ear Drummers, I was like, “I’m going to build a team. I’m going to build a dynasty of people who are cut from the same cloth as me. People that have that next-level ear and aren’t pigeon-holed into one box.” That’s what it is. Every producer on my team is seasoned like that.

When I first started hanging with Rae Sremmurd, I put my whole iTunes on their phone. They didn’t know who Bob Dylan or any of those people were.

I feel like, at the end of the day, successful musicians become teachers. There are no teachers that weren’t students first. At the end of the day, we’re students of the game and we’re fans of everything. At the same time, we’re creating and setting new trends. We’re teaching shit too. We’re just trying to build. So, one day, I might not have the ear anymore, but right now I’ve got my finger on the pulse of the culture. I understand what the youth want and what’s hot. I understand what a hit record is and I understand how to complete it. I could go super indie and do some shit straight for the underground, or I could go in the studio with Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, Jay Z, or whoever and do a fucking smash for the radio. It’s whatever gear I’m in.

I feel like your mixtape, Ransom, was sort of strategic in that way, finding the balance between mainstream and underground.

Like, Andrea. Perfect example. She’s this 19-year-old rapper out of Atlanta. She’s a fucking monster. She’s got a whole catalog just fucking killing shit. Her on there with Swae Lee and Jace was crazy. Jace is a whole other story. To me, he’s one of the best rappers right now in terms of flow. I had Swae Lee and Jace and that was the end of the song. Andrea heard it and was like, “Yo, I like that.” I told her, “If you get on there and you smoke them, I’ll let you get on the song.” She got on there and killed both of them. There’s definitely some talent on that tape that people haven’t heard of, but they have some shit on the way. You’re exactly right. That’s exactly what it was with Ransom.

I feel like Ransom was a very curated project. You were putting together these artists who people don’t usually see together.

Yeah, I like rare shit. I like rare Jordans. I like rare bitches. I like rare diamonds. I just like rare shit. Tom Ford shades. Christian Dior belts. Balmain jeans. Rare shit like that.

What do you think of Kanye’s new line?

I respect Kanye and everything he’s doing. I was just with Kanye in Arizona, and he was showing me sweatpants. I don’t know if they were in his fashion show or not, but he was like, “Man, I was thinking about you when I made these sweats. What do you think about these sweats?” You know, because I’m always wearing sweats and shit. I don't know if he was thinking about me or just wanted a young n*ggas opinion. That shit was tight. I like what Kanye is doing. He’s just doing him and pushing forward and he’s standing behind it.

It’s crazy how much you’re doing at this age. When Kanye was 25 he didn’t even have an album out yet.

Yeah, definitely. Jay Z was just telling me the same shit. When me and Jay Z have a chance to have real conversations, he'll be like, “You’re on the right road. Keep doing your shit.” He and Puff are always just pointing me in the right direction. I always tell them, “If I fail at this shit, it’s your fault. You’re right here at my disposal, and you see what I’m doing, and you’re telling me that you respect it. The lines of communication are open. If I ever do anything wrong, hit me up and tell me that I’m fucking up. I'm humble enough to say I look up to and respect what legends like that have done, instead of having prideful conversations or thinking that I'm the shit because I've put out a couple successful songs like some young cats do.

So you haven’t gotten that feedback yet?

No, Jimmy Iovine is the only one who said anything, and he was like, “What the fuck are you doing? Start a label and put your own shit out.” He told me that shit for two years.

Do you think that you would’ve done it if he hadn’t said anything?

I always wanted to do it, but when the opportunity was right there then you start getting nervous. No matter how many times you say shit like that, when it’s right in front of you then you start second guessing yourself. I knew that I understood talent, but I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find anybody new. But Jimmy was like, “Hell yeah. Just do it.” So I found Makonnen and Rae Sremmurd and both of them went up. We’re off to a good start. We’re two for two.

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