April 20 is usually a day where weed smokers partake in recreational activities together, but unfortunately, that won’t be the case this year. Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, devoted marijuana smokers will have to celebrate this 4/20 on their own—or at least in their own quarantine spots. The holiday might be less of a group activity this year than normal, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.
Mike Dean just dropped an instrumental project, appropriately titled 4:20. The album was inspired by his Instagram Live performances, which have been running for the past few weeks, and it was put together with very little editing or overdubbing. The result is a collection of soothing sounds that will hopefully bring some comfort to listeners as they stay inside.
“This is the first 4/20 where people can’t be together. For smokers, this is a big time when we all get together and we all smoke, have parties, secret sessions, all that kind of stuff,” Dean tells Complex. “My main goal was to make something that was very real: not over-produced, not layered, not contrived at all. It's all literally whatever came off the top of my head when I touched the keyboard... It’s an hour and 30-something minutes of music that runs concurrently. There’s no breaks. It’s straight to sit and listen and meditate.”
While Dean says he has long had the idea to release a project on 4/20, this album isn’t just for the smoking community. “It’s more than just a weed smoking album. To me, it’s an instrumental Pink Floyd album.”
In addition to the instrumental album, Dean also launched a webstore today, featuring limited edition merchandise including face masks that read “Fuck Coronavirus.” All of the proceeds will go to the MusiCares’ COVID-19 relief fund, with a goal to help those within the music industry. “For every Travis Scott or every Kanye West in the world, there’s probably 250 to 400 people unemployed right now,” Dean says. “That’s all the crews and tour crews and everybody’s fucked together. They’re all just sitting with nothing to do. I know of people having to move out of their studios, and people having to lose their businesses, which really sucks.”
Right now, Mike Dean is focused on this 4:20 project, but he reveals that he is working on a compilation album that will call on his rolodex of frequent collaborators. “I'm working on my compilation album, my JACKBOYS album, or whatever you want to call it. It will be with all the artists that I produce. So I’ll call in all my favors and put together an album.”
While in quarantine, there has been lots of chatter online from fans who would love to see Dean in an IG Live beat battle. Dean says he’s spoken with Swizz Beatz about it, but he has little interest. Although, if he were to do it, he thinks he could hang with anyone. “I see a lot of the people in the beat battles that have been playing co-productions,” he says. “A lot of my productions are co-productions, so if you can play co-productions on a beat battle, I would 100 percent slaughter anybody, besides maybe a Dr. Dre or a Timbaland.
Complex spoke with Mike Dean over the phone about his new 4:20 instrumental album, his extensive career in music, and more. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
What challenges have you faced since being under quarantine?
[The challenge] has really been just trying to convince people not to come over.
This album was inspired by your Instagram Live series. Why did you decide to launch this series in response to the pandemic?
It was last-minute. I just put a post up [asking], should I do a live stream? I got a good response from that, so I started doing them that day. Then I decided I was going to do 14 in a row. I did that 14 days in a row, which did pretty well. So I basically created seven or eight hours of music. After doing that, I had three songs I was trying to release to the EP and I was like, should we just take all this stuff from the livestreams? I picked four nights of it and mixed it down. Very light, low edits. It's live, the way it went down in the livestream, which is pretty unheard of these days.
“It’s an hour and 30-something minutes of music that runs concurrently. There’s no breaks. It’s straight to sit and listen and meditate.”
Why did 4/20 feel like the perfect time to release the album?
This is the first 4/20 where people can't be together, unfortunately. For smokers, this is a big time when we all get together and we all smoke, have parties, secret sessions, all that kind of stuff.
Had it not been for the pandemic, would you have tapped any of your past collaborators to work on the project? Or was this always intended to be a solo instrumental project?
I always had a plan to do an instrumental album and a regular, compilation type of album. So I just pulled the trigger on this because I was by myself and it was really easy to do.
This album is heavy on synths. Did you experiment with anything new?
Well, I did focus a lot on these two new Moog synthesizers that I had. In fact, I used very simple sounds. Synthesizers have three oscillators that make sounds, like three sound sources. And I only used one on each synthesizer. It’s more like an old video game from the ’80s. You have to hear it.
For someone who isn’t technical, would you say this is a new or experimental technique?
It’s kind of going back to basics. Think of an oscillator as a voice of a person, and they can only make one sound. Usually it’s like three people singing out with a keyboard.
What was your main goal for this 4:20 project?
My main goal was to make something that was very real: not over-produced, not layered, not contrived at all. It’s all literally whatever came off the top of my head when I touched the keyboard. All I had to do is figure out what key I was going to play in each night and I would just get in there and start going. It’s an hour and 30-something minutes of music that runs concurrently. There’s no breaks. It’s straight to sit and listen and meditate.
What is the best way to listen to this album?
It’s more than just a weed smoking album. To me it's an instrumental Pink Floyd album. If Pink Floyd was making music today and the singer died, what would it be like?
Why was that important for you to team up with MusiCares for the 4:20 merch?
There’s a lot of musicians out there, engineering, student musicians, that really work month to month or week to week. They’re not rich. They need help through this stuff, because not many of the government funds are offered to the self-employed. For every Travis Scott or every Kanye West in the world, there’s probably 250 to 400 people unemployed right now. That’s all the crews and tour crews, and everybody’s fucked together. They’re all just sitting with nothing to do. I know of people having to move out of their studios. People having to lose their businesses, which really sucks.
You’ve now worked on two projects that were released under quarantine: 4:20 and Don Toiver’s debut album. Can you talk a little about working with Don on Heaven Or Hell? What was that experience like?
I mean, we were all together for that. We had an album in the can for a long time. But yeah, it definitely put a damper on release parties. Getting together to listen to it, to do that final adjustment that we usually do. I think the last thing was the JACKBOYS… What video shoot was that we did with Young Thug?
Yeah, that was the last time I got together with all the people. You can see me in the video shoot. I was the only one wearing the mask.
Do you have any particular memories, or things that maybe people don’t know about Heaven or Hell?
Nothing in particular. It’s just helped me warming up to doing this album for 4:20. Every album that I work on, I’ve been turning my keyboards up a little more. Next album, I’ll turn them up a little more. So at some point I was just going to take the vocals away and people wouldn’t notice. I mean, you get used to hearing all the keyboards and synthesizers.
Don Toliver was the breakout star on the first JACKBOYS pack. What should we know about the next pack? Where is JACKBOYS heading next?
I can’t really talk about that too much. There’s more songs being made. You’re going to have to wait until some of the special edition stuff is out there.
You’ve worked with so many different artists who reach diverse audiences. What would you say is the secret to jumping from Kanye West to Selena Gomez to Don Toliver to Scarface?
I just learned how to navigate around any kind of situation with anybody. I love working with artists. I’m good at getting in their heads and figuring out what they want, pushing them to do things that are not in their typical sound.
Instagram Live battles have become really popular in quarantine. Have you considered joining the trend?
Yeah. Me and Swizz talked a little bit about it. I don’t know, I think it’s more enjoyable to watch somebody create than watch somebody play their records online. That's why I was doing the live streams. I thought it would be cool—people actually seeing the music [being made] instead of just playing some music.
If you were to do it, who do you think would be a good matchup for you?
I see a lot of the people in the beat battles that have been playing co-productions. A lot of my productions are co-productions, so if you can play co-productions on a beat battle, I would 100 percent slaughter anybody, besides maybe a Dr. Dre or a Timbaland.
There was a lot of discussion in December about the best rappers and producers of the 2010s. Where do you think you rank among producers for last decade?
I don't know. I’m only important, because I influenced so many people.
Do you think you aren’t given the credit you deserve?
I don’t really look for the credit. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I’ve been making platinum records since 1992. That was my first gold record I think. There’s not much to prove from here.
People keep saying the dream producer battle matchup would be Kanye vs Pharrell. Do you think that would ever happen?
I don’t know. That could be interesting. I’d like to be sitting down next to Kanye. I produced 80 percent of everything he did. That’s why it always feels really weird doing a beat battle, because I’ve done things with other people.
What is you goal for MWA this year? Do you have any plans for where you want to take the label?
Let’s see how this instrumental album does. Then, getting my album done with all the feature artists. I’ll probably work with Travis on that.
So you do have a compilation project in the works?
Yeah. I’m working on my compilation album. My JACKBOYS album or whatever you want to call it. It will be with all the artists that I produce. So I’ll call in all my favors and put together an album.
Are you planning that for this year?
Well, it depends on the social distancing I think. I’ve been seeing things on the news about 2021.
Is there anything exciting that people should know about the rest of your year and what you have going on as far as music goes?
I’m in talks with iMax about doing a film to the instrumental album. I don’t know if it's going to be animated or not. We don’t know anything yet. They're talking to David Lynch, trying to find a really high-profile director to put it together. It may end up being animated just because of social distancing.
Your career extends several decades. What is your biggest goal going into the 2020s? What do you want this chapter to say about you as a creative?
Just that I’m the best. I’m the best out here doing it. I can totally make an album by myself… The original plan with this was to release an EP every month for four months. So I may follow this up with another album in a month. It just depends on how I’m feeling. And if you look at it, I made this album in five days. It’s four live streams I did, 30 minutes a piece. And then it took me a day to make sure it all [fit together]. I work really fast when I'm by myself.