It’s 11:30 a.m. Pacific time, five days after the release of Kanye West’s Donda and on the morning of Mike Dean’s ECHOPLEX (LIVE 2021) visual album hitting Apple Music (the standard audio version is out on all DSPs), and the self-described Synth God is heading out to get a breakfast sandwich. The act of eating breakfast right before noon isn’t too unorthodox; I mean, we’re all guilty of it after sleepless nights. But the reasoning behind Dean’s decision to order his cucumber and mixed-green-infused bite-to-eat a little later than he intended is as surprising as it gets for a 56-year-old mega-producer behind the album that currently sits atop the Billboard charts.
“I was up late looking at memes,” Dean admits during our half-hour-long Zoom call.
Dean—whose brilliance can be felt throughout Donda, Yeezy’s seven previous studio albums, Travis Scott’s discography and, if you were lucky enough to catch it, on stage with Selena y Los Dinos in the ‘80s—has a resume that undeniably places him at the Synth God tier that he aims for. “It’s a life goal to be more of a synth god than to be somebody’s producer,” Dean explains. “It’s great being a producer and making people’s records good but in the end, the end goal is to be a Jean-Michel Jarre, the type of artist to do global concerts. My goal is to play in Central Park with a half-a-million people, like a free concert, give the money to somebody, some good fund.”
But Mike’s legendary status reaches far beyond synths and perfecting Kanye records. He didn’t say the words himself, but Mike Dean has begun to earn a new title—he’s a meme lord.
Halfway through our conversation, which saw him switch in and out of headphones, travel to his go-to breakfast sandwich joint, complain about the shitty Los Angeles drivers surrounding him, and talk about the act of becoming a household name, Dean spoke words that I never imagined I’d be hearing from a man behind the albums that have shaped our palates for years: “Hey, what’s your phone number? I’ll send you a meme.”
The meme, which he chuckled about as it emerged in my inbox, was of Godzilla and King Kong duking it out—Godzilla was labeled Donda, while Kong was labeled Certified Lover Boy, the title of the other biggest album in the world right now. In a second frame, the “Bonk” Dog emerges, scaring them both away, with the word Echoplex written just above the dog’s baseball bat in reference to Dean’s live visual album. Mike Dean couldn’t be any happier that he’s being used as a meme. And I couldn’t be any happier that Mike Dean is sending me memes.
How are you personally today and what does a post-Donda world look like for Mike Dean?
I’m going back to my projects I was on before I went into Donda, back to working on Don Toliver’s album, I’m working on Christine and the Queens album and I’m about to crank up on Travis shortly.
Do you get a lot of breaks in between stuff?
Do you want to have a break or do you like having that type of lifestyle where it’s just one after the other?
It’d be nice, I just never take enough time. Trying to take some time between these next projects. I’m going into 070 Shake’s project next too.
Man. Even looking at the things that are directly in your name too—the 4:22 project, and then there’s the clothing collab as well. How do you stay on top of this many goals this deep into your career?
I have a good team. Louise Donegan does a lot, she does a lot of creative direction, keeps me alive through all this stuff. Marisa, my attorney-slash-manager, keeps a lot of shit going. Just the whole crew, you know? Tommy Rush, my day-to-day tech guy and producer plug, making sure my ears are in the cyber universe. Apex Martin who’s been cranking out some big placements for the MWA flag. Sean [Solymar] and Sage, the mixing producer with me. Sean actually got a song on Donda which was big to me, he did the drums at the end of “Jail.” It’s pretty cool.
What was that like to see on your end?
I’m really proud of it. Out of all the producers, he got the task done.
In terms of this Echoplex project, what inspired a live project for you and is that something that you’ve always wanted to do?
Not really. My agent, Cara Lewis, about two months ago, she hit me up like, “Do you want to do a show in LA? Somebody wants you to DJ at a club.” I was like, “Yeah, but I’d prefer to play synths than DJ.” And we set it up and we didn’t make any plans for a long time and then I ran into John McGuire and Eric from TrasK House who were doing production of the first Donda drop party. And I told them I had a show and that’s when we started organizing the production, the stage look and all that.
So you didn’t go into it expecting it to be this type of theatrical thing?
I was going to pull up a strobe light and fucking fog machine… These guys went all in, we got Apple involved. Apple helped fund the whole thing, which was cool.
I’m curious. Does creating an album or a project of your own or playing a solo gig and taking the pilot’s chair on something like that, does it come with additional nerves for you, as a guy who’s been behind the scenes for a lot of your life?
Not really. I’ve done plenty of shows with Travis [Scott] and Kanye over the years, playing a lot bigger shit. It makes me more nervous to play smaller shows than for 150,000 people. So it’s a strange thing.
It’s great being a producer and making people’s records good but in the end, the goal is to be the type of artist to do global concerts. My goal is to play in Central Park with a half-a-million people.
This year has seen all types of different-sized releases from you, things that you’ve been a part of. How would you compare working on something as public as Donda to doing these solo ventures?
Just trying to get this stuff to pop, to get the solo stuff to go. It’s a life goal to be more of a synth god than to be somebody’s producer. It’s great being a producer and making people’s records good but in the end, the goal is to be a Jean-Michel Jarre, the type of artist to do global concerts. My goal is to play in Central Park with a half-a-million people, like a free concert, give the money to somebody, some good fund.
Man, that’s nice. And I know you worked with Shepard Fairey on one of the album artworks?
He did 4:22. We did an NFT together and that was one of the NTFs, this cover.
Being a visionary yourself, when you work with someone like Shepard or Kanye, do you think there’s an overlap of a feeling that you get with working with super creatives?
It’s inspiring, definitely. And to get different people’s different ways of looking at art, different ways of approaching, knocking it out, definitely it’s cool.
Having worked on all of these things this year, when you get a call from somebody like Ye, does everything else get put on hold for you?
It did. I put it on hold or it put everything on hold for a month, it’s the most I could do. I couldn’t be in the indefinite holding pattern, I have too many responsibilities to other artists. I had already made Don Toliver miss his date.
Now, this is definitely the most Mike Dean memes I’ve ever seen in my life in my history of knowing about you…
The Donda stuff was definitely a crazy meme time.
Over the last couple of years, have you felt a shift in public awareness surrounding you as a producer, whether it be memes or a growing following?
I’m starting to become more of a household name.
Is that interesting for you?
It’s important to achieve the goal of being the synth guy. People have to know who you are, they’re not just going to listen to your music from nothing. I’m working on a score of some high-profile gaming stuff. I can’t talk about it yet, but that’s going to be awesome.
And I guess another thing, along with those memes, did you like seeing how fans would spin the mystery of Atlanta and did you like being on the receiving end of that anticipation?
It is funny. I was making shirts out of the memes. It might get a little old but everybody I was working with, we got a kick out of the stuff. Got something to laugh about when things are so serious.
Of course. It seems like this collaborative, ever-evolving approach to making an album has been the way that you and Kanye have worked together for years, but this was the most that fans have seen how a record is made. Do you feel like that type of approach is pushing boundaries for music, where fans are able to see the steps that songs took to get to their final state?
Yeah, definitely. The collaboration thing, definitely the more producers, the more people you throw at a song, the better it gets. But you still need that master curator like Kanye to put it together.
For Donda, did you know what the final product would look like?
No, I had no idea. I can’t get too detailed with all this stuff. He’ll roast me for talking too much.
I’ll be careful with the questions then. As someone who’s been doing this for so long, do you see the creative process for artists almost moving in that direction, more fans are more able to see that process?
Not really. All the artists that do that process are pretty private about it. Everybody that I work with, basically, they prefer you don’t do interviews. They want to keep the mystery around everything.
What do you think about the future of music and fan input, or even customization like the Stem widget that Kanye released?
I think it’s definitely cool to have fans give input on stuff and fan reactions definitely drive me to produce in different ways. Something that I learned when I started touring with artists is that you can experiment with new things on songs and see what makes the crowd react. You can see what people like and also see the crowd reaction to the stuff you produced in the past, and let that drive you to where you’re going next.
… Hey, what’s your phone number? I’ll send you a meme. I just got a new one and I want to send a little something to you. Pretty good. Check it out.
Do you normally send memes during interviews? Is this the normal thing for you? This is the first for me, but this is outstanding.
The memes are really great. Rick Rubin was sending me memes. There’s memes of me and him. It was all kinds of crazy shit.
Have you always been a big meme guy?
Yeah. The internet is undefeated.
Seeing yourself be meme’d so much, is it almost like a rite of passage, I guess?
Yeah, really, yeah.
But something I did want to ask before the meme. I think it was seven, eight years ago, you Tweeted something about Bieber being top five singers you’ve ever worked with. You commended him on perfect pitch and I know that’s something you told Variety you were able to help Selena with on tour. I’m curious as to how important you think having perfect pitch is today in 2021?
Not as important as it used to be with AutoTune and Melodyne and all the pitch correction tools that are out there now. It’s nice, I’m working with [two artists] who don’t use any of that stuff and it’s amazing, like Christine and the Queens uses no pitch correction. The being out of tune on doubles and stuff a little bit makes it have more character. Like, when everybody has AutoTune on, they all kind of turn into these drones. You could switch rappers and almost not tell.
[For three minutes, Mike walked to his car and lost service. We tried to talk about T-Pain.]
What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve heard a vocalist do during a session?
The way Travis uses all AutoTune is really good to me. He’s the master at it. Especially when me and him catch a thing on stage. Kanye used to catch them too but me and Travis have caught some crazy ad-libs on stage for 15, 20 minutes. He did “90210” or I think we did “Skeletons” once [where he was singing] in Texas. That was an amazing little moment.
A lot of people point to you as this legend in hip-hop but you have such a crazy resume across genres. I know there’s the Selena Gomez project you worked on, this upcoming Lana Del Rey record. Do you feel like artists in the pop realm are starting to maybe turn their heads a little more to what you’re doing?
Yeah, for sure. I get calls from different people like [30 Seconds to Mars]. They reached out to me for tracks this year. Definitely more broad ranging people are reaching out.
What does that feel like for you, to have recognition in maybe just different places than what you’re used to?
Stoked. It’s fulfilling to be recognized for something you’ve been trying to do for so long. I’ve definitely had the slow burn, which is good. It’s always better [than a] fast burn. People can go up in a year and easily go down in a year. I’ve had a slow ascent in my career. Like Travis didn’t have overnight success, but he’s going to last for a long time.
Do you ever have a certain feeling about a certain song as you’re making it, like “This one is my favorite” or does that not come into focus until toward the end of the final product?
I mean, yeah, I always gravitate towards the singles I think, from every project I’m on. One of my gifts is to pick the good songs.
Do you keep up with numbers for albums you work on?
Not really so much, no. I keep up with the Apple Charts, you know what I mean? If something breaks records, but other than that, no.
How does this week feel for you, seeing these records?
It’s a pretty great week. Drake came in and really killed shit this week. Hold on one second. [Looks at waiter.] I’ll take the same thing. No sauce. Cucumber, mixed greens. Over medium. [Looks back at camera.] All right. Same place every day.
I’m really boring. It’s a breakfast sandwich, salad, triple espresso, and lemonade. Everybody sees me here. I’m sitting on this fucking chair. You know what I mean? He came by the other day, he saw me, he’s like, “Are you Mike Dean?” And I said, “Well, yeah.” He went and bought me a juice and shit. Bought me an energy drink.
You getting this a lot more recently?
I’ve been getting that for a long time. Mostly fans, kids, I don’t know. Mostly guys. Getting to be girls now.
When a young fan approaches you, what is that like?
It’s dope, it’s like a sense of recognition, sense of satisfaction in a way.
I’ll leave you with one last question because I want you to enjoy your breakfast and appreciate the memes. What do you hope that your output this year says about your legacy as a musician?
It hopefully says I’m the best out there. It’s good to get recognized for stuff with no lyrics. You know what I mean? It’s important to me. It shows that you did have a lot to do with the success of the different artists that you’ve worked with, but it’s equally the music, the producer as much as it is the artist.