As part of Stereogum’s year-end coverage, The 2013 Experience, this week we’re presenting a series of interviews with the producers of our favorite songs of the year. Monday we caught up with Pharrell, yesterday it was Ariel Rechtshaid, and today, we conclude with Mike WiLL Made It.
If you loved a song on the radio this year, there’s a good chance Mike WiLL Made It. After kicking around the Atlanta mixtape circuit for a few years, the musician born Michael Len Williams hit it big in 2011 with his disorderly production for the Meek Mill/Rick Ross hit “Tupac Back.” He went on to rule rap in 2012, with his work on songs like 2 Chainz and Drake’s “No Lie,” Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” and much of Future’s debut album Pluto, transforming urban radio into one extended melodic bass ripple. That trend continued in 2013 — see “Love Me,” “Bugatti,” “Body Party,” “Kisses Down Low,” etc. — but he extended his dominance into mainstream pop, helping Miley Cyrus to transform from a squeaky-clean Disney kid into a demonic tongue-wagging party pixie with the exquisitely crafted Bangerz. Now Mike WiLL is in the early stages of a Timbaland-approved step out of the shadows. His first single under his own name, “23″ (the one where Miley raps alongside Juicy J and Wiz Khalifa), was also his directorial debut (the one where Miley wears a bikini made out of a Michael Jordan jersey). That song will be included on Est. In 1989 Pt. 3 (The Album), his first commercial release under his own name. First, though, he’ll unveil his #MikeWiLLBeenTrill mixtape next week, a grab bag of new material and 2013 greatest hits. I called him last month to discuss his momentous rise and look ahead to 2014.
STEREOGUM: It seemed like all year, wall-to wall, you’ve pretty much been the most in demand producer in music. Did you have any downtime this year? This had to be craziest year of your life.
MIKE WILL MADE IT: Man, this year came and went. I remember Christmas like it was yesterday, my birthday like it was yesterday. This year really flew right past. Like you said, I was real busy. Just going from city to city… I haven’t sat down in one city for more than a month. It’s always a week or two, then I’m on to the next city. I bought a new house, but haven’t been able to spend much time in it.
STEREOGUM: When you look back at your year, is there one highlight that jumps out at your or something that you think, “Oh wow, that was the peak?”
MIKE WILL MADE IT: I mean it was like a steady growth, you know what I’m saying? I just remember working on things from this year at the end of last year. It’s so crazy because Future’s birthday was yesterday and it seemed like just last night we were at a birthday dinner with Future last year. We were sitting down and I already had the hook: “Good kush and alcohol/ Long as these bitches love me” for Lil Wayne, and I already had the hook with Future and Drake on it. I gave it to my homey Gee Roberson because he was saying he needed a single for Lil Wayne. I had sent it to him, and a couple months had passed. And I was sitting down on Future’s birthday, and he called me and he said, “I need to file ’Bitches Love Me.’ That’s gonna be Wayne’s next single.” That was 11/20 last year. To see that song just come out at the end of last year or the beginning of this year and be a chart-topper and be top 10 on the Hot 100, that was real dope. That was my first song in the Top 10 Hot 100.
STEREOGUM: And now you’ve been all the way to #2 with “We Can’t Stop.”
MIKE WILL MADE IT: About that… It was 8 degrees in New York around January, and I was running around doing meetings with all the labels because all the presidents of all the different labels wanted to meet with me. I remember I had some downtime before I had to meet with RCA, so I fell asleep, and my man who was setting it up was calling me and I finally woke up and he was like, “We have to get over here to this meeting. We’re gonna be late.” And I remember saying, “Fuck that meeting, man, it’s too cold. It’s 8 degrees outside, I’m not goin’ to the meeting.” My man said, “Dude, you have to go. This is a top dude from RCA.” And I asked, “Man, can we schedule it tomorrow? It’s too cold,” and he was like “Nah, nah, we have to go to this.” So I said fuck it, I met him over there. Because, you know, me and Rihanna had “Pour It Up,” and that took off without the label investing in it or trying to make it a single. It just took off. I had started on “We Can’t Stop” as an idea for Rihanna, but when I was presenting it to Rihanna’s camp, I kept telling them that this was the new “Party In The U.S.A.” This is like a mature version of “Party in the U.S.A.”
Anyway, I get to RCA and at this point, I don’t know what artists are signed to what label or who’s signed to where so I’m just playing everyone a whole bunch of tracks. I play “We Can’t Stop” for him. The crazy thing is the week before I went up there I had the flu and I told my manager that, since Rihanna didn’t take “We Can’t Stop,” I need to find Miley Cyrus and figure out where she’s at and see what kind of music she’s working on. I felt like “We Can’t Stop” would be a game changer for her. And he was like, “Is she even doing music right now?” And I was like, “I don’t know, but I know she should do this song.” I wasn’t too familiar with her previous songs. Anyway, when I played that for the label I wasn’t even over the flu. I told my manager that, by the time I got over the flu, I needed to be in the studio with Miley Cyrus. So I wasn’t over the flu when I was in New York and I was playing the song and Peter was like, “This would be dope for Miley Cyrus” and I was like, “Yes, yes! Is she signed to you?” and he said yes. I didn’t even know that. So I showed them some other songs I thought could work for Miley and they said they’d show them to her and see what she thinks.
They played them for her and she liked it. She said she connected with it because it reminded her of some parties she had been to before. When I got in the studio with her, I thought we were just going to knock out this one song and be done with it. So I already had “23″ in the can. I had one in the studio with Juicy J and Wiz. I told them I was going to let Miley hear it and see what she thought about it. We were doing “We Can’t Stop” and she was telling me how much she loved it, and I was like, “Yo, I have this song called ’23′ that I think is dope. I want to see what you think about it.” And I let her hear it, and she said, “I love this shit. I’ll hop on it right now.” So she did. And then I asked her if she was going to use that for her album or what, but she said she’d rather it be just a feature. I tried to give it to Juicy J, but he was done with his album. And by then it was time for me to go into album mode, so I just said fuck it and used it for myself. That was back in February. We did “We Can’t Stop” and “23″ in the same day. That was a crazy moment.
STEREOGUM: At this point you’re pretty closely associated with Miley.
MIKE WILL MADE IT: Me and her caught a vibe. That was the perfect timing because she was telling me that it was time for her to be done with the Hannah Montana shit because she’s not signed to Disney anymore. She said, “It’s time now for me to me be. I’m grown now. I’m 20 and people have to accept me for me.” It was good that I wasn’t too familiar with too much of her previous music because it was like a new beginning for her… new for both of us, really, because I wasn’t just going in with a whole bunch of pop chicks. And she had gone in with Pharrell already, but she had never gone in with a producer around her age. We just continued to work, and I told the label to keep setting up days because I felt like I had a whole catalog for her, and I felt like we’d come up with some dope stuff. The label said, “Her album’s closing out,” but I said, “Keep setting up days until we get it done.” And that’s when we did “My Darlin’.” That was the third song we did. I was telling her how crazy Future was and how dope of a writer he is. That’s when we did “My Darlin’,” and he was telling me that night, “You just turned me into a believer, you just turned me into a Miley Cyrus fan because of how her vocals sounded on that.”
After that, we thought we could do anything. And she was good with taking direction and listening. I get real in detail when I’m producing, so we just kept doing music. She loved going to the studio, and we just kept going. We ended up doing eight songs on her album, and I ended up being the executive producer. And “23″ ended up going to the top of the charts fast — it has 100 million views on Vevo. That being my first single and having a 100 million views and “We Can’t Stop” coming out and being a crazy talked-about song… Everything rolled out and was just so perfect. And her album was so solid, and that was my first album that I executive produced.
STEREOGUM: You did a lot more this year than just your work with Miley, though.
MIKE WILL MADE IT: I was continuing to work with artists like 2 Chainz and having two songs on his album, continuing to work with Juicy J and have three songs on his album. Now I’m working on Future’s album, and I’m executive producing his album. It’s been a dope year. Like you said, just staying busy. Everything’s a highlight, everything’s a new thing. Being able to executive produce Future’s album is crazy to me. Like having a song like “Real and True” that I had on my hard drive for a long time… I was running around with it, and I was going to give that song to Mariah Carey, I was going to give that song to a couple different people. I let Miley hear it, but she had too many ballads on her album, but she liked it. So I let Future hear it and he loved it, but by that time I had already put Miley’s verse on it, and then I let Future hear it and he thought it was dope as fuck. So we knocked it out and did it as his song. That shit came out like crazy. I’ve been holding that same song since I was working with Kanye back in 2012. Me and Mr. Hudson had met each other, and he gave me the hook and the beat. I was running around with it saying that it would be a huge song, and you can see how that song came out. Me and Future went back to the first studio that we had recorded with each other at. We threw it out for Atlanta because Atlanta likes to hear new music from us all the time, and it ended up being so fucking hot everywhere. Everything’s a highlight, man. I could keep going on with stories and stories.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that day when you were working with Miley and you brought Future in. What was it like when those two met each other? Was either one of them hesitant?
MIKE WILL MADE IT: At the end of the day, I think both of them respect my mind. I definitely had something up my sleeve. Future’s like my brother and he can write any type of music. He’s not a person that’s like, “I ain’t tryin’ to come to the studio with Miley Cyrus.” He’s not one of those people. He’s a person who says, “Yo, what’s the music sound like? Oh, it’s dope? OK, I’m going to come over there and check that shit out.” Definitely when it comes down to me because he knows that I’m not going to just say anything is dope. We’re always on the same wavelength, we always think the same — we could damn well finish each other’s sentences. With Miley, we had already had “23″ and “We Can’t Stop” in the can. We were getting used to each other. At first, she didn’t know what Future was going to write for her because she wasn’t all the way into his music. But I told her that he could write some crazy shit for you. When I brought him into the studio, he wrote the song “My Darlin’” and she said, “Man, this dude is crazy. That shit is wild.” Future ended up leaving before we knocked it out, and we finished it up and he was like, “Damn, that’s one of the biggest songs.” She sounds classic on that song, like a Dolly Parton or something like that.
Those are two artists that I worked with real closely. Me and Miley are real close, me and Future are real close. Miley could already tell after the first couple sessions that I’m not just going to do anything. Because that song turned out dope, she brought Future back in and he wrote the hook for “Love Money Party” for the album and that was a dope combo. And with “Real And True,” I already knew that was going to work knowing the tone of her voice and how Future’s voice would sound.
STEREOGUM: When did you realize that your style could work outside of just rap? You just keep adding more and more different genres into the realm of what you’ve worked with. At first, were people skeptical of breaking out of hip-hop at first?
MIKE WILL MADE IT: Definitely. “I was being patient and they were being stagnant” — that’s one of my favorite 2 Chainz lines. I remember going into a couple sessions — and I’m not going to name anybody — but these sessions were with writers and stuff and I would tell them I had some crazy fucking pop shit, but it wasn’t your typical pop shit, and they said, “Oh yeah? But the thing is your rap tracks are so crazy that we really want that rap shit.” I know producers be doing all kind of shit, but sometimes when someone tries to step out of their lane, it’s not as hot as the urban shit. I said, “Man, are you going to listen to the beats or are you just going to tell me what I should be doing? I got some shit.” And they were just like, “Just play me that hard shit.” They ain’t even wanna hear it. So I was like, “Alright, fuck it,” and that happened a couple of times. And sometimes I’d be like, “Fuck them,” and just play the pop shit first. When I would do that, people would be like, “Yo man, this shit is crazy.” But they didn’t know what way to come at it because it sounded too new. There were definitely people not trying to hear that pop side at first, but I wouldn’t even label my sound as being pop, you know? I just feel like it’s universal. It’s dope enough to work anywhere for anybody. It’s good, it’s fresh. It’s a fresh sound that’s universal and it’s not all the way urban-leaning. It’s not a beat that anybody’s scared of or is too aggressive — it’s universal, it’s melodic, it’s something that would work for anybody. I wouldn’t label it pop or anything like that.
STEREOGUM: I have this theory that everything on the radio is merging into one genre…
MIKE WILL MADE IT: Definitely. That’s one of my goals. When I did “23,” I was thinking, “Why would a person who listens to pop music all day listen to this song? Why would a person who listens to rap music all day listen to this song?” Because Miley Cyrus is on it? OK, but what does that mean? This is the first hip-hop track she’s ever done, so it’s not like she’s known for doing wack hip-hop shit. She swagged on that shit, and you really can’t knock that. What could anybody really say about that shit? That’s what I try to do with all music. With “Real And True,” it’s like that song’s not pop, that song’s not urban, but that song is dope. That shit could be pop, it could be country, it could be urban, it could be anything because the song itself is dope. That’s what I try to do when I do music. Everybody asks me, “What genre would you call this?” I call it EarDrummers — there’s no genre.
STEREOGUM: So tell me about the new mixtape, # MikeWiLLBeenTriLL. Is there a theme or design to that? What kind of stuff is on there?
MIKE WILL MADE IT: It’s just an overview of the whole year. People who bought Bangerz and enjoyed the work that I did on that might not have heard the work on Jay Z or 2 Chainz or Juicy J’s albums. The people who might listen to 2 Chainz, Wiz, or Future, but they might not listen to Jay-Z or Migos or whoever. They might not listen to all of them, but when they listen to this CD, they might fuck with my sound, they might fuck with Mike WiLL’s production, so let me download this mixtape. I want my music to be associated with just hot shit, hot music. Where they might have missed a song on these different projects, now they can hear it and maybe want to fuck with it and download that song my song off Jay Z’s album or even download the whole album. They might not even know that Jay Z dropped an album this year or that Juicy J dropped an album this year. It’s just to bring everybody together and have a whole bunch of dope music on one CD. You have exclusive shit from Future on there, you know? I was always one of those young kids who liked knowing the new shit and seeing the new collabos, or hearing this underground song that’s always going to be a classic because when it came out it was a moment. Like Been Trill is already like family to me. I fuck with Virgil, I fuck with [Matthew Williams], and everyone over there. I felt like it was time right now. We were already talking about collabing on merch and coming out with shirts and hats and stuff. They already drop mixtapes, so I figured why not? They’ve been fucking with me since before I popped off and I’ve been fucking with them before they popped off. It just made sense. I got so many songs out on the streets and I feel like the streets fuck with my sound, I feel like the youth fuck with my sound, the young fuck with Been Trill clothing, with their mixtapes… It was the perfect timing. Timing is everything, and this is a dope lineup of music. There’s not only going to be songs that are out on different projects. I’ll probably have a couple exclusives on there, but people gotta keep in mind that I’m working on my album.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I was wondering when that was going to come out.
MIKE WILL MADE IT: My album is my main priority. My album is going to be all exclusive joints and I want to make sure it’s perfect. I haven’t come up with a release date because I want to make sure it’s perfect, and I want to make sure the timing is right. I feel like people are just waking up right now and asking, “When the fuck is Mike WiLL coming out with something?” Once I can get people doing that, that’s when I’ll be all the way ready to drop my album. I want it to be like one of those NOW CDs where there’s nothing but hits; it’s all songs back-to-back from different people. I want people to be like, “This shit is all over fresh.” I feel like even when Dr. Dre came out with Chronic, that was a moment. It wasn’t just a CD dropping, it was a moment. People bought that and heard it and people were like, “What the fuck?” And it’s a classic — you can always go back and listen to it and it’s always going to be classic. I want my album to be that. I’m working on a DVD for it and a couple other things to come with it to make it special.
STEREOGUM: Are we gonna hear you on the mic at all or are you just producing?
MIKE WILL MADE IT: I don’t want to be on the mic, man. I want to stay producing. But Gucci had an hour-long conversation with me trying to get me to start rapping.
STEREOGUM: He couldn’t convince you?
MIKE WILL MADE IT: Nah, not in that conversation. He had a long conversation saying, “These other producers are doing it. They ain’t got the swag like you.” With some of these artists, I might be helping them come up with lines, I might be helping them come up with cadences, getting them to say a word a different way. Gucci was telling me, “You could be a rapper, I’m telling you.” He tried to have a conversation with me, [Tinie] Tempah tried to have a conversation with me, Dr. Dre told me I was going to start rapping. A couple people have tried to have that talk with me, but I just don’t see it.
STEREOGUM: Well, what you’re doing right now seems to be working for you.
MIKE WILL MADE IT: Yeah, man. It’s all about the music to me. That’s what it’s all about. I’m so into making music and being behind the scenes. I’m such a visionary person that I don’t see myself being the person in front of the camera or the person in front of the mic. I want to start doing movies and shit and start directing music videos, things like that.
STEREOGUM: You’re directing some videos?
MIKE WILL MADE IT: Yeah, I co-directed “23.” Yeah, the whole concept of the video… Even with that video, I feel like it’s not a video that you can get sick of. You can always go back and watch that and it’s fresh. Ten years from now, people will remember when that video came out. That was a dope video. Then, at the same time, I want to get more on the artsy side of things and show my artsy side when it comes to co-directing videos. I have a lot of ideas. For “23,” I wasn’t shooting or anything like that and [director] Hannah Lux Davis has a more of a pop feel, but at the same time I plan on going in with different video directors and coming up with more of an artsy fartsy side of video things. I’ve been writing movies and different things like that as well.
STEREOGUM: Cool, I’ll look forward to that. I wanted to ask you about one more thing. Probably my favorite thing you did this year was “Bugatti” and I was wondering about how that track came to be.
MIKE WILL MADE IT: With “Bugatti,” DJ Khaled is like family and he told me he was about to go in with Future. I already knew what was needed. Like I said, me and Future are like family, and it’s really easy — I sent him the track and told Future that I just sent him one of the hardest turnt up tracks that’s going to fuck the streets up. Khaled went into the studio with Ace and ended up coming up with the shape. I went down to Miami and he let me hear the hook and told me he was going to put Ross on it and shit. I was thinking, “Man, this shit is too crazy.” That track was real easy. We already had it when we issued the video for “Bitches And Bottles” and we already knew what it was going to be, and we were holdin’ it for like a minute. We knew it was going to be big and it ended up coming out just like we thought it was gonna be. Fuckin’ the streets up man, that shit is crazy. That “Bugatti” shit, [Future’s] “Shit!,” “Stop It,” on Juicy J’s, “Fork” on the 2 Chainz album, “Beach Is Better” on Jay Z’s… those songs should be in every club, every stereo system at high volumes right now. Those are the highlights of my career right now. This year, I was able to expand and do some diversity, but things like that… shit, man.