Serious Ciphers: Mike Will
In 2012, in the midst of political turmoil, unforgiving natural disasters, looming Mayan prophecies and fiscal cliffs, we’ve witnessed a kind of reactionary hedonism find its home on dancefloors.
Acts like Death Grips repurposed the mosh pit for the Internet-based consumer, synthesizing a hip-hop sensibility with noise aesthetic and punk attitude for an irreverent, intensely physical experience. Dubstep acts and EDM offshoots afflicted suburbia with rave culture’s flagrant opulence and apocalyptic intensity. And as far as mainstream hip-hop is concerned, 2012 was the year of the stripper anthem.
Chances are, if you turned on the radio, walked down the street, rode in a cab, went to the strip club or attended your cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in the last year, you’re intimately familiar with the name Mike Will – 2012’s most ubiquitous drop.
This 23-year-old Georgia native’s blindingly fast ascension from occasional-Gucci Mane collaborator to illuminati-status arbiter of taste is no accident. Responsible for the year’s most inescapable anthems, as well as some of the most critically-acclaimed, in Mike Will’s production we see reflected a clear, kind of funny, super honest snapshot of the zeitgeist of 2012.
I spoke to the year’s breakout beat star about his latest mixtape and impending debut album, pushing the envelope, getting your money right and strippers as barometers of cross-cultural relevancy.
You’ve got the new mixtape, Est. 1989 2.5, coming out today. Why the Xmas eve release?
A little present for the streets. Just putting a little something out for Christmas to go with that new iPod, iPad, that new laptop.
What made you decide to make it 2.5 as opposed to 3? Did you have an idea or a concept for 2 that you felt was unfinished?
I felt like 2 wasn't finished ‘cause I dropped it in the middle of the year. If it was my choice, I would have dropped 2 at the end of the year and made it a double-disc. I’ve already been telling people that 3's gonna be the album. I knew the sound was about to elevate, switch up a little bit. Like, I won't be able to put the brand new joint on 2, but I can put it on 2.5, and there's things I wasn't able to put on 2 that I'll be able to put on 3.
Do you think 3 is gonna have a really different vibe, maybe surprise some people?
Yeah, it will, but it's the album, so I really gotta go in. That's where I'll really be able to get real crazy and put together the crazy collaborations. I really go in even more on the production – it'll be more on me.
You’re known for working to push artists in different directions. Do you have a place in mind that you're trying to see music move toward?
I'm just looking for a new sound. I'm trying to change music. I feel like it's important for me to do, to change music and not just keep bringing the same old same. ‘Cause I know when I was like a kid listening to dudes like Manny Fresh – he came through with a brand new sound that was all over the place. Like Puffy – he had like 112, Mary J., K-Ci and Jo-Jo, Mase. He was bringing in all these different people. Same with Dr. Dre., same with Pharrell, all the great producers. I feel like when they came through, the reason it made such an impact on me was like the way Dre brought Gwen Stefani on like a hood West Coast beat. People love that kinda shit.
Once you're like different, and not scared to be different, you challenge artists and you go in. The reason I do anything, the reason I did "Turn Out The Lights," it was just like, hands up, sticking out, seeing if people end up liking it. I think I have a pretty good idea of what stuff to try out, what things people wanna hear in particular, how to get a different kind of reaction.
A lot of your beats act kind of like environments. They exist in a really specific setting – outerspace or underwater being the obvious, kind of simplified examples – is there any sort of visual or experiential element that you're going for when you're working?
Environmental? Man, that shit sounds funny. I like the underwater sound. I'm not sitting thinking I'm underwater.
Is it a different mindset going in to make, say, a trap beat for Gucci, or an R&B beat for Jeremih? Is it a different state that you're in when you're creating?
I mean, not really. I listen to all kinds of music. my iPod is like – Foster the People might come on, and then that might go off and Gucci Mane comes on, and then that might go off and Rihanna might come on, and then that might come off and then it'll be Trinidad James, then Trinidad James’ll go off and it might be Coldplay, and then it might be Future, and then Future'll go off and it'll be Bon Jovi.
For you, it's all one experience?
Exactly. Like I feel like my production matches up with my iTunes. I want to be on all these different projects that I listen to one day. Growing up as a fan of hip hop, of course that's where I started, but I also wanna move out. I like rock groups like Queen, Bon Jovi, Foster the People – I like different groups like that. I like Portishead a lot.
If Bon Jovi hit you up to do his comeback record would you definitely do it?
What do you think it would it sound like?
Man, it would sound like "Dead Or Alive" on fucking steroids. I feel like with a couple more elements Bon Jovi could have pulled off the Gucci Mane "Plain Jane" beat.
I could see that. Throw some guitars on it.
That shit woulda been outta here.
Do you do a lot of stripper research?
Strip club research? Man, I'm always in the strip club.
What's your favorite?
I'm always in like Diamonds of Atlanta, Magic City – those are the two I go to the most. I go to all the strip clubs in Atlanta – Onyx, Strokers, it doesn't really matter, I'm always in the strip clubs. You know I mix the turn up, man. I guess that's where I get the turn up from. I'm always in the strip clubs, so I already know what they want.
Do you think you make songs with strippers' tastes in mind?
I mean that's like, in Atlanta, we're the home of the strip clubs. So if it works in the young clubs and it works in the strip clubs then it's outta here. I know it'll work in the 21-and-over clubs if it's working in the strip club. It pretty much has to work in the strip club. I think I pretty much get what it is, what elements need to be in the beat, for it to work in all of those clubs and on the radio.
Right, I guess it's a good way to test out how danceable a song is.
Exactly, all a stripper has to do is dance to it and then you know it's good.
Would you ever do something like – remember Beyonce was in that movie on MTV Carmen: A Hiphopera?
Hell. No. No hiphoperas for Mike Will. More like something like 8 Mile or Get Rich Or Die Trying.
Would you play yourself?
Nah, I wouldn't play myself.
What does your perfect day look like?
Wake up with my phone not ringing about any bullshit. Get to eat breakfast, get to take a shower, get to put on new clothes, new shoes and fucking go eat lunch. Go to the studio and make a hit. Make some money that day. Eat some good food. Shit, it's not that difficult. I’m not a difficult person. I'm a simple needs man.