On May 26 of last year, exactly one hour after he was released from the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Gucci Mane was home, by which I mean, in the studio. And shortly there afterward, the phone lines went dead, smoke filtered up through the floorboards, and suddenly the front door was shattered into splinters, or at least it sounded that way on "First Day Out Tha Feds." Having just finished a 32-month stretch, Gucci’s first free words were this: "I’m hearing shooters loading pistols while I’m brushing my teeth / I get so many death threats it’s getting normal to me."
The fact that it racked up a mind-boggling 1.6 million streams in just two days seemed only the logical next step of Gucci’s narrative. A king returning from exile, he was ascending to his rightful place on the throne through the strength of clout and bravado alone. But behind Gucci’s commanding public persona was another titan. Twenty-eight-year-old super producer Mike WILL Made-It was also in the studio exactly one hour after Gucci’s release, fidgeting with the reverb on some X-Files-esque synths and apparently stomping on the drum machine.
Mike WILL’s immediately recognizable sound — which can be accurately described as muddy, but somehow piercing at the same time — emanated from Patchwerk Studios in West Atlanta, where he’d started hanging around with the city’s industry gatekeepers at 15. Since then he’s worked with every dope boy and trap rapper you can possibly name, plus a few you can’t, discovered Rae Sremmurd, incepted Ear Drummer Records, produced an album for Miley Cyrus, and crafted the song Beyoncé performed at Super Bowl 50.
He’s keeping the head of steam going with Ransom 2, his newest project, which drops this Friday. The fifth single — preceded by "Gucci on My," "Hasselhoff," "Come Down," and "Razzle Dazzle" — from the project is "Aries (YuGo)," which features Pharrell, talking that bag talk. I talked to Mike WILL — who also produced "Move That Dope" — about how he managed to get some of Pharrell’s best verses of the past three years. We also talked about his recording process, his dream collaboration, and a life-changing trip to South Africa for Rae Sremmurd’s "This Could Be Us" video, during which he heard a lion roar. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Micah Peters: The last time I heard a Pharrell verse like that was on "Move That Dope," which you also worked on with P-Nasty on Future’s 2014 album Honest. How did "Aries" happen?
Mike WILL: Me and Pharrell, we got a good relationship. We’re both Aries and we always connect on that level. So when I first met him he just came up to me like "Yo, you Mike WILL?" I was like "Yeah." He was like "Yo man, big fan, bruh, big fan." He showed love off the rip, so from there we just kept building and then we did "Move That Dope." We actually bumped heads about that — he sent me two different verses, and then I put the two verses together, but he’d just wanted to use the second. I’d sent it to him for clearance but I guess he didn’t hear it and just assumed that it was the second verse, and then the song dropped and he heard it, and was like, "Yo, bro, like I wanted to use that, the second, I ain’t know you were putting it together." And I couldn’t not use this flow off of the first verse; it was too crazy, you know what I’m saying? But with [Ransom 2] I had ran into him at a party and he was like "What’s going on with your album, bro," and I was about to turn it in. He was like "Man, you can’t turn in the album without me, bro." And we got in the studio the next day, and that ["Aries" beat] was the first beat I played, and we were just bouncing ideas back and forth, and he was going in on it, and then we went back to the studio the next day. And it was crazy he only goes to the studio at six in the morning.
Peters: I just couldn’t get over Pharrell talking bag talk. It’s my favorite thing. It’s reminiscent of this one loosie he did with T.I. in 2011 called "Hear Ye, Hear Ye" where he was rapping under the moniker "Sk8brd" instead of "Station Wagon P" like he does here. Also we’re actually coming up on the 11-year anniversary of his In My Mind Gangsta Grillz mixtape.
Mike WILL: When we were working on "Aries" I was just telling him "It’s no boundaries on you, man, so let’s just channel into each part, man; let’s give them the best raps, let’s give them like the illest melody, let’s give them the wave, and let’s give them new lingo." It came together dope given the amount of time we turned it around, and it was crazy. It just gave the same feeling as I had with "Black Beatles." I feel like this is [snickers] like Michael Jackson level, you know what I’m saying?
Peters: What’s the difference between "Aries" and say, how "Gucci on My" came together?
Mike WILL: It all depends man, every record’s different. ["Gucci on My"] in particular, me and YG always been cool. He let me hear his first album before it came, like I always let him hear stuff, but we never had anything together. But we both respected each other’s work and we both were like we fucked with each other, but nobody ever knew that we fucked with each other or whatnot. And so he was in Atlanta and he was at the studio, so I pulled up on him, and 21 was there, so they were working on another song, and I had just made that beat like in L.A. and then I had went to Atlanta and then I had went in the studio. And they were like "Yo man, Mike WILL, I know you got some beats, I know you got some," so then I just played that beat, and then 21 had heard, he went in the booth and it was straight to the point: "Gucci on my shirt, Gucci on my," you know what I’m saying? So like with the video, it was like "Man, this song is like so straight to the point that it’s like, ‘Man, why wouldn’t we just go all the way to Gucci world and not only have the Gucci that’s in stores today, but also have like vintage Gucci in there?’"
Peters: Vintage stuff. Yeah.
Mike WILL: Like, we had the Gucci goblets in there, the table spread and different charms and different things like that. It was like, "Man, let’s just take it all the way to Gucci world," and we actually came up with that whole concept, found a location and everything in a day.
Peters: Is that — the spirit of just doing — something that you picked up hanging around Patchwerk since you were 15?
Mike WILL: Yeah, you can say that for real. How I came up, you gotta just do. You can’t sit around and think too much. Like you’re only young once, but now, with me just turning 28 today, is like things gotta be more like tasteful. You gotta keep showing growth, but at the same time staying true to your art.
Peters: When you’re making certain beats — like "All In" for Kid Cudi or "Neva End" for Future or "773 Love" for Jeremih — are you making those beats with a specific artist in mind?
Mike WILL: I got a production company, you know? So we really just want to change the sound on all kinds of music we listen to. We don’t only listen to just straight hip-hop. We’ve just been able to use the resources at hand and we’ve been learning as we go, so with different R&B records and different pop records, it was like, man this would be like a dope R&B beat. The only R&B artist that we knew at the time was Jeremih, and he all the way locked in like, "Yo, let’s work." As a producer that’s what you need first — an artist that respects your sound, respects what you do, and different things like that. So he trusts my judgment when I’m like, "Hop on this, man, I feel like this is a smash." He’s feeling just as passionate about that track. Then he creates a masterpiece like "773 Love." So me, [Pharrell], Jeremih, the whole team know that this is the greatest record on Earth but trying to —
Peters: Convince everybody.
Mike WILL: Yeah, like the Def Jam side. We had to try to get them to put it out as a real single. It’s not like today when you can kinda put things out and it’s gonna stream and spread on its own. But around that time, it just came out on the internet. But the people who heard it really appreciated it.
Peters: Yeah I love that song.
Mike WILL: Word, and then like "All In" with Cudi — me and Cudi, we were in the studio for a whole day just going through a bunch of beats: beat ideas I might’ve just started on, beat ideas that might be full, so we really put together a whole EP with a tracklisting and everything, but it was only instrumentals. We had a name for the project and all that, even though he hadn’t recorded on any of them yet. But out of that list, "All In" was the one he recorded on, and he was excited about it and he wanted to put it out at the time, and we just knew it would be like a shock with me and him working together. And shout-out to [producer] A-Plus, man. He created the vibe on that. He set the tone on that. But Ear Drummers, man. We always push each other and challenge each other just to be out the box and just sonically we’re always trying to be on some next shit.
Peters: Yeah like, Rico Wade produced "Cell Therapy" and "Waterfalls."
Mike WILL: You gotta be out that box. I mean growing up [I was] watching people like Pharrell or Timbo or Kanye or different producers bend over and have like the hottest [rap] record and then have the hottest pop record. Pharrell and Gwen [Stefani] linked up and took Gwen out of her element, and it just brought a whole new sound. When Dr. Dre linked up with Gwen, that was a whole new sound. I’m into stuff like that: making moments, making classic records. Like I heard it here first or I remember when this shit happened.
Peters: R&B and hip-hop are bedfellows somewhat, but you were also the executive producer on Miley Cyrus’s 2013 Bangerz album. Did you have to get into an entirely different headspace?
Mike WILL: I mean if you look at my iTunes right now, I got everything, man. From like Young Scooter, 21 Savage, and Future to the Smiths, Queen, the Arctic Monkeys, Alt-J, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, Rae Sremmurd, Eearz, Fat Man Key, Two-9. And then like it’s like so much other different stuff from Miley Cyrus to like Lauryn Hill, and the Fugees.
Peters: Just really eclectic.
Mike WILL: Just everything, man. Imogen Heap.
Peters: I’ve got a selfish question, though: What’s your favorite Arctic Monkeys song?
Mike WILL: I would have to say "Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High," but I like that whole [AM] project. I really like the way the project was just mixed and how it sounded — like Dr. Dre mixed with Linkin Park.
Peters: It was very submerged and boozy and just … cool.
Mike WILL: It was just fresh. Everything was just fresh about it.
Peters: Definitely. So, you’ve worked with literally everyone from Atlanta, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Jay Z, Ludacris, Jeezy, Miley Cyrus, Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean; is there anybody that you haven’t worked with that you really want to work with?
Mike WILL: Adele.
Mike WILL: Yeah.
Mike WILL: Yeah.
Peters: What would that record sound like?
Mike WILL: Exactly. What it would sound like is Whoa, what the fuck is this? I feel like me and Adele would be able to make an mp3 that’s never been heard before, bro. You know what I’m saying?
Mike WILL: Like I already know how I want the session to go and everything, bro. And I know we’ll come up with something super forward-pushing, super different, super like, Yo, what the fuck, you know what I’m saying?
Mike WILL: Word.
Peters: I see that you chase that feeling a lot. You talked to The Fader about making the "Guwop Home" record and I have two questions about that actually. One: you said that you described what the beat sounded like to Gucci over CorrLinks [a text messaging service for inmates]. How do you go about describing a beat like through a text message?
Mike WILL: Man like, me and Gucci was just on a wave, man. My man was locked down, we was just texting each other, and he was just like, "Man, bruh, look, I want the beats to sound like this, I want the beats to sound hard, just aggressive. I really want to see what you and Zay[toven] could cook up together." But it was crazy because me and Zay were already working "MF’N Right" for 2 Chainz.
Peters: Right. That song is also a force.
Mike WILL: When that song came out, Gucci had hit me like, "Yo, I heard that song you and Zay did with 2 Chainz, man, that shit hard." He was in tune with everything that was dropping at the time. Then he was just telling me like, "Look bruh, you know when I get out, bruh, I need my beats like this." But I’m already thinking about how he should sound, and when he’s hitting me it’s almost like he’s pretty much describing this beat I’m listening to. I just wanted it to sound like we’re not trying to fit in with anything. And so he got out, and we knocked out Everybody Looking in six days, so we were pretty much on the same wave. Like, the "First Day Out Tha Feds" beat was named "First Day Out Tha Feds."
Mike WILL: We’d already talked about the song and everything, and he called me when he got out and was like, "Yo man, send me some beats bro, I’m ‘bout to head to the house." I’m like, "Bro, I’m bout to send you that ‘First Day Out Tha Feds’ beat," sent it to him, and that’s the first thing we recorded.
Peters: In that same Fader interview you talked about butting heads with your engineer while making the drums for "Waybach." And while trying to convey how you wanted the drums to sound, you recalled a trip to Africa when you heard a lion roar and you wanted the drums to sound like that.
Mike WILL: Exactly, bro.
Peters: Is that the most inspirational sound you’ve ever heard?
Mike WILL: Man, I was in South Africa, we were feeding these lions or whatever, and one of the dudes that was with us at the time took this big chunk of meat that we were feeding the lions with and hit one of them with it. I’m like, "Bro, are you out your fucking mind, bro? Like, this is a lion bro." He’s like, "nah nah nah nah I ain’t mean to, I ain’t mean to." Meanwhile the lion just sitting there showing his teeth the whole time, the whole lineage is right here, the whole family is just looking at us, and the driver don’t really know that he did that. I’m like, "Yo man, let’s just keep it moving man, let’s keep it moving." So we shooting this other scene from the "This Could Be Us" Rae Sremmurd video, and then all you hear is like [lion noise], and it just gets louder and louder. I’m like, "Damn, what is that, thunder?" But it’s a clear sky. I’m like "What is that?" And then it start roaring even louder. They’re like "Man, that’s the lions." Bruh I’ve never heard that in my life. Like, man, I don’t even know how to explain it.
Peters: That’s incredible.
Mike WILL: All the animals started running. So when I was trying to get the "Waybach" beat to where it’s at, my boy Corey — he’s Gucci’s engineer — I’d never really mixed one of my tracks with him before. So I’d sent a version to Gucci, and Gucci was like, "Man, nah bruh, this sound like, this sound like you in there scared or something, Mike WILL!" I’m like "Bruh it’s not beating right." Went into the studio, recorded, and I’m like, "Listen Corey, you are fire at what you do, but just know that this beat has to sound so big — like I want this to sound like a lion roaring. I want it to sound like nothing has ever sounded before." So we’re just in the studio going back and forth, and I’m like, "Nah, this gotta turn up, this gotta be more round, nah this kick gotta hit right here," until we finally got it. Gucci ended up doing two songs on that drum loop, so we used it for "Waybach," and then we used it for "Richest Nigga in the Room." Then Zay added on both of those, so that’s how those songs came about.
Peters: So when you’re talking about you have the drums, and then Gucci lays the verse, and then Zaytoven comes in and adds the organ and everything on top, so there’s a lot of layers there, do you think about music visually?
Mike WILL: Yeah definitely. I feel like art is all about layers, like even if you look at a painting: when you see an orange and a green, it’s gonna bring this kind of feel or texture — or like a yellow and a brown, it’s gonna bring this kind of texture. I feel like art is all about layers, even when it comes to music. You might stack a couple drums on top of each other, and it might bring this kind of effect versus just a clean 808 or versus just a clean kick. It all brings different vibes. When I’m thinking about the flow of a song or how a song’s gonna be laid out or structured, I’m thinking about all that.
Peters: There’s this piece on Pitchfork called "Chaos Theory: The Glorious Unpredictability of Young Thug," where Dun Deal talks about Young Thug drawing shapes on the paper instead of lyrics before he goes into the booth. Do you have any, like, weird recording stories like that?
Mike WILL: I don’t really know, man. Some of the stuff I don’t really be remembering, but I know one time I had walked straight in the room and my boy Plus had just laid one sound. I just walked straight in the room and just finished that beat real quick, not even taking my jacket off, not even dapping anybody up. Just walked straight in the room and just started going crazy. I made like four bangers that night, and everybody was just looking at me like, "Man, bruh, what the hell bruh, you didn’t even dap nobody up or nothing bruh you just walked straight in — "
Peters: Yeah, you were focused.
Mike WILL: With a glass of wine. A glass of red wine, man. I was taking off my jacket while I was making the beat, man. It was around the time I did like "YuGo" and different stuff like that. That beat with Pharrell, I mean. I know it wasn’t the time I did "Black Beatles." Or [when I was] making beats in the car — like we made "Formation" riding to Coachella.
Mike WILL: Yeah, we came up with "Formation" in the car, riding to Coachella or whatnot.
Peters: Like on your phone?
Mike WILL: Yeah, on the voice notes.
Peters: Oh, interesting.
Mike WILL: And then like Swae Lee, he be having like a whole bunch of voice notes (same with Jim). And we’re all riding in the car, and then I’m playing the beat, and then like Swae started freestyling, Jim freestyling. Next thing you know Swae said something like "now let’s get in formation," and I was like "What you just say? You said get in formation?" And then so I’m thinking in my head like "Beyoncé just told me to send some records, but if I tell Swae it’s for Beyoncé, it’s gonna throw him off. He’s gonna start thinking too much, she wants it to be like a straight how he would approach."
I’m like, "What if you say, what if it was like a girl empowerment song, that’s like, ‘OK ladies now let’s’ or something about the girls?" He was like, "OK ladies, now let’s get in formation," and then I turned the voice notes on. And then he was just freestyling, and then Jimi started freestyling. I recorded, but it’s like a lot of times they have a lot of voice notes that never get recorded like CD quality, so we go into the studio, we do drinks on us. And then we were about to leave the studio, and I was like, "Bruh man, y’all hop on that Formation." They were like, "Man, you think that joint hard like that?" I’m like, "Man, I’m telling you bruh, I’m telling you man, I think that could be something." Boom, Swae go in the booth, he does his part, and he does "OK ladies, now let’s get in formation," and Jim go in the booth, and he does a whole verse. And then he said something like, "If she fuck me good, I take her ass to Margiela," and it was just like they had their own thing, but they had their own formation. So I just sent the whole thing to Beyoncé.
And then I had ran into her; I was with LeBron after the game one day, and we were at this hotel, and it was like three or four in the morning. And Jay Z and Beyoncé just walk up, and then we’re all just sitting there playing music off our phones and Beyoncé had just holla’d at me. She was like, "Yo man, I like a couple of those ideas you sent." I was like, "For real?" And then she was like, "Man, one of the ones, that ‘Formation’ song." I said, "Yo, me and Swae, we were talking about like the ‘in formation’ part could be like ‘get in line’ or like ‘get in formation’ about the dude that you’re gonna mess with before you get in a relationship with him, like it just need to be that woman empowerment song, like how ‘Single Ladies’ was." And she was like, "Oh OK, I like that, I like that." But she went and made it a culture empowerment song instead of it just being a lady empowerment song. And then she performed on the Super Bowl, and then the video was lit, and then the way she did the Super Bowl was lit, and then she dropped the album with the movie, you know what I’m saying? Like her vision … she just took even, even more out the box, so it’s like man just working on that whole "Formation," that was like a crazy experience.
And me and Riff Raff did "Choppin’ Blades" in the car. We were riding in my BMW; I was just playing the beat, and Riff Raff was just in my BMW going crazy. When we went in the studio, he just laid it down, that shit came out hard man.
Peters: Yeah man that’s —
Mike WILL: "Choppin’ Blades" and "Formation."
Peters: Well, man, I appreciate you stopping by talking to me about Ransom and sharing those stories about Beyoncé and Riff Raff.
Mike WILL: Man, nah, for real man, Ransom 2 is now available. It’s just a rare project, man. It’s never been done before, man, not in this way.