In Conversation: For Producer and Synth Wizard Mike Dean, Every Day Is 4:20
He’s produced for Kanye, Beyoncé, and Geto Boys—and with 4:20 he finally has a mixtape of his own.
With his menacing introductory synth solo to Travis Scott’s recent “Astronomical” for the mega-explosive video game Fortnite, Mike Dean’s sound is on everyone’s minds—gamers and hip-hop head alike. Dean is used to the dual attention, however: Last November, Dean and composer Sarah Schachner created the score to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The producer and synth wizard has also been behind the boards and sitting at the co-writing table for nearly every Kanye West project and recent Travis Scott track, to say nothing of his work with Scarface and the Geto Boys, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and The Weeknd.
Now, live from isolation in his Los Angeles studio comes Mike Dean’s 4:20, a diabolically moody and predictably stoner-vibed instrumental, twenty-eight-track mixtape inspired by his April 2020 Instagram Live appearances. Crafted with nearly no edits, the squelchy synth-phone work is seamless, dreamy, stately, and slamming.
Catching up with Dean is no easy feat—he’s an intense workaholic who lives, smokes, and plays in his studio 24/7, save for when he’s touring. We were lucky enough to track him down after the 4/20 release of 4:20, planning out new merchandise such as t-shirts and coronavirus masks for his site. Read the full convo below.
Your solo and the grand finale on Travis Scott’s “Astronomical” was nearly the biggest part of the Fortnite premiere. Can you tell me about putting that song together?
They sent me the song to mix, and while I was doing that, I asked if they wanted me to work on the production, and if they needed anything else. The song was already so produced up, I just added something at the end. Plus, I wanted to make it game-y sounding.
Are you a big ’80s game guy? Or is this more inspired by what you’ve been doing with Call of Duty?
A little bit of both, Mostly the ’80s video games, though. I was definitely standing up for video games and shit.
One thing I’ve loved about many of your synthesizer signatures is that they are positively prog rock. I know Kanye loved your King Crimson sample. What is your taste like when it comes to prog?
Definitely Crimson. Obviously Pink Floyd, Yes, and Asia.
Do you remember the first time you played prog riffs for Kanye and Travis and what their reaction was?
Both pretty much loved the stuff straight away. This stuff really hit the mark. Kanye started running around the room in circles.
Let’s talk about your Instagram Live sessions—were you always of the mind to celebrate 4/20 with some musical release, or were you just in the zone, playing in quarantine?
“[Kanye and Travis] pretty much loved [prog rock] straight away. This stuff really hit the mark. Kanye started running around the room in circles.”
More so the second one. Around March 18, I did a post asking if I should do live streams on my synths, and I got a great response. So I started doing it, and got to, like, seven pieces. I took a couple days off, and listened to them, and realized how good they were—that I could put out an album just as they were. I went back and did more, way more, all with different tempos and different keys.
Different tempos and keys, but all improvised, yes?
Yeah. Like on some of them, before I started, I’d go in, draw a tempo map—bar 120 do this, bar 200, switch to this tempo. I’ll pre-program a four-on the-floor kick, too, but other than that stuff, everything was live.
Would you say that not working with the human voice as you do with rappers such as Travis and Kanye opened up your sound and your mind, opened up the tracks?
Yeah, I think so. I can make the space and leave it open. Be really loud—make things louder than usual without having to worry you’re distorting the voice.
Wiz Khalifa jumped on your live set last week. Did you know that was happening in advance?
No, he was just watching. He had this song, asked me to do something with it—play keyboards? Quavo’s on it too. “Out in Space” is the track. That was a pretty quick deal. Junior Sanchez is going to do a collab with me for something next week.
How did you know 4:20 was done, since it was improvisational?
I don’t know. I just started building it, going through live streams, kept listening, and wound up leaving the tracks in the order that I found them. I guess I’m just good at knowing when something’s done. It’s what my ears are good at.
Let’s talk about smoke. I know you like Jet Fuel. Are there different strains for different moments of the day?
There’s really not that much of a difference. I jump around from strain to strain so that I don’t get burned out on one thing.
Can you pinpoint tracks on 4:20 where you know what you were smoking and can emulate that or repeat the experiment again to get the same desired effect?
Yeah, I think so [laughs]. Jet Fuel was the main strain, though. Keeps me focused. It doesn’t work if you smoke the same thing too much.
I wanted to ask about your website—how are your masks selling?
A friend of mine with lightning fingers started reacting to the emergency, and reached out to my girlfriend about album covers and shirts. The masks are selling pretty good, but not as good as the shirts with me and Kanye on them. That went crazy.
What are you hoping producers can pick up from 4:20? It’s positively diabolical.
I hope they can pick up some samples. FL