It’s damn near impossible to listen to any hip-hop project in the year 2017 without the fingerprints of super producer Mike Will Made-It.
That familiar filtered tagline echoes out over the opening 10 seconds, “Mike Will made it” or simply “Eardrummers” signals Mike Will’s presence. And Mike Will’s presence essentially guarantees a hit.
But how did a kid from humble beginnings in Marietta, Georgia become the most prominent music producer, beyond just hip-hop, in the world?
Mike Will, born Michael Williams, found initial success by basically hanging around various hip-hop studios after dropping out of Georgia State to pursue music full-time.
Williams befriended multiple artists, forging relationships and trust with a Rolodex of ATL artists.
Mike Will became the go-to guy for beats for dudes like Gucci Mane, 2Chainz, and Future early on in his career.
It was Gucci that first recognized Williams’ talent after a run-in at an Atlanta recording studio and it was Gucci that gave Mike Will his tagline on a 2008 freestyle “Star Status”, rapping “Mike Will Made It/Gucci Mane slayed it.”
With the backing of Gucci Mane in the Atlanta hip-hop scene, Mike Will was able to meet and produce for the stalwarts of the burgeoning trap-rap sound.
In many ways, Mike Will shaped the sound of rappers like 2Chainz (who Mike has knew in his Tity Boi days) and Future.
Much like Zaytoven and Timbaland before him, Williams combines the typical rapid snares and banging bass of the trap sound with a keyboard or synth melody on top, creating a whirlwind of sound and feeling, despite relative simplicity of the instrumentation.
Mike Will stayed grinding on the mixtape scene and earning the respect and camaraderie of some of ATL’s most prominent rappers. His first major commercial hit came on Rick Ross and Meek Mill’s 2011 smash “Tupac Back”.
The beat sounds like Mike trying to imitate Lex Luger, it isn’t quite demonstrative of his specific style and skills as a producer.
Future’s “Turn On The Lights” in the same year is much more representative of Mike Will’s abilities. The bouncy, airy synths on top of rolling drums and hi hats.
This is what Mike Will does and the combination yields crossover hits that have both “urban” and pop chart appeal.
After his breakout in 2011, Mike Will started producing for the biggest names in hip-hop, as well as pop music.
Artists like Rihanna, Kanye West, and Miley Cyrus began to collaborate with Williams and he became the go-to guy for any artist looking for that crossover chart-topper.
To that end, in a 2013 interview with Forbes, Williams claims that not thinking about “crossover appeal”, and these various coded industry buzzwords, actively contributes to the authenticity of his music,
“Right now, I don’t feel this generation is thinking about ‘this is too urban’. It’s either cool or not; it’s not in a category, it’s not about any of that.”
This mantra is exactly what has made Williams so successful. He simply seeks to make the coolest shit possible without labels or genre defining what the product is.
On his solo studio albums, Ransom and Ransom 2, Williams clearly enjoys bringing artists from different backgrounds and genres together to create that “cool” that Williams is always seeking.
Look at Mike Will’s first major hit as a solo artist, “23” which hosts Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, and Miley Cyrus. The juxtaposition between Juicy, Wiz, and Hannah Montana initially throws the listener off, but as Mike says, all that really matters is whether it’s cool or not.
It would get tiring and redundant to list all of Williams’ hits within the past couple years. But we’d be remiss not to name a few, if not just to show Williams’ ability to produce across the spectrum, defying genres and creating an entirely new mode of musical collaboration.
Some of Williams’ highest-charting production credits were on Rae Sremmurd’s Depeche Mode-inspired “Black Beatles”, to Rihanna’s “Needed Me”, and possibly Williams’ biggest hit, “Formation” for Beyonce.
In a July 2016 interview with the New Yorker, Mike described the writing process for formation during a freestyle cypher with Rae Sremmurd at Coachella,
“So we’re in the middle of the desert… And we’re just coming up—we just freestyle, you know?—and Swae Lee said, ‘O.K., ladies, now let’s get in formation.’ And we put it on the VoiceNote. Swae Lee’s got so many voice notes that he doesn’t even record, but I’m like, ‘Dog, we got to do that “get in formation” shit.’ That could be a hard song for the ladies. Some woman-empowerment shit. Like, ‘Ladies, let’s get in line, let’s not just fall for anything.’ I’m seeing that vision.”
This anecdote perfectly encapsulates the genius of Mike Will. He took a random freestyle line from Swae Lee, which probably wasn’t exactly said in the most empowering of women tones, and turned it into Beyonce’s feminist anthem.
Mike Will has simply taken over the hip-hop game. Hardly a popular project, beyond just hip-hop, can come out without Williams’ assistance on at least one or two tracks.
Most recently, Mike Will appeared on three songs on Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN., cheffing up “DNA”, “HUMBLE”, and “XXX”.
All signs point to Mike Will continuing his reign on the hip-hop and pop music charts.
The dude knows what is cool, we hope he’ll keep blessing our eardrums.