Mike Dean is one of the most crucial and prolific behind-the-scenes figures in hip-hop history. Almost strictly a collaborator and facilitator, he's neither a headliner nor a larger-than-life producer. An all-purpose engineer, composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, the native Texan has been critical to the early development of rap music from his home state and the South at large, evidenced most visibly by his chart-topping '90s work with Scarface, as well as the rise and sustained prominence of postmillennial stars such as Kanye West and Travis Scott. Due to his work with West, Dean has won five Grammys, highlighted by Best Rap Album awards for Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2007), and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010). Additionally, his work spans genres, with Beyoncé, Coldplay, Madonna, and Christina Aguilera all having worked with him. Roughly 40 years after his professional career began in earnest as the keyboardist behind a pre-fame Selena, Dean released his first album, 4:20 (2020).

Michael George Dean was raised on a bayou in Angleton, Texas, the city where he was born. His first instruments were saxophone and piano, starting around the age of eight, followed by bassoon, which he played in his school orchestra. While he favored progressive and hard rock, his first band, formed during ninth grade, covered classic rock hits with plenty of Southern standards in the mix. Roughly 50 miles north in Houston, specifically at the historic Emancipation Park, Dean cut his teeth in soul and funk cover bands, and additionally performed blues and country material in the area. Around the same time, still merely a teenager, he joined Selena y los Dinos. He became the group's musical director, and with his keyboards guided future Tejano superstar Selena to sing in tune. During this period, Dean made connections with Michael "Kidd Funkadelic" Hampton and George Clinton, and was offered a less lucrative gig with P-Funk (as the successor to Bernie Worrell, who had left the fold to tour with Talking Heads). He also turned down scholarship offers from Eastman School of Music and Berklee College of Music, opting to tour instead with Selena y los Dinos upon his completion of high school. After he helped the group cut Mis Primeras Grabaciones (1984), he and Abraham Quintanilla, Selena's father, had a disagreement that prompted him to split. Dean then played with another Tejano fixture, Mazz, and worked the piano bar circuit. Inspired by future collaborator Rick Rubin, he eventually tried his hand at beatmaking with a sampler and subsequently a drum machine.
Dean broke into hip-hop as part of Def Squad, a group based out of Freeport, who debuted at the top of the '90s with their first singles and debut album, Hard Hittin'. This led to Dean being welcomed into the Rap-A-Lot family and being mentored by John Bido, the label's chief producer. Dean's skill set expanded to a point where he could record, mix, master, produce, and write, as well as play numerous instruments, including bass and guitar. All of this, combined with a strong work ethic, enabled Dean to become crucial in the development of Texas rap. Sessions for assorted solo and group Geto Boys projects, and recordings by the likes of 5th Ward Boyz, UGK, and Odd Squad, as well as the latter group's Devin the Dude, were connected by the involvement of Dean, who often worked in tandem with producer N.O. Joe. Around the middle part of the decade, Dean started to extend his geographic and stylistic reach, and by the end of it had worked with Rappin' 4-Tay, Seagram, Immature, Do or Die, Gang Starr, and MC Breed, all while remaining deeply rooted with artists from his home state. Among his frequent work with N.O. Joe were two of the era's biggest albums out of the South, namely Scarface's The Diary (1994) and The Untouchable (1997). The first one entered the Billboard 200 at number two. The second one, featuring the number 12 pop hit "Smile" (a collaboration with 2Pac), topped the chart. Both titles went platinum.
Rather remarkably, Dean scaled new heights during the 2000s. Early on, he opened Dean's List House of Hits, a studio in New York, and banked credits on albums by many of his previous collaborators. Meanwhile, the Dean's List label was established for developing artists, and Dean clocked sessions with an assortment of underground legends from up and down the West Coast, such as C-Bo, Daz Dillinger, Kurupt, and E-40. During the making of Scarface's 2002 album The Fix, Dean crossed paths with upcoming producer Kanye West and forged another long-term partnership. Dean became integral to West's ascent as a solo artist and producer, contributing to The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, all of which were Grammy-nominated for Album of the Year. Dean earned four additional nominations through the West albums, and shared in the haul for the second and third LPs, back-to-back winners of Best Rap Album, while the latter's "Good Life" took Best Rap Song. Dean didn't leave the South behind. Undying support was leant to the likes of Scarface and Devin the Dude, plus Pimp C and Bun B, separately and together, up through the duo's final full-length, UGK 4Life (2009).
In the 2010s, Dean divided his time between West and old and new affiliates, and fostered the growth of many younger artists who weren't even born when his professional career started. He contributed to West's solo and co-headlining projects, and many of the artist's other studio endeavors. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Best Rap Album again) and Watch the Throne (containing Best Rap Song "N****s in Paris") made Dean a five-time Grammy winner. Dean likewise was indispensable across what followed: G.O.O.D. Music: Cruel Summer, the Rick Rubin-assisted The Life of Pablo and Yeezus, and every release from the "Wyoming sessions" series, continuing through Jesus Is King and Jesus Is Born. The Weeknd's Beauty Behind the Madness, Justin Bieber's Purpose, Beyoncé's Lemonade, and Travis Scott's Astroworld, all concurrent with the West output, merely cover the additional LPs that yielded additional Grammy nominations for Dean. He was particularly key to the emergence of Scott, and as he did with West, he made time to tour with the young Houstonian as a backing musician.
Dean's other activities throughout his fourth full decade in music are staggering on their own. In varying capacities, from instrumentation to mastering and many roles between, he touched other recordings from 2010 through 2014 by Kid Cudi, Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg, 2 Chainz, John Legend, Coldplay, and Rick Ross. During that stretch, he self-released a six-minute electronic piece intended as an unofficial score for Claude Lelouch's 1976 short film C'était un rendez-vous, co-crediting his alias M.W.A, short for Mexican Wrestling Association. Among the other artists who enlisted him during the decade's latter half were Madonna, Freddie Gibbs, Young Thug, Kendrick Lamar, Christina Aguilera, and Migos.
Dean's 2020 got off to a characteristically busy start. Selena Gomez's Rare, Don Toliver's Heaven or Hell, and Teyana Taylor's The Album account for the Dean-related albums that hit the Top Ten through that June. Between the release dates of those last two, Dean released his first solo album, 4:20. Like "Theme for 'C'était un rendez-vous'," it was an instrumental synthesizer showcase. A continuous 90-minute listening experience inspired by minimalism, '70s prog, and '80s video game soundtracks, 4:20 was made on the fly with sound and tempo the only predetermined aspects. ~ Andy Kellman

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