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How Mike WiLL Made-It And Kendrick Lamar Created The Year's Most Urgent Music

The producer Mike WiLL Made-It, whose beats can be heard on the first two singles from <em>DAMN.</em>, the new album by Kendrick Lamar.
Mary Kang
Courtesy of Universal Music Group
The producer Mike WiLL Made-It, whose beats can be heard on the first two singles from DAMN., the new album by Kendrick Lamar.

"Timing is everything."

That's how Kendrick Lamar summed up the serendipity of a seemingly left-field collaboration with super producer Mike WiLL Made-It that was actually years in the making. "You know what's crazy about me and Mike, we've been in the studio for a long time but we never made records," he told Beats 1's Zane Lowe in his first interview since the release of his immaculate DAMN LP. "We always said to each other, one day we gon' make them records."

Following the bitches brew of avant-funk/jazz that propelled Lamar's last proper album, 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly,to the forefront of pop consciousness, the last thing fans expected from the Compton MC was a pairing with the man largely responsible for trap's mainstream takeover. Yet their alliance resulted in the album's lead singles "HUMBLE." and "DNA." — two of the more urgent songs in Lamar's discography, if not the recent history of recorded rap — and "XXX." — a psalm of American-bred anarchy that features Bono sounding nothing like U2's predictablyanthemic rock songs.

Their sonic union is no anomaly by Mike WiLL's standards. This is the same Atlanta-bred producer, after all, who rejuvenated Disney princess Miley Cyrus' career with an album full of ratchet Bangerz before laying the foundation for Beyoncé's femme-powered "Formation." His contributions to Lamar's DAMN. are equally definitive. On "DNA.," he matches the ferocity of Lamar's flow — "I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA"— with an 808 drum pattern so tribal it practically channels the ancestors.

At 28, Will is at the top of his game and he doesn't plan on conceding the position. When the founder of Interscope imprint EarDrummers Entertainment isn't in the studio, he tells me, the studio is with him. He keeps his laptop close, whether he's making beats in the car, on the plane or in L.A.'s Hotel Bel-Air, where the Atlanta native was staying last week when we talked.

"Matter fact, my girl complains about how much I'm in the studio working. But she sees the results as they roll out," he saysduring our half-hour phone call as we discuss his role in the making of DAMN., how Lamar's highest charting single to date, "HUMBLE.," almost wound up on Will's album Ransom 2 instead of K.Dot's, the inspiration Gucci Mane inadvertently lent to that song's creation and how Lamar triggered Will to reach a new level of sonic intensity.

Rodney Carmichael: You and Kendrick threw the world for a loop following the jazzy, funked-out production of To Pimp a Butterfly. How'd y'all hook-up?

Mike WiLL Made-It:Me and [K.] Dot been working on this for years, ever since good kid, m.A.A.d city. Schoolboy Q is the one who really hooked us up. Me and Schoolboy were already cool cause I had produced "My Hatin Joint" on his [2012] album Habits and Contradictions. They were both in Atlanta one time, and Q said, 'Yo, you should go to the studio with my boy Kendrick; we're both signed to the same label.' At this time, I hadn't really heard of Kendrick. So I went to the studio with him [and] played him a bunch of beats. Every time he'd come to Atlanta, he'd hit my phone. Or when I'd come to L.A., I would always link up with him. I gave him a bunch of beats for good kid, m.A.A.d city and I gave him a bunch of beats for To Pimp a Butterfly, but they definitely weren't the right vibe. At the time, I didn't really know what he was working on. I was just giving him beats that I could hear him on. But right after To Pimp a Butterfly came out, we just caught a wave. And from there we just kept recording.

How did the songs you produced for DAMN.take shape?

"HUMBLE." was one of the first ones. And then he did "DNA." With "DNA.," he went the whole way [through] and then he just started rapping a cappella. He said, 'I just want to see if you can put some drums around this.' I said, 'Man, hell yeah.' But he was going so hard; that man was rapping so crazy. Just imagine him a cappella rapping the second half of "DNA." and I had to build a beat around that. I didn't want the beat to just sound like a regular boom-clap, boom-clap. I wanted that s*** to sound just as crazy. I wanted it to sound like he's battling the beat.

What kind of direction was he giving you?

He said he wanted the s*** to just sound like chaos. So then, I ended up making a beat around it right in front of him, but it was still open. I think in his head he knows what he's looking for, but he doesn't really tell me anything to put me in any kind of box. He just wants to hear all the different ideas. He gets a lot of beats and I think he just hops on whatever he catches that vibe to.

With "HUMBLE.," I knew that beat was going to capture a moment. It just felt real urgent. I made that beat [last year] when Gucci Mane was getting out of jail; I made it with him in mind. I was just thinking, damn, Gucci's about to come home; it's got to be something urgent that's just going to take over the radio. And I felt like that beat was that. I ended up not doing it with Gucci and I let Kendrick hear it. I was thinking, if Dot gets on this it'll be his first time being heard on some[thing] like this. At the same time, it kind of has an NWA/Dr. Dre feel, an Eminem kind of feel. So I thought, let me see if Dot f**** with it. And he heard the beat and he liked it. But he was about to give me "HUMBLE." for [my album] Ransom 2. I love that song so I was like, 'Man, hell yeah.' Then he told me that his team was saying he should keep it. And I told him, 'Bruh, you definitely should keep it, and you should use it as your single.'

How does it feel to have the first two singles from the biggest album of the year.

I didn't know what Dot was going to choose. I knew "HUMBLE." was urgent and I knew "DNA." was urgent. The project is solid as f***. Dot went hard on that s***. For him to choose those songs, the way he shot those videos, the way he titled the album, everything about it is just in your face. I love the whole project to be real with you. It's dope to see people responding to the records that I produced, but it's so many more jewels and gems on that project that I f*** with.

When the tracklist revealed a U2 feature, people started to worry. But that song is just as incredible. You aren't the only producer listed on that one, but were you involved in getting U2 on the track?

That was Dot's vision. I'm definitely a fan of U2. I've seen Bono around a couple of times, just being around [former Interscope chair] Jimmy Iovine. I've had lunch with Bono; we even exchanged numbers and emails. We just never knew what we were going to do. And for Dot to just tie it all together, I'm sure he's had the same lunches with Bono as well since he also works close with Jimmy Iovine. Really, that came out of left field when he told me that he added him on there. I kept trying to imagine U2 on the first half of that beat, cause at first that was the only part to the song. And I was like, 'Dang, he put U2 on that?' I couldn't figure out what that would sound like. But when he let me hear the whole thing with the different sections, it came out dope.

You've recently been called "the most important producer of the past five years" and "our generation's best collaborator." Do you feel like you've reached your apex yet?

Hell naw. I ain't gonna lie, man. I feel like I'm in a good space. I'm creative so I'm always gonna create. My whole camp [EarDrummers Entertainment], we're all a bunch of young cats. We pay attention to everything that's going on. We like quality music, but at the end of the day I don't feel like I'm anywhere near peaking. What I've been on lately is just scaling it back. I just had to realize I'm trying to get the room to move; I'm not really trying to create a symphony. So I might start making a beat [in the studio] and then once I see you bouncing or you start rapping, that's when I feel like, oh OK, this beat took you to a place, because my boy's over there rapping and he don't even rap.

Right now I'm just on go. I was in the studio with Ty Dolla $ign and Future last night. Then I was in with my artist Jace and my artist Eearz the night before. I really just go hard. It's not really time to take off. Pharrell is an inspiration; he's like a big bro. He's older than me, still cooking up heat.

A lot of producers credited with creating the trap sound aren't native Atlantans, but you are. What do you make of its continued rise and how have you managed to keep expanding on the sound without it getting stagnant?

The 'trap' sound is a sound from the city. We've always liked music with bass. We've always liked old schools with big speakers in the trunks. We like our music loud. We've always had a nightlife scene in Atlanta. I remember when trap came about, the whole word, with T.I. Really, the way T.I. was bringing it was just [about] anybody out there hustling; that's trapping — a new word for hustling. It went from a way of life to a sound or a genre of music. This is the sound that we listen to, this is the sound the artists from our city f*** with, this is the sound the producers of this city create. I'm one of the producers that pushed that sound. It's crazy cause I started EarDrummers when I was 17 or 18. A lot of the producers that make the trap sound that's relevant now, I tried to sign all of them at once — not to keep them under me or anything like that, but I just had a vision that one day our sound would be running the game. I approached all these cats that are making noise today and said, 'Yo bro, one day our sound's gonna be running the game. Our sound's gonna be the one that's just killing the radio.' That's how far my vision can see.

Then when I met Jimmy Iovine he told me, 'You're the only producer that can make hip-hop pop again.' And I never knew what he was talking about at the time. But then he started talking to me about Tupac, Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Pharrell. All these people made hip-hop pop. It's that moment again. When he said that to me around 2012 or 2013, it stuck with me. Then, "No Lie" [2 Chainz ft. Drake], "Turn On the Lights" [Future], "Bands'll Make Her Dance" [Juicy J ft. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz], "Pour It Up" [Rihanna], "We Still In This Bitch" [B.o.B ft. T.I. and Juicy J] — all these songs [I produced] — just started crossing over from urban to pop. Even working on Miley Cyrus, a lot of people would hear the sound and say, 'Yo, this is too slow for pop radio.' Then "We Can't Stop" ended up going to No. 2 on [Billboard's] Hot 100. Now it's easy to [crack the] top 10 on Hot 100. It was way more difficult a couple of years back when I was coming into the game. And I felt like I was always a genre-bending producer.

You paired Kendrick with Gucci Mane and Rae Sremmurd for "Perfect Pints" on Ransom 2. The whole album is full of these unlikely pairings. What's your mindset when it comes to collaborations?

I like everything rare — cars, shoes, clothes. This music is entertainment and I consider myself having taste. It's all about creating a moment when you're doing collaborations as a producer. It started off when I linked up Gucci and Future for [2011's] Free Bricks mixtape. Even on that mixtape I got Gucci, Future and 2 Chainz together, which was a rare moment. I approach it the way I would if I was 14 or 15 and paying attention to music — like how I was walking around with a Walkman, looking for the new song. Besides the hype, what's going to make this song special? The only thing that's going to do that is some shit that sounds rare.

When I first met [brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi of] Rae Sremmurd, it was like everybody wanted to be hard. It's cool to be mean, but what happened to it being cool to be cool? They had the dope energy, so we said let's just do all cool, turnt-up, good vibes. Party s***. Then they came through and changed the game. I let [K.] Dot hear Rae Sremmurd early. He was riding around to Rae Sremmurd before anybody was riding around to Rae Sremmurd. He was telling me that was his favorite group. And to work with him, that's something I always wanted to do because I respect his content, I respect his approach and his vision. The way he puts his albums together, he's really talking about some s***. So this moment now is ill. I feel like this is a sound I never really came with prior. It's scaled down, hard knocking, intense, urgent — that's how I would describe this sound. I feel like it can travel the world; anybody can f*** with it.

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Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.