Interview: Mike B


Mike B has spent over twenty-five years engineering, producing, and performing on some of Houston’s classic rap, r’n’b, and gospel tracks. Best-known for his work with Big Mike and the Trinity Garden Cartel, his lengthy discography also includes credits for records by Devin the Dude, Big Pokey, and Mike Jones.

You mentioned starting out as a DJ - whenabouts was that, and what were you playing at the time?

Man, that was during the time of… down here, all the kids would go to skating rinks, and then a lot of the DJs would DJ at the college station, KTSU. They had this radio segment called Kidz Jam, every Saturday morning man. If you playin’ ball or if you was at the carwash, you listened to Kidz Jam, 10am all the way to 1. Everybody had their tapes ready, you knew that you needed to be somewhere where you could record. If you had to be at church or something, you was a mad camper. So those DJs also worked at the skating rink. I was a skater, and two of the guys who lived in my neighborhood was really cool with them. I bugged the heck out of those guys to teach me how to DJ. This had to be ‘82, ‘83, somewhere up in there. And then they kind of let me go to parties with them or whatever, and that’s where the DJ bug got into me. I started collecting records after that, my mom got me my first turntables, got my first keyboard. It only sampled like four seconds, I could sample four samples real fast and then slow ‘em down to kind of make a beat out of it. My other piece of equipment was a 505, I used my Roland 505 to trigger the samples.

So the kids have the skating rink, the adults have the club, and they all serve similar functions.

Nah, I don’t think we were even at the clubs at that age. We would go to skatin’ rinks, but the club was… I don’t know. Moms wasn’t tryin’ to have that. But around that time there was more Soulsonic Force type stuff playin’. That’s the kind of stuff that we was playin’, the more breakdance and pop lockin’ songs, whatever.

What were some of the go-to records for you back then?

Man, it had to be “Planet Rock and “Hard Times. Some of the faster stuff, because “Planet Rock would mix with “Hard Times, would mix with “It’s Time or “Clear, by Cybotron. Some of the slower stuff would be a lot of the first Run-DMC, the “Rock Box, “Don’t Touch That Stereo by Trouble Funk Express. My collection was real small, but I had a few key ones that I could go to. Back then, I know I was much more cassette tape, I would have a bunch of cassette tapes with a little pad that had everything labelled and where it was. My tape deck had a little counter on it, fast-forward to cue it up.

Was it a DJ-oriented scene at all? Did you feel like people were coming to see you and your taste, or were you kind of background?

I was playin’ for the crowd, and I was probably happy that they even let me DJ the party at all. I really had the hunger, man, like if I didn’t DJ the party but I knew the DJ I would see if I could come help him. We didn’t have too much equipment, most likely it was one guy with speakers, I had the mixer, and we all kind of just teamed up and did the thing together. It wasn’t even about the money, man… if they paid, ok cool, but it was about the chance to be seen DJing. I DJed the party, it was like that.

Was there still the idea that hip-hop was a culture beyond rappers and producers? That you could participate fully as a dancer, DJ, and so on?

Yeah, it was a little different. It wasn’t that many. You know, if you was a rapper then you did your thing at the schoolyard where you would gather around and have these rap battles or whatever. It wasn’t too much competition, but there was definitely a lot of arrogance. If you was rappin’, you had to carry that persona that you were the best. But DJing, I guess your status was just based on how much equipment you had. If you ain’t have much equipment, then you couldn’t do too much. But if you knew tricks, though, it was different. He can spin around, he can do that kind of stuff. Really, it was just that whatever the level of your craft was, that’s what got you respect.

Were people at parties interested in the turntablism stuff, or was that more for showing off to other DJs?

Just lookin’ back, I probably scratched too much. I didn’t know how to give it a break, let them enjoy the song [laughs]. I thought that’s what the people wanted to see, but every once in a while somebody would come up like “hey, man, can you put on another song? But you know, you have two friends on the turntables, two Houdinis, you finna mess with them for a few seconds. I don’t think I bored too much, but I remember… I might’ve scratched too much, at one or two parties.

How did that turn into production work for you?

I’d gotten familiar with sampling, and collecting the records that had the sample, and for a long time before N.W.A. came out, I used to think that Big Daddy Kane, things like MC Shan “The Bridge, I didn’t know that those were samples they were using. We didn’t have that type of equipment - the keyboard that I got, I got from a pawn shop. I knew it sampled, but I didn’t really know how to use it. So I got it, tried to used it, but I didn’t know that there were other keyboards out there that did more sampling. When the guys from my neighborhood brought me the Dr. Dre, I was like “cool, I already had a nice collection of James Brown and I was familiar with the Ultimate Breaks and Beats that all that stuff was from. I started learnin’ that these guys like Big Daddy Kane and Chill Rob G, they were usin’ these whole samples! These horns in the back ain’t somebody playin’ horns, it’s a sample.

So I found out that I needed a new keyboard to handle what needed to be done. So these guys outta my neighborhood were like “hey man, look. If you can do beats like these then we’ll pick you up tomorrow mornin’, buy you everything. Man, next morning they were there and we hit the keyboard and drum shop, got an EPS. That was like the first keyboard I started with, and it’s kinda unlimited. When I heard a Dr. Dre album, I could kinda dissect it - what sample they used, what snare they used, what kick they used, and I would think about how I would’ve done that beat. But then at that time, though, it was mindblowing how they put that stuff together. But for me to have to do that on the spot for some people that had just bought some equipment for me, it was a little pressure. Those guys were lookin’ at me like how long this gon’ take? And that was my first group, Trinity Garden Cartel. Darrell Williams and James Foster, they were two of my neighborhood friends that were hustlin’. They were in the streets, but I was the neighborhood DJ and they didn’t want to go anywhere else out of their neighborhood.

Was that a pretty common dynamic? The emcees would maybe be known from the streets, the producers would have a different personality type going on?

Yeah, yeah. All producers, it’s a different thing [laughs]. Most producers I know, they a computer geek, a mathematician. They on it in terms of software, any type of gear. “I got that. And then the rappers and the dancers are different.

How would you go about tracking down samples you heard without the convenience of google or something like that?

That would’ve been just networking with different other producers at the time. One of my friends was Carlos Garza, DJ Premier actually stayed with him for a minute. They all worked at Soundwaves, which was on Main Street. It’s not there anymore. All the DJs would go into Soundwaves and be like “hey man, they played this today on Kidz Jam. It goes da da da -, oh, right here. That was the known process for gettin’ most of the songs or whatever. Carlos still collects records today, he can hear a groove and be like “oh, that’s Shalamar. He’s on it as far as that goes, he was the go-to guy. But even back in the day, you needed to do your own research, and your research was collectin’ records, listen to ‘em, see what you can sample from it. If you had a sample and you knew it was dope, you didn’t want to share it. That was your secret weapon or something.

As for clearance, I never ran into that until I was with Rap-A-Lot. And to this day, the only thing I know is their process. Whatever you tryin’ to get for the beat, whatever the price is for them to clear the sample comes out of your advance. But really, they could’ve said whatever - “well, Mike B, they chargin’ $3000 for the sample. And of course I want the placement, so I don’t know what the sample clearance was on their side. Could’ve been $200.

Did you feel any need to develop a signature sound or have any sort of distinct, recognizable feature of your beats?

No, not really. I was just happy that somebody was using the track. And then I found out later that I do have a certain thing that I do - I haven’t done it in a while, but if you listen to some older tracks, I used to like bright tracks. I loved to have a cheesy ride cymbal all over, or an open hi-hat just there in the background on the whole song. And then I know it’s another Mike B, he’s a DJ, who’s got a lot of material out there somewhere. But I’ve never heard any of it, I just know that when I look at Discog or whatever that website is, his name comes up. And I have to watch when I register something on BMI, just to make sure that I’m not choosin’ the wrong Mike B. I think one or two times, just bein’ sleepy and going back through my library, I might have given a song away to another Mike B. It wasn’t until 2005 that I realized what I hadn’t been doing, registering tracks for publishing and all that. Trinity Garden Cartel… we were all ignorant of it, the whole paperwork part of it. We just wanted the stuff out, we didn’t want to do no reading or paperwork all about it.

People are starting to come around to the idea that producers and emcees should be getting equal billing on projects, or that a lot of credit due producers kind of falls by the wayside. Did you ever feel like that was the case?

They always gave me credit, that’s how I’d get new work. I just hate I wasn’t more accessible; crazy me, I didn’t come to different networking events with business cards. I came and just thought that man, hey, I was the shit. Everybody’s gonna get with me because I’m Mike B. I got a gold album, who’s done that? My first gold was with Big Mike, and I thought I could just show up in a room and make some new connections. But everybody would kind of come to the Northside studio that we was at, because I hung with the Trinity Garden Cartel. That’s where they would come find me. So I didn’t feel left out of anything, people could find me.

But it’s happened to me, where you can’t just be this producer. You know, this producer down the street. Hot beats, nobody knows. As much as I can, I try to get out. I know for a fact that today I don’t search as much on what’s happenin’ out there. But man, you know sometimes when I get out there tryin’ to get involved I feel kinda like a groupie. I get to the event, gotta talk myself into goin’ in there and meetin’ people. I have little self-talks - “get out there man, quit trippin’.

Was there a point in your career where you consciously stepped back from production work?

Nah, I’ve always been trying to do a beat per day. Now do I have a chance to always do that? No. Sometimes I get caught up with other artists’ projects, and my mind is on that project until we get done. In between those projects, one or two nights a week I might have time to do a beat. If it’s Big Mike or somebody and I know that particular situation has a budget, I’ll stick it out a few late nights during the week. But I’ve never been to the point where I want to back off.

Were you ever producing full-time, or have you always had another job?

I’ve always had a lot of things going on. When I did have an opportunity to go full-time, outside of doin’ tracks I still had to run the actual studio. There’s always the business of the studio that I had to focus on. So I’ve always had a job or somethin’ to do. At one point, my studio got broken into and I was forced to stop. They took enough stuff that I couldn’t really move forward, so at that point I had to get a job and put production on the back burner for a second until I could get another - couple of DJs actually got me another drum machine. That was in ‘92, I had a studio off South Post Oak that somebody broke into, and just two weeks after that I got a job workin’ at the airport. That was so crazy, going from years of not havin’ a job to workin’ for somebody. Man, it was a humbling situation.

Do you enjoy the business side of things at all, or would you rather just make music?

Yeah, I like makin’ the music first. I even hate recordin’ the vocals. I’m burnt out on recording the actual rapper. You come in, they don’t know they verse, it gets draining for a second. You bug me down about trying to get into the studio, you want the effects and the status of a Jay-Z, but you don’t know your verse! How you gonna say that you gonna make it for all of us, that I’m finna eat off you, but you don’t know your verse. Wow, that’s crazy.

Were there people that you particularly looked forward to working with, either for the creative synergy or just because things would go smoothly?

Yeah, a couple. I know that Big Mike is great to work with. I worked with a couple singers that were very good, they’d really take control of a session. They’d come in - here my main note, I need five tracks, here’s my harmony, I need three. And when you do this, pan this, pan that. I like that, they have a mind of how they want the song to go before they even walk in the door. That right there is awesome. If you really tryin’ to make it, why not know your song like that? Especially if you a female, you know you competin’ with Faith Evans, or Mary J - I’m pretty sure they on it like that, c’mon Jazmine Sullivan. You think she don’t know her stacks when she come in? Jay-Z - you think he don’t know how he wants his adlibs to go or whatever? Worst case, he may think of his intro on the fly. But I don’t think of him not seein’ that song all the way to the end before he says “let’s do it.

To what extent would you make beats with certain people in mind?

I’ll start off by saying that I’ve missed a lot of opportunities where I’ve met people out in public with nothing to present to them. So now I create with the chance of popping up on them again. So I’ll create a track for Slim Thug, whether or not I’ll see him again or whether he’ll answer an Instagram DM, so if I got him right in my face I can say “what’s your email, I’m finna send you five right now. Slim, Bun, Rick Ross. Man, I love his flavor. He feel like a boss-type stuff goin’ on.

That’s incredible. What distinguishes, like, “this is something I’m making for Rick Ross from “this is something I’m making for Bun?

Well Bun, when I’m tryin’ to do something for Bun I know that it’s gotta have a little organ in it. I might put a little splash of organ. I might even think of somethin’ that Pimp C might say, lay it on the chorus as a reference. So he hear it and it’s like oh, ok, I see where you’re goin’. Like this one track that I have on Devin’s album, I did a reference on the chorus and they kept my voice on it.

Do you ever feel like when you give somebody a beat you lose some control over it?

Yeah, I was tellin’ my son that earlier. He’s producin’ now, matter of fact his first track is finna go on Billy Cook’s next album. But I just try and watch who I present to - sometimes you just really want something to get placed, and you’re hopin’ that the individual has got some type of structure. But every once in a while I might hold something back, if I’ve got something that I know somebody is gonna like I might hold it for the big guys.

Looking through your credits, I saw that you were pretty involved with the Latino rap scene for a while. I hadn’t really seen anyone have that sort of crossover before.

Well, some of the Hispanic guys that I do mess with - I think this studio right here is about the seventh studio situation. Ever since day one, some of those guys would come to concerts and hang with us, and they’ve followed me to every studio situation ever since. And it would grow - they’ve got these big cliques, all of ‘em into music. And man, the vibe at a Latino concert, it’s different. There ain’t too much fightin’, I show up and they take care of me. You hungry? What you want? This one guy, when I come around to his events I don’t have to ask for anything. Another rapper, he’s got construction companies and it’s just whatever you need for the studio. So I’m not ready for the whole, big, make your studio, but when I’m ready I know that those guys are gonna help me build it. Good friends.

Were there any pieces of equipment that you were dead-set on getting once you had some money from producing?

Yeah, I bought a MPC3000. Goin’ from that keyboard, programming drums - you can’t program a drum sequence from a keyboard, it has to come from a drum machine. That MPC just made a difference, the precision - man, once in a while on the keyboard when the loop came around it would be a little late to start. The rapper may not be able to tell, but other producers could tell. But that MPC, man, is like a horse. Thoroughbred. So that, the MPC, and a Roland JV-1080 that had a bunch of sounds and stuff. Other than that, it was just using the keyboard which held eight banks of sounds. So you had to sit there, wait on the strings to load up, wait for the bassline to load up. I think it was one of Big Mike’s projects, they cut me a check and I went instantly, man. I went to Guitar Center, they didn’t even have a new MPC so I bought the floor model. I don’t think I even had all the money in the bank yet, like it’ll be alright when I get back. I didn’t even really know how to use it at the time, but it made my beats night and day.

How aware were you of other, parallel scenes, either elsewhere in Houston or around the South?

It was more Houston. I was so tunnel vision on tryin’ to be there for Trinity Garden Cartel - those wasn’t a group of guys that just sat around. Especially D, he was one for “alright, in three weeks we’re gonna have this done. That means you need to be able to do x amounts of beats per day. So I would try to keep that, that taught me a great work ethic.

As far as a sound, the people that wowed me would be like Mike Dean, goin’ to a major studio and hearin’ his material. They used to work at this studio called Digital Services, first time I ever been inside a place with a SSL board and a big wall of outboard gear and all that stuff. Man, to go in there and sit there and hear that stuff come across the speakers, man… what are they usin’? It blew my mind, because the groups I was with expected me to go into this room and just do what I do. Mike, I know you don’t know nothin’ about the board, but just do the best you can. So they would leave me up there to mix down a whole song, I hadn’t touched a SSL board in my life. What does this knob do? For a friend to drop you off at a studio that was $125 an hour and say “do your best, that’s a lot of pressure! But I appreciate them havin’ that kind of trust in me.

Is there a specific event that you’ve come to think of as the highlight of your career?

Back then, I think it was bein’ able to work with big people. My biggest person back in the day was Big Mike, bein’ in steady communication with him and keepin’ up with what was goin’ on. Workin’ with Rap-A-Lot, I know there’s a lot of stories but I never felt no funny way with them. So I guess havin’ a track on Big Mike’s album, knowin’ that was gonna go out and be heard. If I took a snare out, it wasn’t gonna be on the record.

Now, as far as things I’m proud of, it’s the fact that people still call. If somebody needs somethin’ remade, they want some S.O.S. Band replayed, they come to me. And I’m not a bass player or whatever, but I’ll get it done. I just play it by ear. Restructure it for what I think they might need. I just like the challenge, but I know to this day not to mess with no Prince. I’ve tried to do it, and I just can’t. I did a horrible job of tryin’ to re-do “Pop Life, I tried “Flashlight a couple of times. It ended up still comin’ out, but man you can’t duplicate that stuff. A couple of Bootsy tunes… nah, stop it.

Were there any other producers that made a big impression on you if you had the chance to work together?

Yeah, workin’ with Mike Dean. I know he’s workin’ with like Travis Scott now, Jay-Z, a lot of major people like that. There’s things that he would do, questions that he would ask me that would let me know that I didn’t know what I was doin’, or things that he would share with me that he didn’t have to do. He’d put a tube on the bassline, tube compression on the bassline or whatever. I’ve learned that the engineer really doesn’t have to do anything - “is that too high? Ok, how’s this sound to you? That’s good? Other engineers, Roger, I forget his last name, but he was the owner of Digital Services. Roger Moran. You’re renting the space, he don’t have to do nothin’ but provide the space for you. This extra “nah, I think you should turn the vocals down a hair, all that kind of input didn’t have to happen. But they did that. N.O. Joe, he gave me a lot of stuff that he didn’t need to share. We had a lot of moments where I’d be mixin’ down Trinity Garden Cartel stuff, and they’d come in from the next room and be like “that’s good stuff man, your kicks need a little - they all already had those MPCs, I was still on keyboards just trying to sound a little similar to ‘em.

Other experiences… I worked with Diaper Man from Parliament, Garry Shider. I think he’s passed on now. We did three songs for 380 Dat Lady, who was with Trinity Garden. And man, it was three days straight. By that third day I was like “man, look, I need to go home, get some sleep. I don’t know what they was on, but I was just about burnt out on the energy drinks. I had my third or fourth second wind, and then I had to go. But he’s in there like “alright, we gon’ stack this, stack all that, bounce it down to two so we have some more room. And since people knew he was in town I got bass players comin’ by, lead players comin’ by, vocalists, all just trying to have their Funkadelic experience. And at the end of it all, it was time to mix. Man, if I’d had a computer back in the day it probably would’ve been harder, for the fact that all I could do was a simple analog mix. Wasn’t no animation, wasn’t no motor faders. So whatever drops, you had to try and mute all those tracks at once.

I met Tupac! At a rap conference in Washington, DC. Another one of those moments where I didn’t have any material to present. We were just like “That’s Tupac! He said “Hey man, got a light? Nah I don’t, somebody get this man a light! We went up to him, shook his hand; this was right after the movie Juice, somethin’ like that had come out. Shoot, I wasn’t even on the page of “well hey Tupac, here’s my number. I just left that experience at “man, we met Tupac. Mind just closed, no networkin’ or nothing. After that movie, his whole thing took off.