YouKnowIGotSoul Interview With Producer Mike City
If you’re a regular visitor to YouKnowIGotSoul, then surely you must have read more than once I’m the type that enjoys buying an album and immediately opening the liner notes to check the production and writing credits on each song. Well, one name that has consistently popped up on production AND writing credits on major artists albums over the past ten years has been Mike City. It’s rare you will find a producer who is also a writer, or vice versa, but Mike is one of those rare talents. Not only that, he’s probably produced at least a handful of your favorite joints and you probably don’t even know it. In part one of this two part series, Mike talks about his first big hit “I Wish” for Carl Thomas coming two weeks after being kicked out of the studio by Puffy, the timeless brand of music he aims to create in the studio, and working with artists like Carl Thomas, Rell, Sunshine Anderson, Brandy & Donell Jones.
YKIGS: First off, can I just get some background on where you got your start in music and how that eventually led to a career in production and writing?
Mike City: I got my start…I’m from Philly and South Jersey. I’m born in Philly, raised in Philly and South Jersey.
YKIGS: What led you to production?
MC: I was always singing in choirs and the band and different stuff like that, playing drums. My interest grew, I come from a musical family so I grew up around it, my mother and father sang, my brother played keyboard and they did all of this extremely well, so I fell in line. By me growing up right around the time when hip hop was jumping off, I caught the best of all of the eras kind of.
YKIGS: Talk to me about the solo album you had in ’98 “City Limits.” From an artistic standpoint, what was that experience like putting that album out?
MC: Well that actually helped everything I’m doing right now. I actually cut that album in ’95, I actually cut that album, I wrote it in ’94 and I cut it in ’95. I was doing that along with my man Grandmaster Slice, my dude, so we did that record down in Miami, had a good time. It was something going on with the label, so it pushed it back a few years and everything and it is what it is. That experience helped me really develop as a producer. I started producing kinda when I got out of high school, I really got into it, but my senior year of high school and getting into college, I was like this is what I wanna do. So I actually went to college as a business major and then I wound up switching over to music. I got a bachelor of arts with a concentration of music, so a lot of people don’t even believe that’s my background.
YKIGS: I think the album you did “City Limits” is a hidden gem, not many people even know about it.
MC: It was on an independent label, I always knew it was going to get to a point where people were combining singing and rapping. That’s why like I said, I did it in ’95, by ’98 people were really starting to do it and everything. When I was conceptualizing the album this was ’94, and nobody was really doing it like that. So that’s my little contribution. *Laughs*
YKIGS: I want to talk to you now a little bit about Sunshine Anderson, I know you did eight songs on her new album “The Sun Shines Again,” and you’ve worked on all of her three albums. So tell me about the chemistry between you guys.
MC: Oh it’s just that when we get in the studio it’s a lot of fun and everything, and we’ve known each other since college, actually the year I was graduating was the year she was coming in. Ever since then when we get in the studio, we understand each other in the studio and everything and it’s like we really speak the same language. So it’s like it’s just getting in there and having fun and everything and that’s what I told her with this album, I was like you’ve been away awhile, let’s get in the studio and see if our chemistry is…we’re both older now, got kids, but I said let’s not pay attention to what’s on the radio, let’s go in there and do what we think each other could. Actually, I think this album down the line is going to be considered a classic. I don’t think people kinda get it yet, but I think when it’s all said and done we might be old or whatever it is, but people are going to look at it like that album is crazy!
YKIGS: I love that approach and I believe that’s the type of approach you take is don’t worry about what’s on the radio, just focus on making real good music and music that will be timeless, or like you mentioned, a classic. Is that the mentality you have when you go in the studio?
MC: Yea I mean that’s what I do a lot, obviously on different dance records and stuff I do, I might do a dance thing and put it out there just for whatever that is, but that’s usually my approach with how I rock and get down, and it’s worked for me so for. The thing about it is I’ve had a pretty good, healthy career. A lot of people have been number one and just fell off of the face of the Earth and I kinda like mosied right along. So it’s like I’m not mad at how’s it going down in this game because basically ten years later from my first major hit, I’m still in the game like foreal. So that’s a blessing because the game is real nasty right now so for me to be able to be in the game and get that far, it’s just a blessing. Out of nowhere, the Dwele record came out of nowhere and surprised everybody and that’s independent. So it just feels good man. You can expect to hear me on Anthony Hamilton’s next album, a lot of people probably know me and Anthony, we go way back, he was actually on Sunshine’s first album. So just different things like that man, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of great artists, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of great artists more so like even when I’m in the studio, my tolerance level is not really that high sometimes unless it’s just something I’m doing for fun. But I’m usually in the studio getting it in with somebody that’s really thoro.
YKIGS: You mentioned your first major hit and I believe you were referring to Carl Thomas’ “I Wish” which was nearly ten years ago. Do you remember, when you made that song did you think it was going to be a major hit like it was? And what was the feeling like when it started blowing up?
MC: Not at all. When I wrote the song it was a true story to the letter, everything about it was exactly true. Honestly it was my record, it was my joint but my man he was like “Yo, my man Carl Thomas need a joint, you should let him get these joints.” I’m like you know that’s cool and everything, let’s see what happens. That was basically like the last song on the album, and I’m like cool let’s get on the album and everything. It’s just one of those things man, a lot of people don’t know, even though I had met Puff before that, the first time I was up in Daddy’s House, before we got to know each other, I was basically kicked out of the studio. *Laughs* And this was within two weeks of me cutting “I Wish” for Carl Thomas.
YKIGS: *Laughs* What happened?
MC: He was working on an album, I was with a couple of my dudes, and we were trying to get him to play a record. I guess we were throwing off his vibe or whatever. It was all good and everything, to show you how everything works out, from what I understand, he was running and working out and everything, and he finally listened to the record and was like “Yo this joint is crazy!” Because a lot of people thought I was from North Carolina, I was living down there when I graduated college and stayed down there a few years. So he’s like “Yo get your man from North Carolina to cut this joint because Puff has a hit here!” So someone outside of that to be able to come through and do something like that is kind of a feat within itself. I went from getting kicked out of the studio to next thing you know I’m in Daddy’s House Studio, or Sound on Sound, Electric Baby, the Big Sony Room, so it’s crazy. And that wasn’t even my first placement, a lot of people don’t even know this, I don’t even know if they have it on Wikipedia or Google. I actually produced a single on Rappin 4-Tay’s album on Virgin. It was the album after he did the “Playaz Club” and I think the song was called “Money Makes the Man.”
YKIGS: I did my research and I did my digging but I didn’t find that one! *Laughs*
YKIGS: I want to ask you about some work you did with Rell on his album “The Remedy” which is an album that never got released. There is a song you did for him called “Say It Aint So.”
MC: Yea that record was real hot!
YKIGS: Yea, I heard a version of that song later on by Musiq Soulchild and I was wondering if I could get the story behind that?
MC: Did I leak that? I didn’t leak that, how did that get leaked? It was definitely Rell’s first and Musiq cut it later, but it was definitely Rell’s first. It’s just one of those things because they wanted to come out with “If That’s My Baby” first and I was kinda pleading with Jay and Dame to let’s go with “Say It Aint So,” I was like “That’s the one right there, that’s the one!” You gotta go with the powers that be, so it is what it is.
YKIGS: I was wondering since the album didn’t release, you kinda just took the song and shopped it elsewhere. Is that how it worked?
MC: Well it wasn’t released, I still own the copyrights. Yea it was just one of those things because I think Rell is so dope. Even right now man, I just felt like that record, the album would have came out, it would have been crazy. But things happen for a reason.
YKIGS: Do you have any other experiences like that where you did a song on an album where you felt like that song should have been the one picked as the lead single?
MC: Oh yea of course. *Laughs* It happens all of the time.
YKIGS: Has there ever been a time where you did a song with an artist and it didn’t even make the album, does that type of thing happen?
MC: Of course, I’m not a…what’s the word…I’m not sheltered from that happening. *Laughs* It happens and that don’t make it right or wrong, that just makes it what it is. I’m not always right but they’re not always right either. The whole thing is subjective and everything. I kinda like my decisions because I go off of what I feel, so I like my percentages in what I do and I feel like I’ve delivered time and time again and that’s the realest thing about it because I’ve felt like that’s kept me in the game because it’s music you can feel and something that people remember you by. A lot of music coming out right now, it could be number one smashes and everything, people don’t care who produced it, it don’t matter. So it’s just one of those types of situations.
YKIGS: I want to ask you about another song you did, it’s the song “Finer Things in Life” for Donell Jones. I talked to him recently in an interview and he produced the whole album except for that one song, and I asked him why, and he said that’s the song he needed to make the album what it was. How does that make you feel that your song was the missing piece for his album?
MC: Oh that’s a blessing, me and Donell, that’s my man too. For him to make sure that I was on the album because I sent him a joint and everything. It was weird because it wasn’t even like he asked me to send him nothing, I just sent him a joint like “Yo I think Donell would sound hot killin this joint.” He heard it and he was like “Yo I want that, make sure that’s mine!” So we just rock like that and everything so I’ve gotten a lot of good response from that. Just like I’ve got two joints on Faith’s album, and I’ve been knowing Faith for over ten years, this was the first time I was on her record, it just happened timing wise, it’s just one of those things. Like I’ve been knowing Mary for awhile so hopefully it just happens on her next album me and her get together. And I don’t really trip on anything because my career is not based on getting on one person’s album. I don’t trip about not being on every album either, because I know that’s how the game is and it shouldn’t be like that. That’s what makes everything good, you’re not supposed to be on everyone’s album all of the time. So it makes it special and everything, I think I could bring a lot to the table. Also I feel like I have the confidence that I could bring something to whatever project, anybody, if it came from that aspect of could you be on somebody’s album, if it’s somebody that I’m into and I feel like could deliver for, I don’t feel like I can’t make no one ten songs on their album. That’s just me, It’s just one of those things. I don’t know if you know this, I was on “8701” with Usher and I was actually scheduled to go onto the “Confessions” album but we just never got in. That’s the one I was really on some like “Mannnn” because I knew what the album was going to be, I knew what it was feeling like when we were doing “8701.” We had talked but sometimes things don’t happen for whatever reason.
YKIGS: So take me through this, you’re talking about Usher and how you wanted to be on that album. When you have an artist in mind that you’re going to work with, what’s the creative process like. Do you tailor a song to a certain artist, how does the whole thing go with the writing and producing, because I know you write as well.
MC: Yea I try to tailor it to the artist, I try to get into the artists mold and tailor it to them. So I try to do that and then just go from there. Like when I was working with Brandy, we were just kicking it and hanging out and I kinda got into a zone that afforded me the energy to know that “Full Moon” was what she wanted and it was going to jump off. That’s one of those things, like her, she’s just an incredible artist, just incredible.
YKIGS: I wanted to ask you about that song actually “Full Moon” when you were working with Brandy. What was that experience like working with her, what do you remember most about it?
MC: We were just having fun. In the studio, like with me and her, we were like sister and brother, we were arguing, but it was all love though. We would literally argue, but it wouldn’t be like no bad blood, it wasn’t like that, it’s just that I know she’s a perfectionist and everything. At the end of the day, I let her do what she needs to do, because I know she knows her instrument, her voice is like an instrument foreal. It was a beautiful experience man. I had the pleasure of working with Jazmine Sullivan when she was 13. She was as dope then as she is now.
YKIGS: That’s interesting that you bring that up that you guys were arguing. Do you ever have an experience where you have an idea in mind for an artist, a direction you want to go, and maybe the artist doesn’t see it like you see it, you kinda butt heads, has that happened?
MC: Oh that’s happened before, but you gotta be open for all types of things so you try anything. I learned this from Dr. Dre, he said basically one time you could try anything, but if it aint right, aint nobody gonna hear it, but at least you tried it! But when I said me and her argued, I’m talking about playful arguing, it’s not like serious or anything like that.
YKIGS: I want to ask you about Carl Thomas, I mentioned “I Wish” earlier, you worked with him on all of his albums as well. Is he one of your favorite artists to work with?
MC: Oh yea, yea, yea, with me and him it’s easy. With certain people it’s just easy. Like with Carl, we get each other and everything, we’re in there, we just doing what we do, and it’s just like “He’s gonna hit this, he gonna hit that.” Like with me and Dave Hollister we be in the studio just having a ball, me and Dave in the studio, we in there chopping it up, playing, and then we be like “Oh wait we gotta cut this record!” God bless the dead it was like that with Gerald Levert too. Gerald would come over, kick it and everything, and he’d be in L.A. and even when we weren’t scheduled to record he’d be like “Yo City I’m in town, come get me!” I’d go get him and hang out, it’s a lot of love man. That’s why I said I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of very talented and influential people. I always show respect, and I get respect, like I worked with Babyface and he showed me nothing but respect and love.
YKIGS: Well I hope you’re working on Carl’s fourth album as well and I hope we get that soon! *Laughs*
MC: I don’t know when it’s coming out, but I’m definitely on it. We got it in a few months ago we were working on some material, he’s gotta make an announcement what he’s doing with the album but I’m excited about some of the records we did and I think Carl definitely he has a fan base, women still riding out to “Emotional.” Even the last record we did independently, it’s some joints on there, I run into people all the time and be like “Yo, that album is crazy.” So it’s like I try to put my best foot forward when it comes to those types of satiations and I feel good at night knowing that I did that.
YKIGS: I mentioned earlier at the beginning that you produced probably my two favorite r&b songs this year. One you mentioned earlier and that’s Dwele’s “What’s Not to Love.” Give me some background on making that song.
MC: I was just in the zone that day in the studio like this is what I want to do and that’s how it came about. Nothing extra special about it, just I was in the zone that day like this is what I want to do, and that’s what came out. The crazy thing about it is I don’t even write everyday because I don’t have nothing to say like that every day, so I try to let the music move me so it will come out. Because it’s like there’s 365 days in a year, you aint writing 365 hits. I separate that too because if it’s a hit that doesn’t mean it isn’t a joint, and I’ve had plenty of records that weren’t hits that are joints. It’s a lot of things that gotta go right for the record to be a hit. A lot of times it don’t necessarily be the song, oh that’s not a hit. A lot of things gotta go right for the record to be a hit.
YKIGS: The other song I wanted to ask about which is probably my second favorite this year is the song you did with El DeBarge and Faith Evans, that song is crazy.
MC: Oh man, oh my God! Now with El DeBarge it’s funny because I know a lot of people that know El, but I never knew El out here, I never met him or anything, and we just instantly clicked. It’s just one of those sings where here’s an iconic dude that in high school everybody skipped class to go see DeBarge play at Great Adventure. *Laughs* You talk about that and then I’m in the studio with him doing a joint, I got three songs on the album, I got more than anyone on the album actually, maybe it’s me and Jam & Lewis. So I did three songs on the album, and then the single. A friend of mine Erika Jayne, she wrote the joint and it just came out crazy. It’s a blessing man.
YKIGS: I actually had a chance to see a video of you guys on Youtube in the studio making the song and it looked like you guys were having a lot of fun doing that.
MC: Yea man, it’s just a blessing. It’s like you can’t beat that and that’s what I feel like this generation right now is missing because who are they excited about like that. And then the other thing is, I gotta bring this out, I know downloading and all of that stuff is prevalent. A lot of the problem with music right now, it’s not enough fans because everybody thinks they are an artist, that’s a big problem. That’s a bigger problem than I think people really know, like who is the fans?
YKIGS: So what do you think is the solution to that?
MC: I don’t know, but who is the fans? Everybody is a critic. It’s just one of those things, I don’t know the solution to that because everybody thinks music is the easy way out, and it really isn’t. That’s the reality. So that’s what we’re dealing with as well. A lot of people don’t really talk about that.
YKIGS: Do you think it’s that a lot of people are coming into the industry that don’t have the talent, and people are still supporting them?
YKIGS: I mean I think that’s a problem. I hear music on the radio and I don’t these artists have talent, but people are still supporting it.
MC: Plus, just because it’s a hit, doesn’t mean it’s a hot record. And that’s the truth. So it’s a false sense of security for artists who shouldn’t really be doing it, it’s like “well if he could do this, or she could do this.” It’s like that, so I don’t know.
YKIGS: I love to see people who are passionate about music and the musicality of things and supporting that and keeping real music alive. I feel like some people are taking the shortcuts just to get on the radio and not really caring about the musicality and the real singing and stuff like that.
MC: Well some people don’t care, some people don’t even know how to do the musicality. And you know these computers lead to that, before computers came into play, you had to do joints, there weren’t any tricks.
YKIGS: The unfortunate thing about it is, I spend a lot of time promoting r&b, and a lot of real singers are getting pushed to the back, not in the forefront any longer and people don’t even know they’re releasing albums. It’s really sad because we’ve got some really good albums coming out and people don’t even know artists are releasing these albums. It’s crazy.
YKIGS: But it is what it is right now, it will come back someday to the fore front.
MC: Yea hopefully! That’s what we’re dealing with right now, it’s more than just free downloading. And with grown black women, I just feel like they’re a little ways away from embracing buying, I mean not everyone but as a whole, they are little ways away from buying music online because they are used to having physical products in their hand. And as most people know, a lot of physical products are not even available anymore. So it’s just one of those things man.
YKIGS: You’ve worked with so many talented artists in your time in the industry. But who is an artist you haven’t had a chance to work with yet you’d like the opportunity, name some.
MC: It’s a few. I know Justin, we talked a few times before, but we never got it in. I think Justin’s really dope, we never got it in. I’ve met Beyonce quite a few times before, she’s good people, she had a warm spirit to her. I mean who else…I feel like me and Mary, I don’t even know how that hasn’t happened! But it is what it is, I don’t even know how that hasn’t happened, but if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be. Mariah’s dope and everything, so it’s quite a few people, but I have been blessed to work with a lot of people that I’ve really wanted to work with. I mean El DeBarge, that’s good for me, Brandy was big for me, Lalah Hathaway, that’s big for me. To go from listening to these people and then you’re really working with them and help shape what they’re doing, their next albums. It’s crazy.
YKIGS: One thing I wanted to ask you about is on a lot of your hits, you’re credited as the main producer and also the songwriter, which is rare in this day and age for a producer to do the writing on a track as well. So where did you develop this talent for writing in addition to producing.
MC: Well I’m actually a writer first. I’m a writer first.
YKIGS: So tell me about how you developed that talent in writing?
MC: I don’t know man, it’s a gift from God. I have a way with words, but it’s a gift from God.
YKIGS: So when you’re putting a song together, writing a song, how long does it take you to put it together? Because I’ve heard a wide range from artists.
MC: It depends, I wrote “I Wish” in 20 minutes, I wrote “Full Moon” in two or three weeks. *Laughs* I was writing a line a day, and wasn’t doing anything else.
YKIGS: *Laughs* Oh wow that’s crazy, but it came out good, so the hard work paid off!
MC: Yea I mean so that’s why no one can tell me if it don’t come right away, it’s not a joint or whatever, because I can dispel that theory.
YKIGS: As a producer, over the years as technology has changed, has this forced you to make changes to your production style, or have you stuck with the same method?
MC: Oh yea, I had to go take a class. My primary production machine before was ASI-10. A couple of years ago, it was one year when I didn’t have any records out at the time, and a lot of people were probably like what’s going on with me. I got married, had my first daughter, but a lot of that too was I was switching over to using Logic, and I kinda had to go cold turkey so I could get on it foreal. But you’ve got to man, you’ve got to keep up. With the Dwele record, no one would have known what I did it on. Even when I was using my ASI-10, a lot of people thought I was using ND because I come from a hip hop background, I grew up in that era, I grew up when your drums had to be right, you just couldn’t rely on 808. So I grew up listening to all of that and with the drums crazy from Pete Rock to A Tribe Called Quest to even my man Mark Sparks, who actually started Soulife, he was one of the people who started Soulife, he did “Shoop” for Salt-N-Pepa but he was doing hip hop records too like Grand Puba. So just being around all of that, being exposed to that and the basis of everything, the drums had to be hot or you weren’t placing no records.
YKIGS: You mentioned earlier you did some songs with Carl Thomas, you did some recently with Anthony Hamilton. What other artists have you been working with recently and scheduled with for the future?
MC: Obviously Carl, me and Dave going back in. I think I’m supposed to sit down with LaToya Luckett soon. I know a lot of people that people probably just wouldn’t even know I know, or expect I know. Me and Teedra Moses we probably finally going to do something, Teedra is an incredible artist, and I’ve been knowing Teedra since I’ve been out here. My mind is drawing a blank because things just be happening so fast but I stay pretty active. Not only that, I placed records overseas, I’ve got records out in Japan, South Africa, on different artists, Belgium, doing stuff, getting into doing commercials, filming, T.V. You’ve got to use all of that to your advantage and me being in L.A. kinda helped me out.
YKIGS: How are you perceived within the industry in terms of when an artist is looking for a hit, do they come to you? Like do their people come to you like “Alright we need a hit, let’s go to Mike City.” Does it work like that?
MC: I mean I don’t know if it’s per say need a hit, I don’t think anyone has a magic touch or wand. I think if they want a record that they think I can get them to feel a certain way, they will come to me. Oh who else I’m working with, a new artist I’m working with on Geffen his name is Shavonte, he’s dope too. Kayla Smith, I’m doing some work with her, she just signed to Interscope, and that’s my man Kenny Smith’s daughter. I feel bad because I know I’m missing someone foreal. It just be a lot of stuff that happens and then we come back to it like “Oh we doing this now, ok.” And then some stuff I can’t get into until it gets solidified.
YKIGS: Has there ever been a time when you were in the studio working with an artist and you felt like almost pressured, like the need to perform extra. I don’t want to stay star struck, but you felt a little nervous, you wanted to do something extra.
MC: Nah, I think the only time I was star struck in the studio is when I first met Stevie Wonder and I was doing a session with him and I was actually just singing on the record with him one night.
YKIGS: Tell me about that.
MC: It was just the best experience ever, it was Stevie Wonder! *Laughs* It was back when everybody had two ways, and I was like “Yo, I was just sitting here with Stevie Wonder!” I was two waying everybody, and everybody hit me back like “Word!” and I was like “No doubt man, I was just here with Stevie Wonder!” But other than that man, it’s just one of those things, I’ve been blessed everywhere I go, I’m like a ghost and a machine, if you don’t know me, you really don’t know me, but the right people know me. *Laughs*
YKIGS: Those are all the questions I had prepared, is there anything else you’d like to add?
MC: Nah man, just God is great!