LA sounded a little different when Mike Free first entered the game.
Traffic music was still waiting to get the green light, with architects like Ron-Ron more preoccupied with skateboarding than trying to shape the city’s sound. Many of the LA’s current rap heavyweights hadn’t even reached high school, more focused on playing sports than hopping on a track. Even jerking had yet to truly catch fire; rather, gangster music ran the streets, with figures like The Game and Snoop Dogg sitting squarely in the driver seat.
So when Free first set out to turn his musical dreams into reality, finding that rallying point around which to create his sound was easier said than done. At first, Kanye’s signature blend of chipmunk soul became his inspiration, and Free occupied himself digging through the crates and chopping up samples to make his mark in the game. Eventually, however, his point of view changed when he came in contact with Mustard and Ty Dolla $ign, convincing him that the music he needed to be making was right in his own backyard after all.
“It was West Coast, but it wasn’t,” he said. “It had some island vibes to it too, I think his people were from there. I kind of took to that, but did it my own way.”
Soon after, he struck gold with “Rack City,” the sparse yet thunderous anthem that helped launch Tyga into the national spotlight. For Free, the success finally hit him once he was away at Hampton University, and he heard “Rack City” playing on the radio over 2,000 miles from where it was created.
“After that came ‘I’m Different’ by 2 Chainz, I was flying back home and it’s the hottest song in the city,” he said. “That’s kind of when I knew, ‘I’m in this, I need to drop out of school and focus on this.’”
Now, however, Free is moving on to another challenge. Behind the boards, the producer has racked up a laundry list of accolades — credits next to Nipsey Hussle, Ty Dolla $ign, and French Montana; platinum plaques for his work on songs like YG’s “My Nigga”; generational anthems like Big Sean’s seismic “I Don’t Fuck With You.” Any aspiring producer would be thrilled to have such resume attached to his or her name, but the LA native is already turning his attention to a new endeavor, getting down to work as Mike Free the rapper.
I’ve always helped songwrite in the sessions,” he said. “One day I was writing a demo for “Playa”, and I just said, “I like this for myself.”
“Playa,” Free’s first official song, was recorded in December 2018 and released early this year. Free shows off a melodic, island-infused delivery, talking up his own game and reminding you of his status in the city. This May, he followed it up with an icy cut titled “I Remember,” creating a much colder atmosphere as he reflects on all the times he’s been overlooked by those around him.
There was a time several years ago when Free had dreams of rapping, but that was when he was still in high school, before Drake had popularized the half rapped, half sung delivery that Free was interested in. Along with the army of melodic singers who have since infiltrated hip-hop, the ubiquity of cheap production today pushed him toward the microphone, as he saw it as a well-timed way to reintroduce himself.
“It feels like a fresh start,” he says. “It’s the perfect way to reinvent myself. The production is fun, but the game is just so different now.”
“So much music is so accessible on the internet,” he continues. “You could say ‘I want to make a song like YG,’ and type in ‘YG Type Beat’ and go through each one until you find the beat you like.”
Of course, the uprising of YouTube and SoundCloud ‘type beats’ are only one reason why the job of the modern producer has multiplied in difficulty. Stories of beatmakers crafting the foundation of a viral song and never seeing payment are all too common, as well as record labels twisting definitions to shave their budget and shortchange the creatives. So how does one take back the power?
For Free, it’s by increasing the personal significance of his beats. “I’m taking it back and making it special again,” he says. “I did a beat for O.T. Genasis, that’s special. I’m doing something with SuperDuperKyle, that’s special. These are people I have relationships with, who I consider friends. To get a beat from me, you have to be really special… or you have to come with a super bag.”
Other lessons have been more painful, however. Near the end of 2014, he became embroiled in a lawsuit with Mustard, when he argued he hadn’t received proper credit and royalties for many of their largest songs. He would later file a second lawsuit in 2015 that more than doubled the amount of tracks he was seeking payment for, and the case would drag on until 2016 when they finally settled out of court. Free’s always kept it classy about what went down in his interviews, insisting there was no bad blood between he and his former accomplice. Still, he felt the need to make a business decision and stand up for what he was owed, even if that meant straining their personal relationship.
“I’m definitely not happy with how it went down,” he says. “I mean, we were friends. But when you start getting older, you have children to worry about… homeboy business is cool, but I’m not about to get the homeboy outcome on this one. But we respect each other; at the end of the day, we had a long run, and you can’t take that away.”
Evidence of that long run is littered throughout his house in Arleta, about an hour drive from the heart of Los Angeles where he grew up. Platinum plaques line the walls in his living room, demanding your respect as you make your way through the house.
Free moved here about a year ago, when he needed a way to remove himself from the chaos of the city and focus on his own peace of mind. Certainly, it feels like a much calmer environment; there’s even a pool out back, a relaxing way to combat the heat of the San Fernando Valley.
For the most part, however, Mike Free’s focus is on the music. He’s creating new material on a daily basis, and often collaborates with younger producers to give them some shine in an industry that rarely affords it to them.
“I can knock out two or three songs a day,” he says. “I’m trying to get it out there. You never know, the song that you think is the weakest could end up being the biggest song in the world.”