Mike WiLL Made-It’s unmistakable producer tag has graced some of pop and rap’s most ubiquitous hits in recent years. The Atlanta-born Michael Williams’ journey began with a gift from his father, a Korg ES-1 sampler, followed by his first break: producing for hometown hero Gucci Mane. Since then, he’s founded the EarDrummers Entertainment company, home to rappers and producers, and helped maintain Atlanta’s status as the unquestioned epicenter of modern day hip-hop.
In addition to adventurous collaborations with crossover wunderkinds like Miley Cyrus and Rae Sremmurd, Mike WiLL Made-It also has flexed his impeccable chops on massive hits like Beyoncé’s “Formation,” which he produced and co-wrote alongside Beyoncé and Rae Sremmurd. “Formation” began as a casual freestyle between Mike and Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd while they were driving to Coachella, but the song eventually became the centerpiece of Beyoncé’s Lemonade and a significant political statement in its own right, as well as a commercial and critical smash. In this excerpt from his lecture at the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy in Montréal, Mike WiLL discusses the process of writing “Formation,” what it’s like to collaborate with Beyoncé and the sense of satisfaction at seeing one of his productions played at the Super Bowl.
Mike WiLL Made-It
We were just on our way to Coachella, and I was playing beats in the car on the aux. It was me, Swae Lee, Jxmmi... Beyoncé had already reached out to me to send some music, and then I had sent a couple ideas. I was just playing some beats. We just mess around and freestyle. I might even freestyle with them, just throwing out different ideas. (That’s the same way we came up with “My X” on Sremm’s first album.) But we were just freestyling, and then Swae Lee had said, “OK, now let’s get in formation.” I was like, “Man, what if you said “OK ladies?” He was like, “OK. OK ladies now...” I’m like, “Man, that might be hard for Beyoncé, bro.” He was like, “Man,” and then I was like, “Man, record it in a voice note!”
I got a whole motherfucking catalog of these motherfuckers, you know what I’m saying? We had recorded that shit, and then when we got back to LA we went to the studio. We went to the studio and we did “Drinks On Us,” and I was like, “Yo, what about that idea we came up with in the car, that ‘formation’ [thing]?” One thing about Swae Lee, once he records a voice note, it’s not guaranteed that he’s going to record it... He might be, “Oh, no, I was just fucking around,” and he might not do it. I was like, “Bro, you’ve got to record that one voice note, that ‘formation.’ I’m telling you, that shit might work for Beyoncé.” He went in, and he did a whole other freestyle to the beat, but he ended up laying that formation part. Jxmmi just went in the booth, and Jxmmi said, “If you fuck me good, I’ll take your ass to Margiela.” He was just rapping and shit. I took that reference track and sent it to Beyoncé, along with a couple other reference tracks.
I had run into her one night. We were just chopping it up, and she was like, “You know what? I really like the idea of ‘Formation’ that you sent.” I was like, “That’s dope, man.” You know what I was thinking? I was like, “Man, when I was with Sremm, we were just talking about it like, ‘That could be a big song for the females. Get in formation about the dudes that you’re messing with first, or get in line. Get in formation.’” It could be a good women empowerment song, and she was just like, “Yeah.” Then we just started chopping it up about different things.
Watch Mike-WiLL Made-It’s full lecture from RBMA Montréal here.
The next thing you know, she takes it and makes it a culture empowerment thing. Bigger than just females – a culture empowerment thing. Then they called us to New York to finish the production. I was just telling her different harmonies that I was hearing that she could add. My different inputs, outputs, or whatever I felt the record could do. We were just going back and forth for a week.
[Beyoncé] wrote all her lyrics for the most part... And the thing is, she’s fair. It was a real collaborative effort between me, Pluss, Sremm and her. We just split everything collectively, but she wrote both of her verses and she got inspired by what Jxmmi said: “If she fuck me good I’ll take her ass to Margiela – if he fuck me good I’ll take his ass to Red Lobster.” Boom.
From there, it was really more about her family. It was really more about her family, her heritage and where she comes from, so that’s something that Swae Lee or anybody really couldn’t write the way she wrote it, because she probably really totes hot sauce in her bag.
We finished that song last summer, and she was going to put it out at Made In America [festival]. Then she was trying to debate, was she going to shoot the movie, or did she just want to... Because she loved the songs so much, she was like, “I just need to put it out before something happens, before it leaks. Before it gets old to me or something, I just need to put it out. But I’m thinking about shooting this movie.” So she ended up going with the movie idea, and then she held “Formation.”
Everything just broke. She broke the internet, she broke the fucking cable, she broke everything.
I hit up my guy Big Jon [Platt], who connected me and Beyoncé, and me and Jay Z. I was like, “Man, what’s the word on the ‘Formation’ song? I hope she didn’t catch cold feet on it. That song’s still hard.” He was like, “No. She didn’t catch cold feet, but everything’s top secret.” Next thing you know, Beyoncé called me to one of her rehearsals. It was in LA, and she was rehearsing for the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl was next week. She was like, “We’re going to shoot the video next week, and then we’re going to perform it at the Super Bowl the week after that.” I was like, “Damn.” Then she was like, “We’re going to put it out between there.” I’m like, “So you’re going to shoot the video, put it out, and then perform at the Super Bowl?” She was like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Then how the hell is she going to get the videos edited?” Because I can’t get my guys to edit that quick.
She did it. She did exactly what she said. The exact dates and everything, it dropped, and it just broke. Everything just broke. She broke the internet, she broke the fucking cable, she broke everything. Then it was just like, “Formation” just went up.
I was at [my friend] DJ’s crib [watching the Super Bowl]. Jimmy Iovine was over there. I was in the room with, I don’t even remember the guys’ names, but if I said their names, people would be like, “Oh yeah, that’s the guy who does this.” It was all billionaires. Like, five billionaires. They bet millions on the game, damn near... I never felt so little, never felt like I had so much hard work to do. No – I felt like that my whole life, but in that room, I was just like, “Damn.”
I’m watching it, and Jimmy’s like, “Hey, she’s doing your song tonight, right?” I was like, “Yeah,” and they were all like, “OK.” Then the song played, and that shit just opened my eyes. Everything played back. [Playing music in the] Tahoe, Gucci Mane studio days, building my team. Then I did that song with my boy A+ from high school, and it just felt good to do a song with him that made it to the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl is a milestone. When we were working on Miley’s album, the crazy thing was, it was like an inside joke. We were always doing something. We’d be like, “This shit could play at the Super Bowl, this shit could play at the Super Bowl,” every time me and Miley would do a song. Then one time, me, her and Future were in the studio, and me and Future were like, “This song is big.” Miley was lighting a bong, and she was like, “Man, this shit is Super Bowl.” She inhaled a big-ass rip off the bong, and it was an inside joke from then on. Every time we would hear a hard song, she’d be like, “Super Bowl (inhale)” – even if she don’t have a bong.
So then all that shit’s playing in my head while I’m watching the fucking Beyoncé performance. I’m just like, “Damn, Super Bowl.” Miley actually texted me and was like, “Super Bowl,” with hella exclamation points, smoke and shit. Everything just played back. It was just like, “Damn, hard work pays off.”
I went from just making beats, teaching myself how to make beats, to making beats, to trying to make the hardest beat, to trying to get a beat to an artist, to trying to get that song that I did with the artist on a mixtape. Trying to get a song I did with another artist on an album. Trying to make a hit record.
Beyoncé, that was a milestone. I always wanted to work with Beyoncé, or always wanted to work with Adele. That’s the holy grail. That’s like, “How the fuck can I get in the studio with Beyoncé or Adele?” So when they said Beyoncé wanted to work, I’m like, “We’ve got to make a hit.” That’s what we did, and it was just dope to see it all play out. To see her go on the Super Bowl, and actually kill the performance with my favorite band, Coldplay. It was really like a dream. I’m just in here amongst all these billionaires. It was really like a dream. I’m just like, “Man, somebody punch me, or pinch me or something.” It didn’t even seem real.
It just showed that hard work finally... Well it’s not finally paid off, because I’m gracious for everything. But it just shows how far we came, and still how far we’ve got to go. Because one day, I want to see Rae Sremmurd performing “Black Beatles” on the Super Bowl. That would be crazy.
This excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity.