Mike WiLL Made-It on the Making of Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop”

The super-producer on making hip-hop pop and his path to mainstream success in this excerpt from his RBMA Montréal lecture

Karel Chladek / Red Bull Content Pool

2012 I had “No Lie,” “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” “Turn on the Lights.” I was broke as fuck with those songs out. I wasn’t putting any of my songs with ASCAP. I wasn’t even looking at it like that. I thought music was just like, boom, you make a hot song, you put it out, you get rich. You’ve got music, then you’ve got the music business. 2012 I was like, “OK, I’ve got to start handling my business, because I’m broke as hell. Everybody around me is broke, but we’ve got these hard songs out.

Juicy J – Bandz A Make Her Dance feat. Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz

I didn’t really even know about publishing. At that point I met my manager, DJ, which is Jimmy Iovine’s nephew. He just could not believe that I didn’t have a manager. I was managing myself and he was like, “You’ve got three songs on the charts, you don’t have a manager?” I was like, “No.” Then I was like, “Man, look, this is my vision, though. This is why I don’t have a manager: Every manager is trying to step in and just be the cool guy standing next to me and be like, ‘This is my little homie. He’s got these songs on the radio.’ I don’t need that. I don’t need anybody to give me cool points. I don’t need that. I need somebody that’s going to handle this business so we can get some money.”

He was like, “You’ve got to register your songs with ASCAP. You’ve got to do this...” Then I was like, “Everybody is trying to sign me. I’m not even trying to hear what they’re talking about, because I’m not trying to sign anything without signing all my homies... At the end of the day, we need to get everything together.”

Lil Wayne - Bitches Love Me feat. Drake & Future

He started helping me get all my business together. First person he brings me around is Jimmy Iovine. I meet with Jimmy Iovine. Jimmy Iovine hears “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” “Turn on the Lights” and “No Lie” at that time. Then I play him a bunch of other songs. I played him “Bitches Love Me,” just the hook. I just had [the hook from] “Bitches Love Me” on my phone, with Future and Drake. This was before Wayne had hopped on it. I was just playing them a bunch of shit and letting them know my vision and everything. Every time I come to LA, we would meet.

He was like, “Yo Mike, you know what you have to do? You know what your job is? You know what you really have to do? You have to make hip-hop music pop.” I’m like, “What?” He was like, “Man, you have to make hip-hop music pop!” I’m like, “Dog, you sound crazy. What do you mean? I don’t know. I like pop music, I got a lot of pop beats, but people don’t really listen for that from me. They want to hear the hip-hop.”

He was like, “Listen man, listen. Dr. Dre was pop. Tupac was pop. Kanye’s pop. Pharrell was pop... and they still kept their sound.” He was like, “You are the only one who can do that of this new generation... Salute to all the four on the floor, shit... But everything on pop radio sounds the same right now. You have a sound that’s defining enough that can do it.” I’m just like, “Whatever, man. Whatever.” I’m thinking that he just talking over my head, but then then I saw “No Lie” go number one in crossover, then “Turn On The Lights” crossed over, then “Bandz a Make Her Dance” crossed over. All songs went up urban charts first and then crossed over and went pop, or went rhythmic. “No Lie” went pop.

2 Chainz – No Lie feat. Drake

When I saw that, that’s when I was like, “Yo, that’s what Jimmy was talking about.” He told me all those guys that I looked up to were pop and then he was like, “Man, you’re letting people from overseas come over here and just run the clubs, but really, your songs are the songs that run the clubs. You have to keep going. You have to get with the right artist...” Kanye had just told me the same thing in 2012, early 2012, before I met Jimmy. Kanye was just telling me the same thing, so I’m listening to it and I wasn’t really putting two and two together.

When we did “We Can’t Stop,” we had originally did it for Rihanna. We had that song, we had “Pour It Up” and we had this other song, and I was in there getting frustrated because they were telling me that Rihanna wasn’t picking my songs at first. I was like, “Man, I know I got three hits. Just put me in the room with Rihanna. Put me in the room with her. I know I got three hits. She got to pick one of these. I know I got it. I know it got it.”

Rihanna – Pour It Up

Chris Brown ended up coming to the studio, and he came in the room with me and I let him hear “We Can’t Stop,” and then I let him hear “Pour It Up. ” He was like, “I like [‘We Can’t Stop’], but it’s kind of moving slow right now,” because it was sounding a different way at first. He was like, “It’s kind of sounding a little slow for Rihanna.” He was like, “Man, let me hear something else,” and I played “Pour It Up.” He got up, starting dancing, and he was like, “Yo man, I got to give this to Rihanna. I got to get this to baby girl. If she don’t fuck with it, this my next single, period. This my next single. I know this is a hit. I know what this is. I understand that ratchet shit.” He went out, hollered at Rihanna, and then Rihanna called and was like, “Yo, there’s some song Chris just talking about that Mike Will got. Can y’all get it to me?” I sent them “Pour It Up” and then she got on “Pour It Up.”

Every time I would play “We Can’t Stop,” I always would say, “This the new ‘Party In The USA.’ This the new ‘Party In The USA,’” not even really knowing that “Party In The USA” was Miley [Cyrus’s] song. I knew “Party In The USA,” but I didn’t know the artist or whatever.

One of my homegirls was like, “You always say that. Why don’t you get it to Miley Cyrus?” I was like, “Man, you right.” I called my manager and I was like, “Yo, I need to get in the studio with Miley Cyrus.” He sends me, “Miley Cyrus? Is she working?” I was like, “I don’t care. I know this song that I got for her, bro, she going to be back working. She going to be out of here, bro. Trust me. I need to get in the studio with her. I need to get next to her, bro.” Then he was like, “Alright, I’ll work on it. I’ll figure out how to get you in the studio with her.”

A couple days later, I went to New York and I had a meeting with all the labels. I had this last meeting and it was with RCA – it was at nighttime, so it was eight degrees outside. I had just signed my publishing deal to Warner Chappell and my boy Ryan Press was just moving me around all labels. I called Ryan and I was like, “Yo, I’m not going to the last meeting, bro.” Then he was like, “You got to man, it’s with RCA.”

I said, “Bro, it’s eight degrees outside. I’m not going.” He was like, “I’m telling you. It’s with the top guy from RCA. It’s going to be worth it, duh, duh, duh.” I ain’t know it’s going to be that cold, so I ain’t have no jacket or anything. I was like, “Fine, fuck it.” I just went to the meeting, and then I’m playing them a whole bunch of music. I was like, “This song right here, it’s like the new ‘Party In The USA,’” but I ain’t know Miley was signed to the label. I was like, “This like the new ‘Party In The USA.’ It’s going to be big. If y’all have any pop artist, then y’all should just give this one to them.”

I played it for them and then Peter Edge was like, “Yo, this would be good for Miley Cyrus. She’s signed to this label.” I’m like, “For real? Yo, we need to get this to her. I’m telling you, this going to be the one.” Then he called her A&R upstairs. He gave it to her, and then when she met up with Miley Cyrus, Miley Cyrus heard it and she said she liked it off the rip, just because she connected with it, because it reminded her of a specific party that she went to. Then she liked this other beat. At that point I was like, “We need to get in the studio. I need to make sure she does this right.” This is like my first real stab at a pop song and I knew that Miley was like... She’s a pop star, period.

Miley Cyrus - We Can't Stop

All she needed was the right song, and then that’s going to be a pop song, so I was like, “This almost what Jimmy Iovine was talking about, like hip-hop, pop, whatever.” She loved the song, so at first, she was singing it like the reference. I’m like, “Yo Miley, these guys who wrote this song [Rock City] are from the West Indies. They’re from the islands. You’re from Nashville, Tennessee. I don’t want you to sound like them. I need to hear that country twang. I need you to sound like you.”

She starts singing it her way and then she start feeling comfortable with singing it her way, because at first, she thought she had to do it like that. She was saying all the pop producers that she worked with before had real strict guidelines on how they wanted their records recorded, and I wasn’t like that. I know art is all about layers, no matter what. No matter what art we’re talking about, if we’re talking about painting, if we’re talking about cars. The reason Benz is so fire is because all the layers that it has. Everything that it comes with, a beat. If it has all the right layers on it...

If you ever drove a Benz, like, my Benz has massage seats, and it has a refrigerator in the back, and it has heated seats, and it has air-conditioning seats, and the engine goes fast as fuck. Then when you turn each corner, the seat grabs you. All that’s art, because when I was riding in my Bonneville, that car didn’t do none of that. At the end of the day, that’s a whole next level of art. When you look at paintings, you can pay attention to the one blue shoe right there, or you can step away and be like, “OK, damn, this is a whole crazy picture. Damn, how did he get that to look like that?” Because he mix orange with brown, with something else, and he made it look like that. All that’s visual art.

This excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity.

By Mike WiLL Made-It on August 16, 2017

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