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Mike Free just wants you to recognize. You may not know it, but the South Central-bred producer is one of the architects of your house party, your hazy nights at the club, your after-work commute. A pipe dream born in a Virginia dorm room has become one of the most unstoppable runs in recent memory: After helping to craft Tyga’s “Rack City” in 2011, Free—often alongside DJ Mustard—constructed much of what dominates radio today, including hits for Big Sean, Ty Dolla $ign and YG.

The heist hasn’t gone off without hitches, though. Free is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Mustard over credit, publishing and compensation for a handful of songs, some of them major hits.

XXL caught up with the producer while he was grinding away in Atlanta, working with Lil Bibby and other rappers and R&B singers. Measured and thoughtful, Free spoke about aspiring to work with his heroes (Eminem was an early favorite; Timbaland and The Neptunes helped shape his percussion) and whether he sees himself as an innovator. “I can’t really see it right now," Free says in answer to that last question. "I guess I need to keep my head down and keep innovating.” —Paul Thompson

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BET AWARDS '14 - Show

“Rack City”

Tyga

Mike Free: Basically, I was emailing Mustard four, five beats a day. Somehow, “Rack City” was in that pile. [Laughs] I didn’t specifically start it and say it was going to be anything, I was just sending a gang of beats. I really liked it; I thought it was really unique. I did the instrumentation; it’s only one lead on there. Mustard did the percussion. When I was in high school, I used to go to Ty Dolla $ign’s house, and that’s where me and Mustard would work all day. I’d ditch school and go work. That’s how I met Tyga.

[The success] felt good, man. It was crazy to hear it out of cars and see people react. I didn’t really know much about the other part, the business. But it was the first time I heard my work on the radio, something I had written. I was in school, in Virginia, and even heard it out there. It was crazy. Mustard told me to stick to beats, and that’s the realest thing anyone’s ever said to me. Now, I’m writing songs, just not for myself. I like to build a song from scratch, create a vibe, and then present it after I’m done.

Photo Credit: Jory Lee Cordy

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“Paranoid”

Ty Dolla $ign featuring B.o.B.

Mike Free: I had dropped out of college by this point—this is late 2012. I was really experimenting with a sound. I had originally used that sound on a record “The Man,” which was also a Ty Dolla $ign record; it was actually supposed to be a single, but I guess they ended up not going with it or something. I ended up working on [DJ Mustard’s] Ketchup, bringing it together, and the idea had been formulated.

I was just going in in the studio with Mustard at the time. I had my own little section where I could make beats all night in my headphones. So I was just making 10 to 20 beats a night. And at that time, I created “Paranoid.” [The writing] was all Ty. He always goes in. He kills it.

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“Meet The Flockers”

YG featuring Tee Cee

Mike Free: The first time I met YG, he was honest and aggressive, but he was cool. It helped lead me into the direction of our sound. I was in Atlanta; I flew myself out here to help with [My Krazy Life]. It was last minute. They said that they wanted a song to go before “My Nigga”—I produced “My Nigga” also—and they needed a song to go next to it. I was like, "Cool," and came up with a few different bass lines. But they weren’t really vibing with it.

I randomly stumbled on the idea, and it became the song. I wasn’t really vibing with it at first, but when YG heard it, I seen his face change. He was like, “This is it.” He went in the booth and just started saying, “Flockers.” I felt kinda disappointed [My Krazy Life wasn’t nominated for a Grammy] but it only inspired me to work way harder.

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“No Mediocre”

T.I. featuring Iggy Azalea

Mike Free: I had seen T.I. a few times in the studio, and thought that he was cool, and a legend, you know. He was coming around in L.A., with Mustard, and saying that he really needed records. We would give him beats every day, and he eventually chose “No Mediocre.” I felt like it was one of those King records; he took me back on that one. It felt like ’06. It kind of reminded me of a 2014 version of “Why You Wanna”; that was his single off the King album. I ran into T.I. a few days ago at a restaurant and he said that he wanted to get some more work in, so that’s definitely coming up.

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“Don’t Tell 'Em”

Jeremih featuring YG

Mike Free: I feel like Jeremih is really dope because—a lot of people may not know—but he’s a writer. We’ve had writing sessions with Jeremih where he just came in and would freestyle damn near whole songs, and I would be like, “Damn, bro, you might as well just use this for you!” [Laughs] But he’s cool. I like the new direction of R&B, because they’re almost rapping, but singing. It’s a new sound, a new approach, and I like it. A lot of people kind of knock it, and say it’s trash, or it’s candy, or whatever, but I really like it. We’re moving into a really good direction with music.

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“I Don’t Fuck With You”

Big Sean featuring E-40

Mike Free: When I made “I Don’t Fuck With You,” I was kind of disappointed, because I felt that some popular records had been ripping off our sound. So literally, like that same night, I went into the studio. I planned to do it. I planned on making something big. Originally I think Justin Bieber was supposed to have it; he had posted a video of a snippet and everything, where it was him doing the song. They ended up not taking it and Big Sean got the song, and I’m glad, because we ended up getting a really strong record for hip-hop.

I just wanted to come back at it: “Hey, y’all think you can do this? Here’s something different.” I love E-40. He’s a legend, man. Me and E-40 actually got some records out right now on his new album. I did “Money Sack” featuring Lil Boosie. I’ve been listening to Boosie since 2006; he had a song with David Banner. He had energy, he was fly. I’ve always loved Boosie. I did “That’s Right” featuring Ty Dolla Sign.

Related: DJ Mustard’s 10 Biggest Hits Of 2014
DJ Mustard’s Five Favorite Beats He Wishes He Produced
DJ Mustard Tells 5 Great Stories About His Best Beats