interview

From Drake And Beyond, Producer Mike Zombie Talks The Long Road To The Top

It’s been over four years since Mike Zombie was introduced to the masses on what couldn’t have been a larger-scale. Not only did the New Jersey native place a beat with Drake on a song that would go on to be one of the Toronto superstar’s biggest tracks [“Started From The Bottom”], but he also inked a production deal with OVO. The future looked bright for the talented 20-year-old, but while he’s maintained a presence in music, it’s nowhere on the level that he (and everyone else) thought it would be by now.

Glances at his Instagram show the now-24-year-old still has an affiliation to OVO, often rocking clothing adorned with Drake’s signature owl. He is sure to post about new projects from the OVO camp and congratulates The Boy on his various successes throughout the years, but yet, the posts seem rather one-sided. There has been no sign of Zombie on the track on any of the aforementioned projects, from lesser-known acts like Roy Woods, up to the capo himself. And though Zombie has put out multiple projects of his own over the years (as he raps as well), there hasn’t been any posts from his labelmates about those either.

He’s not tripping, though.

Zombie is patiently waiting in the wings for his next shot, though he does admit that the cryptic formula that OVO uses for their roster has hurt him, while it helped peers like PartyNextDoor and even The Weeknd early on. Naturally, he’s battled frustration over the years with the stalled momentum, but he’s remained loyal to the camp—despite urges from his family and friends to the contrary. They’d like to see their loved one move on and even diss the man who gave him his start, but Zombie is firm in his belief that things will soon change.

After picking up and moving from New Jersey to Los Angeles earlier this year, Zombie is working more than ever and he’s ready to put out a few more “Started’s”. We caught up with him to discuss the journey since that life-changing song was released, how Twitter played a part in helping get his business straight early on, why he never said anything when Joe Budden dragged his name into his beef with Drake, and much more.

Don’t count Mike Zombie out just yet.

It’s been 4 years now since “Started From The Bottom” changed your life. How old were you at the time? What was your life like?

I was 20 years old and in school for digital art design. Art was my Plan B if music didn’t work, but since music was taking too long, I needed to do something with my time. I had been producing since I was 13, so this is 7 years in at the time. Only local artists were taking my beats, though.

I was on academic probation, my daughter had just been born the month before, my mom had just gotten fired from her job, and we weren’t sure if we were going to get a loan for the rest of school. I was kind of like, “What the fuck am I gonna do?” and then Drake tells me that he wants to sign me.

I know the story goes that battle rapper Hollow Da Don connected you with Drake, and you sent a crazy amount of beats and he ends up picking “Started.” What was that phone call like from him when he said, “This is the one?”

I was at home in Orlando, where I was at for school. We had been talking all night through text, and he was just talking about how he likes my stuff and how he wanted to fly me out and that he was going to call me the next day. At the time, I had a phone that would just randomly shut off. I was basically trying to keep the phone on the whole time, so I never left the house. If I took it off the charger, it would have turned off. So I just stayed home and sat next to the phone.

He finally calls the next day at like 5 o’clock in the afternoon, so I stayed up for like a day and a half. Then the next month, he flew me and my mom out, and we got the deal done.

It wasn’t a long conversation. For real, it was one of those conversations that it was kind of like…I couldn’t believe it was happening, so I wasn’t really listening. It’s like you’re not really there, and you’re just going through the motions and hopefully saying something that makes sense. But I do remember him saying that he wanted to sign me and fly me out so we could get the deal done.

So you go out to Toronto. How long are you there? What’s going through your head?

It was in Atlanta, that’s where he was recording for Nothing Was The Same. I was staying at the Westin.

Oh, so he put you up in a nice hotel. Okay!

Yeah, but he was staying in the Mandarin [laughs]. But yeah so we were there, my niece and nephew that I haven’t seen in mad long were there. So we went out to dinner with Drake, talked about the deal.

Where does someone like Drake take people to eat?

It was in the lobby of the Mandarin. And we didn’t actually eat, it was just a sit there and talk type thing [laughs]. So when we were there, he was telling me about PartyNextDoor before anybody even knew who he was. He was talking about me, asking if I’d heard the song yet.

Oh, so he recorded “Started From The Bottom” already, before you’d even gotten there?

Yeah, so he brought a laptop downstairs and gave me some headphones, and I listened to the song. He also asked me what I was going to do with rapping.

So he knew you rapped too?

Yeah, actually when we were texting, he was talking about one of the songs I have on my SoundCloud. But yeah, he said he had a meeting with Chilli from TLC, so he was going to go to that and then after that, he was going to go to the studio and invited me. I said “of course,” and then we went to the studio after that.

What was that session like?

I think he was recording the intro to Nothing Was The Same, “Tuscan Leather,” but I was in the back making beats. He was telling me shit that he wanted to sample, and I was just making beats there.

There is a huge business side that a lot of young people don’t get right in the beginning. Hell, a lot of people still don’t have it right. Did you know to set up publishing and work out splits and all of that?

To be honest, I had no idea. Luckily, I had a few friends that I could get advice from, and I hit them up even before I had physically met with Drake. While we were still in the texting stage, I hit them to figure out what was the right move. I spoke to a lawyer from back home about my deal as well, once I had the paperwork. He was my brother’s friend’s brother. He and everyone else told me it was a good move.

I didn’t really know much about publishing at all either, but one person who actually helped me a whole lot to get a better idea of it was Wayno.

Dave East’s manager? How did that connection come about?

Twitter! In the early days of Twitter, he used to just be online saying some funny ass shit, and I used to be up there clowning too. We followed each other and just connected there, and at the time when he was helping me—we had never even met. It’s so crazy what social networking can do. And it’s not like he was someone big or I was someone big—this is way before Dave and way before “Started.” We just followed each other off the strength of funny tweets and I guess “Black Twitter.” And he really would be sending my beats to people too, trying to help me land placements when I was in college.

One thing I did know to do was sign up for ASCAP, though. It’s not hard—it’s like literally you just sign up online. In doing my research about publishing and the business side of music online, everything said that you’re either with BMI or ASCAP. That’s how you get real money for your music. When I would send beats and stuff, people would always ask me, “Who are you with?” so I’m like okay, I need to figure this out. And really, ASCAP just looked more user-friendly when I was on the site, so that’s what I went with! BMI’s site gave me anxiety.

You sampled one of those songs that people listen to when they want to focus or calm them down, right?

Well I have ADHD, and I would listen to calming music that could help me focus when I was doing my homework in college. So Bruno Sanfilippo’s “Ambessence Piano & Drones 1” was one of them, and I was listening to it one day and I’m like, people aren’t sampling music like this, let me try and do it and see how it comes out! And even the way I sample now, nobody samples the way I sample. The way I sample is just different, and once I made that song, I just knew! I was making songs for people out in Orlando, and this one dude kept asking for that beat. I kept telling him no. I had a reason.

It’s funny because I actually commented on the YouTube video of “Ambessence” and I said, “This song is going to change my life forever,” and somebody commented under, “Don’t kill yourself or do something crazy like that!” [laughs]

I want to get into the fees of sampling too, since this was your first big record. How did the sample fee work out with Bruno?

It was a flat fee. He actually didn’t even know who Drake was, so I don’t know if it would have been different if he had. But 40 donated a lot of money to his music school over in I think Germany, so that helped.

What did you spend your first big “Started” check on?

A lawyer for one of my older brothers. He was locked up at the time.

Did you make any changes in your personal life to prepare you for this entirely new journey you were about to embark on?

My whole fucking life did a 180. I had to change my number, I had to open new bank accounts, I had to start a business. I had to move back home from school. I really had to change the way I was thinking! Literally, I became a target: money-wise, friend-wise, girl-wise. It was mad weird. When I flew back from Atlanta after signing the deal, they had a surprise party for me at my house, and I don’t know, the things people were saying was so weird. A lot of people meant it, but a lot of other people like, they’d say, “Hey, I’m happy for you! Just know, I don’t want anything from you, and I’m not going to ask you for anything!” Just by them saying that, you know they meant the exact opposite.

So I had to figure out what I was going to do with my money, what I was going to take care of first. And for real, I’m surprised that I wasn’t as frivolous with the money as I could have been. I’ve done a couple of irresponsible things, but it was stuff that I wanted! Like, I spent $3k on my 21st birthday party, and I rolled up in a Maybach that I rented. But it was worth it!

But really, I didn’t change too much—it was everyone around me who changed. This is the thing; when it happens, it kind of doesn’t surprise you if you prepare for it. I was more prepared for that, than the song and it actually being a success. I didn’t even know how to prepare for that.

Did Drake or anyone on his team have conversations with you about that to help prepare you?

More so Future The Prince, his DJ.

A year and a half later, you land another huge record, “They Don’t Love You No More,” getting not only the legendary Jay Z on your beat, but also Remy Ma’s very first post-jail verse. 

That was so crazy! I feel like if that song would have come out just a few months later, it would have done so much better, because that’s when Khaled’s celebrity was really started to rise. But hindsight is 20/20, and it wasn’t my song to even say so. But yeah, I chose not to sample anything on this one because people were already trying to put me in a box when I sampled on “Started,” saying that sampling was all I could do. I actually didn’t even know I produced the record at the time that it came out, because Khaled bought that beat and another beat off of me months earlier. I found out when the record dropped and I texted him asking who produced it, and he replied, “Zombie On The Track!” Then Flex was playing it, and when it came on, I heard my tag and I was like, oh shit!

In that time between that song and “Started,” did you get frustrated that you weren’t placing anything? Did you expect “Started” to launch you into a Metro Boomin/DJ Mustard kind of stratosphere?

I was VERY frustrated. The way OVO operates is very different. They felt like I should pull back instead of going hard and flooding with my beats. I get it, and I did it, but I feel like my career would be in a different place if I would have just done what I’m doing now. I was under the impression that if I went with their plan and didn’t flood the world with my beats, then there must be a plan later on to suffice for the time pulled back. There wasn’t a person that I couldn’t get on my beat at the time; so many emails, Roc Nation, a bunch of people just hitting me up. OVO wasn’t flat out saying “no” to anything, but I was going based off their recommendations. I was just trying to understand it all and not be frustrated. But there was some times that artists would do stuff on my beats and OVO would be like, “Nah,” and I’d actually agree. But yeah, it was just frustrating. Now I just do what I want.

Are you still signed to OVO?

Technically I’m not really signed to OVO Sound; that’s for artists. I’m signed to Drake under his publishing company. There are terms you have to meet, like x amount of songs, so yeah, I’m still there. And I’m happy to be there. I can do stuff with other people, and I’m still a part of the team that I started with.

What has your relationship with Drake been like over the last four years?

The last time I spoke to him was like, last year. I don’t even know what date, but I just hit him up on Instagram to send him some beats, and he gave me his email, and that was it.

Did you ever get frustrated with your lack of relationship, and seeing other OVO producers working closer with him? Did your friends put a battery in your back and have you feeling like Drake/OVO should be doing more?

No, because at the end of the day, me and his relationship is our relationship. I’m never gonna sit there and be like, “I’m mad because PND is doing what he’s doing with Drake!” We have a different relationship. One, I’m not from Toronto, so I’m not around as much. And two, I lived in South Jersey, damn near by Philly. New York is two hours away from Willingboro. I was out of sight, out of mind! When they’re in New York, I’m not the one on their mind. Vinylz stays in New York, they can hit Vinylz. When they’d be in Philly, I would go through—but how often would they be in Philly, you know?

My brothers can’t stand Drake though, to be honest. A lot of my family have tried to put the battery in my back, but it’s not going to work. Like when Joe Budden’s diss came out and he said:

“Are you lifeless? Sound like a zombie on the track
Remember “Started From the Bottom,” it was Zombie on the Track
Know who else started from the bottom? Zombie on the Track
How come after that joint I don’t see Zombie on a track?
I’m from Jersey, so Zombie I got your back”

They wanted me to drop a song then, but I looked at it as two men doing what two men would do when they dislike each other. So that was that. My friends and even random people who walked up to me would be like, “Yo, why Drake doesn’t do this? Why Drake doesn’t do that?” It only makes me mad because it’s like, why not ask the source instead of asking me? It doesn’t make sense. There’s never going to be an interview where they’re like, “So Drake, why did you do this with Mike Zombie?” They’re always going to ask me, and how could I answer what he would know?

You’ve always been a very proud NJ native, but recently up and moved to California. What was the motive?

The first time I got here off the plane in 2014 when I came for the Grammys, the vibe was just different. I loved it. I was just 21, out here in the studio with all of these people. Back home, that was unheard of. I don’t have sessions like that in Willingboro. There hasn’t been anybody from my town to do what I’ve done. There was just a good energy as soon as I got off the plane, and there’s just so much work out here. Even in New York, it’s slower on the working side. And still, it’s two hours away from me, and like $50 in tolls each way! Now that I’m here, I’m having to turn down sessions because they’re coming in so rapidly. I knew that it’d be like this!

Drake lives out here too, so I’m no longer out of sight, out of mind! There’s definitely an opportunity to strengthen our relationship and do more work now that I’m here.

But yeah, I love it here. I want to bring my family out here eventually. I want to stay here forever.

You also rap, and seem to have garnered a decent buzz on that side of things in the meantime.  Do you feel one thing suffers if you’re trying to do both? 

No, but I feel like other people look at it as that. People will always ask me which one I like to do more, but at the end of the day, I would say both. But I produce more than I write anything. I probably produce more than I fucking sleep. People always look at it as…being that I’ve put out more content rapping in the last few years than placing beats with big artists, they think I’m not producing at all. At the end of the day, I produce every song I make on my projects! We’re only in March, and I’ve already made 70 beats this year alone. I have thousands of beats in the stash.

If “Started” never happened, what would be different for you today?

I think I’d still be where I’m at now, but it would have just been a different placement. I think I would have way more music out, though. At the end of the day, they have a formula that works. When you have such good content and people want it that bad and you make them wait, it increases the demand and once it does come out, they appreciate it more.

But do you feel like that worked for YOU, though?

[laughs] For me, no. Not at all.

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