Rae Sremmurd's second album, SremmLife 2, is set to be released in July. To hear it, I go with Mike WiLL to Larrabee Studios, a palatial facility with a luxury kitchen. The album is due in a few days, so Mike is listening with a near obsessive compulsion. "Swap those," he tells an engineer. "Bring the whistle in." After winding back one song to its start a dozen times, he wakes up Skooly, an Eardrummer producer who's fallen asleep in a chair, and instructs him to record a piano part he might want to add in.
SremmLife 2 will come out on Mike's label, Ear Drummer Records, which was created in 2013 via a deal with Jimmy Iovine — then the chairman of Interscope and co-founder of Beats Electronics, and now responsible for steering Apple's music streaming business under no official title. Mike had passed on other deals throughout his career, starting with one offered by the legendary Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane, after Mike began working with him when he was still in high school. Gucci proposed to sign Mike and two other Atlanta producers, Southside and Lex Luger, as a group. But Mike saw himself as an executive. "I told him what wasn't gonna work with the contract, and Gucci was like, 'Man, it sounds like you're trying to make a big deal out of nothing,'" Mike says. "I was like, 'That's exactly what I'm trying to do! I'm trying to make a big deal out of anything.'"
Mike's vision was to build a team of producers, songwriters, and creatives, with himself as coach. He signed Rae Sremmurd to Ear Drummer as he was completing major album projects with Miley Cyrus and Future, and in some ways, they've served as his proof of concept: that with a well-engineered team, you can make a superstar. "When I did get the chance to have my own label, I wanted to get all the diamonds out the clay," he says. "Rae Sremmurd are good-hearted, talented as fuck, and all the way from the clay. They just needed to get polished."
Now they have been. Mike cues up "Set the Roof," a song that features Lil Jon and reverse engineers the penetrating chants and aggressive stomp of turn-of-the-century crunk music — which itself originated in Memphis, near Tupelo, then developed in Atlanta. The thump of "Shake It Fast" is just as punishing, and Jxmmi raps like the rightful heir to the throne of Juicy J, who appears as a guest. These songs slap more than they smile, but Jxmmi insists that for this record, there hasn't been any conscious turn away from delight. "We're in our feelings when we make songs," he says, "so the album got sad songs, turnt songs, singing songs."
The best of those "singing" songs is "Just Like Us," a shimmering coming-of-age ballad that showcases Swae Lee and his writing. With a verse from Jxmmi and gloriously baroque instrumentation, it's an example of music driven by quality over ego, where collaborators recognize each other's good ideas. Addressed to a girl who feels she can "take on the world" and set under a clear night sky, the song carries a sense of gratefulness. Like: if life is short, at least there's space to stretch out, and really vibe with someone.
I ask Mike what he's learned from being around Swae and Jxmmi. "There's been so many times where I doubt myself, because something is new and I'm trying to make sure it's done right," he says. "But whatever it is, they'll tell me to go for it. The earth is their turf."