Mike WiLL Made It and DJ Burn One: Old souls aged to perfection

Two local producers put a timely spin on old-school Atlanta hip-hop

Mike WiLL Made It first set his agenda on a recording career in high school. But the 22-year-old's vision was born from a childhood diet of Southern rap that included Ludacris, Master P, UGK, and Goodie Mob. His mid-tempo, honey-glazed beats echo the '90s classics on which he was indoctrinated, revealing a producer mature and principled beyond his years. Given that, it's not surprising to learn of Mike's grand ambitions.

"As big and broad as it sounds, I'm about to change the game," Mike says. "I'm building a company, you feel me? This was all a dream back in '07."

Four years ago, the Marietta native was an unnoticed architect in Atlanta hip-hop's historic boom time. At 17, he produced Gucci Mane's "East Atlanta 6," a fraternal street anthem set to daunting, thunderous 808s. Shrouded in folklore, thanks to his iconoclastic rapping style and turbulent legal history, Gucci turned heads with "East Atlanta 6." It was a shot of local pride from an MC many perceived as a fringe outsider.

Today Mike recalls the track's recording in stunned disbelief. "It was a whole freestyle. Gucci didn't even write nothing down. We were like, 'What the fuck?'"

Guided in part by Mike's deeply felt production, Gucci surmised an endearing persona on mixtapes such as Gangsta Grillz: The Movie. He was a world-class braggart but also introspective and, strangely gentlemanly, peering through the fog of cocaine and bundled cash for a better life. Mike, meanwhile, was on the fast track to local stardom.

"Cats like Shawty Lo, DJ Drama, they liked the way I carried myself," he says. "They never thought I was so young, just by the way I conducted myself and my confidence."

Mike rode his age-inappropriate self-assurance to a lucrative freelance hustle, outsourcing beats to Soulja Boy ("So Gully"), Lil Boosie ("Mama Know Love"), and Waka Flocka Flame ("2 Deep"). He later lent a hand to two of 2011's defining mixtapes: Freddie Gibbs' Cold Day in Hell and Don Trip & Starlito's Step Brothers.

But it was "Tupac Back," a gritty reworking of Rick Ross' "B.M.F. (Blowin' Money Fast)" serviced by Ross and Meek Mill, that proved most enduring. The song's shattering drum sequences and huge synths bellowed from stereos all over the country last spring. Not even Mike could hide his shock at its success.

"Am I amazed?" he asks. "I'm amazed that I have a charting single. Shit is crazy!

"The foundation was definitely there. With the energy of that beat and the way Ross is buzzin' right now, it was a good match."

If Mike is a slick new jack hustling his way into collaborations with important power brokers, then DJ Burn One is a blue-collar workman as unassuming as he is talented. A self-taught guitarist and keyboardist, Burn One spent his childhood hoarding Muddy Waters and Curtis Mayfield records while his father attempted to verse him in 1970s country music.

"My dad was super country," he laughs. "Like, Melba Montgomery country."

Burn speaks in a gravy-thick drawl, as if made hoarse by years of chasing blunts with sizzurp. Asked to describe his work, the 25-year-old cites a popular phrase introduced to hip-hop's vernacular by the aforementioned UGK.

"The term 'country rap tunes' was coined by Pimp C about 10 years ago," Burn One says. "It wasn't accepted by New Yorkers as real hip-hop because it was different."

By the turn of this decade, the once sleepy backwaters of the rural South had thundered onto the hip-hop map thanks to townies like Big K.R.I.T., G-Mane, Rittz, and Block Beataz. They make music about hardship and systemic poverty from a vantage point underrepresented in coastal hip-hop.

Like them, Burn resizes a pre-established template — bass sighs, horn swells, stony guitar twang, exhaling harmonies, a sense of stormy calm and eerie finality — into surprising and divergent new shapes. Nearly every note on The Ashtray, his summer instrumental album, was played live, guaranteeing it the same extraterrestrial, '70s-style glow as his work with G-Side ("My Aura") and A$AP Rocky ("Roll One Up").

"My goal is partially to do stuff with some historical value," Burn One says. "I just sampled an old Italian blaxploitation composer. It can be cool to resurrect some obscure record, you know?"