That awkward moment when “OK, ladies now let’s get in formation” was written by a man.
Producer Mike Will Made-It is responsible for some of the biggest hits in music for the last several years, collaborating with the likes of Miley Cyrus, Ciara, Rihanna and recently had a hand in Beyonce’s No. 1 album Lemonade. The elusive singer has barely uttered a word since the album dropped out, so whenever a producer offers us insight it’s invaluable. Cue Mike Will Made-It, who opens up about the beginnings of “Formation” before Beyonce used it as her lead single.
In a profile with the New Yorker, Mike Will says it began with Swae Lee, one of the Rae Sremmurd brothers, and producer A Pluss creating the beat in Atlanta which Will took with him to L.A. en route to Coachella back in 2014.
We’ll let them explain:
“So we’re in the middle of the desert,” Will said. “And we’re just coming up—we just freestyle, you know?—and Swae Lee said, ‘O.K., ladies, now let’s get in formation.’ And we put it on the VoiceNote. Swae Lee’s got so many voice notes that he doesn’t even record, but I’m like, ‘Dog, we got to do that “get in formation” shit.’ That could be a hard song for the ladies. Some woman-empowerment shit. Like, ‘Ladies, let’s get in line, let’s not just fall for anything.’ I’m seeing that vision.” When they got back from Coachella, they booked a studio, and Swae Lee “ended up just laying it down.”
The year before, Will had hoped that he might get to work with Beyoncé. He’d been summoned to New York by Jon Platt, of Warner/Chappell, to work on the track “Beach Is Better,” for Jay Z’s album “Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail.” The collaboration with Jay Z went well, but nothing panned out with his wife. Now Will sent the song, along with five or six others, to Beyoncé and her team. Platt, their mutual publisher, made sure she listened.
A few months after this, Will was in L.A., where he attended a Clippers-Cavaliers basketball game. He knew LeBron James’s agent, Rich Paul, because he’d produced the John Legend song “My Shoes,” which was in the memorable 2013 Nike commercial that showed LeBron running through the streets of Miami. They were staying in the same hotel, and Paul invited Will to join LeBron and his friends after the game. But Will fell asleep in his room. “I woke up at two in the morning,” he said. “And I had some missed calls, and I called Rich back and I was like, ‘My bad, bro, you’re probably in the room by now,’ and he was like, ‘No, we’re still down here.’ So I went down there, and I was chopping it up with LeBron and the Cavaliers, and then Jay Z and Beyoncé just walked up. And this was really like a dream to me. I was just asleep upstairs and now I’m kicking it with Jay Z, Beyoncé, and LeBron. And Bey was like, ‘Yo, I like that “formation” idea.’ And I told her what I was thinking about the woman empowerment, and she was like, ‘Yeah I kinda like that idea.’ And she just left it like that.
“We were just thinking about it being a female anthem,” Will went on. “Because I knew I just wanted a banger with Beyoncé, like a ‘Single Ladies,’ but I wanted it to be a new kind of chant.” Back in New York, Beyoncé wrote verses for the song, but kept the central concept of “get in formation.” The song broadened to become both a Black Lives Matter power anthem and an intimate song about her family.
“Next thing I know,” Will continued, “Big Jon”—Jon Platt—“told me, ‘Yo, this shit’s crazy, you got to hear this.’ ”
Will went to New York and spent a week with Beyoncé in the studio recording the song. Beyoncé, he explained, “took this one little idea we came up with on the way to Coachella, put it in a pot, stirred it up, and came with this smash. She takes ideas and puts them with her own ideas, and makes this masterpiece. She’s all about collaborating.” He added, “That’s what makes her Beyoncé. Being able to know what she wants. A lot of people don’t know what they want. To the point where you can bring them some hot shit, and they’re like, ‘This shit ain’t it. I need a hit, bro.’ And I’m like, ‘Man, this is a hit. If you don’t like this line or that line, you should take this line out and put your own lines in there, and we doctor it up.’ Some people want it cooked. They just want to put a little icing on it and bite it. But it’s really a process to make one of these great songs. It’s layers. Layers and layers and layers.”
Will watched Beyoncé’s performance of his song on the Super Bowl halftime show at Iovine’s place in L.A. with Jimmy and his friends. “I ain’t gonna lie,” he said. “I was with four billionaires watching the TV. I was like, ‘Damn, I got to put more work in. This is only the start.’ For real. It was dope.”