It’s impossible to listen to a Kendrick Lamar album today and not sense, hear and feel the influence of one of his most consistent collaborators, Mark Spears, p/k/a/ Sounwave. The list of Sounwave production credits includes Kendrick’s most recognizable signature songs from “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “King Kunta” and “Alright” to “Loyalty.” As one of Top Dog Entertainment (TDE’s) in house producer, Sounwave (signed to Sony/ATV publishing) is also a frequent collaborator with rapper ScHoolboy Q. Sounwave’s production is prominently featured on both of Q’s critically-acclaimed albums, Oxymoron and Blank Face LP, including the singles “Man of the Year,” “That Part” (featuring Kanye West) and “John Muir.”
“Wave” (as many of his friends call him) was enjoying a rare day off from the current Kendrick Lamar tour when M.I.Q. got a chance to chat with him. According to Wave, even his off days are diligently spent making music.
MIQ: Tell us about your role while on the road with Kendrick.
Sounwave: I’m the ears and eyes of everything. Kendrick, David Free (President of TDE) and I basically came up with the whole show – the concepts, segues…all of that. I’m the guy that ensures everything runs smoothly when it comes to sound quality all the way to the lighting. It’s up to me to ensure everything goes perfectly. For the tour, this time around Kendrick wanted a clean stage – only three band members. He wanted it to be more organic, similar to the vibe of the album.
You’ve worked on all of the Kendrick projects since the beginning. Were you surprised by all of the success and fanfare he’s generated?
The first day I met Kendrick was in a hole in the wall studio with 10 other rappers. I didn’t even know who he was. Once he started rapping, I knew he was going to be a star. I was 17, he was 16. Eventually, he ended up in TDE and I ended up in TDE. This was meant to be. I never had a doubt in my mind. It took him a while to get to where he is now but I never had any doubts that Kendrick Lamar would be a star.
Talk a bit about the collaborative process between you and Kendrick.
Kendrick and I usually start with a blueprint idea. Where are we going with this particular project – sonically and conceptually? From that point, it’s up to me to get the musicians and producers for the various songs that fit with what he has in mind. On top of me also being a producer, I can spark an idea that I want to pass along to one of the musicians. If the pressure is on, sometimes I will just roll up my sleeves and do it myself. We have a lot of great musicians available to us. When you have the best person available to deliver a certain sound or execute one of Kendrick’s ideas then why not reach out and bring them on board.
To Pimp a Butterfly in particular possessed an old school vibe where session musicians played a huge role. Did you find that challenging to manage so many needs and personalities?
It was no challenge at all. No egos involved. It was everyone in one room trying to make the best sounding project possible; whether that was [musicians] Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington or Thundercat. We’re all close friends now, working on each other’s projects back to back. If you look at the credits, I got Kamasi to do string arrangements on the Damn album. I got Thundercat to play some bass notes because he’s an expert in that field.
Kendrick Lamar albums always feel like event projects. How much pressure is on you guys to deliver and maintain a level of top quality that comes with each release?
For one thing, we don’t look at the previous work. We approach each album differently than the last. Again, it all starts from the blueprint – where Kendrick and I go through different ideas and sounds and elements of what feels good to us. We both know when it’s right because the light bulb sort of hits us at the same time.
Right after the Damn album, he’s already saying, “I know you got some new sounds! Send me what you got.” He’ll tell me what’s on his mind and I’ll bring it to fruition based on what he’s described. I’ve been working with Kendrick since he was 16 so I know the ins and outs of what pushes his buttons or what takes his ideas to the next level.
What equipment do you prefer creating on?
Man, I’m still old school with it. I like to go through my MPC. I use an MPC 2000XL and a 5000XL. I’m also experimenting with other things but I’ve been an MPC kid since day one.
Talk a bit about being staff producer for TDE. Do you find the creative approach the same for all of the artists, and are you able to work on outside projects?
You’ve got to take a different approach with each of the artists at TDE. That’s why I love it here. Every project is unique in its own way, whether it be ScHoolBoy Q. J-Rock or SZA. You have to know these artists, and their ins and outs. You have to be prepared every time.
When you have as many artists as TDE, they keep you busy…but I’m definitely able to do other things. However, if I made something for someone else’s project but someone here [at TDE] wants it, I take care of family first. As for outside projects, I recently worked with St. Vincent on her new music. She’s more alternative, experimental and entirely different than Hip-Hop.
You’re a Grammy winning-producer, and Kendrick will more than likely be nominated multiple times for Damn. Your thoughts?
The Grammys is our Super Bowl. Whenever we’re nominated it’s a blessing but, of course, we like to win. Hopefully we will get up there again. That would be love.
Outside of Kendrick’s tour, what else are you currently working on?
I’m just focusing on TDE, trying to get ScHoolboy Q’s record done. We’re also finalizing things on J-Rock. Of course, Kendrick is back in the studio. He’s always working!
Interview Conducted by David A. Mitchell