It’s no secret that hip hop producers usually get the raw end of the deal when money changes in hands. As a corrective measure, the majority of producers tag their beats as a form of self-promotion.
Top Dawg Entertainment in-house producer Sounwave has the opposite approach. He does not tag his beats, nor does he want them to be recognized as his work. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to identify any sort of sonic signature that runs through his production catalog.
“I don’t want to have a signature sound,” he told HNHH in a recent phone interview. “I want everyone to be surprised that I made that beat, every single time.”
Of course, he has the substantial benefit of working closely with some of the most talented rappers on the planet. He is not shopping his beats around to different buyers; he works virtually exclusively within TDE’s small circle, and he’s masterminded several of the collective’s most popular songs. In particular, he has fostered a successful partnership with Kendrick Lamar, for whom he has produced “Hol’ Up,” “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and “King Kunta.” Sounwave’s credits are not necessarily common knowledge even among avid hip hop fans. “I didn’t know he produced all those songs,” HNHH reader u/IGotTheJuice commented on a recent spotlight of the producer’s most notable productions. “Sounwave the GOAT.”
Read on to learn more about Sounwave’s holistic, chameleon-esque approach to production, his love of the MPC, and his diverse relationships with each artist on the TDE roster.
Portrait of Sounwave as a young man
Sounwave, born Mark Spears, grew up in Compton and started making beats at the age of 10. His father, tired of hearing his son banging beats on the table (à la Jay Z’s siblings in “December 4th”), bought him a Korg pad drum machine equipped with the bare essentials: kick, snare, hi-hat, and bass. He would toy around with his little drum machine until he leveled up to a 4-track recorder, purchased with his own allowance money, and then to the PS1 game/platform MTV Music Generator.
A self-described “band geek,” he played drums in his school’s jazz band. His cousin bought him his first MPC as a high school graduation present. He came up with the name ”Sounwave” at the age of 14, inspired by the Transformers character Soundwave who morphs into a microcassette recorder.
Sounwave joins Top Dawg Ent.
Sounwave’s family used to host basketball tournaments in their backyard every Sunday. TDE co-president Punch, a close friend of Sounwave’s older brother, would frequently attend these events, and one day he took notice of Sounwave’s budding production chops. “I was in there making beats instead of playing ball, and he popped his head in like, ‘This is kinda hard,’” he recalls.
Punch instructed him to make a beat CD for Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. Tiffith was initially underwhelmed, but then overjoyed when Sounwave sent him a second CD of remixes. Sounwave has been rocking with TDE ever since.
All hail the MPC
The MPC has been Sounwave’s main squeeze for at least a decade. He has owned, in succession, the MPC 2000, the MPC 2000XL, the MPC 5000, and the MPC Studio. Though he occasionally dabbles in Ableton when looking for a specific sound, he actually prefers the limited functionality of the MPC. “To me, the MPC teaches you how to do a lot,” he explains. “Ableton and other programs out nowadays, you can just literally take things and plop ’em in and it snatches all the melody out for you. As far as the MPC, you actually have to do the hard work. I’m so happy I went that route first. It was basically a teacher for me.”
Sounwave splits his worktime evenly between his home, which he shares with a 5-year-old Chow Chow named Mookie, and the studio. He is also the TDE A&R, meaning it’s his duty to sit in on studio sessions and advise artists on how to shape their projects. One of the last things he does for each project is gather the entire TDE roster in the same studio to listen through track by track and provide group feedback. But for the most part, he roams the greater Los Angeles area, traveling to each artist’s preferred place of work to offer personal guidance.
The following are quotes from Sounwave in regard to his working relationship with each of TDE’s artists:
Sounwave X Kendrick Lamar
“Kendrick is very hands on. Eighty percent of the beats I did were literally with him from scratch in the studio. He’ll say things like, “Change that, change that, change that, change that.”
Sounwave X ScHoolboy Q
“For Schoolboy, you definitely gotta go to his house. He made his house into a studio, so you gotta go there and vibe out with him all day. I don’t smoke – there’s definitely a lot of smoke in that environment. It’s cool though. It’s not that hard with him. As long as it’s not what you hear on the radio. He hates following sounds.”
Sounwave X Ab-Soul
“As far as Ab-Soul, he’s always challenging himself. He always does something dark, moody, but at the same time he likes radio sounds as well. He likes mixing worlds. So it’s like if Einstein was on a Metro Boomin beat. That’s how I would describe Ab-Soul.”
Sounwave X Jay Rock
“Jay Rock just always wants to work, no matter where he’s at. And he’s always on the move – so it’s kinda hard to keep up. He’s constantly moving whenever I talk to him. It makes me send the stuff to him.”
Sounwave X Isaiah Rashad
“Isaiah basically sets up a little shop in his house – he don’t need that much. He’s moody at times, and he can always be challenging. He can basically be like, I asked for this, but I don’t want that.” he can change his mind. But when he gets the sound that he likes, it’s a golden sound. It’s one of the reasons it takes so long for him to put out a project. He’s a perfectionist. Everything he does always has to come out exactly how he sees it in his head. I respect that 110%.”
Sounwave X SZA
“SZA just writes. You give her a melody with two notes in it, and she’ll give you a whole full song back. It’s instant. I’ve never worked with a writer so fast, as super talented as she is.”
Sounwave pays ScHoolboy a visit in Tarzana
It takes Sounwave about two hours with traffic to drive from his home in downtown LA to ScHoolboy Q’s house in San Fernando Valley town of Tarzana. When he makes the journey, he usually stays there for a full week to fully immerse himself in ScHoolboy’s world, and avoid the pilgrimage back to downtown for as long as possible.
In the case of ScHoolboy Q’s widely acclaimed new album Blank Face LP, Sounwave entered the fray when the album was roughly halfway complete. He started bringing in trusted collaborators like Terrace Martin and adding his own touches.
Sounwave would end up producing three tracks on the project. In the case of “John Muir,” he had been sitting on a song called “Silently” produced by his homie Adrian Younge.
“I’m real cool with [Adrian],” he says. “I usually go to his house and just pick his brain. He usually loads me up with a bunch of stuff that he did in the past, or stuff that he`s working on. We just rock out like that. I always thought [“Silently”] was tough and wanted to use it, I just never knew what for.”
One day while hunkered down in ScHoolboy Q’s home studio, Sounwave locked himself in the room over and emerged one hour later with the sample flip. Q responded by freestyling a complete story off the top of his head as Sounwave continued to build out the beat. Sounwave says “Ride Out” and “Blank Face” coalesced as dialogues between him and Q. “Blank Face” was borne out of a jam session between Sounwave, his good friend and bass extraordinaire, Tony, and Q.
“We just jammed out,” Sounwave recalls. “Q was right there writing as we came up with the melodies. On the rest of the record, it was just me and Terrace enhancing things if they started feeling a little dry after a while.”
Rap game Kawhi Leonard
While Sounwave harbors dreams of one day working with Sade, he is in no rush to set foot outside the fertile confines of the TDE camp. He is an essential component of TDE’s culture of greatness. Each artist holds himself to a high standard and each artist has his own sound. Sounwave is the glue guy, the facilitator, Kawhi Leonard circa 2014, maximizing the abilities of his teammates.
TDE recognizes that greatness cannot be rushed. It takes hard work and patience. Sounwave estimates that it took him eight years, from the ages of 10 to 18, until he got to the point where he no longer sucked at making beats. In a time when many artists are looking to carve out a market share by flooding the streets with their music, Sounwave is helping TDE make music that will stand the test of time. It makes you recall that old Miles Davis quote: “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”