Kendrick Lamar’s secret weapon? His right-hand man, ‘Black Panther’ soundtrack producer Sounwave
The baby toys at Sounwave’s house provide some clues about what he does for a living.
There’s a tiny grand piano he says he’s been encouraging his 7-month-old son to bang on. And there’s a teddy bear wearing a shirt emblazoned with the logo of Top Dawg Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based hip-hop crew for which Sounwave serves as an in-house producer.
In his living room are also the two Grammy Awards he’s won for his work with TDE’s star rapper, Kendrick Lamar, though they’re nearly hidden beneath a staircase in a glass box that also holds a fancy watch from the Recording Academy.
“They send something different every year — last year it was a big bottle of Champagne, year before that the watch,” Sounwave said on a recent afternoon. Then he laughed. “I’ll probably never wear it. Seems kind of cocky. I don’t think I want to be that guy.”
He may need to prepare himself for some more extravagant swag.
Described as “Kendrick’s right hand” by TDE’s general manger, Roberto “Ret One” Reyes, Sounwave is nominated for five Grammys at next month’s ceremony — including album, record and song of the year — for his songwriting and production work on the “Black Panther” soundtrack, which Lamar oversaw.
Two weeks after the Grammys, set for Feb. 10 at Staples Center, the 32-year-old will compete for his first Academy Award with “All the Stars,” Lamar and SZA’s hit duet from the Marvel blockbuster that’s up for original song against tunes from “Mary Poppins Returns” and “A Star Is Born.”
The high-level nominations — which follow the unprecedented Pulitzer Prize awarded last year to Lamar’s 2017 album “Damn” — have brought new showbiz sparkle to a group of musicians who got their start documenting life on the ground in Compton.
Yet the “Black Panther” soundtrack hardly feels like a streamlined bid for Hollywood success; if anything, it might be the most ambitious project we’ve heard from TDE, which also includes the rappers Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q, along with producers such as Tae Beast and MixedByAli.
With songs that pair TDE performers with a dizzying array of guests — including 2 Chainz, James Blake and the South African singer Babes Wodumo — “Black Panther: The Album” mashes together beats and textures from hip-hop, R&B, pop, reggae and dance music. Lamar, who appears on every track, raps from the alternating perspectives of the movie’s adversaries, T’Challa and Killmonger; many songs take a cue from the film, directed by Ryan Coogler, to ponder connections between Africa and America.
Sounwave, born Mark Spears, said the album’s sprawl was “the most fun part of it, because we weren’t necessarily stuck to one theme.” Because the movie jumps among scenes set in Oakland and South Korea and the fictional nation of Wakanda, “there were endless possibilities of where we could go musically,” he said.
And yet one of Sounwave’s jobs, beyond his role in crafting the title track’s abrasive beat or devising the sumptuous melody in “All the Stars,” was ensuring that the whole thing held together — “making sure it made sense,” as the producer put it.
“Consolidating an album, that’s what me and Kendrick love to do,” Sounwave said as he sat by his swimming pool. Inside the house, set high on a hilly street in the San Fernando Valley, his fiancée played with their son; out here, Sounwave’s dog Mookie lay curled at his feet.
“There’s a reason it goes from this song to that song,” he went on. As with Lamar’s earlier full-lengths — “Black Panther” is the rapper’s fourth to be nominated for album of the year — sequencing was crucial to the desired effect.
“We took out songs — great songs! — because they didn’t fit the sequence,” Sounwave said. “That’s how serious we are with it.”
I know playlists are the biggest thing now... But we grew up on classic albums, where you could just press play and let it go from start to finish.
Asked why he and Lamar care about the album experience at a moment when many young musicians are focused on singles, he shrugged.
“I know playlists are the biggest thing now, and I love those too. But we grew up on classic albums, where you could just press play and let it go from start to finish.”
For “Black Panther,” Sounwave studied ’90s-era soundtracks from “Waiting to Exhale,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Above the Rim” — important documents in an established tradition of black movie music that stretches back through “Purple Rain” and “Do the Right Thing” in the ’80s to “Super Fly” and “Shaft” in the ’70s.
Work on the album began while Lamar was on tour behind “Damn”; after shows, the rapper, Sounwave and other TDE folks would gather to hash out ideas on one of their buses. Each song was tailored to specific guest artists, who hooked up with the crew in person back in L.A.
“We almost never send out records and just get somebody’s verse back,” Sounwave said, describing the way much music is made these days. “If you can’t sit with Kendrick in the studio and understand where he’s coming from, it’s probably not gonna work out.”
After more than a decade of working together, Lamar’s predilections are virtually interchangeable with Sounwave’s. The two met just as TDE was being assembled by the crew’s founder, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, who looked at both as prodigies and teamed them up to make Lamar’s early mixtapes.
Sounwave had been inspired to get into production by hearing the crisp yet deeply funky music of Timbaland; he started experimenting with a cheap four-track recorder before receiving a more sophisticated sampler as a middle-school graduation present.
“That changed everything for me,” he recalled. “The whole world opened up.” For his first beat on the machine, called an MPC, he sampled a bit of Chris Tucker’s dialogue from “Rush Hour 2” and the sound of a pencil going through a piece of paper. (On Feb. 12 at the Ukrainian Culture Center, Sounwave will discuss his music in a roundtable discussion as part of the Red Bull Music Festival.)
Today the producer’s soft-spoken manner belies his central role in TDE’s output, which in addition to “Black Panther” includes Jay Rock’s acclaimed 2018 album “Redemption.”
Sounwave also has branched out beyond the home team, contributing to recent pop albums by St. Vincent and Bleachers. The latter’s Jack Antonoff said he “plays the MPC the way the best musicians play a saxophone or bass.”
At his home, Sounwave mentioned that he and various TDE members have been recording for much of the past month in a rented house near Venice Beach; he declined to elaborate except to say that he’s been leaving the windows of the place open “to have the sound of waves and seagulls in the background of the most intense verse you ever heard.” (No less cryptically, Ret One said, “We’ve got some stuff coming up that’s not what people expect.”)
Anticipation is high for Lamar’s proper follow-up to “Damn,” but Sounwave insists they’re determined not to rush.
“People say, ‘Oh, you need to meet this deadline to get these accolades or nominations,’” he said. “We don’t care. If it don’t feel right, it don’t feel right.”
The same goes for the awards-season politicking he says he and Lamar have been advised to ramp up if they want to finally take home a trophy for album of the year.
“If they don’t appreciate the music, chances are we’re not gonna win anyway,” he said of Grammy voters, who last year frustrated many in the music industry by choosing Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” over “Damn.”
“I don’t think because I went and gave out a turkey somewhere that they’re gonna be, like, ‘Oh yeah — let’s give him the award,” Sounwave said, laughing.
“No knock to anybody else. I’m just saying, I’m gonna give out turkeys because I want to give out a turkey.”
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