As hip-hop continues to grow beyond its roots and blend with different genres, there will be (and have been) a lot of missteps (rap-rock, anyone?). But when it’s done right, the newness of these fusions are nothing short of astounding.
We’re talking, of course, about Kendrick Lamar & Co.’s genre-bending masterwork To Pimp A Butterfly. An album of this magnitude and scope requires a number of voices and various areas of expertise: Kendrick pulled in jazz legend Robert Glasper, friends from middle and high school, Fela Kuti, the TDE squad behind his previous releases, and many, many others.
Not all of them, however, were involved in the same capacity. That would be crazy. In the end, most of the production on TPAB went through a core group of producers and musicians, including the man kind enough to take some time to speak with us while he was stuck in traffic: Sounwave.
He’s listed as the main producer on five TPAB cuts (“King Kunta,” “Alright,” “Hood Politics,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” and “Mortal Man”), but his involvement in the album spans the entire track list. Sounwave first linked up with Kendrick on 2009’s Kendrick Lamar EP, and he hasn’t looked back since: his production credits are all over the TDE roster, creating what could be the label’s greatest hits compilation in the process.
The best news? Sounwave has no plans to slow down: just as Kendrick started production on TPAB the day after good kid, M.A.A.D city was released, the TDE squad is already bouncing around ideas for the next album.
So no days off? Same thing as last time?
Same thing, same exact thing even before the project was totally mastered. He was calling and he’s coming and was like, “Oh yeah, I got this idea” and such and such. I was like, “Let’s just chill.” That’s the thing. When you work with Kendrick you literally forget how to relax. It’s like we had to teach ourselves how to relax. Because now when I’m not in the studio, it feels like I’m wasting time. I’m doing something wrong.
Wow. Well, I guess, at least you can still unwind while you’re stuck in traffic. Have you tried in-traffic meditation?
Don’t, it’s very dangerous. Now that we’re a couple weeks out from the TPAB release, how has your perception of the album changed? Does the public eye have an effect?
I mean my whole thing was, I wasn’t sure if people were going to pick up on it, to really embrace this new direction. And they picked up on it so quick. That really shocked me, fans just dove in to every aspect that we were trying to cover. That was amazing to me.
I recently saw someone replace the ‘to’ in TPAB with a 2, and they replaced the butterfly with a caterpillar. And suddenly you’re actively spelling out 2PAC. I was like hold on, I didn’t even catch that one.
Anything in particular?
People were saying stuff online that I didn’t even catch. I had to hit up Kendrick and be like, “Do you mean this? ” and he was like, “Yeah.” I haven’t even talked to Kendrick about this one, I recently saw someone replace the “to” in TPAB with a 2, and they replaced the butterfly with a caterpillar. And suddenly you’re actively spelling out 2PAC. I was like hold on, I didn’t even catch that one. Stuff like that, it’s like this a complete beautiful circle that’s being made right now.
There are a lot of little Easter eggs like that, so many historical and cultural references. It’s so different from good kid, M.A.A.D city—and yet it’s the same core group of people that made the album. Did those differences manifest in the studio at all, or was it just business as usual?
It’s all organic. Kendrick has the people who he trusts, people who he knows. Me being an A&R, he trusts who I would bring into it as well. This wasn’t a round table sit-down where we were like, “Okay we have to come up with a new sound” or do this or that. It’s just like everybody who we bring in, we either play them the full album and they automatically get where we’re going.
Were you recording at the same studio and the same places as GKMC?
No, this one we did a lot of it on tour. That was the thing, right after good kid we went straight on tour for literally a year and a half straight, so a majority of it had to be done on tour. We were recording everywhere. At one point we didn’t even have a studio bus so we just brought a mic from the old studio and put it in the back, with a fake little foam booth thing that we had to build. But eventually we got a studio bus which was a plus, even when we going overseas, constantly recording. There are some people that go to after-party things and whatnot—that’s not Kendrick. Kendrick is straight offstage, running ideas for the next song, recording the next song. His work ethic is something I’ve never witnessed before.
How did working on a bus change your workflow and style as a producer?
You’re always on the go. You don’t have a set base to actually just gather your thoughts. Plus, every time you look up, you have to be doing something else because we’re still working. we’re still on the road. So, you’re not as comfortable. But there are positives: long road trips actually can inspire you and open up your mind. But it’s tough. Some days you just have to be really focused.
Whenever we’re given CDs on the road, we always give it a try. We just throw it in, whether if it’s some boring jazz group we’ve never heard of before or something that’s really popular. That always keeps the vibe up.
Were there any moment or stories from the bus that you don’t think would have happened in the studio?
Whenever we ran into interesting people they’d give us music to inspire us. And we would just always have it playing in the background, even if it wasn’t something any of us would have listened to otherwise. Whenever we’re given CDs on the road, we always give it a try. We just throw it in, whether if it’s some boring jazz group we’ve never heard of before or something that’s really popular. That always keeps the vibe up. It’s experiencing new music, new people. That kinda stuff is always a big plus for us.
Are there any cuts that didn’t make it on the album that you were sad to see go? Or you might think will resurface later?
You have no idea. We went through at least 80-plus songs that were going to be on the album—we argued over so many different songs, but at the end of the day it all had to flow and make sense. Everything had to make sense otherwise it’s not going to flow right. There were a few songs in particular on there that hurt my soul that we didn’t use, but at the end of the day I get why we didn’t use them.
So at point there’s enough material for three more albums like TPAB, just locked up? Left out in the cold like a plastic bag?
As of right now. A lot of people don’t know this but good kid M.A.A.D. city was a whole different album, too. From 2010, every single song on that album got replaced. So it was the same thing with this album. This album there’s three different phases, three different sounds. And we had to find each phase, each transition. Until we find the right sound, it’s like we’re not going to stop. But they’re not totally locked away. I still play these records. I have four different albums that the world will probably never hear. And I’m probably lowballing it at 80. That dude does not stop working.
I remember reading in an early interview you said you love adding strings onto these skeletons of songs and then sort of beef it up. Is that still where your strength lies within TDE?
Yeah, that’s an important part for me. Once we get everything done and get the basic idea down, I like to sit with it and bring in people that I really trust who can help me enhance it and take it to the next level. It’s like, what’s going to set this record apart at the end of the day? That’s kinda how I like to look at it.
Is there anybody that you feel like you always work particularly well out of that core group?
I guess me and Terrace Martin. We’ve been working together since the Kendrick Lamar EP. But now I got new cats too, like Thundercat. Words can’t describe how amazing this kid is. Ever since I met him, I feel like I need him in the studio with me at all times. Not just for music though, just for his vibe. He’s a good person at heart. And whenever you run across people like that, with vibes like that, you always gotta keep them around.
What does he do, how do those vibes manifest?
[Laughs] There’s a few with Thundercat. I don’t know if I’m about to tell you though. He’s a crazy guy, right there. Whenever I think about that place where I met him, it’s just like weird and crazy story. Until I get his approval to tell that, I can’t. But Terrace, he’s just filled with knowledge. That’s why I love being around Terrace. He’s like young, old wise guy.
I only knew Thundercat before this as an instrumentalist. He had that amazing Apocalypse album a couple years back. Were there moments when you guys were jamming around in the studio? Like playing live instruments together?
That’s how all of this happened. It would be any combination, either just me and Thundercat, or me, Thundercat and Terrace. Or me, Thundercat, Terrace, and Kendrick. Robert Glasper was coming in at the end, too. At some point everybody was just like, “Yo, we need to to buckle down and figure out everything that needs to be added.” And for about a week it was like having everybody who you always looked up to in one studio, making an album as good as possible and for me that was the most surreal moment, ever, for me.
Have you been learning any new instruments recently?
I actually taught myself with YouTube lessons, teaching myself piano through YouTube.
I rapped one time in front of the homies, like Kendrick, and they clowned me to the point where I said I would never step into the booth—and I thought I had bars!
That’s great. It blows my mind that that was unavailable for the whole history of humanity until now.
Exactly. Everything you need is on the internet. I was about to go actually pay somebody and I was like, “No, let me look this up.” And for piano on YouTube, there are so many different teachers. I had always played by ear but now I’m actually learning the technical.
Do you have your one YouTube guru? Or are you popping around a little?
I’m popping around a lot. I have a lot of favorites, nothing but lessons.
What are you looking forward to now that this project is put to rest? You got it out into the public’s hands. Are there any plans for solo work on your end? Or is it going to the Jay Rock, Schoolboy, back at the TDE wheelhouse?
Yeah, there been talk about trying to do something solo. Right now though, I have to make sure my team is straight. I know Jay Rock is up next. I’m getting back in the studio with him a lot and Q is still working right now, Ab-Soul is working right now, and they keep me busy.
No reason to get distracted. But in an ideal world, do you see yourself rapping, or creating an instrumental album, or…
Not necessarily rapping. I rapped one time in front of the homies, like Kendrick, and they clowned me to the point where I said I would never step into the booth—and I thought I had bars! I was like 16 years old. I mean, I’m trying to build projects right now. Right now, I’m just in the brainstorming phases.