The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again we aim to illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction, an extension of our column in the magazine. For today we spoke to Sounwave, who serves as one quarter of Top Dawg Entertainment’s in-house production unit the Digi-Phonics and most recently played a major role in a little rap album called good kid, m.A.A.d City.
One of the things that struck me about good kid, m.A.Ad City is how musically cohesive it is, even with so many different producers. How did you guys go about achieving that? That was just Kendrick, really. What people don’t know is he’s been making this album for the past, I want to say, twelve years. Ever since I’ve known him. When I met him he was talking about good kid, m.A.Ad City. He knows what his sound is and he knows what he wanted it to sound like. So whenever he goes in with producers, like a Pharrell—Pharrell played him a bunch of amazing stuff but it wasn’t the feel that he was looking for. So Kendrick was like, “Yo, we need something like this.” Pharrell gave him a simple look like, Okay, then pulled out his keyboard and made that. And that’s pretty much how he did it with every other producer he worked with. Kendrick is hands on. If he wants a sound he will let that producer know he needs that sound, otherwise it’s not gonna work. If he has a melody in his head he doesn’t care what time it is, he’ll show up at my house unannounced and just hum it to me. I’ll play it on my keyboard, he’ll probably take off and then an hour later I’ll send it to him. That’s usually how all our beats come about.
Are the other TDE rappers hands on like that? Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, they’re not as patient to sit in with the producer, they’re just like, “Send me your best bangers.” Jay Rock, on the other hand, he’ll call me and there’ll be songs playing in the background and he’ll be like, “I heard this song my mom was playing, sample that.”
How did you first get into beatmaking? I really ain’t got no elaborate cool story like my pops was a backup drummer for the Temptations or anything like that. I was the first person out of my family to pursue music. What made me want to do it was the first time I heard [the instrumental to] “Up Jumps da Boogie” by Timbaland. That was the first time I actually heard a beat by itself because when you’re younger you just hear the song and you like the song. And when he came in with those stutter drums and crazy synths it just caught my attention. To me it changed the game. Everybody else was on this Puff sound or this hardcore hip-hop sound but I’m hearing this and it just blew my mind. So that’s what got me started, it made me recognize what a beat was and made me want to make beats.
How did you make that first step into making beats from there? Well as a kid I used to always bang on the table and my pops got tired of it I guess, so he just bought me this little cheap Korg pad drum machine that only had the basics: a kick, a hi-hat, a bass and a snare. I used to just play on that every day after school until I couldn’t take it no more. I’d go up to my little karaoke machine and add a little Casio sound to it. I was probably about nine or ten years old at the time. From there I graduated to buying a 4-track machine with all of my allowance and from that it went to the MTV Music Generator for Playstation. That’s when I met up with Bishop Lamont from Carson, CA, and we actually got a radio placement from [a beat I made on] Music Generator. I thought I was on at that point. Then I graduated high school and my cousin bought me an MPC and I’ve just been running with that ever since.
Tell me a little about the Digi-Phonics. The Digi-Phonics consists of four producers: Me, Tae Beats, Willie B and Dave Free. Me and Dave Free were just in the studio one day vibing and he was like, “We should get all our producers together and make this one Voltron of production.” We felt like if we put all our heads together we could come up with some crazy stuff. Tae is a master on drum loops and sample chopping, Willie is very hard and aggressive and Dave has one of the best ears for finding samples that nobody would ever ever listen to. Every once in a while we try to get together when our schedules allow it and just vibe out and make crazy records.
Now how does the division of labor work when you guys share co-production credits? Pretty much this is what all of our albums are like, Section.80, the EPs, all of that: When the album’s done we’ll sit there and add things that we feel will bring out the track more. I’m big on strings, if you hear strings it’s most likely me adding that too that. Like on records like “Sing About Me,” it was a great record, we loved it but it seemed like it was missing a dramatic feel. So I was like, “Yo we need to get live strings in here.” I made some phone calls, made that happen and that’s pretty much my co-production side. It’s about filling out what’s missing.
Have you had much training musically? I’ve never had classes or anything. I’m trying to take classes right now. I was taking YouTube lessons, clicking on things like ‘How To Play Piano’ but it’s too basic for me, I already know all this stuff. So I’m about to pay somebody to get the actual classical training but everything in the past is just me, all by ear.
Going back, how did you first fall in with TDE? Through the president of the company, Punch. We were just on friend terms, he didn’t even know I did music but one day he stopped by my house and heard me making something on MTV Music Generator. He was like “Dog! you’re actually kinda good!” His cousin Top Dawg was looking for a producer at the time and said I should come through. I came through, [Punch] introduced me, I played Top a few records and he thought they were dope. So he gave me a task. He was working with this singer at the time and he gave me a few accapellas and said, “See what you can do with these.” I took that as a challenge. I cleared my whole schedule and just worked on that all day. The next day I brought it to him and he was just blown away. He said it was better than the original and I’ve been rocking with them ever since. This was probably back in 2005.
What’s the next move for you guys? Up next is Schoolboy Q. So I’ve just been in the lab, working in a gritty, dark mode because, you know, that’s Q’s vibe. After that I’m not sure.
It seems like you’ve been working with TDE exclusively. Do you have plans to reach outside the camp as far as placements in the future? I honestly have never sent nothing out to anybody else. It’s not that I’m on some I only want TDE to suceed or anything, it’s just there are four artists and I have to make sure these four artists are straight. A lot of people will reach out to me and I’ll [start doing] something for that artist, but then Q or somebody will hear it and I’ll have to give it to them first. I do plan on reaching out to a lot of other artists, but [only] once everybody [in TDE] is established and straight. I gotta put my team first, I gotta make sure my team is straight.