The Speed of Sounwave: Producer/Artist on Working With Kendrick Lamar & Making His Own Music

Christian San Jose for Top Dawg Entertainment
Soundwave photographed in 2015.

Following No. 1 success, the Top Dawg producer is busy wrapping up projects with Jay Rock & ScHoolboy Q.

It’s fitting that Mark Spears -- aka Sounwave -- adopted his professional moniker from the Transformers figure that disguises itself as a microcassette recorder. Ever since he began creating simple drum patterns at the age of 10, the Compton, California-bred producer has stayed focused on one quest: transforming hip-hop.

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Since joining the Top Dawg Entertainment team in 2005, Sounwave has steadily crafted a growing list of credits. The tally includes Kendrick Lamar’s double-platinum single “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and two more tracks from the rapper’s 2012 debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, as well as collaborations with ScHoolboy Q (“Hoover Street,” “Prescription/Oxymoron”) and Isaiah Rashad (Cilvia Demo). The latest addition to those credits: Lamar’s No. 1, critically acclaimed sophomore set To Pimp a Butterfly. Sounwave produced four songs (“King Kunta,” “Mortal Man,” “Hood Politics” and “Complexion) and co-produced six others, including “Alright.”

In the following interview, Sounwave chats about Butterfly, his current Top Dawg projects (Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q), why he quit working at the Gap after only one day -- and hints at his own solo project.

While working on To Pimp a Butterfly, did you have a gut feeling the album would take off the way it has?

Kendrick is probably the most hands-on person I’ve ever dealt with. He’ll knock on my door at 4 a.m. and have something. I love and respect that passion. As soon as he went in this direction, I knew it. Not only because of the music, but also the message behind it, because it’s what people need to hear right now. Music and the message -- you can’t deny that.

Which projects are coming next out of the Top Dawg pipeline?

I’ve been getting phone calls for writing sessions outside the TDE fold involving many artists I respect; I can’t mention their names. But I want to make sure the team here is straight first. So we’re working on ScHoolboy Q’s next project as well as Jay Rock’s. In fact, Jay is closer to being ready; he’s two songs away. And I’ve got my own project as well.

What can fans expect from Jay’s record?

Because of how long it’s taken, you can expect a lot of aggression. [Laughs.] He’s getting things off his chest. There’s a lot of honesty. It’s great record, and I can’t wait for people to hear it.

And your solo project?

I’m definitely looking to do country, pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop … My project will try to combine every genre I have respect for without it sounding forced. That’s my goal.

Who inspired you musically growing up?

I credit two people. One is Timbaland and the first single he did with Magoo, “Up Jumps Da Boogie.” That song helped me understand the production world. It was the first time I heard a song and dissected the beat. I thought, “Oh, that’s producing.” Timbaland got me into wanting to produce records.

My second biggest influence was jazz trumpet player Donald Byrd. My pops would take us on long road trips and play nothing but Byrd’s greatest hits. Me, I’m in the backseat soaking up all of this. I didn’t really know then what I was hearing. but it opened me up to the whole world of jazz: Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, etc. That helped me develop my craft; I understood notes then.

What was your first “I’ve got this” moment?

Working with rapper Bishop Lamont. Before that I was working with local acts in Compton. I used to be the thirstiest producer in the world, selling beats for $20 to random people I didn’t know. My parents were like, “You can’t make a living like that.” But then I met Bishop from [nearby] Carson, California. He loved my stuff and pulled me in with another producer. We came up with a record that got a placement on one of Bishop’s albums.

How do you keep yourself energized creatively?

I’m the kind of guy who believes in hard work. I wasn’t born with a lot of talent, but I work hard for what I believe in. I had a job for one day working at the Gap. But every five seconds I was thinking about music, so I quit. I’m not the type to wait on anybody. I’ll sit down and do it myself. I taught myself piano and guitar going on YouTube … I want to learn every instrument.