Behind the Boards with Sounwave: Producer Talks Working with Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell and Sampha

Behind the Boards is a series where we spotlight some of the biggest producers in the industry and dig into some of their favorite projects. For this edition, we sit down with producer Sounwave to hear about his work with Kendrick Lamar and Marcus Mumford.

Compton producer Sounwave (born Mark Spears) has been working with Kendrick Lamar for nearly two decades, helping to shape the sound of each of the albums that the generational rapper has released to date. Despite their close relationship inside and outside of the studio, there are still moments when Kendrick catches Sounwave off guard.

“There are gonna be times where I’m creating something and I don’t even think he’s listening,” Sounwave tells Consequence over Zoom. “But the whole time he’s writing a whole song in his head. And so I’ll be turning around like, ‘Yo, what do you think of this idea?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, no, I already got the full song.’ He’ll hop on the mic, lay the whole scratch down, hook and everything. I’m like, ‘I keep forgetting, this dude’s an alien.’ That’s usually how the workflow goes.”

One example of this was when Kendrick recorded the vocals for “Savior,” a standout track from his most recent album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. “I didn’t know he even liked ‘Savior’ until he had the hook,” Sounwave recalls. “I just had that chord on a loop, and I was going through drums trying to find it, you know, how you actually make a beat. And he’s just in the cut on his phone, like talking to somebody. Next thing I know, he said, ‘Turn the mic on.’ Then he does the first half of ‘Savior,’ and then he does the hook of ‘Savior.’”

It’s this type of collaboration that made creating music especially hard for Sounwave during the pandemic. Unable to feed off the “good energy” of others, he found himself in “the biggest producer slump for a full year” and instead decided to shift gears to A&Ring albums like Baby Keem’s studio debut, The Melodic Blue.

This also meant putting ongoing work on Mr. Morale on pause for the time being to just “live life,” which helped “create the emotions” both “sonically and lyrically” that made the album so impactful. And so once it came time to make a statement track that “Kendrick’s back” with “N95,” Sounwave knew exactly the story he wanted to tell.