Sak Pase Reveals Queen's Influence On "Watch The Throne" Tracks, Rihanna's "Man Down" Controversy
Exclusive: The hit-maker for Jay-Z and Kanye West explains how Freddie Mercury and company brought a stadium sound influence to "WTT" and how RiRi is justified in making a song about a woman's revenge.
The production line-up of one of 2011’s most celebrated albums, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, was full of legends and newcomers alike: Yeezy himself, 88-Keys, Q-Tip, The Neptunes, and even G.O.O.D. Music in-house producer and previous alum Hit-Boy. But Sham “Sak Pase” Joseph was arguably the album’s most unknown name, and he used the opportunity as his grand entrance to the Hip Hop world. Though previous work with European artists and his production on Rihanna’s controversial “Man Down” single turned heads last spring, Throne highlights “Who Gon Stop Me” and “Made It In America” have Rap royalty like Busta Rhymes and T.I. knocking down his door. In an interview with HipHopDX, Sak Pase talks about the musical affects of his Haitian heritage, the social importance of his song with Rihanna, and how Queen was the inspiration behind his work on The Throne.
DX: What are you working on?
Sak Pase: Working on some records for Keyshia Cole, and I just finished a mix of a record I did with Jerry Wonda for Ashanti. A lot of the [programming directors] are going crazy for it. She sounds incredible on the record, so I’m really excited about that.
DX: I just interviewed Jerry a few months ago, he seems like a good dude.
Sak Pase: Yeah, he’s like a mentor. I grew up listening to The Fugees, Jerry Wonda is the reason I picked up a bass guitar. With us both being Haitian, I guess he kind of reached out and got me up to New York, and we’ve been working together on records for at least four or five months now. We’ve got a lot of amazing music coming out.
DX: What is he like to work with?
Sak Pase: At nine o’clock in the morning, Jerry Wonda is ready to work. He has energy that nobody can explain. I’ve had to ask some of the engineers that work with him, how does he have so much energy from nine o’clock in the morning to 4:30 the following morning? Jerry Wonda is nonstop energy. I call him "Uncle Jerry" now, and he’s by far my most favorite person to work with in music. Hands down, he’s just a great person. I think for someone who’s experienced moderate success this early into my career, to be around somebody like Jerry Wonda is very important to me. It’s not work for him, he enjoys it. It’s a life for him. The music industry can be a little tough in terms of who you have to deal with, the politics, and the business, but J kind of reminds you that this is actually just a dream. He wakes up as if someone is going to tell him tomorrow that his dream is over. He’s just an incredible person, man.
DX: As you said, you’re both Haitian. How does your Haitian heritage impact your music?
Sak Pase: My Haitian heritage plays a huge part in how I create. I grew up listening to world music—Julio Iglesias, Sting, a lot of the Kompa and Zouk music that is native to Haiti, but I also grew up listening to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. What happens is, in terms of rhythm and melody, it’s actually a lot of the core of what sounds I choose to work with, or the kind of groove I’m trying to put into the music. Without even knowing it, I’m told there’s a Caribbean thing in everything I do, but it’s never on purpose, I think it’s something that’s embedded in me. As a result of being Haitian and growing up in a West Indian household, it translated and resonates into the music that I do.
DX: How did you get started making music?
Sak Pase: I started making music around 11 or 12. My parents put me into a music school, because a lot of my cousins were getting into trouble, and they just wanted to create a distraction from what was going on around me. I had uncles that played instruments, and I think music found me because I went to Michigan State, and I wanted to get involved in the advertising part of the music business. But my roommate in college had a drum machine, and he took me to a recording studio for the first time. That weekend, I called my mother and told her I was dropping out of college. After I graduated Full Sail [University], I went back to Fort Lauderdale, met my partner Verse Simmonds, and we had a dream and we took the dream to L.A. and just worked hard, had faith, kept dreaming, and ended up moving to Atlanta. I guess the rest is kind of history. We’ve worked on Watch The Throne, with Rihanna, and Verse Simmonds’ project, and it’s dope. I say music found me, because I had no intentions initially to be a producer.
DX: Which came first, Rihanna’s “Man Down” or Watch The Throne?
Sak Pase: The “Man Down” record was placed before The Throne, I think that was the record that kind of put me in the space to get music for the Watch The Throne album. That record was done in April of last year.
DX: How did you link with Rihanna’s camp?
Sak Pase: There was a writing camp in L.A. last year that L.A. Reid and Def Jam [Records] put on. They had every writer or producer in the music industry, whether up-and-coming or established, and they pretty much shut down L.A. They booked every studio to work on her Loud album. My manager had a relationship with someone at Def Jam, and I managed to get a flight to work during the writing camp. I just went in, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I just started working on music. I worked on creating something that I felt Rihanna hadn’t done since her first album, which was make music that was very much native to where she came from. I went in, I envisioned her performance at a concert, and I felt like West Indian music and Caribbean music has a way of moving or giving everybody a feel that one time. We did the “Man Down” record, and several months later, probably September, I got a call that Rihanna really loved the record, and that she was cutting the record. It turned out to be a huge record internationally; I think it went number one in France for several weeks. That’s pretty much the story of the record.
DX: How did you react to the controversy surrounding the song? The video was banned, and people thought the song condoned violence.
Sak Pase: I didn’t think it made any sense. I think it was because of who it was saying “I just shot a man down.” I think it was very hypocritical for some of the parents against violence in media, those same parents have probably allowed their kids to watch all types of movies and programs that have depictions, or things that insinuate violence. So for them to be mad about, number one, an issue that actually exists? People focus so much on the incident of rape that they fail to think about, once this experience has happened to this person, that they have to live with it. A woman feeling like she wants to shoot somebody who’s still alive because of something that they took from her, that’s real and that’s honest. I have a little sister and a niece, and I can’t say that the person being convicted and being sentenced for however long, that I’m going to be justified by it. So the emotion is a very true emotion, and there are probably many people who still have to deal with that experience, and they relive it on a daily basis. I think it was crazy and blown out of proportion. I think instead of talking about a guy being shot down, they should have talked about the fact that somebody couldn’t deal with this. It didn’t make any sense to me. But people benefit from controversy, and those same people who probably were trying to bring awareness, now they have a voice and now they’re “specialists,” and they can speak for a group of people all of a sudden.
DX: Many producers I’ve spoken to, their rise seems steady. They’ll work with names that aren’t well-known first, then they’ll graduate to more notable artists, then they’ll get the A-List acts after they’ve worked their way up. With you, it seems like it happened a lot quicker. Is that correct, or was there a different come-up?
Sak Pase: Me and my partner Verse, we had been writing and producing together for about eight years. Our first big break was this artist who was signed to Capitol [Records], back in ’06. Her name was Ak’Sent. We produced her first single, and it featured Beenie Man. The record didn’t do well in the States at all, but for some reason, it exploded in Japan. We ended up writing and producing 13 out of like 17 of her songs on her debut album on BMI/Capitol [Records]. We took that, and we managed to get an overseas pub deal and we started working with a lot of European acts. I had Alicia Dixon’s single on her album from last year. We worked with a lot of European acts that, like you said, people don’t know, I guess you’re right to a degree where a lot of the recent success has been with marquee artists. So I guess it’s somewhat a combination of both, but I’ve definitely been doing this for about eight, nine years with Verse.
DX: You also placed two records on Watch The Throne, “Who Gon Stop Me” and “Made It In America.” Most of the production roster for the album, I’ve seen them have at least some affiliation with Jay-Z or Kanye. You were one of the only names on the album I didn’t recognize. How did you link with them?
Sak Pase: Through the relationship my manager had with Blue, he had been asking for records from me, and we managed to send him the right music at the right time. That’s kind of how it came to pass. But I’m very much the new kid on the block, a lot of people were trying to figure out who this guy was, where he came from, and what he’d done. That’s how we managed to get on the Watch The Throne album, through the right relationships at the right time.
DX: How much of a Jay-Z and Kanye West fan were you before landing on Watch The Throne?
Sak Pase: I’ve always been a huge [Jay-Z] fan, since Reasonable Doubt. I think Kanye West, a lot of people don’t like to say it in terms of comparisons with Quincy Jones, but if you’re not going to say that he puts together albums as good as Quincy, then you can say that he puts together albums as great as Dr. Dre does. I do feel he’s probably the best producer in terms of arrangement. If you listen to Common’s Be album, he put that together as only someone who understands music the way he does can achieve that. I’ve always been a huge Kanye fan in terms of producing. I think he surprises a lot of people with his ability to actually rap, so he’s one of my favorite emcees now as well.
DX: The reason I ask is that even though Jay and ‘Ye tend to reinvent themselves to keep their sound fresh, they went in a complete different sonic direction for Watch The Throne. I wouldn’t have expected to hear either of them on the beats you gave them. Did you have them in mind while you were making those?
Sak Pase: Being a Jay-Z fan at that point, I felt like I heard and understood who Jay-Z was as an artist, and what he had done. Just like everybody else, people wanted to know how this was going to be different. Knowing that Kanye was more involved, I knew that I wanted to do something that Kanye would be looking forward to. Kanye is definitely a forward thinker, and he doesn’t think about where he’s at at the moment, he’s trying to think about what he can do to totally influence or just challenge the listeners’ view of them in terms of artists and creativity.
For three weeks, I went out and got every Queen album that I could have access to, and I studied Queen. I wanted to do something where if I was a fan at the O2 Arena, where there’s 42,000 or 50,000 people, it’s the first song in terms of the tour or as far as their set, what that would sound like. Queen, they’re very epic, and they play music that’s meant to be played in arenas. But it had to be true to Hip Hop and where these guys came from. I sat down and I listened to a bunch of Queen records, and I was listening to one record called “In The Lap of the Gods,” and it sounded like the five minutes right before the show started. I drew inspiration from that, and was able to create the foundation of “Who Gon Stop Me.” Verse heard that, and he started writing and found the words that married to the music, and that’s how “Who Gon Stop Me” came about.
The “Made It In America” beat, I just wanted to do something that I hadn’t heard for myself, or from Jay-Z and Kanye West. That’s what’s so important about this album: they did something that you’re not used to hearing. They’re not used to making the music they just made with Watch The Throne. So I think on both parts—as a producer who wanted to hear something fresh and new from people he looked up to in music, that was successful, as well as they gave something to the public that nobody’s heard them do before.
DX: Did you get to see any of the Watch The Throne Tour stops?
Sak Pase: Yeah, the first stop, in Atlanta. Ironically, the second song they played was “Who Gon Stop Me.” It was crazy that the vision that I had fit into the order in which they were performing their songs. It was a real surreal moment, because I envisioned five minutes before the show, the anticipation of what it would sound like, and what would be the first sound you heard on the tour, and it came to pass. So I was extremely excited and pleased about it.
DX: Jay-Z also said in a recent interview that there may be another Throne record next year. Have you done any other songs with both of them, or only solo records with each of them?
Sak Pase: They have a lot of music from me, so you never know. There’s some records I did that I heard that Kanye was very excited about, and he might want to flip the drums. Me and Jerry, Jay-Z came to the studio and actually picked up a record we had just done for his album. You just never know. I’m excited for music that they would even already be thinking about another album, so of course I’m going to make sure that I go in with the same focus and passion to make the album. But we never know what happens. They have a bunch of music from me, and I think it’d be a lot easier now to get my records listened to by Jay-Z and Kanye West than before. So if it happens, it’ll be wonderful. If it doesn’t, I’ll still be a fan of the music. I know Jay is already making mention of starting another album, and I think so far, there are two tracks that I did that we’ve kind of set aside for him. So who knows, man?
DX: What has been the biggest change in your life since getting the Rihanna record and the Watch The Throne placements?
Sak Pase: Besides my workload, because now my workload is kind of crazy. A&Rs listen to my music a little differently now. When you’re associated with working with Jay-Z and Kanye West, I guess now you’re more official. Access to artists is a lot easier now. But I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I still perform at the caliber that my name is being associated with. When you hear some of the music I try to make, it’s a reflection of where I believe where I want to go in terms of my music and career and making sure that you don’t hear my best work only with Jay-Z and Kanye West. That you can hear something you didn’t expect from me, but if you take a step back, you think, “Wow, that record was crazy.” I feel like that about the record with Busta, about the record we did with Ashanti, and I feel the same way about records I have with Verse Simmonds. When you hear his “Boo Thang” record, I feel like that’s a great record, and it’s quality. I try to make sure that whatever I do, I try to make it for the listener five years from now. That’s what’s changed the most, post-Watch The Throne.
DX: You have more work on the way with Jay-Z and Kanye, Busta, Chris Brown, Usher, Jeremih, Chrisette Michele, Sean Paul, T.I., and other people.
Sak Pase: Those are projects I’m currently working on now, and hopefully the records stick. For the most part, I think right now people associate my name with Rap records, but I’m really excited about the Jeremih record, and I’m really excited about the Keyshia Cole record. I get an opportunity to show that I’m very much multidimensional. The record I have out with one of Def Jam’s new artists, Miranda Brooke. I did her first single, and it’s not going to get the attention that Jay-Z and Kanye West will get you, but I think it’s a great record. I think with the music coming out in the next year, I’ll get an opportunity to show I’m not just going to get one or two songs on a Jay-Z and Kanye West. The plan is to make music that a different audience can appreciate. I just did my first Rock record with an artist on Cherrytree [Records], Matthew Koma. I think that within a year’s time, that’s unexpected.