For Shama “Sak Pase” Joseph, mixing a piece of his Haitian heritage into his productions is a top priority. Taking cues from the legendary Jerry Wonda, Sak Pase’s Caribbean upbringing in South Florida allowed him to help listeners connect with not only Haiti’s culture through Zouk or Kompa but the West Indies as a collective. “When you grow up in a house where culturally there’s just a foreign perspective that you see the world through, when it comes to manners or different kinds of foods or just how you deal with people, it’s from a worldview as opposed to a really domestic American point of view,” he said.
Read what Sak Pase had to say on producing Kranium’s “We Can,” amplifying Haiti’s music, plus the everlasting influence of Dancehall and why it can be referred to as pop music.
VIBE: Who are some of your influences and how do you implement their teachings in your music productions?
Sak Pase: Jerry Wonda of The Fugees. Even today I call him Uncle Jerry. He’s probably the foundation of how I look at music because I don’t think people realize that a lot of what he was doing early on with The Fugees in terms of production was variations of what he grew up listening to in the house. A lot of the bass lines were hip-hop but they had Reggae influences. They also had Kompa influence as well. When I was young, I was listening to The Fugees like, ‘This sounds like what I grew up listening to.’ It sounded so familiar. When I really started getting into production, I was making music that sounded like what I grew up listening to. Jerry Wonda played a huge part in how I produce. The first time I ever worked with Jerry, it was like the equivalent of the first day that Kobe might’ve played on the court with Jordan. You grow up with these influences and they make up a part of who you are. Jerry Wonda was probably one of the biggest foundations in me producing because he incorporates so much of the West Indies into his style of music. I grew up listening to Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, Babyface, Supa Dups, who was one of the original members of Black Chiney, RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre…I know I’m probably missing a couple of people, but that’s the core foundation.
Being a Haitian-American, what elements from Kompa or Zouk do you try to place within your songs? Any examples?
In Kompa and Zouk, there’s a lot of melody. The melody is almost like the lead singer in the music. Whenever I make music I try to find the melody that’ll sing throughout the whole song. I try to find the special moment that’ll resonate with whoever is listening to it. If you’re sitting at a bus stop and a car pulls up and the radio is too low for you to know exactly what you’re listening to but loud enough where you can remember it, whatever that melody or lyric or moment is, that’s what you have to create. You have to create for the listener who might only get 15 seconds to hear pieces of the music and you have to try to figure out a way to make something stick. Melody is the most important thing to me, whatever the hook is.
Do you think music deriving from Haiti will ever crack through to mainstream music or has it already but the average listener might not have picked up on it?
Kompa and Zouk are distant cousins of African rhythms and music. With that being said, I feel like we’ve already heard elements of Zouk and Kompa in today’s music. When you hear Nico and Vinz, if you listen to the bass line, that’s a bass line that I grew up listening to. When you hear a lot of what you hear in Afrobeats, Kompa and Zouk are just variations of those same underlying progressions or different bass movements. It just all comes from the same place. When I think of Zouk or Kompa, I don’t look at it as only Haitian music. I think what defines it as Haitian music is the Creole on top of it, but in my opinion it all comes from Africa anyway. That’s where it started from so when I hear Nico and Vinz, or some of the things that Wizkid is doing, or when you hear on Wyclef’s album, the fact that he actually put Kompa on his album [The Carnival], that album sold millions of records, so it’s already made its way into pop culture. There are a lot of writers and producers who are Haitian and so by default it’s already happened.
When you have Jerry Wonda produce records for Whitney Houston or Shakira or Justin Bieber, or like myself producing records for Rihanna or JAY-Z, or you have all of these different artists who are part of the Haitian Diaspora, Haiti has already become a part of pop culture. Within the past two or three years, the people or culture or just the flag in general has been popularized in pop music now. When you think about Fetty Wap walking around with a Haitian flag, or Lil Wayne with Haitian flags, or Young Thug saying he’s from Little Haiti, those are just cues of the Haitian Diaspora being a part of pop culture.
Walk me through the process of Kranium’s “We Can.”
It’s crazy because about three or four years ago, this A&R at Atlantic — her name is Latoya Lee — she sent me an email saying, ‘What do you think about this artist?’ At the time, he just had the “Nobody Has To Know” record and it didn’t even pop yet. I said, ‘I think he’s really dope,’ and then fast forward three years later, last year February I believe, he came out to L.A. and we spent some time in the studio. We had been working in the studio with Emily Warren, Jason Evigan, these guys are writing huge pop records. Emily wrote The Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” Jason Evigan has been connected with Jason Derulo. These really big pop writers. We were in the studio the start of February and the writing process is just a continuous process. You never actually stop writing the song.
In February, we did some sessions with Emily and the guys that I mentioned. I think it was in maybe March or April, a couple of months later I was in the studio again and a friend of mine, a producer name DJ Marley Waters who produced [Tinashe’s] “2 On,” I hit him up and said, ‘Come by the studio, I’m with Kranium,’ and we just started collaborating and throwing out ideas. He had some ideas that he was working on and I had some ideas that I was working on and we just figured out a way to fuse the two worlds together. On the spot, Kranium just started writing the song. Initially, we didn’t think anybody liked the song because none of the label people paid attention to it. About six weeks later, right around Coachella time, I get a call that Craig Kallman loved the “We Can” record. The rest is pretty much history. They got really excited about it and they were starting to look for a feature. We tried to get different people on it. We were really close to getting Nicki Minaj on it but things happen and it didn’t come to fruition. We were trying to get a bunch of different people to see who was going to bite on it, and we thought we had Nicki locked in but it fell through. Then Kranium got in the studio with Tory Lanez and he wrote to it and it just came out really dope.
In terms of the song’s sound, what were some of the elements that you sought to bring into it?
If you listen to the bass line in “We Can,” the movement is, like if you’re ever in a Dancehall club, the bottoming is what makes the entire song. The bass and the drums and how it moves is how you get the women to move. It sets the vibe and atmosphere. When you think about the core of what the song started with is the bass line. In Dancehall, your bass has to move the right way, it has to be mixed the right way because you have these big sound systems and it fits in a really small club. What you’re going to hear most of the night is the bass. As the DJ, you have to make sure whatever songs you’re mixing in and out of has the bass set to mood of the moment. We started with the bass and then the structure is what was the mainstream. We made sure we brought in certain instruments. We arpeggiated a piano so it made it sound pleasant, it gave it a youthful sound and not a traditional Dancehall four-bar, eight-bar loop. We needed to make sure that we created a lot of dynamic in the song. You have these different pianos, arpeggiators, we used delays, swells to make you feel like you’re going from one part of the song to another part of the song and once he recorded everything, it took another two months of us going back and forth to make sure that it felt like a song as opposed to just a loop. Then I went to a Dancehall club to test it against everything else that was going on. I remember the DJ named DJ Courtesy in L.A., I went to one of his nights and he played it. He was mixing in and out of [Rihanna’s] “Work” and the Tory Lanez record [“Luv”] and a couple of other songs. Then he said this song is a hit song because it married well with everything else in the mix.
Dancehall is the rebellious little brother of Reggae music. You have Bob Marley who is the older brother, he’s super chill, calm. He probably drinks coffee and tea in the morning. Dancehall is the little brother who has Hennessy in the morning and he’s ready to turn up at 10 o’clock in the morning. ‘I’m ready to have fun. I’m in your face, I say what I want. I disrupt the environment.’ To me, Dancehall sounds like aggression and fun at the same time.
Do you have a favorite track that you produced where you showcased your Caribbean knowledge?
Dups and I did this really dope record for Rihanna’s last album but it didn’t fall through. It’s so hard, it sounds like a pure Dancehall record for women and it was called “Lock And Key.” That was one song. I have songs that have never come out that I feel are really hard Dancehall songs. They just haven’t come out yet.
This would’ve been for ANTI?
Yes it was supposed to be for the ANTI album.
I remember you guys worked on “Man Down” for her Loud album.
That’s a favorite of mine because even when we made that song the goal was to not…at the time she was doing a lot of dance music and she had just come out of having a huge hit with “What’s My Name” and “Rude Boy.” Those are West Indian-tinged songs and when we were working on the Loud album, you walk through the studio halls and you hear a lot of dance music and I said, ‘I’m not going to make dance music. I just wanted to make something that an arena full of people would immediately feel different. They would feel a change in the atmosphere.’ Regardless of where you’re at, if you put on a Reggae song, it would change everybody’s mood immediately just because it feels so good. I wanted to do the complete opposite of what everybody else was doing for her at the time. Some of her biggest songs, at the time, weren’t necessarily West Indian-influenced music so I just wanted to do something that would be a mainstay in the West Indian culture well beyond whatever huge number one pop song she has for the moment.
After “Man Down” when you hear songs like “Work” and she had a couple of other songs on the follow-up album after Loud [Talk That Talk], people were reminded that this is a Bajan girl and this is what West Indian music sounds like. This is what West Indian culture sounds like. She had this moment where she was introducing the world to this West Indian sound and she put it on the biggest platform possible because she’s such an icon. When you hear “Work,” Rihanna is the only person who could’ve done that song. I think Nicki [Minaj] could’ve done it, and she’s Trini as well. There isn’t a bigger platform for a West Indian artist or West Indian-styled music that’s bigger than Rihanna at the time. Then when you have Drake come in and do “Controlla,” it just reminds people that a lot of the music that people love has a West Indian DNA in it. Drake isn’t Jamaican but Boi1da is Jamaican, so a lot of these West Indian influences find their way into pop music. Whether it be Dancehall or Reggae or Afrobeats, it’s really prevalent in pop music because of Major Lazer, because of Rihanna, because of Kranium, Justin Bieber and even French Montana’s new song. At the core, these are West Indian-influenced styles of music or Afrobeat style of music. It’s all one in the same.
When do you think the lines can get blurred where someone might feel Dancehall or Caribbean or Afrobeats music is being taken advantage of by an artist who wants to make a profit?
What people have to remember is by definition some pop music is just popular music. That’s by definition, that’s what it is. People don’t realize that in the 90s like ’97, ’98, ’99, black or urban music was killing the Billboard charts. It was pop music. Nelly was a huge pop star and he didn’t sound like Taylor Swift. It was just a guy rapping. DMX had several number one albums within one year. In order to do that you have to be popular amongst the listeners. When you have a certain kind of energy that everybody wants to be a part of, it now becomes pop music. Outside of America, the whole world is listening to this kind of style of music. Major Lazer are huge fans of Dancehall music. When you have somebody like Diplo admittedly said, ‘I grew up on Black Chiney,’ which is one of the most renowned sound systems in the world, and you have this white kid who said, ‘I grew up listening to Black Chiney,’ and when he’s playing festivals or making a record he uses what he grew up on as his source of influence. Of course it’s going to become pop music.
I do think the issue is that it’s okay to have Justin Bieber or Ed Sheeran make the music that moves them. Fifteen years ago, we had Beenie Man, Patra, Shabba Ranks, you had these fixtures within pop culture that said for every Patra or Shabba Ranks you have, I can’t think of anybody back then, but you have Justin Bieber. If you have a Justin Bieber song like “Sorry” that influences these West Indian vibes, you should have a Kranium. For every Ed Sheeran you should have a counterpart to it because then it makes the culture feel like it’s balanced. When Sean Paul came in the 2000s when it was a West Indian or Caribbean invasion, you had Sean Paul with Beyonce. You had Elephant Man with the Ying Yang Twins or Lil Jon. It didn’t feel like the culture was being exploited because you had the actual fixtures in Dancehall on the biggest platform as well. Now when you look at it, it should just be more than just Kranium. It shouldn’t just be one guy.
I think it’s amazing what Drake, Kranium, and Tory Lanez have done because what they’re attempting to do is make sure that when you hear Dancehall you understand that this person didn’t create it, it’s cultural, it’s not a fad, it’s not, ‘This is what’s cool right now.’ You can put a face to it and that’s the problem that people have. There aren’t as many faces that look like where it came from. I don’t think it’s a problem about it being popular because Bob Marley is one of the biggest artists of all time. No one has a problem with the different bands, Ska bands or different Reggae bands that play the music or perform the music. They don’t have a problem with that. Bob Marley was one of the greatest. He’s the face of Reggae music. Because there isn’t necessarily a face of Dancehall music, you can assume that it doesn’t have a real origin. If you start listening to Dancehall music, your reference point might be Justin Bieber and say, ‘He started that sound.’ As long as you have the faces to give a reference point as to where it comes from, I don’t think there’s a problem for Dancehall to be one of the biggest forms of pop music.
When you think about Reggae, that’s popular music. People all around the world love Reggae. Stylistically we want that to happen because then people might go backwards and do their research. I overheard this conversation in the studio and they were telling me that Omarion loves Dancehall music. He knows about the Dancehall artists. Another day I was in the studio with an artist from Arizona and one of his favorite artists is Vybz Kartel. Making Dancehall music popular is what drives that discovery. The other day I saw Chris Brown on a Konshens song. You need something to be celebrated or popularized in order for people to want to discover it. As long as we have the faces that reflect it at the core of where it comes from, Dancehall music should be welcomed as a new form of pop music. The more people who use it and exploit it, I think the bigger it’ll become. I think you’ll see an interest in more Dancehall artists because Kranium isn’t the only one. He’s such an exceptional melody and lyric writer. I think he has the opportunity to become one of the faces of Dancehall music for pop culture.
Do you think artists do a disservice to the West Indian rhythms when they blend certain sounds with pop elements? Like making the true essence of West Indian music palpable for consumers who might find it to be overbearing?
I don’t think it’s a disservice. A lot of it starts with your integrity. If you wake up as a creative person and you say, ‘I’m going to look on Billboard and I’m going to make a Dancehall song, or West Indian or Afrobeat style song’ for the purpose of making money, that’s not only when you’re doing the style of music a disservice, but you’re doing yourself a disservice. You’re looking to make money off of it. You don’t care whether or not it sounds good and that’s when it gets sloppy. I hear all of the bad “Controlla” songs, all of the bad “One Dance” songs and the rhythm isn’t right. Your drums don’t knock a certain way. The movement isn’t authentic. When people do that and their goal was to make money off of it, I think that’s when it’s not cool. That’s like saying I’m going to donate to a charity not because I actually want to but because I want to take the picture so I get a thousand likes on Instagram. You cheapen the spirit of donating and charity.
When you do things that are money-motivated, you’re cheapening not only yourself, but that’s when you cheapen the music, the value of what it is. Music is meant to give everybody a really good feeling. If you say to yourself, ‘I love how ‘One Dance’ feels and I want to do something that feels as good,’ I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. As creative people you should be inspired to do things and your goal should not necessarily be to just plagiarize a certain style of music, but to take bits and pieces from it and then you add you into it and it becomes new and original or it just becomes a new piece of art. I don’t believe there aren’t too many things that are new, overtime they evolve and change hands and people influence them. Someone takes what they did and their influences and it evolves and it’s constantly evolving. You get to a point where it becomes something new because of how many evolutions it has taken.
Why do you think sounds derived from Dancehall or Afrobeats is making a dynamic run on the charts and radio this year?
Because of how it feels and you have to think that the continent of Africa, a continent has a style of music. When you have that many people that move on a certain rhythm, certain beat, that has a certain life to a certain kind of music, when people go and visit these different places, they become fans of the music. For example, you might have someone who visits Italy and they love this Italian restaurant. They go back to New York and they say, ‘I want to bring this Italian restaurant here.’ They go and they make this Italian restaurant and somebody from Vancouver comes to this restaurant and they say, ‘I want an Italian restaurant in Vancouver.’ Then they go to Vancouver and they create an Italian restaurant. It all started from being such a fan of this one restaurant in Italy and you take bits and pieces of what you love from it and you bring it to New York. Someone visits New York and then it goes to Vancouver. I just feel like it was the only thing left for Afrobeats to do because of its influence. So much of the music has come from Africa anyway. Culturally, when you think about dancing, a lot of the choreography that dancers are doing now are just African dances. It only makes sense that the African dances that we see in pop culture have the music that inspired it to be a part of pop culture as well. The music feels good.
When you think about Reggae music, I can’t imagine that they ever thought that Reggae music was going to be a thing everywhere in the world from this little island in the Caribbean. If that can happen with Reggae music, then when you have the African culture, in itself, already has a huge influence and footprint globally, it influences the world in so many different ways. It only makes sense that Afrobeat is the next wave of music to come in and shift pop culture. It already started doing it. The same way there was a huge Dancehall invasion and Reggaeton invasion, I think the next real big invasion is Afrobeats. When you have pop artists like Drake, Rihanna, and French Montana, it has to happen because they have the platform and they are performing at these different places in the world. They’re like, ‘I really like how this feels, I want to do that on my next album.’ Then you have a record that’s growing like “Unforgettable” and then you’ll have another artist who’ll hear that song and say, ‘I want to do a song like that.’ It goes back to that reference about the Italian restaurant. People keep sampling it and they want to be a part of it and that’s what helps grow and spread the culture and popularity of it.
Through your productions, how do you help artists connect to Caribbean culture?
I’m Haitian so a lot of what I do naturally is just a reflection of how I grew up, how we look at the world. Growing up in a West Indian household, I have a worldview on everything. I was writing with this one songwriter, her name is Harlow, we were just writing a song and trying to come up with melodies and I was playing her Beres Hammond, Gregory Isaacs, Zouk music, P-Square. I was playing her these things that are very natural and familiar to me. For her, it’s almost revolutionary. She was amazed at the brilliance that existed in these styles of music. Just by me being me, my interests and the things that moved me will create…it’s an intriguing moment for someone who didn’t grow up the way I grew up, who’s not where I’m from, whose parents are not where my parents are from. It’s intriguing to them because it’s like, ‘why did you do that,’ or ‘why did you hear that melody,’ or ‘where did that melody come from,’ or ‘what inspired that melody?’ That’s how I share my music.
One of the best songwriters in my opinion are Verse Simmonds and Rock City. These guys are from the Virgin Islands and when you hear them do pop music they’re literally regurgitating everything that they grew up listening to and they’re just taking bits and pieces of it. To an American listener, they’re like, ‘This is so new to me,’ but we’re sitting like this feels like some old Inner Circle song, some old Beres Hammond song. To me, Beres Hammond and Gregory Isaacs are some of the coldest songwriters ever, but someone who didn’t grow up in the Caribbean, they wouldn’t know that. Every time we write a song, we try to utilize or incorporate something that is familiar to us. We take what’s going on now and we melt them together and you have a song that connects with people on a global scale. Just by being yourself, if you grow up the way we do, just naturally you influence people or you’re sharing your culture with people.
What does the future of Dancehall look like to you?
The purists are going to keep getting more upset. I think because of how music is consumed now, it’s becoming less about genres and terms and definitions. We’re moving to a space where it’s about music. You hear something you like and people copy it and are influenced by it until you lose the…it’ll be less about people saying, ‘That’s Dancehall music.’ It’ll just be more about people saying, ‘I like that song’ or ‘that’s pop music.’ I think because music is becoming so blurred and the lines are disappearing, that’s a matter of how people consume music. The lines within music are being erased because of how it’s being consumed. Trap music is pop music now. In a minute it’s going to be less about it being trap music and more about it being a style of music.
The purists are going to be upset but the style of Dancehall or West Indian music is only going to get bigger because the more pop stars you have doing what they like to hear or feel like Ed Sheeran or Justin Bieber, it’s going to get bigger and bigger. It’s not going to be looked at as necessarily Dancehall. I think the people who know what Dancehall is and grew up listening to it, we’re able to pick it out. But I’ve walked into rooms where people don’t know Dancehall from Red Rat or Beenie. They know Dancehall as Drake. It’s like, ‘Whatever Drake does is Dancehall.’ Music is just so big now and everyone has access to all different kinds of music. If Spotify doesn’t say this is a Dancehall playlist from 1994, then if it just winds up on someone’s playlist, they’re not going to look at it as this is an original Dancehall song. They’ll say, ‘This song sounds like Drake,’ or ‘No, Drake got this from Beenie.’ They’ll say, ‘Who’s Beenie Man?’ If Beenie is not on that playlist then you’re just going to think it’s Drake or whoever just came out. I think what would help is if we had more faces. Dancehall or West Indian music just needs more faces.
Fifteen years ago you had Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder, Foxy Brown doing these West Indian-style songs. You had Shaggy who was selling 10 to 12 million records, Snow, you had all of these different artists and it felt like you can watch a segment on BET and it would be the Dancehall hour. You would have 20 different artists playing on BET. When people can’t make the connection visually then it’s going to be up to their imagination. We don’t have video programming the way we used to so how are we supposed to see that Buju Banton is a thing or Patra or Lady Saw, how are they going to see it? We don’t even have videos anymore. That’s why I feel that the lines are going to continue to be grayed and blurred and eventually erased because you don’t see the people making the music. You just hear the people making the music and people don’t really know who the songs are by anymore. There are songs that you love that you have no idea who the artist is. You just know that you love the song. That’s what’s going to continue to happen in music. Until we get more Kranium moments…it’s very evident that “Work” sounded like something foreign that people knew this has to be something from where she’s from because this doesn’t sound like “Umbrella” or “Diamonds.” This sounds like something different. We just need more references.
PartyNextDoor is doing a great job at influencing pop culture, utilizing his cultural upbringing. It’s so crazy because Kranium and Party did this one song last year that I wish would come out but it’s so dope. It’s a song that the West Indian community would love because it’s so crazy, but we just need more wins. The Dancehall community needs more Kraniums winning because then the labels won’t be afraid to sign more Kraniums or afraid to put out more songs that might not fit their format or their formulas. If they just let the songs fly, I think we can have more Dancehall music. When that West Indian invasion happened you had VP Records, which essentially was a conduit. We had a vehicle for Dancehall music to come out. You had Sean Pauls, Beenies, I Wayne, Wayne Wonder. You had all of these guys because VP Records was invested into this culture. We don’t have that, it doesn’t exist anymore. When you have a song like Kranium and PartyNextDoor that’s so crazy, but culturally the music landscape is like, ‘How do we break this song?’ Back then these huge Sean Paul records you didn’t have to break because they existed in the world for three, four years. They were super organic. That’s the thing about Dancehall. There’s no formula for it. Vybz Kartel is one of the biggest Dancehall artists in the world and he’s been in jail for how long? There isn’t a marketing scheme, there isn’t a, ‘Let’s get this feature with that person to make it work.’ He puts out music. With Dancehall, you have to put out the music and let people fall in love with it the way you’re supposed to fall in love with music.