Now Things: A Q+A with Watch the Throne Producer Sham “Sak Pase” Joseph

January 27, 2012

Words by Jesse Serwer—

Haitian-American producer Shama (Sham) Joseph first landed on our radar with his production for Rihanna’s “Man Down.” The reggae-flavored hit (now officially a touchstone) brought RiRi back to her Caribbean roots but also grabbed our attention with the opening tag, “Sak Pase!”— “What’s happening” in Kreyòl. Building on the momentum of “Man Down,” Sham placed “Who Gon Stop Me” and “Made it in America,” two of the best tracks on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s blockbuster Watch the Throne album. Apparently, he was just getting warmed up, though, as a partial list of the artists he’s working with currently reads like a list of hip-hop, R&B and dancehall’s biggest hitmakers of the last 10 years: Sean Paul, T.I., Keyshia Cole, Usher, Ciara, Busta Rhymes, Chris Brown, Mavado. So whether you’ve got Haitian friends or not, get used to hearing “Sak Pase!” a whole hell of a lot. We recently spoke with the Fort Lauderdale, Florida native over the phone from his current homebase in Atlanta.

Large Up: In general, the first time people heard of you was with Rihanna’s “Man Down” and since then, on Watch the Throne. What other tracks that we should know you for?

Shama Joseph: I have the Busta Rhymes and Chris Brown record, “Why Stop Now,” that is out now.  And I did Ashanti’s newest song with Busta Rhymes, “The Woman You Love.” I did that with Jerry Wonder.  Those are ones I’ve done that are out right now. And then for Miranda Brooke on Def Jam, I did her first single called “Hater” and Verse Simmonds’ single featuring Kelly Rowland, “Boo Thang.” I actually had moderate success, internationally, with an artist on Capital at the time. Her name was Ak’Sent. In 2007, me and Verse wrote 13 out of the 17 songs on her album. It blew up in Japan but didn’t really have any success here. But in terms of a major breakout, you know worldwide, “Man Down” would be the record.

LU: How did you end up making “Man Down”? Did you get some direction to give it a Caribbean vibe like or was it just a sound that you wanted to hear her with?

SJ: It was actually a sound that I  wanted to do. For the most part, they wanted a record they knew would be a No. 1 worldwide pop record. When you look at what “Umbrella” did, and some of her other really big records, for the most part they are more pop and dance. But I kinda wanted do the opposite. Because, since “Rude Boy,” she hadn’t really done a song that connected to her Caribbean roots. I wanted something that would kind of shift the energy. If she was performing the song, I wanted something that would make everyone feel completely different and change the mood of her audience and do something that she hadn’t done in a long time. So when we did “Man Down,” I just sat down and set out to make that. And it turned out to be exactly that.

LU: Did you have any experience in making reggae riddims? I see you are doing something with Sean Paul and Mavado coming up. Is that a lane you are looking to be in?

SJ: Absolutely. About two months ago, we started working on records for Sean Paul and songs for Laza Morgan. We did like three or four songs with them.  I am very much committed to bringing the Caribbean influence to music. During Sean Paul’s wave, when he was the biggest thing, and a lot of the different riddims that were going on in the islands were making its way to mainstream music but the music was still very much authentic to the Caribbean. Now when you hear Sean Kingston and Iyaz, artists that are Caribbean guys, the music is very much dance, pop.  You know, its dope what they did by meshing it all together but come out with something that’s more true to what the Caribbean rhythm actually is. I just got back from Barbados, working with this group called CW that is working to create an infrastructure for the Caribbean music scene, trying to help develop Caribbean writers and producers. I was down there with Jeremih and some different writers from the UK and Canada and LA, and I actually saw a couple of artists that I’m interested in developing, to make sure I get this idea of Caribbean music back and re-introduce it into mainstream music.

LU: Can you tell me more about your trip to Barbados?

SJ: They flew a bunch of us down there—them is an A&R at Def Jam called Max Gousse. I think the vision that they have is brilliant. Because there is so much new talent that has yet to be discovered and a lot of times the reason why we kinda get stuck with the same people writing the same songs is because you don’t have enough people  trying to break new talent. They are very forward thinking in what they’re doing— they are getting people who never recorded a song before, who never had a production credit, and putting them together in a room and saying let’s come up with a song. I’ve felt for a long time that Caribbean people, for the most part, there is a different heartbeat that I think we move on that kind of gives people a certain energy. A lot of the crazy melodies that people love, you can actually go back and hear the influences from Caribbean artists. So I think that what they’re doing is essentially what I’ve been trying to do for the past two years. I think “Man Down” was the first step in that direction.

LU: So when you give a track to Rihanna, it’s going to bring out a side of her that a four-on-the-floor track isn’t going to. You’re going to hear her accent and she’s going to do a different sort of vocal than she would on a song by Calvin Harris. If you’re working with someone like Busta who also can go into that zone, are you doing the same thing with him?

SJ: Whenever I work with artists, I try to feel where they’re at creatively and pair that with what I’d like to do at the moment. So with Bust who can push the envelope, in our first meeting, he was open to trying something that I hadn’t done yet. I try to create these new styles, new types of music mash-ups whenever I work with an artist because I think it’s an opportunity. I think it’s the job of a producer, whenever you work in a studio for the first time with someone, to create something unique and special with that meeting. Busta kind of gravitated to something that I was experimenting with so, whenever we get back together, we are creating something signature to just us. I did another record with him in LA where he flipped over the beat. I don’t wanna say it’s the same as what we did with Chris Brown but when you hear it, whenever we get back together I think that it’s something people are gonna expect. It’s almost like whenever you heard Tim and Missy together, there’s this thing they created and kept re-creating every time they got back together. I think that’s what’s going on with me and Bust.

LU: So tell me about the Sak Pase tag in the beginning of your songs. Why is it important for you to have that at the beginning of the songs that you produce?

SJ: The Sak Pase tag serves several purposes. One, there’s so much new producers and talent, so I tried to brand myself. But I think the most important reason for me, it means “What’s up” in Creole, and it’s a way for me to pay homage to the sacrifices that my parents made and things that they might have given up on in terms of dreams to make sure I could one day pursue mine. It’s a way for me to remind myself that I’m not just Haitian in the sense that I grew up Haitian but that there are sacrifices my parents made and things that I had to go through to get where I am now. Another reason is, growing up I had the Fugees to keep my attention in terms of somebody who was familiar to what I experienced at home. And I wanted to make sure my little brother had that. I didn’t feel like my little brother had anybody to look up to, that kind of spoke the same language as he spoke at home, or somebody he could feel he could reach out and touch. I think I had that growing up with the Fugees so it helped focus my energy and give me something I could latch on to. Now, there’s so many things you could find yourself into that you could end up losing your identity. So I wanted to make sure I kind gave a shoutout to my parents to show respect for who they are and to make sure that I was my little brother’s biggest hero. I’m kind of skeptical about some of the images in the media. I don’t want him to feel like he has to distance himself from who he is or how he grows up, to try and fit in.

LU: Beyond that, how does being Haitian influence your music?

SJ: I had no idea that the kind of music that I grew up with played such an influential part in how my creative process starts and ends. One way is, growing up in a Haitian household we listened to all kinds of music—a lot of zouk, a lot of soca, a lot of calypso and different African beats. A lot of the rhythms and melody lines that are in my music come from what was being played in the household from Saturday mornings when I used to visit my uncle or whatever my mom would listen to. But also, I grew up listening to Julio Iglesias and Sting and Bob Marley—basically like world music. I never really knew what American music was. It was never like separated like this is American music and this is Haitian music and this is Jamaican music. I listened to everything how the world listens to it. So I don’t have a specific “genre” that I feel like I’m good at. I think music is a lot bigger than domestic or international. So when I create music, for some reason it appeals to a larger audience than just urban music or it might embody more of an urban feel than an international artist is used to. So, with my rhythms and melodies and what I grew up listening to, I kind of interpret music completely different than if I’d grown up in LA or Atlanta. I have a huge spectrum of things to pull from.

LU: Did you grow up in a Haitian community or was it more diverse?

SJ: It was diverse but in Florida there is a huge West Indian, Caribbean influence. One of my best friends is Jamaican and, Verse Simmonds, who is my partner, we’ve been producing together for 10 years, is from the Virgin Islands yet we grew up with people who are Puerto Rican, Colombian. But then, you live in America so your friends are very much American. When you have that and you grow up in a house where your grandmother is kind of like your babysitter and all she speaks is Kreyòl, but then your parents come home and they want their kids to speak English so they speak English even though it’s very much broken and through a really thick accent. So I kind of grew up in this pot of cultural influences without even knowing it. It was a very much Haitian household, with the traditions and the cultures. All of my beliefs are basically founded on how my parents grew up in Haiti.

LU: So do you plan to, or have you already, worked with any Haitian artists?

SJ: I haven’t worked with a Haitian artist. I have worked with songwriters like Stacy Barthe and Jerry Wonder who are Haitian. I definitely have plans to work with Haitian artists. I think it’s just a matter of timing and meeting the right artist that I’d like to work with. I am Haitian and I do my best to make sure I support the Haitian community so I’m always open to it, but I do have a responsibility to myself to make sure the music that I’m making is a reflection of what I believe in. There are a lot of Haitian artists who reach out to me and I’m definitely open to working with them but I have to make sure, whether it’s a zouk band or a kompa band, that it’s something I actually want to do. I don’t want to work with someone just for the sake of working with them. Working with Jerry, I know I’m going to end up working with him on some type of Haitian band.

LU: Working with Jay-Z and Kanye, how much has that opened doors for you?  Obviously, that’s a huge project…

SJ: It’s the co-sign to have. When Jay-Z and Kanye West say you’re dope enough to make records for them, then it’s kind of silly for someone else to look at you any other way now. I know for a fact my music is listened to differently, I just know it. You have two of the biggest, influential people—in not just hip-hop, but pop culture—saying that you’re dope enough to make contributions to a classic album. The album was going to be classic before they even recorded a vocal to it, just because it’s so monumental. So the doors are open. But I still have the responsibility of making sure that the music is as good as what people heard on Watch the Throne. Otherwise, I think it’s a compromise. If the effort I put into a record with Busta is less than what I put in for Jay-Z and Kanye West, I think people recognize it. I don’t wanna be the guy known for giving all your A-class tracks to A-class artists. ‘Cause I think, as a producer, you have the opportunity to make every artist you work with relevant again, or create enough interest to where now they’re not considered a B-class artist but a top 10 artist. So every time I sit down or get a request, I put in the same effort I put in to Kanye and Jay-Z and Rihanna. In today’s music climate, everyone is one song away from having the No. 1 song in the country. So I go in trying to make a song that could potentially be No. 1, and I think, from a relationship standpoint, it’s good for business. If somebody feels like you’re not slighting them in the creative process, they come back. And I think you, as producer or just a creative person in general, you win by return service so…

Large Up: What projects in particular are you looking forward to. It looks like you have a lot of big things coming up on your plate.

SJ: I just did the week in Barbados with Jeremih and I think there’s a lot more depth to his artistry than the looks that he gets. He’s a very dope songwriter, and I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more of him because people are starting to catch on. When you see records that he’s doing with 50 and major players and then to hear the records that we did together, I think people are going to look at him differently. I’m doing records with Keyshia Cole and I’m really excited about her because I don’t feel like there’s enough R&B artists out who want to stay true to the music. I’m actually flying up to work with Astro, who was on X Factor, this wee. I’m excited about Ciara. Verse and I were just working on a record together with Musiq Soulchild. I feel like it’s the time for me to do something else, to me that’s a little different from what everybody is hearing at the time so.

LU: On another note, what’s the best spot to get Haitian food in South Florida?

SJ: Chef Creole in Miami. It tastes like my mom’s food. To me, that’s kind of like my test.  Like there’s this Haitian restaurant in LA that’s incredibly good. It’s called Kassava. When I found out it was a Haitian restaurant, I ate there every single day for a week because the food is real authentic.  It’s not like a Jamaican restaurant and they have a couple of Hatian dishes. You go in there, and they’re playing like kompa music and there’s a guy in the back sitting down, talking in Kreyòl.

LU: When you think of Haitians in the US, you don’t necessarily think of LA…

SJ: It kind of through me for a loop because there aren’t really any Haitian people in LA, There’s some but not enough. I don’t know where all the Haitians are at in Atlanta. Normally, it’s easy to find the Haitians cause they’re all in one place but I don’t see ‘em. I don’t see the little flags on the cars. Maybe you can post up that I’m looking for Haitians in Atlanta because there ain’t a lot of ‘em.