Beat Construction: Terrace Martin

How the Los Angeles producer and saxophonist navigates the jazz and hip-hop landscapes.

January 20, 2016

Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly was that rare rap record which feels at once ambitious and urgent: intricate, complex, abstract albums aren't frequently hailed for their ability to capture the zeitgeist, to speak to now with such vibrant force. The album's contradictions were held together, in large part, thanks to a dynamic marriage of hip-hop and jazz, genres which both play with latent tensions between "art" and "entertainment." These are two worlds which have often been fused, although not always effectively; Kendrick's success speaks not just to his singular vision, but to the musicians he hired, many of whom had their own histories within the disparate genres. One of the key players in reconciling this divide was 36-year-old Terrace Martin, a longtime hip-hop producer and saxophonist who came up simultaneously in Los Angeles' jazz and hip-hop ecosystems.

Martin's own LP, the long-awaited Velvet Portraits, is due out this year. While offering a lift to 9th Wonder on a sunny day in Los Angeles, Martin spoke with The FADER about his experiences in becoming a producer, how he approaches the fusion of hip-hop and jazz, and how his inspirations have moved from music to life itself.



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How did you first get into music?

Both of my parents are musicians. My father is from Harlem; he plays drums and percussion. And my mother is from Bakersfield, California; she grew up playing in church. That was my early home background. Growing up in the late '80s and early '90s, I was a kid, but hip-hop was still young also. Hip-hop was thriving and pushing the line with everybody. There was so much music in LA that we really rarely heard music coming from New York. Los Angeles was such a bubble in the early '90s, from the underground scene and then after NWA and the Death Row scene. We heard about a lot of East Coast things, but not as often as we do today. Plus the internet wasn't cracking back then, so I really fed off of my local influences, whether that be NWA with Eazy E all the way down to DJ Quik.

With my father being a jazz musician, he'd always turn me onto different records, like John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker. On a lot of these records, on the back of the records, they would have credits. I used to read the credits of all the musicians, and I did research where everybody was from. I realized one of my favorites was [drummer] Billy Higgins, and he happened to be from Los Angeles. And my father introduced me to him. So hip-hop and jazz, that was my life, up until 17, 18. Practice eight hours a day and listen to "Ain't No Fun (If the Homies Can't Have None)" and Wu-Tang Clan and everybody else. I didn't play the saxophone until 14, my freshman year of high school. Before that, in 5th grade my mother had bought me a drum machine and I was doing beats and rapping from 5th grade until I found the saxophone.

Did you ever have trouble with your parents listening to hip-hop? Did you have to hide the tapes, or were they accepting of it?

Me and my mother used to go down to the Roadium Swap Meet in Gardena. The Roadium Swap Meet was the hub for early West Coast hip-hop. This was where NWA and Dr. Dre used to sell their tapes in the late 1980s. My mother would buy clothes every weekend and sell clothes on the side to keep the lights on. She would buy clothes at the swap meet and let me stand in front of the record place. Because she knew in her spirit if I stood where the music was at I wouldn't move from there for hours.

This cat Steve Yano—a very important person to the whole NWA culture—ran the record store there. And every album I would buy he would give me another 12". I was in 3rd grade, 12"s back then were $4.99. I bought a Public Enemy record and the day I bought it he was like, "Hey, I'm gonna give you this record too. But don't play the A-Side, only play the B-Side.” The record was "Boyz In the Hood." When I got home, I put it on accidentally—or not accidentally, I was being extremely mischievous; I played the A-Side. I played it and I heard the most amazing, liberating, freeing sense of art I've ever come across in my life—Eazy E.

Cussing on the record was new to me. I was like, "What?! Did you hear that?" [Eazy] was saying it so cool; and it made me want to cuss and be cool. So what ended up happening was: my mother said "I'll be back, I'm going to church!" I played sick, I was coughing, faking. I would play that Eazy E record, put on my khakis and my locs and my Raiders patch and stand in front of the mirror and act like I was Eazy E. And one day I was doing this and my mother was behind me the whole time. She took the record off of the record player and said, "This is what you want to do?" I said, "Yeah!" And she broke the record in front of me. That's the day I said, "I have to do music that makes people feel that way." That day changed my whole life, because of Eazy E.

Did you ever try to convince your parents? They're really into music, did you try to explain to them, this is why like this? Or was it hard to get through.

They learned later on, a year or two later. By then I was listening full-fledged to hip-hop. A lot of things were going on in Los Angeles. That was the crack epidemic. A lot of gang murders. A lot of Bloods and Crips killing each other, a lot of violence in LA. So I would say, "The same thing the news is telling us, these guys is telling us too, but they're telling us more face to face." This is just the news, but in a poetic way. I knew it was the news, because the things they were talking about, my next door neighbors were going through. Houses getting raided, somebody getting shot at. All that crazy evil, sense of things. NWA was the news for the cats that couldn't get the message through television; they got the message through vibrations of music. That's what NWA was doing.

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After I explained that to them, and they started living life and seeing that shit with me, they still wasn't accepting of somebody calling a girl the b-word or an f-word on the record. But they took the time to take the sheet off their face and say, “Let's pay attention to what's going on so we don't get left behind.” I have very forward-pushing parents, they're like hippies—liberal, cool, whatever. When they saw how society was reacting to the music, and that the music was a reflection of society, they understood. They no longer called it rap, they called it art. All art is a portrait of what we go through.

You were on several records in the mid 2000s I bought or downloaded at the time. You had a placement on a Shawnna record, you had placements with Snoop. How did you first get into the industry side?

The Shawnna placement was my first placement under my name. I had done ghost-producing and ghostwriting on a ton of records I'll never reveal, just for the simple respect that you're not supposed to do that. Shawnna was the first artist under my name, and that was through a very dear friend of mine, Big D. I got with Snoop through Marlon Williams. He called me one day, I was 18 or 19. I was walking on 3rd and McDougal in the wintertime. I got a phone call on my two-way. It was Marlon Williams—I had been begging him to play with Snoop, because, when I tell you I prayed to work with Snoop and Dr. Dre in 5th and 6th grade, it's for real. I knew he had been working with Snoop since 1997. I was like, "Get me with Snoop!" He was like, "You're not ready, you're not ready." One day he finally agreed. Snoop was putting together a band, and he wanted horns. He said, "Can you get to LA at 8 in the morning?" I'm in New York at this time. I called my mother—I had no money then, a hip-hop and a jazz guy walking through New York trying to figure it out at 18 years old. But I end up getting a ticket and flying out.

“I know what the record has to do to convey the right message. I know what it’s going to do to the world and I want the right message to get out. That’s why my senses are loose, but they’re strict when it comes to music. This is our testimony, and we have to be careful about what we put out there.”

I met Snoop once before when I was 16. He walked into the room and it was was like my hero walking through the hallway. I had never seen a celebrity at the time. The one thing that stuck out with Snoop, there were like 50 people in this hallway, and before Snoop left, he walked down and shook everybody's hand. A big demonstration of pure humility. When I finally bumped into him [two years later], it was that same vibe. Except now he was meeting everybody in the band. It was so awkward, he met everybody and came to me last, he's like "What's up lil man, you play the horn?" I couldn't even talk, man. I was just—"I-I-I-I..." He said, "Don't worry about talking, don't worry about talking." And we went right into the music. That day changed my life tremendously.

The Snoop experience really shaped my career. Working with him helped me figure out what I wanted to do. I learned so much. He taught me a lot about how to be a man. How to be a better father, a better musician. One of the biggest rules he lives by is: the biggest ego in the room is the music, it's the song. Working under Snoop and learning under that strict tutelage helps me maneuver to this day.

How did you approach melding your jazz and hip-hop careers? Were you like, I'm either going to be a jazz artist or a producer? Was it difficult to bring those two things together for you?

It was, until a couple years ago. I still battle with it every time I do a record. I went through some days where I wanted to try to be as close as I could to Charlie Parker—that's impossible. Some days I would try to be as close to Dr. Dre—and that's impossible. So I just decided, I'm just going to do me. Whatever feels good to my heart and my spirit, that's what I'm going to do. A lot of times it didn't sound well, sonically. I think it's just now getting into something. It was a struggle at first. It's hard when you do hip-hop and you have friends that are based in hip-hop. A lot of them don't play instruments. Hanging around these jazz guys, they don't really respect hip-hop or understand it. Then you got the hip-hop guys saying, "Oh that's some old jazzy..."—you’ve got both music worlds fighting. It's a lot of hip-hop cats that still don't respect musicians, and a lot of musicians that still don't respect hip-hop guys.

I threw out the titles. I'll talk about "jazz" and "hip-hop" so readers understand. But me personally, I don't believe in titles—it's good music or bad music. It's not a thing about blending, at this point in my life. I just do what I do. Whenever I think about it as "blending" is when it always sounded corny. And this is no disrespect personally to anybody, but musically, I couldn't get into a lot of the early fused records of hip-hop and jazz; I thought they were corny. I felt like a lot of the jazz cats went to the hip-hop side to be younger and be hip. A lot of them did one record and moved on. This hip-hop shit is a culture, you can't just dive into the shit and dive out. The same lack of respect I got for the hip-hop guy that don't know much about the other side, I got the same lack of respect for the jazzers that don't know about hip-hop.

Which is why the early records of hip-hop and jazz mixing were kinda corny until A Tribe Called Quest came out. The records they were sampling—Bob James and everything—were the same records my father had. And they did it cool, because they wasn't hella choppy, so I could identify the record. And to me, Tribe has been the best hybrid, hands down.

What is your production process like? What was it like when you first started versus how you produce now?

Walking into Snoop's studio, you're looking on your left and right, you've got Fredwreck, Jelly Roll, Battlecat, DJ Quik. But you 18, with no records out. So the pressure is on. But you from South Central so you look up to everybody. That's the jazz musician mentality. I'm coming to the jam session to kill, and get the gig. That was my mentality back then, until I understood that that didn't mean shit. That was my mentality back then. When you come up with Snoop and the Dogg Pound, that's what that energy breeds—very competitive, positive... sometimes positive... [pauses] Ehh it's rarely positive. But very competitive, early on.

And if Snoop didn't like the beats he'd be like, "I don't like that. Do something right now." And you'd have to do a beat with all these producers and artists around you. Random ladies, random somebodies that was on the run for murder back in the day. Just a million people in an 800-square foot room, looking at you do a beat, or talking loud or watching the football game or watching the basketball game, and you can't break up the vibe. Because I dare you to break up the vibe when Snoop or Hov or 50 is working. You come into their world. You can't say, "I need to be alone, I don't feel the vibe." No, fuck that, you get it in or get out. That was my mentality for ten years. I can't do it now. I can't compete no more; I give up, they got it. If they don't give me what I deserve, I just don't hang out [laughs].

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When you're pushing yourself in your music, what is it that excites you? What is the next terrain for you to conquer, musically?

I push myself seriously now. Before I walk into a studio or on the bandstand, I pray. I pray because—I ask God to align me with the art, so I can take myself out the equation. If I can take myself out the equation, I can be an empty vessel for whatever God pours into me to give out to you. I want to empty out all the crazy things happening, because it's wrong if you've had a bad day, to bring your bad energy to a session full of good people. So no matter what I've gone through, I pray to align me with the art as one.

I have a record coming out called Velvet Portraits. My record took a turn because throughout To Pimp a Butterfly; there was a real family thing going on. We all went through a lot of trials and tribulations. We went through a lot of deaths, a lot of death scares. We lost a dear best friend named Zane Musa, through suicide. We went through all these things and it made me want to pull closer with myself, and it really made me want to pull closer with God. That's when I realized, despite what happens to me in my life, I can always depend on that dude because he keeps me in line. God told me, redo your record and have your father record on drums. All my life I never thought about using my father on a record, but when I put him on [Velvet Portraits], a whole 'nother level of connection and spirituality just came out the music. I was like, "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!"

If I become more of a vessel, and more humble, what's the next one gonna sound like? I don't know what the next wave is gonna be, all I can tell you is: I'm really practicing on my humility, and listening to music different. I'm really inspired by life right now. I'm not doing music to heal a musician. I'm doing music to help put a band-aid to what the world is doing to people. I can't do music for musicians, I have to do music for the people, because these are the issues that are happening.

We're not having issues with studios right now, we're having issues with human beings and children that can't wear hoods on their heads. People getting choked out and can't breathe and dying by the hands of another man and them just saying, "Oh well. Get over it." That's deep. That's deep shit. I'm excited because I can't wait to just keep putting band-aids—I want to make sure everybody loves everybody as much as I can. I gotta keep putting my music out there in a certain way. Now, in the studio, I'm a beast. In the studio, you may not hear a lot of these things but this is in my spirit. I know what the record has to do to convey the right message. I know what it's going to do to the world and I want the right message to get out. That's why my senses are loose, but they're strict when it comes to music. This is our testimony, and we have to be careful about what we put out there.

Do you perform live much?

Yeah, I play live a lot. I play at this one particular club. I actually play songs off Velvet Portraits. It's in Venice and is called the Del Monte Speakeasy. That's the only club I play in LA. I love the manager, Carlos. It has a vibe—you walk underground, it has an energy. But I'm not into the whole club politics scene. I play a lot with my friends; I'm going to Herbie Hancock's thing to play with him today.

Does it inspire you to perform live?

I respect live [performance] equally as writing. It's a beautiful thing when you write something and your work is touching all over the world while you're sitting in one place. Live is, to me, one of the only places I can have a good conversation with the fellow artists and musicians on that stage without talking a word; it's all through music and energy. Live is important. I can't be in the studio all day. I can't be in the bandstand all day. It's a balance. But one doesn't work without the other. If I wasn't a saxophonist live, I wouldn't be a producer in the studio. They go hand in hand. I'm on my own page. I'm very protective over my art, my own particular thing. It's not a game to me. I don't do this for the money. I don't do this for nothing except—I just want to put a smile on somebody's face, and help a motherfucker put a gun down. If I can help somebody put a gun down, I'm in the game.

From The Collection:

Beat Construction
Beat Construction: Terrace Martin