In The Lab with Thelonious Martin
Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
There’s a changing of the guard going on in hip-hop right now. From the MCs to the producers to the executives, a new wave of talent is swiftly moving in and making their presence felt. Sure, dudes like Jay Z and Kanye West and Lyor Cohen are still making an enormous impact on the culture, but it’s important that we pay attention to what’s happening with the next generation. And one dude who is slowly but surely proving his excellence in the industry is 21-year-old Chicago-based beatsmith Thelonious Martin.
For hip-hop fans who fiend for that sample-based, soulful, hard-hitting sound made popular by legends like DJ Premier and Pete Rock, but want a fresh new youthful take on it, Thelonious Martin is a producer you should already be aware of, or need to start paying attention to immediately. His tracks are impressive to say the least. Listen to one of the joints he’s done with Action Bronson, or Curren$y, or Joey Bada$$ and Chance The Rapper, or the variety of other notable MCs he’s laced in the past couple years, and it will become quickly apparent that he’s a student of the game, and a young man who pays close attention to his craft. But if you really want to get a feel for where he’s at right now with it, check out his most recent release Polo Sporting Goods, a collaborative full-length with buzzing up-and-comer RetcH. That shit is flames, straight up and down.
To find out more about Thelonious Martin’s methods, history, and work habits, we caught up with him last week for our latest In The Lab feature to discuss how he first started as a producer, his equipment and sampling techniques, digging online and in record stores, where he seeks out inspiration, the intricacies of his beat construction, and his take on sampling songs that have already been used on past classics. Plus, he details his work with Closed Sessions, collaborations with Bronson, Spitta, Joey, Chance, and RetcH, talks about his goals for 2014, and much more. Go inside the studio with one of the dopest new producers in the game, Thelonious Martin, below.
Introduction to Producing/Equipment
Thelonious Martin: “When I was in middle school [in New Jersey, where I lived for a while after moving from my hometown of Chicago], we had a cool-ass tech teacher, and he thought it was necessary to teach us GarageBand. And I was like, ‘Yo, this is crazy, I like doing this.’ I would mess around with loops and try to chop up stuff, but it was nothing [that advanced]. Then me and my homeboy Matt, who had two turntables and a computer with Logic, started a little rap group. He would spin the break records, and we would freestyle. So that was my first introduction into trying to make my own music. But everything changed when I heard Dilla. I heard the outro to Donuts on Adult Swim, and I was completely amazed. I wanted to learn how to do that.
“Going into high school, I begged my mom to get me a laptop. So I got a Macbook in 2008, and I got a M-Audio Axiom 25, which is a little MIDI keyboard with twenty-five keys that has some drum pads on it. I was still using GarageBand, but then I started watching tutorials [and learned how to use Logic]. I always studied [and wanted to learn how to make beats]. Even before I got my laptop, I was downloading Fruity Loops on my grandma’s computer trying to make beats. I gave my grandma at least two viruses on her computer. I was so thirsty, trying to make beats before I got my laptop.
“From there, I started a recording club at school with one of my teachers, Mr. Frye. I was learning about production, but also what goes into making an actual song. And he had some equipment at school. From that stemmed working with my artists Topaz Jones and Saint Ross, we all went to high school together. And I would be going online looking for drums and samples, and chopping them up on GarageBand [to make tracks]. Then I started using Logic, and moving away from GarageBand as the recording club started picking up steam.
“Then, me and my friend Lindsey threw a concert featuring some local artists, and from that, I earned enough bread to buy an Akai MPD24. It’s a MIDI version of [an MPC]. And I still use that today.
“I use Logic as the interface, how most people would use an MPC. And I play everything through the MPD. [My equipment] has grown over the years. I use keyboards once in a while, [and I have a USB turntable for sampling records]. But the foundation of me producing is these loud-ass speakers, Logic, and the MPD.”
“[Before I got my USB turntable set up properly], I was just scouring the net for samples and compilations. RAPPAMELO was really big, they used to put everyone’s discography up. But I would also search really obscure blogs that posted vinyl rips of prog rock, jazz fusion stuff, and soul records. At the same time, I would build up my drum samples and breaks. And I’d start bardering and trading with people, like, ‘I got this 100 breaks playlist. What you got?’ They’d be like, ‘I got so-and-so’s drum kit.’
“Today, I have my full setup, and my turntable fully functional, so I go to record stores to dig. But doing it half and half [is effective], because the Internet is a very valuable resource in terms of looking stuff up [and getting information before you go to the record store]. So I’ll go the record store like, ‘Alright, Marvin Gaye produced this record for Leon Ware. Who played bass on this album?’ I got the hang of digging a little more quickly than the average sixteen, seventeen-year-old would. Even when I go now, I skip certain sections completely, like, ‘Everybody used those albums.’ It’s like I walk into record stores with the cheat book.”
Favorite Record Stores
“I did a program at NYU [called Future Music Moguls when I was in high school], and Illmind was my teacher. So I would go there and pick Illmind’s brain for three, four hours, then go around the corner to Fat Beats and just look at records. I’d see what new hip-hop was coming out, and who was on what. This [went on] for weeks.
“There’s one record store in Chicago I like so much that I can’t tell nobody [what it’s called]. I’ve been sworn to secrecy by my man DJ Castle. He took me there, and we were shooting ‘A Day in the Life’ for me, and we had to shut the cameras off as we were going over there. He wouldn’t tell me the name until we got there, and he swore me to secrecy. It’s such an ill spot. I’m talking about records from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. There’s so many records that it’s almost a mess. There’s cats there. It’s so ill that I won’t tell anybody [what it is]. I can’t.
“Other than that, I go to Reckless Records, or Dusty Groove [in Chicago]. There’s a bunch of spots that have different locations in town, and some mom and pop shops [that I go to also]. My first experience digging was actually at a thrift store back home in Jersey by my high school. This old dude had this James Bond soundtrack shit, some Quincy Jones would be in there, George Benson. He had some good-ass records. My mom would give me ten bucks, and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m not gonna eat at lunch, I’m gonna stop at the thrift store and see if I can get a record.’
“I got a couple crates, and two shoeboxes full of 45s. Since I have Internet resources and vinyl resources, if I can find the record for free online, I cop it there. But if I want to go to the record store, I’ll buy some records. My iTunes has 21,000 plus songs, and half of them are non-rap related, full albums, fully [there for the purpose of sampling].”
Routine/Sampling Techniques/Beat Construction
“I go to school full-time at [Columbia College Chicago, studying music business. Kanye went there a couple weeks and then dropped out.] I usually make sure my school schedule is separate from my music schedule.
“I’ll sort the records I want to sample beforehand. I’ll have playlists, or set aside a stack of records I want to sample, like, ‘I know if I go through this playlist [or stack of records], it’s nothing but gold.’ It cuts down time a little so you can just get to work, [rather than] going through two full albums and only finding two songs [you want to sample]. The days where I can’t really sit down [and focus completely on making beats], I’ll grab records, listen to them, sort them out, and put them into playlists. So then, when I’m about to go to the studio or set up at home, I go through the playlist.
“Depending on my mood, I’ll sit with a record for like thirty minutes, before I even touch my computer or anything equipment-wise. I’ll just let it play, and listen to it. During that time, I go through a mental process, like, ‘Aiight, I can chop up that loop, that’s a nice break, maybe I can add some vocal stabs from that sample later on.’ So I’m chopping up the sample in my head. Then I’m thinking about the drums, like, ‘Should I program drums? Should I try to find a break? The ‘Incarcerated Scarfaces’ break hasn’t been used in a minute, how can I flip it and make the drums chunkier?’ And I haven’t even touched anything [yet]. I’m just thinking.
“Once I have a solid idea in my head, and a concept of what the beat could be, I’ll start chopping up the sample. And I’ll start laying down sample sequences. Once I get that, I’ll try to see what I can pull from out the sample, like, ‘Can I EQ out the bass, and hear just what the bass line sounds like?’ Or I pull out the tuner, and see what notes are played in the sample, see what the key is, and see if I can play a bass line with it if the bass line doesn’t sound right when I EQ it.
“Then, I’ll start building up different layers to the sample, whether it’s a high-pass, medium-pass, or low-pass. I studied Beatminerz and Primo with the low-pass stuff, just having the bass line from the sample. I like using that technique, because I feel like you get the most out of the sample. And I do eight or sixteen bar loops when it comes to sample sequences.
“Then, I’m thinking drums. I usually get a hi-hat groove going. Snare selection is very tedious. I go through snares, and then sit down with it afterwards and see if I can tweak it out some more, depending on whether there’s a filtered kick [where you would want the snare] to punch, or if it’s a snare that you want to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The kick is a low bounce, and they’re usually in the same range depending on the record. You can get a good kick all the time. But the snare has to lay into the record, and coexist with the sample if it has a snare in it, and you want it to sound natural. You don’t want to throw in a trap snare over a jazz fusion record, because it’s not going to sound right with the brush drums and the snare that the drummer was using. So it’s like, ‘I gotta find a snare that’s kind of light, then maybe throw a chunky snare underneath to give it some bite, but still make it sound like it’s in the groove.’
“I’m constantly studying producers. And [one thing that stuck with me in terms of constructing beats is that] 9th Wonder was saying you want to chop up your sample so it has a groove, so a band could play it live. [I want my music to be timeless and accessible so] you can play this record ten years from now, and it can still have the same groove, and your head can still nod. Not like, ‘Oh, that style of music was cool back then.’”
“When I first started, I would sit in front of my computer all damn day, and try to make twenty beats a day. But over the course of time, I’ve learned that you can’t congest your creativity. I’ve been in sessions where I’ll go to the studio for eight hours and do four beats. But if I’m at the crib, I’ll sit down and watch a movie, and draw inspiration from other places, and try to make like three or four beats a week. If I’m at the studio, though, I’ll do that in a day, because there’s no distractions.
“By the end of the month, I try to make sure I have one [beat made] for every day of the month, or at least one for every work day of the month. Like twenty or thirty a month, that’s kind of my quota. I remember 9th Wonder said he made thousands and thousands of beats before he got the Jay Z placement. But I’m trying to not kill myself. I feel like people fall into a trap or a void where they’re doing the same thing just to get mass output. I mean, most of the beats I make end up getting trashed until I can make them more grand. I want to make sure each product is taken to a level of supreme excellence.”
“This is gonna sound so corny and so hip-hop, but I watch hella Kung fu flicks, and blaxploitation films. I watch anime stuff too. Then I like looking for stuff that’s different. When I’m chilling on my computer, there’s a site called CONTEMPORIST. It posts nothing but architecture from across the world, like modern houses and [buildings]. I’ll see a house in Brazil that looks ridiculous, and I’ll be like, ‘I wonder how that would sound?’ Or, ‘What would be the music you would play [inside the lobby of that building]?’ It’s something that allows me to go to a different mindspace when I’m sitting in my cold-ass apartment in Chicago. I feel that it’s important to take yourself out of the picture in order to create.”
“When I first moved to Chicago to come here for school, I met up with [Closed Sessions president DJ] RTC. And we sat down, and he wanted to help me out. I had a list of artists I wanted to work with, and things I wanted to achieve. So he told me that they had a studio, and they did this thing Closed Sessions, where they’d bring artists into town and work with them on songs, and then they would have concerts as well. So we worked something out where I could go to their studio and produce [and be a part of their in-house team], and then when artists would come in, I would have production for them [to use for their Closed Sessions projects].”
Working with Action Bronson
“I was sitting in this audio tech class that I hated my freshman year, and I get a call or a text from RTC, like, ‘You won an Action Bronson contest.’ He was kind of joking around with me [at first], but then he was like, ‘We played him three or four of your joints, and he loved them all.’ So I said, ‘Hey teacher lady, I gotta go do important rap stuff with famous rap stars.’ That’s exactly what I said to her. She gave me a blank face, and I left.
“I hopped on the train and went to the studio. He already had one of the joints recorded, ‘Dear Heather.’ They were playing it back, and I was like, ‘This joint is crazy.’ He was sitting there writing his rhymes on paper, rolling up baby arm joints. He’s kind of quiet when he writes. At the time, he was with Dante Ross, so he’d look up and say something to him. But he was kind of laid-back with it.
“It was a really dope session, off the love that he fucked with everything I was doing. At the time, I was really trying to do the simple, boom bap, loop-oriented kind of stuff. The stuff that came from that session that you guys heard was made up of really obscure loops. One of the records [sampled] some Brazilian record with some really weird instrument in it. And ‘Blackbird’ is a Turkish sample I believe. It’s not like a James Brown loop. You’re not about to find it a record store, or figure out the sample when you hear it. It’s not familiar, and that’s the route I was trying to go [at that time]. And he was fucking with all that, and how I was coming about with it, so that was dope as hell.”
Creating Curren$y’s 3 Piece Set
“Before [the 3 Piece Set project], Curren$y came to town, and we did a joint called ‘Talk My Shit,’ which was on the Priest Andretti mixtape. Then he came back for another show, and my manager was on it, [making sure we connected again]. So we get to Soundscape Studios, and Curren$y arrives five minutes later like, ‘I knew you would be here. I came here looking for you specifically.’ So we sat up and did three joints that day, and that turned out to be 3 Piece Set.
“One of those joints I made the day before, which was the ‘Can’t Get Out’ beat. That’s one of my favorite beats to this day. It’s one of those beats that I made that I was really proud of. Then he picked it, and I was like, ‘Do you think I gotta tweak anything?’ And he was like, ‘Nah. Don’t touch a thing. Let it play.’
“Curren$y is amazing. When we’re in the studio together, there has never been a skipped beat. It’s not like, ‘Go to the next one.’ Every time I’ve played him a beat, it’s been spot on, like, ‘Yes, I fuck with this.’”
Playing Beats for Artists
“What I’ll do is I’ll have skeletons ready, like eight or sixteen bars of something that’s lightly sequenced, so I can play it on the spot, and then depending on how [the artist I’m working with reacts], I can either add, take away, re-do the kick groove so they can flow to it differently, or add a breakdown. And I’ll have some of that stuff already in mind.
“I’ll also have beats that [I can hear a certain artist on]. So if I’m in a session with them, I’ll play it for them, or I’ll send it to them. I don’t really [separate my beats] into folders, because sometimes artists pick the beats you wouldn’t expect them to pick.”
“It depends on the artist, but I’m very vocal in the studio, in terms of being like, ‘Try it like this.’ And I’ll tell somebody, ‘That shit’s wack,’ immediately. I don’t want to ever be in a situation where someone is like, ‘Oh, that beat was hot, but the lyrics was wack.’ I’m never fin to let that happen, ever, if I have anything to do with it. I’m here to make the best music I can possibly make. I’m not about to half-ass some shit. [Even now when I’m in the studio] with major artists, I won’t shake that mentality.”
“I don’t smoke or drink, at all. If I had a rider, I would need the aloe vera water. That shit is critical. It’s delicious. It’s made by this Korean brand OKF. You have to go to certain bodegas or corner stores to be able to find it. But other than that, I don’t like extra people in the studio. If you’re not the person who’s about to record, or the person who’s about to record’s significant other, or you’re not directly tied to the record, get the fuck out the studio. They cloud up the space, and distract the artists. Hate’s a strong word, but that’s the shit I hate. Don’t bring no extra people to the studio. You’re coming here to work.”
“Wendy N Becky” ft. Joey Bada$$ and Chance The Rapper
“Prior to that, I had sent Joey a batch of beats. And it didn’t really think nothing of it. But the funny thing is I’d had that sample of the Tom Scott cover of ‘Naima’ since like ‘09. I had it chopped up like that, but it was something [that I revisited] like, ‘How can I flip this again? What drums can I add to this to give it a new life?’ I like to think that some of the samples that I touched when I was younger were too good for me, so revisiting some of those have helped spawn [successful songs like ‘Wendy N Becky’].
“Chance was in New York, and [Chance’s manager] Pat hit me up like, ‘Hey, Chance and Joey are in the studio using your beat.’ At first it didn’t even register or click like, ‘These are two of the biggest up-and-coming artists.’ I was just like, ‘Aw shit, yeah. Cool.’ Then the song came out, and I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ That song dropped during Pro Era week [back in the beginning of the year], and it still does numbers.
“Me and Chance go way back. And when Joey first came on, someone tweeted ‘PantiE Raid,’ and I hit him up trying to find him [because I thought he was dope]. This is almost like two years ago, before 1999. I was like, ‘Hey, this kid’s young, he’s from New York, and he’s spitting that shit.’ So I became Facebook friends with him and everything, and chopped it up with him, [and started sending him beats] immediately.
“In production, you have to have an ear for artists. You almost have to A&R shit yourself in the sense of being able to recognize talent. So I was able to peep, like, ‘This kid Joey’s gonna be big. This is what New York needs. He’s got a sound that isn’t necessarily touched on anymore. And coming from a young cat, people are gonna eat that shit up.’”
Sampling Roy Ayers on “K.I.N.G.S.”/Hanging with Joey Bada$$ and Capital STEEZ
“I motherfucking loves Roy Ayers. I was supposed to do a Roy Ayers project with M.Will the Shogun and Hanni Fresh back when I was sixteen, seventeen, but it never came about. But I’ve fucked with Roy Ayers since way back then. I specifically want to attribute that to my mom, because she’s a huge Mary J. Blige fan. It was hearing [‘My Life’] and being like, ‘What’s the sample to this? Oh, it’s [Roy Ayers ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine?’] This is amazing. I’m gonna listen to everything he does.
“That ['The Third Eye’] sample came straight from the vinyl. It’s one of the records that Joe Blow gave me, [who’s this dude that I met in Chicago in a studio session who coincidentally had a blog Joe Blow the Sample King I used to go to for samples all the time. He gave me like two crates of records after I met him.]
“They came [to Chicago] for [The] Smoker’s Club [Tour], and I got the chance to chop it up with Joey and Capital STEEZ (RIP). It’s funny, they were in the room, and I started playing beats, and Joey was like, ‘Yo, what’s your name again?’ And I’m like, ‘Thelonious Martin. I’ve been sending you beats and talking to you on the Internet for a minute.’ He’s like, ‘Oh shit! What’s good?!’ Then I sent him [the beat for ‘K.I.N.G.S.’] and [they ended up using it for The Aprocalypse mixtape]. It’s crazy that it has Capital STEEZ on it. Man, that brother had so much promise. They did the song in New York, but just from hanging with them in Chicago, I knew they were good peoples. They’re really about their culture, and about what they spit. They’re genuine people.”
Polo Sporting Goods with RetcH
“The first song that was recorded for Polo Sporting Goods was ‘Paul Allen’s Business Card’ with Sulaiman, who’s my homie from Treated Crew, from Chicago. He went out to L.A. and was working with Chuck Inglish and Da$h, and he was telling me about this kid RetcH. And I [heard what they did together on my beat] and was like, ‘This shit’s crazy. I fuck with this.’ So me and RetcH linked up on some more stuff. We did ‘Special Jim’ in January, [to give you a feel for] the grand scheme of how long we worked on this project.
“So we had a foundation. Then we linked up some more at SXSW, and we chopped it up about the project, and who we wanted for special features. Then we would talk like two or three times each week on the phone. We weren’t together in the studio, but by the time we linked at SXSW, we had the foundation for the sound, and worked closely on the beat selection [from there]. I was trying to provide a canvas for him to tell these stories [like ‘Special Jim’], and also do gritty records like ‘Graceful Jewelry Removal.’
“Retch is our generation’s Raekwon. This project reminds me of when I first heard Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… That emotion, that vibe. And I’m glad that me and him were able to come together and make that in 2013.”
“I love that beat. It’s a really soulful joint. I didn’t know where he was gonna take it. When I heard the first line, ‘V.I.P. at the Special Olympics,’ I stopped it right there and texted him, like, ‘Yo, what the fuck?!’ Then I sat down and listened to the whole record, and at that moment, I knew this project was gonna be incredible. There’s always an ‘it’ factor to a person or a project that grips you. And I was like, ‘When people hear this song, they’re gonna lose their mind and be like, ‘What the fuck?!’
“Earl [Sweatshirt] tweeted about it, Ab-Soul talked about how it changed his life, [Peter] Rosenberg played it [on Hot 97] before we even dropped the tape. It’s such a wild story that you’ll never hear from anyone else. I believe it’s completely fictional. But the fact that he was able to do that? I don’t think anyone can come close to that. It’s not something you hear every day. He adopted a special needs kid who’s in a wheelchair, he’s at the Special Olympics, and his mother is a junkie who killed herself. Like, what? That’s not a typical rap record.”
Using Previously-Sampled Records for New Material/Finding Unused Samples
“For ‘Marmalade Sky,’ I know Mad-Lib used that, I know Big Pun used that. But for me, it was never flipped in that gritty way. Big Pun used it, but they kind of used the flutes and stuff more. No one really used the bass piano. The way I thought about layering the flute was from the way Dilla flipped it. It’s on one of his beat tapes, he flipped that sample, too.
“[I’m not familiar with the O.C. song ‘Hypocrite’ that contains the same sample as ‘Pimp Sport,’] but I’m gonna get familiar with it now. Some people call me an old soul, but there’s certain records I haven’t heard. My mom and dad were heavy on Wu-Tang and stuff like that, but there’s certain records I missed out on. But I could tell you about some Gang Starr records. When’s the last time you heard ‘Deadly Habits?’ I recently revisited it. It’s from like ‘03, but that might be one of my favorite Primo beats. There are certain artists I’m well-versed in, and certain artists I missed out on. But I’m definitely trying to go listen to that [O.C.] record. Today.
“I love that sample [from World’s Fair ‘Heathrow (Children of the Night).’] I’m very aware [that was used in the past]. Sometimes I try to flip records that people have touched before, but make sure I do it in a way that no one has before. It’s not, ‘How did [they] do this?’ It’s, ‘How would I do this?’ And then I make it sound completely different and pay homage at the same time. It’s like me sticking my chest out, like, ‘Hey, these guys aren’t the only ones that can flip this record. I can do some cold shit with this, too. So y’all can put me in the same conversation with these cats at the end of the day.’
“[It’s not hard to find samples that haven’t been touched before.] Not at all. I try to tell people on Twitter, ‘Do not let anyone tell you that every soul record [has already been sampled].’ I’m like, ‘Fam, do you understand that there’s a whole era of Japanese funk, soul, and pop from the ‘70s? And not just that country. In Turkey, in France?’ Of course, the American joints [have been heavily used]. But if you go and look in these other places, there’s an abundance of records.
“A good example is how everyone used that Cortex record that MF Doom sampled on ‘One Beer.’ They’ve used that up and down. Wiz [Khalifa] used it, a bunch of people flipped it. Cortex is a French jazz band, but their second album is more disco and funk. But after that, they slowly went back to their first style, but you’d have to dig to find that out. So don’t get scared like, ‘Everybody used this.’ Dig into the artist’s catalog. You’ll find some hot shit.”
“I’m working with my artist Topaz Jones. He’s got an album coming out in 2014, and I’ve got some production on there. I’m working with my artist Saint Ross, he’s got a project coming out called The Winter Collection. And I’m working on placements. Just working.
“There’s definitely a buzz building up. I’m trying to build it up more, but there’s definitely some whispers. I’m focused on getting at least two album placements in 2014, and then from there, keep building on. Royalty checks are cool. I want to pay my way out of college. The money’s alright [as of right now]. It’s coming in. With the quality of work I do, and the people I work with now, you can’t really come to me asking for something for free. I’m working with Odd Future, Pro Era, SAVEMONEY. If you want to be included in this, that don’t come for free.
“There’s this [producer] named Whoarei out of Sacramento. That’s baby Madlib. That kid is fucking filthy. Like, nice as hell with it. All types of styles. Ridiculous. And me and him are supposed to be doing something [together next year, too].”
“Before this three or four year period, the artists that came out from Chicago, there’s was always a gap in between. Like Twista, Shawnna, Kanye. But now, every six months, there’s somebody from Chicago that got the strangle hold on something, and got the buzz going. That’s one of the reasons I moved here, because I saw that ahead of time. My mans saw it, like, ‘Look, come back home to Chicago and build something here.’ We’ve pretty much had it on lock, besides New York getting their buzz back, and L.A. doing their thing. But outside of that, Chicago got it on lock.”
Stay tuned for the release of Thelonious Martin’s compilation The Anthology presented by DJ Supa and DJ Scrap Dirty, dropping Christmas Eve.
Previously: In The Lab with Troy Ave | In The Lab with Marco Polo | In The Lab with Black Milk | In The Lab with Oddisee | In The Lab with Pete Rock | In The Lab with Party Supplies | In The Lab with Mac Miller | In The Lab with Roc Marciano