Thanksgiving 2009 I was flying from Philly to Vegas, my now significant other was just a homegirl at the time, a music enthusiast the way I am. I asked her for suggestions on stuff to check out on my flight, she said “Terrace Martin Signal Flow”. I checked it out and it was cool but it wasn’t until Here, My Dear and Locke High 2 a few years later that I became a big fan of his talent.
Terrace is a saxophonist and a production wiz who just happens to rap. If you’re a Kendrick Lamar fan, he produced “Ab-Soul’s Outro” from Section.80 as well as “Real” and other portions of good kid, m.A.A.d city, but he’s a force within his own right, having built his name from the ground up working extensively with Snoop Dogg & Tha Dogg Pound. Yesterday Terrace Martin took time to speak with me regarding his history, inspiration and motivations as his newest album 3 Chord Fold is releasing today (features include, Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Musiq, Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway and Snoop).
You were initially known as a producer for other rappers before many realized you were a musician aspiring for bigger things as a rapper yourself. How did your earlier production set up the platform for your present work?
I started from the age of 7. From the age of 7 to 15 I took being a emcee really serious, but I started producing at 9 or 10 just doing beats for me and my cousins and people around the neighborhood. Then I just really fell in love with the fact that I had the ability to make a bed for artists to rap over and sing over. I stopped rapping at 14 or 15 and I fell deep into (producing) but I always wrote rap songs and battle raps for fun. What ended up happening was I fell in love with facilitating all kinds of situations, like putting that emcee with that singer on that beat and listening to what it sounds like at the end.
Doing what I’m doing now and going back to rapping, I still don’t consider myself a rapper. I do it for fun and I do it because with my songs I want to say a lot of things but the saxophone doesn’t allow words to come out. So sometimes I just want to say it just to get the fucking point across a lot faster (laughs).
When you were first working on perfecting your craft you came up under West Coast veteran Battlecat. How did that come about and what was that experience like?
I grew up in the same neighborhood as Battlecat in the Crenshaw district. There’s a lot of cats in that area, you got me, Battlecat, Nipsey Hussle, Kurupt, we grew up in that Crenshaw and Slauson area. In that area you’re either gonna look up to the hustlers, the gangsters or every now and then you get blessed and you’re able to have a Battlecat inside your neighborhood. Every time you walk past his house as a kid you hear loud music coming out that ended up being Kurupt records, Domino records, and Snoop records. You’d hear this loud music out this dude’s garage with the SP1200 and two turntables.
I was hearing that every day when I was young and by the time I was 15 or 16 I got a chance to meet Battlecat, we got our haircuts at the same spot called Good Fred’s which is on 54th & Western. I started warming up to him, telling him I’m a real fan of everything, he just scooped me up and I got a chance to live with him and really learn how to work the drum machines, how to mix and all kinds of other things. I really learned how to put together a record with different sounds and sound effects, that’s what Battlecat taught me. I’m forever grateful to him for that.
Were there any other sources you were learning from at the time?
That was in the ‘90s so around that time I was just learning from records like early NWA and Public Enemy records about how to mimic sounds and how to take breakbeats. This was before the saxophone came into my life, it was just all Hip Hop but I always did love R&B like Teddy Riley, at that point it was just me with the samplers trying to mimic what I was hearing on the radio. I wasn’t having a full understanding of how they did that, but I was just getting as close as I possibly could. Then when I met Battlecat, he made everything come together like glue.
Talk to me about your initial cosign from Snoop Dogg and the relationship you built with him, many consider that a pivotal moment for your career.
Shortly after I got with Battlecat, I got with Snoop. My brother Marlon Williams (executive producer of 3 Chord Fold) has been playing guitar with Snoop since the mid ‘90s on all of the records and early tours. Snoop has always been around the family but when I got involved I was 18 years old. I first got involved playing saxophone and keyboards with Tha Eastsidaz and then I got involved with Soopafly who is another one of my all time heroes of production.
Soopafly heard my beats, we were working on Latoiya Williams’ record at the time, he slid my beat tape to Snoop. Snoop was like “That’s the same dude that plays piano, drums and saxophone in my band?” Snoop started inviting me to the house, then he scooped me under his wing and I learned a lot from him, Daz and Kurupt. I been with them since 18.
Your sound could be classified as West Coast party music mixed with G-funk, soul and jazz. Would you say any other styles inspire your music?
I don’t really like putting my sound with no type of coast because if you think about it people say Battlecat is West Coast, but some of Battlecat’s biggest influences are Roger Troutman and Parliament Funkadelic. That’s actually Midwest, we really pulled from that if you want to identify a West Coast sound.
When you hear Jill Scott, I figure that’s more West Coast because our West Coast’s forefathers are like Patrice Rushen, Ndugu Chancler, and Reggie Andrews that really helped birth neo-soul and the R&B Fender Rhodes type of sounds. When I think of West Coast that’s what I think of, because we didn’t grow up on a lot of those records that people think are West Coast to us. That’s just what they put on us, we’re actually more into vibes and rhodes, it’s close but the sound that the world knows to be West Coast is technically not ours. That didn’t come from here, we took that and elevated it, the same way Hip Hop didn’t come from L.A.
I’ve also heard Prince influence in some of your drums like on 213’s “Joysticc” and “All Night”.
Now, Prince is the God (laughs). Prince, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and George Duke are some of my highly most influential artists. Prince is a hell of a musician, he’s not a gimmick and I’m kind of anti-gimmicks. He’s not the guy that kind of plays the guitar and kind of writes a little music, he plays the fuck out of everything, sings his ass off and writes hit records. He’s like the total package of what I feel a genius is. Everybody’s used to saying the word like “Kanye’s a genius” or some other guys, and I’m not taking nothing away from them but it takes a little bit more to be a genius in my book and Prince is definitely one of them motherfuckers.
Since you’ve done both, what would you describe as the difference between a beatmaker and a producer musically?
A beatmaker is somebody that sits at home or in the studio, he does a lot of beats, has beat CDs and emails them out. He’s never there giving strong constructive criticism when the artist is doing the song. He’s never there from the hi-hat to the mashing of the beat, he’s just doing the beat which was called a programmer in the ‘70s and ‘80s, meaning they programmed the beat. A producer facilitates the whole thing until the record is out, whether it be taking something and chopping something else like “Let me put homegirl on the hook, let me sing right there, take that snare out and put the drop right there. That’s somebody who’s really producing the song, that’s really embedded into that particular record.
I’m not knocking beatmakers, we love beatmakers. If you in Hip Hop you come from being a beatmaker and hopefully you evolve into a producer. With all due respect, I don’t ever want it to get confused, I’m not gonna help spread the word that a beatmaker is the same thing as a producer because it’s not. When you send a beat to a rapper and they do everything to it, the artist is now the producer and you’re still just the beatmaker, period.
A topic not explored enough in Rap these days is love, a theme that is dominant in your projects such as Here, My Dear and 3 Chord Fold. What would you say creating music about love does for you on a personal level?
I try to push love because I still think it’s strong, we all need love and we all struggle with knowing how to love. I’m from South Central Los Angeles and I grew up in one of the most dangerous times, all of my peers and some family members have been victims of gang violence and the crack era, they’re still going through a lot of fighting, getting shot and killing every day. My thing is I’m not trying to spread that message because I don’t even want to be reminded of it because so many other artists remind me of it and the news reminds me of where I come from. I was told by a good friend that sometimes we smile and laugh to keep from crying so much.
I try to spread the word about love in music and just keep it on that page because so much hurt is built up in me whether it’s from relationships with women or friends throughout the community or with my people as a whole. Growing up young and black in South Central is not the easiest thing to do, so I’m not gonna do songs about killing and the streets of LA because I’m a product of that. If more artists would spread the word of love, a lot of things would be more calm in these communities from here to New York City.
How would you say you’ve grown professionally and musically with 3 Chord Fold?
I’m still in school for being a great producer and who ever knows if I’ll pass that grade, I hear the growth with me in 3 Chord Fold song wise and with the concepts. Punch who is the president Top Dawg Entertainment is also my manager and he helps coordinate my records. I’ve took a big piece of Quincy Jones meaning I’ve learned how to be a better producer as far as being a facilitator. I’ll say “My strong points are A & B, let me get another cat that knows C, let me get a girl that knows D”, I’ve grown humble enough to give everybody different jobs to do the song.
I’m all about the song, I’m not about being the best producer, the greatest emcee or the greatest saxophonist. I don’t care about the title of being the best, I just want to do my part in music. I’ve grown through 3 Chord Fold as it’s a true testimony of what I’m going through with my personal relationships and in life with my struggles as a man. It’s also a testimony of what I’ve come from with my earliest mixtapes and production to now, I think I just now figured out with this record how to put together an album.
From my understanding Quincy Jones has come to mean a great deal to your life. Talk to me about that.
I started working with Quincy Jones about six or seven years ago. I met him through Snoop, we’re doing a joint project with the great Clark Terry which is one of everybody’s forefathers in jazz music. Without Clark Terry you wouldn’t have a Miles Davis, he was Miles Davis’ teacher. Without Clark Terry you wouldn’t have a Quincy Jones, he was Quincy’s trumpet and music teacher also and he’s my teacher now. We’re doing this album with Snoop Dogg and Clark Terry, Quincy is overlooking it and I’m producing it hands on.
We’ve been working on that amongst other projects, I just got really close to him where he’s become a great teacher and a mentor. He was actually hands on producing a song on (3 Chord Fold), a remake of Michael Jackson’s “Cant Help It”. Being around him has been such a huge blessing and every day I thank God for Snoop Dogg even bringing me to him. He didn’t have to do that, but he knew Quincy was one of my heroes and that I was capable of knowing about jazz and Hip Hop to really do the true bridge. It’s only a few cats that I’ve heard that could do that and not be considered corny and I guess they considered me one of them.
You were pretty far into creating the album and you went back to the drawing board to scrap everything, starting from scratch. What was that process like and what made you want to start all over?
I was damn near done with the first version of the album when we just started working on good kid, m.A.A.d city. Being in the studio for months with Kendrick, Dr. Dre, Sounwave, the engineer Ali and a ton of other great producers coming through, it was a whole bubble of energy. Towards the middle of that album I said “You know what, I gotta re-do my album, it sounds like a mixtape and I need it to be very cohesive like this.” I had to go back to the drawing board because when we first heard a lot of these Kendrick records, we all gave him our A+ game and I was giving myself my D- game. I thought it was a A+ until we worked with Kendrick.
What would you say your role has been in Kendrick’s career?
I’m like the utility man, which means if we’re lacking a sound or a certain level of production I’m gonna supply that. Say we cant clear a sample and we don’t want to clear it, if we need to rewrite a whole part over that with live instruments, I’m like his Greg Phillinganes. Greg Phillinganes is Quincy Jones’ right hand man from all of the Michael Jackson records, whatever he needed to play Greg was able to provide. That’s my role with Kendrick Lamar and the whole TDE camp and I’m just happy to do my part in the whole movement.
You’ve been down with Problem for quite some time, how has it been to see him steadily growing?
It’s beautiful. Seeing where he’s come from as far as going from producer to artist to emcee then back to artist. His emcee level is out of this world, he comes from the school of Kurupt. He’s always been dope, but when he got with Kurupt he learned the art of rhyme and his words just got better. The Problem you’re hearing now is a cat that went from producer to artist, he studied the art of emceeing and went back to artist.
Is there anything you haven’t attempted yet musically that you would like to try?
Everybody I would like to do a record with is dead, I cant do a record with Frank Sinatra unfortunately. It would probably be to produce Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d city live at Carnegie Hall with a 27 piece string orchestra in the pit. Like a play of the album with Kendrick to the far left with a red light over him, sitting down telling the whole story. That would probably be the last thing, because I’ve done everything.
At the end of the day, what is the legacy you want to leave behind with your music?
The legacy I want to leave behind? Make sure the baby mamas get they fair share when I’m gone and for yall to keep playing my music. Just keep playing the music, make love not war, that’s it.