Terrace Martin holds a unique position in Hip Hop. He can hold court and collaborate with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and DJ Quik. But he can just as easily work with Robert Glasper and Teddy Riley while giving a thorough treatise on Jazz, R&B and Funk from pretty much any era. As a fourth-generation musician equally interested in so many genres, those disparate influences are reflected in his music.
“I grew up in South Central LA. The late '80s—that's the crack era,” Martin explained. “My father was on crack, so I remember doing all kinds of weird things like having to go get him out of motels... [Hip Hop] painted such a dark picture of L.A. I didn't know I lived in the hood, until N.W.A said where we lived was bad.”
Having released his 3ChordFold album in August, Martin reflects on his myriad of influences and the evolution of West Coast musicians. He details how an analogy he picked up at bible study became a central theme of his latest album, and he connects the dots between South Central’s rich musical history dating back to the 1940s all the way up to Compton native Kendrick Lamar’s explosive verse from Big Sean’s “Control (HOF).” Pay attention, and Terrace Martin just might school you.
Terrace Martin On The Origins Of The “3ChordFold” Back-story
HipHopDX: Can you explain the concept of the freeloader/renter/buyer analogy from 3ChordFold and where that idea came from?
Terrace Martin: The freeloader/renter/buyer analogy pretty much came from a good friend of mine named Rick. He’s an older cat, and he's a minister. Him and my mother do bible study every Monday night. It was in like deep and biblical terms, and I just broke it down for everybody to understand. Then I just took it and did the music behind it. That sermon hit me kind of hard, 'cause I've been a freeloader, a renter, and I've been a buyer. We all have to somebody—everybody in this room has been those three things to somebody—whether you know it or not. So those are three characteristics that I think we all deal with, and not just with lovers, but also with family members and friends or whatever.
DX: Sometimes the non-Hip Hop content can be a tough sell to the younger audience—especially something like Hear My Dear. How much do you think about them being receptive to it and introducing something different?
Terrace Martin: I didn't think about people when I did Here My Dear. My thought of music is a little bit different. I'm a fourth-generation musician, so I don't have a thought of anything else but music. A lot of records I do, like Here My Dear and 3ChordFold, these are records where I'm probably going through something, trying to get over something, and it's just therapeutic to me. I just know I like the music that warms my heart. My favorite era of R&B is the '80s to the '90s, and I stopped at like 2002, when Teddy Riley was the man. He's still the man.
I grew up in South Central LA. The late '80s—that's the crack era. My father was on crack, so I remember doing all kinds of weird things like having to go get him out of motels. But Teddy Riley had so many songs on the radio, and that was the soundtrack for that era—“Groove Me” and “Just Got Paid” by Johnny Kemp.
DX: New Jack Swing…
Terrace Martin: Yeah, New Jack Swing. He was the soundtrack to the crack era, and I'm a product of that era. So that's when I fell in love with music, and music has always been therapeutic to me. I do what my heart tells me to do. If somebody connects to it, that's beautiful. If somebody doesn't, it’s beautiful too. Everything is always beautiful.
How Jazz & Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing Inspired Terrace Martin
DX: I think that comes across, especially on a song like “Moved On,” which kind of takes from “Let’s Chill” by Guy.
Terrace Martin: Yeah, me and 9th Wonder co-produced a couple of them songs. I went out there to North Carolina and had them records done for me. Me and 9th are fans of the '90s, so that's “Let’s Chill.” We’ve got a song called “Angel,” which is Jon B's “They Don’t Know,” produced by Tim & Bob. That came out around '97…'98.
DX: I heard some of Keith Sweat's “Make It Last…”
Terrace Martin: Yeah, Make It Last Forever was 1987 and 1988. Teddy Riley did that whole album. And that was the same year Kool Moe Dee came out with “Go See The Doctor,” then '89 it was “Wild Wild West.” I was young, but I remember those eras because that sound was very important to me. That's why you get the “Let's Chill” vibe or that's why, when I do songs with Ty Dolla $ign, the “You're The One” record, it sounds like something Teddy and Guy would do...just 808.
DX: So I know you grew up with your parents playing piano and Jazz, how did you land on the saxophone, and is that your favorite instrument?
Terrace Martin: My favorite instrument is the organ, but I just wasn't as skilled as an organ player. My family—my father's side—they're from Spanish Harlem. So I grew up every summer and winter going to New York. My uncle Richie is a saxophone player, and around the time I turned 13 I got really girl crazy. I've always been into girls, but, at that time, I was like possessed…like a fucking young pervert or something. My dad was playing the Latin Jazz Festival and took an amazing drum solo. And at the end this beautiful, beautiful Dominican lady comes to my father in Spanish and says, “Oh, Ernesto you sound good.” So my dad says, “Oh yeah, this is my youngest son; this is Terry.” She came to me, and she had these big breasts, and she bent down and said, “What do you play?” And I was like, “I don't play nothing.” She was like, “If you do play something, it should be the saxophone.” I said “Why?” She said, “Because with the saxophone you can make love to your girl without touching her.” That same summer, my father bought me a saxophone a couple weeks later. Now I actually fell in love with the music, but… I've never seen that lady again. I've seen a lot of ladies since then [laughs].
Why Terrace Martin Says Some Hip Hop Painted A Dark Picture Of L.A.
DX: Buying saxophone reeds and carrying your horn around South Central can be kind of burdensome. How did you handle that?
Terrace Martin: I like to sometimes just give a little history of Los Angeles, 'cause the picture that Rap music painted for Los Angeles in the '80s and '90s—although that shit is real—it just painted such a dark picture of L.A. I didn't know I lived in the hood, until N.W.A said where we lived was bad. At some point, you're saying, “Somebody got killed? Fuck. Helicopter? Fuck!” It's like you don't know, and it was easy for me to play along, because I've always loved to be different. But, going back to Los Angeles, it's more guys like me than the gangster dudes in South Central. It's more of us regular dudes, because we were so rich in culture. We started from the whole Central Avenue Jazz, singing in '30s, '40s, '50s and whatnot. So the inner city of Los Angeles has always been a very artsy community. You'd be surprised—whether it's cooking, or you’ve got one of those uncles that knows how to fix something with a piece of hanger. That’s amazing to me. But that's what our people do.
So it was easy for me to play the horn. I wasn't that good at fighting, and I was a little fat kid with asthma, so I couldn't run fast. I just wanted to do something kind of cool. And I never understood why we were gangbanging and we don't even get paid for this. Where's the pension? I was on money young, selling candy and stuff like that. So it was easy, because I always wanted to be different. My heroes all come from South Central like Gerald Albright, Patrice Rushen, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Billy Higgins and Dexter Gordon. My heroes from music come where I come from. Passion is passion. Some people use their passion in the hood behind the gun, and some people use their passion behind the music. It's the same passion though, and that's why it's a thin line with that shit. It’s the same emotion, so hopefully you meet somebody where that shit is transferred to some cool shit.
Terrace Martin Avoids “New West” Label; Analyzes Kendrick’s “Control”
DX: You mentioned some very influential pioneers. It's interesting that Hip Hop is the only genre to separate them and use phrases like “New West…”
Terrace Martin: I don't believe in the “New West” thing. Music comes in cycles. People say, “The West got it. Nah, the East got it.” But nobody has it technically like that, and it's just our term is here. But we don't have “it;” it's just music. Nobody owns music, so what is the New West? That means there has to be an Old West. Who are the Old West? Are you saying Snoop Dogg and them are the Old West? He still runs shit. So it's tricky, 'cause I was 14, 15, when Snoop came out. So I'm a product of that early regime, and I'm a part of the start of this new regime—if not the start. I always look when people ask me that question, just like, “I don't know.” That's just always a weird thing for me, because I'm really from L.A., and I really know. I'm from L.A., and I eat off of L.A.
DX: Well labels aside, how do you see the old G-Funk era reflected in today's Rap?
Terrace Martin: There goes that word “old” again. Am I comparing these?
DX: No, but you mentioned being a part of both regimes. You're on a song with both MC Eiht and Kendrick. So do you see a common thread besides the location?
Terrace Martin: Shit…that “Control” verse. That was the cool, mild-mannered version of Kurupt's “Calling Out Names.” Kurupt was a lot more personal, but it would still smash, and Kendrick smashed. It wasn't him smashing in terms of dissing, because he wasn't dissing New York on that. But, I mean who could out-rap him? That's a problem. You want to try to go after a humble kid? He's just having a little fun one time. I've been listening to people's interviews about that, and I just sit back and laugh, 'cause we’re used to that.
You know how New York had all the uproar? I'm used to that. The difference between now and then is, back then, you do that and we had to chill. We couldn't go to New York for a couple weeks until we figure out how to maneuver, because it was more personal. And that's not even all of New York, because Puff and them was always good. It was more personal with the fans that didn't understand and had to choose a side. But L.A. is the only place where, if we diss somebody on the record, and really diss them, then we're not going to be in the club drinking champagne together. Our mentality is a little different. But like I said, we love New York, and I don't know how that all got misconstrued. But the point of that is, this whole thing was a product of what we were in the '90s. Kendrick is the product of the Tupac, Snoop, and he's definitely a product of the Kurupt's. He's under the N.W.A umbrella. We all are under the N.W.A umbrella. So I could do a whole record about love. And then if we want to smash, we have the option to smash. Everybody is cool. We haven't even done nothing yet.
How & When Terrace Martin’s Love Of Jazz & Hip Hop Converged
DX: True. Back to the legitimacy of people who can maneuver between Hip Hop and Instrumental Jazz, I think you and Robert Glasper are perfect examples…
Terrace Martin: That's my homeboy, with his dumb ass. I knew him since he was 15, and that's my dude. Robert is a gumbo of Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, George Duke—God rest his soul. Robert is a Gumbo of that. To me, he definitely picked up where George Duke left off. George was a bad ass Jazz pianist…bad ass. He played with Canonball Adderly, writing songs like “Sweet Baby,” and singing with Jeffrey Osborne or writing these huge Pop records and crossing over. Think about “Ah Yeah” with Musiq; he's a bad ass pianist, but focused on the song. So I would call Rob like the new George Duke as far as those compositions.
I'm trying to fall in the line of Bernard Wright from Jamaica Queens. He wrote “Jamaica Funk” with Tom Browne. Remember that song “Who Do You Love?”
DX: Yeah, the one Trackmasters sampled for the “Loungin’” remix?
Terrace Martin:: Yeah, he wrote that, and he had albums. That's Bernard Wright singing, but he's a dope ass pianist. So I want to be like the emcee/singer/horn player. But Bernard Wright is my hero. He's the shit. It was Bernard Wright, and we just lost another great cat named Don Blackman. People gotta look those two artists up, because they represent the late '70s and early '80s. LL Cool J sampled that.
DX: When our generation was coming up, A Tribe Called Quest kind of introduced us to Ron Carter. Guru's Jazzmatazz and Gang Starr introduced us to Roy Ayers and a ton of other Jazz music. How much do you think what you guys are doing will help people go back and say, “Oh that was the Keith Sweat song my mom used to play?”
Terrace Martin: The record that changed my life with music was that Low End Theory record. I was in fifth or sixth grade. That was the year “Check The Rhime” came out, the year of that Juice soundtrack, M.C. Brains, Another Bad Creation, High Five… that's all I can think about.
That record stood out. [Mimics the beat to “Check The Rhime”] I never heard that in my life at that age, I was like, “Whoa!” It felt so warm, and it had more low end than anything you ever heard at the dances. Then I bought the next album, and that's when I heard “Sucka Nigga.” That's the record that made me want to play Jazz. I grew up in a house of Jazz but that shit didn't hit me.
DX: Not until Midnight Marauders?
Terrace Martin: Yeah, I think so. But the original song is called “Red Clay” by Freddie Hubbard. Red Clay is a bad ass album with Ron Carter on bass, Herbie Hancock on piano and Fender Rhodes, Lenny White on drums and Joe Henderson on sax. That was the bridge of that shit.
DX: So that was the spark?
Terrace Martin: Yeah Red Clay. I've never worked with Q-Tip too, and I always wanted to work with him.
DX: Y'all got to have enough people to have been in some of the same circles?
Terrace Martin: I think Q-Tip is the only one. Who's left? He's the only one of my heroes I feel I want to work with. I want to work with a lot of people, but he's probably the last one. I'd want to do a whole album with him of 10 songs. And Pharrell. Me and Pharrell just met. I like Pharrell, because he keeps his ears to the street. He just came back up too.
Additional reporting by Shirley Ju.