Terrace Martin Has A Best Rap Album Grammy, Obama’s Favorite Song, Props From David Bowie, and a Brand New Album.
Terrace Martin’s trip from LA to New York this past January was different. The son of drummer Curly Martin—who once called Spanish Harlem home—Martin has made this trip more times than he can count. But this would be the last trip he would take to complete his new album, Velvet Portraits, as well as his first time rocking a NYC stage under his own name after co-producing the Grammy-winning To Pimp A Butterfly. (Note: right after TPAB’s Grammy wins, Martin did not go to any parties, but to the studio.)
Also, David Bowie just died.
Putting rehearsals, emails and business meetings aside for one night, Martin wandered through SoHo’s blocks to arrive at Bowie’s residence, which was surrounded by fans paying their respects.
“He was such a giant in the culture of music,” Martin said, visibly affected. “That’s why I don’t trip over egos, because this thing isn’t ours. I feel more personal with this situation because I’ve been around people that worked closely with him, and I know he was very moved by the whole To Pimp A Butterfly thing. Somebody that’s moved off of something we put our hearts into, it’s like we consider them family. It’s like meeting a cousin at a family reunion. You know how you don’t know anybody, but that cousin has a t-shirt on that says the last name of your family? That’s what it just felt like. I was just stuck. It felt like I knew him forever.”
“It’s the perfect time for me to be here, just to feel all of these emotions,” Martin said. On the cab ride back to the hotel, Alex Trebek breaks the solemn silence with a Jeopardy answer, grabbing Martin’s attention: “Who is Kendrick Lamar?”
“I gotta get back and finish this record,” Martin decides. Barring a few edits and final mixing, he does just that.
Martin started developing small ideas for Velvet Portraits during the final stages of TPAB.
Martin kept writing tidbits in his free time outside of TPAB sessions, after they scaled back to working on the record around five days a week. But he didn’t keep the best material: “I come from the N.W.A. umbrella, and the Dr. Dre and Snoop concept is whoever is next in the crew to come out is who you give the powerful songs to, even if they’re your songs. If I was in love with a song and I felt the song could change something, I gave it to Kendrick.”
What’s A “Velvet Portrait”?
“If you stop, everything is a portrait,” Martin says. “Back in the day, when somebody gave you a velvet portrait, way before it got to America, it was a special thing. So for me, this is my velvet portrait to everybody else. This is just a portrait of my life, a portrait of what I grew up off of, and my view of Los Angeles. It’s my view of soul.” Martin also looks at his albums and those of his cohorts as a collection of paintings in a gallery. “When you go to an exhibit, you see a stream of paintings,” he says. “So I look at my record, at (fellow musician and friend) Kamasi Washington’s record, I look at everybody’s record as paintings coming out in one body of work. I can go work with Herbie Hancock, and then go do YG, because it’s all the same message being conveyed. Right now, that’s the page I’m on. I’m in that gallery.”
Martin has his own studio rules.
“I’ve learned how to adapt to every situation, as long as we’re doing something. If we’re not doing anything, I’ll just leave the studio,” Martin says. “I don’t like the TV on in the studio. Everybody else loves it. I just want to give the music its own time. Snoop Dogg is the master of watching the playoffs while we do records. He loves the Lakers and the Steelers, so I’ve learned to adapt and work through that from watching it with him, but if I can say anything, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, you wanna cut the TV off?’”
He’s also creating music under an alias, LoveDragon.
“It was created in the mindset of a band,” Martin said of his production duo, formed with friend and mentor Josef Leimberg. “With LoveDragon, I want to work with other great writers and other great producers, so when I work with somebody else, it’s not Terrace Martin. It’s what that entity is. So I have Terrace Martin music that I do, and then the LoveDragon thing is for me with co-writes.”
Forget trends. Forget money.
“That’s the worst spirit you could ever think of coming into the room when you’re creative,” he said. “The money is the devil of all the creativity, but we need it to live. Your gift will make room for you if you dig deeper within yourself and you understand that you’re an artist doing a service of the people. That’s your only job. If you give 150 percent to the art and you’re patient, because the art is very demanding, the art will give you back 50 percent. She never gives you 100.”
Still a fan of newspapers and phonebooks, Martin also avoids following trends because he feels it leaves you a step behind. “I don’t even want to get out there and start competing because I don’t believe music is basketball. I let those other cats compete, man. My thing is I want to touch hearts; I’m not worried about touching ears.”
Favorite spots in NYC?
“When I’m in New York, I call my friend Igmar Thomas up. He hosts a jam session every Tuesday night at the Zinc Bar, where a lot of the best musicians from NYC go hang out. Then I go to this other jazz club, Small’s, where my other friend Jonathan Barber hosts. Those are the two spots I go to where you can catch me just hanging out. My favorite place to be, just walking around, is Downtown. SoHo, Chelsea, Tribeca, The Village—that whole energy is my favorite.”
But he’s still very LA.
The album’s first single, “Valdez Off Crenshaw,” was inspired by his years growing up in South Central, Los Angeles. “It reminded me of when I was a kid growing up, and my dad would drive up and down Crenshaw,” Martin says. “That’s the vibe I wanted to give because it felt so Crenshaw—Maverick’s Flat, Leimert Park, 54th and Crenshaw, Chris’ Burgers, the McDonald’s on 43rd and Crenshaw, Harold & Belle’s—it felt like that whole area.”
On making Obama’s favorite track:
“’How Much A Dollar Cost’ and ‘You Aint Gotta Lie’ are LoveDragon records,” he says. Ironically, Martin said he originally didn’t like “How Much A Dollar Cost” and wanted to get rid of it. After some coaching from TDE’s “Punch” Henderson, Martin decided to call in friend James Fauntleroy to alter it. “Six minutes after he walked in, he was in the booth, cutting the hook,” Martin said. “When he did that, it made me drop the chords out, and that’s what, for me, made me like, ‘I like it now.’” The end result wound up being President Obama’s favorite song of 2015.
Martin worked with Burt Bacharach when he was 17—don’t box him in.
“My background and my foundation is jazz, but I’m not a jazz musician. I’m just a musician,” he says. “They paint me as a West Coast producer; I’m a producer from the West Coast. Only in hip-hop they’ll say where you’re from and you’re that.”
“But I get it,” he adds. “Just focus on the art and the music; don’t call it anything.”
Image: Samantha J.