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Thelonious Martin Tells the Stories Behind His 10 Most Memorable Projects

“This is not sexy. This is not good for my image,” jokes Thelonious Martin, muffled from behind a tissue. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in Manhattan, and the 22-year-old rap producer sits across from me at a table in the Complex offices, laughing as he blows his stuffy nose. His immune system is having trouble keeping up with his travels— Martin is fresh off a flight from his home city, Chicago, and has made his way to NYC for some production sessions.

These days, “Produced by Thelonious Martin” is all over the credits of an assemblage of rappers’ growing discographies. He’s facilitated the growth of a number of careers, having worked with pre-world-touring Joey Bada$$ circa his 1999 tape, and provided hits for Vic Mensa well before he joined forced with Kanye and signed to the Roc. His latest projects include emerging names like Michael Christmas and Topaz Jones. As he sprinkles his musical ethos into the catalogs of more and more artists, his beats are the soundtrack for an entire generation of rising rappers.

Back in the Windy City, Martin grew up in a musical household. “My pops would play jazz when I was a baby, and that’s a big reason why jazz is an inherent part of what I do now,” he says. He moved to New Jersey with his family when he was young, but he returned to Chicago for college to pursue a career in the music business.

“When I first moved back, RTC [from Closed Sessions] hit me up to come to the studio,” he tells me, tossing his tissue into the far-away trash can, Lebron-style. His relationship with Closed Sessions was his first major introduction to the industry, and before long, Martin would be rubbing elbows with the rappers who would piggyback his beats to wide audiences.

“I’ve been around music my whole life,” he tells me, “but when I heard J. Dilla on Adult Swim, it blew my mind.” He began studying Dilla’s craft, researching the hit-maker’s equipment and technical methods, which pushed him to play around in GarageBand and make beats of his own. He leans back in his reclining office chair, looks toward the window behind me and brings a hand to his bearded chin. “It was like seeing a Michael Jordan and being like, ‘I wanna play basketball now,’” he says. “J. Dilla is my Michael Jordan.”

“I want to be known as this soulful producer from Chicago that made this incredible body of music, helping a lot of different artists reach stardom, all while staying true to who I am. I want to help people achieve greatness by being a vessel to spread their message.”

I ask Martin to take me through the ten most memorable projects he’s worked on— not just his favorites, but ones that inaugurated benchmarks in his career. After careful consideration, Martin opens his laptop and hits play.


Image: Sam Schmieg

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