"Nothing's more influential than rap music.
I merge jazz fusion with the trap music.
I mix Black soul with some Rock & Roll."
These lyrics from Kendrick Lamar’s song “Black Friday” represents the daring vision that made his To Pimp a Butterfly album a towering foundation of progressive Black art, and Terrace Martin was the mortar that held said foundation together. His sinuous saxophone is mixed prodigiously with ambitious samples and live instruments in Lamar’s Grammy-winning songs, "Alright," and "These Walls." Think of Martin as somewhat of a ring master who wrangled 13 other producers to work harmoniously in tandem for a common sonic composition.
That duality of playing the part of both producer and musician has made Martin a coveted man. Artists from Lamar and Snoop Dogg to YG and Lalah Hathaway all yearn for his blend of stank-face funk and tuneful melody. His own projects, like 2013's 3 Chord Fold, are amazing statements that are built on love, life and learning and his new album, Velvet Portraits, is the most complete cohesion of his two passions.
Regardless of all the accolades, his career hasn't come without conflict as his inner producer and inner saxophonist vie for control of his soul. "It' a real f***ing struggle," confessed Martin. While the L.A. musician/producer/rapper would love to woodshed with his horn every day, it often goes in the closet for months at a time when the call comes to produce another artist’s work. "It's very hard to balance the two, but I have a responsibility, so I have to balance it."
Balancing things has been Martin's greatest virtue. Growing up in the 1990s when West Coast hip-hop ruled radio, Martin was raised by a drummer father, a songwriter mother and attended band camps with future jazz heavyweights Robert Glasper and Keyon Harrold. Ironically, it was rap music that led Martin and his contemporaries to fall in love with playing live.
"If jazz hadn't come to me in the form of hip-hop, I wouldn't give a f**k," Martin stated. "I would not be playing jazz saxophone if I hadn't heard A Tribe Called Quest."
Martin discovered the melodic musings of Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson and Grover Washington, Jr. via Tribe’s brilliant sampling. During a time when he was using drum machines and samplers, Martin had the epiphany of combining the two. Even back then, he understood the dichotomy better than most, choosing to fuse both rather than picking a side.
"You gotta have all those elements and there's a place for everything," said Martin. "I can't discredit anybody with a turntable and an MPC, or Logic, because I understand that sometimes that's all we know we have."
He rejects the stubbornness that is usually employed by hip-hop's most devoted champions who believe the tried and true MC-over-a-beat method is the only way to rap. "I think everything goes back to us as human beings and the use of this word, 'want;' W-A-N-T.’ That word is so strange to me and I don't believe in it. Sampling, performing live, everything needs to work together. Nothing is excluded for me."
This selfless mindset is shared by fellow collaborators, Glasper, Hathaway, tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington and bassist Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner. All of them contributed to Butterfly, 3 Chord Fold, and Velvet Portraits. The chemistry between Martin, Washington and Bruner, was sparked before they ever picked up their instruments. "We were friends in the same neighborhood and went to the same high schools," said Martin.
The lifelong friendships with Washington and Thundercat— then meeting Glasper and Hathaway at age 15 and 17 respectively— crystallized the extra sensory perception they share when they are in the studio and on stage together. "Working on each other's albums is the easy part; it's the fun part and it's all beautiful," Martin exclaimed. "So, it all starts with with us being human beings and loving each other as human beings first. That's our bond."
Martin's multifaceted chops are being stretched to their limits thanks to his newest collaborator: Herbie Hancock. The piano legend has enlisted Martin to produce his next album. He has spent hours, jamming every day with Hancock for six months, building a connection that he hopes fuels an important piece of work worthy of Hancock's legacy. His cohorts Washington, Bruner, Hathaway are joining him on the project, and Martin has been taken aback by the 75-year-old Hancock's youthful exuberance and enthusiasm. “His ideas don't stop coming," Martin explains. "Usually, in most session, I have a lot of the ideas, more than others usually, because I'm a producer. Him, I still don't know how to produce him because every idea he comes up with is a perfect musical idea.”
Undoubtedly Martin was also influenced by past collaborators Dr. Dre and Snoop, but he credits an unlikely source for inspiring his sound. "What I hear now with the funk and hip-hop, that whole fusion, it feels like we've incorporated Patrice Rushen," Martin revealed. Rushen's fusion of jazz into R&B/pop was a crucial inspiring agent for Velvet Portraits. Just listen to the infectious "With You" and "Oakland" and you can hear the hypnotizing hue of Rushen’s "Remind Me" and "Forget Me Nots."
"A lot of people don't know she put out jazz records, man, with Joe Henderson and s**t," Martin explained. "Patrice Rushen is the most funkiest, and the most playing-over-some-chord-changes person other than Herbie Hancock I've ever heard in my life." Turns out Rushen, Martin, Washington and Bruner all shared the same teacher; Reggie Andrews, who had them playing soul-soaked tunes from Coltrane and Stevie Wonder. "I said, oh f**k! Reggie gave us the secrets," Martin said. “I grew up under him understanding that you have to connect to lineage."
Even though rhyming has always been a part of Marti’s repertoire, his commitment to his art is evident in his decision to retire from spitting bars. His collaboration with Lamar ignited some re-evaluation of his life as an emcee. "To Pimp a Butterfly put my production level to the real test for the first time," Martin stated.
From there, he found a situational parallel with his mentor, music impresario Quincy Jones, who Martin worked with on 3 Chord Fold and various projects. Jones went through a similar conversion when he transformed from trumpet player to producer, prompting Martin to make a fateful decision to stop rapping to further develop his more instrumental attributes. "The biggest ego to me is the music, and I want everybody at their best collective. If I don't feel I'm the best at that one thing, I'm gonna get somebody that is the best. That's the concept of Quincy Jones. He's a master facilitator and that's what I aspire to be. At this point, the rapping's not even in my spirit no more. It's like I'm all about writing, producing records, finding new people and playing my saxophone."
Taking inspiration from Hancock, Lamar, Washington, Thundercat and other musical brethren and mentors, Martin is ready to pass the knowledge on to others. With the impending release of Velvet Portraits, he is launching his own record label, Sounds of Crenshaw, which he hopes to be a destination for innovation and experimentation.
"One of my biggest things is if I want to inspire others, I have to learn how to have different outlets for things,” explains Martin. “If YG wants to do an album with strings, he can come do it at Sounds of Crenshaw. If Ty Dolla $ign wants to do a Frank Sinatra-type big band album, he can come do it at Sounds of Crenshaw. Or if one of my jazz men wants to go all the way left and do some funk s**t, we can do that too. It's all about blending and cutting edges. We don't care about record sales; we just care about the art."