Jazz informs both the music and the mindset of Thelonious Martin. From his favorite types of samples to his very name (“Thelonious,” from classic jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, whose music Martin’s dad played to get him to go to sleep as a child), Martin is nothing if not a jazz aficionado. He cites BADBADNOTGOOD as a favorite new artist, a trio who, like Martin, works with both jazz and hip-hop. Contained in Martin’s interest in jazz is an immense respect and admiration for the professionalism and specificity of the greats. “With Miles Davis you hear all the wild crazy stories,” says Martin, “but you also hear stories about how meticulous he was.”
The meticulousness of jazz, and the competitiveness that informs it, are prominent concerns for Martin, a twenty-two-year old producer finishing up his degree in music business at Columbia College Chicago. “I grew up playing sports,” he says, “so there’s a very serious element of competition I always have.” As a result, Martin is constantly looking to improve himself both as a musician and as a businessman.
As he finishes up his degree, the musical aspect of Martin’s drive is complemented by a growing sense of business and social savvy. “I know how to send a beautiful email,” he says with a smile. Whether it’s watching interviews for tips and advice or learning how to best acquire an ad placement, Martin’s attention to detail is a huge asset in the rapidly-moving world of hip-hop.
Even Martin’s attitude towards sampling has its roots here. He describes the process of finding and flipping a sample as actively discomforting, in the way that a certain sound or riff gets under your skin. “You hear records, and it’s a challenge, instantly.” The feelings that classic records evoke in just a few seconds compel Martin to figure out how he can do the same, or even better. As a result, the production on Wünderkid bubbles over with carefully chosen details. Album highlight “Corners of Your Mind” grounds its R&B/horn sample conceit with a synthesizer that enters the song halfway through, while other songs (“Jazzercise”, “September”) brighten a 4/4 rhythm section with melodic bass lines.
On the other hand, though, Martin is aware of the dangers of getting lost in the details. He feels that so many rap records in this age are still stuck on the mindset of who the song “belongs” to, be it the producer, rapper, or even the label head—something Martin hopes to avoid by maintaining a certain pragmatism. “Nowadays, we think of the producer as the beatmaker. We don’t think of him as the producer who brings everyone into the room to bring the idea to fruition,” says Martin, citing classic eighties producer Quincy Jones as a glowing example of the latter.
This attitude—if you can’t do it best, bring the best guys into the studio—makes it easy to think that Martin is focused entirely on sacrifice, on doing work for the sake of some abstract kind of “art.” And that’s not a bad understanding. But it doesn’t mean he’s not aiming for success or notoriety. It just means that he doesn’t need to be the only talented one in the room.
Martin’s position as producer allows him to work with rapping collaborators if he wishes, and to go solo if not. Indeed, he asserts that despite the numerous rappers featured on Wünderkid, it’s the beats that play a greater role, evoking moods rather than constructing a narrative per se. This is most apparent on tracks like “September,” where an intoned vocal sample is chopped and screwed as per the melodic requirements of the track. By taking this top-down approach, sometimes even using the vocalist as another instrument (check the auto-tune on “Jazzercise,” or Mac Miller’s attention-grabbing drawl on “Malcom Interlude”) rather than the focus of the entire song, Martin gives himself (and his collaborators) more room to work.
Of course, with all the attention to the technical aspects of his music, it’s easy to forget the very real sense of feeling that pervades Martin’s work. Martin notes that as personal playlists replace radio, people become more inclined to construct their own “soundtracks to their day,” which is where his interests lie. While rappers make music that tells you a story (usually their story), and even producers like Flying Lotus approach the music with an abstract concept or message in mind, when Martin makes a song, the first thing he has in mind is the physical location where it would be playing, whether that be a car, a café, or a bedroom. He even peruses architecture blogs in his spare time, searching for houses and thinking, “What does this building sound like?”
This doesn’t mean the music is simply aural wallpaper. While Martin’s non-pop referents are often instrumental (he says he wants to score films someday in the future), a quick listen to Wünderkid dispels any images of soft piano scores. This is still hip-hop music, even when Martin is at his most abstract or ambient, and by tying himself to that tradition of music he prevents the previously described pragmatism and detail-driven aesthetic from escaping into the ether. His samples are, as many of his idol J Dilla’s were, culled from deep soul, R&B, and jazz cuts from the seventies (and earlier) and Martin is extremely aware of that legacy.
“People ask ‘Who’s Thelonious Martin?’ He’s the soul producer, from Chicago, Illinois,” says Martin. “[The music] touches your soul.”
The legacy of Chicago, as one of the worldwide hubs of hip-hop, holds a special place in Martin’s mind; even though he moved to New Jersey for a long period during his childhood, he still prefers to call Chicago his home. Of course, as Martin grows more and more well-known in hip-hop circles, the temptation is often to switch up as soon as the opportunity presents itself (Vic Mensa recently signed to New York’s Roc Nation). However, Martin resists. “If you can build it up so that you’re able to put out your album and do everything yourself,” he says, “you’re the major label, really.”
Martin doesn’t see his current associations holding him back—rather, they form the core of his collaborative perspective: work with who you know. These people motivate him and gel with him on both a personal and professional level, and he sees no reason to sacrifice that. But perhaps Martin’s most powerful motivator is his consciousness of where he might someday fit into that Chicago legacy. “Money doesn’t bother me. Money will come. What I want is for… my children to be proud, for me to leave something behind for them to admire.”