The Hardest-Working Head in Hip-Hop

There's no one way to be a producer. Want to explore the outer edges of sound design? Want to outfit your studio with top-end equipment? Those lanes are always open. But there are some producers who simply get down to the business at hand: Dig into a crate (whether vinyl or digital), find and chop a fiery sample, and create an incredible beat. Rinse, repeat.

Thankfully, Thelonious Martin is one such producer. Or at least, that's how he's cut his teeth.

Thelonious' new sample pack, Belíssimo, with Pelham & Junior.

Before the pandemic, we caught up with him in his Chicago apartment to see just how he makes his music. His studio—a small room to the side of his living room—didn't contain anything he didn't need. An MPD pad controller, an Akai keyboard, a rack of records, a laptop, and a set of large KRK Rokit monitors that, when cranked at high volume, completely dominated the narrow space.

The long desk had the feel of a shop bench, not particularly organized, but all tools within reach. Looming over it was a monster to-do list: Create 20 beats a month, shop around a completed album, finalize the artwork for another, work on an upcoming sample pack, the first steps of a few new projects... Add to that list a few words of inspiration and, beside the whiteboard, a team portrait of the '95-'96 Bulls. Clearly, greatness is the goal.

When we talked, Thelonious had recently Tweeted "album's done"—so, I began our conversation by asking about the "new album." With so many projects in the works, he had to ask me, "Which one?"

The record in question turned out to be his latest collaboration with producer Jacob Rochester, which is styled after Dilla and Madlib's Champion Sound [released as Jaylib in 2003]—"two producers coming together to make something that, I feel, is pretty incredible." Thelonious' fans have been awaiting the official release ever since it was teased last May. That is, in May 2019.

"As artists should learn from me, and probably a host of others: Don't talk about albums too early [laughs]. They always get delayed. We probably finished the album maybe two months ago, but the process of getting artwork done, features, making sure everyone sends in the final version of their verses, and things of that nature, it just ends up stretching and delaying the album," he says.

It's fitting, given the work ethic, that the album with Jacob was born out of separate sessions, in LA, when Thelonious and Jacob were making tracks together for the rapper Adonis. (You can hear one new off-kilter, Thelonious-produced Adonis track, "Lord of the West," through Adult Swim Singles.) And this has also been done while Thelonious works on his second solo record, which is proving to be something special—though it too is a lengthy work-in-progress.

"I have another album that I've been working on probably a year-and-a-half," he says. "It's a process. Honestly, I'm a firm believer that everything happens when it's supposed to. So I try to remove the stress of trying to finish things within certain time frames, because I feel like whenever you do that it just never happens in that regard."

In the meantime, there's that daunting to-do list: hawking finished beats, landing production credits or placements on tracks from long-time collaborators like Vic Mensa, Joey Purp, and Curren$y, and working on any number of other projects.

"That's the benefit of working on a thousand things at once. If one thing is going to take an extra three months, that other project you were working on will come out a few months before," he says.

Joey Purp - "Lebron James," produced by Thelonious Martin.

When it comes to the craft itself, Thelonious' methods, up to this point at least, have been fairly straightforward. He's an omnivorous listener, as likely to grab samples from a jazz fusion record as '80s funk-soul or Anime soundtracks from the likes of Yuji Ohno. And from there, in the fashion of his heroes like Dilla or Madlib, he chops them with originality and flair.

"I had this conversation with my friends the other day, where one of them was kind of joking, 'All the samples are used.' I'm like, no, not really. In the sense of this narrow scope, like all the Motown, soul, funk have been sampled, that's perfectly fine, but even within that genre, like '60s–'70s doo-wop and soul, there's still small labels from certain cities that have records that people have never heard before," he says. And outside of that genre, there are of course lesser-known music scenes from all around the world and across music history.

"There's always something new. That's the thrill I get from still digging for records," he says. "Nowadays people will use sample packs, things of that nature, and I use them too—but I like getting my hands dirty, looking for stuff."

The acute chopping and drum-sequencing takes place in Logic, usually with his MPD32 pad controller or his Max49 keyboard, "for basslines, and when I'm feeling brave enough to play chords," he says. He's been using Logic since he was a teenager, and has gone through a few MPDs, so he knows exactly how to make it all work for him.

There's no rare, out-of-the-way hardware gear. "All this stuff is essentially just a shell. I treat Logic like it's an MPC, but everything is living on hard drives or things that I can easily transfer to something else," Thelonious says. "I feel like with hardware, sometimes, it's all of your eggs in one basket, in a sense."

But maybe even because it's such a simple setup, that means the creativity itself has to be there.

"To be good at something, you gotta have the patience for it. Honestly, I feel that's like 60% of the battle. What do you have patience for? What will you sit down and do all day?" he says. "I'll make beats and tweak drum loops and sample-chops for hours. I will lose track of time. There's no window in here. I'll close the door and completely forget that anything outside of this small room exists. But I will literally turn the whole computer off and go play Call of Duty if I have to sit down and EQ something for more than 20 minutes."

Curren$y & Thelonious Martin - "Survivor's Remorse"

Thelonious' new solo album is fitting to be something different entirely.

"It's nothing like people have heard from me before. The best way to describe it is a meeting of, like, J Dilla and Quincy Jones. I wrote out an entire script for the album—it's in three acts—and I put together like a nine-page Bible of the album. I wrote out the storyline start to finish, all the references. Then, me and my boy Charlie [Coffeen] from Sidewalk Chalk and a bunch of other musicians, we came together. I had people play out these ideas I had in my head, voice memos, things of that nature—essentially creating samples for the album, for me to flip those samples to make 12 new songs," he says. "It's a true body of work."

That way of music-making—marrying sampling with freshly recorded live instrumentation—is something he got a taste for on his first solo record, Wunderkid, which he made with Zak Jablow, aka Professor Fox, and released in 2015. But, Thelonious says, "That was more so the process of having beats done and adding to them," like layering electric bass on top of a sample.

In contrast, the new album is "OK, I have an idea in my head that sounds like this. Put in all these references, pull a band together, and I'm literally in the window to the live room, instructing and giving hand signals to the band [laughs]. It's funny, because I don't have any true musical theory teaching," he says. "So I'm in the window to the live room, instructing these musicians that have probably trained their entire lives. But I know exactly how I want it to sound. That's my skill-set, not being classically musically trained, but, if you know the feeling of it or the sound you're going for in your head and your heart, and you're able to translate it in some kind of form or fashion, you should be able to get the point across."

It amounts to a kind of leveling up, a process of becoming a producer's producer, Thelonious says, in the Quincy Jones sense. "I'm sitting in a room telling a guitarist it needs to sound brighter or more yellow. At first it caused a bit of confusion, but being able to communicate and talk out these ideas and see them come to fruition, that's being a producer."

The original tracks already sound complete. Packed with a gospel choir, strings, horns, Rhodes piano, it's the type of lush production from the '70s you might find in a crate, if you're lucky. But that's just the starting point—these full arrangements are still set to be re-arranged. "That's why I said it's something that people haven't heard from me before. It's not just sample, beat, sample, beat. We're fully making brand-new songs and touching different kinds of genres."

Thelonious was kind enough to let us hear some of these new tracks, in their original and chopped up states, after asking me to stop recording. When the album will be fully finished and released, only Thelonious knows. But I can tell you this: You're going to want to hear it.

Check out Thelonious' existing discography on Bandcamp. And find his new Pelham & Junior sample pack, Belíssimo, which includes 12 original compositions (with stems) inspired by vintage Portuguse jazz and soul.

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