Interview: Terrace Martin

The keyboardist and producer on his work with Snoop Dogg and Herbie Hancock, and his new album, Velvet Portraits
Image placeholder title

“I was listening to either straight-ahead jazz or gangsta rap,” acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and producer Terrace Martin says of his formative years in South Central Los Angeles. “We grew up with a lot of challenges, but when you’re young, you don’t even realize things are challenges.”

Somewhere between jazz and rap lies Martin’s fearless brand of soul-infused, groove-centered music. He is seemingly everywhere of late, performing on the Grammy Awards with frequent collaborator and hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar, touring his own genre-defying project Velvet Portraits, and playing saxophone and keyboards with jazz icon Herbie Hancock, whose new album Martin is producing.

Just days before hitting the road for an overseas tour, Martin met me in a midtown Manhattan recording studio to talk about his continued quest for musical mastery.

You’ve been taking the musical world by force lately. Can you talk a little about your background?

I’m from the Crenshaw district in Los Angeles, California. I grew-up in a house of music—my father’s a drummer, and my mother is a songwriter, vocalist and pianist. I grew-up in the 1990s, so rap and hip-hop were also huge influences on me. Gangsta rap was being born around the time I was coming-up, so that was also a big influence on me. I was around a lot of the musicians on the L.A. scene and I toured with Snoop Dogg for 12 years. He knew me since I was 16, and I toured with him playing keyboards and horns, along with [acclaimed Los Angeles musicians] Kamasi Washington and Thundercat. Eventually, I started producing things myself.

You were raised in the South Central area of Los Angeles. That must not have been an easy neighborhood to grow up in.

Photo Credit: Samantha J You know what? It wasn’t easy, but at the same time we didn’t know it was hard, if that makes sense. We had our trials and tribulations, but being from L.A. we were used to that. When I was growing up, there was a lot of gang violence going on—murders and drive-by shootings, so my parents made me stay in the house. And that’s really where I got a lot of my musical influences from. I found my joy staying inside and listening to old records.

Image placeholder title

What was the first instrument you started playing?

My first instrument was a Technics 1200 turntable! My second instrument was an Ensoniq EPS sampler/workstation, and my third instrument was the saxophone. I started playing sax the summer going into high school. I was listening to my godfather, Harold Stemzy Hunter. He’s from Omaha, Nebraska and played and arranged on a lot of Buddy Miles records. He also played bebop jazz, and he was my biggest influence along with Grover Washington Jr. and Richie Love. Then I discovered Cannonball Adderly, Charlie Parker, and later Jackie McLean, which changed my life.

How did your longtime association with Snoop Dogg come about?

That started because of my dear friend and production partner Marlon Williams. He had played guitar and worked on records with Snoop since the 1990s. I had told Marlon that if Snoop ever had an opening, I would love to be a part of his band. I told him I knew all of his music and could play whatever instruments they needed me to. Marlon told me that they had an opening in Snoop’s band on keyboards. So I joined the band, and it was the best decision I ever made in my life.

At the same time you were working with Snoop Dogg, were you also working on your own music?

I was doing everything. When I was with Snoop, some days I was practicing my horn, or working on my own music, or going to the club learning different things. The one thing about touring with Snoop is that every day is a different musical experience. Music drives the whole tour. He’s playing oldies like Parliament Funkadelic or John Coltrane—all of this beautiful, soulful music. You’re hearing all of these things, and then you’re also playing his music. So you’re able to expand on all of it and do everything.

When I first heard your new album Velvet Portraits I thought “Los Angeles has a new musical language all its own.” I think that song is a great snapshot of the new L.A. sound, mixing jazz, rap, Hip-hop, funk, and more.

The true story is, I had a whole other record called Velvet Portraits done, but I thought the hard drive had crashed! So I had to make another record, but I wanted to do something different. I like to start off every record with a conversation amongst the people that are being creative on the project. We talk about how they feel about love and the different topics I want the record to be about. We come up with ideas, and then the music is really a soundtrack for the conversation we had.

Did you choose the musicians for the album before the music was even written?

I’ve done all of my albums with the same cats—myself, Kamasi Washington, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, Robert Glasper, Ronald Bruner, Marlon Williams, Brandon Owens, and so on. I’ve used the same cats on all the records I’ve done since I was a kid. They’re my friends. So what better way to paint a picture of me than by using people who know my story, my heart and my compassion? I wanted to make this portrait with people who understood how important it was. And they just so happened to be my brothers, my family.

How did the record get fleshed-out? Did you record it at home or in the studio?

Photo Credit: Samantha J I recorded 85 percent of the record at Make Believe Studios in Omaha, Nebraska. My father lives there, and at that time he had fallen ill for a brief time. He being one of my favorite musicians, I decided to fly out to Nebraska with the other musicians for a couple of weeks to record the album with my father playing drums close to where he lives. I wanted him to be comfortable, and at the same time, we would be isolated and focused on the music, with good food, good water, and sweet people around us.

Image placeholder title

What was the basic gear setup you used for the making of Velvet Portraits?

I was playing keyboards and saxophones. We had a Fender Rhodes 73, a Wurlitzer, a Hammond B-3 organ, an ARP Odyssey, a Hohner Clavinet, and Apple Logic with every softsynth you can name. We also had lots of pedals—a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase, chorus pedals, lots of amps, an old Ludwig drum set with Istanbul cymbals. We went to Pro Tools, with everything going through great microphones into API or Neve preamps. Later, I mixed the record at my studio in Los Angeles.

You seem just as comfortable making records with a keyboard and a laptop as you are with old school gear in a “legitimate” recording studio.

It’s funny you say that because about ten years ago, I told myself I would start walking into studios with no equipment at all to try and make something happen. If I’m in a hotel room and I want to work on music, I usually just have a laptop, some softsynths and a keyboard. But if I’m in my studio, I like to have all of my keyboards and gear around me.

If you had to name five keyboards you use on every record you make, what would they be?

The Rhodes 73 I got from Snoop Dogg would be one of them. Also the Korg Kronos 61, Roland Jupiter-80, the Minimoog Voyager, and the Studio Electronics SE-1 and Omega8. I have so many keyboards that I use regularly, it’s hard to choose five! I also use the Roland VP-550, the Korg MS-2000 and the Prophet-08.

One thing that is so fascinating about your new album is that each song is a completely different adventure. I remember hearing the song “Push” on Apple Beats 1 while I was on a treadmill at the gym. I thought to myself, “This is like the Brand New Heavies and Larry Young had a baby!”

[Laughs]. Exactly!

Talking about sonic adventures, you’ve recently been performing with and producing the new album by musical titan Herbie Hancock.

Man, that’s crazy. Herbie Hancock, way before I met him, was my favorite musician. He broke down the door for the thing I feed my family off of, which is Hip-hop. He broke down the barriers, coming from the jazz scene and lending his services to the Hip-hop scene. It shows you that we are all one. Being able to work with him is a dream come true and a huge honor. In my head, I don’t even deserve to work with him. I’m just there learning. Herbie loves technology. That’s why his music sounds the way it does. He’s inspired by young creators, not just in music, but in life. He knows about all of the new gadgets coming out: He teaches me about technology!

What’s the strangest piece of gear he’s used so far on the record you are working on together?

The other day Herbie took out a keytar. He played it like it was its own instrument. And it was killing! Just beautiful.

For a guy that can effortlessly switch between jazz sax, funk keys and Gangsta rap, what’s next on your musical horizon?

I’ve got a few things going on at the moment, but the main thing is whatever is pushing for peace, prosperity, and the growth of love, that’s what I’m going to support. Right now, I’m trying to listen for the music that comes from my body and my soul. Then I’ll start producing records.