Terrace Martin Goes Deep On Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Herbie Hancock, Kamasi Washington, & His New Album Drones Out This Week

Samantha Whitehead

Terrace Martin Goes Deep On Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Herbie Hancock, Kamasi Washington, & His New Album Drones Out This Week

Samantha Whitehead

Back in the ’80s, jazz and hip-hop were often seen as being in conflict. Hip-hop’s locked-in, mechanical funk beats were seen as antithetical to the loose, human swing of jazz. But there were always players who defended the new music, and by the early ’90s jazz artists were attempting crossover projects. They often felt awkward and clumsy. It didn’t start to work until recently, when a generation of musicians who had grown up listening to hip-hop, breathing it like air, took their place in the jazz world.

Alto saxophonist and producer Terrace Martin is one of them. He’s worked with Snoop Dogg since 2004, producing tracks for his albums and leading his live band in 2011 — a band that also included trumpeter Keyon Harrold, tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, Thundercat on bass, and Robert “Sput” Searight of Snarky Puppy on drums! He’s also produced for DJ Quik, Kurupt, Talib Kweli, Murs, YG, Big K.R.I.T., Rapsody, Wiz Khalifa, 2 Chainz. And of course, he worked extensively on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, bringing jazz and hip-hop (and rock, and poetry, and audio theater) together on that album’s complex, multilayered tracks.

On the jazz side, Martin has been a part of Robert Glasper’s Black Radio projects and is a member of two all-star groups, Dinner Party and R+R=NOW. He tours in Herbie Hancock’s band and is producing the keyboard legend’s next album, which also features Thundercat. He’s also made three albums under his own name: 2013’s 3ChordFold, 2016’s Velvet Portraits, and now Drones, which was just announced today and is out on Friday.

On his own albums, Martin brings together the artists who mean the most to him, like Kendrick, Kamasi, Thundercat, Snoop, Robert Glasper, Ty Dolla $ign, and Lalah Hathaway. The songs blur the lines between jazz, hip-hop, and R&B, reflecting contemporary West Coast Black music and Black life in all its joy, pain, chaos, and cool.

Where the Grammy-nominated Velvet Portraits was mostly instrumental, Drones is studded with guests, including Kendrick, Snoop, Kamasi, Glasper, Cordae, YG, Leon Bridges and James Fauntleroy, among others. Rather than a collection of tracks, it’s an album with a message. It’s dark and brooding, but ultimately hopeful, journeying from the opening “Turning Poison Into Medicine” to the closing “Listen,” which features gospel singer Kim Burrell and Glasper on piano.

I spent an hour on the phone with Martin talking about the new music, To Pimp A Butterfly, his personal and creative relationships with Snoop Dogg, Kamasi Washington, and Herbie Hancock, and much more. Hear Drones lead single “Leave Us Be” and read our conversation below.

When did you start working on Drones, and what’s the meaning behind the title?

TERRACE MARTIN: I’ll tell you when we started first, ’cause it really is important for the definition. It started off — man, I’ve been working on this shit for so long. My last record came out in 2016, I think, Velvet Portraits. I’m slow now, working on records. But shortly after I finished To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick was looking for a studio to work in in LA, and he found one. Him and [Derek] Ali found a little private studio in Santa Monica and I was doing all kinds of music at the crib at that time, too. I was listening to a lot of Club Nouveau and this group called Loose Ends at the time, back to back to back, and I came across little ideas that I felt could probably be something.

So I called Kendrick and was like, “Yo, where you at, man?” And he said, “I’m at this spot in Santa Monica,” so I came by the studio and we just caught up. I think at that time I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks ’cause he’s busy, I’m busy, and we were having a whole conversation about a lot of things — personal things, musical things, fun things, laughing, talking, all the shit we used to do, and at the end we realized we had this whole conversation and we were looking at our phones and not each other the whole time. We were just looking on Instagram but having a conversation, but no eye contact, and at the end of that, he asked me, “Do you have an idea?” I said yeah, and he told Ali to bring up the idea so we could hear it on speakers, and he went straight in the booth and was like, “Man, I’ma call this shit ‘Drones,’ I’m gonna talk about we are just the phone and everything controls us.”

We’re like fuckin’ robots, man. And it’s not just us. Everybody always says the younger generation is so on the phone, but naw, everybody is addicted to the phone. Everybody. So he went in there, man, and he just started saying what being a drone means to him, and… the song “Drones” itself is pretty much a statement that we are all one and we are all even robots as one. It’s like we are all in a weird state to where we have these things, these gadgets [that] control us, and they help us but a lot of times they make us more shallow. We lose trust, we have lack of compassion, we have lack of love, it’s shaming going on, it’s all these different wars between these different people that everybody thinks everybody’s different, and the phone is a big deal.

Man, think about this. We all can witness murders on the fuckin’ phone now. Like, we are all traumatized. I was thinking the other day, I saw one of my good friends die on the phone. Nipsey Hussle, one of my dear friends since he was a kid — I saw my friend die on the phone. We’re traumatized. We’re all fucked up. So Drones is a body of work that discusses these issues, how we have a lack of compassion, how we have a lack of trust, how we are people [for whom] nowadays perception is the new reality, which is a whole fucked up thing as well, you know what I’m saying? So the whole body of work is attacking all of these themes, not negatively, attacking them masked as love songs.

The whole point of Drones is just to restore a feeling that me and my colleagues feel that the world is lacking right now. Going back to love, compassion, trust, you know what I’m saying? One of the things that Herbie Hancock always teaches me, and this is a strong Buddhist belief, [about] turning your poison into medicine, and you can find beauty within any problem, and the beauty in all of this whole dark thing is, this whole dark time we had, the pandemic, we have a deadly virus that’s wiping through people of all ages, all — how ’bout this?

Think about this. I know I’m going off, but think about this. The pandemic, the COVID thing, this is the first time in the fuckin’ world, whether you’re tall, short, Black, white, green, yellow, gay, straight, whatever — whatever the fuck you are, this is the first time something has wiped out everything and we all have to band together. Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, whatever the fuck you are, we need each other right now to figure out how to get through this fuckin’ thing, you know what I’m saying? So I wanted also to restore that feeling of, like, let me put some art out that we can help each other with.

Think about this — in the middle of a pandemic, Black people were still being hunted. In the middle of people dying, Black people were still being hunted. It’s like, where’s the love? Where’s the compassion? Where’s the respect? Where are these things? So I wanted to put all that into my record and get my colleagues to help me, and the umbrella is “drones” ’cause that’s what I feel we all are, but my feeling is we don’t all have to be this, so let me try to figure out some tools and gadgets and special clues and different road maps to a happier us, which is feeling compassionate, feeling trustworthy, that we can trust our neighbor, that we can love our sister, love our brother, or love whoever identifies however. It’s a different day now, you know what I’m saying, so Drones is that.

How does a project like this work, logistically? Do you write down a wish list of collaborators and start making calls, or do you go track by track until you’ve got an album?

MARTIN: Nah. I wish I could do it like that, but it’s not that simple, unfortunately. [Laughs.] How I do it is, I’m very involved and I’m very affected by the environment every day. That’s why it takes me so long to do these particular bodies of work. It’s not that I can’t finish these in enough time, it’s that my spirit doesn’t operate with art in this environment unless it’s nudging me on the shoulder. Meaning I can’t do happy-go-lucky get-rich music when it’s the world struggling. I just can’t. Now I don’t have to talk about struggle either — I need to address that, but not only do I need to talk about problems, my thing is I’d rather talk about solutions. So sometimes it takes me a while to figure out the solutions, ’cause I’m a human being. And how I work with artists is, these are all my friends.

Kendrick Lamar’s been my friend since 2005. I remember Ty Dolla $ign when he was eight, nine years old. His father is a master teacher in Los Angeles, Tyrone Griffin is a master teacher, a hell of a record producer, a trumpeter, and everybody in LA loves Ty Dolla $ign’s father. He’s helped us all with equipment, he’s a genius, so I’ve been seeing Ty since he was a little kid. James Fauntleroy, we came up doing music together since we were around 18, 19 years old. Snoop Dogg, he’s been in my life since I was 16 years old. So they’re all personal friends, and that’s how I’m able to get these ideas across and talk. We get to a song like “Sick Of Cryin'” with Leon Bridges, that’s my dear friend. I met Leon through another friend of mine that helped me produce that, Ricky Reed. So these are all my colleagues and friends and we talk a lot.

Throughout the pandemic we all banded together and really built our communication. ’Cause in the music business as friends, we could all float away. Me and Kamasi Washington, we talk about that ’cause we been friends since 14. So we talk about how we have to make a conscious effort, no matter what we’re doing in life, to keep a brotherhood and sisterhood with our sisters, to make it a conscious thing, so I’m always in cahoots and talking about environmental things, things about our children, things about our fathers, things about our mothers. We spend hours on the phone and maybe five minutes talking about music. So for me, how I look at this album Drones, I thought about the conversations I’m having with each artist. I know a million artists, but the ones on this record are the ones that I’ve had conversations with about this very particular topic.

I feel like if you were doing this for a label instead of independently, there would be so many lawyers and people with their hands out that it would never get done. Doing it this way, can you just call up friends and ask for favors in the spirit of making music together?

MARTIN: You know what? Before I dropped this album independently, Drones was actually on Atlantic Records for a good amount of time. And Atlantic is one of the best systems in the world. They know what they’re doing over there when it comes to songs and a certain thing. The problem I was having over there — you know, I had a lot of supporters over there, Riggs [Morales] is one of my dear friends and he’s the one that took me over to Atlantic — but the problem with Atlantic with me was, it’s such a big thing over there that nobody really had time to get in depth with the level of art that I was trying to commit to and trying to paint a picture. And I know everybody thinks about numbers and streaming — I was just thinking about healing.

I didn’t grow up thinking about money like that. I grew up thinking about healing, and if you help heal, things will come to you. So I was really on that page, and of course with a record company system, you really can’t be on that. And I understood that, but they just didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. And with the blessings of Craig Kallman and Riggs I was like, “I’ma take my record and finish it.” And for some reason when I got off Atlantic everything finished faster. And you’re right. Lawyers all have to get involved anyway, but I think my mission is so pure and so clear that everybody just really came along on my side, man, and really helped me out and we helped each other out.

I had writer’s block for a year on this album, within the pandemic I couldn’t think about this album at all, and out of the blue Sikamore called me and said, “Hey, we’re working with Travis [Scott] — come to Cabo.” And I’m sitting at home playing with dogs, looking at the news, saying, oh my God, this shit is crazy. So I gambled, put on seven masks, didn’t breathe, got on the plane, and didn’t touch anybody [laughs] — I didn’t even want to touch myself, ’cause it was the middle of the pandemic — and I went to Cabo. It was me, Allen Ritter, Wheezy, Travis Scott, WondaGurl, Boy Wonder, and I got a chance to listen to some of the most futuristic music, especially with Travis. Travis sees the future. He’s one of my favorite record producers in the world. Him and Sickamore both see the future, and I was listening to this music and doing music with them and out of the blue it just came. A message came, something tapped me on the shoulder and said, “It is an urgency — we don’t have a lot of time on earth. What the fuck is going on? Look around.” And I looked around at all my family having a good time — Travis, Wheezy — I looked into the stars, man, and I said, you know what? Brush off all the roadblocks. I need to break through all my challenges and really get this done. I need to meditate and really get this done.

So once my spirit locked with the art I wanted to do, for some reason, man, it wasn’t simple getting everybody, trust me, but it wasn’t what I would have went through if record companies had really been involved with me. It’s like, nobody really wants to give their high-level art to a motherfucker that don’t know what to do with it. That’s like giving your kid away to a stranger and just leaving. They dressing the kid different, they not feeding the kid the right food, they actually giving the kid McDonald’s and milk, horrible things, you know? So it was easy in that case to get everybody ’cause everybody is missing a feeling and we all want to restore that feeling. So it was just that, like, hey man, I got this idea: Drones, Kendrick started it, would you like to be a part of it? And they were like, “Whoa, I’m going through that too! Really? Let’s write a song about that, but not say that.” And that’s how it went down.

Jazz musicians always talk about developing their own voice on their instrument. Do you think you have a voice as an alto player, and who are your biggest influences?

MARTIN: When it comes to the saxophone, I’m still searching for a stronger me. That’s a very jazz thing to say [laughs]. I’ma die being a student, so I don’t know if I have my own thing — I would like to think so, you know? My main influence on the alto saxophone is the great, the god, the master teacher, Harlem’s finest, Jackie McLean. I got a tattoo of Jackie on my arm when I was 18 years old, ’cause it’s not just about music, what Jackie McLean stands for. Anybody that really studies Jackie [knows] he grew up in Harlem when a lot of that shit was really developing. He lived by Bud Powell, he grew up with Sonny Rollins, he used to follow Bird everywhere around, let Bird borrow his horn, his best friend was Miles Davis, he was influential with introducing Tony Williams to Miles Davis — he introduced Herbie Hancock to Tony Williams! You see what I’m saying? Jackie has always been a pillar of the hip shit. People always talk about modal music and all these things, but you know, Jackie was writing free shit in the mid-50s, man, on “Little Melonae” and things. Jackie was writing free form playing and trying to stretch out in the chords and out of the chords in the ’50s. Jackie was very influential to the scene, not just for his alto playing but for his brain, for his heart. He’s a master educator and I grew up similar to him. We both entered a little bit of criminal activity young and snapped out of it young because of the music.

I met Jackie when I was about 15 years old. I used to ditch school every day and go to Billy Higgins’ house and play the saxophone. Billy was there, Cedar Walton was there, and I would learn all these tunes — “Bolivia,” “Ugetsu” — when I was young. And Jackie was staying over Billy’s crib one time when I was going through trouble; I think I had just caught a gun case, which is driving around with a loaded concealed weapon, and I was 16, 17, and I went to juvenile for three weeks and when I got out, I went straight to Billy Higgins’ house. “Man, I’m out of jail and fuck that shit, I’m trying to change my life.” And he said, “Yeah, man, my friend’s in town, let me introduce you to my friend Jackie.” And it was Jackie McLean, and we built from there. I was gonna go to the Hart School of Music, and Jackie was able to talk to me about what he went through and I was able to really understand it, because what he was talking was the real shit. Jackie was like, “You keep fuckin’ up, you gonna go to jail, you gonna ruin your fuckin’ life. So let’s get it right. You got that alto? Practice!” And that was a big deal for me.

I remember when I first started playing with Snoop Dogg, I told Billy and Jackie, “I’m playing with Snoop,” and they were so supportive, man. People wouldn’t even think so, but they were all, Billy was like, “You playing with Snoop, that’s beautiful, go out there, man, but you better practice.” So what I did was, as soon as Snoop started trusting me, I said, “Man, I gotta practice.” That’s when I hired Thundercat to play bass, Kamasi to play saxophone, and Keyon Harrold to play trumpet. ’Cause I said, let me call some cats out here that in the off time, we’re gonna be learning Sonny Stitt solos, Cannonball Adderley solos, we’re gonna be going over some harmony, Herbie tunes, some Phineas Newborn shit, and we’re gonna hit the stage, we’re gonna drink some good tequila and we’re gonna play “Gin And Juice” and Doggystyle, you know what I’m saying? So going back to my own voice, I think I am me, and I pray that my horn represents that, but even more than my own voice with my horn, I think I’m very confident about the human being that I am. I know I’m a giver, sometimes I know I’m full of shit, but I show up, you know what I’m saying? And hopefully my horn says that, too.

What did you learn from working in Snoop’s organization? I talked to Ryan Porter and he said he was amazed by the scale of the operation, that they had itineraries laid out for months’ worth of shows. What did you take away from that as a professional?

MARTIN: First of all, Ryan’s been my friend since 10th grade. I remember when I first called him for the gig. I remember his face when he saw all them damn dates and six, seven tour buses with twenty-some security guards, and making all that money a week. I remember his fuckin’ face, and me lookin’ at him saying, “It ain’t rhythm changes” [laughs]. God bless the jazz world, but this is not that. This is the ball game. And I had already been with Snoop three years before I was able to get some guys on the gig, but what I learned from that — first of all, Snoop has been my hero since I was 14. I’m really a part of that environment; Snoop represents everything I’m a part of, too. Snoop is a father, Snoop is a son, Snoop is a friend, Snoop is a hell of an artist, Snoop is from the hood, Snoop is a Crip — my biggest influences in my early life are all Crips, ’cause I grew up in a Crip neighborhood. And when you’re young from South Central LA, whatever you see close to you, that’s what you wanna be like. So I felt like I was built to work with Snoop. I prayed to work with Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dogg when I was a kid.

But with Snoop, he’s been a brother and a father figure to me, and when Snoop first took me on the road, the things I learned from him were how to be organized, how to run a crew, how to deal with complications and when you see hate, you gotta meet it with love, ’cause you’re responsible for so many people. So how to look problems in the face. Snoop taught me, and those tours taught me, how to break through challenges. How to have solutions. Like, Snoop can’t — the Dogg will never not have a solution. He always, for most of my life, has had solutions, whether it’s been in my personal life, me as a father, me as a friend, me as a record producer, me as a jazz musician — whatever, every angle, Snoop has coached me through just like my father.

My mother and father separated when I was ten, and then my cousin raised me. He introduced me to DJ Pooh, then I got with Snoop, so Snoop is such a powerful, responsible man, that’s what I needed in my life, being out the hood at that time. So I learned how to be responsible from Snoop. I learned how to save money. I learned how to buy real estate. I learned what to do when I made my first million dollars. I wasn’t clueless. I wasn’t like, “I’m ’bout to buy this” [laughs] — nah, fuck that. Matter of fact, don’t even touch that money. ’Cause if you got a million, most of it’s the IRS’s money any motherfuckin’ way. So don’t touch that. Pin that there. Put your mama over here. Make sure your daddy cool. Make sure the kids cool. You make sure you don’t have anything left. And on the second million you make, you start treating yourself. That first million ain’t shit. It’s easy to make a few million dollars, it’s hard as fuck to keep it. And that’s what Snoop taught me that I feel like the jazz world couldn’t have taught me.

I’m in a whole different time. If I grew up in 1961, ’62, and played with Miles and shit, it would have been different. The jazz crowd would have been crackin’, it would have been cool. But I grew up in hip-hop, and Snoop is my Miles Davis, how Miles is to Herbie. Miles hired Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Herbie Hancock, the best quintet in the fuckin’ world. Snoop Dogg at one time had me, Battlecat, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Ryan Porter, Robert “Sput” Searight — I mean, shit! He taught me how to be a leader, and taught me how to hire and be around other leaders that could also lead me, and we could lead each other. So that’s what I learned on the Snoop Dogg tour, in a nutshell, bro, is how to live life on the scale that I dreamt of being a part of.

I saw you play with Kamasi Washington’s band at the Blue Note in 2015. What was the feeling like in your crowd when The Epic started to blow up? Was it like, “Holy shit, it’s really happening,” or was it more like, “It’s about time — we’ve been here 10 years already?”

MARTIN: To keep it real, that whole time I was saying, “Thank God for Kendrick Lamar letting me get my guys together and Kamasi being ready with a motherfuckin’ album.” That’s what I was thinking. Because here’s how it went. The Epic is a result of To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s under that umbrella. Kendrick said, “Terrace, we need strings.” I said, “That’s easy.” First of all, my job was always to tell Kendrick, it’s easy. Shit is never easy, but that’s my job. “It’s fuckin’ easy, don’t worry about it. If you wanna get a Martian on your album, I’m gonna fly to space and bring it down ’cause I love you and I wanna see your art be the highest level shit cause I love you, little bro, I love you, so it’s easy.” But I didn’t know who I was gonna get, because the music that me and Sounwave and Kendrick were doing was so different, I didn’t hear traditional string writing on it. Like I love Benjamin Wright, Clare Fischer, these are like the gods to me. But I wasn’t hearing strings how they do. I was hearing, like… I wanted to hear the highest level of mistakes I could possibly hear, if that makes sense. ’Cause I wanted the music to feel like the environment, to feel like life. Life is not lush and perfect, definitely not our life. So I wanted shit clashing.

I was [also] working on Velvet Portraits when I was working on To Pimp A Butterfly, [and] Kamasi said, “I finally mixed the album The Epic.” By the way, Kamasi was calling me for months to mix the album, and I’d say, “Yeah, Kamasi, tell you what, text me how many tracks you got so I can know what studio we gotta get.” When he told me how many fuckin’ tracks, I kinda stopped calling him back for a minute [laughs]. I was like, oh, you got Ronald Bruner, Tony [Austin], this is too much. I’m not gonna be able to smoke weed and do this — this is crazy. So I faded away, and Kamasi finally came by the studio and said, “Man, I got my album done.” And when I tell you, I remember the feeling — I had probably just gotten done with “King Kunta” or another of Kendrick’s records, and I went to another studio to do some saxophone shit with Kamasi, and when he played this record, I was completely sober and I closed my eyes — I’ve never really felt like so high. The music was so moving and emotionally twisting and all I could hear was those strings.

The strings on The Epic tell a story by themselves. Honestly, I love The Epic, but I would love to get a copy of The Epic with just the strings and the voices. The strings he did and the voices, it felt like a portal was opening. It felt like Kamasi was really trying to push a portal open, so freedom and love could come through. I looked at him and I said, “Have you ever done strings for any other record?” He said “Naw, just me.” I said, “Perfect, I need you to put strings on Kendrick’s record. Come by the studio tomorrow.” And he came by, and I remember me and Kendrick sat in that room and we played him “Mortal Man” and a few songs, and we looked at him and first of all he was like, “Goddamn, what the fuck is this?” ’Cause we don’t play music outside the studio, so nobody really knows whatever I’m working on. I’m like a Marine, I don’t talk to nobody unless I have to talk to you.

So when I played Kamasi that music, he went home. He said, “I’ma go home, gimme a few days, I’m gonna get some ideas and then we can change ’em after that.” When he came back with the ideas, everything you heard on that record, we kept every first idea he did. I said, “Write the parts out and let’s go.” We got Chalice Studios in Hollywood, on Highland, and we called the string players in, Kamasi wrote the fuck outta that shit, me and Sounwave, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, we’re all in the studio and Kamasi is conducting these strings, man, and it’s that shit. It’s like, remember I said I was searching for the most perfect mistake?

We had suffered a death that day of doing “Mortal Man.” One of my dear friends and a master on the saxophone, Zane Musa. We grew up together, and we found out that day of doing “Mortal Man” in the string section, everybody was there and we got a call that he committed suicide that day, and we were fucked up, ’cause we grew up with Zane on sax when we were all 14, playing every week together, like, this wasn’t a distant friend. This was a friend that would have been on To Pimp A Butterfly but he was touring with Arturo Sandoval at the time, so he couldn’t do it. We got that call right in the middle of doing the strings for “Mortal Man.” We got fucked up and just got sad for like a second, and Kamasi’s pencil never left the fuckin’ manuscript paper. Kamasi went into like a nervous sad thing and just started writing, and it was even some of the notes that weren’t even in the chords or nothing. And we went in there and he started recording this shit and I heard it and I was like, “Should we change that one part?” And then I tapped myself and said, “No. Record.” And I don’t even mean audio. Spiritually, artistically, be truthful, be love, and record this emotion. Record this. Your brother wrote this down, that’s what he was feeling, let it stay, ’cause that’s honest. And Kendrick’s whole push is honesty. This all goes back to — not that I was searching for the beauty with this whole thing with Zane, but like Herbie said, you can find beauty within every problem. The problem was that we was hurt. The beauty within that is another layer of honesty [and] feelings came out ’cause we didn’t give a fuck about the music. Our hearts were hurting.

It’s kind of amazing to me that To Pimp A Butterfly was a hit, because there’s so much going on — it reminds me of Fishbone’s The Reality Of My Surroundings more than any hip-hop record.

MARTIN: Come on, man! You know what’s crazy? Fishbone, first of all, shoutout to Fish, Angelo, real West Coast motherfuckin’ legends, leaders of the punk rock underground scene…

Best live band on the planet from like ’85 to ’92.

MARTIN: Come on. So watch this. The guitarist that I use, Marlon Williams, actually one of the most recorded guitarists in the world as far as hip-hop and everything, he started with Fishbone in the early ’80s. Marlon Williams is like a Los Angeles studio legend. All the Snoop Dogg records, Kendrick records, YG records, he works with Herbie now, Quincy Jones — Marlon Williams is like a god on records and guitar. And Marlon used to tell me so many Fishbone stories from LA between ’79 and ’84. You know, LA has always been one of the strongest underground scenes, whether it’s been punk or hip-hop or even… people around the world never gave LA [credit] for the jazz scene, as if Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Billy Higgins, Sonny Criss, as if these motherfuckers ain’t from LA. But regardless, Marlon has pushed down so many doors, but he comes out of that Fishbone thing, and he was a big part of To Pimp A Butterfly, ’cause I wanted to get him involved, ’cause from ’80 to ’85 LA underground punk was so intense, I wanted some of that energy on To Pimp A Butterfly. I love Fishbone, I love Red Hot Chili Peppers, [I’ve got] bootlegs from before they got major. I love Flea. So I wanted some of that energy on To Pimp A Butterfly, so I got Marlon Williams.

It’s such an ambitious, avant-garde record, and yet it became this big hit.

MARTIN: Yeah, thank God.

Well, yeah, after all you went through to make it. It took forever, right?

MARTIN: It took forever. Multiple sessions, multiple life-changing things for all of us. You know, we went through a lot for that record, and we’re still going through a lot. Every time I do a record that takes so much of my spirit, unfortunately when you’re so involved with the environment something’s gonna pass you by. It’s a sacrifice. It’s a gift and a curse, because a lot of things go without notice, like family things, and you’re not available for your loved ones ’cause you’re giving your all to this body of art. There’s a lot of sacrifices that go into doing these high-level works of art. And when I say high-level, I mean high-level financially, high-level everything. It ain’t just the art to put together records that will probably cost like 3.6 million dollars, too.

My daughter always says, “Daddy, you’re always at the studio.” It’s a gift and a curse, man, because you know, I actually am trying to spend more time with everybody, but it is a reality. For my family, the lifestyle will change for everybody, and that’s what a lot of people that aren’t in our situation really don’t understand. To go to private school, make sure we eat the best foods — it’s the same thing if I was a lawyer or a doctor, man. It’s a gift and a curse to be able to provide for your family. It ain’t never a curse, but you know what I’m saying, it’s not always easy providing a good life. It’s just not. And it’s hard, it breaks my heart a lot, but fuck it, I love it and I wouldn’t trade shit for the motherfuckin’ world.

You’ve been working with Herbie Hancock for several years now — is there an album coming?

MARTIN: Man, I always try to run from people that know about this question [laughs]. I tell you what, we have hard drives upon hard drives of ideas and music. Let me give you an example. I have three days of music, of me, Thundercat, Herbie, and Vinnie Colaiuta recording 10 or 20 songs. Me, Herbie and Sounwave, five or six songs. We have so much music that just recently we sat down and said, out of all the music we have, we have these seven songs right here that we could really get right. So you will be hearing Herbie music soon, because we do have some great new music. He’s actually been performing some of the new songs live, because he’s from the era of, “Let’s play this song first and then record it.” I’ll tell you what, it’s coming really, really soon, and he’s very excited. But I can’t give a date cause Herbie’s such a genius and a mastermind, he’s so particular and so free at the same time. He’s the most positive, hardest but loving, and the most challenging artist I’ve ever worked with. I’m a student of the Herbie Hancock world. Been my whole life. Everything I play, he’s heard before, ’cause it either came from him or it’s from something he’s heard before, so he pushes me to go to this part of my creativity that I’ve never been through. He helped me out with Drones, too, because I wasn’t thinking like this before I got with Herbie. I was trying to push boundaries, but I wasn’t trying to make them fall out the sky. Now, I’m trying to get shit, look at it, love it, and break it, and put it back together. And that comes from Herbie Hancock. That’s what that experience has been like.

I love playing with him. He’s the only person I would be a sideman to. I would not tour with anybody else except Herbie Hancock. And it’s not about the money, it’s not about nothing. It’s about, I love Herbie like a father figure, he’s a master teacher and I learn more from him than probably anybody else I work with, other than Kendrick, Snoop, Dr. Dre, my mom and dad, man — those are the people I’ve learned from. My whole life is patterned after things I’ve learned from them. With Herbie, it’s bigger than music. I think this took so long because we became like family. Laughing, talking, and Herbie will check me if I’m wrong or saying some slick shit — “No, no, it don’t go like that. It goes like this, ’cause my experience…” and he’ll tell me.

Herbie is the one told me about cryptocurrency when it first was cracking off. I wasn’t into politics. I don’t give a fuck about politics now, but at least I’m aware. Herbie is the man that convinced me to vote for the first time, at 40 years old. I didn’t used to vote. I never gave a fuck about voting, bro. I always felt like voting never affected the ghetto, and I still feel like that a lot of the time, honestly. But I can’t be that guy now saying shit unless I vote. I hate motherfuckers that talk shit but they don’t vote. When I vote I say, “OK motherfuckers, I vote, now I’m really gonna talk shit.” [laughs] So Herbie taught me — he didn’t say it like this, but if you not gonna do nothing to help out, shut the fuck up and sit down and go somewhere. That’s kinda the vibe Herbie’s given me, and I wanna help. I wanna please the world that needs love. I love making sure my brothers like Snoop, Kendrick, Herbie, Lalah Hathaway — lemme say this about Lalah Hathaway. Lalah Hathaway’s one of my majesties that I don’t talk about enough. When I first got with Herbie I said, “Lalah, I’m fuckin’ with Herbie.” I’ll never forget. Lalah’s been my big sister since I was 16 years old and she knows I smoke weed and everything. She said, “Terrace, be present by Herbie Hancock. Treat this way different than everything else.” So I’m completely sober with Herbie, and everything, because he taught me, there’s no way we can give our highest level of art under any influence.

I asked him, “What about the Plugged Nickel? Miles Davis? Everybody said everybody was high.” Herbie looked at me and said, “You think we could have got to that level of music being high? On that stage? No! After the gig, we hung out, but on that bandstand, no!” Now I believe [and] I’m a witness to, if you really want to dig to the highest level of your creativity and your being, substances are not the way because it clouds everything and to dig deep, I need to see and feel everything. The way Herbie plays onstage, you can’t be fucked up. He’s throwing so much shit at me, I’m trying to catch it and by the way, I’m missing everything. I can’t play dodgeball with Herbie under any influence. So Herbie has made my life better through music.


01 “Turning Poison Into Medicine”
02 “Drones” (Feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ty Dolla $ign, James Fauntleroy, & Snoop Dogg)
03 “Leave Us Be”
04 “Work It Out” (Feat. Cordae)
05 “This Morning” (Feat. Arin Ray & Smino)
06 “Tapped” (Feat. Channel Tres & Celeste)
07 “Reflection” (Feat. James Fauntleroy)
08 “Leimert Park”
09 “Griots of the Crenshaw District” (Feat. Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, & Hit-Boy)
10 “Evil Eyes” (Feat. YG & Malaya)
11 “Sick Of Cryin” (Feat. Leon Bridges & D Smoke)
12 “Don’t Let Go”
13 “Listen” (Feat. James Fauntleroy, Kim Burrell, & Robert Glasper)

Drones is out 11/5 on Sounds Of Crenshaw/BMG. Pre-order it here.

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