Terrace Martin on Kendrick Lamar's 'The Blacker the Berry' & Delivering a Message
'We don't give a f--- about record sales, first-week numbers [or] who's hot or not. We just want to touch somebody's soul.'
An entire episode of Unsung could be dedicated to Terrace Martin. The producer/rapper/multi-instrumentalist has been key in strengthening his cousin Snoop Dogg's band once he graduated from high school, was a noted name on releases from Big K.R.I.T. and YG in 2014 and has released a string of albums, most notably 2013's 3ChordFold.
As of late, Martin, 34 years old, has zeroed in on another project: Kendrick Lamar's upcoming sophomore album. Working with the likes of Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway, Thundercat, Anna Wise and more, Martin has turned in some of his finest work on two of Lamar's more politically charged tracks, "Untitled," which he performed on The Colbert Report, and "The Blacker the Berry," which arrived on Monday. Not at full liberty to discuss Lamar's full LP, he spoke with us about the energy surrounding "The Blacker the Berry," working with Kendrick Lamar and the messages they plan to deliver.
Apparently you and your crew have made a lot of noise since Monday.
Yeah, we are pretty loud right now, aren't we? [Laughs]
Let's talk "The Blacker the Berry." Did Kendrick Lamar come to you with the lyrics?
Nah, man, we do so much music out of the studio in L.A. I think it was already done. The verses were on it, but the singing on top weren't there yet. Boi-1da was the one who made the beat, with the hard-hitting drums and shit; that comes from him. I came with the jazzy shit at the end with me, Lalah Hathaway and James Fauntleroy and that type of vibe. The record was done up until a few weeks ago, really.
I was listening to the record, zoning out... what he's talking about is a perfect time for what's going on in life. It's a soulful record, it's a record that needed to be done, and it's like the modern times of Public Enemy. It's a black record. It's a record about being black and being proud at the end of the day. It inspired me to counteract what he was doing with something hella jazzy. He just got done talking about "hypocrites" and pro-black shit, and I'm like, "Let me calm that down because we [are about to] cause a riot out here!"
That third verse is crazy.
Exactly. That same feeling you felt is the feeling I had before we added the jazz part at the end of the record. I was like, "We can't leave it like this. We can't! We gotta resolve this issue right now." So I had Glasper on Fender Rose, Fauntleroy, Hathaway, Thundercat on bass, and we got to work.
Any favorite lines from "The Blacker the Berry"?
Yeah, towards the end when he talks about, "How gang-banging make me kill a n---a blacker than me?"
That line speaks personally to me. When you grow up in L.A. (or anywhere but I'm specifically talking about where I grew up), you can be pro-black, pro-self-love and say, "I'm on this march and love thy brother and no black on black," but you go to the gas station, somebody rolls up next to you and you sense danger. You can't get out in time and you get active before they get active. That message gets tricky sometimes, the whole message, 'cause that's a dude that looks just like you. That's how it was growing up in L.A. or [for Kendrick] in Compton. As much as we love thy brother, there are other cats who don't feel the way we feel so we're still in the belly of the beast and still have to survive.
It's a hurtful thing to defend yourself from your own people. The more we trip over other 'hoods and kill each other, it puts another dark thing [under] your belt. That spoke to me because I've been in those situations where I'm talking this love shit, this jazz shit, but another dude doesn't wanna hear that and there's an issue. Sometimes talking about love doesn't work all the time.
Why does it feel like there's a need to create unapologetically black music? Was there a conversation between you guys?
Nah, we don't talk about it because we live it every day. That's actually my gripe against a lot of gangsta rap. A lot of things don't have to be talked about because we're living it. This wasn't a thing like, "We have to talk about it because it's cool! With all the cops killing, we got to talk about this!" No. We've been on the same page with this for 10-plus years. If you look at the early records we've done, we've always talked for our people. Now it looks a bit bigger because [Kendrick] has such a bigger platform now. It's all eyes on him. It's pretty much a bunch of guys who came together, had a dream and made it out the obstacle course of life. We haven't made it out yet. We're still here, but we're still talking about it. What I dig about what we're doing is that we're not only mentioning the problems but we're offering God-given, humble solutions. That's why I think those records are important: Music is still the fastest way of getting a message to the movement, period. No faster way.
Because it's not corny.
It's not corny, it's not. We see what's going on in the news: families hurting [and] places like Nigeria getting neglected for smaller things. It's a whole world fighting hate and insecurity issues of one another as a human race. Honestly, we don't give a f--- about record sales, first-week numbers [or] who's hot or not. We just want to touch somebody's soul and be a vessel. That's the purpose of music. If we didn't feel like that, we'd be doing other type of music to get on the top 10 charts. But, we stand for the power of people -- not just black people, but the power of people in general. In order to do that, we have to deal with family first; our family at home.
What's the working dynamic between you, Thundercat and Glasper? It's cohesive and you really can't peg it down to one genre.
Every time, the process is always different. We're students of jazz and also jazz musicians. In our world, expecting the unexpected is rule number one. Never trying to repeat yourself or your format is rule number two. There's no specific process; we just come to work. When we get in that stage, the biggest ego isn't me or Thundercat or Glasper, it's the message. It's like... do you have children?
It's kind of like when you have a child, and you have a child in your teens like I do: you can't treat certain issues the same. You have to check people from different angles. Every situation is different; it's the same with music. The only thing we have in common with the process is that we give up ourselves and let the music take us. That's really the only process... that and drinking a lot of Tequila.
For Kenderick Lamar's "Untitled," you guys rehearsed the day before Colbert, right?
The night before, yeah.
What was the energy like?
Cold as f--- in New York City. [Laughs] I kept asking myself, "Why didn't we prepare for this? Why didn't we rehearse this in L.A.?" But hey, we roll with the Kid, and the Kid wanted to rehearse in NYC to get that vibe. We hang out, go to the SIR [rehearsal studios], and we have no idea what he's about to do. We're all sitting there and Kendrick pops up, "I got an idea." He tells us the idea: He doesn't want a band. He just wants a few people out of the band. We look at him like he's crazy, but it'll work! And it happened: the unexplainable, uncontrollable, godly thing where we gave up who we were and formed like Voltron and became a body of the music. That's what you hear.
Kendrick led that shift in us as cats that accompany him and makes sure he gets to the place he needs to get to musically. We just added color to his piece of art. When we did the live show, it felt like we were levitating. It was a positive, weird vibe. A lot of things we didn't rehearse, [and] the show [still] came out like that. It's funny 'cause when we played that last note and the audience started clapping, [that's] the response that many people had when I read the comments. That's scary to me, but again I tell you: the fastest way to get a message across is to sneak that shit into a song.
But for you personally, seeing how these things move, were these records a bigger controversy than when Kim Kardashian almost sued you over The Sex EP cover?
[Laughs] When Kim Kardashian put a lawsuit on me! I forgot about that. To be honest, I didn't even know they were Kim's breasts [on the cover]. My artwork dude forgot to tell me that, and she e-mailed Devi Dev and me with a long-worded letter that she was gonna slap a lawsuit on us. But that's more like a funny thing, that wasn't anything serious. The artwork was Dev's idea! I'm snitchin'!
Before we knew it was Kim, everybody thought that was Devi Dev.
[Laughs] What?! Hell nah, you seen her husband? Ain't nobody playin' around her with him around.
But nah, that was just fun. You gotta think like this. I'm from South Central Los Angeles. I grew up in a gang-bang environment, relatives and all. I grew up in the worst time in L.A., in the '80s and '90s and during the Mexican wars. I've seen people get indicted. I've seen some dark shit. So when I get a lawsuit about Kim Kardashian's breasts, I ain't worried. I still haven't bumped into her yet. I bump into Kanye [West] all the time though.
3ChordFold was 2013, is there anything else you're working on?
Me and Wyann [Vaughn] are working on an EP [that] we're trying to get out this year. She's with me in whatever I do right now. But other than my album, I'm working on Kendrick's album. I'm not focused on anything else right now. I don't want to work with anyone else at this moment in my life because the energy is so demanding and the message we have to convey is so important. It takes a level of concentration that I can't be a prostitute of the business and work with everybody much as I would like to.
The messages we're about to get out we plan to make them stay 100 years so that a college professor can also go back and use our music for reference.
By the time Kendrick Lamar's album comes out, what do you think the reaction is going to be?
I don't know. I really don't. I don't think of it in [those] terms because I'm a soldier on the battlefield sometime. (Real fast: I come from a family of Crips, musicians and Marines. In the mind of a Marine, when they leave they already have it in their brain that they're never coming back home. They have our whole country on their back [while] overseas. I know because my cousin who raised me, rest in peace, was a very important Marine for 20 years. I know how it works. When they're over there, yeah they look at pictures of family and friends and say, 'yeah I'm coming home,' but they know in the back of their mind that they're gonna stay and keep fighting.)
My job today is to keep going for the whole shit. My job as a musician today is to keep on to the next thing. I know it (Kendrick Lamar's album) is going to touch somebody. I wanna say, 'it's gon' be big and the world gon' change over night and Obama gon' chill with us and the police gon' stop killing brothers and blacks can walk around safe,' but I can't say that.
But, I can say we're going to keep doing what we're doing.