Interview: Terrace Martin Talks the Traumas and Close-Knit Collaborations That Inspired Kendrick Lamar’s New Album
"We didn’t listen to the Beatles to do this record. No disrespect."
Image via Complex Original
Kendrick Lamar's latest album, To Pimp A Butterfly, features a superfriends' gallery of singers, producers, and jazz players who all seem to have worked together at some earlier point in their respective careers. Among Kendrick's fanbase, Terrace Martin is perhaps the most familiar of these collaborators; Martin has been working with Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul since 2011, the year Kendrick dropped Section.80. Four years later, Terrace Martin is still integral to the musical legacy of Kendrick Lamar and TDE.
After speaking with soul singer Bilal last week, we reached out to Martin, who produced and played on several songs from To Pimp a Butterfly, including "The Blacker the Berry," "King Kunta," and "These Walls." In the course of our conversation about the studio sessions, musical influences, and social pressures that inspired the production of To Pimp a Butterfly, Martin also cleared up a few lingering uncertainties about the album's release: no, the mysteriously credited "LoveDragon" is not, in fact, Dr. Dre; and sorry, but the "Untitled" track the Kendrick performed on The Colbert Report will never be officially released. It's still history, however.
Interview by Justin Charity (@brothernumpsa)
You’ve worked with Kendrick for years now, since Section.80 and even before that. And you’d previously worked with most of the folks who also featured on To Pimp a Butterfly: Anna Wise, Robert Glasper, Bilal, Sounwave. At the onset of the project, how did all of these guys get roped into working with Kendrick?
The jazz community is very small. I’ve known Robert [Glasper] since I was 15 years old; we’ve been close friends since then. We stay in contact. I just felt like it was time to call on him to assist on this whole project, and then we got the other cats involved. I’ve been playing with these guys and writing music forever. They're a very strong musical supporting cast that understands relationships, and life, and politics, and soul. Everybody on the record really understands what it’s like to be black in this day and age in America. Way before we did the music, it was important that everybody [understood] what being black is really about.
I keep thinking of this album as this really thick knot of black music, of so many different eras and genres. Was that Kendrick's vision from the beginning? Or were (the producers) advocating for the record to sound like jazz and funk?
Kendrick went to Africa. When he came back from Africa, things changed, and he was a different man. He thought that everything he was fighting for in Compton was big—and it is big, it’s a lot of murders going on there—but when you go to Africa, man, shooting and fighting are a way of true survival. War and chaos. Have you been to Africa before?
I’ve been to Egypt. I’ve never been to black Africa, though.
I’ve never been to Africa. From what I hear, anybody that goes to Africa comes back with a different perspective. [Kendrick] came back with a different energy, and everything we talked about, musically, that’s just what his energy was. It wasn’t, “We’re gonna do jazz, we’re gonna do funk,” we just wanted to be the soundtrack to his experience. What other music to do behind that but black music. Soul music.
It’s funny. Recently a cat told me, “R&B is dead! Hip-hop is dead! Black music isn’t soul music,” and this was a nigga saying this! I’d never heard a person of color say anything like that about our shit, and it bothered me: this black man who was dating this white woman, saying that black music is dead. This was a real conversation. Face-to-face with a dude, a keyboard player. He said black music is dead. I always keep that in the back of my head.
I’m black. I can’t be nothing but black. I want to mentor every young black kid that it’s OK to be black. You don’t gotta be scared of things. I look at this record as a testimony, as a huge lesson book for our people. We are under attack. That’s what’s going on right now. This is a record for our time, and for times to come.
A lot of critics have written about “The Blacker the Berry” and “i,” specifically, as black power records. But in terms of how the album as a whole turned out, when you step back and listen to it as a fan, what is the album about? What does it mean to you?
It’s hard for me to step outside of my participation in its creation. Even songs where I thought I knew what Kendrick was talking about, [I realized that] maybe I didn’t but now I do.
From a fan standpoint, I think it’s a well-rounded record. Some people like it, some people don’t. One thing you can’t deny is that that little boy is saying something. If the music don’t grab you, what he’s saying will grab you. If neither one of those things grab you, then you should reevaluate what you’re listening to.
One thing you can’t deny is that that little boy is saying something. If the music don’t grab you, what he’s saying will grab you.
What are a few records, specifically, that you’ve had to revisit to understand?
At first it was “Hood Politics,” and then it was (the recurring “Lucy” metaphor). I took “Lucy” as a metaphor for success, and then I realized that he was talking about Lucifer. Some people say that was obvious. But then, to me, “The Blacker the Berry” was obvious, yet some folks didn’t get that. That’s what’s dope about his album; it’s a puzzle that fans—your black friends, your white friends, your Asian friends—can have these group conversations about. It’s like studying for a test. Everybody can sit back and just discuss: What did you get from the album?
You, for instance. I’ve never met you in my fucking life. But here we have a common interest in trying to figure out these pieces of a puzzle, to figure out this album right now. And now, I’m going to know who you are for the rest of my life. That’s what this album is for, to make real connections with people from all walks of life, and to have these conversations. Maybe these conversations will touch another kid who’ll grow up to become a cop. He may think differently because of it.
This record is more divisive than I expected it would be. It’s polarizing. People either love it because it’s really deep, or they don’t have the patience for it because it doesn’t have contemporary hit records. Are you surprised at that sort or response to Butterfly?
Nah, nah, I’m not surprised. This record probably is not going to touch a person who’s not going through it. This record may not touch everybody, and that’s OK. One thing that everyone agrees [about] is that we needed a voice for us. In hip-hop, we haven’t had a voice in a while for us. [This is] an album that’s cool, that you can still bang it in your car, that you can roll a blunt to, [but] you can still get a message from it.
Think about the black church. Everything in the black church is based on teaching from fear. The whole black church is based on, “If you do this, you’re gonna go to hell!” Everything is hell in the black church. Kendrick isn’t teaching from a fear standpoint. Don’t nobody want to hear no police-talk, no schoolteacher-talk, no preacher-talk no more. No more talking about it; we’re doing it.
Last month when you talked to Billboard about “The Blacker the Berry,” you said, “Music is the fastest way of getting a message to the movement.” Is To Pimp a Butterfly a movement record?
This community is Kendrick’s household, so first he’s dealing with that. This record isn’t just for black people, but we’re talking to them first. We’ve got to get it together. These motherfuckers are out there killing us and killing their children. Killing kids, dawg. Old white police officers are shooting kids that are black. Kendrick isn’t saying, “We hate white people,” he’s just pointing out what’s going on and helping people be aware of it.
Bilal told me that when he listens to Butterfly, he hears a jazz record. A few critics writing about the album have otherwise characterized Kendrick as “post-rap.” I don’t know that I buy all that, but after working on this record with such a close-knit circle of collaborators, do you consider Kendrick a member of the jazz community? Is he a jazz musician?
I don’t think there’s a community that the kid doesn’t fit in. Nobody knew he could do this until he did it. He’s just a fan of music and understanding. He’s literally the John Coltrane of hip-hop. Musicians that are like that can adapt to anything.
I don’t know what to call this album. Some people call it jazz. I just call it a bunch of the homies playing, and going hard. It’s heavily jazz-influenced, but it’s heavily black in general! We didn’t listen to the Beatles to do this record. No disrespect. We didn’t listen to the Who, we didn’t listen to the Rolling Stones. We listened to Parliament. We listened to John Coltrane. We listened to Biggie. We listened to ’Pac. We listened to Lord Finesse. We listened to Don Blackman, Marcus Miller. We listened to Bernard Wright, Kenny Garret, Sonny Stitt, "Cannonball" Adderley, Ambrose (Akinmusire), we listened to Freddie Hubbard and Clark Terry. A Tribe Called Quest was a huge influence on this record. Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Guitar Shorty, Bobby Blue Bland, Little Walter, Little Richard—all the Littles!
Going into these session, you’d already worked with most of the singers and producers who contributed to this album. Who from these sessions hadn’t you worked with until now?
I hadn’t worked with Flying Lotus. Playing horns on his record was cool. I hadn’t worked with Knxwledge. That’s really it. I didn’t see those dudes in the studio. When the crew came in, me and Thundercat, we didn’t see a lot of people. There was only three or four people in all of these creative sessions. It was Thundercat, me, and Sounwave most consistently; and then Robert [Glasper], Lalah [Hathaway], and Bilal. Kendrick was very selective about which crews came in and did what.
Did you work exclusively in the L.A. sessions?
I was back and forth. We always work in L.A. and New York. It always works when [me and Kendrick] work in New York. Everything I played on “Hood Politics,” that was all done in New York City. Even “Real” from the last album. There’s certain things that always get done in New York. New York has a crazy energy. I will never talk about New York crazy, because I just have the highest respect for it.
In New York, were you out here to work on Kendrick’s album exclusively? Or were you working across projects?
My father is from Spanish Harlem. Plus I've got folks in the 140s and all over. I’ve really learned a lot from cats in New York. I used to always go hear Jackie McLean play at the Village Vanguard. Every Christmas they had a two-week residency at the Village Vanguard, when I was 13, 14 years old. Musically, there’s a different kind of aggressive energy in New York. I’ll always be back and forth between New York and L.A. What’s cool about New York is that we can do a record, I can call Rob and Bilal, and we can hop out to the bar to go [perform] at one or two in the morning, get a drink, come back at 4 o'clock and still work, then get up and go play again at seven in the morning.
That’s New York. In L.A., if you don’t eat or get a glass of water before two, you gon dehydrate yourself.
Before you go: The “Untitled” joint that you guys premiered on Colbert, are we ever going to get that record?
Nah, man. That’s just a moment. It’s just a moment, man. You know what’s funny? I thought, “I liked that song, we should do it,” but now I kinda fell into that whole vibe, too: It’s just a moment. We don’t have moments no more. How old are you?
Remember when we were kids and you had to go buy a disposable camera? Even if you lost the pictures or the whole camera, you had those moments because you remembered those moments, and so you cherished those moments. We don’t have that no more. We can show you the moment from 20 years ago on Instagram. I think Kendrick wanted to give the kids a moment. Hip-hop doesn’t give kids moments no more. It’s just, “Here, the record’s out, buy it!” He did that for us. Just for us to have a moment.
There’s not even a master of it somewhere?
It don’t even exist in the world, except on The Colbert Report. When we were doing the show, I was thinking, “What is this nigga doing? Did we just make up a song for this? What is this little nigga doing? Why he got me out here in this cold air and we don’t know what we’re doing?” And then he tells me, “Terrace, solo.” “What? What do you mean?” But we’re all on one accord, because the biggest ego to us is the music. When Kendrick says go, we go.