Interview: Thelonious Martin Talks "Wunderkid," Making Beats With Live Instruments, and Jamaican Hot Plates

Thelonious Martin is proving that he belongs with "Wunderkid."

Not Available Lead
Image via Complex Original
Not Available Lead

Thelonious Martin is only 22, but he's been in the game for several years. During this time, he's worked with a bunch of up-and-coming rappers like RetcH, with whom he created 2013's Polo Sporting Goods, and more established artists like Curren$y and Mac Miller. All the while he's managed to build an expansive catalog on Bandcamp. His style is reminiscent of J Dilla and Madlib, but the young beatsmith is looking to create his own lane. His most recent release, Wunderkid, should do well in helping that along. Instead of his usual sample-driven production, Martin opted instead for live instrumentation. What's more, the project, which features Curren$y, Domo Genesis, Mac Miller, Smoke DZA, Michael Christmas, RetcH, Ab-Soul, isn't just relegated to rap. As you'll learn, Martin plans to expand into other genres, and starts here by producing an R&B cut with Nyko and K-Sra.

We spoke with Thelonious about the struggle of putting together such a sprawling album, incorporating live instruments, producing in other genres, and much more.

The album is finally out. What’s been the reception?

So far, so good. A lot of people really like it which makes me really happy. I’m hearing a lot of good reviews. A couple of the big homies said they were picking it up. It’s not necessarily about anybody’s approval, but it’s always cool to see Jake One say he was going to buy it, Alchemist tweeted about it, even No I.D. tweeted about it, which I don’t think people really peeped because I don’t think people really know that his Twitter is @Cocaine80s.

You’re known for flipping samples, but on this album you took a different approach.

We took those same initial sample ideas and kind of gave them new life. We brought in musicians to play live instruments, and we took it to the next level.

Tell us about the process, orchestrating all of that. That’s something new for you, right?

I talked to my man Professor Fox who did “Don’t Harsh My Mellow” for Kids These Days. He worked on “Juice” with Chance the Rapper. He’s got some credits under his belt. He's been putting in work in Chicago for a minute. He knows a lot of musicians and stuff, so I called upon him to be the Jon Brion to my Kanye West, to take these cold ideas and bring them to life. I’ve worked with a couple session musicians before here and there, but this was like, turning to these musicians to create an idea I had. So I’m, like, leading musicians, telling them to play it like this. I was really in there producing.

We brought in musicians to play live instruments and we took it to the next level.

You were a conductor, basically. Do you know if Madlib heard this album?

I hope he has.

Because you have an ode to Madlib on there. I remember you told me before how you guys first met. Can you tell me the story again?

I met Madlib through Freddie Gibbs. Gibbs had told me to go to a show that day, and I had got up with him earlier. He was doing some interviews and press, so he invited me to the show. I come backstage and of course Madlib is there. He DJ’d for him that night. I walked into the room and dude was holding a wine glass with huge chunky jewelry looking like one of the original Egyptians. You can tell that he’s one of those guys—even if you didn’t know who Madlib was at that point in time. He was standing in the room, you knew he was important. Dude just had that aura about him. We were talking about [how] we would grab samples from YouTube.

I got a chance to tell him that he's one of the reasons I’m doing music today. His stuff on Adult Swim shook my world up, and I’m really appreciative of it. I gave him my contact, but according to Gibbs, Madlib isn’t that good with a phone. Hopefully one day I’ll get a random text like, “This is Madlib. I heard that album.”

The Polo Sporting Goods tape had a bunch of Fantastic Planet shit on there. Madlib loves to sample that movie.

Yeah that movie is a classic. I have the soundtrack on vinyl.

I like the soundtrack better than the movie. I always fall asleep.

It’s long.

And very weird. You have to pay attention. When you were directing the musicians, were the sounds based on old samples, or was it the feeling of a certain beat?

A good example is, “Wrong Is Right.” I pretty much had the core of that track done. Worked on some more sequencing, started bringing more musicians in, and we basically just added bass and guitar to the original beat. It was weird directing it. I’m not the most classic, musically trained person. It was more based off feel. When I heard that guitar it was more gut wrenching, soulful. It sounds like it’s some hurt in there. We cut out all the lights in the room. We had this projector that projected different colors, almost like water. We had water, it would change like blue, green, and that was the only light in the room besides the one coming from the computer.

We basically just set a mood, and I was like, “You’ve gotta play something because your dog just died and you're on the side of the road just trying to get money to go home and see your dog or something.” I’ve created a scenario…some type of hurt, and that translated into the track. They’re coming in to help me so I had to help them connect on an emotional level. That was really important to me.

Why name it Wunderkid?

There's a couple reasons. Wunderkind in Germany means child prodigy. It took me so long to come up with a title for this project. I thought about Germany because I’m really into some German rock. Then I started looking at titles and different phrases that represent me. So this is kind of like my Magnum Opus, my great statement at an early age. This definitely fits. It fits the time of now and hopefully it will stand the test of time.

Did you play any instruments?

Some piano here and there. I played the bass on “September,” which is one of my favorite joints.

The songs sound like samples, but they’re crisp and sharp.

I initially had one of these beats and had a general idea of how I wanted to put it together. Then I wanted this to be more than just a simple rap project. I know it would be really easy for me to get a bunch of rappers because I’ve done that before. I don’t want to look backwards, I want to move forward.

When I pick up a vinyl, I check for who produced this record and who played what instrument. There would be like seven people to a song.

How long did it take you to put all of that together because you’re not only wrangling musicians to play live instruments, but you also have to get rappers and singers. How hard was that to orchestrate everything?

The very first beat dates back to about November of last year, and I took it to [Professor] Fox in February. Sept. 5, 2014, is when we finished the album, and I think that’s the day I wrote the liner notes at the mastering session. So from about February to November…it took about a year to put together from the first beat to the mastering session.

Did you make a beat with a rapper in mind? Or did you have a list of rappers who you wanted to work with?

Of course, I had a list of rappers I wanted to work with, but in terms of selection process? We’re going to create different feels and emotions. Then there were voids in the project like, “All right, this is dope, but it’s missing something or someone we know could fill that void.” That’s when we started wondering who would sound dope. I wanted to put people into the places that fit perfectly. The joint with Smoke DZA sounds like DZA all the way.

You have Topaz and Saint Ross on one, RetcH and Ab-Soul one, and Curren$y and Domo Genesis on one. The mix works well.

When I made the RetcH and Ab-Soul beat, I immediately thought of Alchemist. It’s definitely an influence of 1st Infantry, definitely an influence of Donuts, an influence of Late Registration in terms of the instrumentation. I heard of RetcH through the Alchemist camp. I also worked with [Action] Bronson before so when that vibe was created I wanted to see how we could piece this together to push through the vibe of really taking it home. The RetcH and Soul joint sounds like the 2014 “Guilty Conscience.”

You create a beat and then go, “I think these two guys will work for it.” So you hit them up, give them the beat and go from there.

We definitely pieced it together. In America the meat is the main dish. In the Caribbean, you have plantains, rice, all this extra stuff, and then on the side you have a little bit of meat.

You're Caribbean?

Yeah, I’m Jamaican.

That makes sense. You've got the rice and peas and then you've got the cabbage.

Yeah, you got all these things that are good for you, and then on the side you got a little meat because you’re not supposed to eat that much meat. This album is definitely a Caribbean plate. It’s rice and peas, it’s cabbage, it’s plantain. Then you got the rappers in there like the oxtails or something.

You wanted the beats to be the star of the show.

That’s why the interludes are full-length songs. “Malcolm’s Interlude,” which I’m still hoping that someone figures out Mac Miller and I have the same first name. We're both Malcolms, and that’s why it’s called “Malcolm’s Interlude.”

One of the interludes that really stood out was "Purp's Interlude.” Joey Purp snapped on that.

We basically sat down and recorded both songs in the same day, which I think to anyone else sounds scary because it’s like: "How’d you come up with all those bars in one day?" I was sitting there with Joey, and I'm still trying to figure out what he was thinking. I’m still surprised that he came up with all of that in one day.

He laid that down while you guys were in the studio together?

We had two different studio sessions. We were at Fox's initially recording the outro—which I didn't know was gonna be the outro at the time, we were just recording to that beat. The original idea for that beat was real crazy, so we honed it in to make it more simple, and Joey Purp ended up bodying the shit. Then we went to another session to record the interlude. He sat with that beat for about 20-30 minutes, and I was wondering what he was gonna say. You can hear me at the end scream a little because it was a high of just watching him body those two songs in one day.

This album is definitely a Caribbean plate. It’s rice and peas, it’s cabbage, it’s plantain. Then you got the rappers in there like the oxtails or something.

It's always better to be in the studio with the rapper. Too many times these days, verses literally get mailed in and sometimes they lack chemistry.

The only verse that was emailed in was Domo's. I went to L.A. to record something with him to try and figure where he would fit on the album. I feel like he's a very underrated spitter. People don't mention him when they mention Odd Future. Dude can rap his as off. We might have an EP coming in the future because we have a bunch of joints tucked away. For whatever reason they didn't fit so I eventually hit him about being on a song with Curren$y and he bodied that shit. I know people that smoke hella weed are hella happy those two are on a track together.

You have an R&B joint on this project featuring Nyko and K-Sra.

Flying Lotus is one of my favorite producers and one of my favorite tracks is "Tea Leaf Dancers." It's this very mellow track and it was something I was inspired by. So I sat down with K-Sra and told her what I wanted the song to sound like. Again, it wasn't about hitting the same notes, I just wanted these vibes that were timeless. That's something that I wanted to do on the entire project. So I added Nyko's vocals on it after. It was more about having different vocalists that work with the vibe than it being an actual duet. I was trying to do the Kanye Good Friday method of putting as many dope people together to create something. I feel like records should be produced like that. When I pick up a vinyl, I check for who produced this record and who played what instrument. There would be like seven people to a song.

Nowadays people be like: "Oh, I did this all by myself." That's cool, but there's nothing wrong with too many cooks in the kitchen making a good dish. If this man makes the best rice, or this man makes the best beans it's no reason why the dish wouldn't taste good. That's why I wasn't afraid to collaborate. So I was like let me get these kinds of people that can sing these type of songs, or play this instrument, or have these types of melodies.

You looking into doing more R&B in the future?

Oh, of course. I want to do a jazz album next year. There's no stone that's gonna go unturned. I was trying to hint at the other styles I got on "Purp Outro." That's the track that sounds the least like everything else just to let people know that: "Hey, that industrial Yeezus sound, or stuff that's really hard hitting, I can do that." People try to box me into a sound, but I'm a person that makes music. I want to be able to create and capture vibes that'll put people in certain kinds of moods. Whether it be standing on a couch in the club or you want to clean the crib. I enjoy all these things so I want to create a soundtrack to these different moments.

Once you finish school, you'll be able to focus full time on music.

That's the scary part for everyone else. [Laughs.]

Angel Diaz is a Staff Writer for Complex Media. Follow him @ADiaz456.

Latest in Music