17 min read

From the Bass to the Brass: A Guide to Terrace Martin

An unprecedented examination of one of L.A.’s modern musical greats
From the Bass to the Brass: A Guide to Terrace Martin

How do I begin to sketch out the career of Terrace Martin, a man who came up spinning Straight Outta Compton and King T while the spirit of John Coltrane loomed over his shoulder? If you were aware of the new golden age of West Coast rap that occurred in the 2010s, you have definitely bumped Terrace Martin. Just because he refuses to tag his tracks with an audio calling card doesn’t obscure the fact that his influence hangs over Los Angeles like the Hollywood sign.

Terrace is the producer tapped by Snoop Dogg as a teenager to cut a decade of Calvin’s most weed-doused funk beats. He’s the saxophonist who helped turn Kendrick Lamar into a freewheeling jazzman; the one-time choir singer who stacks trunks with G-funk bounce. Martin plays every position like Magic Johnson. You’re as likely to see him playing around with a vocoder as caressing his sax. He’ll move from boards to the booth to rap or sing because that’s what the song demands.

If destiny is your thing, consider that Terrace was 13 years old when he was approached at one of his jazz-playing father’s gigs by a mysterious and beautiful Dominican woman who told him that the alto saxophone was the instrument for him. By the time he crossed paths with Jay Leno a few years later, he was showing so much promise that the talk show host gifted him his first professional sax and a $30,000 scholarship. Call these meetings fate, call them coincidences. What is clear is that if they had not occurred, contemporary American jazz might have been greatly diminished.

In case you missed the news, Terrace recently claimed that he’s pretty much done working with “rap friends.” His decision is down to feeling the love he’s given collaborators hasn’t always been reflected back to him, and thoughts that his easy-going nature has been taken advantage of—while Martin has waived cash and credit on the strength of relationship, other producers he helped school pick up better pay checks. If his assertion holds, now is the time to take stock of Terrace’s career and legacy as a producer, instrumentalist, and solo artist.

So to answer my initial question, it feels appropriate to chart Terrace Martin’s greatness by recalling some of his best cuts. There’s a bunch of great singles I’ve left aside; some iconic Kendrick tracks that have not made the cut. But the point here isn’t to be completist. It’s to showcase Terrace as one of his generation’s most daring virtuosos—from the bass to the brass, from the keys to the notes, from the Gs to the locs. This is the story so far.

Kipper Jones: Better (prod. by Martin & Marlon Williams) from Hidden Beach Recordings Presents: Hidden Hits Vol. 1 (2003)

Doing my best Ronan Farrow impression, the earliest Terrace Martin production credits I can locate date back to 2003. There are a few tracks with Inglewood rapper Eastwood, who attended the same church as Terrace. And there’s this hidden gem by Kipper Jones, a veteran singer and songwriter for Brandy and Vanessa Williams. “Better” appeared on a little-heard compilation from the label Hidden Beach Recordings. The Dilla-esque instrumental features a snappy drum loop and some cool, loose electric piano licks that inspires Jones to leave behind “rough times” and sing for better days. “Better” is co-produced by Marlon Williams, a guitarist who has remained in Terrace’s creative circle ever since.

213: “Joysticc” (prod. by Martin & Marlon Williams) from The Hard Way (2004)

Terrace’s introduction to big-time rap producing was a song about Snoop’s junk. Calvin had the prescience to see something in young Terrace, shoring up a key component of his own sound for the next decade. Martin would co-produce two tracks on The Hard Way, from the 213 project that couldn’t consistently fuse group members Snoop, Warren G, and Nate Dogg’s collective gifts. “Joysticc” is silly fun, though. The synth stabs are very satisfying, and it takes audacity to jack the same drums Biggie rapped over on “Juicy.” Terrace even laces the opening with some gently caressed piano chords. The touches would get more deft with experience, but it set a precedent for a career that would see him blend live music with programmed beats.

Snoop Dogg: “Gangbangin’ 101” ft. The Game (prod. by Martin) from Tha Blue Carpet Treatment (2006)

Mastered the Ten Crack Commandments? Snoop and The Game are here to give you a lesson in Gangbangin’ 101. Game does his usual 1990s hat-tipping: there’s a bizarre suggestion they go exhume the body of Tupac, but throwing out a reference to Snoop’s classic “Deep Cover” is smart, given the evil undercurrent of Terrace’s beat feels drawn from the same circle of Hell.

Terrace Martin: “Ridin’” ft. Snoop Dogg, Problem & Scar from Signal Flow (2007)

Despite his burning love for jazz music, Terrace entered the arena as a producer of rap songs. As well as Snoop and associates, his client list grew to include Chico & Coolwadda and Talib Kwelli. So it was inevitable then that his first solo mixtape would be a hip-hop project. The cover of Signal Flow presents Martin in a more urban look than we’d later become accustomed to—albeit with the image of Miles Davis blazed across his fresh tee. And just like the artwork, its best song attempts to bridge rap and jazz, predicting Martin’s future methodology. “Ridin” begins with a slow, pulsing kick drum and Terrace and Snoop in casual conversation. From there, more and more elements are introduced into the mix—a funky bassline, sour vocoders, tinkling piano keys, rapper Problem—before winding to singer Scar laying soulful vocals over Martin’s suple sax. His amalgamation of the genres would become ever more fluid, but when tracing the lineage of Martin’s sound, “Ridin” feels like an important experiment.

Terrace Martin: “Be Thankful” ft. Uncle Chucc & Jblack from Signal Flow (2007)

One constant thread through Terrace’s discography is a penchant for making songs about just how much he loves music. Honoring his influences is a reflection of Martin’s passion, a humble acceptance that he is but a scholar of the game. “Be Thankful” is the most autobiographical joint in his catalog. Through rapping, he comprehensively goes through a life spent with his ears open. Because, as you’d suspect, you don’t become a great artist without impeccable taste. “Be Thankful” ends with a sax solo because no deeply personal Terrace Martin song would be complete without one.

Snoop Dogg: “Neva Have 2 Worry” ft. Uncle Chucc (prod. by Martin & Snoop) from Ego Trippin’ (2008)

Terrace serves Snoop a creeping beat, its tension only released by a saintly chorus courtesy of Uncle Chucc. Inspired by the bass, the Long Beach legend goes over the highs and lows that had shaped the artist and man he’d become. There’s his breakthrough performance on “Deep Cover” and dropping a certified masterpiece in Doggystyle, through to the backlash that went with his decision to head south to No Limit and the old boss (guess who?) who wanted him dead. “I fought that case, wonder where the West would be if I’da lost that case,” he ponders, presumably referring to the 1993 murder trial. Us too, Snoop. Us too.

Lalah Hathaway: “1 Mile” (prod. by Martin) from Self Portrait (2008)

Terrace teams up with singer Lalah Hathaway for a smooth, mid-tempo contemporary R&B/neo soul tune. It might have been recorded a little later, but “1 Mile”—from her fourth solo album, Self Portrait—is the kind of song you used to find in the deep cuts of turn-of-the-millennium R&B CDs that, in a world before high-speed internet, made them so worth spending a not-insignificant 15 bucks on.

Terrace Martin: “Say You Will” (co-prod by Wild Animals) from 808s & Sax Breaks (2009)

Leave it to Terrace to look at Kanye West’s seminal 808s & Heartbreak as an opportunity to lay down some saxophone lines. Across five songs, he mirrors Kanye’s auto-tuned flow with his sacred horn. “Say You Will” is my favorite track on the project because the slow, pensive nature of the original gives Martin a chance to express himself. The juxtaposition of the cold, digitized beeps and blips and Terrace’s warm playing is beautiful—the synthetic and the organic in perfect harmony, like an android grappling with its first human emotions.

Terrace Martin & Devi Dev: “All The Things” ft. Kenneth Crouch from The Sex EP (2011)

From Martin and Devi Dev’s smoothly bumpin’ self-released The Sex EP, R&B crooner Joe’s sweaty ballad “All The Things (Your Man Won’t Do)” is transformed into a satin-smooth number that could get like-charged magnets to hold each other close. Joe’s all-power performance is traded out for squelchy synths, simmering sax, and vocoder vocals as sensual as a pencil. This cover (a version of which also appears on odds and ends record 3ChordFold Pulse in 2014) may shed itself Joe’s enjoyable over-the-top silliness, but you could actually fuck to it.

Terrace Martin: “L.O.V.E.” ft. Ty Dollar $ign from Locke High 2 (2011)

Let it not be said that Terrace can’t emulate The-Dream’s spacey R&B when he feels like it. The video to “L.O.V.E.” is worth a watch just to hear Ty Dolla $ign call his friend “T-Meezy” and, most excellently, “Dr. Quincy Dre Jones.”

Kendrick Lamar: “Real” ft. Anna Wise (prod. by Martin) from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012)

Terrace had known Kendrick Lamar a good seven or eight years before working on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and had previously received a credit on Section.80. But K.Dot’s singular genius could still blindside him. “I ain’t even going to lie, when he first got into the booth and sung the hook, I was like ‘This shit is horrible.’,” Martin told Complex about the making of “Real.” “But then he kept on stacking vocals and I kept hearing the harmonies and the vibe.”

“Real,” Kendrick’s meditation on “realness” that adds extra context to his open-ended outline of life in Compton, came together over $2 wine and to the sound of Brazilian records. Terrace had recently been playing with a Brazilian band at the Blue Note in New York and came to see the tonalities of Kendrick’s voice as sounding like “true samba.” “He channeled that real authentic Brazilian shit. He channeled that melody and a different rhythm in his voice, a different tonality. ‘Real’ is really a samba that’s unwritten. He channeled that shit as if he was playing in Stevie Wonder’s band for 20 years.”

Terrace Martin: “Angel” (co-prod by 9th Wonder & Craig Brockman) from 3ChordFold (2013)

Martin must have called in all his favors for 3ChordFold. The guest list includes Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Problem, Robert Glasper, Snoop, Wiz Khalifa, and Ty Dolla Sign. But one of the best joints on the album might be the simplest. It’s Martin’s catchy trumpet riff that takes the rest of “Angel” by the hand. Underpinned by some sped-up, soulful vocal loops—probably 9th Wonder’s input—this is the kind of peppy summertime jazz bop that few sink into as well as Terrace.

Terrace Martin: “Something Else” ft. Problem (co-prod. By 9th Wonder) from 3ChordFold (2013)

Conditions of the heart inspire Terrace. “Something Else” is a mid-tempo bop, smoother than a song about a fracturing relationship ought to be, with a melodic Problem handed hook duties. An easter egg: the video opens with a snippet of a jazz version of “Real.”

Terrace Martin: “For Ever With You” from Times (2014)

Terrace plays that vocoder like Sasaki Kojiro wielded a sword, like Steph Curry shoots threes. Loverman jam “For Ever With You” first appeared on the 2014 project Times, which is about half Christmas songs, but the tune, retitled “With You,” was also included on album Velvet Portraits because it deserved that second life—and a quick glance at Spotify shows me its the LP’s most popular track. For further adventures in the vocal manipulating instrument, see Terrace’s live cover of Michael Jackson’s “Cant Help It”.

Kendrick Lamar: “For Free?” (prod. by Martin) from To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)

Terrace produced or co-produced six songs on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and played instruments on most of the rest, so it’s tough to pick his personal highlight. I was tempted by “These Walls”, a song Terrace has asserted his influence over by performing live,  or “Momma,” his confirmed personal favorite track from the album, where he furnishes a soul-looping beat from Knxwledge with his horn. But no, it must be “For Free?,” an early indicator on To Pimp a Butterfly that jazz music was going to be a crucial adhesive. A bebop tune produced by Terrace, it features crescendoing percussion, unshackled piano playing courtesy of his friend and regular collaborator Robert Glasper, and wild horns that tempt Lamar into performing a scatty vocal, more spoken word than rapping, spitting syllables in about seven different directions. While jazz rap has typically united both genres in harmony, “For Free?” is improvisational free jazz in spirit. It’s the sound of two planets colliding—a moment of celestial chaos but great beauty. And look out for Martin’s cameo in the first few seconds of the video.

YG: Twist My Fingaz (prod. by Martin) from Still Brazy (2016, released as a single 2015)

Not long after YG’s “Twist My Fingaz” dropped, I visited Los Angeles for the first time. As an outsider, you pack certain preconceived expectations. After all, The sprawling city is one of the most pop cultured places in the world. From Chinatown to Straight Outta Compton, from Philip Marlow to Henry Chinaski, from MC Eiht to Michael Mann; it’s impossible to disentangle the framed imagery from unfiltered reality. Touching down in LAX and breathing in the dizzyingly-tall palm trees that tower over the rock-hard concrete pavements, the plastic discman in my head automatically whirled into life, rattling off the Dre beats that formed the building blocks of a town previously pieced together in my mind.

“Twist My Fingaz” plays like Cali feels. Westside symbols, khakis with a cuff, socks like a cholo; this is music for straight west coastin’—a reminder that nothing in hip-hop has ever kicked as thick as g-funk. Martin’s squelching whistles, Shaq-sized handclaps, and fat bassline made his other major revival production of 2015, “King Kunta,” sound positively meek in comparison, while YG’s melodic bounce more than ever before bore his power for channeling greats of a bygone era. Martin already had L.A. embedded into his hardwiring, but with songs like “King Kunta” and “Twist My Fingaz,” he’s now part of the city’s DNA.

Kendrick Lamar: “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014.” ft. Jay Rock (prod. by Martin) from untitled unmastered. (2016)

K.Dot traverses the far reaches of his own galaxy. “untitled 05” encapsulates the freewheeling brilliance of Kendrick and his squad of interplanetary star men. The song—from untitled unmastered., the outstanding vault-emptying compilation of unused tracks from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions—is a starship powered by Martin’s avante-garde trumpet, a bassline that loops and swoops, and a haze of hi-hat percussion. Lamar’s scorching of America’s ruling class has rarely been as cutting (“Justice ain't free, therefore justice ain’t me”). By the time Jay Rock teleports in to drop one of his best ever verses, you’re already in their orbit. If the celestial god Sun Ra’s time on this planet had stretched into the 21st century, he might have made music that sounded like this.

In an interview with Billboard’s Natalie Weiner, Martin encapsulated the session’s freewheeling flavor: “On ‘untitled 05,’ I’m playing saxophone, I co-produced it, and I played piano on it. I guess we were cutting so many records, and Robert Glasper was around cutting records too, that he must have rubbed off on me, because he and I both thought that it was him on that song when the project came out yesterday. Kendrick had to remind me, ‘No, that’s you playing piano. You was drunk that night.’

“That’s how in-sync that whole crew was through TPAB—we started walking alike, talking alike, playing alike, eating alike. We were like Voltron: one thing, one force. That’s one thing you hear on this record—how much of a brotherhood we did have. I had forgotten about all this shit, it was just a blur of good music with my brothers. Just hearing these things again has been a huge treat for me. That’s what I call these the secrets—they were the blueprints of where we were aiming to go. You guys are getting a picture of what we saw first.”

Terrace Martin: “Think of you” ft. Rose Gold & Kamasi Washington from Velvet Portraits (2016)

Velvet Portraits is Terrace’s masterwork, a fully rounded depiction of his home city that distills a half-century of L.A.’s sun-drenched grooves. I guess you’d file it under “jazz” in your record collection, but this is a séance that makes contact with, among other things, R&B, cosmic funk, g-funk, and slow jams. Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold, and various vocalists, some unknown, are among those to lend their weaponry to the sessions. Among it all, Martin’s breezy sax lines and keys tie everything together. It’s an album for every stage of the most glorious summer’s day.

It’s so hard to pick a highlight, but there is “Think of you.” Curly Martin’s drums and Brandon “Eugene” Owens’ bass feel so warm and organic. In keeping with Terrace’s ethos of honoring great music, singer Rose Gold pays tribute to Curtis Mayfield and Mary J. Blige while Martin’s vocoder-manipulated voice and Washington’s sax loiter in the background. In this perfect summer’s day, “Think of you” plays like an after dusk utopian basement nightclub jam made real.

Terrace Martin Presents The Pollyseeds: “Intentions” ft. Chachi from Sounds Of Crenshaw Vol. 1 (2017)

If you opt to just skim this piece (no judgement), the one takeaway you need is that Terrace named his label Sounds Of Crenshaw—an encapsulation of his history and ethos. Martin launched the company with Velvet Portraits, and Sounds Of Crenshaw Vol. 1—co-billed to The Pollyseeds, a band he put together—again sees him being open about his influences. “Intentions” features a little Boogie drum beat, some sour whistles, and Problem (operating under his Chachi moniker) talking the surly groove as an opportunity to step to a woman he peeps.

Big K.R.I.T.: “The Light” feat. Bilal, Robert Glasper, Kenneth Whalum & Burniss Earl Travis II (prod. by Martin, Glasper & Big K.R.I.T.) from 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time (2017)

I was a huge fan of Big K.R.I.T.’s 2010-2012 run, when this self-producing star made classicist Southern rap that honored Pimp C by swerving between neck-snapping bounce-ability and bluesy heart. That mainstream success eluded him is still a source of frustration for me, but K.R.I.T. has continued to evolve. “The Light” is a sharp turn from the rudimentary regional sound he built his reputation on. With Terrace behind the boards, an impressive ensemble of musicians assemble to create a spiritual jazz-rap piece that sees K.R.I.T. meditate on racism in America by digging into the killing of Trayvon Martin, the rise of the alt right, and a crisis of his own personal faith. And when Bilal sings, “The road is long/ The night is young,” he summons the spirit of Sam Cooke to stay with the activists as their fight continues.

Terrace Martin: “Beige” ft. Arin Rey & Elena Pinderhughes from Impedance EP (2020, released as a single 2019)

“Beige” pits Elena Pinderhughes and Arin Rey as a couple in a strained relationship. “Seems like lately we’ve fallen all the way down,” sings Pinderhughes. “If I’m being honest, babe,” replies Rey, “I don’t really care for things like pressin’, no extras, no testin’ me, please.” But it’s Terrace’s thick bass and downbeat electric pianos that sets the doomed atmosphere, hanging over his performances like a tension that couldn’t be cut with the sharpest katana.

Terrace Martin: “Almond Butter” from Soul Juice EP (2020)

The Soul Juice EP didn’t make much noise upon release, and yet it's one of the clearest visions of Terrace’s attempts to bring together his love for hip-hop and jazz. Each track is named after fresh ingredients and for sure this is music that’s raw, organic, delicious. The highlight is “Almond Butter,” which sees Martin lay some complex sax lines on a smooth rap beat to keep the heads noddin’.

Ric Wilson & Terrace Martin: “Move Like This” from They Call Me Disco EP (2020)

I put this on my best rap singles of 2020 playlist and a friend remarked that it had “very futuristic skate rink vibes.” “Move Like This” is from They Call Me Disco, a team-up EP with eclectic Chicago rapper Ric Wilson that, as the title suggests, pulls influence from throwback dancefloor grooves, but also classic West Coast pop, funk, and jazz. The fat bassline and Los Angeles bounce of “Don’t Kill The Wave” is reminiscent of Martin's work on Kendrick’s “King Kunta”; the laid back soul of “Before You Let Go” connects the dots between Stevie Wonder and Thundercat. But nothing tops “Move Like This,” its slick synths and g-funk whistles moving like velvet roller skates.

Dinner Party: “First Responders” from Dinner Party (2020)

Dinner Party and their self-titled project didn’t make the kind of cultural splash you might have expected from a supergroup—I mean, it’s Terrace, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, and 9th Wonder for heaven’s sake. “First Responders” is the kind of rap-jazz amalgamation that Terrace has spent his career driving at. The drum loop, presumably synced up by 9th, is constant and unbending, while the brass instruments simmer up top. There is a version of the song featuring Bilal and Punch, but I like the original and the showcasing of its instrumental solos.

Busta Rhymes: “Master Fard Muhammad” ft. Rick Ross (prod. by Martin) from Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God (2020)

Busta Rhymes teams up with Rick Ross to honour the mythological founder of the Nation of Islam. Master Fard Muhammad (aka W.D. Fard) was said to be Allah in flesh and blood. The fact that almost nothing is known about Fard from both before his emergence in Detroit in 1930, and after his vanishing act in 1934, only gives weight to the belief that he was more than a man. Rozay zeroes in on Fard’s job as a door-to-door silks salesman, which helped him spread his word of Black exceptionalism to those who had come to the city as part of the Great Migration, before himself pointing listeners to the Quran if the want “the source.

Enter Busta: “Swag gave birth to millions like Master Fard Muhammad, boss,” raps the devout Muslim. The video, meanwhile, stays on theme by featuring a young guy at home nursing a swollen eye before journeying by car to seemingly be welcomed the Nation of Islam. In one shot, the pair, decked out in fur, sit in thrones in front of a portrait of Fard, because rapping about holy prophets or no, they’re still two of the most ostentatious men to ever make rap videos.

The origins of the beat can actually be found all the way back to the intro of The Sex EP. On this spruced up instrumental, Terrace’s saxophone blows through the cut, mirroring the work of Terrence Blanchard on Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X, which picks up the N.O.I.’s story through Master Fard Muhammad’s protege, Elijah Muhammad.

BADBADNOTGOOD ft. Terrace Martin, Brandee Younger & Arthur Verocai: “Talk Meaning” from Talk Memory (2021)

Don’t worry if you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking jazz is dead. These days the genre accounts for as little as 1 percent of American music consumption. Glance at the Billboard jazz album chart and what stares back at you is a weird mix of long departed big-ticket names, such as Miles Davies and Louis Armstrong, and easy-listening music that shouldn’t really count. Michael Bublé always has a bunch of records on there. In this backdrop, it’s impossible not to feel an affinity with BADBADNOTGOOD. The Canadians are more than a decade-deep into their mission to keep jazz percolating in the cultural ether. Their efforts are sometimes dubbed “alt jazz,” a reflection of how frequently they pull other styles into sound. Yet on last year’s Talk Memory, the group leaned on many of jazz music’s core tenets, combatting the idea that the genre is deceased and coming up with the finest full-length of their already impressive oeuvre. The album ends with Terrace Martin’s alto sax leading the epic “Talk Meaning,” with Brandee Younger’s dreamy harp adding another layer. The extended band play with wild abandon but perfect chemistry.

Terrace Martin: “Drones” ft. Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, James Fauntleroy & Ty Dolla $ign from DRONES (2021)

The flagship track from Martin’s latest album DRONES recruits the two artists who’ve defined his production portfolio more than any others: Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar. It’s unbelievably fitting. “Drones” manages to pull in multiple strands of Martin’s musical history—fat basslines, caressed piano keys, slick grooves, melodic rhymes—while still looking ahead to a daring future: hear the cosmic electronics over the song’s second half. I can’t think of a more fitting jumping off point to end this particular journey.

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