Terrace Martin green shirt, orange hat
Terrace Martin green shirt, orange hat
Photo Credit: Daniel Ramos for Okayplayer

Terrace Martin Talks Growing Up in LA, Collaborating w/ Artist & Mourning Kobe Bryant's Death [Interview]

We sat down with Terrace Martin to discuss his work ethic, obstacles in the music industry, and why women artists are killing it more than men artists.

"I’m servicing the artist. I want to give you an experience."

That's how Terrace Martin describes his role when collaborating with other artists. As a producer, Terrace Martin has worked with — or provided "an experience" for — everyone from Snoop Dogg to Raphael Saadiq to Charlie Wilson to Stevie Wonder. His most transformative work, however, has been with Kendrick Lamar; he's played a crucial part in every one of the Compton rapper's albums, starting with Section.80. Martin's profile rose in 2015 with the release of Kendrick's masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. He produced on eight tracks on the album, with his jazz background partially establishing the backbone of the album. 

Being bred into a musical family and growing up Crenshaw — the same neighborhood as Nipsey Hussle — Terrace Martin was immersed in jazz and gospel music. He first started playing piano at the age of six, picking up saxophone a little time after. By the time he was a student at Locke High School he was part of the school's band. 

That jazz background has become Martin's biggest asset: his love for jazz is ingrained in him and his hip-hop production. The end product is the perfect mesh of rap sprinkled with live instrumentation and soul all in one beat.

Terrace Martin has a studio in North Hollywood. This is where he did the majority of the recording for Sinthesize, his latest instrumental album released last month. This is also where we caught up with the musician in early March.

In person, Terrace Martin is funny, incredibly knowledgeable, and exudes positive vibes. During our time together he said things like, “[Life is] hard everywhere but you know what, we’re alive. If you’re alive, you have action. You only stop getting action when you’re dead. If you can wake up every morning, you have action and get it right again. It’s all good.”

We sat down with Terrace Martin to discuss his work ethic, obstacles in the music industry, and how the death of Nipsey Hussle and Kobe Bryant shook LA. Check out the interview below. 

You’ve always been known to be ahead of the curve. What inspires you daily?

Not wanting to be the same. I never want to wear the same cologne. That's why I never bought fragrances from Macy's where I knew everybody would buy certain fragrances from. I’d always try to do custom shit. I’d try to make my own clothes when I was younger. I remember I made a jacket one time. A hard jacket. 

[In the '90s] I was into cartoons and the color blue. We had a dance and I made a fresh ass jacket. I had a sky blue Champion regular hoodie, I went to the Slauson Swap Meet and I got a beach towel with Mickey and Minnie Mouse with water in the back. I cut the towel, stitched that shit in the back in the jacket. Motherfuckers thought it was dope. I was always myself, not following the leader. Even when I was younger and really infatuated with South Central LA culture — gangbanging, streets and everything. Even when I wanted to be a crip, I wanted to be a certain type of crip. Whatever I wanted to do, when I wanted to do fraud or hit licks, I want to do everything my own specific way. If everybody does it one way, you’re going to get caught. So let me do it my way because we still have to get the money. The way I love, talk, eat, cook, make love, say hello, everything belongs to me. It’s mine. 

Terrace Martin green Champion sweater Terrace Martin's jazz background is his biggest asset. Photo Credit: Daniel Ramos for Okayplayer

What kind of crip did you want to be?

A positive one. Because I was inspired by the guys in my neighborhood to do well, the real soldiers in my neighborhood who really care for the art community. A lot of names I probably shouldn’t mention, that are still frequent to this day. 

Who looked out for Terrace Martin?

The guy that raised me is Big D, out of my neighborhood. Big D is a powerful man because he understands love and giving. A lot of us in my neighborhood, the Crenshaw and Slauson section of Los Angeles, he was early on helping a lot of us. He was really in touch with music. He loved music so he helped a lot of us: me, Problem, 1500 or Nothin’. 

Being an LA native, how are you coping with the recent sudden deaths of Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle? 

Death is always a hard thing, those are things that unfortunately we are met with in life. No matter how much they tell us it’s going to happen, I believe none of us are truly prepared to feel that way about anything. There’s no way to prepare for death other than not to prepare for it, and focus on living. With the loss of Kobe and Nipsey, it definitely hurts. 

The flipside is... the bad motherfuckers don’t last that long on earth. They’re only here to drop message and get the fuck out of here, hopefully all us dumb motherfuckers pick up the messages and we keep floating. You don't have to like sports to know Kobe said “work hard.” It’s people that's going to be living until they’re 110, and they’ll give us no messages. The blessing in that: those guys left so many big words and encouragement for all walks of life. All shades, all colors, all levels of life. 

You look at John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix. You look at Dr. [Martin Luther] King, you look at Malcolm X. When you look at the soldiers who really fought for the better of good and doing things that nobody else has done, those are hard weights on your shoulders. And sometimes... poof. It’s okay though. My strong sense of compassion comes in for the families, not really for the fans. Because they left us something. But when they leave us something, being an artist.

What was your relationship with Nip?

My nigga. When you’re a certain artist and you do all this work, you leave the world with words, music, and art — but you leave your family with no daddy. No mother. So when I see everybody “rest in peace!”, everyone’s marching, thank God their families can see this. But, yo, to that little girl or that little boy, that’s just daddy. It's not Nipsey or Kobe, it’s daddy. That’s where my sense of compassion comes in. Any other thing, I’m just thankful they left us something. Hopefully, we can all be a tenth of what those men were. 

How often are you in the studio versus not?

Everyday. I live in the studio at my house. I’ve been in the studio every day consistently for over 30 years. Every week, consistently in my life, since I was a toddler. It hasn’t been a week other than me being out of town on tour, where I wasn’t in the studio. 

What do you feel when you play the saxophone?

Freedom. Fuck the police. Say everything I can't say with the words because everybody is so damn sensitive, so I can say it with the horn. Some people take what I play as soothing, some take what I play as a certain thing. That's the good part about no words, you can take what I take how you want to take it. I’m giving what’s coming out of my heart. If you receive it, then we’re on the same frequency without words. 

What or who inspired your new single “Lie?”

Motherfuckers be lying. It’s not about a man or a female, or a relationship, that’s in the video for a vibe. It’s really I’m sick of lies. I’m sick of lies from the government. I'm sick of lies from the FDA. I'm sick of lies with guns. I'm sick of lies with propaganda. I’m sick of lies. People have to start being more truthful, take accountability and deal with the consequences if they come. 

What are the biggest obstacles in the music industry?

None. I escaped gangbanging. Ain't no obstacles in the music business, this shit weak. All these weenies in the music industry? Everybody’s fake, so it’s cool. Fuck it, that’s the game. I have a select crew of people who I fuck with, we are family and we are loyal to each other. I love everybody but the truth — no bullshit — it’s the entertainment business. Anytime you’re keeping it real, you out of pocket. The entertainment shit is LaLa Land. No obstacles in here, not for my era or my age. 

I really wish and pray on the younger generation that things work out smoother with them. The death toll with the youngsters is really interesting. That's what they said about my generation, and it was a little more treacherous in my generation. Now kids are dying of drugs and you have the internet. Back when I was growing up in the late ’80s and ’90s, if a motherfucker was coming to kill you, you knew. Because they found you, they went through it to find you. It was no misunderstanding. It cracked off.

But LA is always dangerous. LA is never safe for nobody. This isn’t LaLa land, it’s LA. Dirty South Central LA, that’s where we’re from. But you got to walk with God. You got to walk with a different kind of heart, keep the right people around you who have God in them as well. I don't worry about bullets hitting me. I just hope the creative energy I put out turns the motherfuckers the other way, that's how I’ve been walking my whole life. You have to walk with a strong force of love to be in this business, and to be in any streets. To be in LA, you have to be strong because you don’t know where the ghetto is. You can't tell where the ghetto is, that’s tricky. You have to walk with force. Whatever you want to get, you have to project out. Your words are powerful. Keep talking about chippin’ motherfuckers, watch you get chipped. You speak your life, you speak these things.  

How do collaborating artists today compare to back then when you were working with Snoop Dogg at age 16?

Sixteen, we were in the studio making all the records together at one time. Nowadays, people send records back and forth. I still don't send records. People ask all the time. Fuck no. No, I can't send a record. Shit, it’s really expensive to work with me because you have to pay for so much. The studio’s very expensive, the engineers, the staff. I don't have beat CDs. I don't have a pack for you. Who are you? Come meet with me, let’s talk. You want to do a record? You got time, I got time, cool. I’m trying to make legendary music. I could give a fuck about music that’s here today gone tomorrow.

I want to give artists an experience. I don't want to give you the same music I sent to Kendrick. I don't want to sit down with Smino and have something I did for YG or Ty Dolla $ign in my back pocket, that’s weird. If you’re dope like your Instagram says, with the money to your ears and chains, then you should be able to make records everyday. I do 10 hours here, go fuck with Ty Dolla $ign, come back here, go fuck with Ty Dolla $ign, go to Manny, etc.

You have to keep going, that’s how you evolve. I like to give artists an experience. When you come work with me, my mama may come in, the bomb weed man’s always around, the good food. Everybody’s positive. You’re going to get a record just for you. This is our family record, ours. I’m not interested in sending records, I don't chase artists. My schedule’s well-booked for years. Whoever works with me here, they’ve made it. I’ve made it. We both deserve each other’s time.

Terrace Martin wearing orange hat and green shirt. Terrace Martin working in his studio. Photo Credit: Daniel Ramos for Okayplayer

I love how you put yourself on a pedestal.

I don't put myself on a pedestal, I put the artist on the pedestal. I’m servicing the artist. I want to give you an experience. I want you to walk around and say “I feel happy doing art for a living.” No matter what the ups and down, my job is to make the artists be the best they want to be. The best them. I’m not on some higher anarchy, but let’s get in the studio and make some fly shit. From the ground up.

What can we expect next from Terrace Martin?

I’m excited to work with a lot of women. I believe in the women way more than the men right now. A lot of male artists I keep coming across, they look and sound the same. It’s so lame. The artists who are doing it who are the most creative, breaking through challenges and killing shit, are the women artists. Tierra Whack, Summer Walker, SZA… the fellas need to step it up.

That’s what’s so unfortunate about Pop Smoke, he was different.

I didn’t get hip to his music until looking at Angie Martinez a couple weeks ago. I’m like “oh he got 50 Cent DNA, but it’s different.” The way they’re tricking out the 808s, and I love the shit he was saying. “N*ggas saying they outside, send the addy we gon’ slide.” [whistles] When he died, I’m like “damn, I just started liking one of the young guys.” Because there’s a lot of them.

When I heard cuz shit, I’m like “oooohh!” I called on all the OGs, I called Kurupt. On the West Coast, we love gangster shit. We embrace that because we love honesty. The real LA, the ones that push this shit and this culture, we love honesty. We felt honesty through the young man. Unfortunately, his life was cut so short so soon. I believe he would have been a megastar. I looked at a clip of him acting! Young kids have to stay prayed up on whatever belief you believe in that’s a higher source than what you see. Stay focused on your shit, because they out here. 

Nowhere is a joke, but Los Angeles is not a fucking game. People need to be careful going to these malls, befriending the wrong people. Get the right friends, call the right friends. This is not a game. I hate that another dope artist got killed in fucking LA. That destroys me, that breaks me down. I love New York, I love young black artists coming out here to get that money. He was a great artist coming to LA, and I know how LA does. I wish it would have went differently. 

Anything else you want to let us know?

Smoke more weed. Drink a lot of water. Stay on the earth. We got to cut our sugar down. Everything’s drinking a lot, syrup. A fifth of Hennessy four bottles of consistent maple syrup. When you’re drinking syrup and you’re putting Sprite, it all adds up. We used to turn up. I don't recommend turning up but if you do, drink water with everything. Go green.


Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in L.A., you can find her there. Follow the latest on her fomoblog.com and on Twitter @shirju.