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Artist Guide

Terrace Martin’s Guide to Collaboration

By Donna-Claire Chesman on

Multi-GRAMMY Award-winning saxophone player, producer, and not-so-secret weapon for the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Stevie Wonder, Raphael Saadiq, and more of the most notable artists in music, Terrace Martin needs little introduction. Largely credited as the reason Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly has incredible body, and a member of Dinner Party with Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, and 9th Wonder, Martin has worked with damn-near everyone and has established himself as one of the most valuable collaborators in the industry.

The Los Angeles artist has a rich understanding of composition and conceptualization. Whether he’s inspiring the soul bounce with Ric Wilson on They Call Me Disco or making protest anthems with Denzel Curry on “Pig Feet,” Terrace Martin is an all-time musician.

In celebration of his eighth release of the year, Village Days—released December 11 and featuring Kent Jamz, Rexx Life Raj, a tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle, and more—Martin shared his advice on being a valuable collaborator.

Find your purpose. “Since I had my first child at 16, I always had to be somebody [people] can depend on—regardless of what it is. Sometimes we can’t count on the system—fuck! We can’t count on ourselves sometimes. I wanted to be something human beings could count on, way before the music. I’m a giver; I believe that’s how you live. I wanted to help.”

Communicate effectively. “One of the only ways I know to communicate with all walks of life is: no ego, respect, and I never talk at an artist. I talk with an artist. I always wanna fill the void. If it’s a conversation, hug, saxophone, advice on relationships—whatever it is, I wanna be there.”

Ego is evil. “I got here by starting off humble, developing ego, then being stripped of everything and having to rebuild. I realized one of the main things that contributed to the ‘sickness’ in my life, when I couldn’t trust anybody and felt everybody was against me… When I got stripped down to nothing, I had no choice [but] to deal with me, deal with Terry, inside. When I settled all the bullshit, I realized, at the core, was this person who wanted to be loved. All those insecurities caused this evilness called ego.”

So, kill your ego. “Once I got rid of that ego, I started loving more. I realized the ego almost killed me, and ego kills so many people. I wasn’t ready to die! I grew up in South Central. If somebody’s trying to shoot me, you gotta shoot back or run. I look at ego as an enemy. If the ego’s trying to shoot me, I’m running away from that motherfucker, because the world doesn’t need another ego.

“Once you get rid of ego, life opens up a whole ‘nother door for you. If you get rid of ego, your days go better.”

Always look for solutions. “I don’t look at conflicts like conflicts. I look at conflicts as, first of all, a lack of understanding or ego. I look at [conflict] as, ‘This is another door we have to get through to get the solution.’

“It’s never conflict in the studio because my goal is solution, and I have no ego. If I feel one way, the one guy feels a way, and the other guy feels a way—we all feel a way! I tell everybody, ‘Let’s do all three of the parts!’ I just include everybody’s ideas. I don’t leave anybody out. Conflict only comes when someone’s feeling left out. You will not get to a solution if there’s any ego in the room.”

Tune into an artist’s vision. “I try not to balance my sound with people. I try not to bring a sound to the table. Every artist has their own vision. The only thing we got in common is we all wanna live, and that’s a lot, actually. So, I ask the artist, ‘How are you feeling?’ Most artists have most of the vision. They know how they feel, and then I can help them get to the sound.”

Use colors to your advantage. “I start throwing colors at the wall. Right when me and the artist have a common color we both like, something we agree on, I can base the whole relationship off that. I know how they feel, what colors they like, and I associate music with colors.

“I was just with Travis Scott. He loves everything that glows in the dark. What the fuck does that mean? I have the idea he wants everything to stand out. Those are loud colors! I go off those things, and everybody can relate to colors.”

Study every day. “I’ve been going back to things I should’ve learned, back to basics. On the saxophone, I’ve been doing major and minor scales, really slow. Very slow, quarter notes. I’ve been learning how to play the piano correctly. I’ve been reading books on composition. Things I should’ve spent a lot of time on 20 years ago. I’ve been having a ball studying things tons of people are way better than me at. I’ve been having fun learning again.”

Learn to learn more. “I learn to keep my brain sharp and able to receive lessons. You only gon’ learn shit if you’re open. Some people get lessons every day but don’t learn nothin’. The basics have helped me push my music to a forward, future level. When I go back to the basics here, and I’m looking at a Charlie Parker solo, I’m practicing that. When I get in with Travis Scott, that’s a whole different kind of music, but I’ve been learning new tools to learn more. I’ve been learning to learn more.”

Never stop trying. “Failure? I don’t know—I don’t believe in failures. Everything turned out to be a lesson. Where I’m from, ain’t no failure ‘cause we alive! The only failure is not trying. I’ve been trying every motherfucking day I wake up.”

Photos by Samantha Whitehead.

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