Arts·Q with Tom Power

How A Tribe Called Quest changed Terrace Martin's life

Terrace Martin is a rapper, singer, musician and highly sought after producer. Ahead of the Grammys, where he’s nominated for best progressive R&B album, he joins Q’s Tom Power for a career-spanning conversation.

The highly sought after producer joins Q’s Tom Power for a career-spanning conversation

Head shot of Terrace Martin wearing sunglasses.
Terrace Martin is perhaps best known for producing records for several prominent artists, including Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, the Game, Busta Rhymes, Stevie Wonder, Charlie Wilson, Raphael Saadiq and YG, among others. (Samantha Whitehead)


If there's one song that changed the trajectory of producer, rapper and jazz multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin's life, it's probably Check the Rhyme, the 1991 hip-hop classic by A Tribe Called Quest. The first time Martin heard Check the Rhyme, he tells Q's Tom Power, he was standing on the field of his Los Angeles middle school for a back-to-school party.

The DJ kept rewinding the intro "for, like, three minutes," and when he finally let the bassline drop, it was pandemonium. The place exploded. At the time, Martin was standing next to a kid named Damian Carter. Later on, they would become friends, and later still, Carter would become a celebrated photographer, better known as SlauCienega. At the time, though, the pair were strangers.

"In slow motion … we turn to each other, without knowing each other, and just say 'WHOAAAAAA!'" he says.

Check the Rhyme was unlike anything Martin had ever heard before. The beat, the bassline, and the horns felt like a totally unique combination to him. Exhilarated and stunned, he asked his friends what he was hearing.

"My boys [said] 'They mix that jazz with hip-hop," he says. "And I said 'They do what!?'"

Martin loved hip-hop. Growing up in L.A. at a time when the city was becoming rap music's new centre of gravity, songs like Eazy-E's Boyz-n-the-Hood were like anthems to him. Jazz, he was less sold on. His father, Curly Martin, was a well-known jazz drummer. As a kid, jazz was mostly a source of embarrassment and irritation.

"My father was a little older than my friends' parents," he says. "[My friends' parents] are playing hip-hop, so I was a little embarrassed at an early age [by] dad's crazy … old people music. I didn't understand it … it was loud and noisy, with the horns going crazy."

WATCH | Official video for Check the Rhyme:

Hearing Check the Rhyme, the fusion of pinpoint precise rapping and jazz horns changed his life in a number of ways. Most immediately, it changed how he looked at his father and his father's music.

"That record brought hip-hop — what Eric "Eazy-E" Wright made me fall in love with — and then brought me closer to my father … through the jazz stuff," he says. "So now I'm like, 'Oh, my father is cool.'"

The song also set him up for a career in music. Martin has spent the better part of three decades fusing jazz and rap, working with everyone from modern jazz heroes like Kamasi Washington — who was also a high school classmate — and Robert Glasper to West Coast hip-hop legends like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and YG.

"Tribe Called Quest is the reason I can make a living today," he says.

WATCH | Kendrick Lamar's 2016 Grammys performance:

Martin and his collaborator James Fauntleroy are nominated for best progressive R&B album at the Grammys this weekend. In his full conversation with Power, Martin talks about Kendrick Lamar's powerful 2016 Grammys performance, which you can watch above.

The full interview with Terrace Martin is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. He talks about the artists who shaped him, how music led him away from gang culture while growing up in South Central Los Angeles, and his work on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Interview with Terrace Martin produced by Ben Edwards.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.