The allure of fruit that’s forbidden has tempted men and women since the day Adam and Eve took a life-altering bite from an off-limit apple in God’s garden. I’ve always loved how the biblical story illustrated the human weakness to temptation’s whisper. Temptation is a voice that’s enticing and seductive—filling the earlobe with bad ideas that focus on pleasure and never the consequence. Children are naturally drawn to the forbidden—a hunger for curiosity, a thirst for trouble, and a need to discover what exists behind the locked door that only adults have a key to. In some households, the television was both a best friend and a mysterious stranger. There was always a time at night where what was shown wasn’t for young eyes, programming made specifically for adults.
Chicago producer Thelonious Martin remembers 1999, when he was only 6-years-old, how his father made clear that the show South Park wasn’t meant for him. It was his first introduction to an animated series where children were not the intended audience.
“For any kids, when your parent goes to sleep and you’re still awake, anything past this point is unfiltered, unsupervised, and there’s no guideline to it,” Thelonious reminiscences during our phone call. He recalls how the airing of an episode of The Sopranos was a signal that it was bedtime, how Sex in The City was a series his mother would watch while he ate dinner, and knowing both weren't for him. There was a clear distinction between television after-school and television after-dark. As he got older, his interest in late night television rose. Like every young man lucky enough to have cable television from 2001-2006, he had his life changed after staying up one night and seeing B.E.T. Uncut—a rite-of-passage for babies born in the '90s. More important than B.E.T.’s artfully raunchy videos, there was another adult block of programming that had a huge impact on Thelonious—Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Every child knew Adult Swim was meant for an older audience, but like all forbidden fruit, you couldn't help but venture into uncharted waters.
A middle school tech teacher introduced a young Thelonious to GarageBand—an Apple audio workstation that was the doorway into production for many hip-hop producers. Making loops and chopping up samples was something that he played with, a hobby to dabble in but nothing that he considered to be his future. Coming home from school, he would turn on Cartoon Network and immerse himself in a world of audio and videos. Gundam Wing would be playing in the background as he taught himself the basics of making beats. It was a ritual that spilled over into Adult Swim, and he would hear “the bumps”—the short television teasers that play in-between commercial breaks. No longer than 15-seconds, they would show text or various images with instrumentals playing in the background. While he would work on his own beats, Thelonious would look up and hear music from Flying Lotus, DOOM, and Madlib—brilliant beatsmiths that reached mainstream ears despite being underground darlings. One night, Adult Swim played a bump that would inspire him to become a producer:
“The Bump that made me want to start taking beats seriously was “Outro,” the intro to Donuts. I was like, 'whoa.' I ran to the computer and immediately started researching Dilla. Sadly, by this time, he had already passed. I got more attuned with his discography and realized that some of his music wasn’t new to me. My mom would play Badu in the crib, she would play D’Angelo in the crib, all The Soulquarians shit, so to me I was already listening to Dilla, without knowing. I will say Adult Swim put me onto J. Dilla, and after that, I begged my mom to buy me a laptop so I could start making beats. Freshmen year of high school is when it all started.”
J. Dilla and Adult Swim changed his life. You take away the bumps, J. Dilla, and Adult Swim, and there's a good chance Thelonious Martin doesn’t blossom into one of Chicago’s most promising producers. Some of the most inspiring stories in music are the ones that allow the subject to come full-circle. It took eight years for Thelonious to hear one of his beats on Adult Swim, a bump that played during the first time Toonami aired Akira—a very impactful and influential cult-classic anime movie from ‘88. It was a full-circle moment for many reasons: “I thought to myself, there’s a kid right now who was in my shoes where I was at 14-15 seeing this, hearing the music, and thinking, 'Yo I want to do this or this is inspiring to the point I want to create.'”
More important than his music being on Adult Swim is the man who made it happen:
“Jason DeMarco is like the creator of Toonami and the SVP/Creative Director for Adult Swim. He’s responsible for a lot of the music that got onto Adult Swim, especially the Stones Throw stuff. That’s Dilla, Doom, and Madlib. When my music got onto Adult Swim, he was the guy. He put Dilla on Adult Swim, so he’s the guy that’s responsible for me even starting to make music. I have a great work relationship with them, it’s incredible to work with people that inspired me. Hopefully, I’m inspiring the next batch of beat markers.”
Late Night Programming, Thelonious’ sophomore album, is an ode to television, Adult Swim, and his musical influences. From the first track to the last, the runtime is 24 minutes long—the length of a half-hour television show not including commercials. If you let it run from last to first, it’s a smooth transition, as if the listener allowed the next episode to continue even though it’s a rerun. Every song is strategically placed—there are familiar skits and bumps from Adult Swim, a song that represents when it gets so late that you start to see infomercials, and the album ends with a hilarious Everest commercial, which is usually a sign you've been up too late. There’s no rapper features, a change of pace from his 2014 Wunderkid debut album that featured heavy hitters like Mac Miller, Curren$y, Smoke DZA, and Ab-Soul. The album was successful, a strong combination of soulful instrumentals and stellar rap verses, but it was missing something, it was missing Thelonious’ presence.
“It was more like a showcase,” he says, a thought that didn’t come until Wunderkid. Late Night Programming might be missing friends, but every bit of the album represents Theo—it even features his voice. He wanted Late Night Programming to be more cohesive, cinematic, and reflective of who he is. To hear this album is to get a slice of Thelonious. It’s a strong body of work, one of the most captivating beat tapes that I’ve heard all year. Part of that comes from the production sounding lively, powerful, but full of flavor and flair.
He explained to me how he approached drums, “I want kicks to be low and real strong to hit you in the body, and snares to snap real hard and hit you in the neck so when I put on the album, 'Neck brace recommended' that’s real.” This ideology comes from The Neptunes’ The Eighth Planet documentary when Chad says, “Kick drums hit you in the chest, snare should snap you in the neck so you get a full body head nod by the person listening to the music.” When the drums drop on “Open Credits” and your body is shaken to its core, you’ll need that neck brace.
“It’s important not to be afraid to acknowledge your influences. I wouldn't be where I am today without my influences. It’s important to showcase that. Your idols won’t be your idols unless you give them the proper credit that they need and deserve.”
We talked about Pete Rock, and how he would set the tone for songs by implementing an intro to the song that has absolutely nothing to do with the beat. Thelonious used the classic "T.R.O.Y" as an example—before the angelic horns blow there are a funky drum and bass that fades in and out within the first few seconds. It’s a technique that Thelonious plays with, at both the beginning and ending of songs. It’s a tiny detail but adds character to each song. Dave Chappelle is prominent throughout the tape, hilarious skits from The Chappelle Show are sprinkled about. If Dilla inspired his music, it was Dave that inspired his humor.
I must say, he’s pretty funny; I shed a tear laughing when he told me Bruce Wayne’s super power was white privilege. The influence from Dilla’s Donuts is very apparent as well. You can hear the influence in the soulfulness, like the infamous Beastie Boy’s “The New Style” making various cameos. The song “Adult Swim” is a three-minute ode to Dilla and Madlib―two of his biggest influences. Kanye once said that J. Dilla's music sounds like good pussy. I think Thelonious Martin is the sound of reminiscing on that first good time you made love.
“The sound of it is a modern twist of the soul beats we fell in love with Dilla and Madlib and my modern twist to it, my 2016 touch to it. It’s a voyage into nostalgia with a 2016 soundtrack. It plays into both words. My sound itself is more nostalgic, leaning on boom-bap and soul samples. It’s a blend of modern nostalgia. The game truly pays back those who are grateful and those who have knowledge in their field. If you pay attention to those that came before you in your craft, the game will pay you back for it. That’s how you know what waves are coming, that’s how you know when to reinvent yourself, and to make progress.”
Reminisce, that’s what Thelonious wants from listeners as they swim through his sea of soul. Modern nostalgia is the perfect way to describe what you’ll take in from Late Night Programming—rooted in both the past and present, taking from the forefathers and mixing it with what he’s learned in this modern era of music making. He wants to bring back the feeling of sitting in front of the television—before Netflix, before DVR, when shows demanded your attention. Late Night Programming is an album he wants you to experience.
“Growing up between television getting a little more wild, YouTube starting to grow into what it is, that 2008-2009, I used to go to the internet and on Imeem listen to Cool Kids and Wale mixtapes. The transition of T.V. where it was and becoming more crass and the internet coming into play my whole mind got molded in a different way than, say, if you were 15-16 in ‘95. It was so much more of a jump start, a boost, to what was going on. My mind had to develop much quicker, it was much more content to take in. There are good things to take from my parents, there are good things to take from television. I took the common sense from my parents and I took the comedy and entertainment element from television. I took the things I needed from the proper places.”
The above quote really captures what it means to be a baby born right before the internet took off, and having to live with its impact on the world. Lupe shouted out all the televisions that raised us on Food & Liquor, but in reality, television was more of a co-parent—the nanny that we all shared. Thelonious' parents weren’t together, but they both shaped his world along with television. They were just strict enough, but not overbearing. He was allowed to watch The Chappelle Show at 11 but was given The Autobiography Of Malcolm X at 10. His life has been mirrored by this strange but intriguing juxtaposition. Thelonious takes from his parents and co-parent, fruits gifted and the fruits forbidden, anime and movies, sports and comics, rock and rap, a true connoisseur of various art and culture.
I think that’s why his music sounds like it isn't rooted in a time or a sound; his life and taste are diverse and so is his music. Late Night Programming is the score to your trip down Memory Lane.
Revisit the past, enjoy the present, and understand why Thelonious Martin is the future.
By Yoh, aka Yohlonious Martin aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Sammy Peralta