Craving What’s Real: The Importance of Vinyl With Thelonious Martin

"At what point do things just exist, as opposed to trending up or downwards? I feel like vinyl just exists."
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No matter how digital our lives become, nothing will ever curb our craving for the tangible and organic.

With the rise of on-demand streaming, you might have expected vinyl to fade into the past, but on the contrary, it has remained very much on trend. In fact, Chicago producer Thelonious Martin considers vinyl to live on its own trend line. 

"At what point do things just exist, as opposed to trending up or downwards?" he asks me over the phone. "I feel like vinyl just exists." 

More than just existing, vinyl satisfies our need for authenticity within a society otherwise wrapped in a commercial veneer. "As comfortable as we are in the digital age, there’s still a want to have real things," Martin explains. "It’s more of a ritual process to sit down, and after one side of the album is done, you have to turn it over yourself. You have this physical process of interacting with the music."

As a producer, that physical interaction with the music unlocks something special within Thelonious Martin. While anyone can pull a sample from YouTube and make it fresh, Martin contends that there is an indescribable joy to ripping a sample from a record.

From the perspective of a music fan, vinyl also serves as a great foundation for music education. Back in his early teens, while attending a music program at NYU, Martin "would sit in [Fatbeats], listen to the music that’s playing, and read all the album credits and notes."

"I was grasping the understanding of, 'Okay, these are breakbeat records, Buddha Records has this roster of artists, etc.,'" he continues. "I had time to really study, and that was just scratching the surface... Liner notes are huge, you can’t gloss over it." 

Though Fatbeats has since closed, boutique and fast-fashion stores like Urban Outfitters have jumped on the vinyl-train, selling the hit records of the moment. While a slew of think pieces have published in opposition to the popular retailer selling vinyl, Thelonious Martin holds no contempt towards these trendy stores. In his mind, the best way to keep the spirit of vinyl alive is through increasing accessibility. 

"I wanna have my shit in Urban Outfitters so bad, G," he tells me gleefully. "I wanna have a random, middle-America white girl strolling through and see The Weeknd, see Kendrick Lamar's new album, and then see my crazy ass album cover." 

DJBooth's full interview with Thelonious Martin, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: Do you remember your first vinyl purchase?

Thelonious Martin: At first, I would buy records at a thrift store that was in a Sopranos scene. I feel like I was just looking at stuff. I started to grasp the concept of needing a turntable, and I ended up at that thrift store that had a bunch of records. The first purchase I made was a movie soundtrack, a James Bond soundtrack, something like that. Just ‘cause I thought it was cool, the cover was cool.

For production purposes, is that how you normally make your selections?

Kind of, at first. But then it quickly evolved. When I was 15 or 16, I did this program at NYU while Fatbeats was still open. So I would go, after the program, and !llmind was one of my teachers at the program. We would go to Fatbeats afterward, but I wasn’t buying records at the time. I would sit in there, listen to the music that’s playing, and read all the album credits and notes. I was grasping the understanding of, “Okay, these are breakbeat records, Buddha Records has this roster of artists, etc.” I had time to really study, and that was just scratching the surface.

Is vinyl an important part of music education?

Yeah! Liner notes are huge, you can’t gloss over it. It’s not a CD where the notes are small. You really gotta look at it, it’s part of the artwork. I think I have a record where it even lists the people who did handclaps. In a sense, it’s very educational, but not even on purpose. It’s very detailed.

What’s the repercussion of that loss in the digital era?

For me, the love I got out of learning about music that way, I feel like that’s lost for a lot of people. They don’t get the opportunity… CDs even had liner notes. I remember buying OutKast albums and the artwork being crazy, and on top of that, they had the song lyrics for every song. In the digital age, that is lost. You have to dig to get that information.

What does that do to listening habits?

It microwaves them and makes it a shorter thing. Before, I would sit down with the album. I wouldn’t listen once. I would be reading liner notes and learning the lyrics. We have Genius, but it doesn’t come with the download. You have to go on Genius if you really love the song. I feel like you have to do a lot more to get the information, where before it was there.

It sounds like a ritual.

It is! Mind you, I have a gang of vinyl and sometimes I don’t listen because it’s more of a ritual process to sit down, and after one side of the album is done, you have to turn it over yourself. You have this physical process of interacting with the music. I feel like a lot of people obviously don’t have the time for that, or act like it. Hopefully, more people get into it.

What is special about physical ownership?

We live in such a digital age and people crave these tangible things, they crave these moments where things can be real. That’s why, as much as we live in a digital age, people love when you give them a Polaroid. There’s a certain glow on people’s faces that I love. I can give you a tangible moment that you can hold.

There’s this kid—it’s wild that this story is getting this vast—in Amsterdam and that’s what he does, he does photography. If I remember correctly, his name is Mark, and he does these Polaroids. He takes one for himself and he gives one to you. I remember that experience because I have that photo. That was last year for me, and I carry it. I can look at it and I can remember. I now have that memory forever.

With vinyl, you kinda have that same experience. You remember where you were when you listened to the album the first time. You might roll up a little joint on the album cover. I’ve had friends come to my house and they wanna break down the weed, and I’m like, “No, no don’t do it on that album, do it on this album.” It’s a much more tangible, memory-based thing. I don’t remember when I made a playlist. That shit is so quick.

Why do we crave the tangible no matter what?

As comfortable as we are in the digital age, there’s still a want to have real things. In terms of it being tangible, something that doesn’t have to be for social media. It’s a real memory. That’s why I appreciate when artists say you don’t have to take a photo or video at my concert. Just enjoy this for right now and what it is. Some people are against it. They are so glued to social media they don’t realize the experience an artist is trying to paint. Yo, enjoy the time and space you’re in without being so caught up in your phone. Share that with the people you’re there with.

I think that’s why people crave those tangible things and those moments, and that could be a very long time. We’ll always have those moments. It’s a token of my appreciation of friendship, and that lasts forever. Versus an Instagram post, where it could be deleted and not exist anymore on the surface level. You can throw away a record, but it will still exist in the trash can, then a landfill. You probably shouldn’t throw away records [laughs] it’s not a very good eco-print.

People like to say records are on trend again but were they ever out of style?

You know what’s funny, I feel like people say they came on trend as social media rose as well. I feel like people started with this, “Oh, yeah, I got vinyl,” and it kind of became this thing to show off. DJs always existed, it’s not like people stopped loving music, but I feel like since you are able to show it off now, it became more of a thing. When I went to Columbia, my freshman year, they were talking about vinyl trending upwards. I started college in 2011, I feel like people been saying it’s on trends upwards since then. At what point do things just exist, as opposed to trending up or downwards? I feel like vinyl just exists.

What do you unlock, creatively, when you pull from records, as opposed to digital?

I had this conversation with Madlib, it was backstage for a Piñata show in Chicago, at the Metro. Madlib walks in, he had this big, silver jewelry on, and he’s holding a glass of wine. Instantly, the energy in the room changes. He floats in like a wizard holding his chalice of wine. We had a chance to talk about grabbing samples, and he told me, “Man, I’ll grab ‘em from YouTube, I don’t care. As long as I can make them sound good.” I thought to myself, there’s a lot of people that are purist on the vinyl side, but it’s like, does the beat make your head nod? Cool. Then shut up. Elitism is really annoying.

I can grab a sample on YouTube really quick. At the same time, when you buy the record with no knowledge of what it may potentially be, it has this element of discovery that’s beautiful. You found something that you didn’t have before, and not only that, but it’s now serving this beautiful purpose of being an amazing piece of art and music. The moment when I know I’m about to sample a record, I don’t really have too many comparable experiences. It’s like if you go on a blind date and it works out great.

Like going on a blind date and then getting married?

Yeah! Whatever it takes to make that one amazing record.

Is there one genre you gravitate to when you’re looking for samples?

It depends on what mood I’m in, but I always bug my record shop. I get real specific. “Let me know if you guys got youth choirs from the '70s, gospel records, in general, from the '70s and '80s, and let me know if you guys got any German progressive rock from the '70s.” I know for a fact these records have these certain sounds and textures.

What’s your relationship with the store like?

Oh, it’s great. I almost took up a job there. The day after a big check came in [laughs]. Shout out my man Adam, shout out Shuga Records. I love that record store, they have a wide variety and they have a local section. Chicago artists, artists from your city, also putting things on vinyl. It’s a very cool experience seeing a person who has success doing the same thing as you. I’m in there two or three times a month. I slowed down because I used to buy a lot of records. I had to build me a record shelf like the ones like you see in the store. And there’s still some left over! I have records on my TV stand right now.

That’s how I feel about books, I have towers and towers of books.

As it should be! Whatever you love, it should be oozing out of your ears.

Do you think vinyl is intergenerational, an equalizer between the old heads and new heads?

I definitely feel like the format of vinyl allows for people of older age to enjoy music, and at the same time, the kid who went and got a couple vinyl at Urban Outfitters, when they get to an actual record store and see all the different sections, it opens their eyes. Like, “Okay, there are other genres of music in this medium.” Even for older heads, it’s like, “Oh, so and so put it out on vinyl? I gotta check it out.” It’s not a quick process to put something on vinyl.

Do you have contempt for Urban Outfitters?

I love it! I wanna have my shit in Urban Outfitters so bad, G. I wanna have a random, middle-America white girl strolling through and see The Weeknd, see Kendrick Lamar new album, and then see my crazy ass album cover. I feel like people get caught up in that, “I don’t want nobody who’s not supposed to…” Whoever is gonna buy the album is gonna buy the album. I want people to be like, “Wow, what is this? I should check this out” because they had the opportunity to see it.

Is that how we keep the spirit of vinyl alive as things move more in the direction of on-demand streaming?

I feel like the way to keep the spirit of vinyl is to get it to as many people as possible. The more people that get to have this experience the better. I don’t think it needs to be purified or kept a certain way. The core value of getting people to enjoy vinyl, today, is for people to see it as something they could have. It doesn’t need to be withheld or kept off for other people, it needs to be in other people’s faces so we have a market for people buying vinyl, so record stores don’t go out of business.

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