A Conversation with Michael League and Terrace Martin

The two musicians talk about their life behind the other side of the studio glass

Michael League, one of the new breed of producers (photo by Stella K)

Every now and then at Holland’s annual North Sea Jazz Festival, the Jazz Café—the small room that hosts the festival’s talk events—fills to capacity. People spill out into the hall, even while 12 other venues in the Rotterdam Ahoy complex are pumping out live music. During the fest’s most recent edition, in July 2017, at the same time that Chick Corea, Mary J. Blige, Dianne Reeves, Laura Mvula and other popular acts were performing elsewhere, more than 100 people parked themselves among the small tables—and even on the floor—to hear Terrace Martin and Michael League talk.

The popularity that these two musician-producers enjoy is remarkable, and due as much to their studio collaborations as to their own recordings. Alto saxophonist/keyboardist/producer Martin has worked with hip-hop heavyweights like Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg as well as major jazz names like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper, and—with pleasant surprise and high expectations—he’s been a member of Herbie Hancock’s touring ensemble since 2016. League is the bassist and leader of the stylistically expansive Snarky Puppy, and he has produced his band’s recordings in addition to those by David Crosby, Becca Stevens and others. He also toured with his new, world-and-blues-inspired group Bokanté last summer, while organizing the second GroundUP Music Festival, an eclectic three-day event that took place in Miami in February.

Many, then, were the reasons for an overflow crowd that skewed young and enthusiastic. As jazz players who not only perform their own music but also specialize in helping others document theirs, both Martin and League represent a current, genre-mixing trend that other musician-cum-producers—Glasper and drummers Karriem Riggins and Chris Dave among them—are similarly spearheading.

During the discussion, titled “Songcrafting in the Studio,” Martin and League talked about the overlap of their work as players and producers, and how they approach making new recordings in an age when more and more music is developed on laptops and even cellphones. With thanks to the folks at the North Sea Jazz Festival for hosting the forum, this is an excerpt of that discussion.

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Ashley Kahn: You guys know each other, right?

Michael League: We played your mom’s birthday.

Terrace Martin: Snarky Puppy played my mother’s birthday party.

Kahn: I don’t know if it gets closer than that.

Martin: I’ve been a fan and admirer ever since.

League: We play birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs. We got it covered. [laughter] [Snarky Puppy drummer] Sput [a.k.a. Robert Searight] was talking about his brother all the time. You guys lived together, right?

Martin: Yeah, since I was 13.

League: So they grew up together, and Sput was always talking about Terrace being on both sides of that divide between hip-hop and jazz, and also having his shit together in terms of being enterprising and ambitious without being network-y. We all definitely have him to thank for that Kendrick Lamar record To Pimp a Butterfly [co-produced by Martin], which turned on the whole music world. It felt like, “Oh, wait, it’s OK to be musical again in popular music?” That record alone fulfilled all the stuff that Sput had said. Then we played gigs together.

Kahn: Both of you became producers very early on. Can you describe that moment when you decided were going to wear that hat as well?

Martin: For me that was the first hat, because I come from the Crenshaw District—South Central Los Angeles. Before I knew who Miles Davis or John Coltrane was, my first heroes were Eazy-E and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. The saxophone was later in my life. My thing was two turntables and a mixer and a drum machine: producing records or writing songs, wanting to work with the dopest rappers. That’s what we did in my neighborhood. Everybody had a drum machine. … The cool thing about hip-hop is that it’s such a gumbo of everything. Most of the artists and MCs are the producers of the records. So producing is part of our culture. It’s not a separation; it’s one thing.

League: It’s very opposite to the jazz world, where production is sometimes the last thing musicians think about because they’re so focused on the live performance and the live energy. But I think the best jazz records are immaculately produced. Think about the Teo Macero stuff.

I didn’t get into [production] because I aspired to do it. I did it because I had a band when I was 19 and we wanted to make a record. I didn’t know any producers, and I didn’t have any money.

Martin: Like hip-hop.

League: Maybe it’s the same thing. So I really cut my teeth flying completely blind, failing often and trying not to fail the same way twice. I did three Snarky Puppy records before I produced anything else. I didn’t have any knowledge of preamps or Pro Tools or recording techniques or microphone choices or anything. I was just telling people what to play, and if something felt bad I would change it. That’s what producing was to me—and it still is, actually. The more I learn about producing, the more it goes back to just being a totally intuitive, no-rules process. If it sounds good and feels good, it’s right.

Terrace Martin and Michael League in conversation with Ashley Kahn at the North Sea Jazz Festival, July 2017
Terrace Martin and Michael League in conversation with Ashley Kahn at the North Sea Jazz Festival, July 2017

Kahn: As producers, do you find yourselves developing your own touch or sound in the studio, the way that players do?

League: I try to be a servant of the artist. You don’t want to just dip your finger in ink and smear it on every record you make and impose your sound. I love producers who have a catalog that’s versatile and the fingerprint is more one of quality and taste rather than a style. If you put a Yoruba percussionist in the studio, you don’t want to make him try to sound like a Dr. Dre record—unless that’s what they’re going for.

This past month I finished mixing a record for Eliades Ochoa, who’s the singer and guitarist for the Buena Vista Social Club, and then also a debut record by a half-Swedish/half-Thai artist who sounds like Nine Inch Nails. It was so fun to go down those different paths, and I know with Terrace, he’s always on different sides. I don’t know if he thinks about it the same way.

Martin: I do. When it comes to production, a lot of my heroes do have a sound. But what I learned from them—and why I didn’t want to stick with just one thing—is that when people get tired of one sound, they move on. I never want to be—and I’m never going to be—the flavor of the month. I have to always evolve and change, and so every artist is different. If I was to work with Snarky Puppy, it would be something I’ve never, ever done before.

Even when I work with Kendrick—he and I have been working together for 14 years, and every time we work the first thing we say is, “We don’t want to do nothing we did on the last album, so let’s not even use the same keyboards.” To Pimp a Butterfly [made heavy use of] musical instruments, but then on this last album we did, [the Pulitzer-winning] DAMN., I was sampling a lot with the drum machine and the turntable, with no keyboards. We wanted to go back to the basics for us, which is the boom box, the turntable, the drum machine and the MC. It was a conscious [decision] to say, “Let’s give them DAMN., so we can get these kids back involved and make sure they can move, dance and hear a message. Let’s get back to the hood shit; let’s get back to just the [Roland TR-] 808 [drum machine]. We don’t care if the 808 is out of tune with that.”

Kahn: How do you use the studio? Is that where you create, or do you get creative beforehand and then bring what you’ve created in to record?

Martin: It’s different every time. I got a little keyboard this big [holds hands two feet wide] in my backpack right now, and a laptop. It’s never one place that it’s going to happen. It’s like when you meet a lover—you know what I’m saying? You don’t know where you’re going to meet the person you’re going to be with for the rest of your life, or for just that night. But you’re prepared because you got a laptop. So stay ready.

League: The Voice Memo section [on my smartphone] has like 150 song ideas, and some are a three-minute thing with a verse, pre-chorus and chorus, and some are just me recording the luggage belt at JFK Airport, Baggage Claim D. It’s the funkiest beat, and it’s over and over every day. They haven’t fixed the shit in six years!

When I was in Cuba in January, I heard this on the street [plays track on phone]. It’s a guy selling fruit, but it sounds like a track. I just collect ideas from things that are around: if I have a little stupid idea, even if it’s just a one-bar rhythm, or if I’m practicing and I find something that I like, or if I’m onstage and someone plays something cool, I try to record everything so that when I do have time to write, I don’t start from scratch. I don’t want to trust the muse to descend upon me in my 45 minutes between sound check and a gig. I want to have a catalog of stuff that I can pull up and see what inspires me, then you click on it and you’re like, “All right, I’m going to continue with this.”

Kahn: So when you’re in the studio, you pull this stuff out too?

League: Sure. I don’t like to make demos that sound good. I try to make demos that are super-raw, so that I’m not going into the studio trying to recreate something that worked on my laptop or my media controller. To me, the sound and the part are always connected, like a conga part on a Buena Vista record is in every microphone—the trumpet mic, the guitar mic, the vocal mic—and that’s why it sounds so warm and washy the whole time. If you recorded that in a tight [isolation] booth and it didn’t bleed into any of the other microphones, the whole sound of that record is gone, even if they’re playing the exact same thing.

I like for as much of the creative process as possible to happen in the room where the music will be recorded, because if it works in that room with that microphone on it, it will work in the mix. But if it works in your bathroom, it might not work in some beautiful million-dollar studio.

Terrace Martin in the studio
Terrace Martin in the studio

Martin: If I have the luxury of [producing] my own stuff, I have all the time in the world. Record companies hate me too, because I take forever on my own stuff. But if I’m working for, let’s say, Snoop, it’s different. I’ve been working with him since I was in my junior year of high school, and that was my intro to production with a major artist.

Snoop had a studio at his house at that time. There were about 10 of the most amazing producers in the world down there standing in line to let him hear a beat. But Snoop wouldn’t take [prerecorded] beats. He would have the equipment there, and his thing was like, “Yeah, uh, why don’t you cook up something for me—right now?” And the room is full of people, the football game is going on, basketball game is going on, Snoop’s playing video games, loud music going on, everybody’s talking and you have all these people looking at you. But he’ll put on Soul Train and it’s like, “Oh, you see that? I want some move like that. Yo, Terrace, why don’t you get down right now?”

This is your chance. This is a life-changing chance. You got about 10, 15 minutes with the headphones on to make sure you got your drum sounds up; you got to tune everything out but still use everything as a tool. Because the whole thing about doing hip-hop records in front of everybody is, if everybody keeps talking while you’re banging out a beat, your beat ain’t shit. But if everybody stops and pays attention, you got something.

So whether I’m alone or in a room with people, if you have a drum machine right there and you say, “Yo, we got about 30 minutes,” I am going to get down. Whether you like it I don’t know, but I’m going to have something for you to start off with. Working with Herbie, it’s very intimate—just me and him trying to figure out harmony and the bridge for like five days—and that’s a different thing.

Kahn: I was just about to ask you about Herbie. How is that working and how did it start off?

Martin: [Electronic musician] Flying Lotus gave the introduction to Herbie. He was working with Herbie and told him, “You need to check out To Pimp a Butterfly,” and [Herbie] reached out to a few people but couldn’t get in touch with me. Then he was at a festival with Robert Glasper and asked him, “Do you know this guy named Terrace Martin?” Robert called me right there from [South] Korea and he’s like, “Man, Herbie is looking for you.” I was like, “Stop pulling my leg, man. Don’t do that to me.” And I hung up the phone! Then I got another call from [trumpeter] Keyon Harrold. Me, Robert and Keyon grew up since [we were all] 15. So he said, “I was standing right there [with Glasper] and Herbie is looking for you.”

Terrace Martin in the studio with Herbie Hancock (photo by Samantha J)
Terrace Martin in the studio with Herbie Hancock (photo by Samantha J)

Then a month later Robert is working in the studio, and I brought some smokable salad over to [the] Capitol Records [studio]. I walked in and saw Rob and my friend Ambrose [Akinmusire] and Wayne Shorter, and behind him I kept hearing a guy going, “Heh, heh, heh…” It was Herbie, and we hooked up, and we’ve been working ever since.

Kahn: Can you talk about that process?

Martin: It’s still unraveling. It’s tricky for me working for Herbie, because, remember, the biggest dream in my neighborhood was getting a post office job or working for the city. So when I got a chance to work with Herbie Hancock, I felt like I knew him way more than he could ever know me. It took three months for me to stop asking questions about [Live at the] Plugged Nickel and ‘Four’ & More and Head Hunters and, “Why didn’t you play ii-V there? Why don’t you play the root there? What is that there?” It took me three months to get all that out of the way. And then I realized, “Oh, this cat is like me!”

Imagine working with the ultimate artist that has heard everything. He wants you for something, but what you got famous for is like 40-percent regurgitated him. In my world I can bring in something that’s new to my generation, but to Herbie it’s not new and he doesn’t want to do nothing he’s heard before. So I have to take myself out of the normal situation and become a vessel for anything that comes in that could not be the norm.

It takes a team to work with a dude like Herbie. For the first few months we were still learning each other, but when I started playing in his band I met this cat [bassist] James Genus. He’s a legend for us in L.A.—he was part of a 1992 Brecker Brothers video we all know. And I saw at the first rehearsal how he communicated with Herbie, and he was the only one able to speak a certain language to bring all things together. So I learned from him how to communicate. Now we’re moving at a smooth pace and every day is different, every song is different, every creative aspect is different. We have like seven terabytes of music.

Kahn: Before we got here today, I asked Terrace and Michael if they could each bring some music to show us how they take the beginning of an idea and develop it into a final track. Michael, would you like to step up first?

League: I just want to keep hearing about Herbie! [laughs] I was teaching at a bass camp in Canada two years ago, and this bass maker was showing me an instrument. It was detuned—like they put the strings on and they had gone out of tune and were whole steps apart from what they should have been. I started playing something I had played before, but it sounded really crazy and I liked it so I recorded it. It’s [an electric bass] unplugged and it’s a big blues stomp. It sounded like this [plays raw track from laptop].

When I decided to put [Bokanté] together, I made a demo off this track that’s still really bare and I sent it to the singer, Malika [Tirolien]. We talked about lyrical ideas, and she wrote the melody, put vocals on it and sent it back to me, and it sounded like this [plays early version of “Jou Ké Ouvè”]. That’s the riff, now on a baritone guitar instead of a bass. When we tracked it, it developed a solo section and it sounded like this [plays final version of “Jou Ké Ouvè,” from Bokanté’s 2017 album Strange Circles]. Even as everything developed compositionally, it still has the same groove.

Michael League in the studio with singer-songwriter David Crosby in New Orleans, February 15 (photo by Stella K)
Michael League in the studio with singer-songwriter David Crosby in New Orleans, February 15 (photo by Stella K)

The thing that I learned from situations like this is to never throw away or discount or hate on an idea, because you never know how that seed will grow. Sometimes you come up with an idea and you’re like, “This is dumb. It’s so simple, it’s too basic.” It’s actually a blessing, because it gives you room to develop something, whereas if you start out with a really complex idea, you’re having to constantly condense it and rein it in. I’m sure you’ve had this experience, Terrace, where you finish tracking an album and you’re like, “I know this song is going to be the one.” But then you mix it and it’s actually the worst song on the record.

Martin: That happens every time.

League: Then you find another track you thought was going to be a total drag and once the mix comes, you’re like, “Man, this is actually the thing.” It just goes to show that preconceptions are your adversary in the studio. It’s great to have a concept ahead of time, but to be married to that and not allow new ideas to enter can be a real mistake—and a very easy one to make, because we fall in love with our demos sometimes. I make sure that mine are so shitty that I can’t fall in love with them.

Martin: The song I’m going to play is called “Intentions,” and the music started off from a conversation me, my friend [and cousin] Jason [Martin, a.k.a. rapper-producer Problem] and two female friends [were having]. They were talking about how most men have bad intentions, and I was telling them, “Well, I know a group of women that got bad intentions, too.” So we’re having this deep conversation, and I always have Soul Train from the ’70s and ’80s on repeat, and Shalamar came on, and then the video of “When Doves Cry”—and I’m a Prince fanatic—so I just kept looking at the video while we’re talking, and I had an idea right there. They’re talking loud and I’m listening and just banging out the beat, and 15 minutes into the conversation, when I finally hit something, I took the headphones off and pressed play and the whole room stopped [plays beat track from laptop, adds in synthesizer melody line].

League: Unh! That’s Prince already…

Martin: They was all mad at first, and then they heard the jam and they said, “Oh, we like that.” And then we kept listening to it for like an hour, over and over again, because that’s what we do. I kept hearing the words “intentions, man’s intentions” [starts singing along with beat and synthesizer]. So me and my friend Jason wrote the song, then I added more sounds on top and tracked to 2-inch tape. I had to put it on Pro Tools [in the mixing stage] just to make it real loud, but I love tape; I love the analog sound.

I’m also a fan of gear—most of my studio is drum machines. [On “Intentions”] I used the first Linn drum machine, the LM-1. It’s the drum machine Prince used on “Head,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “When Doves Cry.” I [also] used a Minimoog, a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet-5 and an [Oberheim/Dave Smith] OB-6. I replayed the bassline, so it ended up being this [plays final  version of “Intentions”]. By the way, that’s my new group called the Pollyseeds, on [the 2017 album] Sounds of Crenshaw, Vol. 1.

I love nostalgia but I don’t ever want to make my music sound retro to where even the mix is retro. I want to let the youngsters know who Prince was but also give them the right frequencies and ear candy. That’s what Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre are the masters at; they know how to take something familiar and make it sound so new. To me, that’s the definition of a hit record. All my success has been from elements of the past, but then making them new again.

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