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Grammy-nominated Terrace Martin talks ‘hood life, Westbrook vs. Harden and more

The Los Angeles native who has produced for Kendrick Lamar and others discusses how Marvin Gaye and Eazy-E changed his life

Marvin Gaye saved Terrace Martin’s life.

“I used to get so drunk, and f— up,” said the Southern California songwriter, producer, saxophonist (and multi-instrumentalist) and he would visit Gaye’s former home on Gramercy Place in Los Angeles and play his music. “I’d just drive in front of Marvin Gaye’s house.”

Today Martin’s life is drastically different. He’s no longer depressed. And he is one of the masterminds behind Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly and a current Grammy nominee for Best R&B Album for his own Velvet Portraits. Martin is a man whose principles revolve solely around conviction, positivity and hard work. And he’s also the proud father-to-be of a baby girl set to arrive April 2 — coincidentally, Gaye’s birthday. The Grammy nod, win or lose, is further validation of his passion for a style of music that knows no one genre or sound. He credits his mother for playing Luther Vandross, Guy, Bebe and Cece Winans and Parliament Funkadelic among others around the house when he was a child.

Martin is all set for the biggest night in music in his hometown Sunday night. But beforehand, he stopped to chat about everything from why he’s always starstruck, the best late-night food spots in Los Angeles, how he discovered an ex-girlfriend cheated on him, and why his first major purchase changed his life forever.

Favorite late night food run in L.A.?

Benito’s tacos on Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

Favorite throwback TV show?

In Living Color.

All-time favorite athlete?

Michael Jordan.

Best spot in Los Angeles to get a haircut?

When you grow up in the ‘hood, you go to the barbershop, or you got a homeboy. The homie Paul cut all of our hair. Paul been the same guy since the late ’90s cutting my hair.

I pray heavily and I ask God to clear my throat.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Stay true to myself and who I am.

Who told you that?

[Jazz drummer] Billy Higgins. And years later, Snoop Dogg. Snoop said that when I really lost my way and forgot who I was.

The app on your phone that you use a lot that not a lot of other people do?

Dude, I hate the phone! I try not to use that m—– as much as possible. I really wanna throw it against the wall every time somebody calls me. The phone is like a long leash. We have to work and we’ve all became addicted. I try not to have any app on my phone aside from the basics: Twitter, Instagram. I don’t have any special apps on my phone because anything special, I keep that personal when it’s no phones at all. I was at my favorite spot in L.A., Harold & Belle’s on 10th and Jefferson in the Crenshaw District. I looked at three couples. They were just on their phone. They weren’t even communicating! That s– is weird!

First concert you ever attended?

Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation tour at [Los Angeles’] The Forum.

Last stamp on your passport?


One stamp you wanna get on your passport but haven’t yet?

Hmmm, way before I get that stamp … I haven’t been to Alaska. I been to all of the other 49 states three and four and five and six times, but never been to Alaska. As far as my passport, I’ve been to Africa. But I’d really like to go to Nigeria.

Favorite sport?

I’m not that much of a sports guy. I spent most of my time [when I was] young doing music, and small criminal activities here and there. But the only sport that caught my attention because of the competitiveness and just the amazing things I’ve seen is basketball.

The top two MVP candidates in the NBA this season are Russell Westbrook (Long Beach) and James Harden (L.A.). If you had to choose one right now, who’s your MVP?

I like Westbrook’s finesse. I don’t watch sports, but I read everything. I’ve been just reading about him and his style is just … even the way he walks is so West Coast, man. And anybody that’s standing for the West and walking in that spirit, it just gets the word out more that, ‘Hey, we over here, baby! We over here, baby!’

Have you ever been starstruck?

Every time I work with Herbie [Hancock], Snoop, Quincy Jones, Kendrick [Lamar], YG. Every time I work with my friends, I’m starstruck. I’m so fascinated with people who follow their dreams and get to a higher level of confidence. I love work ethic. When you see Snoop in the studio, and these giants like Quincy, if you’re not starstruck, I don’t know where the f– you from. I’m just happy that we all appreciate each other. I’m just happy I have people’s numbers in my phone that I can call and talk to, and I can learn from.

The phone is like a long leash … we’ve all became addicted. I try not to have any app on my phone aside from the basics: Twitter, Instagram.

What’s your No. 1 guilty pleasure?

I used to date this girl for a couple of years. We lived together back in the day. Then, I cheated on her. She found out and was like, ‘Awww, you a dog!’ I felt so guilty! I felt so horrible! We had the same kind of computer, so one day I grabbed her computer on accident to send an e-mail. But it was her e-mail. And at the top of the e-mail was pictures of her masturbating, and sending them to four or five other guys. That’s when I realized … I’m not gonna have anybody make me feel guilty no more. I’m just gonna be a better person and do right by a woman. But that guilty word … f— that word.

What would you consider your first major purchase?

My N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton cassette tape from the Roadium Swap Meet in the late ’80s. I had to be in the second or third grade. Rest in peace, Steve Yano [who died in a car accident in 2014]. He was the cat who owned the record store. Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, [Ice] Cube really came up through him. I was young looking at all of them. My inspirations were DJ Crazy Toones, Sir Jinx, you know, all the West Coast legends. Battle Cat, DJ Quik, everybody came through Yano’s place for records and information.

[Yano] said, ‘Hey, I got another record for you. But when your mom come around, you may wanna put it on Side B. That’s the edited version. Here’s a record by a guy by the name of Eazy-E.’ It was the ‘Boyz in Da Hood‘ 12.’ That was the moment that changed my whole life. The reason I’m talking with you today is because I bought that record from Yano. One day I thought my mom was going to church, so I got up and put on my khakis, my glasses and I wanted to be Eazy-E. I’d rap all the lyrics to the remix. Woke up quick, at about noon/Just thought that I had to be in Compton soon/I gotta get drunk … You know, all the s—! And my mama heard. She ran in the room, snatched the record and said, ‘What are you listening to?!’ I said, ‘That’s Eazy-E, mama!’ She took the record and broke it in front of me. I dug into it more, and more, and more. That music and Roger Troutman was the soundtrack to early gangsta life in L.A. If you grew up in South Central, that’s what you was involved in. That power and that strength of that record from Eazy and Cube and ’em saying that s— that made my mama break that record? And all the homies gathered around to listen to that record? Those are both powerful things. I wanted to be a part of that.

I’m so fascinated with people who follow their dreams and get to a higher level of confidence. I love work ethic.

Where were you when you first heard that you were nominated for a Grammy?

[I found out] in Leimert Park in my favorite Jamaican restaurant. It’s called Ackee Bamboo. I was getting a lot of texts. My cousin T-Lee hit me first like, ‘Yo, you got nominated. It’s all online.’ Then, BJ The Chicago Kid sent me a DM saying congratulations. I was like congratulations on what (laughs)? I was just so shocked. My record is an independent record. I don’t have anybody else backing me, but me, my attorney and my woman. But financially, it’s me who funded that record.

I wouldn’t in a million years think that the first level of the mainstream would recognize [Velvet Portraits]. I felt it was under the radar. I didn’t even have really a publicist. But I worked my a– off,. I had to wear a million hats. I failed about 30 times and almost gave up. I always tell people, ‘If you don’t feel like giving up, you ain’t doing s—.’ I took the crew that loved me, and we did the album. And that’s why we all going to the Grammys. You can’t give up. When you with the arts, you gotta die with this s—.

What’s your routine before a big-time performance?

Pray. And I meditate heavy. Heavy. Alone. Usually I pray, I just close my eyes and get in a different kind of state of mind. I pray heavily and I ask God to clear my throat. Whatever went on before I hit the bandstand, let that become irrelevant, or let me use whatever is negative or positive that I went through in my life. I try to have a pure heart when I play for people because I’m serving the people.

What are you looking forward to most in 2017?

No. 1 is growth. I look forward to growing and being a better human being way before I’m a musician or anything else. If I can get this being human s— straight, then everything else is pretty much irrelevant. As I’ve grown as a man, my music has grown. That’s why I’m careful what I say. I’m really trying to be a better person, because everything starts there. I’m sure the skill level and everything will grow, but I’m really in love with growing right now. My music is inspired by life.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.