Thelonious Martin
  • Courtesy of Thelonious Martin’s Facebook page
  • Thelonious Martin

Kanye West isn’t the only local hip-hop artist receiving a degree this month. Chicago producer Thelonious Martin is in the middle of his final week of classes at Columbia College; with the exception of a single summer course he’s aiming to take online, he’ll have his degree in music business very soon. It’s the latest milestone the 22-year-old has achieved in recent months. In December Martin dropped his debut full-length, Wunderkid, which features Curren$y, Domo Genesis, Mac Miller, Ab-Soul, Joey Purp, and Smoke Dza, among others. Wunderkid is a proper album—it’s available to purchase from digital retailers, and this past winter Martin released the vinyl version. Last month a short version of the video for “Corners of Your Mind,” a spectral cut featuring vocals from Nylo and KSRA, debuted on Adult Swim between a block of commercials.

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Martin describes his appearance on Adult Swim as one of a handful of moments in which his burgeoning music career came full circle. As a teenager living in Montclair, New Jersey, Martin liked to watch the Cartoon Network’s block of late-night programming—and because the shows were all animated it managed to slip by his mother’s rules for what was appropriate for watching. “You can get away with cartoons, even if they’re like Home Movies or Sealab 2021,” he says. Martin’s musical eureka moment struck while he watched an episode of Home Movies, or, rather, during a commercial break: one of the Adult Swim bumps, aka the short videos that run between commercials and the program, caught Martin’s ear.

“I’m stunned. I’m floored. I’m like, ‘yo, what is this?,'” he says. “I remember the next day going to the library, relentlessly trying to search for what song it was, and I found it. I literally typed in ‘Adult Swim bump owls,’ ’cause it was an owl in an Adult Swim bump, and I found the beat and I ended up finding the album—it was on [J Dilla’s] Donuts.”

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Up until that point Martin had been surrounded by music throughout his whole young life. He heard it in church growing up; he heard it from his mom and dad, whose taste Martin describes as impeccable. At the age of 12 one of his friends got a pair of turntables and a copy of one of DJ Qbert’s Breaks records, and they formed a rap group. In middle school Martin had a teacher who showed the class how to work with GarageBand. “I think it was some weird shit where the computer servers were down in the school for the first two weeks of class, [so] the tech teacher was teaching us GarageBand just to pass time,” Martin says. “He was this really cool tech teacher—he played guitar, [he was] this older white guy who had like a white beard. He was just mad chill.”

All the pieces of Martin’s musical background really came together when he saw that Adult Swim bump. “I hear Dilla and I’m like, ‘Wow, this confirms everything I ever wanted,'” Martin says. “It’s like watching Michael Jordan and finally getting the shoes to go with it—like, alright, this is the stuff I needed.” At the time Martin had recently been cut from Montclair High School’s varsity basketball team, so he shifted gears to focus on music. “I was like, ‘God putting a clear sign in front of me: You weren’t supposed to play basketball and go play for D2 schools,'” Martin says. “‘You were supposed to go make music, pursue it fully, and go to an arts school.'”

He started researching producers whose work spoke to him—Dilla, Just Blaze, Kanye West, 9th Wonder, 88-Keys, Alchemist, and MF Doom, among others. Around the age of 16 he enrolled in Future Music Moguls, a free workshop for teenagers at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts taught by producer Illmind. Trekking to NYU’s campus from New Jersey also brought Martin to Fat Beats, a now-defunct record store—he spent hours combing through records at the shop. “That’s where I got to learn the ropes in terms of vinyl,” Martin says.

Martin threw himself into producing too, though it took him a little while to reach a place where he can look back and be happy with what he made. “I always tell people, it took me maybe two to three years before I thought I was good,” Martin says. “I remember when I first started out—people was like, ‘Wow, this kid is only 16.’ But I listen to some of these I go, ‘Man, these beats are ass.'”

He’d upload tracks and mixtapes to the web, and his 2010 beat tape, Dusty Cartridges, caught the ear of Save Money rapper Vic Mensa. “We connected, and he realized I had Chicago ties, and it kind of just all came together,” Martin says. “Vic’s like a year younger than me. It’s like, ‘Who is the kid young as hell spittin?’ I think that was a little bit after he put out the Straight Up EP, and the rest is history, cause we ended up working together.”

Martin’s burgeoning working relationship with Mensa and Save Money is part of what brought him to Chicago for school; he was looking for an arts school, and had grown up in the area before moving to New Jersey, so the more he thought about it the more Columbia College seemed to be a good fit. Martin jumped into the Chicago hip-hop scene before he even moved out here for college. “The Christmas break before the end of my senior year I was out here working with Vic—me and him was doing a bunch of songs,” Martin says. “When I moved out here, it was like, ‘Yo, I’m finally out here.’ He introduced me to the rest of the Save Money guys—Chance, Joey, Towkio, like, everybody. So I did it: I came here and I just started working.”

Even while juggling classes and homework Martin focused on his extracurricular musical career, which had its own version of homework—he made a goal to produce 20 beats a month. “I don’t sleep that much,” he says. “I sleep the amount I need.” The hard work has paid off: Martin says about a year ago Adult Swim vice president Jason DeMarco reached out to him after finding Martin’s beats online. Their budding relationship eventually got Martin on Adult Swim—first with a few of his own bumps, then with his music-video ad for Wunderkid.

Martin says he started putting Wunderkid together about a year ago, working with local beat maker Professor Fox, who serves as the album’s executive producer. Wunderkid feels like an album should—it possesses the soulful post-Dilla aesthetic of its creator, and even with contributions from a dozen rappers and singers it feels like a whole statement rather than a piecemeal collection. With school nearly complete, Martin’s got big plans for his next album. “Me being able to go 24-7, this [album] is definitely gonna be much better than Wunderkid,” he says. Until then you can help celebrate Martin’s graduation on Friday, May 22 at East Room, where he DJs as part of the Too Future Series; Lakim, Smoko Ono, Aztek, and III also spin.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.