For Thomas Martin, the MC, DJ, and producer known as Thaione Davis, 1917 was a very good year: it marked the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, the beginning of the black migration to the cities of the north, and the earliest African-American solidarity marches. The title of his new disc, Situation Renaissance: 1917 Edition, alludes to this pivotal year, when much of what we now know as African-American culture was born–and its release heralds another kind of birth for Martin. Though he’s still best known as cohost of the WHPK hip-hop show CTA Radio and as a former member of south-side group the Nacrobats, he’s poised to launch a solo career with the eight ambitious, densely packed tracks on Renaissance.
Though Renaissance samples a century’s worth of jazz, blues, gospel, and soul, it’s intended as more than a virtuoso display of crate digging: “It’s a culmination of black music, with respects to the architects,” Martin says. Bold words from a 25-year-old, but they don’t ring hollow–he comes off as more concerned with the future of hip-hop than with whether he’ll be its next big thing.
Born in 1978, he’s spent his whole life immersed in the music and its culture, rising through the ranks in break dancing competitions and MC battles. He says those street-level opportunities for young people have all but disappeared. “All these kids coming up, they got nothing as far as ways to express themselves,” says Martin. He decries the ubiquitous materialism and cartoonish braggadocio in rap–and to encourage the development of more human voices, he hosts youth open mikes at places like Harper Court in Hyde Park. “Kids are just being spoon-fed all this stuff on TV and radio, and not knowing what’s really out there,” he says.
Renaissance is Martin’s way of demonstrating what’s really out there: its trippingly clever rhymes and garagey, dub-infused beats make sense on a dance floor or on a car stereo, but the album’s clearly striving for sociocultural significance as well. “You can feel good, you can party, and you can get enlightened too,” he says. “I’m trying to show people that you ain’t always gotta talk about guns and all this bullshit–and I’m from all that.”
The oldest of five kids, Martin was raised by a single mother (“Papa-was-a-rolling-stone-type shit,” he says) in the south-side neighborhood of Princeton Park. “You wouldn’t see no white folks unless it was the police. As hard as it was on the south side and being from a low-income community, I wouldn’t have wanted to be raised anywhere else. It just gives you a tougher skin.”
Tough skin was a requirement. “Growing up in the hood you were either gangbanging or…you were gangbanging,” says Martin, laughing. Fortunately a couple older cousins got him into break dancing to keep him off the streets. He was a dance prodigy by age six and had started rapping by the time he turned eight. “From breaking it stemmed off into DJing, poetry, writing rhymes, graffiti,” he says. “I mean, I’ve been doing hip-hop since forever.”
After graduating from Morgan Park High School in 1996, Martin attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he DJed for the campus radio station and distributed hip-hop mix tapes he made with a partner under the name Esoteric Deejayz. “We’d put a bunch of tracks [on] and I’d sneak one of my [original] songs on there too,” he says. “That’s really how I got my name.”
Martin earned a film degree in 2000 and returned to Chicago, where he and fellow south-siders Pugslee Atomz and DJ Verve started CTA Radio with the help of WHPK’s resident rap luminary, J.P. Chill. A mix of underground and mainstream tracks, interviews, and in-studio performances, the Wednesday-night set continues to be one of the finest hip-hop showcases in the city.
Juggling two jobs in the summer of 2001–one at Dr. Wax, the other as a runner at the stock exchange–Martin took two weeks off and went to Europe to plant seeds. “I saved up my money, got a passport, and just went,” he says. In clubs, at concerts, and on the streets, from Amsterdam to Paris and from Brussels to London, he passed out 500 CD-R copies of his first proper solo effort, a five-song EP called Progress. A copy apparently fell into the right hands at Hamburg hip-hop label Hong Kong Recordings: “A couple months later, I get an e-mail from these folks in Germany saying they want to put it out.” Martin expanded Progress into an LP by adding instrumental tracks and alternate mixes. Though it still hasn’t had a stateside release, the disc was an underground success in Europe, Japan, and Australia in 2002; Martin followed up with short tours in France, England, and Germany.
At the time Martin was also a member of the Nacrobats–he’d joined the collective, headed by Atomz, back in 2000. The five-MC version of the group–Martin, Atomz, Infinito 2017, Cosmo Galactus, and Psalm One–“shut down shows” all over Chicago, Martin says. “We’d just get onstage and rock it. It was like second nature with the five of us.” In 2003 the Nacrobats released a well-received full-length, All Ways, on the Birthwrite label, but though they seemed destined for bigger things, they abruptly split up just a few months later while on tour in California. “We were having some serious communication problems,” says Martin drily. “But everybody’s still cool with each other.”
Martin spent the balance of the year working on Situation Renaissance at a studio in Hinsdale. Writing and producing most of it himself, he pared 28 tracks down to the final 8; the record was released by Birthwrite in June, and several nonalbum cuts will appear on an import 12-inch from Hong Kong Recordings. Martin has already begun circulating a companion disc of remixes and outtakes called Downtime, as well as a radically different version of the album on CD-R. “My problem is I can’t really sit still. I’ll bootleg my own album in a minute,” he says. “Or I’m liable to put something out that might conflict with my official release. It’ll probably piss my label off, but I just got to get this stuff out there, man.”
Martin’s also working on a proper follow-up to Situation Renaissance, and he’s got a full-length with Infinito, Low Income Housing–15 tracks recorded in a single 48-hour period–in the can. Martin produced tracks on a forthcoming Psalm One album, and he and Birthwrite head Overflo are organizing a compilation for the label called The Diary of Harold Washington. Other records in the pipeline include a full-length from the Linebackers–Martin and Cosmo Galactus–and another from the Brothers Union, whose lineup includes Martin, DJ 5ifth Element, Adad, Kenny Keys, and Mike Hot. He also plans to collaborate with local neosoul kingpin Peven Everett and Jurassic 5 MC Chali 2na.
Add to all this a baby on the way–his wife is due in September–and a new job with local record distributor Groove, and Martin is a busy man. “Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but I’m a proletariat-type motherfucker, blue-collar and all that,” he says. “Besides, I’ve been in this game too long to slow down now.”
Martin performs Friday, July 9, at the Fireside Bowl with Diverse, Illogic, and APOC.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.