Thelonious Martin sits in his blue-lit home studio in a hoody and brimmed cap, surrounded by keyboards, computers, samplers, drum machines, and monitor speakers.
Thelonious Martin in his home studio, where he says that lately he’s been making five beats a day, five days a week Credit: ThoughtPoet

Sitting under the warm blue lights of his home studio, Chicago producer Thelonious Martin reflects on his musical influences as he studies a set of shelves completely stacked with obscure vinyl. On the shelves’ top right corner rest thick biographies about two of the greatest innovators in their respective genres: jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and hip-hop producer J Dilla.

“Obviously my namesake and a bit of my quirkiness is from Thelonious Monk,” Martin says. “Dilla, Madlib, Alchemist, Just Blaze, Pete Rock—you know, the run-of-the-mill boom-bap hip-hop-ass producers—are definitely my influences. Shout-out No I.D., Xtreme. I try to wear the lineage of soulful Chicago producers, because I’m really prideful about where we come from. Beyond hip-hop and rap, I love Brazilian bossa nova and jazz like João Gilberto, and one day I’ll make a Brazilian-inspired jazz record. Even my boy Topaz Jones is an inspiration for me—that’s my brother.”

In a way, Jones is where Thelonious Martin’s story begins. Before Martin became one of Chicago’s most respected current producers, before he collaborated over the past nine years with contemporary legends such as Curren$y, G Herbo, and the late Mac Miller, before he made his formal recorded debut with the 2014 release Wünderkid, his musical origin story began when he was a teenager in Montclair, New Jersey. Martin, now 30, split his childhood between the Garden State and the Windy City, and he made his first beat in the late 2000s by sampling a Bobby Womack record on his MacBook at the New Jersey home of close friend and fellow artist Topaz Jones.

Martin came up at a pivotal time and place, between 2012 and 2015 and mostly in Chicago—his formative years overlapped with the back half of the blog era, when underground and independent hip-hop thrived on the Internet thanks to grassroots-powered outlets such as Fake Shore Drive, 2DopeBoyz, and NahRight. Artists and fans alike were able to connect personally on message boards. A young Martin sharpened his sword making beats for an array of artists that now reads like the top of the bill at a hip-hop festival: not just Mac Miller, Herbo, and Curren$y but also Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Joey Purp, Joey Bada$$, Ab-Soul, RetcH, A$AP Rocky, and more.

Thelonious Martin has released a beat tape every month in 2023, and this is April’s installment.

They say a true master is an eternal student of his craft, though, and King Thelonious is still sharpening that sword today. In April he dropped the fourth installment in a series of 2023 beat tapes called Season 1—this one is of course subtitled Episode 4. And last week he dropped a collab with Brooklyn-based underground rapper Radamiz called 2409 West Slauson. Martin says he’s always eager to work with anyone he thinks makes dope music, regardless of how popular they are.

“This year I got new equipment, so I’m tryna put myself in the mind state I was in college,” he says. “I used to make five, ten beats a day and worked relentlessly, but I kind of burned myself out after Wünderkid.” That new gear has changed Martin’s workflow, he explains, making him more efficient. “It’s like go time for me,” he says. “So I’ve been making five beats a day, Monday through Friday. I realized I can make a beat tape a month.”

Radamiz and Thelonious Martin released this EP last week.

The title of the Season 1 series (along with those of many of his other solo projects) is inspired by the omnipresence of TV in our lives. He specifically credits the influence of Toonami, Cartoon Network’s late-night anime-centric programming block, where he was introduced to the iconic soundtracks of shows such as Samurai Champloo, Cowboy Bebop, Gundam Wing, and Inuyasha.

“I feel like Toonami really opened up a lot for a lot of people, in terms of just viewing different stuff,” Martin says. Television can bleed into his creative process, he says, especially if he leaves a show going on in the background while he’s working. “It leads to wanting to make stuff that’s cinematic or as beautiful as some of the scenes you’re watching.”

Martin compares his creative process to the way a Michelin-starred chef prepares something magical from the simplest ingredients by mastering complex techniques. His search for the rarest raw materials takes many forms—he might happen to have a “Japanese record no one knows about,” he says, or he’ll pore through blogs and online databases looking for artist credits on tracks he knows so he can find other music they helped record. He likes to look up his discoveries on YouTube and then make playlists he can download with an app.   

No matter how Martin acquires the building blocks for his tracks, he subjects them to the same treatment: he slices and chops them into samples that create the cinematic moments in his tracks. He describes this process of seeking out music to make music as an endless loop, like the sampled loops he uses to build his beats.

Martin continues to see great promise in Chicago’s hip-hop community, and he wants to help nurture its future. In other words, it’s time for the master to pass along his lifetime’s worth of wisdom and experience. 

When I ask Martin what he’s proud of doing, he mentions that he recently spoke to a Columbia College class taught by Alex Fruchter, aka DJ RTC. “I’ve spoken in his class before, but this time I really took the moment to reflect, like, ‘I was once those kids in that class,’” he says. “I try to think of ‘What would 19-year-old Thelo want from that situation?’ I try to give as much as I can—that’s how you live longer in terms of this music stuff. A lot of people live closehanded. I’m a firm believer that if you share the recipes, people remember you a lot better. If you get closehanded, you can’t receive no blessings. You’re openhanded, you can’t do nothing but catch them.”

Photos by ThoughtPoet of Unsocial Aesthetics (UAES), a digital creative studio and resource collective designed to elevate community-driven storytelling and social activism in Chicago and beyond.