I can’t imagine what Thelo said to family, friends, or teachers who asked, “So what are your plans for after college?” Because when you’re destined for greatness, you don’t need a plan B. He’s traded internship and grad school applications for major placements and successful self-released albums. His unflinching work ethic and focus on carving a timeless, yet progressive sound leaves him as a notable standout in the otherwise crowded production scene.
Like many, I first heard about Thelonious Martin via one of his myriad placements—since about 2012 he has been landing tracks with everyone you can think of. Bronson to Curren$y, Odd Future to Pro Era, if you mapped out his collaborations it would fill out all corners of the states. From an outsider’s perspective, I couldn’t understand how he was working with so many people. Thanks to the Closed Sessions fam at an early stage, he was able to catch studio time with some prominent acts (see “Blackbird”, “Break Ya Neck”, 3 Piece Set). But since then he’s expanded on his collaborations—it wasn’t until I met him that I understood that it’s because he’s as genuine as they come.
In conversation, he’s humble yet knowledgeable, something I noticed when we were catching an Uber the other day. I forget how it came up, but the driver asked what we do. Thelo mentioned that he’s a hip-hop producer, which resulted in a sort of visible scoff from the driver. While others may have stopped there and taken the driver’s judgement as a cue to sit in awkward silence for the rest of the ride, Thelo began explaining his production style and influences. If you couldn’t guess through his music, he knows a hell of a lot about classic Soul, R&B, and Funk records, so it wasn’t long until the two were sharing favorites cuts from a Herbie Hancock album.
There’s always some sort of kickback to sampling from those outside the hip-hop community. Admittedly, in its bleaker form you see producers using the sample as a crutch; replacing originality with sonic familiarity and proven melodies. But to those that understand the culture, it is a cornerstone of hip-hop—it ties pieces of a people’s history into current times, relating existing content and sound to the now. With his massive catalog, Thelo has proven exactly what someone with a vision can do to update and expand on records from previous eras. He really helped me understand the benefits and difficulties associated with sampling in saying: ”Sampling is one of the most creative ways to make music. It’s like taking a puzzle, rearranging it, and making something brand new.”
In a sense, his ability to sample serves as a bridge of collaboration across time, bringing records out of their original context into modern times, and accommodating a new artistic perspective. Whether it’s pain or love, he’s become an expert in expounding on the emotion of the sampled record, referencing the original record’s content while still imposing his own view.
Compared to rappers/vocalists who deliver a literal message with their words, producers have to work much harder to present their perspective. Unless you communicate an equilibrium of content/style with the rapper or singer, placements almost serve to dilute your voice. I suppose this is why Thelo has maintained his own solo catalog of remixes, albums, and one-off releases—it allows him to pave a unique sonic message. The absence of newly-recorded vocals gives room for a more developed scape of production.
While he’s been steadily releasing projects for almost 5 years, last year's Wünderkid serves as his most articulated release. Considering its plethora of features, it’s a testament to Thelo’s attention of the whole that it felt cohesive in delivering a vibe and message—here’s a gifted, moral individual at a crossroads of history/timelessness and the now/trends. The music in itself is worthy of its own praise, but what I appreciate almost more than that is just how considerate he was in its rollout. With captivating videos, a thorough concept, and even a physical release in the form of a limited-edition green vinyl, he seems interested in extending the life of his records beyond a quick release on Soundcloud--a platform that usually puts a two-listen lifespan on a project in our fast paced music scene.
Some could view this attention to marketing/rollout as unnecessary, (“it’s a distraction from the music, maaan”) but for a smart, creative individual like Thelo, it offers a new lane of expression, “I’m making sure that all the hardwork I’m putting in isn’t for nothing. It’s so fulfilling when you create with purpose… When you really feel something all the way to your core, you’re not bullshitting yourself or anyone else.” He knows that a song can have a much larger impact if the artwork, video, and story all are aligned; the key is to be smart with your time, while still cultivating your creative process.
While others relish in their accomplishments, letting their talent and uniqueness fade as they look to others for affirmation, Thelo takes any recognition in stride. When we met for an interview a few months back, it was only a few days after A$AP Rocky released At. Long. Last. A$AP., which of course came to a close with the Yasiin Bey-featured, Thelonious-produced cut “Back Home.” Others may have soaked in the achievement, but Thelo said he gave it two listens before getting back to work. That same day, he let loose a remix of Future’s “Fuck Up Some Commas,” sending a clear message to any new fans that his spectrum of capabilities is vast.
“The moment you obtain some type of success, you have to defend your medium immediately. Instead of being pigeonholed into that one lane of success, why not keep striving for bigger and better? Just leave the people reaching for you in the dust; don’t stay still,” he says. When people talk about the kid who stays in his room, honing his craft, creeping up on those who stay stagnant, that’s Thelo.
And while others may “stick to their guns” once they get on for a specific style, he admits he’s still learning. In fact, he says one of his biggest sources of inspiration comes from watching other people’s process. He references a show he spun a few months back that Lakim headlined. Instead of leaving after his set, Thelo stayed right by the booth, studying how Lakim builds a show. This a testament to Thelo’s work ethic in that, if he finally reaches that 10,000-hour mark necessary for mastery of any subject, he’ll set his sights on another 10,000.
In light of catching a Freddie Gibbs and Madlib show recently, I mentioned how blown away I was by the thoroughness of their performance. Instead of just pressing play and letting Gibbs do his thing, Madlib was performing as much as Gibbs; scratching on his turntables, decomposing and rebuilding the production. This set us on a discussion about having a true love for what you do, allowing you the energy to master the craft. He sees a differentiation between timeless artists who are motivated to create intrinsically, and the majority of others who may be in it for the wrong reasons.
“I don’t think a lot of people really want, or know what it takes, to be at that level [of DJing and producing], they just want to maintain the front of it. You have to enjoy the process to be there, and I thoroughly enjoy the process. It’s not just about the end point, I enjoy everything it takes to get there.” There is no end destination or caliber of respect that is enough—once you internalize high standards like that, your career will be less affected by trends and outside opinions.
But this motivation doesn’t stop at Thelo’s music career; he’s just as focused on improving his character. He says that he’s extremely observant of bad habits, noting that each of us knows when we’re doing wrong. Whether that’s how he’s overturned his diet in the past year (his kitchen/fridge looks like a farmer’s market), or by surrounding himself with like-minded, motivated people, it seems Thelo has a true understanding of what “looking out for yourself” really means. Putting yourself in the right situation today will naturally lead you to where you want to be in the future. It seems for the past 5 years, Thelo has recognized this and repositioned his life in accordance. Considering his long-term orientation, I’m ready to sit in as audience as he continues to master his craft and character.