Exclusive Interview: Theo Martins Speaks on His New Sound and Upcoming Album
Theo Martins is an emcee that hails from Rhode Island. Four months ago, he visited Los Angeles, and on a whim, decided to stay and crank out his debut LP, Wonderland. He insists on breaking through the breadth of uninspired sameness in the game, and wants to change the world through music, by making tracks that move you — emotionally, spiritually, and physically. While putting the finishing touches on his album, he took time to talk to RESPECT. about how he got into rapping, how he finally settled on his stage name, his new sound, his album, and the importance of being accessible. Hit the jump for the full interview.
So you started out as a DJ and called yourself S-Class, right? How’d you decide to make the transition from spinning the records to making them yourself?
I’ve always performed. I have an older sister and we both would make up songs in the house and perform them as little kids, so I’ve always had the urge to perform music on a bigger scale, and taking the first step as a DJ was great because I loved playing records and controlling an audience through just playing music, but I knew I wanted to do more — it was a process of evolution.
Why did you decide to use the name Theo rather than S-Class?
I started running with “S-Class.” I was gaining popularity, and I’d traveled a lot under that name, so I thought it’d be cool just to use that. But around the time, I remember Wale had just started emerging, and I was really inspired by how he just used his real name. And I thought to myself: “Man, I think it’d be cool if I just go by my name.” It’s shortened, clearly — my full name is Theophilus, but I go by Theo, and I figured that’d be cool.
Rather than coming up with something random that you’ll want to change eventually?
Yeah. I really love cartoons and the idea of stage names and stuff, but I guess Theo is good enough.
Your first two mixtapes seemed to have more of that classic hip-hop feel with tracks like “Sweetest Language,” and “Kirby’s Airwalk.” Sincerely Yours, The Dance Floor was a marked change in your sound. What brought on that change?
I wanted to do more sonically. When I first came in, it was a lot of me mimicking my influences — Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, Pharrell, and N.E.R.D. I was just mimicking my way until SYTDF. I was trying to take a full step into something that was new, that had more life to it, that had color, that had more of a pulse to it. I wanted to try things that really excited me. That was the jump. I needed something bright. And you could see that in the artwork — It was neon pink! [laughs]. I just needed to set a contrast. Rap music now, it’s great but sometimes I feel it’s a bit dull.
Yeah, you do tend to see more and more of the same.
Yeah, you know, it tends to be contagious, and it sets this wrong pattern for people to follow. So you can feel when someone’s doing something really genuine or if it’s really just another aim to be popular. You can do anything you want, and I really like that about being an artist. I could do something super underground, and then come back and do something poppy. And around that time I was trying to get my footing and find what works for me and what sounds good. I wasn’t where I’m at now, but I was heading there, and it was a good start.
One of the things I’ve found that set you apart is how personal you are with your fans. Do you think that’s contributed to your expanding fan base?
I’m a human too. I fight the same fight that they fight. And if we’re fighting the same fight, then let’s join. In my music, I’m always expressing this sense of empowerment and freedom for people to do what they want and be who they are, but if I’m gonna be locked away in this fortress and can’t communicate with anybody, then what’s the point? It’s like, “I’m approachable, come say hi to me.”
So, you said you were taking a hiatus from Twitter until the album was wrapped. Now that you’re back, can we assume that it’s almost done?
My friend, yes. Lordy, Lord [laughs]. I feel like it’s hard sometimes to take people seriously when they’re like “Hey man, listen, I’ve got something great” every five minutes. I really had to buckle down and separate from everything and have this album sound the way I want it to sound. It was like “this is my life in the last year, and I want it to be told perfectly.”
You also don’t tend to flood the internet with large volumes of music. You’re selective with what you put out.
I look at it like a great product. Let’s say, Steve Jobs and the iPhone on Apple. These people, they know what they have and they know that it’s really good. And because they know that it’s worth something, they’re going to make sure that it’s right first. And when it’s right, and they give it to one person, they know that one person will turn into two, which will turn into ten, 50, 100, and eventually, 1 million. I don’t really see the need in spamming someone with my stuff. I know its good, and I’m working at getting better and better, but I’m sure if it really moves someone, they’ll share it. I don’t want it to be because I told them to tell 8 friends. That’s not what changes the world — I don’t believe in that.
You said you hadn’t planned on making the album until you moved to LA. So how did you end up there?
Being from the East Coast, I’d never visited California. I figured I’d visit, and then once I got there, I just figured, “I’m just not gonna leave.” It was so random, but it was just what I needed.
Where did the title, Wonderland, come from?
It was originally influenced by the film, Alice in Wonderland. It’s one of my favorite movies. I’m a big Disney buff. It also correlates to my life as far as where I’ve been, where I’m at now, and where I’m going. It’s the point in life where you start to recall and reflect on what’s important to you and what’s not, and if you want things to change or you want them to stay the same — ‘wondering’ where you’re going to ‘land.’
That’s deep, man.
Yeah — it’s’ something. It was just a process of getting everything in my heart and mind into music form, and working with a team of producers to create something that’s life-changing.
So, is Wonderland going to be more pensive than your past work?
It is. It gets a bit pensive. And even more introspective. Just really thinking to myself about a lot of the frustrations that I’ve had and a lot of the questions that I want answered. It’s very much a smile with a grin– very Tim Burton-esque.
You’ve sampled a lot of Indie Pop groups like Foster the People, Miike Snow, and others. Can we expect to hear more sampling on the album, or is it going to be more original production from people you’ve working with before, like Kris Fame and $port?
Yeah, it’s actually going to be more original. There’s only one song on the album that contains a sample and it’s because $port is really stubborn, but it’s too great of a record. It’s called “The The Flowers”. It’s my farewell to a relationship I know I can’t change and he has crafted the perfect soundtrack.
Are there any other producers we should know about?
There’s Kris Fame who’s from Rhode Island, and Austin White who’s Chicago-bred, amazing, and so eccentric. I’m also working with this production group out here called Earth Moon Earth that makes really good instrumentation, and two other good friends of mine that’s you’ll hear and you’ll love.
Dope. When can we expect to hear it?
Maybe 2013. I’m totally kidding. I’m actually trying to have it out by April. I should be done by the next week. I’m sitting down with my creative director, that’s Tomas Whitmore, who’s an extraordinary man. He’s been working with like will.i.am for some time now. We’re finalizing a lot of ideas. The music’s already done. There’s just a few finishing touches, and voila.