Marco polo on the anatomy of a producer, how hip hop and beatmaking helped save his life, how he’s redefining beatmaking’s greatest tradition and making stock sounds sound like record samples, why technology’s a ho, why he finally gave in and began selling sound kits, and much more.
Photo credit: Amir Said © 2016
Editor’s note: This is an epic long read! But worth it. This interview contains a combination of a series of interviews I conducted with Marco Polo (on several dates) over the past four years, the lengthiest and most recent being in mid-December, 2014. Since these interviews were part of a continuing series with Marco Polo, as one whole composite, I wanted to publish it here the way it was meant to be presented, as a whole rather than in parts.
BeatTips: What is your earliest musical memory? I remember we spoke before and you told me that your father, who was really open minded musically, talk about that and how that impacted you.
Marco Polo: One of my earliest memories of music is fucking dancing to the Thriller LP, playing on record, and literally dancing on a glass coffee table, and that shit shattering and me falling through it, while Thriller was playing, and my parents running downstairs wildin’ out, wondering if I was okay.
BeatTips: How old were you?
Marco Polo: Shit, well it came out in what, 1982? It must’ve been a year after that, so like 4. I was born in ’79, so I was like 3 or 4 years old. And I remember that vividly.
BeatTips: Were you a Michael Jackson fan?
Marco Polo: Oh, my God, [Thriller] that’s my favorite album of all time. I was just speaking about how it’s been so long since that album’s come out, and nothing to me has come close to knocking that as my top album of all time. Thriller, absolutely! Just because it has so many personal memories of a kid, and just now, growing up and being into music and understanding what went into that record and how it sounds, it’s still fucking leagues ahead of any fucking pop record, or R&B record, ever, in my opinion. That shit is epic, the way it makes me feel, the way it sounds, you know. And Quincy’s [Quincy Jones] part, and Michael and what they did to make that album, it’s amazing; it’s timeless!
BeatTips: What you were into, was it just soul, was it jazz? What else was in the house?
Marco Polo: My parents always had music for us, but my pops, specifically, as I got older he introduced me to everything that he listened to, which was jazz, like Miles Davis Kind of Blue, to Steely Dan, to Cream Disraeli Gears album, you know. And him telling me, “Okay, son, Eric Clapton was on the guitar, Ginger Baker was on the drums, Jack Bruce was on the fucking guitar. And then, Italian music, because you know, my parents were born in Italy, then they immigrated to Canada. My pops, loved everything, man. He loved Donny Hathaway, Johnny Guitar Watson, “Super Man Lover.” He would just put that on loop at the end of the night and have a glass of wine, and chain smoke cigarettes, and just repeat that song. And my moms love music, too. She was just more into like mainstream stuff, you know, like she would put shit on like The Gypsy Kings and clean the house on Sunday. My moms is more on the commercial, she just likes to dance, have a good time. So she liked music, but my dad was more like… My pops definitely had the real specific, artsy like, you know, diggin’ in the crates… He actually left me some really ill records. Well, he’s still here, I said it like he died. He’s still here. But whatever was left in his record collection, he gave to me. And just by like the 30 or 40 pieces [records], I knew his shit was ill, because it was like Bob James, Jack Handy, he was a saxophone player, John Klemmer, a lot of jazz and funk and soul. That’s where I get my influences from, cuz he was really open minded to everything, you know.
BeatTips: So was his thing more that he just loved music, or was he actually trying to guide you in that direction?
Marco Polo: No, he wasn’t trying to guide me. He just loved music. He used to DJ when he was young. And he just put me on. It wasn’t like he was trying to steer me in the direction of doing music as a career. He just loved music, and I was just there to listen to it, you know.
BeatTips: But When and how did you first discover hip hop?
Marco Polo: I first discovered hip hop… Well, being in Toronto, I think it was just on radio and TV. Whatever was playing. And one of the first… Much Music was a huge channel for me discovering hip hop and listening to stuff like Maestro Fresh Wes, you know, “Let Your Backbone Slide.” He was like the Big Daddy Kane of Canada. He’s a legend. Shouts to him. Seeing his video, and then whatever was playing at that same time. And I remember hearing Main Source, “Looking at the Front Door,” on the radio back then. And then we had this show called “Electric Circus” on Much Music, which was kind of like a dance show, like “Soul Train” but a Canadian version. It was more dance, but they would have hip hop acts come through and perform. And you know, Large Professor had Sir Scratch, and what’s the other DJ’s name [K-Cut]? They were both from Toronto. And he was always up there, and I would see little glimpses of that as a kid and being in school. And I remember having Rap Tracks II . It was like a compilation on CD. It had like De La Soul -“Say No Go,” and Slick Rick – “A Children’s Story;” Neneh Cherry – “Buffalo Stance.” So that was like the beginnings of me just be familiar with it and liking it. But it wasn’t until high school that I started buying music. And I was late compared to a lot of my friends. Like my first four albums that I bought, that I owned, was Only Built for Cuban Linx — Raekwon; Cypress Hill’s Temple of Boom, which is like their third album; GZA – Liquid Swords; and Das EFX – Hold it Down. One more thing, though. My pop’s bought Tribe’s first album, because he loved “Bonita Applebum.” He bought that shit, brought it home and was like, “I love this song!” So that [People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm] was technically the first album that existed in my home that was a hip hop CD. That was ‘cause of him.
BeatTips: How was your family? Where you upper class, middle class?
Marco Polo: We were definitely middle class. I grew up in a neighborhood that was really well off and well to do. All my friends at young ages had crazy cars and shit like that. But I never really grew up in a situation like that… it was cool, you know. We did well, but you know, I wasn’t spoiled or anything like that.
BeatTips: What about school? How were you as a student?
Marco Polo: In elementary I was good… Then high school hit and … [laughs]got a little crazy, I guess you could say. By grade 10, I ended up leaving and going to…drug rehab for like a year. ‘Cause I was messing around with a bunch of shit. So I went away in about the middle of grade 10 for about a year, and came back in grade 12 or grade 11, and got my life together. You know, at an early age I was into some shit! I came back good, everything done.
BeatTips: But what led up to that?
Marco Polo: I mean, just being a kid. You know, just doing dumb shit, you know what I’m sayin’… Peer pressure, you know… Fuckin’ started selling drugs, selling weed. Before you know it, I was fuckin’ actively using, you know, smoking weed, doing a lot of other shit, too, like… the highest levels of drug use, I was partaking in, at a very young age, which is pretty scary actually. I mean, when I first started smoking weed in high school, definitely. And you know, usually it’s kind of baby steps till the harder shit, till you start doing coke and heroin. But I kind of went up the latter really quick. Just partying, doing a lot shit. And to be honest, hip hop wasn’t even a part of my life at that stage, I was just a wild kid… I ran with some kids that weren’t probably the best influence. I started dealing drugs, I started doing drugs… typical fuckin’ suburban drugs, you know like acid and mushrooms. Then fucking ended up doing heroin… You know, this all happened really fast, like within 1 ½ years to the point where I fucking peeked out…B, I was like 15 years old, 14! So it was really young. I didn’t even have a chance to really… like my whole drug span was like 2 years, tops. I peeked out, and I came to a point where I realized that I needed help, and I let my parents know, ‘Yo, I’m fucked up.’ I was failing all of my classes. Girlfriend dumped me…figured out I was doing all the shit I was doing. But it all kind-of connects to where I’m at now, because I ended up going away for a year, and I stopped doing drugs and drinking, period. And haven’t for almost 13 years, now.
BeatTips: Oh, so you came to your parents?
Marco Polo: Yeah!
BeatTips: They didn’t even know what was going on?
Marco Polo: I mean, they knew I was in some shit. They just thought it was typical teenage shit, like smoking weed, “He’s failing classes,” “He’s skipping school…” But they didn’t know the extent. Just ‘cause, you know, as a parent, you probably don’t even wanna think about your child doing that type of drug at an early age. So they were fucking shell-shocked. It was crazy. But I’m blessed to have amazing parents, you know what I’m sayin’. They went out of pocket… They had to re-mortgage the house to send me to this treatment center. It was crazy. I ended up going to a place called Hazleton in Minnesota, which is a world-renown youth facility. They have an adult center… I mean this is the place where they fucking sent… all the Hollywood stars and their kids. Like I was in treatment with some pretty heavy known people. I can’t even mention, for private identity purposes, but music people, actors, star’s children… I was roommates with like actors you see in movies now. It was a crazy experience, and I learned a lot. I went away for about a year… between 3 or 4 centers, because you start at a main one which is more lockdown. You know, clean up, get it out of your system, and then move on to a halfway house in Louisiana. Then I came back and I managed to keep it together… Definitely got involved with AA meetings and all that.
BeatTips: Do you think that you getting it on track is because (1) you were honest about your problem, and (2) you were young?
Marco Polo: I mean, it was a combination of all those things. Definitely being honest about having some sort of an addiction. And straight up, I had fucked up so much at that point, with just how much I put my family through, that when I came out I was like, “I can’t do this… I can’t do drugs, for myself…” First of all, you can’t do drugs for yourself, because ain’t nothing happening until you do it for yourself. You do it for somebody else, it ain’t gonna work. But then also knowing that my parents had went through so much to put me where I’m at, that was definitely motivation to keep it together.
BeatTips: So after you got cleaned up and you got into music, did you find that hip hop was something that kind of sustained you and kept you away from it?
Marco Polo: YEAH! That’s… Honestly, in treatment, in rehab is where I first started listening to hip hop, like ALL THE TIME… A Tribe Called Quest… it was all over the place. At that point, I didn’t realize how much I liked it. Even before I had went into rehab, I remember my pops, he bought the first Tribe album because he liked “Bonita Applebum”… When I went to rehab, I started really listening to music… and hip hop was definitely one of the genres I really started focusing on. And when I came back home from treatment, I finished high school, and I started working at record stores, CD stores… And actually, I lost a couple of jobs because my music collection started getting crazy… I started stealing fucking records and CDs from these stores, just because I wanted more shit… Yo, I fuckin’ ended up going… you know… being on probation as a young offender; going to jail, getting fired from a job for stealing thousands and thousand dollars worth a CDs… it was crazy, yo! And then luckily, I got out of that situation, you know, cuz Canada’s very, very lenient. If your under 18 and you commit crimes it’s very lenient. It’s like you just do community service. It was all part of the process. Then, it got to the point where my music collection was just so ridiculous… Just on CDs and being a fan, you know, I wanted to do something more. Then I was like, “Yo, I gotta do something with this after I finish high school.” I was like, “I gotta go figure it out; I gotta go produce.” I started to hear Gang Starr albums and Pete Rock [& CL Smooth] albums, and I was like, “Yo, this shit is incredible… I wanna do THAT!”
BeatTips: So now, at that time, you’re out of high school, you’re thinking “I gotta do something with music.” Logical choice is to go to audio engineering school. Is that what you did?
Marco Polo: Yeah. It was called the Harris Institute for the Arts in Toronto. You know, it’s like the typical audio engineering school that they have here. They don’t really teach you about production, it’s more like studio…
BeatTips: What were your expectations and what was the reality?
Marco Polo: I really wanted to learn how to make beats, straight up! That’s what I wanted to get out of the school. What I realized is that, those schools, while they teach you things that might help you make beats, they don’t really… maybe now that might have MPC classes or something like that to go make hip hop beats… There’s not like a class in most of these places. I’m not blaming thing, because I was just amped to go learn about musical things, engineering and studio things. And for someone who doesn’t know anything, it’s definitely good. You’ll learn about signal processing, and plugging in mic cables, and recording, and Pro Tools, and that shit is definitely helpful. But, you know, if you just wanna make beats, you know, really look into the schools and the classes before you sign up for that shit.
BeatTips: So what did you take from that school?
Marco Polo: That’s the biggest thing that I took. Just the knowledge of basic studio equipment, signal flow, like real basic shit, but it’s really important… But to be honest, the moment I started interning at The Cutting Room, which is a studio in New York at started working at when I moved from Toronto. I learned more at that place in two months than I did there in a year in a half.
BeatTips: Before you get to the Cutting Room, at this time, did you really know what a beatmaker/producer was?
Marco Polo: I mean, I was learning… All I knew was music was the only thing that I loved, you know what I’m sayin’. A lot of people figure it out in high school, like, “I wanna do this; I wanna go to university become an accountant;” “I’m gonna be a doctor.” I’m sitting here like, “I don’t wanna do any of that shit! I wanna do something with music… I like MUSIC!” And then the first four full albums that I bought were: GZA – Liquid Swords; DAS EFX – Hold It Down; Cypress Hill – Temples of Boom; and Raewkon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. And then at that point, I went crazy and went back into the stash, and the history, and got everything…From like every BDP album, to every EPMD album. The whole Wu Tang catalogue. Stetsasonic… I wanted to learn about everything to do with hip hop, where it started, you know what I’m sayin’. I was going to the library. Got a new book each time.
BeatTips: What was it that triggered that desire for you to really know hip hop music like that, to read books, etc.?
Marco Polo: I was so into the whole style… of sampling… It was my curiosity. I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t grow up in the 80s listening to hip hop, like the founders and where it came from. So I wanted to learn about it. I feel like, in order to succeed in something, and produce rap, you have to find out where it came from!… And It was the beats! It was fucking hearing Wu-Tang and Primo beats and Pete Rock and going, “Holy Shit!” Like, “What is this shit?” That’s what got me. The production…I wanted the education. Literally, if there was a University of Hip Hop, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn where it came from. Like, obviously, I was gonna get the gear and I was gonna go to school for music, but anything that you wanna master, you gotta study the greats. And that was my approach. When I heard it, I wanted to know everything! I wanted to buy everything, I wanted to listen to everything. Understand it! Then I got to that point where it was literally frustrating just listening. That’s when I was like, “Yo, I wanna make this shit!”
BeatTips: So early on, did you know a lot about hip hop history?
Marco Polo: No. I slowly learned. My beat Yoda, as I call him, my boy, Shylow, was the one who started putting me on to a lot of stuff, and teaching me how to use the MPC, and just putting me on to music. But once the internet kicked in…
BeatTips: But before that. I’m talking about the roots, the history of hip hop. Did you have an understanding? Everyone says, “Hip hop came from the South Bronx…” Did you have an understanding?
Marco Polo: Not for a minute. I eventually learned that. I had to go and learn that shit… I had to go backwards. Wherever my starting point was, I had to go back and figure out where it came from and learn about shit. I’m still learning. There’s so much history in the beginnings of hip hop that I’m not familiar with, and cats who were really integral, and I’m still learning about that.
BeatTips: What was the difference when you lacked the information, knowledge, and education vs. when you started to understand?
Marco Polo: Definitely raised my appreciation for where it came from and where it was at and the evolution of it.
BeatTips: Did it flow through to the music?
Marco Polo: I think so, yeah. Of course. The more I learned, the more I studied, the better I became at my craft, you know. And that whole process is never gonna stop. The moment you think you have it figured out, you’re done.
BeatTips: When you went through this intensive study, what where the things that you discovered that had the biggest influence on you?
Marco Polo: I grew up on the East Coast… I was discovering all these groups and their styles, where they were coming from… Discovering how each producer did things in a certain way.
Let me give you a couple of names that will cover what you were studying, and you give me something that you pulled from them, and that maybe perhaps you innovated upon:
Pete Rock? What was the thing [about]Pete Rock that most influenced you, the thing that you take now with you when you make music?
Marco Polo: His beats were a lot more complex at the time compared to a lot of other producers. The shit that he was doing, like blending different loops, and his use of horns. He was definitely one of the people who had a signature style when it came to using a lot of horns. His drums knocked, his bass knocked. The difference between him and Preem [DJ Premier], I think technical wise, complexity wise, Pete was doing a lot more than other producers, you know what I’m sayin’. He had a lot of things happening on the hook parts of his beats that was different from the verse part, in terms of song structure that I learned. I was like, “Word, when the hook comes, it’s gotta be big and epic. And then when the verse hits, it’s gotta be dumbed down to the bass and the drums so you feel the emcee.” Sound structure, that’s what I learned from Pete. Same with Large Professor, both of them. And just using so many different sounds, and like little vocal chops. Just flavor and detail. Pete Rock to me was someone with mad layers to his music. His sound was horns and crazy things happening. He had a style; you knew when a Pete Rock beat came on. That’s what I was learning after a while… It’s like, figuring out people’s styles, people’s sounds, and how it came to be. Because I was going back to listen to like two or three albums, or from the first and third, like wow, you can see how people evolved. It helped me evolve as an engineer and a producer myself.
BeatTips: What about RZA?
Marco Polo: Aw, MAN! When I heard Cuban Linx and 36 Chambers — Liquid Swords, man, that album is so crazy. It was like a movie to me — those albums, to me. Because you put them on, and they just put you in a zone. And the way he was doing things was so different. He was looping shit off-time, and drums was so grimy; and the mixes was terrible, but in a good way. Man, it just gave you a feelin’… He knew what he was doing. Sometimes looping things the way you do on purpose, you just gotta go off vibe. You can’t always be so technical with music.
BeatTips: What about J Dilla?
Marco Polo: Uh, Jaydee, as I knew him first and then manifested into the J Dilla moniker, was definitely another influence on me. He’s a great to me, but he’s not in my top 5, like Pete, Preem, and Large. I’m being straight up, you know what I’m sayin’. I love Dilla, and there was a lot of records in his early career that were huge for me just learning about hip hop, like The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’,” specifically that song, that was one of my favorite hip hop songs when I was coming up. But Slum Village Fantastic Vol. 2, that was the record that I became a huge Dilla fan. And that record influenced producers everywhere — and I feel like in some ways negatively because some people literally wanted to be that man and emulate him on all levels.
BeatTips: What about Kev Brown?
Marco Polo: Kev Brown. He’s one of the modern beat geniuses. If I had to guess, I would say he was very influenced by Pete [Rock] just like me. But he did his own thing with it. He took bass lines to a whole fucking NEW level! His drumwork is outstanding. He found pieces of gear that worked for him that helped him establish a certain sound. It was like an extension of the SP 1200, but with modern machines. He’s like a dude, where — he inspired me. As a peer, and as a friend. And his production — he’s another dude where I scratch my head as to why more people do not know about him, and why he isn’t — you know, just like myself at times. Like, we both have that in common where we continuously fall under the radar with people. Which is cool. But yeah, Kev is a dude I feel like more people should know about. You know, and what he does, and how evolved. He’s incredible.
Marco Polo: Q-Tip’s another legend, too. Often overlooked because people see him as just a rapper. Just based on his production on all the Tribe [A Tribe Called Quest] albums, that cements him in top 10 instantly! Midnight Marauders is one of my favorite albums of all time. I love the first two [Tribe albums] as well, but Midnight was the one where I was like, “He’s a production genius.” Talk about influencing people, you know. And even to this day, that whole production style, there sound was very influential with a lot of people.
BeatTips: DJ Premier?
Marco Polo: Primo with the chops. At first, in the Group Home, Jeru, Gang Starr days, he was looping. But then he evolved. He’s one that influenced me to start chopping up records. Primo would take like 3 seconds of a record, not even a full loop, maybe just a melody or a couple of hits, and rearrange it and chop it and make this INSANE rhythm, you know what I’m sayin’, this loop. And then he’d put his signature drums on it, and that shit would put you in a zone. He has me listening to records differently. Instead of just looking for the obvious thing to do, the thing to do is to really, really dissect a song when you’re trying to make a beat. Really listen to detail. Listen to that one or two notes that might be dope sounding, and fuck with them. Preemo. I think the thing about Preem that I finally realized after many years, what I respect about him is, his ability to be simple. And this is not to undermine what he is doing as something that’s like easy — Because NOBODY else can do it. And nobody else has done it to this day! His ability to hear something on a record, a sample on a record that NO ONE else would ever fuck with. Chop it up in a way, bring it out with EQ and mixing, and then his signature drums, that, still to this day, hits harder than anything I’ve ever heard. And to hypnotize you, with two, literally 2- and 4-bar loops. At the peak of his production career, there wasn’t a lot going on. But what was there was so fucking hypnotizing and perfect that you didn’t fucking care. You don’t have to get technical if it’s rights. If it sounds right, if it feels right. You could listen to his shit for 20 minutes fucking straight, a beat. “Kick in the Door” (B.I.G.); “Nas Is Like” (Nas) — you don’t give a fuck that there’s no damn hook change. The shit is GREAT! And that’s my whole thing. It’s like, I think a lot of times people get bogged down with technical shit. But with Preem, it was just an instant feeling. Instantly. The first kick comes on and hits you, and you’re like, “Good God! This is hip hop! This is what it’s supposed to be.” And no one has been able to. Many people have tried, including myself to study and learn; and I’m probably guilty early in my career of making some very Premier-influenced beats. But he’s the master of that shit, man. No one can do that.
BeatTips: But the thing is, that you actually touch on. I’ve seen you do your music. People don’t realize that making something sound simple is not as easy as you think—
Marco Polo: NO! It’s more complex than adding all of this other shit. Getting something and bringing it to life. Yo, go look up all the shit that Premo used and try to do the shit that he did. You will fail. You’ll fucking fail. You will fail, man.
BeatTips: Large Professor?
Marco Polo: I remember hearing “Looking At The Front Door” on the radio. Large was producing for everybody back then. Actually, he was one of the producers I didn’t get into at first, just because I wasn’t aware. I learned later. And one thing that stuck out with him was his drums. His drums was always crazy. They hit hard, his programming was crazy. That’s one influence I get from Large Professor is his drums.
BeatTips: As you studied more of Large Professor’s work, what stood out?
Marco Polo: What I thought was amazing about Large Pro, even now, like every year I find a new appreciation for all these people — RZA, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock —because I’m learning more, like from a technical…When you first get introduced to beats, the technical stuff, you’re not aware of it, you just hear shit. And now that I do it and I make it, I can appreciate them on a higher level. With Large, listening back to Large now, especially on the first Main Source album, his ability to take so many different records that have nothing to do with each other key wise, and make them shits work. Kind of like how what Pete was doing. They were all about layering a lot of different records, you know what I’m sayin’. Like horns from this jazz record, drums from this record, bass loop from this. There’s people today that can’t figure that shit out.
BeatTips: One more name I haven’t mentioned. Tell me Someone you kept as a close study—
Marco Polo: Jake One! Jake One, absolutely. Jake One is one of my favorite producers, also a friend of mine. And before I even made beats, I was a fan of him, like in the Conception Records stage, label, which is — I think was from Seattle and that’s where Jake is from. My boy Arcee from Toronto was doing work with them, and Jake was doing a lot of indie hip hop. He was working with cats like Rascoe, and Gift of Gab, and Charlie Tuna, and he had an impeccable ear for samples. And like, I find shit that he used back like 10 years ago now, and I’m like pissed, like , Yo, he was so ahead of mad people when it came to digging and sampling different shit. And then to watch his evolution to now, fucking doing joints for Drake?! And Dr. Dre, and Rick Ross. And T.I. It’s incredible. But some of my favorite Jake records, and I tell him when I see him, is the back-in-the-day joints where he just found wild loops and samples that no one ever heard and chopped them up and did his thing. But he’s definitely someone who continuously inspires me. And his drums and bass is superior to a lot of producers.
BeatTips: What was the first production setup that you had? Did you learn what to get from that school?
Marco Polo: Nah, just from friends. When I got my student loan for the school, I used that student loan to buy my first MPC; which is the same one you see right here! I was told, “Yo, you should get an MPC, it’s easy to learn.” I had a friend who knew how to use it… I got the MPC because, on some real shit, my friends had MPCs and I know that they could teach me it. And I wanted to learn as quickly as possible. Also, because I knew it was a classic sampler to use, but I’m pretty sure Shylow probably had an XL [MPC 2000XL] and was like, “Yo, if you get one, I’ll teach you.”
BeatTips: What year was this that you got that MPC?
Marco Polo: 2000. At that time, that was the startings of Cool Edit and all those other programs, but I wasn’t fuckin’ with that; I wanted to hit pads, you know what I’m sayin’.
BeatTips: So after that, how long did you work with the MPC before you were like, “Yo, I gotta move to New York?”
Marco Polo: Well, for the first couple of years, I was making beats everyday. They were probably the worst sounding things ever. But you know, I just kept practicing. It’s DJ’ing and battle DJ’ing, you gotta practice everyday. So that’s what I would do. I would sit down everyday and try to make beats. I would listen to my favorite producers and be like, “What did they do there?” And I would straight-up try and copy people’s styles, just as a learning technique… Like, how does Primo do his drums, you know… How does RZA chop shit up. And that just evolved. Then it got to the point where I graduated from school, and they promise you, you know, “Yo, we’re going to get you an internship,” or “We’re going to put you in the industry.” They didn’t do any of that shit! And I was like, “Let me just take this in my own hands.” I had a friend out in Queens, and I was like, “Yo, I gotta make this move.” It was scary as shit, but I was like, “I gotta leave Toronto and move to New York, if I wanna do this for real.” And that’s what I did.
BeatTips: Is this something that you consulted with your parents about?
Marco Polo: I let them know. At first, I could sense that they were a little hesitant in supporting me on it, but they did.
BeatTips: How old were you then?
Marco Polo: I was like 21, 22… I had my boy Lou, out in Queens, who’s actually part of a group (my roommate here is in), called Red Clay. And he was like, “Yo, you can come stay in the basement until you get your shit together.” And that actually led to a bunch of shit. Through Lou I met Ayatollah. And when I got my internship at The Cutting Room that was when Rawkus was doing a lot of recording there. So I met Ayatollah…And before I even got an internship at The Cutting Room, I came to New York to try to scout out studios that I wanted to intern at. And I came and hit like 15 studios in one day with résumés, with this and that, real gun-ho. And then at the end of that day, Ayatollah hit me up and was like, “Yo, just come through, I’m doing a session at this other studio called The Cutting Room.” It wasn’t even on my list. And he was doing — it was around the time he was doing remixes. Remember when The Executioners put their album out, and they had a joint with Inspectah Deck, Pharaoh? And Ayatollah was doing the remix, so I went through. Dropped my résumé off. And bam, like a couple of weeks later they hit me back and was like, “Yo, you want the internship!” And so it just happened…
BeatTips: What was your initial reaction to New York, you know after you made that move and breathed in the oxygen?
Marco Polo: Yeah, man… I loved it. I was so excited, you know what I’m sayin’. It was really overwhelming. Just being in New York. Just the vibe you get, the feelin’! Knowing that this is where hip hop started, it’s a feelin’ that had me motivated.
BeatTips: Did you look at it like you had a real fresh start?
Marco Polo: DEFINITELY… I just… you know, the key I feel like to my story is that I didn’t over-think shit! If I let my feelings — and like what should happen like, “You’re from Toronto, Canada, how are you going to go to New York and become a producer?” If I listened to that voice, I wouldn’t be where I am. I was just like, “Fuck it! I have nothing to lose!” I got this connect, nothing’s promised. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But Fuck it. That’s pretty much how it went down. There was no thinking. If I would have thought every step out like, “How are you going to afford to live in New York? How are you going to get a job, you have no visa?” I just blocked all of that out.
BeatTips: Talk to me about your time working at The Cutting Room recording studio. How long was it before you were allowed to actually assist and start doing sessions?
Marco Polo: I mean, I was in sessions right away. Whether I was actually doing musical things — but I was around it soon as I started working there, you know they let you sit in the rooms. And right away, BAM! I was in sessions with all those classic Rawkus dudes like, Mos Def, Talib Kwali. And this is right around the time Kanye started coming through… I got to see Ayatollah do a lot of sessions. This was right around the time when Kwali was doing the Kwality album, and Sound Bombin III, and “The Life.” And that was the crazy part because I was a fan of all that shit. It was exactly what I wanted to be around. I was bumpin’ heads with artists…I was making beats and making beat CDs. And the shit wasn’t the greatest, but I was still passing CDs out, just to get the name out. And that was the benefit of working there. In Toronto, you’re not going to run into all of these dudes, and give ‘em CDs. But in New York, you’re surrounded by it constantly.
BeatTips: So when you started doing your own sessions, what was the roughest lesson you had to learn?
Marco Polo: To be honest, it never really got to the point where I was mixing records at The Cutting Room. The furthest I got with the engineering there was tracking vocals… And definitely when it comes to engineering it’s a very customer service based industry where the client is always right, no matter what. Like you could have all the knowledge in the world about how shit should sound, if they want their vocals blaring loud, you make their vocals blaring loud….
I came up under some really good mix engineers, one of them who’s my mix engineer today, Joe Nardone. I was heavily involved in the assisting of the Grind Date album of De La Soul, and for Kweli’s [Talib Kweli] second album, or was it his first solo album on Rawkus? What was it called, Kwality? And I used to — I have tracked vocals for a few people. Inspectah Deck on his second album. Carl Thomas, some random shit. But I definitely was a sponge. When I became a manager there, or engineering, or assisting engineering, I was just watching. I was keeping my mouth shut and just , you know, morphing into a sponge and sucking in all the energy that I could. And seeing a lot of people on their come up. Kanye, before he had his first album on Rocafella, was coming through. And I remember Mos Def and Talib talking to each other in sessions like, “Yo, THAT’S the next dude!” I remember Mos Def coming in saying, “This dude Kanye is about to take everything over! Like, he’s about to shut shit down!” And me going like, “Who is this Kanye dude?” I remember Kanye coming in to play beats for De La, during the Grind Date album. I don’t think they used anything, but he came in and played beats for them.
BeatTips: You heard some of those Kanye beats, too?
Marco Polo: I heard some of them, definitely. And they even picked some. But nothing ever happen because I think he’s not on that record.
BeatTips: You could see it, too, that Kanye was gonna—
Marco Polo: No, I couldn’t. Straight up! ‘Because I heard the beats and I really liked them. But the way they were talking about him, I didn’t see it. But that’s no disrespect. I was just, I had my opinions, and I thought the beats were dope. But the way they were talking about him, like second coming of Jesus, take over the game?! Straight up, I wouldn’t of called it. And I wouldn’t of agreed with them, and it’s amazing to see what he did. NOW, I get it. And his evolution, you know, he’s a great producer. But at the time, I didn’t see it like they saw it. So I failed with the future visions on Kanye.
BeatTips: Recently, there’s been a number of high-profile projects that feature some variation of live instrumentation as the beat. There’s Ghostface Killah’s work with Adrian Younge. Then his most recent [project], 36 Seasons. Then RZA’s work on the latest Wu-Tang [Clan album] A Better Tomorrow. That’s again, live instrumentation. And there’s Preem and Royce — PRhyme. That’s Premier [sampling]Adrian Younge’s catalog. How do you see what you do In regards to this? What is different from that sound, which these are obviously live bands, this is live instrumentation as the beat, and what you’ve now progressed to?
Marco Polo: There’s so many ways I can answer this question, and I’m glad you asked it. I have an issue with a lot of this stuff to be honest. First of all, I did something with Adrian on my last album, on Newport Authority II. He asked me to do a remix off The Delfonics album he did. And I flipped the beat, and then Tragedy rapped on it and Lil’ Fame (I’m-a give you that later). So shouts to Adrian, he’s incredible at what he does. My whole thing — I incorporate that type of sampling. I use Komplete to compose my own music, and to me, it’s all a learning process because I do know this: You can over analyze the approach of like, “Yo, let me get a band and we’ll make it sound like records,” and I’ve heard people do that and fail miserably. And on paper, it’s like, “Yo, it’s all live instruments. And live drums…” You think like, “Yo, this is dope.” Or it should be dope. But a lot of times, to me, it’s not! It’s not! There’s something missing. Something’s missing! I don’t care technically what you did. Yes, you have a Fender through the amp that they used in the ‘60s and through this board, and like — but that doesn’t mean shit if it doesn’t sound right and give you that feelin’, you-know-what-I’m-sayin’. I don’t get excited when someone’s like, “Yo, I’m going into the studio with a live band…” I’ve heard people say that, then I heard [the music]and it failed my expectations. After all of these years of breaking things down, to me, I just keep it really simple: Is it dope, or is it not dope? That’s how it should be. But I think people get like, caught up in the whole pitch of, “Yo, but he used this band…” A lot of times, these newer bands that recreate that sound are extremely dope. But what I think needs to happen is producers need to take that shit — like they did records — put it in the damn sampler and add their drums to where it knocks. Because a lot of these live drummers are playing funky breaks all day, and it sounds incredible how it’s recorded, but the knock is not there. And as far as I know, when I came up with hip hop, shit knocked. Drums were the driving force.
BeatTips: Well what you just described is what Preem did with PRhyme—
Marco Polo: Exactly! And that’s the approach I would take, you-know-what-I’m-sayin’. Unless you have like a certain themed album. Because Adrian’s shit is fucking crazy. Like he makes shit sound — I’m a huge fan. He’s definitely influenced by soul and a lot of spaghetti Western shit; a lot of shit sounds evil. That’s right up my lane, and it’s perfect for sampling. But I don’t know if it’s perfect for everybody to just rap on the shit that he does. I think it’s a different thing. I think as its own thing, listening to it, it’s my favorite. I fucking just listen to that shit and I’m like, “Yo!…” And I vibe out to it. And then for making beats, it’s great, too.
BeatTips: There’s another thing, I’m sure you’re aware of. Speak on this. That when people mention the band, there’s always this tinge that it’s somehow better, that a live band is somehow better, that it’s evolving—
Marco Polo: Yeah, I know. It’s HORSESHIT! It’s horseshit to me. I think it’s bullshit! Listen, when people evolve, and all this — even me, sometimes people say it for me, and I’m cool with it, but like, as much more as I know I’m doing, and me playing you beats and being like, “Yo, I did this here, and I did this, here.” That’s cool, and technically it’s impressive to people. But some people say to me, “Yo, your first album, you was just sampling, that’s my favorite shit.” And I have to scratch my head because technically, I’m so passed that shit. Like, are you hearing the shit I’m doing now? And the bottom line is: While maybe I’m better, it doesn’t matter to people, they just want to get that feelin’. And a lot of the time, with cats like Jake, the RZA, whoever, the shit they’re doing now technically is superior to what they were doing back then. But is it better? is the argument. Does it make you feel the same way? Still some of my favorite records from Jake are like the old shit. RZA sampling, and what he did on shit like Liquid Swords is the peak for me. And I’m not saying what he’s doing now is not dope. But straight up, I like that shit more. When he was just fucking sampling shit and chopping shit up.
BeatTips: So, explain what you do. [Some] people are confused about live instrumentation as the beat and exactly what you do. So talk about that, the differences.
Marco Polo: The shit that I do these days is I sample myself essentially. I accumulate a lot of music — live instrumentation like you say. I’ll buy sound libraries…like a soulful guitar pack with people playing riffs in different chords. Here’s people playing keys and chords. Here’s some horns. I take that shit like I do with vinyl, I put it into Komplete or Kontakt or my MPC, and I FUCK IT UP with compression, and take these luscious, highly recorded, 42-bit shit — I don’t care about all that. I want it to sound dusty. So I put in here [MPC, Komplete, or Kontakt] and I mess with it, then I add my own shit on top of it. As long as you got a .wav file, you’re good. You can put it into many programs. Absolutely. You’re limitless with things. I was making music with some musicians and something wasn’t happening. It wasn’t working. And I was like, “Yo, we’re making these ill things in the studio,” then I’m like, “Yo, this is going to be a crazy beat.” Then I sit down to make it and it was WACK! [laughs]
BeatTips: Sample packs have been around for years, but why is it that what you’re doing? I remember you playing some things for me several years ago and asking me, “Yo, tell me the truth, does it sound like a sample?” And I told you, “No. But you’re getting there.” What you’re doing now vs. then, it’s night and day. So what is it that you think is responsible for you being able to now match it to where it’s being mistaken for a sample?
Marco Polo: Practice! [laughs]Putting in work, man. Learning from my mistakes. Learning and getting better, and like analyzing the fuck out of everything. Yo, making beats, this is an education that never ends. There’s no graduation from learning production. It’s a fucking endless university that has no ending EVER. And that’s’ the problem with me, too. I would probably get more beats done if I was less critical [of myself]and over thinking and constantly over analyzing my own shit.
BeatTips: You’re surrounded by records, you’ve been digging; that’s never gonna leave you.
Marco Polo: Never!
BeatTips: So you don’t think that has shaped your ear?
Marco Polo: Yes! ABSOLUTELY! YES! You have to have an ear. Absolutely it comes from the influence of the music I get off my vinyl, ‘cause I know how shit’s supposed to sound.
BeatTips: Because the way you’re presenting it is like, “Yo, I put some compression…” But all of these things are subconscious metrics in your head. When you’re turning the knob—
Marco Polo: I’m trying to make shit sound like if I went to a record store, and it sounds dirty, and I put amps on shit. And the reason I’m doing that is because I know that’s what they did back then. But I don’t have those same tools, so I gotta attack it from different ways. And whatever I can achieve that sound with, I’m going to use it.
BeatTips: The buzzword that I was getting at is “reference.” Sonically, you have a reference—
Marco Polo: Yes, Always—
BeatTips: That’s in your head. That I think without — whether you’re dealing with vinyl or you’re online, if you don’t have that sonic reference, you’re not going to be able to make that sound.
Marco Polo: Yes! It all starts from me buying music and records, that’s the foundation of all this shit. And that’s why I’m able to achieve beats that don’t have samples in them because I’ve studied what they do sound like, and I’m still learning about it. So if I didn’t start by diggin’, you know, you can’t just — you gotta understand. Even with me selling my drums now, and I tell people, I’m like, “Yo, buy my drums. They’ll help you with your beats and you’ll have shit that you don’t have to over analyze, you just knock out a beat.” But like, you gotta dig! Never stop doing that and learning and getting your own shit that you have to make your shit different from everyone else.
BeatTips: And with this new component, this rather large component, to your style right now, creatively, what options does it give you that you previously didn’t have? What options does this new method give you creatively that you previously didn’t have?
Marco Polo: It’s unlimited the options I have now. Now, I’m able to time stretch on new levels. I’m able to pitch down [in new ways]. I take a bunch of shit and individually tweak it. I have effects — I never got the effects board in my MPC, mostly because I heard it was wack. And the effects, to be able to pre-process and put reverbs on drums; dumb shit that people probably have and are like, “Why didn’t you have that all this time?” “’Cause I didn’t!”
BeatTips: What about the main bane of existence to all sample-based beatmakers: replays? When there’s a sample that’s there, and there’s some other shit that you wanna do with it, but for whatever reason you can’t—
Marco Polo: Now, I can take melodies and extend them. And you know when you hear a record and you’re like, “Aw, man, the first bar of that is crazy.” Then it gets super wack on bar 2. Now I can be like, let me replay it and play what I want to be there. Or have someone do it. And then records really become inspiration because a lot of times I try to replay something that I hear on record, but I’m not a classically trained musician, so it’ll just end up becoming my own thing anyways. An original idea inspired by something that just goes in a whole other direction.
BeatTips: Do you feel that this method is a bastardized version of what sample-based beatmakers have traditionally understood sampling to be?
Marco Polo: Yes. A bastardized version? I don’t know. I don’t fully understand the question.
BeatTips: I’ll rephrase it. There are purists in everything. And so, there’s some people that will say, “It’s sampling, but it’s not real sampling.” Because you’re not using—
Marco Polo: Records—
BeatTips: Exactly. So speak on that.
Marco Polo: Yeah, I don’t know, everyone has their own—
BeatTips: But what’s YOUR take on it? You have to speak for how you see it… Let me give you example. Before Preem did what he did with PRhyme — which, by the way, he resisted doing it at first. Before he did it, there was this sort of slant, people in the shadows like, “I don’t really want to fuck with that.” But now, there’s a before and after. Now that HE did it, that DJ Premier did it, it opens it up. So what I’m saying to you, for the purists that would say, “Yeah, Marco’s shit is alright, it’s dope or whatever, but it’s not that real shit.” What’s your response to that?
Marco Polo: Anyone that says my shit ain’t real or tries to de-credit it, that’s bullshit. What I do IS sampling, whether it’s a record or not. And anyone who says it’s not is bullshit. It all goes back to me not trying to over analyze shit, but shit is either dope, or it’s not dope, you know. If you don’t like my shit, you don’t like my shit. But to say that what I’m doing is not creative or sampling? I thinks it’s different with certain heads because like, typically, and this goes for me, too, sampling — the beauty about sampling is that people love to hear something they know that was reinterpreted in another way. So when you’re sampling yourself and all this other shit, it’s different because people hear it and be like, “It’s dope…” But I think one of the craziest things about hip hop that’ll never stop is that you hear shit you know, “Holy fuck! De La Soul sampled Hall & Oats – ‘Say No Go.’” Right. Like, “Holy fuck! I know that record. They took this.” And that element is gone if I’m doing original music that is — I’m sampling myself, but I’m sampling something you’ve never heard. That’s the difference and I think that’s part of the excitement for people in rap, is that they hear records that they have in their crates that they play and it’s flipped…It’s still the same process, it’s just not coming from vinyl all the time, it’s coming from me.
BeatTips: Now, that’s the creative option. The other thing, with regards to now, opportunity. What does this do for you?
Marco Polo: To make money!
BeatTips: All right, express that. Break that down.
Marco Polo: The great thing about it is it definitely opens doors to have my music to be submitted for licensing. And a lot of opportunities are instantly gone, because not saying that I did or I didn’t, but if you have a lot of music where you haven’t cleared the samples you’re using, you can’t use that shit past putting it out. You can’t pitch it to movies and video games and T.V. shows. I was able to make money with this new approach. So I’m very for it. When you make music as a career, you have to think about shit like that. It’s been very helpful. But it’s not the main thing that drives me. It’s just a great option to have, knowing that I have the freedom to do that now.
BeatTips: As one of the pioneers of this new compositional approach, where do you see it going?
Marco Polo: It’s going in crazy places. Now you have producers who quit making beats and are now making music and pitching it to samplers. Like people getting up with bands, like the ones we were talking about, making music, selling them as sample packs to producers, like, “Yo, $30, you get 15 joints that sound like they came off a record. Sample away! We guarantee you we’ll give you the master clearance. Just give us some of the publishing if you use it.” It’s like a whole new scene now, it’s fucking insane.
BeatTips: But you don’t have to do that with Komplete.
Marco Polo: No, no, no. But I’m just saying, there’s all these types of new approaches that’s crazy. Especially when producers that are making and composing their music, because they know exactly what producers want to hear when they’re looking for samples. So you have all these new avenues of music, where the live instrumentation and doing shit like that is positive. It all comes down to money, bro. The fucking people are just scared to sample and shit. And it fucking hurts the music, straight up, because to this day, like, if I pick my top 10 records, none of them shits is sample free. [laughs]Top 50! NONE of them shits are sample free. I know Dre definitely played some shit over, but even still, it was like playing over a sample. Name five amazing, classic [hip hop/rap]records, that don’t have samples in them. Could you? I don’t know. Maybe if I thought for a couple of hours. But I don’t think so. And as much as shit progresses, it just goes back to the beginning. Is it fucking dope, or is it not dope?
BeatTips: So what’s your take on E-diggin’? Diggin’ online and downloading music?
Marco Polo: I don’t judge. I do the shit, too. But I do it sometimes because I can’t get out and go to the record stores. But I’m not one of those cats that judges people. A lot of these newer producers don’t know better, because they’re not coming up with people showing them that you gotta go do that. So you can’t even judge the new generation, that’s what diggin’ to them is. “Yo, I go on YouTube and I take samples,” you know. They don’t have the big brother, the homey who’s like, “Nah, you gotta go here and start and look for these breaks.” So you can’t get judgey. I use to be one of those purists cats and get angry, and I totally — in my 30s — hate that old me. [laughs]Because everyone’s just different. Everyone has their own path, you know. I used to have a rule that once I used some drums, I would never use them again on a beat, but I changed.
BeatTips: When you do make a beat, do you start with the drums or non-drums?
Marco Polo: It usually goes either way to be honest. But I would say more often than not, I start with drums. Which could backfire on you as a producer because you get stuck with drums. I usually start with drums, because I like to nod my head. But it can be very counter productive, so I don’t recommend that approach always. And sometimes I start with the sample. So the answer to that question is, it completely changes all the time. I usually get more inspired by hearing new drum sounds than I do new samples, so I’ll start with like, if I have a new break or something, or a new drum kit I put together.
BeatTips: Do you ever make your beats with headphones on?
Marco Polo: Never. I fucking hate it. I love listening to shit loud. I feel like headphones cheat you and don’t give you the real. I’d rather listen, make beats through my fucking laptop speakers, because that’s like what most of the world listens to beats on anyway. Which is crazy, but it’s the truth.
BeatTips: Rhythm is a mainstay in beatmaking of course. But how has melody figured into what you do?
Marco Polo: I’m really trying to focus, I feel like I don’t have — that’s my lacking thing in my production career, is the lack of melody. Unless, you know, my first album I had a lot of loops with melodies. But that’s the hard thing that I tried to really work on in my original compositions is melody. Every beat’s gotta have that one thing you’re drawn to. And most of the time, it’s the fucking melody, it’s the thing that you can hum or something. And I feel like I sometimes back myself into corners with technically dope beats, but lacking that one thing that makes you go, Okay, that’s that shit! So now, I’m very picky about what I sample, or if I’m making something that it has a melody, a driving melody.
BeatTips: Speak on what repetition means to beatmaking. How do you approach that challenge?
Marco Polo: Repetition is very important. It’s very important. I think that’s actually like the most important thing. A lot of people — when you have all these changes, like hip hop is not pop music. It don’t always need a bridge or chorus. People want take it there to have, and make it progress, but the verdict is out if that’s positive or negative. Because like I said, your favorite records, I guarantee you if you go back, are like 2- and 4-bar loops, you know. Look at all the early RZA shit. Premo shit. It was real repetitive shit. And it’s some of the best music ever. So I think it’s very important to have that, the headnod going on something that you can gravitate to right away, and then you build on top of that. But until you have that, that should be the focus of every producer to find that one quality that is driving the beat.
BeatTips: What are the type of beats do you think stand the test of time?
Marco Polo: Fuck, I don’t want to sound like a Stan, but Premo shit; a lot of shit where people are looping. A lot of people were looping something that plays continuously over and over again, you know. You have to have an ear for good sounds. That’s the problem. And you have to know what to do with them. A lot of people don’t. We could probably find a sample that five producers used, you know, and they all came out, and then be like, “Who made it the illest?” This person used it exactly the same, but why doesn’t it sound like this version? You know. People use shit that Pete and Preem used, but why doesn’t it sound like their version? There’s so many fucking levels in this shit, it’s crazy.
BeatTips: What’s your work routine like? Is it everyday? Are you up in the morning?
Marco Polo: I try.
BeatTips: Do you prefer making beats at night?
Marco Polo: No, no, no. I’m not a night guy. Maybe one day when I’m in another living situation with a studio and I don’t have sound constraints. But I usually get up everyday around 9 O’clock, pretty early. I get coffee. And then I come in here and I listen to music. But these days—
BeatTips: So wait, wait. I’m going to pull you back. Give me your typical day. How do you approach it? Monday through Friday? Monday through Thursday?
Marco Polo: Well, it changed. Because when I was younger, I would just get up everyday and fucking making beats as soon as I woke up. But now, honestly, I’m not feeling the shit like I used to feel the shit. The inspiration is not coming to me as much as it did. One thing I have learned is that I do not sit in here if I’m not inspired. If I’m gonna force it, I’m gonna make a beat that sounds like I’m forcing it. So the main thing is, I gotta get in here and want to work. That starts everything. And if I wake up — unfortunately, that’s the reality of how it is now, where sometimes as soon as I wake up and I’m like, “I don’t feel like doing shit.” Because I don’t hear a lot of shit that fucking inspires me these days. And I have to dig for it. And I’m one of those dudes that I don’t want to sit in here and make the same beat that I made for the last 15 years. I’m getting really bored of that shit, just as a creative person. I want to progress. Unfortunately, those moments come far and few between these days, where I get in here and be like, “Yo!” I’ve had to change my approach and do different things to get inspired.
BeatTips: What were the changes?
Marco Polo: Well, actually, this dude, here, Droog [Your Old Droog previously entered the room] one of the things that I like about working with him is that when he comes in here, sometimes we sit down and make beats together. Like him being an MC sitting here we’ll kind of like compose ideas together. And it’s helpful to have a rapper being right here being like, “Yo!” Sometimes when you’re making a beat, you don’t know when to stop, you over produce the fuck out of shit. And I do that constantly. Having someone here as a point of reference to be like, “Yo, that shit is good. That’s the verse.” Like, “Chill!” It’s a blessing and I can actually get more done. That’s a new approach for me. I never actually sat with someone and made beats with someone like that. Ever. I’m very like, I’m doing the shit myself. I’m not a collaborative-producing type of person. That situation, you know, a lot of good records came out of that, those sessions. So now I’m more open to that. So that’s definitely helpful. I also like producing when I have a reason to produce. “Yo, MP, I need a remix.” Fucking love that shit, because I have something to build with. I have an original, I have vocals. Before I just made beats, because I just fucking love making beats. And I can still do that, but less. These days, I have to come in here because I have a job. Like, “Yo, I need this.” I have a vibe, I know what I gotta do. It’s like a purpose. I need that purpose. And, unfortunately, it’s sad. But, it used to be that I didn’t need that. I just came in here and made music. These days, I need…If I have a purpose, it’s better.
BeatTips: So you take far more days off now?
Marco Polo: Well, I don’t take days off. I’m still in here working. But it’s not the same where it was just relentless. I go to Nottz’s Instagram where he makes like 13 beats a day, for the fuck of it. And I look at him and I’m jealous. Yo, that is amazing that you can just have that much creativity flow through you. It doesn’t work like that for me. I wish it did. But it doesn’t…I’m sure not everyone he’s going to say is the best beat he ever made. But he’s not human, first of all. I’m a huge fan of Nottz. A lot of that shit is incredible. But obviously, if you’re doing that many — a lot of people get hype on Twitter, “Yo, I made 10 beats today.” And I’m like, “I’m sure 9 of them are terrible.”
BeatTips: Right. So what are your safeguards for quality? What do you do?
Marco Polo: I’m not concerned with quantity. I just want to make something, my whole thing is, I come in here and it happens organically and naturally and it’s not forced. The best beats I ever made in my career happened in 15 minutes. Because everything happens the way it’s supposed to when I sit down at the machine. I load drums, within five minutes I found music that meshes with the drums naturally. I really feel like there’s a fucking — like someone’s really giving me energy. Like, today, it was meant to all mesh.
BeatTips: But there hasn’t been a beat that you began one day and worked on another day?
Marco Polo: Absolutely. Those beats come out good, too. I made a lot of great beats that took me a week to finish. But if I put the ratio of those beats against the 20-minute ones, they’re gonna beat ‘em. Because if I did a ratio of which ones were the hotter shit…I really feel like that energy is just meant to be. The shit was meant to happen. It all comes together. And I’ll sit in here on days where I have drums for like ours and I can’t find shit that works with it. And I’m like, “This shit’s not happening,” you know.
BeatTips: Do you work with a permanent manager, or do you reach out to artists yourself?
Marco Polo: I’ve had one manager in my entire career, my boy Theo. We’re still cool. But I’ve never had a manager, I’ve always managed myself. Not that I’m against a manager. I haven’t had anyone since Theo that stepped to me and was like, “I see your vision, I wanna fuck with you.” So my whole thing with managers, that’s the way it’s suppose to work. Like, you don’t go find a manager. You don’t look for a manager. A manager’s gotta come to you. Pitch an idea to you. And see your vision.
BeatTips: Describe to me how you think technology has helped and hurt the art of beatmaking.
Marco Polo: Aw, man, we don’t have enough fucking weeks, days in the year to answer that question. Technology is constantly changing. It’s changing so fast I can’t — I am nowhere caught up to it, and I probably never will be. There are advantages and positives for my production that I’m able to learn and do more things and have more versatility, more control with what I do. But there are some days I think it’s all horseshit and it’s counterproductive. And some of my best beats are just made with this MPC. I put a record on and find some shit, and I throw some drums on it. And it’s just as good as this new progressive shit where I can not sample. So I don’t think either is better. I think it’s just, once again, it’s finding a way to not let it — I think a lot of people get overwhelmed in all this new shit and it bogs them down, and it is actually counterproductive in their sound.
BeatTips: Right. Time wise, you’ve figured out to do the Komplete stuff fast, too, right?
Marco Polo: I am. I’m learning. I have not perfected it by any means. Because replaying samples, I’ll say, or making my own compositions, is that it takes fucking twice, three times as long. Because when you’re sampling off a record, let’s say you sample a loop. In that loop, the bass line is in there, the keys are in there, the horns are in there, it’s fucking 18 sounds compressed, it’s a full sound. When you’re playing from scratch, you have to recreate an entire band. You’re playing layers, layers, layers. And you gotta make that shit sound full. Yeah, so, technology’s a ho. It’s great, but at the same time, if I lost it tomorrow, I would be cool. And I would still make music that would be dope.
BeatTips: How have the expectations that you had for yourself, both creatively and financially 10 or so years ago, how have they aligned with your achievements today?
Marco Polo: In the last year, it got real for me. For Marco Polo related business, shit got really real last year. And in 2013, I thought I had my best creative year ever. I put out three albums: Newport Authority 2, Seize the Day with Stax, and PA2, which is the follow-up to Port Authority, which is the album that people know me best for. And for me, it was actually the year where I was the least visible in my entire career. That shit slapped me in the fact, hard. I felt I had my most successful year, creative output. Three albums where I thought: These are the best beats I’ve ever made in my career. I’m at the top of my game. I progressed. And I felt like that was the year that no one gave a flying fuck about what I was doing. Straight up. And that’s not to belittle anyone that supported my projects, I love them. But in comparison to the looks I was getting back when I was putting out my earlier records, it was nowhere near the visibility.
BeatTips: So what did that fee like?
Marco Polo: It felt like shit. When you’re working your ass off and you think you’re at the top of your game, and no one’s paying attention or watching. That shit sucked. It was like a Mack truck smacking into my forehead. It was the worst. And it fucked me up. People around me know that it fucked me up. Because I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I don’t think it was something necessarily that I was doing wrong, it was just times were changing, and music’s changing, and hip hop’s changing. And it was just trying to come up with a new plan so that I could progress my shit to the same level. Because I feel like I’ve been in the same zone for a minute. I haven’t stepped up my brand name to new audiences and working with bigger people, and there’s many reasons for that. It’s just, I became aware of it. Before, I didn’t care about that shit. I just came in here and made music. But I’m a 34 year-old-man. I’m turning 35, and I picked music as a career. So it’s irresponsible for me to get into the studio and not think about all these things when you run your own business. And this year was the first year that I really sat down and had to be like, “Ok, what’s going to happen next? What are you going to do? Shit is changing. People ain’t buying records. The sound that you’re doing is not the most popular sound.” I’ve never sent beats to major label artist. Like once in a while, but it was never my focus to get big placements and chase Jay Z and Drake and the like. And now, you know, it’s a matter of like looking at those things. I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen next, but I want to be in the game for 20 years. And people like Premo, they have a brand and they’re legends. And he can do what he’s doing for the rest of his life, because he’s DJ Premier. He earned that spot. He doesn’t have to change. But for some of us new cats that maintain that sound, it’s a little more difficult, you know what I’m saying. It’s almost like a novelty, the type of shit that we do. If major label cats want the Golden Era sound, they’re gonna hit Preem, they’re not going to hit me, you know what I’m saying. It doesn’t mean I’m wack. They’re going to go the fathers of that sound. Another thing that pissed me off is a lot of people think that all I do is that sound. That’s completely untrue. Like, I’m capable of making all types of shit. But I feel like I haven’t had the opportunity to work with artists that put me on a level for people to see that shit.
BeatTips: I had a conversation recently with a friend, not saying any names, we were talking about DJ Khalil. I said, “You should really check out ‘West Coast Love.’” If you want to hear something that’s in that zone, but it’s going to surprise you, check out “West Coast Love.” And I’m not going to tell you who produced it, just check out “West Coast Love,” MC Eiht. Then come back to me and we’ll talk. He called me back and said, “Yo, son, you didn’t tell me Marco Polo produced this joint.”…Because you can make the music, just because you have an ear for music, doesn’t mean you know how to work the next stage. And that’s the thing that’s a detriment to a lot of people.
Marco Polo: That’s the industry. And it’s so obvious with so many talents. Shit, these days, the talent is actually the last thing on the list that gets you the looks. It has nothing to do with that. There’s so many people that I look at and I’m like, “Yo, you should be like a God. You should be sitting on a throne made of gold for your talents, and like nobody knows who the fuck you are.”
What’s it like to tour as a producer?
Marco Polo: What’s it like to tour as a producer? It’s weird. Because a lot of people think that I DJ, and I don’t DJ. I use my MPC with Serato. So it’s interesting. But most of my live performing is me with rappers. Me traveling with Master Ace, and I run his show with my MPC just like a DJ does, but I do it with pads. It’s amazing. I think that for me as a producer, I’ve done more touring than most producers would do who just make beats, you know. Because I’ve transitioned my ability to use the MPC and run a live show.
BeatTips: But when you travel, how are you’re treated as a person who’s a professional hip hop music maker?
Marco Polo: I get love in all of those places. I think people are less…I think people always give a positive response. People love being in the same room with people that made music that they love. When I go out with Ace, it’s really special because people know that we’ve made records together, records that have resonated with them. So it’s amazing to be able to tour.
BeatTips: Contrast that with how you’re received in America. Is there a difference?
Marco Polo: Oh, they love me in Europe and Australia, and they like me in the United States. That’s the difference [laughs]. And I’m sure there’s pockets of people in the U.S., but there’s no fucking doubt, there’s no doubt about the fact that these overseas markets embrace me way stronger than my home fucking country — countries, I say because Canada and U.S. are both my home countries.
BeatTips: For your catalog, here’s the songs that I would tell someone why they should pitch your tent behind you as one of the next pioneers. There’s four songs of yours, and I want you to match me on. “Astonishing,” “Field Nigga,” “Fame for President,” and the aforementioned “West Coast Love.” Now I want you to chime in. “Astonishing,” how did that song come about?
Marco Polo: “Astonishing” started with the beat being made, and me and Shylow figuring out what to do with it. Which is what happens all the time. And it started with Large Professor. He set it off. I sent it to him. I don’t think, at first, he was super hype about it as I was. But, that’s my dude. He liked the beat. I just know when he’s like wowing over something or he’s into it. But because we have that relationship, he wrote the bars. When he did it, I was like, “He set it off!” Then it was all a matter of making sure whoever connected from him was all in the same pocket. Then I reached out to Deck [Inspectah Deck], he did his verse, killed it. Then it was O.C., killed it. Now, the problem came on verse number four.
BeatTips: What was the problem?
Marco Polo: The problem is that there were six MCs that did a fourth verse that you will never hear. Until I came to Tragedy, who did what I wanted to happen. And I can not speak on the names because out of respect. No, no, there were four MCs that did verses on that fourth part that I was not — not that they weren’t dope, it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I needed that homerun. That wild-out, end-the-song crazy. I knew Revolution [DJ Revolution] would do the scratches, but he was the last one to do his part, but that fourth verse had to be right. And it was fucking the worst, because I had four MCs that I really love. From legends in the game, I’m talking, to maybe legends one day, underground cats with a buzz, and it just wasn’t what I was looking for.
Marco Polo “Astonishing” feat Large Professor, Inspectah Deck, O C & Tragedy Khadafi
BeatTips: Tragedy lost his mind on that track.
Marco Polo: Yeah, when Tragedy did it, I was like, “OH! Thank you, sir, that’s what I needed [laughs].” It just needed that, it had to have that OG energy on it. You needed energy. That’s the problem with a lot of the verses that I got, people weren’t rapping with energy. They were like talking that new shit. Which is cool for beats that call for that. But that’s a loud beat, you gotta fuckin’…
BeatTips: Right. And “West Coast Love,” featuring MC Eiht and King Tee
Marco Polo: That, I gotta thank DJ Premier for that. Because DJ Premier sent my beats to MC Eiht. He recorded – I have like three other songs with Eiht that he’s gonna use on the new Compton Most Wanted album. So I had the leverage already, because he used a bunch of my beats, so it was nothin’. So I hit him, I hit Eiht up and I was like, “Yo, can you do something for me?” And he did the two verses on that beat, no hook or nothing. Just laid two verses, they were dope. But I’m like, “OK, this is not a song yet. Just two verses on a beat. Who could we get?” I hit up my boy Stylistic Jones from Malcolm & Martin, who’s on my album, and he knew King Tee. I sent Tee the record, and literally in a day, he laid down the hook and the third verse. And it just — that’s the kind of shit I’m talking about. It was no — it just happened naturally. I sent him the beat, he sent it back. It was perfection. There was no like — he knew what he had to do. And that’s the positive to working with dudes from that era, that they’re veterans in terms of songwriting. There not just, “I’m gonna spit the hottest bars…” With Tee, he knew Eiht was on it, he knew it was a West Coast record, he knew what needed to happen. He did it. And I was grateful, and that’s one of my favorite records on that album.
Marco Polo feat. MC Eiht and King Tee – “West Coast Love”
BeatTips: Talk about what it’s like making a producer album.
Marco Polo: It’s the worst thing ever in life. I fucking hate it and it’s like — at the same time, I fucking love it. It took five years to make that record. It kind of fucked me because at that point, it’s like, do people even care after the first one came out? So it was fun to make it, but it drained all my energy, and there were days I wanted to throw the towel in on it.
BeatTips: What’s the hard part about it?
Marco Polo: It’s just, connecting so many people to make it make sense. You know, you’re trying to pitch your vision to 60 MCs, and you’re trying to get them all on the same page for your vision. And everybody’s got their own lives, and you’re not cutting checks and you’re doing shit on the love. People don’t give a fuck about that.
BeatTips: What’s the love? Speak about that.
Marco Polo: The love is doing something for me for free, or doing beat trades, you know what I’m sayin’. Like, cats got kids and shit, so I respect that. It’s hard for me to be like, “Yo, did you do your verse?” when I know you’re out there chasing money. I’m not going to be in your face, “Yo, do it, do it, do it!” You gotta wait on their schedules out of respect. You have to barter, and you just gotta be respectful. That’s why shit takes so long, ‘cause I can’t be barking at people, “Yo, why are you taking so long?” I’m not cutting a check. And I know after years in the game that that’s what comes first for people. People might not want to hear that, the purist, but you know, a lot of your favorite artists, they gotta make money. It’s money driven. That’s the reality of shit, so I gotta work on their schedule if I’m not a major label with a budget.
BeatTips: So now there’s a growing drum kit market—
Marco Polo: Yes! I new fucking world.
BeatTips: A lot of people are doing that. What made you jump in?
Marco Polo: Speaking with Jake One and Illmind made me do it. Running into them and talking to them about their successes with putting out sound kits. For a long time, I fought it. My purist side of me fought putting out the drum kit. Until one day, it cliqued to me that it was stupid. I didn’t need to fight it. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your sounds. Let me tell you why. Because coming up as a producer, a lot of the producers, we went to the record store and bought Ultimate Beats and Breaks [record series of break-beats]. We bought drum sound libraries. We bought all this shit. And guess what that was? It was other fucking producers finding records and compiling drum breaks for producers to have on one LP. It was somebody digging for you. And we bought that shit. And some of your favorite producers that you hold in your top five used Ultimate Beats and Breaks and looped that shit, because they didn’t have the original records. So what makes it different from me presenting my sounds for people to do it? It’s the same shit. It’s obvious convenience, but to have that purist approach, “Go find your own drums.” Well, if you’re really going to look at it like that, then a lot of us, you know, you’re doing the same shit you do now. So if anyone looks at someone for being wack or belittle them for like buying a drum kit…Like, you went and bought those drum comps, so what’s the difference?
BeatTips: What’s the name of your kit?
Marco Polo: The name of my kit is called “Pad Thai.” Playing on obviously the MPC pads. And it’s my first drum kit. And what makes mine different is, I put 21 of my productions that I feel like are more known to people that know my sound. It’s a mix of like stuff from my older albums and new stuff. And, it’s my sounds; it’s my drum sounds.
BeatTips: Does it include actual songs or does it just include the sounds?
Marco Polo: No, no songs. It has 21 songs that you’ll know, and when you go into those folders, it’s all the drums and bass sounds for the beat, unprocessed.
BeatTips: Oh, it’s the bass sounds, too?
Marco Polo: Yeah, I put the bass tones. Also, what I did is I printed the bass line of the song so producers could hear a soloed bass line. Because a lot of people, I feel like, part of this process with up-and-coming dudes is, they want to be educated. They want to learn. And I thought that would be a weird but cool, interesting thing for cats to see my bass lines isolated. You know, tone wise, so they can kind of see what I did, and just get a feel for how my shit sounds, moves. And that’s some of the things I didn’t notice in a lot of other producer kits, it was just straight drums. And I wanted to give people bass lines…It’s all .wav files, compatible with all samplers or programs; whatever you use, it’ll work. And it’s all .wav sounds, and then bass line stems. Which is a .wav, too, but it’s an 8-bar stem. Whatever beat’s in there, you have a printed bass line stem. And then the individual bass sound you can use and span across your keyboard or pads, just like I did it. Whatever the root note is of the bass line, it’s in the kit. Plus, all the percussion sounds, you know, kicks, snares, hats, shakers. Anything I use drum percussion or bass wise, is in the kit.
BeatTips: And how do you think your “Pad Thai” kit stands out? What has always been the genesis for drum sounds for you?
Marco Polo: I think it stands out because I’m a producer who’s known for his drum sounds. I think people know me and look to me for hard hitting drums. And there’s a lot of producers out there selling drum kits that aren’t even known for their drums. Fuck placements. There’s producers out there with way bigger placements than me, you know what I’m saying. And they have a bigger audience and people will fuck with them because they make great music. But if you’re looking for drums, which is the whole purpose for buying a drum kit, you know, the thing about fucking with my drum kit is that you’re getting drums that I put in time, to, you know… And it’s not even really a sales pitch. You can listen to anyone of the 21 songs that I have listed. Go listen to what they sound like, and they sound exactly the same…I think one of the things is about my drum sounds, what I put in “Pad Thai,” is that there’s a variety of drum sounds. It’s not all the same fucking trendy sounds you hear in modern production. There might be a couple of those that could work, but it’s different sounds, you have a variety of punchy kicks, you have low kicks. You got ugly drums. You got drums that could work on polished production like…It’s 100+ sounds, even more than that. And it’s like, they’re different vibes. It’s not just one thing. I have all types of shit that you can use in all types of production. Not even just hip hop. You can do whatever you need to with this shit. You can make your turn-up records with my drums. And they hit, man. They hit! The way they’re supposed to hit, because I’ve studied drums. I feel like that’s my specialty as a producer. I have people asking me all the time, “Yo, how the fuck you make your drums sound like that?” And this will give you some insight into how. And it will inspire you to look for similar sounds and improve your skills when it comes to it. My ear over the years. You’re getting 13 fucking years of my digging and my sound for drum sounds for fucking $29. It’s a fucking steal! [laughs].
BeatTips: Do you want to hear from the people who actually use your sounds?
Marco Polo: Absolutely. I want to. I want people to post the beats. To talk about it. And I want them to give me feedback, because I want to do more of these. And I want to be helpful to people. My whole thing is to give you my sounds, but to also inspire music, and also inspire digging, man. Like, go dig. You know, go find shit and have fun with it.
BeatTips: Where can people go listen at?
Marco Polo: Well, you can go to my Soundcloud page, MarcoPoloBeats.com has the whole soundtrack, the track listing of all the records. You can just go on YouTube and type in every name. It’s got “Nostalgia,” Masta Ace, off of Port Authority. It’s got “Marquee” by O.C. It’s got Rah Digga – “Earrings Off.” It’s got the theme song that I did for the Brooklyn Nets that plays on the YES Network. It’s all there listed, so there’s no surprises, you know exactly what you’re buying.
BeatTips: And so the main places you can get it is where?
Marco Polo: MarcoPoloBeats.com or at the DrumBroker.com, which is a site specifically for sound kits. But if you wanna do me right as a fan, then you buy from me direct at MarcoPoloBeats.com.
BeatTips: What’s interesting is that you said even now you’re still studying?
Marco Polo: You have to. You have to! Especially when you get into digging, because then you start coming across records that they used and then you hear the original, and you’re like, “How the fuck did they do that?” Even as many years as I’ve been in the game making beats, It’s still amazing. And I want to do that with my shit to people, where they’re like, “Yo, I heard a little clip of something he used, but I don’t understand how you did that and did this.” I like that, I take pride in that. And a lot of those producers to this day, I hear stuff and I’m like, “Oh, shit, that’s one bass note that Pete used, and he has all this other shit…” It’s a fucking magical discovery, I fucking love that shit. It inspires me. But it’s rare these days, with a lot of the new guys, to get that feeling. People are sampling less, and they’re just not technically on that level. I think people started to realize that for the masses and to blow up, people don’t give a fuck about all that shit. You know, when they’re trying to make a hit record, they just want something really simple.
BeatTips: Yeah, in some regards. But the independent circuit is actually burgeoning; there’s a lot of good music that exists.
Marco Polo: Absolutely. Absolutely!
BeatTips: We both come from a time where everything was funneled through the radio, the mainstream system. So we’re now in the age where you can access different channels to find that music. So there isn’t a monolithic radio like there once was. However, certain people are moving and still operating like there is.
Marco Polo: Yeah, you have shit like Shazam now. And then WhoSampled, who I consider to be the devil, and I’ll say that on record. I’ve reached out to them many times to tell them to take my shit off. And let me speak on that real quick, because it’s very important that I make that clear, because people saw me take my music off that [site]and were very upset with me, and I got a lot of backlash through my social media. The reason why I took it off, and this goes for a lot of artists, a lot of motherfuckers don’t clear their records. We are not clearing records! So if we are not clearing samples and records, we don’t want our shit up there. And that’s why it’s an issue. If I clear samples, WhoSampled can put up all those samples all day, I’m proud. They got paid for. But when you put up music that we use and we may not have handle it right, and I’m not saying that I did or did not do that, but in general, WhoSampled should be putting up samples that they know 100% the artist has cleared, or else you’re snitching! Essentially, what you’re doing is snitching. And people don’t understand that. They just think that we’re trying to, that I’m trying to hide my music. I don’t care! I’ll tell you all the samples, if we’re cool, or if I cleared them. But… I’ve been on that site, and it’s been handy to me, straight up. But all I’m saying [is]on a legal standpoint, the reason why we get upset, a lot of producers, is that a lot of people don’t clear samples, and when you put shit up there, it gives someone an opportunity to sue us.