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Mike the Martyr Takes a Solo Shot with Marbury

Mike the Martyr's proper debut is a salute to a local NBA great.

Mike the Martyr's proper debut is a salute to a local NBA great.

"It's a big thing going on with that right now, actually. It's not popular anymore," says rapper and producer Mike the Martyr of boom-bap, the sample-based style of hip-hop production that dominated much of the '90s. "People don't really wanna hear that nowadays. It's 2015 now."

The crate-digging beatmaker proved the celebrated sound has plenty of life left on two of 2014's best local hip-hop albums, Muja Messiah's God Kissed It, the Devil Missed It and Manny Phesto's Southside Looking In. But Martyr is soft-spoken and casual about his accomplishments, more interested in what the future holds for his work. Meeting with City Pages in his apartment as He Got Game plays in the background, the young, gravelly voiced artist is eager to show off his wide collection of music amassed for sampling purposes.

Martyr can be counted among the top producers in hip-hop to carry the torch for sampling. His local résumé includes an array of projects with his Long Doe label cohorts and the rest of the Twin Cities scene. Oakland's the Jacka and New York's Showbiz and A.G. of D.I.T.C. have also rapped over his material maintaining ties to a bygone era, looping breaks and chopping records with an oft-abandoned traditional sensibility. Creating in the shadow of his favorites, Martyr turned loops and loose freestyles inspired by the classics into stronger original written material around 2008, and has maintained steady output ever since.

"A lotta guys just leave samples behind for good," he says. "I'm in love with samples."

Martyr's newest work carries a subtle undercurrent of modern influence, with slight allusions to trap drums, futuristic electronics, and spacier soul sample tweaks indicative of a progressing palette. His debut solo record is called Marbury. Dropping on New Year's Eve, the record cuts even closer to this hybridized merging of eras.

"I went left on my album with different, slower beats than I'm used to rapping on," he says. Originating from a short-form project hosted by DJ TIIIIIIIIIIP, Marbury took on new life as Martyr's official debut solo project when he decided the unique sound deserved to be extended into a full-length.

Production from the Stand4rd's producer Psymun remains on tracks like "Karlton" and "Lyor" alongside Martyr's self-produced material, and the conflation of sounds finds Marbury in a distinctive place on the spectrum of hip-hop production sensibilities.

"If you heard the four or five beats [Psymun] gave me... they sounded like DJ Premier joints," Martyr says. "He has the boom-bap in him. His beats were like Pete Rock-ish sounding, or J. Dilla when they chose not to do samples and just play some shit. For a few years, there weren't a lotta guys here who could really put their hands on some samples and make them dope. That's why I thought he was the dopest right away, his sample game is crazy."

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Marbury is slower and more ethereal than much of Martyr's previous work, and the stylistic differences allow him to maneuver his ground-level grit into unique territory. Martyr has cultivated a mellow and direct approach to rapping, rarely overextending his flow and letting the lyrical ingenuity and tonal grit speak for itself, and the style is oddly suited to Psymun's downtempo glitch beats.

But the album is still very rooted in a traditionalist mentality, citing former NBA basketball star Stephon Marbury -- who played for the Minnesota Timberwolves until 1999 -- in the title specifically to evoke a particular time period. The storied point guard, now a celebrity in China playing for the Beijing Ducks, represented for Martyr an attitude and an era that inspired the project.

"It's like a timepiece kind of, in a weird way," he says. Songs like "Pager Codes" and "Build Clinton" reference the decade's technologies and political figures to talk about hustling up money and overcoming struggle, and "DPG" is devoted to the influence West Coast legends Tha Dogg Pound had on his life.

The music stands as a current version of the sounds proliferating when Marbury was a Timberwolf.

"He was like a more hip dude that you could relate to, that's why he's like a role model," Martyr says. He then pulls up his most vivid personal memory of Starbury: "He was driving the biggest truck with the biggest, loudest system I ever heard in my life. He drove by me and stared at me in the face, and that shit stunned me, like I saw Michael Jackson or something."

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