Rappers tend to take the lead role in hip-hop by default, but without sounds, they’d be spoken-word poets. Producers or beat makers are the individuals who ingrain a song into the public’s consciousness, who make you tap your toe to songs that you don’t necessarily like, and in cases when they don’t have a producer tag, you could listen to a song for years without knowing who put together the music that you enjoy on a daily basis. One of the individuals who operates beneath the hype that comes with success in hip-hop music is a producer from Toronto, Canada, who broke into the industry with crisp snares, hypnotizing samples and an ear for music that rivals the legends like Marley Marl and DJ Premier. He goes by the name of Marco Polo, and he recently headlined the Producer’s Showcase at Metro Music Hall on June 30.
SLUG: What are your impressions of Utah?
Marco Polo: So far it’s beautiful, I mean I haven’t really delved outside of the city too much, but we went “digging” today and I found a dope record store that I really loved: Diabolical Records. I found quite a few gems there—I was very happy. I bought enough records there that I was retired from digging . [Gage Luce, Linus Stubbs and I] went to two more spots, but I had what I needed.
SLUG: What do you look for when you’re digging for records?
Marco Polo: It’s not really a specific thing. I definitely look for certain eras, like late ’60s, early ’70s. I definitely look to the back of covers to see who’s playing instruments, the record labels, the musicians, the producers, because that will lead you to sounds that you like. It also helps to think a little to the left and look at something that looks weird—take chances. Most of the best digging in the world were producers taking chances on something that didn’t look like it would be dope, and it turned out being crazy.
SLUG: What are your impressions of the current political climate in America? How is it being Canadian in American territory?
Marco Polo: Let me be clear. I mean, I got my green card; I’m not a citizen of the US—yet. I have nothing but love for the United States of America. If it wasn’t for the U.S., I wouldn’t be sitting here with you. I moved here from Toronto 16 years ago, and I really got my music career started. It wouldn’t have happened in Canada. At that time in Toronto, there was no Drake; there was no The Weeknd. We had a really dope independent hip-hop scene, but it wasn’t poppin’. Shouts to Choclair—he was one of the best … Shouts to Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, Maestro Fresh-Wes, Michie Mee, so many acts and producers from Toronto that I grew up listening to … but I had to move to New York, the birthplace. [I appreciate] the opportunities this country gave me. Not to sound corny, but I’m here, working because of it. So I got nothing but love. I know there’s some interesting things going on right now with Donald Trump being the president, and yeah, it’s crazy to watch the whole thing, but I got love for the United States.
SLUG: How did a kid from Canada get to where he fits in with all these rap legends?
Marco Polo: Basically, in high school I started to listen to rap music, and by the end of high school, I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing and go to university and get a typical job. I knew I wanted to make music, and I knew I wanted to make beats. So I went to school for engineering in Toronto, and then I came to New York to do an internship. There was nothing that anyone was going to tell me. I was gonna be a producer. I was gonna come to New York and I was gonna make it happen. That was the mindset—and my parents were probably petrified. I have two parents. They were born in Italy. They probably had more standard career goals for me, like get something safe, and I’m like, “Nah, I’m not doing none of that.”
SLUG: Have you ever met a producer who made you feel like a fan?
Marco Polo: So many. First of all, the moment you stop being a fan—you’re playing yourself, because it means your passion is gone.
But … absolutely. I’m friends with all my heroes now and even to this day, after many years, it’s so fucking humbling and crazy. I remember the first time I met Large Professor, the first time I met DJ Premier, Pete Rock, the first time I met Da Beatminerz, the Beanuts, and they knew who I was and I was just stunned, so man … You know Premo [DJ Premier] called me today, and that’s not even a humble brag—we been friends for a long time—and [I] was telling Gage and them it’s been 10-years-plus I’ve been friends with Premo. We’ve traveled the world and toured—you know, we hang out, and to this day, every time he calls, I’m like, “DJ muthafuckin’ Premier is calling my phone.”
I’m a fan, man. He’s the greatest to ever do it. It’s crazy that we’re cool.
SLUG: What about away from hip-hop? What are some of the relationships you’ve formed?
Marco Polo: There’s a couple people, like my boy Russell Peters [a comedian]. I became friends with him—he’s a huge hip-hop head. Michael Rapaport, definitely. I met him through Masta Ace. Great actor, funny guy, and he’s a crazy-big hip-hop fan. So yeah, I run into people.
SLUG: We have that “Nine Point Five” off Talib Kweli & Styles P’s The Seven in our playlist. Tell us about what went into making that beat.
Marco Polo: It’s so funny—there’s a story behind that. We had a similar beat showcase in Brooklyn a year ago. It was me, Kev Brown, the legendary Large Professor and my brother DJ Skizz. One of the things in this showcase that we do is every producer gets the same sample ahead of time, and we all make a beat with it. So at the show, we all play our version of the sample flip, and the “Nine Point Five” beat spawned from this sample. I was actually very upset at the sample. When I first got it, I was like “Yo, it’s mad simple—I can’t do nothing with it.” My boy Skizz picked it out. I was tight. I was like, “This shit’s wack, gimme something better.” But I stepped aside and I’m actually grateful that it was sampled the way that it was because it challenged me to really make something unique from it. I guess it came out dope enough that it caught Kweli and Styles P’s ears, and they fucking went and put The Lox on it—which is one of my favorite groups ever—and then you got “Nine Point Five.” Shout out to my boy Shilo who did the scratches, helped me arrange it—I’m really proud of that joint.
SLUG: Do you have anything else coming out that you’re excited about?
Marco Polo: Yeah, a couple things. Me and Masta Ace just started an album together. I’m gonna be doing all the beats. Premo might do one. I am very excited; we just started recording that. It’ll probably drop next year. I’m working with this young kid from New York named Marlon Craft who is really dope. I got three joints on his new album. I just dropped an instrumental project, old instrumentals called Baker’s Dozen. You can check for that on all the digital outlets. It came out on wax. It’s a lot of my catalogue joints that I produced for other people, compiled [as] instrumental version[s] for the first time. Besides that, I’m always working—me and Torae are working on new music. I’m probably gonna do a new producer album; I’m just lining up some things. Me and A-F-R-O are working on his new record—we did that A-F-R-O Polo EP last year with my kitty on the cover. I didn’t want to put [myself] on the cover, so I was like yo, just use my cat.
SLUG: You work with a lot of rappers. If you had to choose one to form a group with, who would it be?
Marco Polo: It’s so tough, man. I wanna say Masta Ace—only because besides making the actual music, it helps when you are friends with that person. You know you’re cool and when you travel, you get along—you’re similar. So I would pick Ace because I feel like we’re at the same speed and we’re on the same things. If I had to pick a wild card that I never worked with, throw me Nas.
SLUG: What do you think about ageism in hip-hop?
Marco Polo: I think the ageism thing probably applies more to rappers. Producers don’t get it as bad because dope beats are dope beats, but I think it’s all bullshit. I keep it really simple. I stay out of all those arguments. Personally, I don’t like to see anybody hating on anybody. My whole thing is music is music. Let whomever’s making music do what they do. It doesn’t affect you. Focus on your craft and what you do, and make it the best you can and put it out. Just kill all that negativity shit. I’ve worked with Masta Ace, who just turned 50 years old, to A-F-R-O, who was 17 when we started. Marlon Craft is 24. I’m hopefully gonna work with this kid, Mad Squablz. He’s really young … and then I’ve rocked with cats like Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, and I still do. I can’t imagine being a fan who cares about somebody’s age. All I care about is if the music is good or bad. I think it’s more about some of the younger kids seeing some of the older kids talk shit about the music they like. And that’s a problem, you know what I’m sayin’, because nobody should do that. I consider myself an O.G. now: I’ve got 15 years in the game. People are always like, “Don’t you hate these young mumble rappers?” It’s like yo, it might not necessarily speak to me, but if that’s what their expression is, let them live. Let them do their fucking thing—it doesn’t get in the way of what I do. I just get up every day and get inspired to make music.
SLUG: Do you have any advice for producers looking to follow in your footsteps as far as equipment or business?
Marco Polo: Find someone who can teach you something. That’s the most important thing. Whether it’s an MPC or Maschine or laptop or Fruity Loops … find someone that uses it that can show you some shit. That’s what I did. That’s why I use what I use. More importantly than that is definitely educate yourself about the business. Business is very important. There are a lot of producers over the years that I started with that don’t do it no more. They go to get a day job because their business wasn’t right. They didn’t know how to market themselves, and it’s changed now. You’re not gonna get a major label giving you a million dollars to take care of your life. You gotta be up on your shit. You gotta know about publishing. You gotta know what to charge for a track. You gotta know about royalties. You gotta know about masters. You gotta know about all this stuff …
Marco’s set did not disappoint—a recorded introduction from DJ Premier, chilling keys, flutes, horns, synths, obscure samples, jazz- and gospel-inspired rhythms. He shouted out to the producers who preceded him that night and the many, many artists he has worked with (while playing the beats he crafted for them). The list was extensive: Rah Digga, Masta Ace, Organized Konfusion, Vinnie Paz, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Buckshot, O.C., A-F-R-O, Talib Kweli and last but not least, the recently departed Queens representative Prodigy (RIP).
I don’t recommend uprooting your life for a career in music, but there was something to be learned from Marco Polo’s visit. If a Canadian producer from Italian stock can find his way into the music business, then a producer from the Wasatch Valley can, too. But you have to have more than just incredible talent and impeccable timing. You have to want it bad enough.