The Inadvertent, Low-Key, Afrofuturism of Matt Martians
How Matt Martians ushers in a new brand of afrofuturism that would rather show you the revolution than show you its face.
For someone who has positioned himself behind the steering wheel over respective ascensions of acts including Odd Future, Jet Age of Tomorrow, the Internet, and Kilo Kish, the musician Matt Martians seems to exist exclusively in a self-created black hole, hitchhiking the breakage point between tangible identity and extraneous haze. Matt Martians does not have a single social media account. Matt Martians’ interviews are few and far between. The weight of publicizing Matt Martians’ solo music, on a tertiary level, is – at least on the front revealed to consumers – primarily carried by famed bandmates and associates.
The underlying-yet-defining crux with each point, notably, is that one does not see Matt Martians – one hears him. Somehow, the musical movement he has championed is one that stands as an amalgam of all things opposite his chosen persona; Jet Age of Tomorrow built its brand on in-your-face funk from untapped universal wormholes, the Internet’s essence continued a sentence left unfinished by black soul acts of yesteryear, and Odd Future was, well… Odd Future. Through it all, remarkably, the influence of Martians made itself known not by onstage gimmicks or comically hyper-extroverted eccentricity, but a consistent sound that would soon prove not solely audiary, but just as foundationally tactile. The very first trace of his distinct tonality, for instance, would be encased within Voyager, Jet Age of Tomorrow’s 2010 debut LP. Alongside rapper-slash-producer Pyramid Vritra, for 45 minutes, Martians bounded his way through uncanny instrumental concoctions that wore their collective otherworldliness as a badge rather than a defect (Jet Age of Tomorrow actually originated from the repurposing of instrumentals turned down by Tyler, the Creator and Hodgy Beats). ‘Hercules Cup’ saw thrashing percussion forced into immersion with a shamelessly off-key, computer-processed, formally amoebic guitar solo. ‘Orange Juice Simpson’ – the track sampled by Kendrick Lamar in ‘A.D.H.D’ – forced a leftfield bass riff, along with an increasingly formless succession of musical additions, to coexist with the kind of fundamental cloud rap underside typical of acts like $ilkmoney and ICYTWAT. ‘Can I Hold Your Hand’ featured an unashamedly childish, high-pitched, low-key annoying robot voice that repeated the titular proposition as if we, the listeners, were its notoriously neglectful long-lost mother.
Move the clock 7 years forward with the release of Martians’ debut solo album The Drum Chord Theory, yet, and the dynamics – though maybe more implicitly than explicitly so – are still at play. In the chorus of Martians’ most popular solo track ‘Dent Jusay,’ a synthesizer that uncontrollably spirals up and down is paired with harmonies almost mentally unmatchable to the isolated backing track. The first half of ‘Spend the Night / If You Were My GF’ is a near-serpentine drawing out of slinky sensual proposals too far-out for mainstream radio albeit not driven enough to fly on 181.FM, and the second half is a reiteration of the very same high-pitched inflection from ‘Can I Hold Your Hand’ – this time begging us to be its girlfriend by telling us what could happen if we are to say yes. ‘Diamond In Da Ruff’ – perhaps the most conventional semblage of old school instrumental funk music throughout the entire record – features, after a brief, bass-thumping, speed-run of jivey ebonic attitude, a skit played out by the studio musicians themselves (*Apple Ringtone* “Yeah, pick up the phone nigga”…”Why is she calling me???”… “Uh…hello?”) followed by a completely different bass/synth-championed warble of angry female characters.
Up front, the music of Matt Martians is an unapologetic testament to his secluded nature, one crude documentation of a personal layer seldom ever seen by the mass audiences he attracts. His moniker alone, being an offshoot of his birth name Matthew Martin, serves to suggest exactly what his creative output sounds like – convoluted extraplanetary radio transmissions from Mars we have yet to fully understand – and as his career has progressed, the side of him that exists solely in his self-created black hole has stationed every bit of communication we see from the other side.
“If you make an album that’s completely you and it’s completely honest, nobody can tell you if it’s good or bad, because it’s you,” he told DJBooth about his latest LP in a 2019 interview. “And if you’re content with yourself, you know who you are.”
The particular concept Matt Martians seems to emulate musically reimagines a prolific strain of afrofuturism initially merged with popular culture by George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic, and an extensive slew of adjacent 20th Century funk acts. The term ‘Afrofuturism,’ in itself, was initially coined decades ago by white author Mike Dery in his 1959 essay Black to the Future. Speculative in its delivery amidst an era that saw Jim Crow laws dominate the American economic canon, the essay questioned, in its writer’s own words: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” Dery went on to inquire: “Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers ― white to a man ― who have engineered our collective fantasies?”
The first acknowledged iteration of Dery’s afrofuturism – considering both music and art writ large – came via the artistry of Sun Ra, the late African-American jazz composer who cultivated a following for his first-of-its-kind approach to experimental creation. Along with making music that stretched the boundaries of its respective era by existing outside of genre lines, he titled his releases with a common thread of outer-world-adjacent thematic matter – The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961); The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (1964); Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (1962) – in written manifestation of the artist’s intertwining of (primarily Egyptian) African culture(s) and a newfound global obsession with outer space.“Matt Martians is not the glistening metallic spacesuit-donning figure Parliament-Funkadelic members visualized for black audiences in the mid-1970s. What Matt Martians is is a pioneer of the brand new form of afrofuturist evangelism that pulls the strings behind larger cultural shifts, seldom emerging from beyond the curtain, working with more determination to show the people the revolution than it does to show them its face.”
Though referenced as such ex post facto, the second, and perhaps most dynamic, wave of American afrofuturist artistry was realized at the hands of the above-mentioned George Clinton. Whereas mainstream societal representations of a “future” (most coming amidst a new wave of 1950s alien movies inspired by the Red Scare) envisioned a trek to eternity widely led by white people in rocket ships, dapper suits, or government offices, Clinton and his family of like-minded funk factions took such eurocentric concepts and knotted them deliberately into a preexisting fabric of Black pride, dressing in spiky metallic shoulder pads, otherworldly face makeup – a precursor for bands like KISS – and medieval armor meshed with early spacewear, their combination of visual and auditory senses garnering a loyal subculture of fellow black visionaries who had at long last found a symbiotic cultural niche. Afrofuturism, now, was not as much a mere dictionary definition as it was a cultural movement; a distinguishable look and sound; a crevice of national identity to wholly attach oneself to.
Beyond music, the construct spent much of its decades-long lifespan seeing itself manifested in the worlds of comic books and overarching superhero universes – Marvel’s Black Panther, both on paper and in film, serving to epitomize such on all fronts. “As the Black Panther, he’s inspiring everyone, but especially black youth, who deserve to see superheroes like them, to show them that truly anyone can be a superhero,” Sean “Diddy” Combs wrote of the late Chadwick Boseman’s role in the title’s 2018 movie remake. “This matters, because it has been a long time coming to see our own superheroes and the power that they can have on all of us in society. Black Panther’s billion-dollar global success has made it a phenomenon, and Chadwick’s role signals a black renaissance.” The feeling emanated from Boseman’s performance in the film was the crux of afrofuturism as a holistic form: it replaced now with the imagination of tomorrow, removing all socioeconomic straitjackets from a people and visualizing the extent at which it would consequently erupt.
Modern-day afrofuturism has seen itself enacted by the likes of artists including Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, and Standing on the Corner, the New York City-based art collective notorious for having built its reputation upon strict genre-defiance. Although visuals, in each case, may not be as strong an element in such a distinction as the music itself (save, perchance, for the incorporation of cyborg and metallic visuals), the through-line to each case is a complex musicality that looks beyond urban boxes imposed by predominant cultures, and into a future contingent upon disenfranchised groups doing all things beyond what may currently define their inferred capability.
Odd Future – the collective Martians co-founded alongside Tyler, the Creator after the latter complimented his music via a MySpace direct message – broke the rules of the concept in that it did not, at all, focus any (intentional) effort on breaking down widespread stereotypical regardings of black culture via futuristic gospel. Comprised mainly of core members Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, Hodgy Beats, Syd, Taco, Left Brain, and Jasper Dolphin, the faction quickly grew infamous for senseless gimmicks that were somehow anarchistic and preschool-esque all at once: Loiter Squad, the Adult Swim skit comedy run by the group from 2011 to 2015, featured members conducting ridiculous public stunts just shy of illegality; the group’s national television debut saw Tyler, the Creator snag a piggy-back ride from Jimmy Fallon with Yasiin Bey uncharacteristically screaming into the camera like a hyperactive child some time afterward; Tyler, the Creator was infamously banned from the United Kingdom for a five-year period because of fears aroused by violent and homophobic lyrics on his earliest mixtapes (“I just want to drag your lifeless body to the forest and fornicate with it” – Tyler, the Creator, She, 2011).
More fittingly, the unintended afrofuturism of Odd Future existed in that they were the first group of their kind to work in conjunction with the internet the way modern acts would soon quickly learn to emulate. Prior to days when Souja Boy and Lil B built alluring self-centered universes via usage of primitive social media sites and viral music videos, the collective quickly realized the power of its own image – mass-producing their trademark donut-ized OF to the point where it became a widespread cultural phenomenon, coming up with a raucous annual concert dubbed ‘Camp Flog Gnaw’ that attracted circumstances subject to their own rules, and regularly updating their Tumblr and Youtube accounts with intimate, behind-the-scenes recordings of almost exaggeratedly transparent moments from their daily lives. “They were neither the first alternative rappers nor the first shock rappers nor the first DIY rappers, but they were the first to parlay those qualities into sustainable careers that positioned them alongside cultural leaders,” Pitchfork contributor Brianna Younger wrote of the collective in a 2018 opinion piece. “Recent years have seen the rise of punk-indebted rappers like Lil Uzi Vert and Juice WRLD, as SoundCloud has ushered in a sea of real-life undesirables riding a wave of distorted basslines and skittish flows. Both trends are inextricably linked to Odd Future. Their loud, freeform style and out-of-sync production equated to music that didn’t really have a region any more than it had a filter.”
Now of course, Matt Martians – even with his standing as a founding member – existed predominantly behind the scenes no matter how far wrought the movement became. Odd Future was split into a down-to-the-tee expanse of distinct personalities: Tyler, the reckless poster boy who seemed to relish in risking his life over stupid shit for fun, Syd, the lone down-to-earth female member who (in Matt Martians’ own words) “knew how to have everybody controlled and (…) knew exactly what was going on,” Frank, the low-key character who hid prodigious talents behind relatively shy mannerisms, Earl, the upstart youngster who influenced a mini-movement by being faux-imprisoned by his mother in Africa; Jasper, the jolly wisecrack who thought everything was funny (which, with Jasper, it really was), Hodgy Beats, the one who could turn it up when he wasn’t zooted. Matt himself – in line with what he would often elect to be over his career – was perhaps the strongest personality, without even being a predominant personality to begin with: he lived within the sound, calculating the vibe, modeling the aura after his own mind. And – comparatively – he did it all behind closed lips.““It used to make me sad [when I woke up]. It was like a nightmare because I feel like I didn’t cherish it when I was going through it. Being around people like my friends, playing together, roasting each other. I don’t have those dreams anymore. Because I have my band.”
Odd Future would go on to fizzle out in the mid-2010s. Of discouraging comments made by Tyler, the Creator about the future of the group prior to any definitive breakup announcement, Matt Martians gave Pitchfork the following statement: “It needed to be said, because I think it’s important for our progress, and other people in Odd Future’s progress, to shed that name. It’s a badge. It’s a great thing. Everything has to move on. Everything has to have closure. I think what rose from that is what really matters. A lot of great careers spawned from that, and a lot of great careers will continue to spawn from that.” As a testament to both Martians’ durable musicality, and the latter assertion, the funk band The Internet – originally intended as a gimmicky offshoot of the larger Odd Future collective – saw itself founded at the genesis of Odd Future’s explosion into popular culture, surviving well past its sudden mortality. Getting its namesake from a fresh Left Brain response to a reporter who asked where he was from (“I hate when people ask me that, I’m going to start saying I’m from the Internet”), the band was originally comprised of founders Syd and Martians, along with Odd Future touring members Patrick Paige III (bass), Christopher Smith (drums), and Tay Walker (vocals) (In the band’s current lineup, Steve Lacey [guitar & vocals] replaces Walker). Within the years that saw The Internet outlive its influential predecessor, the backstage mastermind of Matt Martians’ would become increasingly discernible with each successive release. Most notably, Ego Death – the only record of theirs to receive a Grammy nomination – boasts Martians’ future-oriented formula realized in its most distinguished sense: the James Fauntelroy-assisted ‘For the World’ sees conventional pop song structures forgone for an apparent stream of consciousness that haunts and seduces in the same breath; opening track ‘Get Away’ features a bass guitar that cosplays as an ominous cyborg hellbent on thriller movie-reminiscent destruction; ‘Something’s Missing’ is a lovelorn, swaggerously delivered melody that derives all of its cool from a forward-focused, fast-paced, renaissance funk-reimaginative musical essence. The Internet’s artistry was, and still is, one that regurgitates the afrofuturist doctrines initially actualized by the likes of D’Angelo and N.E.R.D, inadvertently proclaiming through such design an overarching gospel of unity in spite of external assessment. “I always had this recurring dream of playing basketball in high school and I would be so happy being around a team,” Martians recounted in a 2015 Vice interview following the album’s release. “It used to make me sad [when I woke up]. It was like a nightmare because I feel like I didn’t cherish it when I was going through it. Being around people like my friends, playing together, roasting each other.” He went on to conclude: “I don’t have those dreams anymore. Because I have my band.”
The sentiment is one that runs consistent with Martians’ overall journey through the otherworldly music he creates: he used to dream of the sounds he enjoyed, he told the Fader in 2019, but having grown up in an era that saw artists release every four years prompted him to save up $2,000 one summer, spending it on the beginnings of a quest to see if he could make the music himself.
The curiosity (at long last) manifested itself into a solo career for Martians in 2015, with the release of his debut LP The Drum Chord Theory, followed by 2017’s The Last Party. On its own, Martians’ music did not go over well as neither critically nor commercially as one would come to expect – Pitchfork called The Drum Chord Theory “full of slack, indolent, funk,” NME called The Last Party “an evocative soundscape that lacks sustained impact” and “never truly hits home,” and neither tape broke much ground – if any at all – on the Billboard 500.
It would be fairly easy for one to draw the conclusion that Matt Martians cannot artistically exist without a supporting cast to boost his value, but to adopt such an assessment would be to overlook what silent wizardry has furnished his illustrious career thus far: solo stardom, as contingent as it has become to the modern-day musical ascension, simply goes against everything sworn on by Martians’ visionary archetype. Matt Martians is not the kind of eccentric, magazine-cover, in-your-face afrofuturist poster boy that George Clinton was decades ago. Matt Martians is not the glistening metallic spacesuit-donning figure Parliament-Funkadelic members visualized for black audiences in the mid-1970s. What Matt Martians is is a pioneer of the brand new form of afrofuturist evangelism that pulls the strings behind larger cultural shifts, seldom emerging from beyond the curtain, working with more determination to show the people the revolution than it does to show them its face.
In the aforementioned FADER interview from 2019, Martians took a moment to expound upon Jet Age of Tomorrow, the non-Internet secondary Odd Future brainchild he performed as alongside Pyramid Vritra.
“With the Jet Age of Tomorrow, I always wanted to have an anonymous band I could have no boundaries with. I wanted an outlet where I could put a song on for five minutes and someone would say, ‘That’s a Jet Age song,’’ he started. “I love the project though, and I love that Kendrick Lamar sampled it. So many people have heard ‘ADHD’ and had no idea that it was a Jet Age sample, which is so dope. You’re hearing some really weird shit that you probably didn’t even know existed. Some artists come up to me and say, ‘That Jet Age shit you used to make….’ And I’m like, ‘How the fuck do you know about Jet Age?’ It’s cool. I’m content with Jet Age — my solo albums are an extension of it now.”
Most of the time, Matt Martians doesn’t want you to know he exists. If you do happen to, yet – much like if you happened to know the future itself – you are either exceptionally insane, or among the most enlightened people on Earth. The music is the time machine. The future is anywhere but the world.