Thanks to the arts scene in Providence, R.I., the state has seen its share of modestly successful music acts. Most recently, they have come in the form of indie-rock groups (Deer Tick) or avant-garde rockers (Lightning Bolt) with a few blues, ska, and punk bands also taking their music to a national level. But when it comes to hip-hop, the talent pool is fairly shallow. Sure, Sage Francis is still doing his thing and doing it well, but even he will admit that his state has more variety to offer rap fans. That’s where Theo Martins, a fresh-faced, 23-year-old MC comes in. While his roots go back to his 2008 mixtape, The Rebirth, the multi-talented Martins has been gaining momentum over the past several months. In particular, he just dropped the fantastic and free You Can’t Do That on Television EP, which fully illustrates his immense growth as an artist since The Rebirth.
Listeners checking out Martins for the first time will likely think he’s from Chicago, a city that has brought us some of hip-hop’s best. That’s because he rhymes with a style akin to that of Lupe Fiasco. Like Fiasco, the Providence rapper is a fan of using wordplay and similes as a means of speaking his mind or telling a story. But rather than rely on them solely for his raps, those devices are simply tools for his overall creation and not a crutch to fall back on. And Martins spits with a bouncy, quick-tongued flow, similar to Fiasco’s, that can be delivered straight-up, scattered with hints of internal rhyming and alliteration, or a combination of the two for a direct but still distinct approach.
Martins puts his skill set on full display while rapping on “Checkin In” off You Can’t Do That on Television with the following bars: “Just listen to me/ ‘Cause honestly/ I will body anybody on a record in a second/ Don’t forget it/ Don’t regret it./ They say I rap like/ Michael/ Jordan/ Foreman/ Right hand Tyson/ Left hand Bison/ Kickstand/ Dyrdek/ Skateboard/ Grindin’/ Pusha T-H-E-O.”
What’s particularly impressive is the fact he does this all without cursing. It might sound like an easily accomplished feat, but just think of how different (or mangled) most singles become when they are edited for radio. That’s not even taking into account the album cuts that are likely littered with profanity or derogatory terms, many times for the sake of finishing a punch line or bar. And, as the above quoted lyrics show, just because he is clean doesn’t mean he can’t spit.
The MC chose to not curse in his raps for a reason that’s about as hip-hop as you can get — keeping it real. Real to himself, actually, as he told me. “It’s never been like me to curse or use derogatory terms on or off record, because that’s not what I represent,” he said. “I’m very keen on making sure that my lifestyle matches my message. I have integral values of making sure that my lifestyle always matches my message in the sense that I don’t ever want to paint an unrealistic picture for people [and give] them this false sense of reality that I have no plans of pursuing or interest in.” He added that it brings him great joy to see others succeed based on their honesty and lack of compromise.
Not one to pigeonhole his career, Martins has talents beyond rapping. After acquiring three turntables at the age of 15, he quickly moved to DJing parties in a year’s time and was spinning in clubs by 18. He continued DJing through his graduation from URI last year and even landed a spot on a tour with Warren G, U-N-I, and Kidz in the Hall in the fall of 2009. That tour allowed him to both perform solo and support other acts. Or, as he said, it gave him the “opportunity to sit on both sides of the fence.” He went on to say that he plans on pursuing the same endeavors as Q-Tip, who Martins said he admires for being both a great DJ and artist. He’s also apparently honing his singing ability, which he has teased on past projects. Martins said he has a track dropping soon that features him solely crooning, a move perhaps inspired by his love for a good summery pop song like his current favorite, “Hey Soul Sister” by Train.
Martins said he has plenty more in store for the rest of 2010, including a project he has to keep under wraps for now that will be his “most elaborate piece of work yet.” But he did mention likely future collaborations with fellow newcomer J. Cole and producers Just Blaze, DJ Khalil, and Dewaun Parker, all of whom have laced a beat or two for your favorite rapper. Martins also said he would love to work with Exile, who has a knack for crafting great records with skilled young rappers.
You can stream “Checkin In” below or download the entire You Can’t Do That on Television EP here.