[Interview] Marco Polo talks “Port Authority 2,” Toronto memories, and what makes a good producer

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Toronto-bred producer Marco Polo‘s latest collaborative album, Port Authority 2, boasts a veritable who’s who of classic hip-hop artists: DJ Premier, Large Professor, Inspectah Deck, O.C., Organized Konfusion, MC Eiht, King Tee, Masta Ace, Talib Kweli, Posdnuos, Gangrene, Lil Fame, and Styles P all make appearances. Bringing all that talent together is one thing, but crafting a seamless album with so many different voices and styles is an entirely different task – one which Marco Polo does flawlessly. It’s just the latest notch in Marco Polo’s remarkable career, over a decade since making the move from Richmond Hill, Ontario to the Mecca of hip-hop, New York City, with little more than his MPC2000XL. That he’s managed to find success is no surprise; the work speaks for itself and has earned him respect from the likes of DJ Premier, Marley Marl, Pete Rock, and DJ Jazzy Jeff. We caught up with Marco Polo to talk about his latest album, memories from growing up in Toronto, what makes a good producer, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: What was the first record that got you into hip-hop?

Marco Polo: Great question. I would have to say “Bonita Applebum” by A Tribe Called Quest.

TCUS: So that was courtesy of your dad then.

Marco Polo: Yes! You’ve clearly read some stuff that I’ve said, which is awesome [laughs].

TCUS: Tell me then, how has your dad been a musical influence in your life?

Marco Polo: Man, shouts to my dad, I was just with him today. My dad’s been an influence because his taste is so eclectic. [I remember] growing up in the house, before even rap music was there, we listened to so many different things: Italian music, classic rock, jazz, some Miles Davis, Cream and Disraeli Gears… He was the one that bought the first Tribe Called Quest album, because he liked “Bonita Applebum.” He liked Biz Markie and things he heard on the radio, and he was just very open minded, and I think that carried on to me. I love rap, and I make rap, but I listen to everything.

TCUS: Let’s talk about Toronto a little bit. What significance does Play De Record have to you?

Marco Polo: It’s very significant. Shouts to Toronto, I’m actually in Toronto right now. I used to go to Play De Record every Tuesday with my peoples and buy new vinyl. Every Tuesday they had the new 12” [releases], and I’d go every Tuesday and cop the new stuff and hear all the new records on the wall. It was like a ritual.

TCUS: What’s the most precious record in your collection?

Marco Polo: The most precious record I have in my collection – and it’s not just because of value, it’s just what’s special to me – is the first ESG album. It was the most money I ever spent on a record in the early stages of my collection. It has the infamous “UFO” song, that’s like a hip-hop statue in terms of songs that have been sampled and just a definitive breakbeat. That ESG album is very special to me. I bought it at A-1 Records in New York. I’ve spent way more since then, but at the time, spending like $55 on an album was a big deal for me.

TCUS: What influence did DJ Serious and Mr. Attic have on you growing up?

Marco Polo: Good questions, man. And shouts to DJ Serious, I was with him last night. Both those guys are very influential Canadian producers from the Toronto scene. Mr. Attic and Da Grassroots did a lot of Canadian classics, and those were some of the first Toronto records I ever heard. Mr. Attic did Kardinal Offishall’s “Ol’ Time Killin’,” which is probably my favourite Kardinal song of all time.

DJ Serious was the first deejay/producer who didn’t rap to have producer albums, you know? His first record was called Dim Sum, and a lot of cats in Toronto might consider that a classic Canadian hip-hop album. He was working with tons of emcees, and I wanted to do what he was doing. He’s an incredible deejay, and to this day we’re still cool. He’s actually spinning at my release party in New York.

TCUS: What can you tell me about The Comfort Zone?

Marco Polo: [Laughs] I can tell you that at The Comfort Zone, a disco ball fell off the ceiling and hit me right in the face, and I got a bleeding nose at a Jeru the Damaja concert many years ago. I was actually thinking of suing them – that’s how angry I was – but then I realized that was insane and shit just happens. It’s just a funny story to me now.

Every Wednesday at The Comfort Zone back in the day, they used to have the Illamental Series, where they used to have really ill and independent American artists come down. I saw Planet Asia there, I saw Pumpkinhead there, Swollen Members, O.C., the Mountain Brothers… That’s when the underground was fun to be a part of. So yeah, every Wednesday I used to go there; it was like $10 to get in, and I would see someone really poppin’ in the underground scene. Those were good times.

TCUS: What influence did Frankenstein have on you coming up?

Marco Polo: Shouts to Frankenstein, another – to me – legendary Canadian emcee/producer from Toronto – plus he’s Italian like me. Man, we were supposed to do a record and it just never happened, but he might be my favourite producer of all time from Canada. His UV EP, and just all the 12” [releases] he puts out, and his production for other people… I just loved his sound, man. He was amazing, so he definitely influenced me.

TCUS: Was he someone that, as an Italian-Canadian, made you think that you could have a future in hip-hop as well?

Marco Polo: I don’t know if he influenced me [to think that] I could do it. When I was listening to that stuff, I didn’t even think at that moment in time that I was going to be involved in rap, but he definitely made me love it and value the Canadian scene. A lot of those guys didn’t leave Toronto to get their props; they just put out records and they were embraced by the underground worldwide. I don’t think a lot of Canadians did what I did, in terms of fully moving from Toronto to New York permanently. I guess I just wanted to take it a step past what everyone else was doing and get right in the mix of New York, the Mecca.

TCUS: Let’s talk about that period when you moved to New York. What were those early days in Queens like?

Marco Polo: The first couple months in Queens at my boy Lou’s crip, I used to stay in his family’s basement, which was amazing. I was so excited to move to New York; I was scared as hell and excited at the same time. It was a great time, man. I just knew that [music] was what I wanted to do and be involved in, and I wouldn’t accept anything that would stop me.

TCUS: What can you tell me about “Think About It” by Syntifik?

Marco Polo: Wow. Yeah, that was the first piece of wax I ever had my production on. Go find that 12”. Some people just posted online that they went and found copies of that 12” [laughs]. It was the first time I was ever on wax, and the first time I got paid for a beat.

TCUS: Tell me about putting your records on wax. That’s obviously something that’s still very important to you, since you have both Newport Authority 2 and Port Authority 2 available on vinyl. What is it about vinyl that makes it still special to you?

Marco Polo: I mean, it’s the foundation of hip-hop. Making beats, sampling, that’s what I came up on. It all goes back to vinyl to me; that’s how it all began, people sampling vinyl. Having [my] releases on vinyl isn’t a question for me; it’s like mandatory. It’s very important to me to have all my releases on wax.

TCUS: Going back to the early New York days, what’s your favourite memory from The Cutting Room?

Marco Polo: There were so many memories. My favourite memory from The Cutting Room is meeting Masta Ace, because that literally changed my career. Meeting him at the studio when he came to see The Beatnuts is my favourite, because it had the most effect on where I am today.

TCUS: What was it like sitting in on Mos Def recording Black on Both Sides?

Marco Polo: I don’t know if that was something in an interview or something, but I wasn’t actually there for the making of that particular record. I was there for a lot of Rawkus stuff. I definitely was in a session with Mos Def a gazillion times, and I was working on the album after that.

Being in sessions with Mos Def was awesome. He’s a very eclectic dude; sometimes he came in and rapped his ass off, sometimes he came in and played the drums for four hours and left, and sometimes he came in to listen to jazz music. You never know what the hell’s gonna go on with that dude. He’s like a mad scientist genius-type of dude.

TCUS: Did you see Reflection Eternal’s Train of Thought get put together?

Marco Polo: No, I saw Talib do Quality. I was there for a lot of that. I have my name on that album actually, as an assistant engineer – I’m pretty sure.

TCUS: This is a quote of yours: “Rock with the people that want to rock with you. Better music is made.” Can you talk about this?

Marco Polo: Yeah, absolutely. If you’re working with people that respect what you do, then it’s the true definition of a collaboration. If you’re cutting cheques to rappers to do a verse, then it’s all business. They’re doing it for a cheque, so you’re gonna get a performance based on money, not on love and passion. If you work with people that actually like with you do, you’re gonna get a better end result.

TCUS: Let’s talk about Port Authority 2. What made you want to release a followup to Port Authority?

Marco Polo: I guess because the first one was so well-received that me and Shylow wanted to do something bigger and better. We started working on it right away, and we were still so amazed we put together the first one, me being so new. Once I started getting a little more love and making more connections, we wanted to make a followup and do a better job. It took a long time; it was like four or five years of putting together this big puzzle, but hopefully the people dig it.

TCUS: What’s the biggest challenge that comes with trying to make a compilation album?

Marco Polo: Working with rappers is a challenge in general, especially so many. It’s difficult working with just one artist. Working with so many different artists, it’s just a lot of different opinions and egos. We all have egos; we all see things a certain way, and there’s a lot of bumping of heads and opinions. Everybody hears stuff differently. It’s always easier working with an artist that comes to the table knowing that they’re there to achieve what my final goal is – that’s the best.

Sometimes I get artists that aren’t really down to help me get what I want from my record; they just kinda come and go, “this is what I’m doing; if you don’t like it, then go eff yourself.” That’s when we have [trouble]. There’s so many things that make it difficult, but the end result I achieved [was worth it], and shouts to all those amazing artists on my album.

TCUS: What was the standout track for you in terms of when you were making the album?

Marco Polo: There’s so many that I love, man. Honestly, it changes every day. I’ll tell you one thing, one song that happened the quickest and most naturally was “West Coast Love” with MC Eiht and King Tee. That happened with such ease. MC Eiht did two verses, then I got a contact [for] King Tee, and he laid the hook and last verse in like two days, then it was done. [DJ] Rev[olution] added the scratch at the end, and then it was just this West Coast masterpiece. I had never really done anything on the West Coast like that on the first Port Authority, so it was a great new element to Port Authority 2.

TCUS: My personal favourite off the album at the moment is “Parental Discretion.” Tell me about how that track came together.

Marco Polo: That’s a song that Shylow really saved in terms of being on Port Authority 2. Breeze Brewin’ and I recorded two demos: “Parental Discretion” and another joint. The demos were really rough sounding [but] sounded really good, and I kinda just sat on them for a while. Shylow was like, “yo, this ‘Parental Discretion’ record, you should get Breeze to come through the studio and redo it, and [then] put a good mix on it.”

Man, I’m so glad that we decided to do that, because [when] Breeze came through and relaid that record, I was like, “whoa.” Sometimes [with] a demo and the final product, the vision from those two is much different, but once it was done, I was like, “wow, this is indisputable album material.”

TCUS: One of the tracks off PA 2 pays homage to Guru. What significance does Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth have to you?

Marco Polo: That’s the best hip-hop album of all-time in my opinion. It’s like perfection. I think Preem is at his absolute [best], and Guru’s killing it with the lyrics. It’s just chemistry, man. [They had] group chemistry that a lot of producers and emcees [lack]. Man, there’s so many songs on there: “The Militia,” “Above the Clouds,” “JFK 2 LAX.” It’s one of the [biggest] albums of the early phases of my life, and it made me want to be a producer.

TCUS: Tell me about the first time you met DJ Premier.

Marco Polo: I don’t even know if I remember! Man… I don’t even know if it was because I went up to his radio show at Live from HeadQCourterz and he was playing my record. I honestly can’t remember, but I know that I have a nine minute clip of him spinning the “Radar” remix back and forth, and then I went up to his show to promote my record. I think [we met] through mutual people that we were working with. I actually should ask him; I don’t think he would remember though, to be honest. Regardless, I always say it – it’s almost getting played out [laughs] – he’s one my biggest influences and it’s crazy to call him a big brother and a mentor.

TCUS: With that in mind, and looking to Premo as the ideal of production, what makes for a good producer?

Marco Polo: Someone that loves what they do and isn’t scared to speak their mind. Someone who’s not a ‘yes’ man, and their goal is to make quality stuff. Never settle. A good producer doesn’t settle; they wait until it’s right, and they put it out when it’s as close to perfect as possible without going mentally insane.

TCUS: What’s the biggest mistake new producers make when trying to produce a record?

Marco Polo: Everybody has their own path, but I think a lot of new producers are shook, you know? They just get in the game and any emcee with any sort of name, if they rap on their beat, they’re just so happy to hear somebody rapping on their beat that it clouds their judgment of whether it’s actually good or not. They’ll just be like, “oh, so and so is rapping on my beat and that’s an achievement,” when they’re rapping on it, but is it a good performance? Is it something that people will like? That’s the difference between a beatmaker and a producer.

TCUS: This is another quote of yours that jumped out to me: “When people stopped paying for music, the bar instantly became lower. Back in the day, if an artist burnt you for $15-20 on a wack LP, you remembered that shit. Now you just delete a file you didn’t pay for and call it a day. Now, all these wack artists are getting a pass on the music they’re putting out. Mediocrity is becoming dope or even ‘genius’.” Tell me about that.

Marco Polo: It’s true. That was the way we used to buy music. We used to go to the store and buy CDs and records. Sometimes we’d buy albums without hearing anything, and you’d go home and be all excited and read the liner notes. If it sucked, that was it; you lost your $20, and then you probably wouldn’t buy that person’s next album. Now, that whole process is gone. You download it and just erase it. No skin off your back, all you lost was time.

The internet ruined quality control. There are so many people putting up albums and songs on the internet, and people with busy lives don’t have time for all that shit. There’s too much stuff. I was talking about it with someone before, it’s hard to keep up with all the new stuff. I have to rely on some of my friends to put me on. Sometimes you’ll miss really incredible stuff, because you just don’t have the patience to go through all of this stuff that you’re being bombarded with.

TCUS: What about the other side of things, and the increasing amount of projects that are being put out for free? How does that impact you and trying to make a living?

Marco Polo: I mean, I can’t hate on that, because I put out an album for free this year. Everyone calls Newport Authority 2 a mixtape, but it was a full album – and I pressed it up on CD and wax, and people still copped it, which was amazing. I recognize what doing that is in 2013 and how it can be a good promotional tool. I think that’s one of the things people have to be aware of; there’s ways to make the interweb work for you as an artist and help promote your music and keep you connected to the newer generation.

TCUS: Now that you’ve made Port Authority 2, so you ever see yourself making a Port Authority 3?

Marco Polo: Never. I’m done. No more producer albums for me. I’m doing other things; it’s too much work. It was great, but now I’m focusing on new stuff. I need a change. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I’m just working on new beats.

TCUS: Where do you see yourself going from here?

Marco Polo: I don’t know. I’ll always like working with one emcee and doing albums like that – similar to the Torae [Double Barrel], or Ruste Juxx [The eXXecution], or Hannibal Stax [Seize the Day] – because it’s easier and less time-consuming. I’m also experimenting with newer production sounds and styles. If that type of stuff will ever be released, I have no idea, but it’s just fun to try new stuff.

[With that being said], it’s always going to hit hard; it’s always going to sound dusty. I had the opportunity to score the theme song for the Brooklyn Nets, so hopefully I can do more work like that. Torae and I had a song in Kick-Ass 2 – it plays right in the middle of the movie – so opportunities like that allow me to be creative and make way more money than just putting out albums.

TCUS: What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Marco Polo: I would love to score a film – that’s what I’d love to do next. Something with some sort of tension or drama. I want to score an emo drama. I feel like I’m good at making music that lingers and adds tension to stuff. But yeah, I just have these new sounds that I’ve been experimenting with, and I would love the challenge of getting a real indie movie. It wouldn’t have to be a hip-hop movie; it could be anything, where I can just create a whole other vibe. Independent producers, holler at me when you’re doing a movie.

TCUS: Any last words for you?

Marco Polo: Thanks for having me on, man. I appreciate it. Anytime anyone still wants to hear what I have to say in 2013 is a blessing.