San Francisco’s Dirtybird Justin Martin has been bubbling under for years as your favourite underground DJ/producer. But the amiable tech house nut has his sights set on bigger things. The bodacious Bay Area boy has had an insane 2010 — culminating in the massive ‘Mr Spock’ single — and now his extraordinary experimentalism and dope dancefloor nous are finally getting the props they deserve…
Out on the bay the wind whips ferociously at the ferry. The air feels freezing, as the boat bumps over the white horses of dark green, impossibly deep Pacific. But the sky above us is crystal cut, perfect cerulean; the sun beats down hard, and there’s not a cloud in the sky. It’s a perfect day as San Francisco visibly recedes into the distance, the city’s famous signifiers the Coit Tower and Golden Gate Bridge glimmering proudly over the scene, as we approach the forbidding prison island, Alcatraz, perhaps the Californian city’s most infamous landmark. The cold doesn’t seem to bother DJmag’s quarry, though, as he smiles, mellow as a cello, for Lucy, DJmag’s photographer as she snaps him at the back of the ferry, the city gradually shrinking into the distance behind him.
“‘Have a good day in jail’, is what my friend told me,” Dirtybird DJ/producer Justin Martin grins. “It’s not something you hear everyday, is it?” Indeed it isn’t. Just like DJmag, Justin has never been to Alcatraz before, despite living in the city for 10 years. We joke it’s something akin to living in London and never going to the Tower. But somehow, Alcatraz seems the perfect location for our shoot.
Justin Martin, like his mentor and label head honcho Claude Von Stroke, is inseparably entwined with the storied Cali city. He’s synonymous with the Dirtybird label — America’s coolest dance imprint by a country mile — and a unique, gritty sonic stamp that smelts crunchy, thunkin’ tenebrous tech house rhythms with the crunked out, lowrider bass waves of Bay Area hip-hop and the sun-kissed, sexy shimmering funk of the city’s disco and house past. Few others can claim to represent the Bay in dance music with such far-reaching and singular influence as Justin. And the gloomy propensities of Alcatraz, bathed in gorgeous sunshine, seem to symbolize this dichotomy of dark and light just perfectly.
Of course, sooner or later, the funky chicken has to fly the coop. Or in this case, the Dirtybird. Martin has been bubbling under for years, quietly and confidently sculpting the shape of things to come, putting out tracks and mix compilations for Dirtybird as well as Buzzin’ Fly, Classic and Utensil. But in 2010, his star was in the ascendant. Justin was unavoidable. He was absolutely everywhere, and so was his influence. Each month, Martin was bombarding the dance community with another barrage of dancefloor bombs, loosing a new wave of disco napalm that impacted like a rhythmic shockwave with a blast radius that resonates ever deeper by the day. The massive ‘Robot Romance’ single in March; in April, the game-changing mix comp for the second disc of ‘Five Years Of Dirtybird’; in June, a future bass-heavy mix for the online Fact Magazine; in July, the coveted and prestigious Essential Mix for Radio 1; in August, the ‘Cactus EP’. And so on. You get the picture. Finally the groundwork he’s laid has come to fruition and he’s getting the props he’s long deserved.
“It’s definitely been crazy this year,” Justin agrees. “It’s not until this last year that I’ve stuck to this model that I’m going to make it happen, I’m going to work harder than I’ve ever worked before in my entire life, that’s going to be my priority. Now that my priority is working hard, I’m actually having more fun than when my priority was to have fun. I feel like I’ve got the most creative energy that I’ve had in my entire life and I’m just trying to channel it in the best way I can, and enjoy everything along the way.”
As DJmag disembarks and begins our patrol of the Alcatraz complex with Justin and Lucy, our eyes peeled for suitable photo opportunities, the eerie, incessant blast of foghorns echoing sonorously around the Bay, it’s easy to warm to this amiable tech house cat, as he opens up about his increasingly crazy life. Martin holds forth on his folks’ place in Hawaii, where he’s just built a home studio away from the madness and distraction of SF, and how one of his best gigs of the year – at London’s Eastern Electrics rave – he spent nursing several broken ribs, an occupational hazard of working in nigh-on pitch-black clubs the whole time. Chilled and personable, and a far cry from the arrogance of the jumped-up superstar DJ, Justin is essentially a regular guy doing something quite extraordinary.
The first to adapt the galactic, spacewalk serenity of classic drum & bass atmospherics, ambient pads and booming sub low 808 bass depth charges to typically house music structures — invoking the spectre of classic Photek, PFM and of course LTJ Bukem — he’s consistently led where others have followed; but it’s taken them years to catch up. Now, tracks like the deeply phuturistic chrome-craft funker ‘The Fugitive’, and its bowel-quaking, prolapse-inducing sub scraping bass, mixed with emotive organ house qualities, and his remix of Tim Green’s ‘Revox’ with classic Bukem bass booms riding hooky house melodies, have become de rigeur. These are hybrid, mongrel tunes that seem tailor-made for the new generation of dance nuts; built to excite kids used to shuffle mode and having 40 years of musical history contained on their iPods, available at the flick of a button. Sweat-drenched, strobe-flickered, Justin’s infernal bassy beats make club heads lose their minds, d&b freaks admit they’ve always had a soft spot for house, make breaks purists succumb to the 4/4 beat, hip-hop heads snap their necks nodding, and of course, techno heads call for the DJ to wheel it back to the top.
“I’ve always just tried to be as creative and different as I can,” Justin shrugs, in response to DJmag’s quizzing about his bass-centric productions. “When I started making music, I had this backlog of intelligent drum & bass, and that was the sound I grew up listening to in my early electronic music days. I wanted to hear that sound, but a tech house version of it. I wanted to hear the big 808 bass sounds, and the crazy atmospheric melodies, but over really tough tech house beats. I just wanted to make something that wasn’t out there. Every track I do, I take inspiration from different styles of music and try to put it into something that doesn’t really fit into a specific genre.”
Bass music producers listen to Martin’s tracks and take notes. And as dubstep producers move closer to house, everyone’s taking his lead, using the ideas he brought to the forefront, and inserting his tracks into their DJ sets. The bass-powered style he coined has become the template for young producers particularly in the UK to follow, and his hard work is finally vindicated. And far from being affronted, he’s glad that he’s got more appropriate tracks to load into his sets than ever.
“I definitely think it’s cool,” Justin says, sanguine, as we grab a beer back in town afterwards to put some more talk down on tape. “When I hear the stuff that [Bristol producer and fellow Dirtybird] Julio Bashmore’s making, it fills in that gap. When I’m sitting there looking for a cool record on Beatport, that fits a specific sound, an atmosphere, tough beats but beautiful melodies, and I stumble across it, then I’m happy. Bass makes people happy. You have something that you can physically feel coming through the speakers. I’m always trying to make more farty, nasty, disgusting, speaker-rattling bass sounds, and combine them with something really pretty, I think when you can achieve something like that, then I think it sounds cool.”
But he’s not one to adapt his DJ sets to fit the latest trends. With his gig diary becoming ever more demanding and taking him to more and more exotic locations around the atlas, he’s doing what he’s always done. So he’ll stick the odd Joy Orbison post-dubstep track in here, or an MJ Cole UK funky number there, but always on his terms, adapting and editing them to suit his particular requirements, fastidiously eschewing the bits he doesn’t like and ramping up the killer parts to make trim, fat-free, wall-to-wall funk-a-thons.
“I’m definitely into the stuff that’s on the borderline of genres. MJ Cole has some tracks with a UK funky rhythm, but I’ll end up doing my own edits of some of these tracks. They’ll get to a certain cheese factor I can’t handle, but parts of the track are so ill, I’ll be like, I have to play this!” he raves. “So I’ll end up just editing the cheesy part out and playing the edited version in my sets. But this is the way that I’ve always looked at it, a good track is a good track, and it doesn’t matter the genre, if it’s good I’ll find a way to mix it into my set.”
Justin has never sat still in his mission to secure the perfect beat. A huge fan of hip-hop, particularly the minimal swing and synthetic bleeps ‘n’ 909s of the Bay Area’s crunked up Hyphy scene, tracks like E-40’s ‘Tell Me When To Go’, as well as the Korg keyboard fantasies of arch producers like Lil Jon, The Neptunes and Timbaland, he’s increasingly incorporated the more technoid qualities of the form into his tracks, which has reached its apotheosis with latest tune ‘Mr Spock’. Produced alongside young firebrand Ardalan, it’s been one of his biggest hits to date, a monstrous club smash that has leveled dancefloors and bulldozed festivals in its mission for global supremacy. A simple, but deadly effective house cut, pivoted on two very prominent samples, one in particular looping a segment of a superstar West Coast rap icon’s most famous Neptunes-produced hit (hint, hint), it’s the perfect way of transforming a hip-hop groove by altering its rhythm track. But it almost never got released on Dirtybird, due to Claude Von Stroke’s worries about major label lawyers and sample litigation.
“The first time I played it was at a Dirtybird party, and Barclay came running up to me, and was like, ‘Dude, what is this? We need to put it out!’ He’s always been a stickler for samples, and he was just like, ‘Yeah, there’s no way I can put this out. It’s very close to being a straight-up bootleg’.
“Ardalan did such a brilliant job with the drum programming. It’s done in such a fresh way, it’s unbelievable. We weren’t expecting it to really go anywhere and eventually, we played it a few more times, Barclay played it at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, and it killed it. He said, ‘That’s it, I’ve got to put it out! We’ll do it super-limited and hopefully we won’t get any phone-calls from big record companies’.”
The rest is history; released in September, it’s arguably Justin’s biggest collaborative hit to date. Essentially a remix of protégé Ardalan’s track, their hook up came about after Justin met Ardalan through his girlfriend and heard his work-in-progress demos.
“I met him through my girlfriend. He’s this super-nice kid from San Jose, which is not too far from here, 45 minutes away. She said, ‘You gotta meet this guy, he’s a huge Dirtybird fan’. We all hung out one day together and he started playing me some music. I was like, wow, this guy is super-talented, but at the time he was only 18 or 19-years-old. So I said, ‘keep sending me tracks’. We just became good friends, and he’s like this guy who is part of this new generation, and they can’t get into our Dirtybird parties cos they’re underage (under 21), but they’ll come to our park parties. And they will rock out with this crazy enthusiasm, to the point where they’ve started doing their own renegade parties. It’s like, ‘yes! There’s a new generation coming through!’ He sent me this track one day via Soundcloud that was 10-minutes long, it was called ‘Backdrop’ or something like that. It went all over the place but there were parts of the track that were so badass, the way he arranged it.
“I just wanted a go at it, to mix it into something I could play. He gave me the parts and I did my own remix of it, and I chopped it down to about five-and-a-half minutes long, looped the best parts, and added some stuff to the build up.”
PAST, PRESENT, PHUTURE
Justin Martin wasn’t born in San Francisco. It was on a wing and a prayer that this Dirtybird flew in, after being raised in West Hartford, Connecticut on the East Coast of the United States by music-loving parents who instilled an appreciation of music — and house-quaking volume — in him from an early age.
“Both of my parents were into classic rock. And my dad was a huge vinyl collector. So from as early as I can remember, he would blast his stereo system. Pretty much every night at our house he’d be pulling out old Led Zeppelin, or The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who, and turning it up so loud that the whole house would shake and rumble.
“When I was four-years-old, I started taking piano lessons. I hated it growing up, but now I look back and I’m so happy my parents made me do that. I played saxophone from the time I was in the third grade. Jazz was probably the biggest part of my musical life before my DJ career or love of electronic music. I was just obsessed with jazz.”
It was jazz, ironically, that gave him his first taste of dance music, albeit indirectly. On a school trip with his jazz big band to London at the age of 15, he chanced upon an early breakbeat rave classic that would change him forever.
“It was the Future Sound of London’s ‘Papua New Guinea’. I remember hearing that at Tower Records when I was on a jazz band tour with my high school in London, and I thought, ‘wow, what is this?’ Later I ended up falling in love with all the early LTJ Bukem Logical Progression stuff, and Metalheadz, Goldie, Rob Playford, Moving Shadow. That’s what got me into electronic music to start with.”
These influences continue to pepper his productions to this day. But it was brother Christian, another member of the Dirtybird family who he records with as The Martin Brothers, and a formidable DJ in his own right, that would really set him on the path to a career as a DJ.
“A lot of it had to do with my brother, he’s two-and-a-half years older than me, and he’d gone away to college and gone to his first rave. He’d give me all these mixtapes and stuff from all these desert parties that he was going to out in California. I’d come out to visit, he went to school down in the LA area, and he used to go to these raves called the Moontribe parties. These now-famous full-moon desert gatherings. All of this had an influence on me. I picked up DJing as a hobby. My first record ever was the ‘Logical Progression Vol.1’ double vinyl pack. I still have the record sleeve up on my wall.”
The two final parts of the jigsaw saw Justin move to San Francisco in 1999, where there was a drum & bass drought. Going to house music parties instead, he began to fall in love with the 4/4 beat, and the style of soulful house types Mark Farina and Miguel Migs, then the quintessential exponents of the SF house sound. But he still held a torch for his beloved d&b, which is how he came to combine the two disparate sonics into his own unique hybrid. The first big Justin Martin hit, 2003’s ‘The Sad Piano’ surfaced on Ben Watt’s respected deep house stable, Buzzin’ Fly, but it contained none of the elements that he would become known for. That would come when his brother Christian met Barclay Crenshaw, (later christened Claude Von Stroke) the mastermind behind Dirtybird, and the two were introduced, beginning their dastardly, funky masterplan in earnest.
“He was film editing, and had his own film side project called Intellect. The idea behind the movie was a how-to-DJ tutorial. At the time there were all these how-to-be-a-scratch-DJ tutorials, but there were none telling you how to become a house or techno or trance DJ. So he was on a mission to interview all these big DJs to find out how they had achieved their success, like Paul van Dyk, Derrick Carter, across the board. He took all this knowledge and made a movie out of it. At the time, I had just graduated from college, and DJing was completely my passion. My brother was helping him to edit this film, and he was like, ‘You need to talk to this guy, he can tell you the steps you need to make it in this business if you really want to do it’. I sat down with Barclay and he actually kind of took me on as a project to see if what he was researching in this movie could work. He started off as my manager, and in return I gave him a bunch of tunes to put on the DVD.
“After he saw that I started to become successful, he wanted to get back into DJing too, he was like, ‘this works’. That’s kind of how the Dirtybird crew came about. My roommate from New York, Worthy, I told him what we were doing, that we were going to be doing these outdoor parties, and he moved to San Francisco, he said, ‘I want to be part of that too!’ It was the four of us — Barclay, me, Worthy and my brother. After our first successful party we sat down and said, ‘We need a name for the crew’. We were in a bar like this. Barclay was scribbling these bird pictures on a beermat, and I don’t remember who said it, but they said, ‘that is a dirty, dirty bird!’ We were like, alright, Dirtybird, that’s the crew. Two years after the parties became successful, Barclay started the record label.”
Years later, and Claude Von Stroke is now a hugely successful DJ, while Dirtybird has become renowned for its Bay Area conflations of Detroit techno, crunk and minimalism, with a healthy touch of tongue-in-cheek humour that pokes fun at the seriousness of furrowed brow Berlin posers. It’s a quality which runs in a rich seam through Justin’s music, and is evident on his mix CD for the mammoth three CD ‘Five Years Of Dirtybird’ compilation, released earlier this year. A Herculean task by any standards, it’s his blend that really stands out, filled as it is with freaky, funky, in-the-pocket grunts and bumps, little humorous skits, and lush, next-gen future house manoeuvres. Above all, it’s the spirit of fun that elevates it, and all his work, above the conventional and into the realms of the exceptional. And this spirit of fun is something that is naturally conveyed by his warm, easy-going attitude as a person, too.
“I want to have a good time,” Justin philosophizes. “That’s one of my priorities in life. And when people pay to go see a DJ, they want to smile, they want to dance. I started out as the kid that went out to parties, and when you go out and you hear the same music the entire night long, it’s not gonna be as memorable a night as if you go out and see a DJ who’s really enjoying himself and trying to put a smile on people’s faces.”
Looking forward, there’s a new EP ready to drop (like it’s hot) in late January that Justin suggests is in a similar mode to ‘Mr Spock’, but he’s reticent to talk about it until it’s finished. There’s also the matter of the much-mooted and anticipated album, which will finally see the light of day in 2011.
“A long time ago there was talk of me doing an album for Buzzin’ Fly,” he admits. “I tried, but I wasn’t there yet musically. I hadn’t discovered what my sound was yet. I think right now is the hardest I’ve ever worked and it’s the most inspired I’ve ever been. This is the year I said I’d make it happen. I’m going to go to my parent’s house in Hawaii, and not come out until I have half of it done. I’m taking another month off, most of January off, to finish it. I have tons of ideas, I’ve drafted the whole thing out. We’ll see what happens.”
With that in mind, it looks like 2011 will be even crazier than its preceding year, but Justin’s taking it all in his stride.
“I definitely want to keep on making good electronic music, and retire with that big house in the hills with the nice view — and someday rule the world!” He pauses, reflecting, and then takes another lug of his pint of Sam Adams. “But I’ll take it one beer at a time.”
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