This was a feature written for DJ Mag sometime in ’06 or ’07.
The Martinez Brothers are a publicists’ dream come true. A super-talented teenage DJ duo that got their big break after becoming MySpace buddies with Dennis Ferrer, they have it all: youth, skill, good looks and a great story. Yet the most remarkable thing about them is how poorly that set of facts describes them, how much lies beneath the sound-bite surface of their success.
The story of the Martinez Brothers – and what it suggests they may mean to house music in particular and dance culture in general – is as opaque and arresting as their wide, dark eyes.
Steve Jnr appears first, a slip of a kid in baggy shorts and trendy black half-rimmed glasses. His eyes flicker, the “oh geez, Dad, please don’t embarrass” me gesture universal to teenagers. We’re bunkered away from the blazing Ibiza sun in the unlit, unopened lounge at the back of El Hotel Pacha. Steven Martinez Senior, a manager for an elevator company, proudly recounts his sons’ boyhood musical achievements. How Stevie loved drumming and “whatever he was into, Chris wanted to get into.”
His eldest son eyes him warily. “I’ll go get Chris.” A minute later the Martinez Brothers return and their father melts into the background. They are both wearing fitted white tee-shirts, chunky diamond studs in their left ears. Chris wears a fat gold chain that hangs almost to his waist, anchored by a cross. Both sport trendy Fifty9 baseball caps, worn at jaunty angles – Steve’s backwards, Chris’ slewed forward across his ruler-straight, close-cropped fringe. Steve is the spokesman: courteous, articulate, informed (he’s planning to vote for Barack Obama because “for him to win would change history”). Chris is mischievous, funny, cocky (asked what his hobbies are he deadpans, “ballroom dancing.” Then snickers at his joke.)
It is day three of their first-ever visit to Ibiza. They’ve hired scooters and tooled around the island. They are staying in an expensive designer hotel. Last night they were “chilling with Erick Morillo” at Defected, at Pacha. Tonight, they’ll be joining him on the bill at Subliminal Sessions. Neither of them seems to find these facts remarkable. In the larger context of their career they aren’t.
Using the word “career” when talking about a 16 and a 19-year-old feels strange. Like they should be Britney Spears-style stage school brats or geeky child prodigies (they aren’t). There isn’t any other word though, given the brothers have been professional musicians since roughly the ages of nine and 13.
The eldest of four children, Steve and Chris grew up in the Bronx. Ironically, they were the reason their father, a self-confessed house head, give up clubbing. “I was really into the scene. Going to the Paradise Garage, everything. But then I got married, had kids, that was my priority. I didn’t set foot in a club from 1987 till 2003,” Steve Snr says.
Young Steve and Chris were obsessed with music. Their Gran bought a toy drum kit as a present and the pair bloomed into in-demand freelance percussionists. “Bands used to call up our dad and ask, ‘can we hire your kids for the weekend?’” Steve recalls with a chuckle.
“We had this regular gig in Connecticut. We’d get up at 5AM on Saturday morning, pack our instruments and drive up there, listening to Jamiroquai,” Chris adds, as if the only unusual thing about being a 10-year-old professional musician were the hours.
Dance music re-entered the Martinez house partially as an antidote to hip hop, Chris says. “I was into Jay-Z, 50 Cent, stuff like that. Our dad didn’t vibe with their messages so he started bringing us different CDs.” The giants of hip hop didn’t stand a chance as the brothers threw themselves into the sounds of Jellybean Benitez, Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez and Timmy Rutherford.
When Steve said he wanted to be a DJ, though, his dad hesitated, not wishing to expose them to the dance music lifestyle (“they’re good kids. They go to church. They didn’t know there is more than music involved,” Steve Snr confides). Still, assuming decks would be a short-lived hobby, he bought them a pair of CDJs.
He needn’t have worried. Chris and Steve have a connoisseur’s passion for dance music – to the point the scene seems almost incidental. Ask who their musical heroes are and Steve sighs at the mundane question. “We studied – we study – everyone from Stevie Wonder to guys like Villalobos and Luciano, everything….”
It doesn’t seem remarkable to them, as it would to anyone older, that house music can be an object of artistic consideration. If they are aware that most people (both inside and outside the scene) view electronic music as fundamentally, intrinsically connected with drug culture they don’t let on. Not that they’re naive. Steve shrugs when asked what they think of playing to clubs full of people getting high: “that’s their way of having a high…”
“Ours is making music,” Chris chips in.
They approach music with a passion and a savvy that belies their age. A year or so ago, when Chris was 15, he started messaging Dennis Ferrer on MySpace. “That hook-up was my genius idea,” he quips. Chris can’t say what it was that made the revered house producer and Objektivity label boss curious about the youngster (at a guess, his insouciant cool and bone-dry wit) but he was. Mixes were exchanged and Ferrer invited the boy to play his night at Shelter in New York City. “So I asked if I could bring my brother along,” he says with a grin
Still shy of legal drinking age in the US, they had to arrive at Shelter after the bar closed at 4AM. Most DJs would blanch at having to follow Dennis Ferrer on the decks, but they didn’t. A partnership was born that night as effortless innovator Ferrer recognized a kindred spirit in the two skinny kids from the Bronx. Since then “Uncle Dennis” has been friend and mentor (they share management and he released their first record). “If we’re in the studio we’ll send stuff over to him. If he says it’s wack, it goes,” Chris says. The relationship works both ways. “He sends us stuff too. We tell him if it’s any good.”
This unlikely friendship has brought the Martinez Brothers into the Pantheon of the demigods of house music: Kenny ‘Dope’, Erick, Roger Sanchez. “All our friends are, like, 30 or 40,” Steve says with a laugh. It would be easy to think, cynically, that Chris and Steve are a mere novelty, a way for older house jocks to stir up a bit of publicity and attract a younger audience. Anyone who has seen them DJ knows better.
At 2AM the main room of Pacha is buzzing. Erick and a few friends are standing in the VIP area but every eye is on Chris and Steve in the DJ box. They are a two-headed, four-armed music machine, spinning around each other to grab CDs, fingers flying across the effects unit, heads bopping, never missing a beat. They aren’t just students of house music, they’re teachers, preachers, revivalists. Classic disco samples spin into faultless, pumping tech house and shots of vocals raise goose-pimples on arms. It isn’t just the music that’s infectious, it’s their attitude. Anyone else would be trying hard, they aren’t. They don’t have to. “It’s like seeing Masters At Work for the first time,” an awestruck punter exclaims. And he’s right; the Martinez Brothers belong here. Musically, stylistically, creatively, they are something special.
The sheer joy in their performance is infections. Summer is their chance to enjoy DJing without Chris, a high school senior, and Steve, a third-year liberal arts student, having to rush home for classes Monday morning. They are dutiful about their education but they know what the future holds. “Music, music, music,” Chris says emphatically.
Watching them wrap Pacha around their little fingers is enough to make the toughest skeptic a believer. Not just that they’ll get the production success, record label and high-flying DJ career they want, but that they are re-writing the rules of dance. That they are the first of a generation to take house music seriously, as music, and by doing so will take it further than anyone has before.