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The Martinez Brothers

Steve and Chris Martinez combine the bygone spirit of their NYC hometown with the best of Ibiza and Berlin.Nobody does it quite like our DJs of the year

  • Words: Digby / Photos: Andrew Cotterill / Styling: Ryan Hollings / Grooming: Andrea Gomez Anzola
  • 20 December 2014

A balmy night in Italy, late August 2014. The owner of DC10 has just tied the knot. It's now late evening, and the wedding band play inoffensive classics and jazz standards. There's a relaxed atmosphere and the cake is finished. Nobody's dancing, though. Sitting around a table, a trio of tipsy guests are hatching a plot. "We have to get on," they all agree. "I play double bass, so that's all good", says Kerri. "Steve, you take the keys..." They overthrow two band members but the third plotter encounters a little more resistance. "So I'm playing along with these two?", the wedding drummer asks. "No, brother," replies Chris. "You're up too." There's a silence as the new band take their positions. A mixture of confusion and intrigue fills the room. Is this all part of the entertainment? It starts with a funk-laced, two-bar double-bass riff – the sort that could very well underpin a classic track on Madhouse. With a huge grin, Chris drops a crazy ass-shaking salsa rhythm over the top. Steve's got a michievious look in his eyes as he lays down strong jazz chords. The trio improvise around the same riff for 10 minutes – by which time the floor's full. Out of sheer showmanship they all swap instruments before treating the guests to more feel-good disco and funk. The original band don't come back on. Who can blame them? As DJs worldwide know all too well, The Martinez Brothers are a hard act to follow. Especially with Kerri Chandler on double-bass.

"PLAYING LIKE THAT is second nature to us," says Chris of that night in Italy. The younger of the two brothers, he is gangly and chilled, with friendly dark eyes and a soft, musical Bronx drawl. "Growing up we used to jam in our dad's church all the time." Early video footage shows a eight-year-old Chris, puppy fat in place of his now refined cheeks and bushy black beard, intensely bashing on the congas while his brother mans the drums with a look of fierce concentration. "It was a real education to improvise along with the older musicians," adds Steve. The older of the two, his grooming is more clean cut and manner a little more concise. He's just as chilled, though. "We'd play disco classics like MFSB's 'Love Is The Message'. Dad loved it." A regular at legendary clubs like David Macuso's Loft and The Paradise Garage, it's pretty obvious why their father enjoyed watching his boys play such tunes, and in many ways nothing's really changed. The Martinez Brothers still drop legendary Salsoul tracks in their sets. They've just swapped their father's church for another place of worship: DC10.

In 2014 the brothers owned both the main room and the garden of the landmark Ibiza club. Throughout the summer their loveable personalities flowed out onto the dancefloor, where nations bounced to their soulful tech grooves. Their positivity was infectious – looking up to the booth, clubbers saw two DJs who love the music they play. They're the guys you want to party with. "Me and Steve are always dancing in the booth. If we're not dancing how can we expect them to?" says Chris. It's a cliché, but on their dancefloor such simple ideas become blatant truths. Not since a young act by the name of Masters At Work has a DJ duo had quite so much charisma behind the decks. Kenny Dope's mood is replaced by Chris beaming like a a madman, Lil Louis Vega's bobbing shoulders with Steve's body snaking to the groove, elbows out to form triangles with his forearms as if his movement is guided by Pythagoras's theorem. Mixmag jumps up to parody him. "C'mon! Shut up!" Steve laughs. Meanwhile, Chris is loving watching his older brother getting some grief, laughing like a balloon letting out air. "It comes from salsa," Steve explains. "We were in salsa bands before we even knew what house music was. And our grandmother made sure we new how to dance to it."

As their popularity grew, clubbers returned home to spread the word and the season cumulated in their iconic closing-party set with friends Seth Troxler and Jamie Jones. Of course, the year has also seen them play killer sets at Fabric, Creamfields, Southport Weekender, Sankeys, Elrow, Tomorrowland, Ultra and Tenax. But DC10 is particuarly special, and intricately entwined in the story of their success.

Their relationship with the Ibiza club started back in 2011. It was their first season on the island, and originally they had been booked as residents, with Dennis Ferrer, at the about-to-launch Ushuaïa. With two weeks to go the residency was pulled. "We thought, 'What the fuck are we going to do?" admits Chris. "We had an apartment in Ibiza but with no residency." Perhaps seeing the more commercial direction Ushuaïa would take, the universe had other plans for the boys. Their friend Elliot James Shaw introduced them to a few people at DC10, and they were given their first gig: 6pm in the main room. It's common for DJs to envisage playing to a packed room with a killer vibe. It's also common for that daydream to be shattered when they walk into an empty venue. "There was nobody in there. I was so pissed off," says Steve shaking his head. "But dude... I'm not kidding you bro, don't ask me where these people came from...!" Fifteen minutes after they dropped the needle on the first record the tumble-weed was gone and the room was mobbed (there's a pattern emerging). What did they play to entice the hordes in from the sunkissed terrace? "Straight up 90s jams: Chez Damier, Kenny Dope..." A golden age of house music, and a period they know inside out.

The Martinez Brothers grew up deep within New York's soulful house scene. Rich in musicality and song structure, it's a sound that you'll struggle to hear these days unless you're a Southport Weekender regular. While much of UK's current house scene is informed by the UK garage people heard growing up, or the early 90s MK grooves nostalgically championed by the likes of Bicep, the late-90s, early-00s house scene remains very much off the radar. People are starting to skim the surface; Kerri Chandler, MAW and increasingly Chicago's Ron Trent have become names to drop. But it still tends to be early-90s work that's mined. Woefully absent are Dennis Ferrer's releases on Large, Frankie Feliciano's Nite Groove classics, uplifting vocal beauties on Sfere and the depths of François K's Wave Music. Fortunately this period won't ever be forgotten: The Martinez Brothers embody it.

"We were lucky that we caught all that," recalls Chris. "We went to Vinylmania (a famous New York record shop) and got to play the Shelter, (Timmy Regisford's legendary club night). "We were hanging out with dudes older than us all the time," adds Steve. "That's important. You learn from them."

At the time the NY scene was a tight-knit community. Everyone was very meticulous about their mixing, and the soundsystems. There was a lot of competition, and you had to be at the top of your game because DJs were watching. It was in this competitive environment that the boys flourished. They would play 300-capacity parties organised by their father. "It was very hard to get on line-ups," explains fellow DJ and tour manager Filsonik in his quintessential New York drawl. "Putting on your own parties was the smart thing to do." Their sets created a buzz, and when they did get to play to play bigger clubs like Cielo they destroyed them. Soon Dennis Ferrer took the brothers under his wing, and through mutual contacts they started branching out of New York city and playing gigs in New Jersey.

While the parties weren't really their scene ("Bottle service and cute girls," says Filsonik with a grin), it meant they weren't restricted to house for the heads – and so refined their skills by laying down everything from hip hop to disco. During this soulful stage they'd also play some harder parties. Eric Morillo booked them for Pacha, and was actually the first to take them to Ibiza back when he still had Subliminal there. They were getting a taste of the big-room sound.

But there was one more crucial link in the path to their current sound, a city that inspires all those that visit: Berlin. "Every time they came back from Europe they'd have added something to what they were about," says Jesse Callosso, fellow NYC producer and childhood friend. In fact it wasn't a German but Ibadan label boss Jerome Sydenham who was behind the brothers' Berlin initiation. He took them to Bar 25 after they played his Ibadan label night at Panoramabar. It happened to be the last night Bar 25 was ever open. "At that moment we fully understood techno," recalls Chris. "That it wasn't about big room – it was about groove. I remember being on the floor and someone telling me, 'You're seeing the last of a beautiful thing right now. Take it in.'" Once again, the brothers were lucky enough catch the tail-end of something special, a unique time in Berlin that most people their age will never experience nor understand. Make no mistake, they were young – Chris missed his flight that night... and therefore school the next day.

"I'M BENNY BLANCO from the Bronx!" snarls Steve. We're in the presidential suite of London's Plaza hotel for the Mixmag cover shoot and the Carlito's Way quotes keep coming, in keeping with the gangster theme of the shoot. "Ain't nuffin' but nuffin' but right!" chirps Filsonik, his accent absolutely nailing the Pacino impression. Shoots can be long and tiresome, but the boys remain upbeat and positive. It's easy to tell they've been brought up well: they have the patience and respect that comes from a close relationship with their elders (their grandmother, particularly) and a tight family unit. Once they finish faux-flirting with our models, we break for lunch and talk about their label Cuttin' Headz.

"We hope we can inspire a whole new generation of kids," says Chris. "We want them to make the best music they can and have fun with it," adds Steve, scribbling tribal patterns on a notepad (and actually creating the artwork for the label). Cuttin' Headz is about celebrating the diversity of The Martinez Brothers' tastes. The first release on the label, 'Tree House', is a percussive, tribal roller with trippy vocal samples – the sort of thing you'd expect to hear in their sets. But take a listen to their SoundCloud page and you'll also find a real eclectic collection of beats. The fact that, unlike so many DJs, they're booked worldwide on the strength of their DJ skills alone means they are free to make the music they want. And more often than not, this is hip hop (after all, they are from the Bronx). A recent offering, 'WARHOL*BASQUIAT*2' is a collection of funk, jazz and hip hop loops put together old-skool MPC-style: raw and filled with groove. Earlier in the year they released 'Sunday Service' with Bodega Bamz, an LP complete with a guest spot from Raekwon. The tracks give a nod to a range of hip hop styles, from classic East Coast to the ethereal beats of MF Doom. Need more evidence of their passion for hip hop? 'Cuttin' Headz' is also the name of a classic joint from Ol' Dirty Bastard and RZA.

Their other label is Tuskegee, which they run with Seth Troxler. The first release was 'Time And Space', a collab between the three of them that's both cosmic and industrial. Their respect for Troxler is clear, and they give Mixmag a little insight of what's to come. "The crazy shit he's being making in this New York studio..." says Chris, shaking his head in disbelief. "Dude. It's insane – there's a synth shop next to the studio and he's been going in every day." It's easy to see that their friendship with Seth runs deeper than just a common love of music. They have a shared view of the world, from conspiracy theories to spirituality and the importance of culture. "Worldwide there's less and less experience being passed down the generations," says Chris. As always, his voice embodies the emotion he's feeling – this time, one of sadness. "People are cool with what they're being fed on a mass scale."

He's right: in this digital age traditions are becoming a thing of the past. But The Martinez Brothers have no such culture void. From their father's Paradise Garage stories to the record shops of the East Village, they're what happens when the soul of the Bronx meets the spirit of Berlin. Despite the many offshoots, there is a royal bloodline to house music, and The Martinez Brothers are the rightful heirs to the throne. Their fusion of New York's golden age with Berlin and Ibiza's underground is the reason they're our DJs of the year.

Destination Void's 'Between Worlds' EP, the second release on Cuttin' Headz, is out now

[Photos: Andrew Cotterill, Kevin Lake]

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