It all started with the Ghettos & Gardens (released via dirtybird Records in 2012) cover art. That’s what caught my rapt attention initially. The artwork consists of an empty 40 ounce liquor bottle used as a vase for roses – an unlikely visual duet that equally applies to the gritty, yet pretty sounds produced by Cali boy and dirtybird Records’ DJ-producer, Justin Martin. Although Justin made his industry mark in 2003 with “The Sad Piano,” it’s his heavily hip hop influenced house-kisses-techno debut album, Ghettos & Gardens, that ushered in a fresh style of electronic dance music – a style that isn’t besmirched by “EDM” definitions. Outside of his bass-heavy productions, Justin takes interests in music of all sorts as a result of growing up in a childhood surrounded by a wide array of music. His early knack for music has evolved into a passion and career. Justin says, “Long past when I’m done touring as a DJ, I’m still gonna be making music whether it’s dance music, chill house stuff, or jazz…pop, who knows? I’m always gonna be making music.”
His latest project is a collaboration with his label mate, Eats Everything, on the Hello Mr. Jello EP due out next Monday, March 31st via dirtybird Records. The collaborative EP is the product of two producers who have used their keen technique to synchronize their mutual love of deep house, disco, and tech hop to create a quirky (those airplane effects in “King Kong”) and pounding bassline filled dish – perfect to feast on. Here, Justin introduces Life+Times to APEX, Miami Music Week, and Mr. Jello.
Life+Times: Justin, you have so much going on! New EP, new tour, and it’s Miami Music Week. Tell me about the upcoming APEX tour. I noticed that the venues of choice are intimate.
Justin Martin: I’m stoked to be a part of it. If you just look at the lineup with all the artists that are a part of it it’s absolutely insane. I’m so honored to be a part of it. Yeah, the concept is really cool. A lot of times I end up playing these really quick hour-long headline sets at nightclubs. I’ve played from 12 [AM] to 1 [AM] or at a festival sometimes even shorter than that where you just have to pull out all of your crowd pleasers [and] the tracks you know because you have such a limited time. It’s always just such a pleasure being able to play for longer set times in venues that are a little bit more personal for sure. I’m stoked about it. Any gig I get to play with my friends as well always multiplies the fun exponentially.
L+T: It must feel like family. You don’t have to put on a front or be a certain way. You can just be Justin.
JM: Yeah, it’s just much more relaxed. You go into the night just excited to see your friends and hear what they’re going to play. Catz ‘N Dogz are two of my favorite artists. Kill Frenzy and Danny Daze as well. So, yeah I’m stoked. It’s really exciting.
L+T: That’s cool. I noticed next weekend you’re doing an eight-hour set with Eats Everything (Dan Pearce). That will be amazing! So, eight hours! Will you be splitting it out into four hours each? Tell me a little more about it.
JM: It’s definitely going to be an experience for the both of us. Dan and I absolutely love playing together. We’re doing a back-to-back set for the entire night. I’ve done a four-hour set with Dan before back-to-back. There’s very few people that I can tag team with that I feel like we’re almost sharing a brain. We have very, very similar taste in music. He’s one of the most talented DJs. He knows how to read a story, but he also just technically with skill level is just so amazing. We’ll set up four CDJs and we’ll have all four going at once. We’ll just be adding all sort of sound effects and just getting creative. It’s always on a fly. It’s never planned out. When I had this opportunity to do this residency at Exchange, obviously I made a list of artists that I wanted to come and play. When me and Dan talked about the month he was coming to play, I said, ‘We can have an opener or closer. That is up to you.’ He said, “Why don’t we just do the whole night?” It hasn’t been done there at Exchange so we’re both kind of excited. The cool thing with us is there’s so much music that I love that I never get to play because it’s too deep for the time that I’m playing or it’s just not appropriate. With this, we get to go across the board and [we’re] just gonna play all of our favorite stuff from deep house to techno to probably even some jungle. Who knows? Maybe some funk at the end. It’s gonna be fun. We’re so excited to play.
L+T: That’s such a playground! You’re right about the rushed DJ sets, especially at festivals, they’re never long enough. I know in Europe – particularly my experience in Berlin – they have sets that start in the evening and go on well into the next morning. It’s groundbreaking what you both will do at Exchange.
JM: Yeah, I totally agree with you. In Europe, it’s a lot more common to have a longer set. A three-hour set really isn’t even considered an extended set, but here, like, three hours seems like a long time in the US. With EDM I think people have shorter attention spans and stuff like that.
L+T: Tell me about it…
JM: [Laughs] I totally agree with you. We’re gonna try and do something special. We’re trying to have a little bit of a pizza party at the end for everyone who sticks around until the end – for all the troopers. I think it’s gonna be a really fun night. Even though it’s split between the two of us, we’re both playing the whole time. I think the longest I’ve ever played is seven hours. This will definitely be a record breaker for myself.
L+T: DJ Olympics stuff! Let’s talk about the new EP (Hello Mr. Jello) with Dan. Does Steven Jello like disco?
JM: You know, he’s Mr. Jello, Steven. He’s, like, an old friend of ours. He’s a disco king. [Laughs]
L+T: So, he’s a real guy or no? Am I being gullible?
JM: He’s a fictitious character…just a silly name we came up with.
L+T: Ok, I’m gullible. I had to ask.
JM: The track was a little bit deeper and a little bit more serious than the stuff we typically make. We wanted to have a name that counterbalances it and have a little bit more fun.
L+T: I really get the sense of that with “King Kong” too. The plane samples are so fun!
JM: [Laughs] Yeah, the name actually came later. There’s an old track called “Racing Tracks” by Visnadi. It sounds like you’re in the middle of an Indy 500 race, like, race cars zooming by you. We kind of had this idea of doing a track like that with planes. I wanted to capture the vibe of when you’re at DC10 in Ibiza the planes are flying ahead and you look up and see a crazy jet engine. We wanted to have a track that you felt like you actually had planes flying over your head while you’re on the dance floor. Everything just came together. We just called it “Planes” and we thought that was the dumbest thing ever. I don’t know. I was thinking of King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building, like, beating his chest, planes flying by, [and] attacking. So, we just changed the name to that one.
L+T: You know, I had that literally written down in my notes – “song makes me think of King Kong on a building surrounded by planes.” So, same mindset.
JM: [Laughs] Totally!
L+T: As far as your partnership with Dan – from what I’ve been told by producers when they do a collaborative track, album, or EP together it can be a bit of a challenge if you’re not in the studio together. Were you both in the studio together or was this an email back-and-forth situation?
JM: I went and spent the month in Bristol back in November. Last year we had this idea to do a joint album together. Originally I was gonna try and go out for five weeks and then it ended up being four weeks; and then it ended up being three weeks. We were supposed to have the weekends off, but we ended up taking gigs. We only ended up having maybe two weeks to work. We put our heads together and came up with those two tracks. I’m not good at the whole email back-and-forth thing. I’m too much of a control freak. If one thing gets switched out of place and I don’t realize it until later – like until the song has already been released – I’ll be like, ‘Oh man! What happened to that one sound that I liked?’ It’s like when you go to the fridge and someone says, “Oh, I ate something of yours, but I’m not gonna tell you what it is.” Then, you just sit there trying to figure out what it is. That’s a bad analogy, but do you know what I’m saying? Basically, I like to be there. I have to be there in the studio working. Me and Dan work really well together. So, it’s just fun. When we get together and we just have a blast. We have some more studio time in the future to finish up these other projects because we started some really interesting stuff.
L+T: Cool. I’m looking forward to that. I totally understood your analogy. I guess the closest thing I could think of is if you have a recipe, you make the dish, and then you realize that an ingredient is missing. It’s too late because it’s already made.
JM: Right! Perfect. You understand what I’m saying.
L+T: I’m telling you we’re on the same wavelength.
JM: [Laughs] Awesome.
L+T: I hate that I’m not in Miami this year. You have the dirtybird BBQ and this year Just Blaze is the special guest. In the past you’ve had a bunch of different artists that are from the hip hop world – De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the list goes on. With Ghettos & Gardens and everything you produce, you don’t stick to a certain sound. I can’t pigeonhole you into ghettotech, deep house, or any one genre because you incorporate a lot of these influences into your work. With that being said, what would you say is the significance of having an ear for what sounds good and knowing the origins of the music you produce?
JM: That’s a tough question. For me personally, I feel like I was blessed with an awesome musical upbringing. Even when I hated my music lessons as a kid, now I look back and I’m just so thankful. My dad had this amazing classic rock record collection. He would also play classical music [and] jazz music. Throughout my whole childhood I was listening to all kinds of different stuff. Obviously, when I was a kid I liked hip hop as well – A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, and stuff like that. I always had a diverse musical taste. As far as knowing what’s good and what’s not, I guess that’s all kind of subjective. I just know what I like. I try to share that with my music I create. Knowing its history is somewhat important. I don’t really know if it’s that important. I think there’s probably some kids listening to this track that I sampled the bassline from, “Buggin.” They probably don’t even know where that sample’s from. [For] some kids, Tribe is just before their time. I hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. If the track moves them, then that’s cool whether or not they know where it came from. I didn’t even know where the original bass samples came from. I knew I liked it. Q-Tip had recycled it from an old jazz record. So, knowing the history is cool…but for the most part I think it’s about what moves you on the dance floor or just when you’re listening into headphones.
L+T: There’s no way of you knowing everything. When I find out about a sample used with certain producers, I’m even surprised at times. My last question is geared towards every DJ-producer. I know you’re classically trained, but obviously know Ableton Live. Do you think a DJ is a musician?
JM: I don’t think you have to be a musician to be a DJ. I think there are DJs who treat it like a musician; like when you are layering tracks and creating something new on a fly – and not just beat matching but creating something beautiful by mixing two records together. There’s people that perform live as well. Some people can just put a track into an Ableton Live channel and put it up and mix another track in. They can have absolutely no musical background. I think it just depends. I do also believe that the true musicians are the ones that are gonna have longevity in their careers and don’t live off of the hot sound or whatever their cool gimmick is. Some DJs are musicians and some definitely aren’t musicians. Some are beat matchers. Some aren’t even beat matchers and you don’t even have to be able to match beats anymore. There’s a difference between a musician and a performance artist.