One month to prepare nine minutes of unique material directed squarely at your opponent, with hundreds of thousands of fans tuning in and no control over the barbs thrown your way once the cameras start rolling.
Such is the cutthroat nature of the a cappella battle rap leagues where Dirtbag Dan sharpened his skills. A star of the scene, Dan (born Daniel Martinez) has battled in Sweden, the U.K. and the Philippines. But no matter how far across the globe his rhymes have taken him, he's never forgotten to pay homage to his hometown of San Jose with his signature battlecry: "The Zae, baby!"
His comedic approach, novel for its time, earned Martinez adoration and scorn alike as he rose in the ranks of the 2000s battle rap scene. It also set him up for a transition into stand-up comedy, which he started pursuing in earnest after retiring from battle rap in 2015, after 75 bouts and over 14 million total views online.
Though Martinez bowed out of battling, he's hasn't stepped completely away from the mic. His Dirtbag Dan Show video podcast, broadcasting since 2012, established him as a battle rap commentator and comedic personality. With 3rtys, his new album out Aug. 30, he presents a work he admits is his most cohesive project to date. It's also a monumental South Bay pairing, with production by Rey Resurreccion, a fellow San Jose rap heavyweight.
Compared to the outward aggression required to dominate one's opponent in a rap battle, 3rtys finds Martinez channeling his focus inward. "Suburbanites," a fan favorite from 2014's Dirtbag Dan LP, signaled that shift four years ago with a startlingly honest portrait of his upbringing. He further mines that creative space on his latest release, but not at the expense of the punchlines that earned him acclaim in the battle arena.
“There’s a lot less uncertainty in my life these days and a lot more accountability,” says Martinez. “I hope the album reflects that.”
He's pliable lyrically over the nine-song set, and Resurreccion's production remains constantly dialed into Martinez's vibe. There’s the quick and quippy “Socials” with closing couplet “Even the president’s a twitter troll / The next President will be elected via Twitter poll.” “532AM” gets more personal, with Martinez sharing “My brother got popped with a shottie, he’ll probably see prison now / I can’t get him out, $90,000 bail, he’s just chilling in a cell / Trying to hit me on the cell, I was probably on a plane.”
“Caddy PH Immortal” is similarly pensive, with Martinez pondering life in the wake of losing two battle rap colleagues, Cadalack Ron and P.H. His tightly tightly-tailored vocal pattern adds a double-time immediacy to a bedrock of laid-back, searching keys and skittering hi-hats.
Despite the chemistry they exude on 3rtys, it took Martinez and Ressurreccion 20 years of orbiting in overlapping circles of the San Jose rap scene to finally come together.
“We've been on different ends of the spectrum in the scene for a long time,” notes Resurreccion inside his Japantown studio. Though the two are plenty familiar with one another—they both rose out of the city’s freestyle rap scene in their teens—they followed different musical trajectories in the years that followed.
While Martinez was building his rep on the battle rap league circuit, Resurreccion was honing his craft in studio, continuing to showcase his chops as an MC and producer over a series of slick, thoughtful releases.
“We represent every aspect of this city. Any parts that I didn’t fully immerse myself in, he did,” says Martinez. “This feels like a San Jose project more than anything else I’ve ever done.”
3rtys wasn’t planned: it started a year and a half ago, when Martinez stopped by Resurreccion’s studio to pick up three beats, which eventually became the tracks "Danger," "Socials" and "Church."
“Any good project I’ve ever worked on has come together like that, where it’s not super thought-out. It kind of just starts rolling into a bigger ball,” says Martinez.
"Church" is the best showcase of Resurreccion's catered production approach. The beat never grows complacent, constantly shifting under Martinez's bars, sometimes even in the span of the same verse. "Danger," the album's darkest track, dives head-first into the struggles of exercising tough love with someone caught in the spiral of addiction.
After collaborating in secret for a year, “Sheet of Cid,” the album’s party anthem, was the first taste of 3rtys. Martinez released the song in March accompanied by a video of him and his friends in the desert, mid acid trip.
Compared to his ferocious, take-no-prisoners demeanor in those archived battles, 3rtys finds Martinez in a more patient, contemplative mood. As the title suggests, it's indicative of where the two artists are in their respective careers.
Both in their mid-thirties, Martinez and Resurreccion admit it’s surreal to still be recording and performing after so many former colleagues have hung it up. Both bonafide veterans of the South Bay scene, there’s a definite confidence in their craft and process.
“There’s this poise that comes along with being confident in your training,” says Resurreccion. “I think when you can have more of a clear picture of that, all this uncertainty fades away a little bit more.”
Dirtbag Dan headlines the 3rtys record release party on Aug. 30 at the Elbo Room in San Francisco. Details here.