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Full Circle: In the Studio With The Martinez Brothers and Arthur Baker

They both made their careers on “Planet Rock.” Now, they make magic in Miami.

Kat Bein

If you know anything about modern house music, you're familiar with the name Martinez Brothers. The 20-something producers are the original EDM child stars. They were working with dance legends like Dennis Ferrer when you were trying to get a date to Homecoming.

Conversely, it takes a real music junkie to recognize Arthur Baker, which is ironic given the importance and general beloved nature of his own musical offerings. Anyone who follows hip-hop or electronica in the slightest heralds the classic "Planet Rock." It's instrumental to the evolution of contemporary music, and Baker was instrumental in its construction.

Until Baker invited the boys from the Bronx to join him in the studio in Miami last month, he didn't know that "Rock" was instrumental to the Martinez Brothers' career.

"You know 'Planet Rock' is the reason we got famous, right?" Steve Martinez says offhand.

"What's this?" Baker perks up, smiling from his seat in the back corner armchair.

Turns out, the Martinez Brothers trace their meteoric rise to a viral video of a Winter Music Conference set in 2006. Before videophones were ubiquitous, someone happened to be filming the then-teenage DJs and caught them dropping Baker's '86 classic. The club went nuts, and the internet followed, to the point where people still beg them to drop the tune today.

"We were known as the kids who played 'Planet Rock,'" Chris Martinez explains. 

It's fitting the Martinez should meet Baker in Miami for their collaborative debut. Generations represented by two monoliths, the duo matched in experience to the master by collective age. In the tiny rectangular room in the back of a modest South Beach hotel, they're in Baker's territory. The Boston-native gained his fame in NYC, but he moved to Miami more than a decade ago, chasing warmer weather. He comes here often to record, along with greats from Missy Elliott to Pharrell, but on this day, the mutual respect was palpable. 

Baker first met the protégés in the New York City club scene, but it took them three years or so to finally make a studio session happen. They'd been riffing for the better part of a day when we joined them. Already, the beginnings of a few songs had been laid down, but at this moment, they were busily putting real work into a real gem: a hard techy jam, definitely a mix of the two artists' generational worlds. It has that rhythmic-driven kind of space-age futurism that made the Soul Sonic Force so successful with the clean modern edge of the fresh house dynamos. Over and over again, we hear the hook: "that groove is sick."

"When you come in the studio with no plans basically, it can either go really great or not at all," Baker says. This, of course, is going quite well.

"(It's) the first of many, because this is crazy," Steve gushes. "We knew it would be a no brainer."

The Martinez kids were raised on Baker's music, courtesy of their dad's great taste in music and New York state of mind. The workflow of  this session was effortless, even if at times repetitive. Studio work is a grind. You've got to listen to the same clips over and over again, but you can't lose your ear or your mind. 

"It's a process," Steve says, over and over again.

Baker's elder statesmanship offers definite direction by virtue of his presence alone. Sitting back in his chair like a proud father, advising without pushing, he would suggest different directions while the Brothers took his lead. Chris and Steve laid down melodies on the same keyboard, their hands working between each other's with the ease of a lifelong partnership. The three sang along out loud to get the tune's feel, hovering over the engineer's shoulder to catch the drop on the right count. For the younger pair, it was a fun experiment just to be working live with physical instruments.

"Being in the same place at the same time, that's the key," says Baker. "That's the problem nowadays. These collabs in the same room don't happen that much."

"There's nothing like feeding off each other right there and then," echoes Chris.

After working out the kinks of the hook, it was time to hit the vocal booth and lay it down for real. Up to that point, they'd been using a sample from Baker's old catalogue as a placeholder. Each dude took turns freestyling "that groove is sick" and other weird noises in different alien voices, Baker first, and the Martinezes after. Heads were nodding along, and the difference was immediate. There's definitely a lot more life to a live vocal, but it still carried the funk of that old Baker sample.

The as-of-yet untitled collaboration is right in line with Baker's latest project. He's taking his old samples and turning them into new tunes. The self-sampling revival project is simply called Slam Dunk.

"That is a slam dunk," Chris laughs. Maybe one day, the Martinez Brothers will move to Miami and inspire new generations of artists while simultaneously making money off their old musical scrapbook. For now, they're having enough fun touring the world, jamming in the studio with the legends.

"It's a slam dunk for me just to be working with this dude," Steve raves. "For us, it's just hanging."

Kat Bein makes magic on Twitter.
Photos by Jake Pierce, who makes magic on Instagram.