The Zae baby!
Every show began with the same battle cry, followed by a vocal roar and a flash of the 408. Daniel Martinez—known around the globe as Dirtbag Dan—always made it a point to shout out his hometown at the start of every one of his rap battles. His stage presence, signature style of ruthless takedowns delivered with comedic wordplay, and precise timing allowed him to become one of niche scene’s more distinct characters. This combination of talents also prepared him for his second act in entertainment: stand-up comedy.
As a teen, Dan’s entry point to hip-hop came through the underground Bay Area sounds he heard on skate tapes. “Rapping, hip-hop music in general—everything came through skateboarding,” he explains. “That was my identity as a kid. I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I found a skateboard.”
Dan remembers hearing hip-hop on the radio, but the sounds of regional heroes Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics on those tapes inspired him to dive more fully into the culture. He began freestyling with friends, and in high school, he developed a reputation as a ruthless battle rapper. During his final year of high school, he faced 15 challengers and never lost.
Dan soon made his way to the West Coast’s freestyle battle scene and in the mid-2000s witnessed its shift from 8 Mile–style battles over beats to today’s favored a cappella format. In 2008, he participated in the West Coast’s first battle of this kind, and he continued to build his name as outlets like Grind Time and King of the Dot gained prominence and their battles on YouTube started clocking hundreds of thousands of views. Throughout his 75-battle career, he sparred with legends and upstarts alike, among them The Saurus, NoCanDo, the late Cadalack Ron, and DNA.
“I’d like to think that in those 75 battles, I did everything,” he notes. “I rapped my ass off. I was super funny. I did super ‘unrappy’ things and took risks in that regard. I also was mean when I needed to be. But I definitely was always more on the lighter side, which I think made me more watchable, and more likable, to a general audience.” At one point, he called himself the “most traveled battle rapper,” since his name helped him book appearances at battles in the Philippines, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, the UK, and various locations throughout Canada and the United States.
However, his style was divisive in battle rap circles, loved by some and hated by others. In a scene that could be defined by violent lyrics and no-holds-barred personal attacks, Dan used his stage presence to craft an approach that emphasized punchlines and comedic timing. Above all, he seemed to understand that despite the huge stakes and cage-match-like depictions, battling ultimately was entertainment. “As much as I’m proud of my ability to rap, I think my humor was the thing that made me an endearing character and helped me stick around for as long as I did,” he adds.
As much as I’m proud of my ability to rap, I think my humor was the thing that made me an endearing character and helped me stick around for as long as I did.
For years, friends had nudged him to try to develop comedic material, but he didn’t make time until he stepped away from battling in late 2015. He began writing immediately, but waited six months before finally taking the stage, making his first appearance at a Brainwash open mic in San Francisco. Dan was hooked immediately. He started finding more spaces to share his material, and now with nearly two years committed to this new form, he just secured a weekend spot at the Punchline in Sacramento.
Though he recognizes that his ascent feels accelerated at times, he also notes that his extensive experience with battle rap prepared him to take the stage. Developing material, being aware of an audience, and feeling comfortable in the moment are all elements he’s already explored while battling.
One might ask if there’s anything more daunting than standing in front of a room full of people equipped with nothing but a mic and some wit. Dan says yes and compares stand-up comedy to stepping into a high-profile rap battle. “You’ve got to go into a room, and someone has to die for the audience to be entertained. Some other dude’s going to make fun of you. You have no control over what he’s going to say. You have to memorize nine minutes of unique material that you only get to do one time, and if you mess up, it’s on camera, forever.” Bombing doesn’t faze Dan: he sees it as part of the comedic process. Not everything is going to work, and at least when a joke falls flat, it won’t be criticized in YouTube comments for years to come.
Dan has retired from battling, but he’s still very active within the culture. He calls his weekly podcast The Dirtbag Dan Show, the “ESPN of battle rap.” He’s a fixture as a commentator for various pay-per-view battles. He’s also working to cultivate a path for others in the scene to cross over. “There’s a lot of people who can make the same transition I’m making,” he says. “There’s a connection there, and I’m trying to build that bridge so that when I go out and cover a battle event, I’m also doing a comedy event the night before. Most of the time, there’s another battler on that bill.” He’s also helped establish a battle league in San Jose in an effort to ensure the city’s name recognition in the battle rap scene.
His newfound passion for discovering jokes with universal appeal has shifted his creative focus from developing bars to developing bits. He has, however, decided to bring one major piece of his legacy with him. At every show and open mic he steps up to, he’s still being introduced as Dirtbag Dan. “It’s been a fun ride, and though I’m not in the ring anymore, I’m still in the world. I’ll never get all the way out,” he says. “No matter what I do in comedy, no matter what I do in rap and hip-hop and making music, I’ll always be in the world of battle rap in some way, shape, or form.”
Written by Brandon Roos
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 9.3 “Future”