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Dirtbag Dan Aims to Reinvent Himself and His City

In Music
STAND UP GUY: Local emcee and battle rap entrepreneur, Dirtbag Dan, is looking to get into standup comedy.

STAND UP GUY: Local emcee and battle rap entrepreneur, Dirtbag Dan, is looking to get into standup comedy.

thouDirtbag Dan bustles about his high-ceilinged studio in an industrial block just outside of San Jose’s Japantown. He points out a psychedelic mural of a shark by a local artist on one wall and mismatched grey curtains stapled to another. The latter serve as the backdrop for his battle rap podcast.

It is here bongs modified for cannabis wax sit next to microphones.

He leafs through a box of vinyl records with a Bach album on top, then settles into a squeaky swivel chair sitting next to a DIY recording booth made of white laminated wood.

The space is in a state of disarray. Soon, all of Dan’s equipment and decor will be shipped to a new workspace in another part of the city. His former studio will be transformed into a blandly stylish condo for an upwardly mobile couple. A homegrown talent, Dan has watched his surroundings morph from sleepy and semi-rural to jam-packed with sprawling development—all of it built to support the ever-expanding ranks of the tech industry.

“What used to be a farm is Netflix,” Dan says, reflecting on the change he’s seen. “I think that’s a rare thing for a city that has a million people. San Jose is a new city in every sense of the word. There’s not the history of art like there is in [other] cities in the Bay Area—Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, even Vallejo—where artists came up 30-40 years ago and laid the groundwork for the guys that you hear on the radio.”

Born Daniel Martinez, the 32 year-old may be moving, but he’s not leaving. He rides in the vanguard of his city’s earliest efforts at national hip-hop and battle rap recognition. As a teenager, he started battling when studio time became scarce and, a little while later, performed in the very first West Coast acapella showdown uploaded to YouTube. According to Dan, he’s in the top 20 most-viewed of English-speaking battlers on the streaming video service.

“Maybe it takes a little bit more physically and mentally to be a top-level ballet dancer,” he muses. “But, purely mentally, nothing is as gnarly as battling, because it’s being a comedian, a musician and a poet all at once. Plus you gotta do it right the first time. Plus everyone wants you to die.”

In battles, contestants trade foul bars, built upon shame-inducing personal details gathered from social media. They can prepare their attacks beforehand, but flub or falter and your opponent will tear you to pieces while the crowd howls in approval. Dan has performed this superhuman feat of mental toughness at the highest level of competition roughly 75 times over the last decade.

“I’ve been more scared at battles with 100 people there, than shows with 10,000,” he says. “But there’s something about those moments when you really put the knife in, or you look at your opponent like, ‘You’re fucking dead. I beat you.’ And you see the defeat in their eyes. That is unmatched.”

Battle rap trafficks in truly heinous subject matter, and those who wish to excel need thick skin. But participants earn (at least) a grudging respect from their peers if they are bold enough to test themselves in this ludicrous crucible. The community hasrepresentatives from every race and region, including battlers like No Shame from Texas, an openly transgender performer. Though insults are the antithesis of political correctness, battle rappers don’t really mean their nasty remarks and contestants often exchange daps and hugs before leaving the stage.

When rapping in the studio for his proper albums, Dan wipes away some of the unchecked vitriol of the rap-battle arena, revealing disarmingly sincere and unpretentiously deep sensibilities. On 2014’s DBDLP, he expounds upon a scorched-earth social theory on “[email protected]#k That,” portrays the highs and lows of dream-chasing on “Thinking of a Master… Plan” and talks about his divorced dad’s descent into meth addiction on “Suburbanites.” He spits with sneering twang over full-bodied beats built from deep-crate samples by pals Skylar G and Ichy the Killer. He eschews “half-assed” routes of backpacker martyrdom and falsely extravagant braggadocio for raw honesty that encapsulated his then-self.

“The hardest thing to do as an entertainer is be honest,” he says. “If I wrote that album today, it would be different. I’ve learned a little bit more, I feel different about certain things. That’s interesting for me as an artist to play shit back, and be … like, ‘I don’t believe that anymore.’”

Like his city, Dirtbag Dan is in transition. Recently, he starred in what might be his last battle. Citing a waning desire to demolish his opponents and a complacent comfort with the craft, Dan says he’d rather oversee and aid the scene than directly participate. He wants build up his already popular podcast, and begin performing more stand-up comedy, where he balances freewheeling filth with layered introspection. He’ll be participating in Jokes Over Bars, the first annual battle rapper comedy showcase on January 12. When he goes onstage to tell jokes, he’s nervous like he used to be in his early career, but not that nervous.

“I feel like a dick when I say it to the other comedians, but [their] job is fucking easy,” he says. “Walk in the fucking park. You tell the same jokes over and over and over again, and get better at them, and add things to them. You know how many fucking punchlines I fucked up? That I didn’t even get to get out right? Let alone refine and master.”

Dan’s comedy foray in turn benefits the San Jose battling community. He will be the gregarious host and organizer of the fifth Battle of the Zay, an annual battle rap extravaganza that lands on January 9. For the first time in the event’s history, he won’t be battling because he no longer feels the need to perform to give the event legitimacy. He ceded his spot as the Zay’s foremost representative to his buddy, the viciously verbose Caustic.

“I won’t really realize until the day of the battle, but I feel like it’s going to be fucking amazing,” Dan says. “You don’t want to be battling top-ten dudes while you’re throwing the event. Now, I can step back and focus on making it a crazy card. We’re trying to be the minor leagues for the majors. We want to create battles that are unique to us, and build up new cats.”

For BOTZ5, Dan has assembled a battle royale, where six of the best-known spitters will unleash their hottest minute-long bars in a random ping-ponging order. In the head-to-head match-ups, he pits up-and-comers against veterans so they can gain exposure in viral circles. But online devotees don’t always translate to real-life fame.

“It’s not like back in the day, when if you were on MTV everyone knew who you were,” he says. “Nowadays, you could have millions of views on YouTube and you can go to the grocery store and no one will know who the fuck you are. You have crazy weekends, then you come back to real life. Like, I’ll be in Toronto at the same event as Drake, but clearly Drake’s life is different on Tuesday than mine is.”

Dan’s diverse hustle plugs many holes for San Jose. He’s a visible viral representative, a booster for new talent and a link between the area’s hip-hop and comedy. As his city evolves, so does he, tackling new challenges to reflect his updated motivations and goals. He keeps constant only his stage name and his motivation. He grinds both as a means and an end.

“Whether it’s comedy or battles or hosting or music, I’m doing a job,” he says. “And honestly, really, really, I don’t give a fuck about money that much. I do, but I give a fuck about money like I give a fuck about air: I cannot live without it, but I don’t think about it unless it’s not around. I’ve been fortunate enough to rap for a living for over a decade. Dope.”

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