DJ-producer Justin Martin performing Saturday

If you want to be a DJ, it’s easy to get the equipment – a laptop, software, music and mixers. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be any good. Just like buying a harp won’t necessarily make you a good harpist.

Veteran DJ-producer Justin Martin explains.

“Anybody can produce electronic music. There are programs that won’t let you hit any wrong notes on a keyboard,” Martin says.

But to have talent and depth as a DJ-producer, you should probably get yourself a music education as a kid, as Martin did. He started piano lessons at age 4.

“I hated having to practice the piano, but looking back, I’m really, really glad my parents made me do it,” says Martin, who DJs on Saturday at the Artisan hotel.

“The aspect of piano I didn’t like was memorizing the classical pieces. But that instilled in me, at a young age, an ear for chord progressions,” he says.

“It gave me a good basis for music theory that I don’t think I would have had.”

He switched to jazz saxophone in the third grade in New York (he lives in San Francisco now).

Even as a child, Martin was inspired by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other improvisational players. Martin even toured the U.K. in his high school funk band.

“With saxophone, I was pretty good, but I don’t think I was good enough to continue on at a college level on a scholarship,” Martin says.

Then, he got hooked onto listening to the then-mind-blowing, mid-1980s art-electronic act The Art of Noise.

“As soon as I started listening to Art of Noise, all I wanted for Christmas was one of those keyboards where you could sample your voice. I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”

When he was 15 or 16, he started going to big raves featuring Paul van Dyk and other serious trance DJs.

His newfound love for electronic music was a big genre change for Martin. He had grown up on his parents’ music – Beatles, Pink Floyd – and his own younger taste in Led Zeppelin, the Talking Heads and the Beastie Boys. His brother turned him onto rave music.

“It was when I heard drum ‘n’ bass for the first time that I really got into electronic music” – such as Goldie, Everything But the Girl and Bjork’s albums “Post” and “Debut.”

Martin moved to San Francisco 13 years ago, collecting vinyl and falling in love with house music.

He wanted to bridge the gap between the rougher bass lines of drum ‘n’ bass and the smoother core of house music.

“I wanted to make music that had that soulful, beautiful, melody – serene landscapes – but with the devastating bass of drum ‘n’ bass.”

So that’s what he does in an underground style summed up with his label name, Dirty Bird, which on May 22 releases his album “Ghettos & Garden.”

If you see Martin in person, you’ll quickly realize this is a real underground DJ who doesn’t just play a bunch of dance-pop hits. And as always, he will be hoping to meet music listeners who crave new sonic experiences.

“The ultimate crowd is when fans want to hear music they’ve never heard and not just songs they know,” Martin says. “That’s a dream come true.”

Doug Elfman’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Email him at He blogs at

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