“A Vagabond with Studio Equipment” – An Interview with DC’s OZKER

Oscar Martinez cuts right to the chase when I sat down with him last Saturday about his reticence towards interviews.

“It’s kind of funny, but I really hate being in front of people,” he says, “but I love to DJ. I just wanna make a really good time, so I don’t really think a bunch about how I look.”

Inadvertently, Oscar (who performs under the slightly different spelling of OZKER) and his laissez-faire attitude towards aesthetics has inadvertently made him a well-known character around the DMV. His trademark long hair and big smile, coupled with his warm personality and infectious spirit, sets him in a league of his own when it comes to local DJs. That paired with his driving work ethic (he holds several monthly residencies and co-hosts several monthly parties including No Scrubs, Hot in Herre, and REV909) firmly establish his singular position as one of the kindest and hardest-working DJs in the area.

With OZKER’s forthcoming performance at the Blisspop Disco Fest as one of the openers for Horse Meat Disco, I met with him at Georgia Avenue’s Colony Club to talk about his craft and origins within the DC area, diving into his desire to keep the past alive, in addition to what we can expect from his upcoming performance.

Tickets to see Ozker at the Blisspop Disco Fest are available here.

When I was in the process of setting this interview up, I was told you were, in certain words, one of the kindest and hardest working DJs from the DC-Maryland-Virginia area. Can you tell me a bit about yourself, and what it was like growing up in DC?  

Well I was born and raised in DC and Maryland, I went to high school in Montgomery County. Those times were really weird around here, it was a dark place and just a really hard place for anyone trying to come up. It’s very different now – even this block right here [on Georgia Avenue], there wasn’t any of these huge buildings or developments. You had to grow up with fear and having to deal with a lot of things — I’m a first generation American, and my parents, they would now be considered ‘illegals,’ so there was a lot of fear and intimidation, from the streets, from the government, a lot of gangs.

Throughout all of that, there were times when we lost everything and had to come back up. But it’s one of those things where I believe I’ve become the person that I am because of that. I really don’t care for a lot of stuff like that, because I would rather be in the moment with people. I want to be more accessible to people, because it’s been really hard to be accessible to people in the past – when you have no phone, no address, things of that nature. I’m more living in the now.

My story feels a bit intense, but the thing that resonates with me most is that I love my city. It’s taught me a lot about who I am and what I’m capable of doing, as well as the things I’m not capable of doing. It’s been a harsh, sometimes rough life, but after awhile you get used to it — you get used to be a vagabond with studio equipment and records. But when it comes to DJing, it’s my escape. It’s what I get to do where a lot of that stuff doesn’t matter.

It’s interesting that you DJ to provide an escape to others in a live setting, but that the inspiration for that craft comes from your own desire to escape your environment.

Yeah, definitely … for me, there’s a lot of stuff that lingers in my mind that tends to not be so fun or nice, certain things that you just can’t block out sometimes. Music brings a lot of space for me in that regard. It’s helped me out with my depression, all the weird, wild, dark shit that everybody has to deal with. When times get really hard, everybody questions whether they deserve to live or whether any of this is worth it, stuff like that. Music has really pushed me in a completely different trajectory where that stuff doesn’t matter for four hours. That’s four hours in my day where I’m not thinking about whatever the hell is getting in the way of my goals or my family getting to the next level.

I don’t want to sound like a depressed figure, but it just makes me feel good sometimes, when I’m DJing and I’m surrounded by people having a good time, that no matter what gets thrown at me, it’s really great to be from this area, and to not be judged.

How did you get into making dance music?

Oh man, so, I grew up in church. It was probably around when I was 4 or 5, and we were having crazy problems at home. So my mom was like, ‘I need help,’ and our babysitter at the time was going to this church on Georgia Avenue at the time — probably ten minutes away from here going north.

We went there and there was this huge congregation, like three hundred people, and there was a band with people singing. And my family always had music playing, but that was the first time I had seen a band play. And I got really interested in it — we started going to my uncle’s church. And there were these opportunities where you could play the tambourine or the guiro or the shaker at church, for the kids. And that turned into me being a drummer at an early age for my congregation, and from that came keyboards and singing with the band. And when school came around came the clarinet and, little by little, I started meeting all these people who were older than me. So I just had this crazy introduction to music.

Around the time middle school came around, my friend Danny was a DJ — he got his mom to by him a DJ set, he had this Gemini setup. And at that point, dance and house music had always been a thing here — on radio and television, there was a huge Baltimore scene, so it was always everywhere. There was a dance party on 99.1, and my love for 80s music, growing up in church, and being introduced to all this weird Jazz and Spanish music kind of came together.

And my family was like, ‘you need keep on this path, you need to keep doing this.’ So they never hesitated to help me on my way — like if I needed a walkman, they would get it for me. Simple things that were accessible and cheap — we couldn’t afford large items or expensive tech. That on top of my parents always working, it gave me time to stay up and record stuff.

So it was around the time I was fifteen that I really started loving dance music … I would be nothing without the people I’ve met along the way. My people and their love for me, nurturing my love of music, really brought a totally different idea to my world and my family’s world.

How do you reconcile putting in the time with your various parties and residencies while still giving yourself time to work on new music?

Obviously since I DJ so much it’s turned into my life, it’s just what I do now. It’s been like that for a while, but for the last three years I’ve wanted to focus on [my music]. I was really ramping up, I had all these things that I wanted to do but just life got in the way. I was having a lot of problems with having space, with all my equipment, speakers, keyboards. So the music had to be put on the backburner, but I’m hoping to have a new EP by next spring out. I play a lot of different music, but what I focus on most in the studio is disco, nu-disco, disco-inspired stuff.

Is there a particular time period of disco that really inspires you?

Not really, it’s more music that makes people remember things. So I try to sample a lot of that stuff — I think of the things that I love, the things that make me feel a certain way. Like I really love Portishead and so if I make like a down-tempo track and I’m not feeling a certain way, I’ll throw that in and maybe see if I can sample something that will trigger the rest of the song for me. Whether it’s like a snare or a hi-hat, I start my collage with that representation. From there, I start pulling stuff — instructional videos from some of my favorite companies, just try to find things that create this feeling of comfort.

Sampling is a really big deal to me and I try to do it in a way that you can’t recognize it. But if you do, it ends up meaning a lot to you. It sounds a little ridiculous, but I really want to keep certain parts or sounds from the past alive. I use a lot of old gear because it means more. If I can sample something off a cassette, then I’m really happy.

It’s like you’re paying homage to that older music.

Totally, all the time man. Music has been so powerful in my life — I really want that music to be as powerful in the music I make. But I don’t want to rip off what I love, so I tend to do it in a really discrete way. I’m really hoping with this next EP I can put that all in. Like I love the song “Billie Jean,” and whenever someone samples that snare drum I know it’s from that record. And I want people to kind of feel that, those moments.

I just keep that vibe alive, keep those artifacts alive. To maintain a traditional aspect, to pay homage. Even with people who are relevant now, hopefully in fifty years I can sample them, find ways those traditions alive. Whether it’s Kate Bush or Phil Collins or the hip-hop legends, it’s all very important in some way or another because it’s part of our history.

How would you differentiate your next project from your Inside Out EP?

The Inside Out EP was me kind of leaving what I working on, because I wanted to do a trip-hop, more R&B type stuff. It was me moving into dance music, and during that time I was super into drum and bass, like liquid, intelligent drum & bass. And I was getting into indie dance, and I had this internal need for techno, plus while I was doing the whole dancehall, 80s, 90s party thing. So that EP was me transitioning from these two worlds I wanted to be a part of, because I always loved dance music but I never had the equipment to do it.

That EP to me is terrible — I mean it’s terrible in the sense that I hate it, but I was learning how to sound engineer it, what not to do, what I should’ve done. Maybe I’ll go back to it and remix it.

I don’t really plan on making music like that with my next record because I’m still so into disco stuff, but I do sample a lot of trip-hop stuff still. Even stuff like acid jazz. I just wanna make fun music man, or music that makes you feel something.

Finally, what can those attending the Blisspop Disco Fest expect from your performance?

I tend to always try to fit in — I could do what I want, but I always enjoy the challenge to be on a bill and to be a part of the evening. I tend to look at myself as part of a team, so like, I’m playing with Horse Meat Disco that night and they’re so — they could do the club thing, or they could do like the nerdiest fuckin’ disco shit and own it. For me, to be on a bill like that, I got to come with something really groovy, really proper, something nerdy but that something can attach to, while still being me. Like tonight I’m playing at Dodge City so I get to play whatever I want for five hours but I still get to have fun with the crowd, play somethings that I might not like that will set them off while trying to bridge these worlds together. If you ever seen me on the bill with anybody, I always take into consideration who’s ahead of me, and who’s been before me.

I definitely like to milk my songs, to let them play. I don’t like to do the fast mixing stuff — my sets are usually eleven or twelve songs. I like to let things breathe. With this, the challenge is gonna be to be as nerdy as everybody else [laughs]. It’s a very special weekend — I might even try to preview some stuff I’ve been working on. We’ll see what happens.