PGN: Hey Mr. Martin, tell me a little about your beginnings.
DM: Let’s see, I was born and raised in New York, and growing up there was amazing. I grew up in the projects with a single mom, a couple of siblings and lots of extended family. I always, always loved music. From a young age I sang in the choir of a Baptist church and I went to a high school that specialized in the performing arts, where I majored in music and dance. I kind of knew what I wanted to do since I was 10.
PGN: That young?
DM: [Laughing.] Yes — believe it or not, it started when I saw the movie “A Star is Born” with Barbra Streisand! I know that’s really corny — and too gay — but it’s true!
PGN: Tell me a little about your mom.
DM: Oh, my mom was the coolest disco queen you can imagine. She’s deceased now, but she was a very vivacious woman. She’s very outspoken and always spoke her mind. She was the 13th of 15 kids so I guess she had to be to get heard. I’ve inherited a lot of those traits from her; I’m very straightforward.
DM: My mom’s black and from South Carolina and my dad’s Puerto Rican, but I never really knew him. A couple of visits here and there were it. I think that’s part of the reason why I work so hard at being a good dad. I also get the nurturing side from my mother: She was always taking in kids who needed help. Every time I turned around there was a second cousin or something living with us, including two teenage cousins that she adopted right before she died that are now with us. My partner Craig and I were even approached to do a reality-TV show. An interracial gay couple in a house packed with four girls — two babies and two teenagers — seems crazy. But we love it. It’s what makes life great.
PGN: What was your favorite game as a kid?
DM: Wow, I’ve done a lot of interviews and never been asked that! Probably kick-the-can. It was kind of a metaphor for life because if you got caught, you could have someone rescue or help you. You could rely on each other, unlike some games where, when you’re out, you’re out!
PGN: Tell me about a favorite teacher.
DM: Oh boy, I have two. Can I have two? The most influential teacher I had was Nat Horne. He ran a small theater on 42nd Street. I interned for him when I was 14. He was a black and Latin man who owned his own company and was respected all over the world. Seeing someone with the same background doing such great things was inspiring. I was on scholarships and had taken all sorts of classes but he would sit me down and tell me what things would really be like in a career in the arts. He became a mentor as well as a teacher. The second was Terri Siegel, who taught English. She constantly correct our grammar and insisted that we speak properly, “It’s not ‘I got.’ It’s ‘I have.’” I loved her for that.
PGN: I wish more teachers would do that. It makes me crazy when they allow the kids to sound like dolts. Or worse, when I see some teachers being interviewed about a strike or something and they don’t speak proper English themselves!
DM: Yes, it’s so important. It wasn’t as necessary in the record industry, but at Hip Philly and Hip Parties, I’m dealing with a lot of high-end clients and it’s essential that I not only speak the King’s English, but have a decent vocabulary as well. I may be holding court with CEOs of large companies and other movers and shakers. So having a teacher like Terri was really important to me.
PGN: Speaking of movers and shakers, you’ve made your mark now, but what was your first job?
DM: Jeepers, I got my first job when I was 14. We were poor so I needed to help my mother out and I got a job at a bingo hall in Astoria, Queens. I worked the concession stand selling bagels and hotdogs to all the Irish, Italian and Jewish little old ladies. I did that for two years. My mother worked the night shift at the post office. We were never hungry and our clothes were always clean, but we didn’t have a lot — at all. So I tried to chip in.
PGN: When did you come out?
DM: I knew since I was about 4 or 5 that I was gay. I like a lot of girl things, playing with dolls, braiding hair, stuff like that. [Laughs.] I remember seeing my aunt with my uncle and thinking, “I want a husband some day.” And I have one!
PGN: True. Jumping to your music career, what was one of the first “big-time” experiences?
DM: I’ve been blessed to have a few exciting moments, and I certainly hope they don’t end, but I guess the first crazy exciting moment was the first time I saw my name in Billboard magazine. It was in 1993 and I got a phone call from my best friend who was also in the music industry, who called me and said, “They reviewed you in Billboard magazine. How did they even know you?” I was in class and ran out to the nearest stand that sold it and bought a copy. I still remember standing on the corner on Seventh Avenue and reading that first review. It was a real honor just to be reviewed and they reviewed me right alongside Prince and Whitney Houston! There have been more prestigious and more lucrative accomplishments since then, but that was a special moment.
PGN: Did you stop people on the street to show them?
DM: [Laughs.] I did! I did. Then I got right on the train and went to the projects to show my mom. Part of me was excited because, I thought, soon I’ll be able to rescue my mother and get her out of here, and part of me was excited because it meant I was becoming a real performer. Little did I know how long and hard and joyous and frustrating that journey was going to be.
PGN: What was it like the first time you heard your music played in a club?
DM: Oh my God, I’m from that era of houses and voguing, part of that whole “Paris is Burning” scene. We were with the only Latin house at the time, Extravaganza, and we were at Sound Factory and the Garage and all those places. The first time I ever heard my song at a club was at the Sound Factory, and the legendary DJ Junior Vasquez was playing it. It was very surreal: One side of me was like, whoa, that can’t be real. The other side was like, That’s me! And the business side was freaking out, Do they like it, are they still dancing or did it clear the floor? It was a combination of joy and a panic attack!
PGN: And what brought you to Philadelphia?
DM: A couple of reasons. I was very close to my grandmother and my husband was very close to his grandparents. We wanted our kids to have the same thing. After my mother died in 2005 — she was a heavy smoker and died of cancer — we moved here to be close to his parents. I love them and they come to every recital, every teacher conference — there are eight of us who move as a group! It’s great. I also used to get a lot of requests to do party events here in Pennsylvania and I got to know and love Philly. It’s cool. All my New York people were like, “What? Philly?” They figured if I were ever to move from New York, it would be to Miami or L.A. But I’m like, yeah, Philly’s hip.
PGN: Tell me about Hip Philly.
DM: It’s a great concept. We have a huge space in the Piazza with a state-of-the-art sound system and lights, video screens, etc., that can be rented out for private events. We set up and break down everything. If it’s a kids’ party, we provide supervision so the parents can relax. We’ve recently opened an outdoor lounge too and a small stage. We also have a party bus and Hummer that can seat 40 people. People use them for a night on the town, bachelor parties, you name it. One of our testimonials is from the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who uses us for everything from social and personal limo service to airport service.
PGN: And what’s Hip Party?
DM: That’s our event company. We’ve done events for corporate clients like American Express and private families like Howard Stern and Ron Howard. Again, we do lighting, music, everything to make the event a success.
PGN: And what does your hubby, Craig, do?
DM: He’s the director of Live Arts Brewery and Philly Fringe, so it was a good move for him as well.
PGN: How did you meet?
DM: It’s really, really corny. I met Craig at the Gay & Lesbian Center in New York. I was going there for a men of color event and he was standing with some friends. I was flirty, flirty and we exchanged numbers and ended up courting for about a year. In 1999 — oh wait, I hope that’s right ... He’s going to kill me if I get it wrong. In June of ’99 he proposed on the night of the summer solstice. Every year we take off our rings and then give them back to each other to say, Today I choose you again.
PGN: So you’ve worked with a lot of artists from Howie Dorough of the Backstreet Boys to Pink. Who were two of your favorites?
DM: Probably one of the most creative people I know and a great person to work with is RuPaul. I mean an absolute joy. We knew each other from back in the day when he had a record called “Red Hot.” A few years later he called me and said he was working on a CD and asked me to listen to it to see if I wanted to produce it. I listened to the music he sent me and I’m crazy, I listen to something and just start hearing things. I starting singing the words “How do I look? You look good” to one of the tracks — “Looking Good, Feeling Gorgeous” — and that became the hook. That was on a Friday, and by Monday morning we were in the studio adding it to the song. That track has been used in several movies and got to No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard charts.
PGN: I know that song: It’s very catchy and the video is crazy.
DM: Yeah, RuPaul is my favorite of all artists to work with. The second would be Sheryl Lee Ralph. She was the original Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls” and won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. She’s also married to Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes and does a lot of activist work, including producing a big AIDS fundraiser, “Divas Simply Singing.” I love her, we’re like brother and sister. The thing about both of them is that they’re amazingly down to earth. RuPaul especially. Any time we’re out in public, he’ll stop and talk to anyone, complete strangers. And it’s always about them. If he met you, before you could ask him a single question, he’ll ask all about you. “So I heard you do karaoke, is it fun? Are you seeing anyone? What’s going on in your life?” So many artists are self-centered but they both truly have an interest in others. And they’re both funny, which makes work so much more enjoyable.
PGN: What was a highlight in your career?
DM: Probably my first tour and watching RuPaul shoot the video to my song.
PGN: OK, some random questions. Do you remember the first record you bought?
DM: Don’t laugh. Dennis Edwards, “Don’t Look Any Further.”
PGN: Best concert experience?
DM: Barbra Streisand. I’ve seen her three or four times and I cry like a baby each time!
PGN: What is the scariest thing you have ever done for fun?
DM: Roller coasters. They scare the shit out of me but I love them.
PGN: When did you last climb a tree?
DM: Three months ago! My children love trees. They’re big animal lovers and tree huggers, but my 7-year-old climbed a little too high and got scared, so Daddy had to go get her.
PGN: Before we go, tell me a little more about the fam.
DM: I have two girls, 9 and 7. We adopted them from birth; one’s African American and the other is straight-up Puerto Rican. Cute as buttons. They’re sweet, warm friends to each other and to the world. The youngest, Mayacarol, is very sweet but reserved; our other daughter, Liana, is feisty. She’s mostly polite, but she can be very frank. Our mutual friend Noel Zayas says she’s definitely Puerto Rican. She’ll say, “You smell ... really bad.” She doesn’t beat around the bush. They both, without any encouragement from me, like to sing and write. They love it. We have a little recording studio in the house and they’ve made three or four records already. I know every parent thinks their children are talented, but as they say, “These girls can saaang.” It’s scary. Frankly, I was hoping they’d become teachers or doctors!
For more information, visit www.hipphilly.com.
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