.Doggy Dog World: From Hip Hop to Animal Rescue

Daniel Martinez hops out of his black Cadillac SRX and nods towards me, chatting enthusiastically on his cellphone. Around San Jose, he’s known to many as the gregarious, insult-slinging battle-rapper and shit-talking podcast host Dirtbag Dan, but there’s no trace of that character now. Instead, he is passionately proselytizing to whomever is on the line about his new dog rescue program, Adopt My Block. It seems to be going well.

I wait for him, standing by my Ford Focus with my three-legged German shepherd, Nisa, who my wife and I adopted seven years ago from the German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California. Nisa sniffs the nearby dirt and weeds.

We’re in Gilroy, just a hop and a jump away from the outlet malls off highway 101, yet you would think you’re far away from any sign of civilization were it not for the occasional noise of traffic zipping by.

Currently, the property operates as a walnut farm. Soon, it will be the site of Adopt My Block.

Martinez hangs up, immediately ready to talk about his plans.

“We’re ready to park a trailer here, set up a fenced-off area, and start bringing some dogs around,” he says. That plan, he explains, likely won’t unfold until sometime this summer. He’s working out the details with the property owner, Dr. Puneet Sandhu, a dentist who runs Milpitas Smile Design. A believer in Martinez’s mission to save dogs, she offered it to him. She knows what it’s like to want to help. In her spare time, she donates dental services to homeless veterans out of a van that’s parked on the property.

“I want to put some turf down,” Martinez continues. “Fence it off on all sides, and have a dog run here.” But that’s just an idea at this point. There’s a lot of work that needs to happen first.

Adopt My Block has been an official nonprofit for two years, with Martinez and his wife, Rachel La’Roux, running operations out of their house. His plans might seem ambitious, but he has already shown that he can move mountains when he wants to.

Just over a decade ago, Martinez was one of the most traveled battle-rappers in the world. He’d competed in the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, the Philippines and all over the US, shouting, “The ’Zae, baby!” wherever he went, in honor of his hometown. He still ranks in the top 50 most viewed battle-rappers—and his last battle was seven years ago.

Later, he created the successful Dirtbag Dan Show, one of the first battle rap podcasts, which ran for eight years. They did their final episode in November of 2019. After that, he stepped away from all things Dirtbag Dan related to save dogs.

“There’s an unlimited amount of dogs that need to be rehomed. Every shelter is packed full of them,” he says. “What we do is super important. There’s so many little dogs around the north side. How are there not ten other rescues?”

We peek inside a semi-circle-shaped building that looks plucked from The Grapes of Wrath. Behind us, Nisa on her three legs. Martinez drops down to pet her. They become instant best friends.

Martinez points out the van and speaks proudly of Sandhu’s mission to help veterans. Not all veterans who receive medical care from the VA qualify for dental benefits. So, Sandhu brings the dentist to them.

“We’re all on this help people shit,” he says. “We want to make this like a nonprofit hub. That’s what we’re doing.”

Setting up shop on the property promises to make a huge difference for Adopt My Block.

“We can only work with the amount of dogs we have time and space for,” he says. “Having a fenced-off area, and a trailer, on the property means we can bring in more volunteers and help more dogs.”

PAW PATROL

In the fall of 2019, Martinez and La’Roux, were walking their dog, Lily, around their neighborhood in San Jose. It was a cold evening, and they saw one of their neighbors’ dogs alone, shivering inside their fenced-off front yard. It wasn’t the first time they’d seen this dog shivering outside or standing in the rain. But suddenly it struck them that they should do something about it.

They drove to Lowe’s and bought a doghouse with materials to insulate it and weather guards to keep the rain out. They gave it to their neighbor, no strings attached. After that, they noticed many other dogs trapped outside in their freezing cold yards. They set up a fundraiser to pay for more insulated doghouses and sweaters. People were happy to donate, and when they delivered these goods to the dog owners, they did so in the least judgmental way possible.

“We would say, ‘We had extra supply. We saw you had an outside dog, so we just wanted to drop off some extra stuff,’” La’Roux says. “That way, the owner wasn’t, like, offended.”

In November, they got a call from a friend in Fresno, who said that her neighbor’s dog, a shepherd pit mix, was stuck outside, trapped in a small three-foot fenced side yard, hopping around like a kangaroo. The owners never brought her inside.

It was raining when Martinez showed up. He shouted at the neighbor that he was coming over to give their dog shelter, but no one came out. He carefully climbed over and set up the doghouse for her.

“The dog’s sweet. I fell in love with her,” Martinez says.

A month later, a huge storm hit Fresno. Their friend’s neighbors skipped town and abandoned their dog in the yard, which was now flooded. When the friend noticed her, she was standing on top of her doghouse. She grabbed the dog, brought her into her garage, fed her, and called Martinez. He and La’Roux took her home.

“She was really underweight and was limping when we got her. We nursed her back to health,” La Roux says.

Initially, the plan was for a friend’s mom to adopt her, but because of the negligence she lived in, she proved a challenging dog. They kept her and renamed her Penny.

They posted about the whole experience online, and soon other people were contacting them about other dogs that needed to be rehomed. As Martinez and La’Roux saw the scope of their project grow, they changed its name to Adopt My Block. Along the way, one of La’Roux’s best friends, a lawyer, suggested they become a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit and make what they’re doing an official endeavor. In January 2020, Adopt My Block became official.

BARK VS. BITE

Martinez first hopped on stage at the age of 14, after watching local crew LSP perform at Java Stop in San Jose. After the show, they invited audience members on stage to freestyle. Martinez took them up on the offer. He loved it. In 2003, he joined San Jose/Santa Cruz collective Thunderhut. Two years after that, he released his debut solo album, Dirt 4 $ale, and formed the crew Counter Productive with his high school friends Able Abilities, Skylar and, later, DJ Ichy The Killer.

Dirtbag Dan performed his first battle on Grind Time in August 2008 in Oakland against Coroner. Within a couple of years, he was one of the top names in the growing global YouTube rap battle movement. He was a natural fit.

“Dirtbag Dan always had a comedic style, but would balance it well, by being very technically sound,” says musician and King of the Dot lead broadcaster Nick “Lush One” Hyams. “He could do a double-time, then bring it back to comedy. Hilarious punchlines that make fun of people but not in a mean-spirited way. He might hurt your feelings, though.”

In 2011, Martinez created the Counter Productive YouTube channel to promote his music and battle career. A year later, it became host for The Dirtbag Dan Show, initially with Skylar and Able Abilities, though his co-hosts would periodically change. The show brought on some big guests, including Del the Funky Homosapien of Hieroglyphics, Cadalack Ron and Mac Mall.

But his battle career wasn’t always good for other aspects of his life. Even with songs like “Concentrate,” hitting a million views on YouTube, people most often associated him with clever insults. A song like “Suburbanites” might discuss his troubled childhood and rocky relationship with his dad, but anything called Dirtbag Dan always led back to his battle persona.

“Fools knew me for battle rap 100% more than anything,” Martinez says. “People would see 9-15 minute increments of me being super aggressively mean to people. It wasn’t necessarily the best judge of my character.”

3RTYS, the last Dirtbag Dan album, was released in 2018. After that, he shifted gears and worked on Death Dealers Anonymous, a lo-fi trap project with Reverse Live. As if to further distance himself from the Dirtbag Dan character, in all their videos, the band’s faces are blocked out.

By the time he shot his final episode of the Dirtbag Dan show in November 2019, he’d already been giving out doghouses for months. Though he continued to host Battle of the Zae events and oversee operations on his YouTube channel, he was anxious to stop. His work with Adopt My Block felt more meaningful to him, and he was spread thin.

And then there was the global pandemic. With live events no longer an option, he stopped trying to juggle both worlds. La’Roux, a hairstylist, was no longer able to work either, so the both of them devoted their entire lives to rescuing dogs. He passed his YouTube duties on to battle-rapper Ryne Watkins. When battles were able to happen again, they would go to Patreon first. All proceeds to Adopt My Block.

SOCIAL ANIMALS

As a kid, Martinez desperately wanted a dog, but his parents said no. There was no room at home. La’Roux, on the other hand, grew up around horses and dogs. Her mom fostered golden retrievers.

Martinez and La’Roux adopted their first dog together in 2016, a dachshund pit bill from Pet Harbor who they named Lily. They saw her picture online and fell in love. One trip to Lodi later and she was a part of the family.

Up until late 2019, it had just been Lily at the home. Now, she shares the space with a whole pack.

Martinez says working with dogs has been extremely rewarding.

“[Professionally], I’ve been a dick for X amount of years,” he says. “Being on tour and you talk to someone, ‘Oh man, that podcast helped me get through a tough time,’ or whatever. That’s super cool. It does not compare to placing a dog in a home and knowing that I’ve made that dog’s life infinitely better.”

Fortunately, starting a dog rescue on the back of a decade-long battle-rap/hip-hop career gave Adopt My Block some energy. It helped that La’Roux also had a big presence online via her salon—more followers than Dirtbag Dan. A hairstylist for 15 years, La’Roux specializes in balayage and vivid color. And she is in high demand. After taking to Instagram, the two reached a lot of people very quickly.

“90% of the adoptions we do [are] through Instagram,” Martinez says, noting that people become connected when they see an animal’s transformation from troubled to healthy, confident dog. “It’s cool for people to be able to follow the story and then get to be the end of it.”

Adopt My Block got a lot of engagement in 2019 and early 2020. At first, they were reaching out to people to help with fundraisers and find homes, but that no longer became necessary as their social media presence grew.

“I was blown away by how quickly we were able to develop a support base,” Martinez says. “One thing that made it similar to music is you got to show the work. As a rapper, I had to constantly find ways for me to be out there. And the more work you do, the more people see it, the more work you can do.”

And then of course, once the pandemic started, more people were at home on their phones, which brought more eyeballs to Adopt My Block’s Instagram feed.

When they realized people were responding to their posts and that they could make a difference, Martinez and La’Roux looked for more dogs in need. They approached homeless encampments, looked for strays and went on Craigslist to find people dumping their dogs.

Cookie, a chihuahua mix, was one they pulled out of a homeless encampment. Martinez had been going over there and working with the owners to let them rehome the dogs. Eventually, they agreed

“I approached and offered food, sweaters,” Martinez says. “It took me a while, but after she had seen that we were able to place all of her puppies in good homes she decided the best thing for Cookie was to give her to us.”

They found a new owner with Kayla Resue Anderson, one of La’Roux’s clients and friends. Anderson is a pet groomer who donates her services to Adopt My Block.

“[Cookie] was in a really shitty situation and there was a lot of aggression going on between some of the people in her encampment,” La’Roux says. “That dog was going to die. We got her out. Now she’s the most pampered, amazingly treated dog, laying in a bed with a bunch of cats.”

Later, Martinez ran into Cookie’s original owner and showed her Anderson’s Instagram feed.

“She was super happy to see how well she was doing. [And it] made my day to see that she was also off the street,” Martinez says.

Anderson says that after dogs have been rescued, a simple act of grooming can be therapeutic.

“They’re scared with all of this weight because the matting is so heavy when it’s attached to their skin,” Anderson says. “This weight is lifted off of them and you can tell like they’re so thankful.”

MAKING FETCH HAPPEN

Though Adopt My Block has grown a lot in its first two years, it’s still currently being run out of Martinez and La’Roux’s house.

“He does the heavy lifting. I do the appointments, driving and adoption interviews,” La’Roux says. “He does the hardcore stuff where he actually goes in and rescues dogs from shitty situations, but I am there to support.”

At times, things get overwhelming. There are several dogs in the home. Some will be adopted. Others, like Lily and Penny, are there to stay.

Another dog there to stay is Joey, a 9-year-old English bulldog, American Staffordshire terrier mix that lives in the garage. He’s sweet but anxious, and has extreme joint issues and advanced periodontal disease. At this point, Martinez and La’Roux are managing his pain for the remainder of his life. So, they take turns sleeping in the garage next to him.

“Feels like some days I need to schedule trips to the bathroom. There is always something that needs to be done for these dogs,” Martinez says.

Adopt My Block has become more than a rescue. Martinez still has a fanbase and is comfortable in front of the camera. He wants to share the view that the practice of dog breeding creates many problems. Though California has banned pet stores from buying dogs from breeders, Martinez says the breeding process itself remains under-regulated, increases genetic defects and creates the idea that dogs have a financial value, which has even led to an uptick in thefts.

“You don’t buy a dog, you adopt a dog because it’s going to be part of your family forever,” Martinez says. “Anytime people are making money off of living creatures, the living creatures are pretty much in a bad shape.”

As it turns out, there are breed-specific rescues out there for just about every breed of dog, something my wife and I discovered when we adopted Nisa. We wanted a German shepherd and assumed we would have to comb through the Humane Society kennels to find one. Then we found the German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California. The dogs were well taken care of by the fosters, the organization did home inspections and the dogs were fixed. It gave us a good feeling to adopt from them.

“If you do rescue a dog like that, you’re a special person, but that doesn’t encompass the whole of rescue,” Martinez says. “You never imagine what someone will leave in a backyard or tied to a fence at a park.”

Recently, Martinez has brought his two worlds together, placing ads and even an infomercial with battle-rap network King of the Dot. He not only promotes the program, but educates the viewers.

“We would stream Dan talking about Adopt My Block for a good four to five minutes when there’s 20-30,000 people watching. It’s been pretty awesome for him,” says Dot host Nick Hyams.

As he continues to grow Adopt My Block and help more dogs, Martinez is hoping that more people will take the problem seriously.

“The most important thing I can get across to anybody interested in adding a dog to their family is ‘adopt don’t shop.’ The homeless pet population is out of control,” Martinez says. “I don’t know how many dogs I walked by for 30-35 years and didn’t chase down or follow home. It seems fucking crazy. No one would do that with a child, right? I kick myself in the ass that I didn’t start this shit sooner.”

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