Three years ago, Santa Fe musician Benito Martinez III, aka Benzo, told me, “Some of the most dark and personal songs I’ve written are some of the best songs I’ve written.”
At the time, Martinez was preparing to release his first and only solo album, Head Trip, which proved a deeply personal—and yes, dark— melange of hip-hop, jazz, rock and soul released through local outfit Outstanding Citizens Collective. In that interview, he opened up about his youth, his present, his passions and mental illness within his family. It was candid and moving and indicative of the type of guy Martinez’s friends say he was.
On June 10, Martinez died at 32, sending shockwaves through the Santa Fe music scene and putting an emphasis on the importance of mental health, particularly as we continue to navigate COVID-19, as well as access to help and how sometimes the people who shine brightest are struggling the hardest.
“Apart from being a prolific writer, he was an amazing performer who was impossibly committed to music,” writes former Benzo bandmate Daniel Mench-Thurlow. “Sometimes, we would be about to play a gig, and he’d show up 10 minutes before the downbeat, wearing boots and his dirty work clothes. The dude would work like 15, 16 hours chopping wood (or whatever he was doing that day), then head straight to the gig, walk in with a huge smile on his face and absolutely kill it all night.”
Local MC/DJ Pablo Paz (who goes by DJ Shatter) agrees, adding that “Benito just had this energy, and whatever he did, he’d go to the fullest.”
Paz met Martinez in elementary school, and the two grew up on the same street. Later, during high school, they got into music production in parallel, along with longtime Benzo friend and collaborator Dylan Delgao, aka Wolfman Jack. At the time, Paz says, Martinez lived in a trailer without AC or fans. As such, they dubbed it The Sweatshop. There, they’d spend hours sweating over a sweltering computer, learning to make music and producing original songs.
“He was the cog, you know?” Paz says. “He was the most naturally talented in the group from the beginning, the first to make beats and the first to show us we could make songs of our own. We were obsessed.”
“Me and Pablo and this guy Dan Martinez would just mess around freestyling, but Pablo played football with Benito, and kept saying we need to get with this guy, that he was really good.” Delgado explains. “At first I said, ‘This jock isn’t going to give us the time of day,’ because we were skater nerds. But Benito was really receptive and cool, and since he was miles ahead of us skill-wise, he kind of pushed us to take music more seriously and to be better at what we were doing.”
That original group was dubbed Line of Sight, and Paz says that even later, when Martinez had gone off to college at New Mexico State University and, later, New Mexico Highlands University, then on to teach language arts and wrestling at Pecos Middle School, music was still a major part of his life. Martinez even spent time drumming for short-lived punk act Scapegoat—the man contained multitudes.
“Not many people know he was one of the best wrestlers in the state,” Paz notes. “He was really devoted to that, but even as we became adults and he was teaching and coaching wrestling, he still always had that energy for music.”
By 2008, with Martinez away at school, Delgado and brothers/MCs Eric and Max Scott (who went by Fluid and Symmetry, respectively) formed the group Outstanding Citizens with a healthy foundation of beats produced by Martinez. When he’d visit from college, he’d crash with friends and work on music nonstop. By 2010, Delgado and Martinez had formed an offshoot duo called Osmosis. The formations would change and MCs would come and go before late 2016, when Martinez, Delgado and others officially formed Outstanding Citizens Collective, a broader hip-hop umbrella that to this day includes music releases, art and design, performance, podcasts and anything else they could think up.
“We were all getting a little older and realizing we had all this potential and skill, and we decided to bring it together into a more unified group,” says co-founding member Zach Maloof. “So then Wolfman and Benzo did a show at Meow Wolf with Sage Francis, and it gave us the confidence for this thing we were doing.”
“Benito was like my little brother,” says DJ and local hip-hop royalty Sol Bentley. “I worked with him a lot when he was a younger guy, talking about what it is to be a vessel, what it means to inspire people through your actions, your words, your music. We had these discussions when he found out he was going to be a father, when he was starting these crews, when he was going to teach wrestling, and those things never really changed throughout the years.”
Bentley says he and Martinez had been working closely together when Martinez died, and that the last year heralded some of their best talks.
“We all go through stuff, and it’s nice to have people who actually care and who you can reach out to,” he tells SFR. “I was happy he trusted me enough to reach out. He had no idea what it meant.”
“He just had this magnetism,” Delgado adds. “If he was there, you wanted to be around him. He’d make you laugh, make you feel good, be real with you. He would push you to be a better version of yourself. He was good at everything he did, and being around people was something he did extremely well. He was a shirt-off-his-back kind of guy.”
Oustanding Citizens Collective, Paz (as DJ Shatter), Delgado (as Wolfman Jack), Bentley and numerous others will come together at Tumbleroot this Saturday to honor Martinez with what turned out to be a fairly large collection of unreleased Benzo songs; some will perform, selections from Head Trip will be honored and, according to Maloof, other surprises might be in store. All proceeds will go to Martinez’s family and the two children he left behind.
“It probably would have all fizzled out for me if it wasn’t for Benzo,” Delgado says. “It’s up and down. Every now and then I just kind of stop and can’t believe it. There’s a big hole.”
Life Celebration for Benito “Benzo” Martinez III: 7 pm Saturday, July 3. Free (donations accepted). Tumbleroot Brewery & Distillery, 2791 Agua Fría St., 393-5135