You should recognize Chuey Martinez. If you don’t, odds are you will very soon. Martinez is a jack-of-all-trades in Latino media, equal parts Don Francisco and Dick Clark, whose career trajectory is a roller-coaster graph of ups, downs, lefts, rights, and everything in between.
The burly Mexicano-Dominicano-Americano from East L.A. with a heart of gold stepped into the industry over a decade ago and rose up through the ranks from a company street team to DJing in some of L.A.’s largest and longest-running commercial radio stations. He’s also dipped more than a few toes in the cold waters of the TV industry, appearing on MTV Tr3s, ESPN, and other networks.
I spoke with Martinez recently where he waxed poetic about his early struggles breaking into the entertainment industry, why the phrase “Latino market” is bullshit, and why he owes his career to his mom a.k.a. the light of his life.
What would you say your title is? Producer? Host? Entertainer?
Wow…I am a Radio DJ/TV host/Producer/Writer/Developer…I’m a philanthropist…I’m a little bit of everything. I’m Latin. Somos Latinos. We work, brother. I’ve got so many jobs.
How’d you get start? Were you one of those kids running around in capes all the time with a toy microphone?
I was always trying to be…I don’t want to say the center of attention but I was the kid in the family that performed for the entire family. I danced, I sang. Something like that was always gonna happen at one of our house parties. You knew Chuey was going to do something. I was performing in talent shows and…was in the 4th grade when I hosted Rice Elementary’s first talent show. I guess that’s where it started.
I applied at my local radio station every single day until they hired me.
I got my start in radio when I was 16. A radio station came to my high school in Phoenix, AZ, Power 92, and a DJ by the name of Super Snake was there with the street team. Super Snake was on the mic and I told myself “I want to do what he does and have fun and get paid for it and I can see myself doing it for the rest of my life.” I applied at my local radio station every single day until they hired me. My city bus that I used to take to school would pass by Power 92 so I kept applying [there] until they got sick of me and eventually hired me. Persistence is everything especially in this industry.
Some would say harassment.
[Laughs.] Some would say just harass everybody and eventually you’ll get hired. It was the beginning of everything that’s amazing in my life.
Did you study at a university afterwards?
I went to Phoenix College, which is an amazing educational institution in Phoenix; a junior college! *laughs* Then I went to Arizona State as a business major with an emphasis in advertising and marketing. I played some football there and it was fun. Actually, when I was playing football, I injured my back and that was like the clear indicator telling me like “Yo Chuey, you just need to do your radio thing” and I went back into radio after football. I’ve never looked back since.
I used to sleep in the backseat of my car…I don’t know how I did it but I did it.
You’re originally from L.A. When did you return to L.A. after years of living in Phoenix?
I moved back to L.A. in late 2001, early 2002. I made the decision to come back on a Monday. I had all my stuff packed in my car ready to go on Thursday. My mom couldn’t believe it. My mom was all “mijo, what are you doing? Why are you going back to L.A.? No tienes nada and I don’t want you struggling out there.” I told her “I’m going to be fine. I’m going to be okay.”
I came out here, brotha, with no job. I had a guaranteed internship at a record label and did that for a couple of months. I was sleeping in my car. I used to sleep in the backseat of my jeep which sucked! I’m 6’4″ bro…I don’t know how I did it but I did it. I had my clothes nice and pressed up for my job interviews in the back and I had a gym membership so I could shower and shave. I did that for a while. I would call my mom bawlng, “I don’t know what I’m going to do mom.”
My mom’s everything to me. She’s my queen, my number one fan, my supporter, ella es todo para mi. She would tell me “mijo, you can come home. You have your house here, you have your friends and your family. You can come back but, you know what? You’re extremely talented mijito and if you want to stay out there, you stay out there. You’re going to do something big.” I’m like “I think so too. I have to stick it out.”
Later on, I got a street team job at Clear Channel with KIIS FM and Hot 92 Jams. I did that…and got a promotion in six months of being there and, a lot of people don’t know this but, while I was at KIIS FM and Hot 92, a lot of people didn’t know my struggles because you don’t really want to talk about that. You just want to go to work and do your job.
Right, you don’t want to announce that you’re sleeping in your car during a meeting.
Yeah, I’m sleeping in a car and my life sucks, how’s your day going?! A lot of people didn’t know my struggles when I first started there and it’s tough sometimes because you’re going through all that…and the work environment isn’t the best. There was a time when I was probably the most down and out, I didn’t have much, and then there was a new supervisor at work who was making my life a living hell. It was a rough 2003 and a very rough 2004 that carried on a bit into 2005, but finally started getting better. It’s been a long, tough, hard road but I wouldn’t trade it in for a fucking thing, my friend.
From KIIS to Hot then going to Latino 96.3 and signing my first big radio contract and doing the drive show, the night time show, and then doing mornings, which was amazing. Then getting laid off from Latino 96.3 and going to back to KIIS FM and I’ve been back for almost six years now.
Where else have you worked at besides KIIS?
Wow. [Laughs.] Besides KIIS and iHeart Radio and Sirius XM…when I was at Latino 96.3, that’s when the TV stuff really started taking off. I started doing stuff with MTV Tr3s and did that for a number of years, which was an amazing experience. That helped me make the move to sports and doing stuff with ESPN and eventually getting my own TV show on the Travel Channel called “All You Can Meat.” I traveled the country looking for the best barbeque. I did that for a season and it’s probably the best experience I ever had in my entire life. A kid from East L.A. going to Kansas City, MO to eat slow-roasted baby back ribs. That doesn’t happen to us every day.
Now I’m getting ready to launch a talk show with HLN, HeadLine News. I’m hosting that and co-executive producing that. Thing are getting big! I’m also taking my production company, Chumongous Productions, to a whole other level and really trying to produce films and documentaries and scripted and unscripted content. Chumongous is definitely going to be making a lot of noise so I’m excited.
It’s crazy to me how there’s always that question floating around that asks where all the new Latino media is at and here I am with you, the answer to that question right under everyone’s nose. Meanwhile, everyone’s looking at big media companies like Telemundo for the answer.
The Latin market? Get the fuck outta here! The Latin market is the general market.
It doesn’t have to be Telemundo. It doesn’t have to be Univision. It doesn’t have to be these established companies when it comes to Latino media. You really have to look at the digital sector and you have to embrace it. I think our generation of Latino, the English-dominant Latino, the 3rd, 4th, 5th generation Latino, that’s us brother. We embrace the medium. That’s why it’s growing. That’s why Latinos are a trillion dollar business.
When you hear people say “the Latin market,” I mean, the Latin market? Get the fuck outta here! The Latin market is the general market. The Latino consumer in this country, my friend, allows there to be a general market and I think as Latinos, we need to know our worth.
When we’re talking about the general market, we’re talking about PR agencies, we’re talking about studios, we’re talking about people who are making these decisions and putting money with these huge sponsors for these campaigns. I think they just assume we all just sit around and watch novelas all day. They need to understand that things have changed and…I think people are finally getting it, which is great for us. What does that mean? That means bigger paydays for us! You can’t lowball us anymore…and if you do, you’re going to get in trouble. What you pay is what you get. You’re going to get a misrepresentation of us.
I mean, we already dominate baseball, so…
Hey brotha! I think I saw a figure, like 15%…this is crazy! 15 or 16% of the MLB is Latin but they’re all stars. The majority of them are Dominican and I’m half-Dominican so that makes me happy.
You’re Dominican and…
Dominican and Mexican. Mom is Mexicana de Sonora, Mexico y mi papá de la Republica Dominica, de Santo Domingo. I got the best of both worlds. I put Tapatio in my yucca.
Born and raised in L.A.?
You know what? I was born in the Queen of Angels hospital in Echo Parque. I was born in Echo Park, baby! The structure is still there but the hospital has changed its name like 30 times since I was born. I grew up in the SGV, San Gabriel Valley like Rosemead. I spent a lot of my time in Rowland Park and Lincoln Heights and Rosemead. I was a fortunate youth and I got to dodge bullets in three neighborhoods. It’s a very beautiful thing. *laughs*
You were Neo before The Matrix.
I was not Neo. I was Mijo!