Cliff Martinez was born in the Bronx, New York. Raised in Columbus, Ohio, his first job composing was for the popular television show Pee Wee's Playhouse. At the time, however, he was more interested in rock bands, and played drums in a variety of them, mostly in a temporary capacity. Eventually, his interests shifted and he focused his attention toward film scoring.
His first soundtrack was for the film Sex, Lies, and Videotape, directed by Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh would later call on Martinez to produce soundtracks for a number of his films, notably Traffic in 2000 and Soderbergh's 2002 adaptation of Stanisław Lem's novel Solaris.