Zedd is a mystery. At only 26 years old, the Russian-German DJ and producer born Anton Zaslavski is one of the most recognizable names in EDM, with a string of massive radio hits including "Clarity," "Stay the Night," and most recently, "Starving" with Hailee Steinfeld. Still, how much do we really know about the guy? Skrillex is a pop genius with a well-documented emo past. Dillon Francis is the kind of dude you'd probably want to party with if given the chance, and Deadmau5 is a jokester when the mouse head comes off. Zaslavski, by contrast, has kept a relatively low profile over the years, choosing to highlight music over public persona. If there's a certain flashiness to be found anywhere, it's in his radiant, joyful beats. Where does that leave Zedd, the man?
To truly dive into the wonderful world of Zedd—to appreciate the person behind so many chart smashes—we need to delve into his history. In his 2013 mini-tour documentary, Moment of Clarity, we learn that Zaslavski was born in Saratov, Russia, before immigrating to Kaiserslautern, Germany as a toddler. Both of his parents are musicians; his mother is a piano teacher, his dad a guitarist—both instruments he adopted when he was still a child. At the age of 12, he started a death metal band called Dioramic, which enjoyed local fame and eventually signed to Lifeforce Records.
He would eventually develop an appreciation for electronic music, telling Rolling Stone in a 2015 interview how important albums by Daft Punk and Justice were in shaping his tastes. After blindly sending music to Skrillex during MySpace's heyday, his remixes of "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" started garnering interest in music industry. When he released "Clarity" in 2012—featuring the delicate, albeit ultimately non-descript vocals of British up-and-comer Foxes—a star was born.
If the modern dance music's pulsating beats can be said to mimic the beat of the heart in various states of emotion, then "Clarity" catches the listener at the peak of sweaty-palmed excitement. Around the one-minute mark, that euphoria culminates in an explosive and meticulously sculpted drop—something oddly visceral coming from a guy who has said time and time again he can't sing or dance. Clearly though, Zaslavski has an intimate understanding of both forms of human expression. If he didn't, the songs wouldn't work.
Perfectionism is a major aspect of Zedd's greatness. On a foundational level, this makes sense: he's a producer first, a performer second. In another scene from the doc, he's shown controlling his sounds with the touch of a button—a far cry from the disorganization of his rock band days. Live, Zedd is a pedant, working closely with lighting specialists to ensure that his songs come across with the pointed visualization of someone with synesthesia. He wants you to hear and feel colors as he plays them for you—hence the title of his 2015 album, True Colors.
These are the only real images we're given of Zaslavski. He speaks openly in interviews, but only about his music. Towards the end of Moment of Clarity, Zedd stares into the camera and says, "I've always wanted every person on earth to know me." He's not projecting lofty dreams of stardom, though—he's talking about his songs.
It wasn't until recently that the man behind the music became something of tabloid fodder. Before "I Want You To Know"—his collaboration with Selena Gomez and first single from True Colors—came out, there was a TMZ-inspired rumour that the pair were an item. The singer was fresh off a relationship with Justin Bieber, and Zedd had never before been the topic of gossip mags; confronted by journalists, each musician dutifully deflected questions about the quote-unquote romance. Since then, nothing of his romantic exploits has been publicized, and it doesn't really seem like the world is all that interested. It's weird to think of dance music as asexual, but Zedd—unlike the Calvin Harrises of the world—doesn't talk about those aspects of his private life, and there's something endearing about that guardedness.
Another moment that felt especially defining of his personality came earlier this year, when pop star Kesha was denied an injunction against Dr. Luke, after she accused her longtime producer of sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. While many artists shared messages of support on social media, Zedd went one step further, offering via Twitter to work with her on music: "@KeshaRose very very sorry to hear about the whole situation. I'll be happy to produce a song for you if you want my help." The key part of the tweet is the second half: "if you want my help." He's offering to help, but not imposing himself. In the male-dominated world of EDM, that gentleness felt refreshing. The pair ended up performing a reworked version of Zedd's "True Colors" together at Coachella, with the producer essentially inviting the singer to take over his own song. When the track was released as a single— Kesha's first in three years—the chorus seemed to speak volumes: "I won't apologize/For the fire in my eyes/Let me show you my/My true colors."
To recap, Zedd is a hardworking German elf prince who found success using kindness and perfectionism as a marketable platform. While he continues to grow exponentially in visibility—he even redid "Candyman" for an M&M'S commercial earlier this year—we seem to care little about the person behind the laptop. And that's totally okay—perhaps anonymity is a luxury reserved for the genre's best and brightest. At any rate, we're bound to get a bunch of great songs out of it.
Maria Sherman is on Twitter.