Do DJs Just Wear Masks Because They're Ugly?
Why are so many DJs trying to remain anonymous? Skinny Friedman investigates.
Left to right: Kill The Noise, Daft Punk, Bloody Beetroots, and UZ
Two weeks ago, East Coast godfather Dirty South Joe dished out tough love to some up-and-coming producers for hiding behind anonymous aliases. Specifically, he expressed concern about dudes like Trippy Turtle and Yolo Bear coupling the currently hot sounds of Jersey club with a cool-guy mystique that strips the music of its urban roots. "These secret aliases are a convenient way to avoid the responsibility of answering for their appropriation of a culture and sound," Joe wrote in a Facebook post that has since elicited hundreds of responses.
Whether or not masked men like DJ Hoodboi and Yolo Bear are eating DJ Sliink, Nadus, DJ Uniique and others' food, this controversy is just the latest chapter in a very long history of producers obscuring their identities. Their motives, however, have evolved with time.
Ironically, 20 years ago, any of these guys could have stayed hidden with barely any effort. Anonymity was a central component to raves; everybody was on drugs and obscured by lights, lasers and fog. Ravers themselves often assumed fake names for the duration of the party. It was easy to lose track of who was spinning and tough to get a good look at them. Even the music was anonymous: it was pretty common to not know the name of your favorite song, let alone who made it.
These days, parties aren't any less druggy, foggy or full of tough-to-pin-down music, but the Internet and smartphones add context and permanence to what used to be fleeting and ephemeral. Modern ravers have more access to music and information about the person playing it. And for DJs, playing the social media game is crucial to booking and promotion.
This means that actively hiding your identity in today's age of transparency is a choice, and no longer an easy trick to pull off in a world full of Instragramming randos. Keeping a low profile while maintaining the kind of online presence that a modern music career requires is a tricky balance. But for the few who do manage to pull it off, the reward can be worth it: the modern brand of anonymity implies a famous face behind the mask, and there's never a shortage of words written (and pageviews earned) by others trying to solve the mystery.
Just look at the whirlwind of speculation that followed Yolo Bear in 2013. The scattered clues left behind implicated someone in the LuckyMe family: Baauer? Lunice? UZ has ties to Mad Decent, OWSLA and Smog: is he Diplo? Skrillex? OWSLA PR maven Clayton Blaha working overtime? Dance music truthers demand this catharsis, often to a fault, and it wasn't until October that Yolo Bear was revealed to be multiple DJs in multiple different cities. Even after the long-anonymous Burial revealed himself to be a normal-ass person who makes great music and just likes privacy, the speculation continued. Earlier this year, rumors were still circulating that he was actually an alias of Fourtet.
But one thing that hasn't changed in the history of electronic music is artists using aliases for logistical reasons—changing up their names when they need fresh identities.
For example, in 1994, the acid house pioneer Luke Vibert became Wagon Christ, releasing an album of entirely ambient compositions for the experimental record label Rising High. In 1996, he flipped his name to Plug, releasing an album called Drum 'n' Bass for Papa that proceeded to fuck up the whole landscape of electronic music as we knew it. In between and all around these landmark releases he would also press records as Spac Hand Luke, Kerrier District, and the Ace of Clubs. "I came up with about three names originally for different record labels so I could release more stuff," the British polyglot told Bardcore Magazine in 2008. "I was making so many tracks and didn't have to care what the style was."
Fast-forward to 2012, and 20-year-old producer Henry Steinway is on the come-up as an electro house producer with Steve Aoki's Dim Mak label. He calls himself Clockwork. But when he joins the forefront of the "trap" movement, he switches up his name to reflect the stylistic shift: RL Grime is born. Today, Steinway releases under both monikers—making euphoric house as Clockwork and "real trap shit" as RL Grime. Steinway is the Bo Jackson of EDM.
Similarly, DJ Funeral told us that recording under a different name allows him "creative freedom from both the expectations of established fans and the restrictions of my exclusive recording agreement." Legions of producers have openly adopted new names to pursue new styles of music. Cajmere became Green Velvet to get weirder and housier. Stuart Price made himself into Les Rhythmes Digitales to cash in on French house. Detroit's Todd Osborne splits his time between acid-house projects as Osborne and as half of the awesome ghettotech duo Starski and Clutch. Releasing music under multiple aliases can even work as a business advantage—Dillinja spent a good part of the 90s doing exactly that so he could play competing record labels off each other.
The subtle re-branding that takes place here allows artists to reach new audiences without having to worry about scaring off die-hard fans. On the flip side, sticking to one alias can be risky—just look at the angry legions of dubsteppers cursing out Skream on his Facebook page for shifting his sound towards disco.
Some producers downplay the importance of names in general. When I asked Kill the Noise why he switched up his moniker after establishing himself as the drum and bass producer Ewun, he replied:
"Why did Thom Yorke start Atoms For Peace? Why did Trent Reznor start How To Destroy Angels? I'm not comparing myself to those guys but, sometimes its fun to start something new. I think it adds more focus on what's important to me. I am an artist, and that transcends whatever the name of my current project is."
Finally, it's interesting to look at the masters of well-curated obfuscation—Daft Punk. The duo never took a Batman-esque approach to hiding their alter ego; both Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were known quantities in the French house scene and they have been known to perform without disguises. But by performing in robot masks, eschewing interviews and staying out of their own music videos, Daft Punk took a subtle stand against the buzzy media ecology in which we are all complicit.
Most anonymous artists will say they chose to disguise themselves with privacy in mind; legendarily anonymous 'trap" pioneer UZ told us his secrecy was a way to "let the music do the talking." And that's fair, except that ominously masked press photos and cryptic social media feeds are also a form of cultural cache. These days, subterfuge is an identity in itself.
(Thanks to Proper Villains, DJ Ayres and Relative Q for help with research and fact-checking.)
Skinny Friedman has an impressive collection of Scion socks -@skinny412