A Brief History of Masked DJs—From Orbital to Marshmello
How dance musicians find their identities by losing themselves.
In Off the Record, rave historian Michaelangelo Matos takes a critical look at the culture surrounding dance music—from food to clothes to design and writing. In this installment, he traces the evolution of masked DJs from Orbital to Deadmau5 and beyond—and the way they formalized the radical anonymity that has marked electronic music since it's inception.
Dance music has fetishized anonymity from the beginning. It's called losing yourself in the crowd for a reason: Dancing at clubs, parties, raves, or festivals is a way of shaking off one's burdens and relating to strangers without the awkwardness and social niceties of attempting a conversation with them. We're all in this together—even as we occupy our own individual headspaces.
Wearing masks and/or headgear is one way that DJs and performers have long adopted the guise of anonymity throughout dance music history. Consciously or not, any time an act like Daft Punk, Deadmau5, or Marshmello takes the stage dressed as robots, an LED screen-equipped rodent, or a spongy white gelatin puff, they pay tribute to the cunning disguises that have cloaked so many house and techno artists in the decades before them.
In the mid-80s, instead of elaborate headpieces, DJs hid their identities in a different way—by using a variety of anonymized aliases. In Detroit, Juan Atkins pioneered the practice of adopting a slew of pseudonyms like Model 500, Infiniti, and Channel One to reflect different aspects of his musical personality, while still cloaking his true identity. Prior to going solo, he had been in the foundational duo Cybotron with Rik Davies; the latter prefers to be known as 3070, like a robot or machine. Multiple recording aliases were also commonplace in early Chicago house: Jesse Saunders, whose "On and On," from 1984 was the first house record, also released records as Fresh, the Browns, the Force, and Le' Noiz.
Those artists' many monikers became the model for much early 90s techno. For example, From Our Minds to Yours, Plus 8 Records' first anthology CD from 1991, features eight credited artists, but only two (Kenny Larkin and Speedy J) weren't aliases of Plus 8 founder Richie Hawtin, working alone or with others as F.U.S.E., Chrome, and States of Mind, among others. Another 1991 collection, Instinct Dance, on the New York label Instinct Records, features four artists, including Barracuda, Brainstorm, and Voodoo Child—but they're all the work of one producer, Moby, who also gets two tracks under that name.
Such obfuscation distinguished electronic music performers from their counterparts in genres like hip-hop and alternative rock, where artists were treated like rock stars. Speaking in 2014, Vanessa Daou—whose "Surrender Yourself," with the group the Daou, hit number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart for eleven weeks in 1992—told me: "In rave culture oftentimes you didn't know who the artist was: It was just a moniker. And that feeling of anonymity was important. You didn't want to know who that person was. You just wanted to feel it."
Anonymity also marked another electronic-dance tradition that took off in the early 90s—the white-label 12-inch. White labels were often pressed in limited quantities with label credits, if any, handwritten in Sharpie. Often, these white-label records were test pressings that a producer might make for herself or her colleagues to see how the record worked on the dancefloor, and were good for only a couple-dozen plays. Many of the tracks DJs played out weren't even available commercially, which made it hard for anyone outside the insular 90s dance music scene to track the music, even when these outsiders loved it too. "Half of these records, you didn't even know who the [producers] were," Charles Aaron, a former Spin editor and longtime dance-music champion, told me in 2011. "It would be hard enough to find out what the song was." White labels came to be so synonymous with secretive, underground music culture that when Rick Rubin started an indie techno label (with major label backing) in the early 90s, he called it WHTE LBLS.
"One could argue that it's precisely electronic music's anonymity that makes it so suited to sell things like cars and films."—Andrew Parks, XLR8R writer
Dance producers' anonymity via multiple aliases and white label pressings was one key antecedent for today's Daft Punk's robot gear or Marshmello's white bucket. But a more directly visual predecessor to the modern DJ's headgear came via virtual reality (VR)—specifically, the goggles one wears to experience it. The first pair of VR goggles emerged in 1960, to abet cinematographer Morton Heilig's Sensorama: "an arcade-style theatre cabinet that would stimulate all the senses, not just sight and sound," per the history page of the UK-based Virtual Reality Society (VRS).
In the eighties, computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier coined the name "virtual reality" for a series of "multi-person virtual worlds using head mounted displays," as he puts it in his webpage's bio. The equipment was expensive; VRS notes that a pair of VR goggles in the 80s cost between $9,400 and $49,000—in today's money, between $20,000 and $105,000—with the gloves you needed to operate them going for an additional $9000. But VR gear became more commonplace and less costly over time, and by the 90s, VR tech had made its way into video games (notably, Sega VR). VR games were also a common side attraction at many early-90s raves, particularly in tech-rich San Francisco.
In dance music, the clearest early connection between DJs and VR are Orbital's "torch glasses." The lit-up headgear Paul and Phil Hartnoll wear onstage weren't VR, but they did resemble the goggles. "That came about from a practical point of view," Phil told me in 2012. "We were used to playing in acid house clubs, which had strobes and smoke machines. We needed to see what we were doing, because we're running all the instruments live. We found these in a gift shop in New York opposite what used to be Tower Records—a shop called Space Age Gifts, a novelty shop, definitely not there anymore. It must have been '92. We found novelty glasses and cut them up and put Maglites in them. That became our trademark."
A far sillier, if just as arresting, visual gimmick came courtesy of another UK duo, Altern-8—namely, they'd take the stages of early-90s raves wearing biohazard suits and yellow gas masks. "My brother was in the RAF at that time and he gave us two of the suits," Altern-8 co-founder Mark Archer told The Ransom Note. "If you've ever put the hood up and pulled the toggles you realize what a prune you look like, so we put masks on as well." Archer and Chris Peat hit the British charts in 1991-92 with definitive rave anthems like "Infiltrate 202" and "Frequency" (not to mention "Evapor-8," one of the most blissfully silly records ever made). Altern-8's look became iconic—a cheeky rejoinder to rockist complaints about "faceless techno bollocks."
Altern-8's—and the 90s rave scene's—anonymity was certainly a switch from ego-fueled pop and hip-hop. It was also a response to the sudden ascendance of alternative rock. Fans had become used to bands like Nirvana being only theirs, and many found rave's anonymity a refreshing change from the cooptation suddenly all around. As Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain wrestled publicly with their own stardom, the rave brigade responded: Oh yeah? We'll show you what it's like to not want to be famous.
That anonymity wasn't always a welcome commodity in dance circles. "There's no face behind house music when it comes to artists," Chicago house vocalist Dajae (best known for 1992's classic "Brighter Days") complained in 2005. "This is not necessarily the producer's fault . . . It's always about who has the hot name." In 1996, a promoter huffed to the 313 listserv, "You don't just put 'techno music' on a flyer. You list the names of the DJs." Speaking to Spin in 1994, Moby noted, "I'm really missing the adolescent feeling of getting excited about a performer and a personality."
"In rave culture... that feeling of anonymity was important. You didn't want to know who that person was. You just wanted to feel it."—The Daou's Vanessa Daou
During the late-90s "electronica" boom in the US, that impersonal sense put off as many people as it turned on. "Despite the sometimes seductive lure of techno, there was an anonymity in the whiplash beats and silky, ambient sounds that made it a hard sell on record," the Los Angeles Times' Robert Hilburn wrote at the end of 1997, the year the Prodigy's Fat of the Land reached number one on the Billboard album chart. Still, writer Andrew Parks noted in a 2008 XLR8R restrospective on that period, "One could argue that it's precisely electronic music's anonymity (and frequent lack of lyrics) that makes it so suited to sell things like cars and films." (The most notable beneficiary of this, of course, was Moby's Play, whose music was licensed over 300 times for ads and soundtracks.)
The late 90s was the time of the "superstar DJ," most of whom had about as much personality as a string-pad preset. Few of them wore masks, though, with one major exception. Even before they decided to become robots, Daft Punk seldom cared to show their bare faces—a 1995 promo shot features their mugs painted blue. This was part canniness, part homage—a tribute to the deliberate anonymity and machine-merger at techno's heart, but also a gambit that their music could speak for itself. The Frenchmen's refusal to tour behind 2001's Discovery only added to their allure.
By the time Daft Punk finally reemerged in 2006 for their instantly legendary Coachella performance in full robot outfits, they were riding a newly reenergized wave of dance acts wearing masks again—most notably, the Swedish brother-sister team the Knife, who wore black Venetian crow masks (a look later jacked nearly wholesale by Claptone, whose mask was gold) and obfuscated themselves in other ways as well. "Olof has been known to conduct his interviews speaking through a Vocoder," Philip Sherburne wrote in a 2006 XLR8R cover story on the duo.
The Venetian crow mask's British analogue is the Guy Fawkes mask, from the film V for Vendetta (based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), and it too has gotten around in DJ circles. The most notable Fawkes adaptor is the pseudonymous British producer Zomby, though it's not his only disguise—early on, he also favored a skull headpiece with an all-seeing eye on the front. Like any functioning troll, Zomby's facelessness dovetails with a snarling persona: on Twitter, he's attacked this writer, among others, for daring not to love his music (naturally, he deleted his insults within hours) and once told Pitchfork, "If I wasn't covering my face with a mask, it'd probably be some kind of Hermès scarf instead."
But by 2010, the mask no longer signified anonymity, but instead became how a performer stood out in a crowded market. The most famous example is Deadmau5, who has never made a secret of who he really is: Joel Zimmermann of Toronto, anthem purveyor and owner of the sharpest piece of headgear since Daft Punk themselves, who nevertheless gets photographed plenty not wearing it. "Zimmerman designed the mouse logo while working on renderings of 3-D graphics," wrote Toronto Life's Sarah Liss in a sharp profile. "The mouse helmet didn't enter the picture until several years later. It was his first official Deadmau5 gig, and he wanted to do something that would make him stand out from all the other electronic musicians. The audience was initially bewildered by the head. Then the helmet's lights came on and started blinking to the beat, and the place went nuts."
Deadmau5 also, as Skrillex recently put it, "knows he's an asshole and he glorifies himself that way." (Though to be fair, Zimmermann deactivated his alias's Twitter account last year.) Skrillex brought this up because one of the artists on his OWSLA label had been the target of Deadmau5's considerable ire: Marshmello, whose perma-smiling headgear is reminiscent of avant-garde guitarist Buckethead's upside-down KFC bucket with a painted-on smiley face. (At least Deadmau5 didn't put his newfound frenemy on a stick and roast him.) Rumor has it that Marshmello is actually Chris Comstock, AKA Dotcom, though at last year's EDC Vegas, a mischievous Tiësto played a set in Marshmello disguise, unmasking himself at the end.
Marshmello's bucket face sometimes lights up from within, typically blue or green, but that's an accent, not a feature. There's none of Daft Punk's or Deadmau5's high-tech sheen, nothing space-age. If those guys are emulating Star Wars, Marshmello is closer to a VHS-era 80s horror movie like Friday the 13th's Jason, only, you know, cuddly.
Perhaps Marshmello's relatively simple costuming represents a new wrinkle on the EDM-headgear continuum. Dance music's anonymity began as a way of letting the music speak for itself. Orbital's goggles were a practical defense against fog machines in the club, the Knife's masks a provocative artistic maneuver, Zomby's a way of trolling, and Deadmau5's a step away from anonymity completely in favor of the spotlight. Marshmello's bucket head got him attention, too, but his back-to-basics approach offers a break from EDM's million-dollar gewgaws, which over the last decade have given us enough pure glitz to last a lifetime. Electronic music, after all, has always been do-it-yourself, even if no one actually knows who you are.
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