A Brief History of Masked DJs—From Orbital to Marshmello
In a new installment of his in-depth culture series Off the Record, Michaelangelo Matos gives us a history lesson on the DJs who are known for wearing a mask on stage, while trying to summise exactly who eelctronic music is obssessed with anonymitiy.This article originally appeared on THUMP
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...