What is there to say about masked DJs? In 2019, donning a mask behind the decks is ripe for parody. It’s a tired trick for attention, a yawn-worthy excuse to say you “just want the music to speak for itself” while parading around as a an energetic, living cartoon that does anything but.
It’s easy to think that way when a new masked DJ pops up every other month, but while compiling this list, we found many of the most popular examples have given their masks a lot of thought, love and attention. The masks tell a story about who they are, where they come from and what their music is trying to share. Sometimes, the mask is a means to preserve one’s privacy, shielding an artist’s true self from the harsh lights of fame. Other times, it’s a chance to be someone else — someone stronger and more courageous. And hey, sometimes it’s a gimmick, but it’s fun.
DJs sporting masks is a relatively new phenomenon, reaching back about 20 years — but whether you like it or not, it’s a trope that’s here to stay. You might as well get the back story.
When you think helmeted DJs, the first name that should come to mind is of course Daft Punk. These French robots, forever ahead of the curve, started the trend in the early 2000s. The duo never liked showing face, choosing to obscure their heads with bags and masks throughout the late ’90s, but when Daft Punk’s second album Discovery was released in 2001, the transformation into full-fledged robots was complete. The fictional story is that on Sept. 9, 1999, the producers were in the studio recording when suddenly, a sampler exploded. The blast caused major damage to their bodies, forcing them to undergo reconstructive surgery to the point where they, well, became robots.
More pragmatically, Daft Punk’s helmets were created by Tony Gardner, a special effects artist with Los Angeles-based studio Alterian, Inc. Throughout the years, these helmets have undergone minor design changes to match ever-evolving costumes unique to each musical era. When Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers or other collaborators speak about working with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo, they refer to the pair simply as “the robots.” It’s a form of self-protection, a way to separate their private selves from the public eye, while also building Daft Punk into one of most endearing alter-egos in modern music.
Back when Joel Zimmerman was a freelance web designer, he used a mouse head for a logo. He did some work on industrial metal band Orgy’s website, and lead singer Jay Gordon told him if he ever seriously pursued his side-project as an electronic musician, he should wear a mouse helmet on stage.
Some 20 years later, Zimmerman has become one of the most recognizable producers in the world, thanks in no small part to his glowing mau5 head. It’s not about obscuring his identity — Zimmerman is quite openly himself — it’s just about doing something different. In 2014, Disney tried suing deadmau5 for the look, saying it resembled Mickey Mouse, but the suit was settled out of court in 2015. deadmau5’s famous, blinking, glowing, headbangin’ helmet comes courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the same people who make The Muppets, Yoda and just about every awesome faux creature since the 1970s.
The latest DJ in a helmet to become an absolute global sensation, Marshmello uses his mask to remain completely anonymous — though fans on the Internet are pretty sure they know who’s in there. This smiley take on the puffy confection is perpetually spotted on the head of ravers at festivals worldwide and has become a popular Halloween costume for kids in grades K-5.
The genre-crossing producer is never seen without his helmet, and he doesn’t talk — unless he’s on stage, and then he’s on the mic quite frequently. (Which doesn’t make a lot of sense for continuity, though it doesn’t seems to bother his fans.) So, why the anonymity? Marshmello manager Moe Shalizi says it’s all about a universal message of acceptance. “It doesn’t matter who’s under this helmet,” he told Billboard in 2018. “The ethos of the brand is creating something that doesn’t symbolize one person as an icon, but a movement of people.”
The irony of using a mask to remain anonymous is that the mask goes on to become instantly recognizable. Claptone casts a spell with his melodic moods and glistening, gold beak, and it’s not unusual for Claptone fans to wear their own gold masks to his concerts. We know the man behind the mask is German, but that’s about all the information we have on the man inside.
His shiny bird beak is modeled after the so-called Black Death “beak masks” worn by physicians during the Plague of 1656. (Medieval doctors believed the sickness spread through “bad air,” and so stuffed the long beaks with dried flowers, herbs and spices.) Claptone’s take is also a bit of a tongue-in-cheek statement on modern society. “We all wear masks,” Claptone reportedly told DJ Mag. “The single purpose of being Claptone is to touch people. Form and function melt when Claptone plays his sets, bright and dark, angry and warm-hearted, happy and sad, calm and outrageous. If you open your heart you can feel it: Claptone deals in emotions.”
“Slow” is reflective of the creation process. “Magic” is reflective of the end result. Together, these concepts come together in the form of a fanciful, self-proclaimed “imaginary friend” with a glowing face. The DIY mask is covered in vaguely tribal patterns and shaped in a kind of hybrid between a bear and a deer.
As a kid, the artist behind this mask was very interested in escape as expression. He liked to draw and practice photography. He’d make his own videos and soon got into music production. The drums have always captivated him, and it’s drums that add the live element to his interactive shows. (Slow Magic regularly invites fans to grab a stick and play on his electronic drums or turns his samplers around to let people smash a button or two.) He wears his mask to remove his identity from the equation and hopes it gives the project a universal quality. If you want to join the imaginary friend family, you can get a sound-reactive official Slow Magic mask of your own via the Slow Magic website.
No, that’s not Marvel villain Venom, that’s Italian electro-punk favorites The Bloody Beetroots. Primarily the project of producer Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo, the The Bloody Beetroots performed as a duo throughout the late 2000s, with its 2009 single “Warp” with Steve Aoki shooting the project to international fame.
Having watched his uncle go through the motions of stardom as a fairly successful punk drummer, Rifo realized he didn’t want any part of it. “I learned how to deal with fame, which I didn’t like at all. That’s the reason why I wear a mask,” Rifo told Sidewalk Talk. “I don’t give a fuck about fame. I wanna go get a coffee without anybody hassling me.” The tight caps allow Rifo to see, albeit darkly. In 2013, London-based wearable tech company CuteCircuit made Rifo’s mask MIDI-controlled LEDs for eyes. In 2016, his mask was redesigned once more to bear the message “NO” in place of eye slants. The meaning behind the message remains a mystery.
This London-based producer takes letting the music speak to itself to a new level. The name SBTRKT is a direct reference to the subtraction of his personage from the project, and yet his heritage and upbringing have a heavy hand in the overall presentation.
Born in London of Indian descent, the man behind this neon-tribal mask spent much of his childhood in Kenya. “The music I make is slightly unexpected, and the mask is part of that,” he once told Resident Advisor. “I’m really into old cultures and new, and my background has roots globally. It inspires the way I write music, and in the end the mask is just the visual identity of that.”
The mask is designed and created in conjunction with similarly anonymous designer and visual art director A Hidden Place. The designer once told OkayAfrica that its colorful shapes are “inspired by many native and ancient societies from a global viewpoint. It’s been said that they are African perhaps because of the triangles, but … you’ll find many influences that also stem from India to Central and South America. I do like the 3D masks of the Dogon people, and perhaps the triangles you might see on masks from the Congo. I love the use of colour from Aztec art in general, but I’m also really into colourful wildlife.”
There’s not much we know about Malaa. The French producer wears a balaclava, more commonly known as a ski mask, to hide his identity. Unlike Marshmello, he never talks on the mic nor breaks character. He doesn’t even show up to label meetings or festival backstage areas sans quilted veil. The only people who might know his name are his close associates DJ Snake and the Pardon My French crew.
Why the balaclava? That’s hard to answer, given that Malaa doesn’t talk. If we venture a guess, it’s indicative of his underbelly street aesthetic and “ghetto house” sound. He’s a producer out to rob the game, literally breaking his way into the scene with unstoppable hits like a thief emerging from the dark. He pushes a criminal aesthetic with his Illegal mixtapes and a recent staged arrest storyline. His outlaw vibe also works as a stark contrast to the priestly image of Tchami, with whom Malaa collaborates with on the No Redemption EP and tours, giving the duo a play on duality.
In Bermuda, if you hear the drums bangin’ through your neighborhood, you don’t walk — you run into the streets. You won’t have to hunt hard to find the Gombeys, musicians dressed in vibrant primary colors topped with elongated masks and headdresses that dangle with cloth fringe. It’s a spirited aspect of Bahamia derived from a mix of African, indigenous peoples, Caribbean and British cultures.
Some of Noise Cans’ fondest childhood memories are of joining his neighbors in these dance parades for hours. “I would remember hearing the bass drum, the snare, the whistle [and] it was like they were calling you,” he told largeup.com. “Sometimes, we would run out of the house [to] see our friends following, other times there would just be random natives skanking, jumping, moving.” Noise Cans’ distinctive mask is his nod to Gombey tradition as he calls the rest of the world to hear his Caribbean style. “The mask is culture, vibe, energy,” he says. “It allows you to create and feel as free as you want to be.
In the streets of Paris or Lyon, France, Franck Rivoire is any other nameless “geek.” As a lifelong obsessive interested in comic books, role-play video games, music and design, “geek” is in fact a term Rivoire adopts fondly. He’s shy, but his haunting, midnight synth-rock is anything but. When he hits the stage, he leaves inhibition behind and dons a blank, black mask with glowing eyes.
The move was inspired by Daft Punk’s robotic helmets (Danger’s catalog predates even deadmau5’s head by a couple of years), but he based the look off the popular mage character from Final Fantasy. “I always felt that the scariest figures are the ones who don’t have [a face],” he told Billboard Dance in 2017. “I like the absence of expression in a mask. I like to see people looking into my eyes. My everyday life of my alter ego.”
Our list ends just as it began — with a robot and a really cool backstory. About 17 years after Daft Punk debuted its masks, and 19 years after the duo’s fictional surgery, a young producer named Kloud emerged on the scene. Influenced by the world’s very real cloud network of international data storage and computational power resources, Kloud is an artificial intelligence that parsed its conscious world view from the collected intelligence of mankind. He’s the product of the evil Kloud corporation, from which he takes his name.
In his “Exit Alive” music video, released in June of 2019, we see Kloud shirk his digital chains and break free of his mad scientist captives, embarking on a journey of cybernetic self-expression through music. It’s just the beginning of the latest chapter in the decade-spanning history of masked DJs. Where comes next is anyone’s game.