Marshall “DJ Mars” Thomas: The Man Behind the Art

by Karl Nelson II, Intern Media

As an artist, Marshall “DJ Mars” Thomas redefines the phrase “triple threat,” impelling the culture from three separate angles; DJ, designer, and author.

As a DJ, Mars has dedicated himself to his craft over the years, having the opportunity to travel internationally performing in one country after the next.

Mars bridges the gap between the musician and the audio engineer. He’s mixed it up on the turntables on the Steve Harvey Morning Show, the Essence Music Festival, on the stage with his good friend and well-known artist Keri Hilson; to name a few.

Mars has completely changed the game as a designer with New Balance, showing his peers that when you dedicate yourself to your craft, the sky is the limit in terms of the doors that can and will open for you. And while he might not have kids walking around with his signature sneakers on like the great Kanye West, one can’t purchase a dope pair of New Balances without respecting the urban culture represented by it. We can thank music moguls like DJ Mars for that.

Mars recently expressed his admiration for the history of the ‘mixtape’ by working with a small team of other invested individuals to publish his first book, The Art Behind The Tape.

In this text, Mars places a focus on the artwork behind mixtape culture and he brings the perspective of top level DJ’s, who paved the way for him, to the forefront of the conversation.

Now, taking a step away from his success as an artist, Mars has been able to remain humble throughout a journey that can leave many people’s head in the clouds.

One might ask, ‘How has he been able to pull that off?’ For him, it’s quite simple; by remaining loyal to his family and friends, by living like an everyday person, by finding inspiration in the people and things around him, and by taking pride in fatherhood.

If you were to ask Mars yourself, he’ll tell you that it’s those things that truly make him successful because if the fame was to ever leave, it’s those things that will define him, when it’s all said and done.

Prepare yourselves to get a full introduction and more into the life and career of Marshall “DJ Mars” Thomas. You’ll walk away from this article feeling like you were a fly on the wall for the behind-the-scenes life of ‘Marshall’ while gaining more insight into ‘Mars.’

The Interview

Q. How have you been able to remain so humble throughout your journey?

A. I think that’s just apart of my character. It’s not a front, haha. You can see through someone’s humility if they were lying. That’s just who I am. In the music industry, that can work for you and work against you at the same time. For me, that’s just who I am naturally.

Q. Is this something that you would say has worked for you or has it worked against you in the music industry?

A. It has worked for me because part of why I get work is due to the fact that people genuinely like me. I’m a likable person. So, it works for me in that sense. I’m easy to get along with. I’m easy to hire. There’s no BS. If I’m supposed to be at the gig at 9:00, I’m there by 8:30. It’s no stress. It’s like what you were able to witness yourself. I don’t roll with an entourage. I may roll with my crew, but I don’t have an entourage. I don’t come in with 20 people. So, like I said, it works for me in that sense. The people I work for really like my personality and I’m easy to get along with. They know what they’re getting when they hire me.

Now, here’s how my humility sometimes works against me. In the industry, arrogance and attitude is like a shiny jacket. People say they don’t like the shiny suits, but part of what they buy into is arrogance and attitude. People might say that they hate it, but they actually like it because it’s something that they can’t be.

As much as people say they hate Kanye, they love him. I don’t give off that vibe though. That’s just not who I am even though I know that it works in my field and people, to some extent, may like me more if I was on some ‘Yo I’m the s***’ — if I wore my resume on my chest. I don’t do that. If I did that maybe it would get me other gigs; who knows. There’s other DJ’s who’s whole brand is arrogance. That’s their brand and it works for them, but that’s not who I am, so I don’t think that would work for me.

Mars

Q. Now, we touched on this a little earlier. You don’t travel with an entourage per say, but you do keep close friends around you. The first night we linked up in New York, I was able to hangout with your homies at the Starter Party. They were telling me some things about you and the upbringing you guys had. They told me about what it was like coming up in those times in your community. How important would you say it is to keep those kind of people around you throughout your journey?

A. It’s super important because at the end of the day, when all this shiny s*** is gone, you still want to be able to go back to your people. I have people I can always go back to regardless of anything. I can DJ in a stadium of 100,000 people or in a room of five people and my boys are still going to support me and treat me the same.

And on another note, my level of success as a DJ inspires the friends that I surround myself with. It’s like their level of success in their lives inspires me. One of my homeboys that you met is a cop and his thing is he wants to be apart of the police force because he doesn’t want it to be like all of them against us. He doesn’t want it to feel that way. He’s mentoring kids and giving kids karate lessons.

My other homeboy that was there helps him out with the mentoring. They’re working together to help the kids out here. So, they’re successful in another realm. They are making sure our kids have immediate ground level mentors to follow. So, I’m looking at that like ‘Damn, that is great.’ They are directly effecting kids on a street level. That’s ultra important. I look at their lives and they look at my life and we’re both able to see what we all bring to the global community. It’s dope. So, you never want to lose those people because those are the people that will have my back no matter if I was DJ Mars on stage or DJ Mars in the hood somewhere. They got my back.

Q. On that Thursday night before NBA All-Star Weekend, I watched you do two sets. You set the tone for the rest of the night during your first set and closed the night out in your second set. How does it feel to know that when you’re on stage behind the turntables, you’re the soundtrack in that particular environment for however long your set lasts?

A. To me, one of the attributes of a good DJ is programming. Programming is like being a good orator — someone who can put on great speeches. It’s like Malcolm X. He put word after word after word for great impact. It’s the same thing with records. You have to understand the value of every record that you play. Every record is meant to take you to another place, so depending on where you’re trying to go with the night…like I know chronologically certain parts of the night I gotta go in a certain direction. So, I have to drive those records. I have to pick those records and play them in either a passive way or in an aggressive way to get a type of reaction.

The first party that night, I came on at midnight. It’s party time. I knew I had to play records quick and fast…get in and get out for maximum impact. For the end of the night, it’s the end of the night. For me to try to replicate what I did at the beginning of the night wouldn’t make sense. It’s the end of the night, the night is winding down and it’s time for people to go; literally. The club is ready to shutdown, so you play records that wind people down because you have to take people’s mind to a different place.

It’s problematic when the club ends and everybody is still crunk to death at 4 a.m. You know? That’s how stuff happens. So, you have to just calm people down. You have to remind them that they have responsibilities in the morning. Sometimes you want people to leave out thinking, ‘You know what? It is kind of late and I need to get up for work in the morning.’ So, you play records that fit the mood for the direction you want people to go in and that’s basically what I do as a DJ. I design a set and it’s always on the fly. I design a set that directs the mood that I want people to go in. My midnight set is different than my late night set because I have different objectives.

Q. I witnessed that at Stage 48 as well. It was fun watching you. Your set was a little over two hours. You seemed to enjoy being one of the first guys in there. I watched your patience as people walked in, hesitated to the dance floor and then eventually made their way to the dance floor and had a great time. People were loving the records you were playing. It was cool watching all of that unfold.

A. Yeah, man. You just gotta play your position. Not every night, am I the headliner and I’m cool with that because some nights that’s just the position that you have to play. That Saturday night, my job was to warm up the crowd. It was to get you in the mood knowing that the party was going to elevate as the night continued. It wasn’t my job to get people all the way there. It wasn’t my job to play all the bangers. My job was to get you out of your jacket, get you to the bar, get you one or two drinks and then get the guys talking to the girls, so that they could get the courage to drag them to the dance floor. So, when the next DJ comes in, all he’s got to do is hit the home run. I just have to get the party to first base. I pretty much set the next DJ up.

You saw how the night went. Every DJ was hitting it out the park, but imagine if I was whack and nobody was on the dance floor, then it would have made everybody’s job harder.

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