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.’
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.
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.
Q. Let’s talk about the importance of building relationships. It seems like you’ve built a lot of relationships over the years with people in the industry and those outside of the industry. The Friday I met up with you at Sony was a cool time because those were people in the music industry in some form or fashion and you pretty much met with them off the strength of relationship. How important would you say it is to build relationships in business and in life in general?
A. I wouldn’t be where I am if relationships hadn’t occurred. I get the gigs I get because I have access to people. I can call and say ‘Hey, what do you guys have going on out there this weekend?’ There’s information I can get because I have relationships with people. Nobody does this alone. I don’t care who you are. There’s nobody out here winning by themselves. They just don’t do it. For me, it’s paramount that we maintain those relationships. That’s all we have. If I can’t walk through a door that’s closed, then what am I? You know what I mean? It’s the relationships that keep things going and keep the doors opening that allows me to continue to work.
Q. We were talking about this after the Beats By Dre Party, which was really dope by the way. We had just left there and as we were walking to the subway, you were talking about how you leave those types of events and those types of weekends very inspired. What is it about those types of weekends, events, and encounters that leave you inspired and able to take something new back to ATL with you?
A. I try to find success in everything. We’ll start with the DJ’s. I look at the other DJ’s and I’m like ‘Damn, this DJ is from where?’ I’ll give you a real life example. There’s a DJ that I spun with that Thursday before All-Star Weekend. He was from Cleveland. That means he impressed somebody so much that they flew him from Cleveland to New York to do this party. So, I’m like ‘Damn, I need to pay attention to his movement because his movement is working.’ Someone saw it fit for him to be spinning at the same party where I was, so let me study him because there’s a grain of success in his movement that has put him here. I’m saying to myself, ‘Let me pay attention to the grain of this guy.’
Now, let’s talk about the Beats By Dre situation. I’m looking at that brand and what they’re doing and how they’re positioning themselves in the market. That weekend, they had the super tough brownstone that was super sweet, the headphones displayed were super sweet, and the atmosphere was super sweet. So, I’m like ‘Okay. The brand is positioning themselves in a certain way. Let me just study what’s going on at this event.’
I take bits and pieces of everybody’s success that I encountered over the weekend and I say ‘Okay. Now, what can I pull from them that will make my situation better?’ Whether it’s a brand, a DJ or a party; whatever the case may be. I look at everything and look at what won and think about how I can include that specific thing into my movement. So, that’s what inspires me, viewing the success of all of these different things because all of them play a role and if you do it right, then you can learn something from everything that you involve yourself in.
For me, it’s not just about DJing. It’s about how I’m perceived out here. You look at the Beats By Dre Party, which was basically a showcase of what they have coming in the future. Maybe I can do something like that to highlight what I have going on. So, I look at everybody’s movement and think about what I can do to have my movement moving in a good direction.
Q. That’s funny to me because you were lounging and just having a great time, but you were also paying close attention to the details of that party. You were working.
A. Yeah and the ill thing is…I’m not sure if you knew this, but the two dudes that we were talking to, for the most part, went to school with me. So, I’m looking at these guys like ‘Man, these are dudes I went to college with and they are the head of this big movement and inspiration during NBA All-Star Weekend.’ I’m sitting there galvanized by their success. I just pay attention. You have to.
Q. What position do those guys hold with Beats By Dre? I was paying attention to the fact that one of your boys was giving us the tour of the brownstone showing us around and showing us some of the new products.
A. He was the one who deals with professional athletes. If you see Richard Sherman walk into the Seahawks’ stadium with a pair of Beats on, my boy gave those to him. So, when you look at ESPN and you see athletes walking into their arena, my homeboys job is to make sure that those highly visible athletes have headphones. Now, my other boy Omar Johnson oversees everything.
Q. Let’s transition man. Let’s talk about your son. You appear to be a great father. You were talking about him a lot, which is expected of a father who cares for his child, obviously. How has him coming into this world impacted your life and how important do you feel it is as a father to care for your child? Especially, in a world where we don’t see a father and son together a lot of the time.
A. I mean, for one it’s my job, haha. I can’t even say it any other way man. I brought him here, so I gotta take care of him. I don’t even have a longer answer to that other than it’s my job. That’s what I’m supposed to do.
Q. Sometimes I feel like men, especially black men, don’t get the credit they deserve when they’re actually being great fathers. Contrary to what’s put online and on television, there’s actually a lot of great fathers out here too.
A. Exactly. You know what’s funny man? I know more good fathers than ‘dead beat’ dads. I may know one or two bad fathers out of all the fathers I know. Obviously, there’s some bad fathers out there, but I happen to know a whole lot of good ones and I’m happy about that.
Q. When we were at the Starters Party, you mentioned the irony of being at that party and the fact that you consider you and your crew to be the original Starters. What do you mean by that?
A. In junior high, between ‘85 and ’89, is when Starter jackets were real hot in the streets between Public Enemy and N.W.A rocking them real heavy at the time. Starter jackets were the jacket of choice in the winter time. Me and my crew…that was our thing. We rocked more Starter jackets than anybody around us in our junior high school. That’s what we rocked. So, the irony was that two of my boys from those times I’m referring to were with me at that party. It kind of meant something to us because that’s what we rocked as kids. Yo, we used to get two or three different Starter jackets per winter. You couldn’t mess with our crew because we had all of them. All the flavors, we had them. That was us, haha.
Q. Yeah, you guys were talking about all the different Starter jackets — some of which people weren’t even rocking at the time. You guys had the exclusive stuff.
A. Yeah, man. Notre Dame, LSU…we had it all. That was our thing…to rock different jackets. Most people had the staples. They had the Raiders or the New York Giants or the Chicago Bulls. We made sure we got the teams that weren’t necessarily the most popular teams, but were tough at the same time. We were on Starter jackets heavy in those times.
Q. What’s interesting is my generation gets a lot of inspiration from the fashion back in your days. That speaks to how important your generation was to fashion and to hip-hop. That’s pretty cool man.
I’m going to switch gears now. I wanted to focus on DJ Mars the person first. That was crucial given the time I spent with you. Now, I want to ask you some questions about you as an artist.
Before I get to that though, I want to say something. I feel like there’s a lot of ‘Karl Nelsons’ out there, meaning there are a lot of people out here grinding like I am right now. My cousin put us in contact. I hopped on the bus that Thursday after work. It’s a no brainer because I knew that this would be a great opportunity to be around greatness and to be around something out of the ordinary. There’s a lot of young people out here doing the same thing because they’re trying to establish themselves and accomplish their goals.
Two things: if you feel like you have a responsibility to those people, what does that responsibility look like? The second question is what’s your million dollar piece of advice to a person, such as myself, when it comes to this?
A. Let me kind of reframe the question for you. Let’s say you said to me, ‘Why did you let me hang around you?’ It’s because I felt like I didn’t get to where I’m at by myself. What I got from you when you first reached out was like you were trying to take this opportunity to put yourself in a different position later on. So, I’m like ‘Even though this is a different field, he sounds like me 20 years ago. Like ‘Yo, let me do this party because I need to show my skills.’ It was the same energy.
I looked at it like someone helped me, so I want to return the favor. You weren’t on the BS. You were like ‘This is what I’m doing yo. Let me rock with you.’ It was no BS. It was straight up. I felt like I was you several years ago. Someone helped me, so why not return the favor? I didn’t get here just because I’m DJ Mars. I got here because someone believed I was DJ Mars.
Q. Exactly. It’s like Shelley. She saw something in me enough to put herself on the line and be that point of contact. That takes me to the second part of my question. You said that I reminded you of yourself 20 years. What’s something that you felt like you had to do to get from where you were 20 years ago to a place where you were established and found your next step?
A. One thing I did was perfected…well, not perfected. I’m still in the process of perfecting my craft, but I’m a student of the game. I’m always down to learn. There was stuff early on that I didn’t know, but I was like ‘I’m going to know it.’ I didn’t stop.
Some people stop and they give up. I didn’t do that. I kept going. Even when people stop believing in me, I believe in myself. I can’t say it any other way. You have to believe in yourself even when people don’t, because they will not believe in you at some point. Not everybody, but some won’t and the ones who don’t believe are going to be loud and proud about not believing in you, so what I did was work on protecting my craft. I kept the belief that whoever the greatest is, I can be on that level with them. Greater than or not, I believe that I can at least be on the level of whoever the greatest is.
Q. I focused on you as a person because I believe that people out there and those who will read this interview need to know about DJ Mars the guy — your everyday kind of person. I feel like people love someone who they can relate to. Let’s talk about your artistry though.
There’s three parts to it. You’re the established DJ. You’re the author of your own book and on top of that you’re a designer. You’ve been working with New Balance and collaborating with them on some cool kicks for sometime now. First, let’s talk about you as an author. You’re the author of The Art Behind the Tape. When did you sit down and say, ‘I want to be the author of my own book?’
A. Well, I knew that there were a few stories in hip-hop that a lot of people weren’t paying attention to. I kind of knew that there weren’t too many books written on the history of mixtape culture. I was like well ‘I can write it. It’s a need for it in the market, so let me do that.’ As an insider in the culture, I knew I had a leg up on most people because I could call Kid Capri and say here’s what I’m doing; let’s schedule an interview. My database allotted me a ton of access.
I had already knew a lot of the research because I had lived the culture. When Capri made his early tapes, I was buying them. I was apart of the culture from an inside perspective, which helped me write the book and then, like I said, I just knew that it needed to be done, so I just did it.
Q. Can you tell me about your fellow authors and the role they played in making the book a success?
A. It was three of them; Maurice Garland, Tai Saint-Louis, and DJibril Ndiaye. That’s who helped tie up all the loose ends. We set down and were like ‘Okay. Here are the interviews that we have and need to get done. Let’s go do them.’ Once the interviews were done, some of them edited. Some of them did the press releases. So, it was a collective effort.
The book is an historical piece. It’s history because it’s one of the first ones told from an inside perspective. The accuracy is impeccable. If one comes after this, it was inspired by mine.
Q. How long have you been collaborating with well-known sneaker groups to design New Balances?
A. For the past 5 years now. I’ve designed two pairs of sneakers with them and have been working on a web-based campaign with them as well.
Q. Tell me about your last major sneaker collab?
A. We released a new shoe at the same time that my book was published. The sneaker was sold at the New Balance store in New York. We also sent a copy of the book to top level DJ’s who were featured in the book as a thank you to them for being apart of our project.
Q. I watched a video where you named your top five pairs of New Balances. I love the fact that your #1 pair was purchased in Baltimore, by the way, haha. You have a huge collection of New Balances. You weren’t rocking with the New Balances like that when we were in New York, which wasn’t a surprise given the ‘hawk’ was out, haha. If the weather would have been better, what three pairs of New Balances would have made the cut?
A. Haha. Yeah, man that was a different type of cold. Let’s see…I would have had to go with the 990’s, a pair of 550‘s, and a pair of 710’s.
Q. I’ve seen footage of your mixes on the Morning Show for one of the best comedians to ever do it — Steve Harvey. Tell me about that. What brought you to the Steve Harvey Morning Show?
A. Steve saw me on stage at the Essence Music Festival about five years ago. I was performing with Keri Hilson. I had a break and he actually approached me and was like ‘Man, I want to hire you for some of my events.’ When I DJed at one of his events, I rocked it. After the event, I told him that I wanted to DJ on his morning show and the rest has been history man.
Q. You’ve traveled the world as a DJ. This is shown in your video — “Around the World in 60 seconds.” What city that you’ve DJed in has had the biggest affect on your outlook on life and why?
A. Every city and every country offers something different, but I would have to say that Africa and Japan have had the biggest affect on me. Africa is so different than how most people in the states perceive it and the evolution of technology in Japan is just crazy to me.
Q. In basketball, a coach that I have a lot of respect for always tells our players that there’s a difference between loving to play and having a love for the game. Which one do you identify with as a DJ and why? Do you love doing it or have you found that you have a love for it?
A. I love doing it. It’s such a rush that you get controlling the crowd. I love it man. Music is powerful man and I’ve been able to play more of it than some people have listened to in their lifetime. I grew up on hip-hop. If it wasn’t for hip-hop music, I probably wouldn’t be a DJ.
Q. You mentioned earlier that you’re still working to master your art, but you’re obviously a successful DJ by this point. You’re an iconic audio engineer, you’ve been designing sneakers for years now and you’ve even explored other parts of yourself as an author. With that being said, if you were doing none of those three things I just named, given your other interests, what would your career path be?
A. I would be involved with the entertainment industry. I’d most likely be working with content creation in developing TV shows. In college, I studied Communications with a focus in Radio, TV and Films at Clark Atlanta University.